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.


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.


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.


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.

Cowardice, publishing and science

The publishing industry breeds cowardice. Apparently. Nobody in publishing dare defy commercial sense. Apparently. Profit is the measuring stick for literature. Apparently. Established authors lose their bravery in the face of sales numbers. Again, apparently.

The example used in the above op-ed is Haruki Murakami and his Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which I’ve not read yet, but I’ve been told isn’t as good as his other books. That’s a shame if it’s true. And it’s an even bigger shame if it is true that the lacklustre Colorless Tsukuru is a symptom of conformity and cowardice in the business. Yet I doubt it.

I doubt we’re on the eve of rampant cowardice. Thinking that authors somehow morph into robot-legged typewriters chasing sales at the first whiff of success, sheets of purple prose fluttering in the wind, is laughable. Thinking that authors cower under their desks, practically taking dictation from the marketing department, is insulting. But do I believe that authors are under pressure to be profitable? Sure. Do I believe that publishing is sales-focused? Yep. Do I believe that profit is necessary in publishing? Absolutely. And do I think this is a problem? Err.. sort of, maybe-ish.

Let me explain. I am a scientist. Scientists are often ranked according to their H-index (after physicist Jorge E. Hirsch). This index is calculated on the basis of the number of papers the scientist has written and the number of citations each paper has received. The higher the H-index, the ‘better’ the scientist. It can be a crude parallel to literature, where an author’s success can be measured in numbers of books and their respective sales. With me so far?

My point is, the H-index is not without flaws.

Firstly, the H-index is field-dependent. By that, I mean that scientific fields differ in how many papers each scientist typically writes and how many citations per paper are typically allowed. The literary equivalents are ‘field’-dependent differences in number of books (depending on length, topic, research burden, and so on) and size of audience. In science, it is understood that we cannot really compare H-indices across fields, and that the full range of fields, from popular to obscure, all add to our current library of knowledge. The same goes for literature. We’d fare poorly with only the popular branches of each.

Secondly, the H-index can be manipulated or inaccurately measured. Scientists can cite themselves, boosting their index, and the number of citations varies with the tools used to measure it, sometimes by a lot. For something that is intended to be objective, the H-index can be surprisingly unreliable and opaque. In publishing, manipulating sales figures is not unheard of. For example, some may recall how loopholes in the system meant you could buy your way up the Amazon Bestseller List (cite yourself, so to speak). Also, sales figures for books are definitely not transparent.

Finally, the H-index doesn’t take into account the future impact of the scientist. Many are ahead of their time, or misunderstood by their contemporaries. Gregor Mendel, now dubbed the ‘father of genetics’ springs to mind. His ground-breaking work was ignored for 35 years. The parallel to literature is obvious, and we have a long list of authors never truly appreciated in their lifetime (Kafka, Lovecraft, Poe, Melville, Keats, even Austen). Establishing their value, cultural or financial, based on contemporary sales is ludicrous in the extreme.

In short, while publishing (science) needs to make a profit (progress), counting sales (citations) probably shouldn’t be the only measure of success. To focus simply on immediate profit is akin to staring at the top stone of the Cheops, forgetting the other ~2.3 million blocks below. It goes without saying that you won’t build a great pyramid that way, nor will you build a business that lasts.