Horror, death and isolation

The more I read horror, the less I think of it as genre fiction. Sure, there are things that go bump, there are tentacles and fangs and clowns, but horror to me is not about monsters, it’s about the monstrous. So what is the monstrous, if not some alien beast wanting to devour the terrified protagonist? On the surface, what is and isn’t monstrous will probably differ from person to person, but there appears to be some universal themes. Death, for example, and isolation. Both are inevitable and inescapable, and if we dig deep down, they frighten us. They are part of a bigger pantheon of ‘ultimate concerns’ (according to existential psychotherapy), which also include gems such as meaninglessness and absence of external structure (dubbed ‘freedom’). Horror stories that tap into these anxieties work on an existential level, and may, in addition to terrifying us, help us process these unsettling topics in a safe setting.

Demogorgon

Let’s start with death. We have an instinctive fear of death. It may be conscious or unconscious, but most if not all of us possess a smidgen of death anxiety. It may not be something we think about every day, but it is there, ready to raise its ugly head if the situation calls for it. The loss of a loved one, a threatening disease, an accident – anything that reveal how thin the film of life truly is can bring about death anxiety. A few years back, I read Irvin Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy, which is a tome on the theoretical and practical aspects of the same. It was a surprisingly interesting book given how dry the cover looked. In it, Yalom spends a great amount of time discussing death, fear of death and denial of death. “The fear of death plays a major role in our internal experience; it haunts as nothing else does; it rumbles continuously under the surface; it is a dark, unsettling presence at the rim of consciousness”, Yalom says 1.

Horror deals with death like few other genres, from the (usually) imminent death of the protagonist to the perversion of death in your average zombie, ghost, vampire or undead monster. We get the fear of death as well as the denial of death in one neat package. Typically, we also see the avoidance of death as the story tends to permit the survival of the protagonist. A fascination with horror often emerges in teenage years, which incidentally is when most first experience anxiety about death. Horror may thus be a way to contemplate and familiarise ourselves with death – a ‘safe’ venue to experiment with it and analyse it. Even a place to ridicule it, in some genres of horror. The role of stories in dealing with death is nicely put in the following quote:

“When we are young, we deny death with the help of parental reassurances and secular and religious myths; later, we personify it by transforming it into an entity, a monster, a sandman, a demon. After all, if death is some pursuing entity, then one may yet find a way to elude it; besides, frightening as a death-bearing monster may be, it is less frightening than the truth — that one carries within the spores of one’s own death.” 2

Horror may, in short, be a way to process death without having to break down the dissociation between intellectually knowing death is coming and truly being aware of the end. It is a way to deal with death without having to stare into its abyss, with all its associated dread and terror.

death

Then there is isolation. When referring to isolation, I am not talking about the trope of exploring the scary basement alone, although I am sure there is a relatively blunt metaphor in there. Existential isolation is more than just being temporarily alone. It is the awareness that there will always be an unbridgeable gap between yourself and others, even in their presence. We are born alone, and we die alone.

Horror is very rarely a rousing exercise in team building: the final chapter usually sees the protagonist alone in the face of terror. Isolation and alienation play key parts, sometimes building towards the end, sometimes existing from the first page. In Richard Matheson’s terrific I am Legend, the horror of the protagonist is both being preyed upon and the unbearable knowledge that he is completely alone. Without spoiling the ending of the book, isolation is a thread that runs through the entire novel and becomes almost beautifully poignant in the final chapter. Kafka’s The Trial is a tour de force of isolation (although arguably not horror in the strict, classical sense). Even the tagline of Alien, “In space, no one can hear you scream”, might not have been half as effective if the horror of isolation was not such a familiar one. In the words of Joseph Conrad: “We live, as we dream, alone” (Heart of Darkness).

gravity

While these themes are prominent in horror storytelling, they are of course not restricted to the genre. However, what horror brings to the table, that other genres may not, are elements of fear and disgust. Horror deals in these elements as a rule and not as an exception. Fear/disgust can act as a shortcut, bringing the reader of horror closer to the anxieties of death and isolation than other genres typically do, such as sci-fi and fantasy. It can also provide a buffer or tool for dealing with such anxieties. Fear, unlike anxiety, is something that can be faced and conquered. By putting these ultimate anxieties front and center, surrounding them with fear and disgust to allow the reader to feel a visceral reaction that is close (but yet safely removed) to the edge of the abyss, horror allows us to be just scared enough. We can play with death and isolation, analyse them and inspect them up close (in a safe setting), before we personify them (using whichever monster that strikes our fancy) and kill them off. Horror, to me, is thus not so much niche genre as a natural part of the human condition.

 

References:
1. Irvin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy (1980) page 27
2. Irvin Yalom, Love’s executioner and other tales of Psychotherapy (1989) page 5

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2017 in horror, fantasy, sci-fi and non-fiction

As usual, I’ve got a long list of books that I want to read in 2017. My goodreads reading challenge is at a modest 35 and I have no specific plans for which ones I’ll choose, but there a few new releases in my preferred genres this year that I’m particularly excited about.

Horror: In the past I’ve tended to seek out older horror novels, but several upcoming releases have caught my eye this time around. Ania Ahlborn’s The Devil Crept In, which centres around disturbing disappearances in the small town of Deer Valley, Oregon, looks great. As does Little Heaven by Nick Cutter, a tale set in a ominous New Mexico backwoods settlement called Little Heaven. I’m also keen to read Cherie Priest’s Brimstone, described by the author as one part Penny Dreadful and one part American Horror Story. Should be fun! Finally, there’s Sarah Pinborough’s Behind her eyes, which I am getting simply on the back of knowing Pinborough’s knack for deeply unsettling and menacing storylines.

BrimstoneBehind Her Eyes

Sci-Fi and Fantasy: Having read the two previous Aftermath books, I’m keen to see how this Star Wars space opera featuring Norra Wexley and her rag-tag team ends in Aftermath: Empire’s End (Chuck Wendig). I’m also looking forward to the final installment of V.E.Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, A Conjuring of Light, in which the fate of the four Londons will be settled. Oathbringer, the third book in Brandon Sanderson’s fantastic Stormlight Archive series, will be released in November, and I’m salivating at the promise of another visit to Roshar. M.R.Carey releases the prequel to the excellent apocalyptic zombie story Girl with all the Gifts, titled The Boy on the Bridge, and on top of that, Neil Gaiman is fictionalizing Norse mythology in the book by the same name, which should be a treat. 2017 looks like it will be a good year for fantasy and sci-fi.

Empire's End: Aftermath (Star Wars) by Chuck Wendig

Non-fiction: In terms of non-fiction, I have singled out Beyond Inifinity: an expedition to the outer-limits of mathematics by Eugenia Cheng and In Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra. Both come highly recommended and the topics are intriguing and wonderfully complex, so my expectations are high.

 

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.

google_werewolves

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

Autumn books!

I love autumn. The chill in the air, the colours, the smells, the darker nights. To me, autumn is hot, comforting drinks and nice, comforting books.

pumpkins-2009

This autumn, my reading list is particularly self-indulgent. I almost wish for poor weather to justify the hours I plan to spend on the sofa with a stack of books. While it is not looking like 2016 will be particularly nice and chilly (given recent heat records), we can always hope for a few thunderstorms. Given my penchant for horror, that would suit me just fine.

Fellside img_2261by M.R.Carey has been on my radar for some time, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to wait until Halloween to dig into that particular book. A twist on the classic ghost story set in a prison at the edge of the Yorkshire moors should fit the season nicely. I have been told that Fellside is a book susceptible to spoilers, like Carey’s earlier The Girl With All The Gifts, so I’m staying clear of reviews, although ratings suggest I’m in for a treat. Actually, just looking at the cover makes me excited. amityvillecover

I’m planning on tackling an old classic: The Amityville Horror: A True Story by Jay Anson, as it is one of those stories I’ve watched but never actually read. I have been told that the book is creepier than the film(s), so I’ve got my hopes up.

I’m also looking forward to a steampunk fix. Island of Birds, the sequel to Austin Hackney’s Beyond the Starline, has recently been released, and I may also pick up a book in the Clockwork Century series by Cherie Priest, probably Clementine or Dreadnought. If anyone has any thoughts on which I should go for after Boneshaker, let me know in the comments.

aftermathYet another sequel, Aftermath: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig, is also on my list, which should get me in the mood for the upcoming Star Wars Rogue One film in December (not that I need to get more in the mood for Star Wars). I truly enjoyed the first Aftermath novel, although I am aware that the response to it was not uniformly positive. All I can say is that Mister Bones is right up there with BB-8 on the list of favourite droids, but for very different reasons.

I also plan to settle down with two non-fiction books: 1812: Napolerabidon’s Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski, which was recommended to me more than a year ago by a friend, and Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, simply because the subject matter is fascinating. The monster du jour, zombies, do not make an appearance in Rabid, if reviews are to be believed, but I expect to get a fair few parallels with werewolf myths in addition to the history and biology of one of the nastiest viruses out there. The scientist in me is quite excited about Rabid.

In short, it’s looking like it will be a pretty good autumn. What are you planning on reading? Let me know in the comments.

The Cordyceps

Just listen to the name: the Cordyceps. To me, that falls squarely in Triffid territory. It sounds as unsettling as it is. Those of us who saw Planet Earth (see clip below) could be excused for turning away at the segment where the Cordyceps fungus slowly sprouts from the head of a helpless ant riddled with white threads of fungal mycelium and controlled like a puppet. It’s like something out of the X-files. In fact, it’s like something out of the X-files episode ‘Firewalker’, for those of us old enough to remember hiding behind the sofa during those particular scenes with the throat-bursting fungus..?

The connection between a flesh-invading, mind-controlling fungus and zombie lore is so obvious it is barely worth pointing out. Fictitious variants of Cordyceps have made their mark on popular culture, with games such as The Last of Us and M.R.Carey’s excellent novel ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’. This means that Cordyceps belongs to the category of horrors that deal with predation and contagions/infection, which are incidentally the two features most reliably associated with successful horror films*. And of course there’s the element of death drawn out in stages of increasing terror, from the initial infection of the tissues, to the loss of the mind, down to the literal spike through the head. Now, that’s an existential horror to consider.

The Cordyceps clip is on YouTube in all its gruesome glory. The music lends it that extra creepiness, in case mind-controlling, brain-bursting flesh-eating fungi is not bad enough. Sir David explains better than I ever could:

Here’s the music without the commentary:

 

* Reference: Davis, H. & Javor, A. (2004). Religion, death and horror movies. Some striking evolutionary parallels. Evolution and Cognition, 10, 11–18.

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.

stormlight

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 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.

Chernobyl and Pripyat (4853730269).jpg

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)