Book review: At the Mountains of Madness

I have read some of Lovecraft’s work – ‘The Shunned House’ and ‘The Rats in the Walls’ are examples of stories I liked – but I have overall been less convinced by his alien gods and tentacles. At the Mountains of Madness may therefore not be the best choice for me, but as it is considered a classic, I thought I would give it a go.

Summary: The story is written from the point of view of Dyer, a geologist, retrospectively describing an ill-fated expedition to Antarctica in the hopes that it may dissuade another, imminent research endeavour in the same region. The purpose of the Dyer expedition was to bore into ancient strata of rock, but this plan was quickly derailed as the biologist on the team, Lake, discovered odd triangular tracks in the rocks. After setting off on their own to explore these tracks further inland, Lake and his small team radioed the main group to report of the discovery of a massive mountain range and the desiccated bodies of ancient alien beings buried in a vast cave, just as a storm was about to hit. After the storm, there was radio silence. When Dyer and the rest of the group caught up to Lake, they made a series of horrific discoveries…

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First of all, I love the concept, like the premise, and have no problem with the (now) historical setting. The vast landscape, the hostile cold weather and the madness that can spring from being so dwarfed and isolated – it all appeals to me in a story. I had hoped that this would be enough to keep me excited, and was therefore disappointed to discover that I did not like the book. Even with so many set pieces being spot on, I was a bit bored with the entire exercise. It was neither particularly entertaining, nor was it frightening.

After an encouraging, relatively tense, beginning, the story stalls when we get to the meat of the events. At this point, dry descriptions of murals, references aplenty to the Necronomicon and Poe, and long lists of technical details, distract from the events. Given that the tale is written as a personal account from a scientist’s perspective, it is not unexpected that the prose strays somewhat into drier territories. However, while a bit of technical realism goes a long way to induce horror, this felt excessive. As Dyer and Danforth (a graduate student, not particularly well fleshed out as a character) investigate the fate of Lake’s team, the details of their scientific pursuits become repetitive. After the umpteenth lamentation that they ran out of film for their camera, there was very little tension left in the tale. I am happy to accept curiosity in the face of fear, but the attention to technical detail here just made the plot seem a trifle banal.

In spite of this, there were elements that I enjoyed. Lovecraft’s prose, although its merit is often debated, works well within his universe of horror in my opinion. It is as archaic as the monsters that he describes. In this book, I particularly liked his attention to the setting, easily evoking a sense of being dwarfed by the landscape.

“Only the incredible, unhuman massiveness of these vast stone towers and ramparts had saved the frightful things from utter annihilation in the hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of years it had brooded there […]”

For a story set in such a vast expanse, this ability to convey age and size is definitely a strength. However, there are places where the prose falls flat. For example, “indescribably awful” as a description of a creature does not work for me. It comes across as lazy rather than too horrendous for words. The vagueness doesn’t fit with the retrospective aspect of the story, in that the main character should have been expected to at least attempt a more precise recollection in the years that he has supposedly had to mull over events. It also jars with the plethora of technical detail that is painstakingly inserted everywhere else in the story. Again, if the tale had been tense, I could have overlooked this, but given that it was already bogged down, the ‘indescribably awful’ sights became just that: not described.

In short, I found the book interesting from the point of view of it being a classic and I had no problems with the alien antagonists per se. I am glad I read it, but I would not pick it up again, nor am I in a particular hurry to recommend it to anyone not already a fan of Lovecraft (who probably would have read it already). As a caveat, I am not (and have never been) a die-hard Lovecraft aficionado. Rather, I am a dilettante and a dabbler in matters Lovecraft, preferring other styles of horror whilst recognising his contribution to the genre. It is quite possible that those who are more invested in his works would enjoy At the Mountain of Madness. It simply was not my cup of tea.

List of dystopian novels

A brief summary of some of the prime examples of the genre.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
Encouraging passivity and egotism with a side order of pleasant distractions, Huxley’s dystopia is insidious. A system designed to keep the population compliant and docile is all too believable. It may be orgy porgys rather than lolcatz, but the parallels in Huxley’s cautionary tale are not too hard to find.

We – Yevgeny Zamyatin
The book which preceded 1984 and Brave New World, and inspired Vonnegut’s Player Piano and Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. We describes the One State, ruled by the Benefactor – a society with glass walls and mass surveillance which has abolished free will.

The Trial – Franz Kafka
Faceless opponents, senseless arrests and a realisation of danger that comes far too late is part of Josef K’s nightmare world. Kafka’s masterpiece may be as much absurdist/paranoid fiction, but the fight against an unassailable, relentless authority which does not follow neither custom nor law belongs at least partly in the dystopian genre.

Parable of Talents – Octavia Butler
Demagoguery is the villain of Butler’s second Parable novel. The antagonist is a populist, jingoistic politician, the success of which has catastrophic consequences. This is not an enjoyable tale. The punch that it packs, however, cannot be denied.

Player Piano – Kurt Vonnegut
The automation of society comes with a downside in Player Piano, where machines replace the working class, widening the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Purposeless, ‘useless’ people is the core of Vonnegut’s story. And the societal effects of automation is not the spectre of some distant future – this world has already arrived.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
There are many ways to erase opposing thoughts, but book burning is one of the most egregious. Fahrenheit 451 has certainly been censored and banned enough times to prove its point. The eradication of dissenting ideas, whether it be by book burning or by authoritarian decree, is dangerous territory.

A Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Gilead is an unpleasant, uncomfortable and flat out harrowing place to visit. But revisit it we must, over and over again, until we no longer have to. Atwood’s tale of subjugation and lost agency is sadly still relevant, more than thirty years after its publication.

Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
The book that gave us doublespeak and the Ministry of Truth doesn’t need any further introduction.

V for Vendetta – Alan Moore
Telling the story of fascism versus anarchy in the UK, this graphic novel concerns itself with the debate of freedom and resistance. In Alan Moore’s London, freedom does not come for free.

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Book review: Rabid: a cultural history of the world’s most diabolical virus

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, does exactly what it says on the tin. This is a summary of rabies, its history, cultural significance and the ultimate unraveling of some of its secrets at the hands of science.

As non-fiction books go, it is an easy read. Perhaps a bit too easy in places, leaving out the drier details that might interest anyone wanting a more in-depth analysis. For example, the book provides little to no detail on any mechanisms by which the rabies virus modifies behaviour, be that in animals or humans. It gives a very brief nod to rabies altering communication between brain cells as well as killing neurons, but it doesn’t delve into the specifics. This is a shame, as the mind-altering properties of rabies, its defining characteristic, is perhaps the factor that has embedded it so solidly in history.

This can be forgiven, because there is no firm consensus yet as to how rabies operates in the brain. However, there are plenty of hypotheses that the authors could have explored. For example, it has been suggested that in addition to killing cells, rabies disrupts the release and binding of chemical messengers in the brain 1. This includes serotonin, which, among other things, is negatively associated with aggression. Less serotonin equals (typically) more aggression. There is also some studies that suggest that rabies targets brain structures associated with memory, fear and emotion: the hippocampus, amygdala and hypothalamus 2. I may be biased, but in my opinion, a few paragraphs on the intricacies of the rabid brain would have been the icing on the cake.

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Apart from this omission, Rabid provides a rather thorough introduction to the history of rabies treatment. It outlines the early misconceptions, the discovery of the virus (a lyssavirus), the numerous host reservoirs (dogs and bats in particular), and attempts at rabies control (culling and vaccines), as well as last-resort treatments (a very good description of the not yet proven Milwaukee protocol). This highlights both the unrelenting force of the disease and the almost paradoxical drive to beat it. With only a handful of people ever surviving, this is the stuff of nightmares and a strong element of the book.

However, it is in describing its impact on society that Rabid truly shines. From the uneasy relationship between humans and dogs (the source of most human cases) highlighting how man’s best friend can turn into man’s greatest horror, to the historical fear of the beast within which has emerged in a number of classic horror novels, this book is nothing but thorough. Rabid makes the case that our fear of rabies has been central to our culture and literature, and after reading the book, I doubt anyone would argue that there isn’t some element of truth to that.

“Stories evolved, too, as they spread, and so we can consider what remained after centuries of such ‘audience testing’ as having a perverse sort of evolutionary fitness. […] The animal infection – the zoonotic idea – is mankind’s original horror, and its etiology traces back inevitably to the rabies virus.”

I have written before about some of the mind-controlling horrors in nature and how they relate to our modern monsters, but rabies is the mother of all such links. Rabid touches briefly upon the most likely modern suspect, the zombie, and goes on to provide a much more substantial discussion on the old classics: vampires and werewolves. It’s not a novel idea by any stretch. For example, a paper in medical science journal Neurology outlined the link between rabies and the vampire legend in 1998 3, and while Neurology is a good source for new developments in neurology, one suspects it may not be the first to report on vampirism. Despite it being an old idea, Rabid does a fine job of describing the numerous links between vampires, werewolves and rabies, spanning the entire range from Byronic ghouls to 28 Days Later.

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In short, Rabid is an accessible, well-written popular science book, which gives a good introduction to rabies-the-disease and an even better one to rabies-the-history. Given the subject matter – one of the most interesting (and feared) diseases in human history – it could hardly be anything but an exciting read. It’s thoroughly recommended for the non-squeamish.

1. http://www.kliinikum.ee/infektsioonikontrolliteenistus/doc/oppematerjalid/Referaadid/Rabies.pdf
2. http://neurowiki2013.wikidot.com/individual:neuroethology-of-parasites-that-alter-host-behavi#toc8
3. http://www.neurology.org/content/51/3/856.short

Book review: Flowers for Algernon

Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon is one of those books I happened to stumble upon and decided to give a shot. Wedged between two other books purchased that day, I didn’t even open it until a few days later. But when I did, I didn’t close it until the last page. (Slight spoilers ahead).

If you haven’t read it yet, Flowers for Algernon is a classic masterwork. The story is about Charlie Gordon, a below-average intelligent man, who is the first human subject for an experimental surgical procedure designed to improve intelligence. Preceded by the successful surgery on a laboratory mouse, the eponymous Algernon, Charlie’s intervention is successful, and his intelligence begins to rise.

The story unfolds through diary entries written by Charlie. We see how his grammar and spelling improves, how he becomes capable of complex thinking and expressing himself clearly, both on the page and to others. We see how his relationships grow from simple to difficult – first as he discovers slights and jokes at his expense that he previously had not had the capacity to spot, and second as he inevitably surpasses those around him, from his beloved teacher Alice Kinnian to the ambitious research lead Dr Nemur. His ability to form meaningful relationships suffers from the widening gap in intelligence between himself and those of a normal intellect, a cruel mirror of his former life. And then we observe how he regresses, just as Algernon did. From his scientific prowess and rich vocabulary down to his literacy – it is all stripped away. And throughout this process, we observe his grief and despair at the loss of his mind, followed by the inevitable isolation as a man who remember his former self but knows that it is hopelessly out of reach.

I’m normally not too fond of the epistolary form, but in this case I think it is perfect. It allows Keyes to present both the rise and descent of Charlie’s intelligence directly, and the result is almost painfully personal.

The novel does what most great sci-fi does: it uses the genre to debate current problems. Sci-fi has a long and illustrious history of social commentary, emphasised by its larger-than-life settings. You can strip human society bare when extrapolating using aliens, spaceships or futuristic drugs. In Flowers for Algernon, we are treated to the question of intelligence versus emotion, to the role of intellect in human relationships, and perhaps more importantly, to the mistreatment of those with a mental disability. Keyes wrote the original short story (which was given a Hugo award and later developed into the more familiar novel) against the backdrop of his own work teaching English to students with special needs.

Flowers for Algernon is the kind of book that works perfectly, from start to finish, with a story so clear it seems inevitable that it was written. It is perhaps the most bitter-sweet sci-fi book I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, and it left me awed and heartbroken at the same time. In Charlie Gordon’s own final words:

“PS please if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard.”

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Book review: Prisoners of Geography

Ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics. That’s the promise Tim Marshall makes in his bestselling 2015 book. We get ten chapters, each with a map, outlining the opportunities, drawbacks and resulting policies (and often military actions) of each region.

“In different parts of the planet, different geographical features are among the dominant factors in determining what people can and cannot do.”

A mountain range can be a buffer or a hindrance, depending on your point of view. Rivers mean access and access means business, but not all rivers are built for the job. Heights and sea lanes are worth controlling. Access to oceans is part and parcel of becoming a world power. Natural harbours? Yes, please. Trees? Practical for building ships. Indeed, much of the book is about practicality, working around rarely-changing facts of geography. Where you are and what you’ve got to work with will determine who you become.

We start with Russia, buffered by a vast expanse of land yet poor on warm water harbours; then China, insulated by the Himalayas and with three of its great rivers springing from the contested Tibetan plateau; the US, a two-ocean power with an unrivalled global naval presence; Western Europe with its flatland and navigable rivers built for business, Africa with its flush resources but sadly less navigable rivers; the Middle East and its population divides; India and Pakistan; Korea and Japan; Latin America; and finally, the Arctic. The chapter on the Arctic is particularly interesting, as the changing climate renders the frozen north and its resources more and more accessible, and opens sea lanes and access points.

It’s a treasure trove for anyone wanting to understand international politics a little better and get a firmer idea of why some conflicts appear doomed to repeat themselves throughout history. And also a hint as to new ones.

“Water wars are considered to be among the coming conflicts this century and this is one to watch.”

It is also a fantastic resource for anyone wanting to write fantasy or sci-fi. Want a desert city? There will be practical constraints. That mountain range that looks cool on a Tolkienesque map? It’s going to have some implications for trade. A continent-spanning river for your plucky heroes to navigate? Who controls the source and who needs the water? Figuring that out might tell you who governs, who attacks and who defends.

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Your farmboy’s home country is a peaceful oasis surrounded by aggressive countries waiting for the foretold saviour for centuries? Best make sure it has plenty of natural barriers and/or no values (position, resources etc) to speak of, otherwise the peace might not be so stable after all.

It’s a great read, and if I had to make a criticism, it would be that the book is perhaps a bit thin. I could have consumed more maps, examples and details with ease. Nevertheless, it provides a taste of some of the major features of geopolitics, summarising the historical backdrop, how events repeat themselves over and over again in the face of geographical realities, and how the effect of technology and the warming world changes priorities, opportunities and constraints. Also, maps are cool.

Go read!

(Bonus points for recognising the map)

Book review: The Exorcist

“Hey, honey! What’s wrong”
“There’s these real funny noises, Mom.”
“In your room?”
“Yes, in my room. It’s like knocking and I can’t go to sleep.”

The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty, 1971) is obscene, violent, disturbing and full of suspense – all good things, at least in a supernatural horror novel. Most will have seen the film, and if you read the book with Linda Blair’s performance in mind, I would not fault you in the slightest. This is a classic, both on screen and on page. (There might be spoilers below).

A small recap:

Iraq: The elderly Father Merrin finds a statue of the demon Pazuzu at an archaeological dig.

Georgetown: Actress Chris MacNeil’s daughter Regan starts to withdraw, complaining about odd sounds in her bedroom. Then, she begins changing, turning aggressive and vulgar, her health deteriorating along with her grotesquely morphed features. After exhausting medical and psychiatric treatments to no avail, Chris pleads with Father Damien Karras, a priest and psychiatrist, to conduct an exorcism. The more experienced Merrin is summoned, and the exorcism begins.

The true strength of the story lies in the slow, eerie build-up in tension at first, and then the rapid gruesome escalation as the possession takes hold, followed by an ending so bleak it leaves you feeling hollow long after you’ve closed the book. It’s a fascinating novel, with a distinct flavour of the time it was written and Blatty’s world-view.

The first thing to note is that The Exorcist is genuinely scary. The evil lurking in swamps and cemeteries is nothing compared to the evil of the mundane home. The suburban Washington setting thus heightens the terror. Nowhere is safe. Modernity is helpless. Science is lost. This theme is common in the genre (e.g. Dracula), and played to its best effect by Blatty. The futile efforts of state-of-the-art medicine and psychology are described in unpleasant and increasingly desperate detail, and this helplessness cranks up the tension. Add Regan’s transformation and you’re left with an unstoppable, visceral sense of evil, which is utterly terrifying.

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The second noteworthy aspect is its bleakness. Some horror novels are funny, amusing, with an uplifting resolution. The Exorcist is not.

“Chris swallowed the ache of remembrance of Dennings; thought again about death and the worm and the void and the unspeakable loneliness, the stillness and the silence and the darkness that awaited beneath the sod…”

It is malevolent in the extreme, depressing to a fault, written to leave you unsettled long after the final page. In Blatty’s story, there is little to be cheerful about, not even the resolution (more on that later). While the book’s ending expresses more hope than what is seen in the film, it remains a significantly dark and disturbing piece of writing. And it is intended as such.

The timing of the novel (and film two years later) was no accident. The 1960’s/70’s USA was troubled by contemporary issues (the Vietnam War, the assassination of Kennedy). With the Devil effectively erased, the language for modern evil was limited.  As were the tools for combatting it. Blatty sought to change this with The Exorcist. The evil that infects and destroys even in the modern era was to be personified and given prominence once more, and the public was to return to the (Catholic) churches. When one considers that Blatty got the inspiration for the story from an actual reported possession and exorcism of a boy in 1949, the novel’s real-life implications are even more apparent.

And perhaps it is no coincidence that the boy of 1949 was turned into a girl in 1971. A single mum, the corruption of an innocent prepubescent girl, the sexual scenes, the obscenities – these put the story within the typical territory of horror where untamed female sexuality often serves as a conduit for evil. The Exorcist plays these out, one after the other, with the characters as helpless witnesses. As the 1960s-1970s USA saw rapid changes in gender politics along with the associated upheaval and fear that often follow societal change, this may have impacted both the writing and reception of the novel.

It should come as no surprise that the resolution is brought about by religious faith. The Exorcist is, after all, intended as a rally for religion. Father Karras, wrecked by a guilt-ridden relationship with his late mother as well as a crumbling personal faith, brings the story to conclusion with an act of redemption, regaining his faith in the process. Even so, the (supposed) victory is small and one is left with a feeling that this is a minor battle in a war that cannot be won.

This brings us to the sequel: Legion, 1983. This suggests that Father Karras’ final act of redemption wasn’t so final or so redemptive after all. And so, if we take this into account, we’re left with a bleak ending leading into an even bleaker sequel. So much for hope and redemption. It would appear there’s no winning with Blatty.

Still, it’s a cracking read, if you’re in the mood for despair.

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Book Review: The World Without Us

I read a fair bit of non-fiction and often find that these books can be just as strange as their creative counterparts. The World Without Us (Alan Weisman, 2008) is one such stranger-than-fiction book.

What would happen if all humans suddenly vanished? How long before wildlife reclaimed cities? How long would our buildings last? How long before all traces of us are gone? In short, what would the world without us look like? It’s a fascinating hypothetical and sounds like it should be more than a bit disconcerting, but the book itself is quite positive in its description of our impermanence.

There are examples of places on earth where sudden human abandonment has already happened, including the Korean demilitarized zone and Chernobyl.

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Pripyat, Ukraine, abandoned April 27, 1986, the day after Chernobyl.

“In Pripyat, an unlovely cluster of concrete 1970s high-rises, returning poplars, purple asters and lilacs have split the pavement and invaded buildings. Unused asphalt streets sport a coat of moss.”

In the wake of human disappearance, nuclear plants would eventually overheat, and the world might see Chernobyl after Chernobyl. It might also see the triumphant return of many endangered species. In Korea, the 4 km wide demilitarized zone is one of few remaining refuges for the Asiatic black bear with its white chest patch, the tusked Chinese water deer, and the exceedingly rare Amur leopard.

What about cities? The book uses New York City as an example. This is, as most other cities, a ‘tamed’ landscape. The land upon which NYC was built was once packed with streams, now replaced by the storm sewer systems and kept in check by more than 700 pumps. If humans disappeared, the pumps would stop, the streams flood the tunnels and streets, eventually carving out rivers as streets collapse. Flooding of the subway would take no more than two days, and the cave-in of streets only a few years. Post-apocalyptic fiction describing long-abandoned concrete cities still structurally intact might just be a bit generous, if truth be told.

“As Lexington Avenue caves in, it becomes a river. Well before then, however, pavement all over town would have already been in trouble.”

Wildlife already exists in our presence and would flourish in our absence. This new New York would see foxes and coyotes, deer and bears, maybe the odd domestic cat gone feral, yet cockroaches would die without heated buildings at these latitudes and rats might also not do well without our garbage to live upon.

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The abandoned High Line, New York City.

This is post-apocalyptic non-fiction at its finest. Old stone buildings linger, modern buildings not so much. Water seeps into cracks, freezes in winter and tears concrete and asphalt apart. Plastic and bronze, however, are the stuff of forever. Millions of years from now, bronze sculptures in our image could be staring blindly at the hypothetical visitor to our planet.

The World Without Us is nicely written, engaging and compelling. The first third of the book in particular is highly recommended. It does veer off a bit mid-way through the book, but despite these asides, it remains worth the time. An excellent book for any writer of post-apocalyptic fiction as well as science enthusiasts. This is a ‘what if’ that stays with you.

(free chapter here: http://www.worldwithoutus.com/excerpt.html)