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

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Book review: World War Z

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (Max Brooks) was the zombie book I couldn’t be bothered reading, mostly because the trailer for the film left me a bit underwhelmed. (I have still not seen the film, having had it described to me as ‘Globetrotting Brad Pitt’, so any advice as to whether it is worth my time would be greatly appreciated.) But I picked it up a few weeks ago, looking for something entertaining and gory, and I was positively surprised.

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Written as a series of interviews, Brooks weaves a nice story of a zombie plague, pulling in politicians, civilians and military personnel amongst others, to paint a surprisingly believable picture of a plague outbreak. Whilst the zombies themselves are make-believe, I did not have to suspend my disbelief at the portrayal of profiteers, accidental heroes, conspiracy theorists, desperate parents and myopic leaders. Indeed, some of the themes, such as isolationism and inept leadership, can hardly be said to belong solely to the province of fiction. The interviews span a range of responses to a pandemic, and the individual voices were done well enough for me to believe in the characters.

Writing the book as an assembly of individual accounts has one very obvious advantage: it allows for a generous number of viewpoints. When describing a global event, the number of responses and fates will be vast, and Brooks gets to cover more of these than if the story had followed a more traditional trajectory. This way, we can choose from all countries and all walks of life without shoehorning characters into one storyline. We also remove geographical constraints, meaning there will be more to the story than a besieged wal-mart or a stretch of motorway. Whilst it remains quite US-centric, it is refreshing to note that other continents get more than a brief mention.

In many ways, the book reminded me slightly of The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner due to the multi-strand narrative, although Brunner’s book is thematically different (deteriorating environment) and somewhat more dystopian.

Which brings me to my perhaps sole quibble with World War Z: it is less bleak than it could have been, despite being more serious than its predecessor The Zombie Survival Manual. I know it may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but for me, it would have packed a greater punch if it had received a greater infusion of pessimism. That being said, I still enjoyed it immensely and know many readers who prefer a hint of hope with their horror.

Brooks has said that he views the zombie more like a virus than a traditional predator, and that it is this aspect, the lack of any hope for rational discourse or negotiation, that makes the zombie frightening. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, predation and contagions/infection are the two categories of horror that tend to generate the most successful horror films. Zombies tick both boxes. Yet, they somehow take a back seat in World War Z.

For sure, the zombie in World War Z is the catalyst, the fuel of the story and the indisputable monster of the tale, but the focus remains on the fighting living, not the walking dead. While there is no shortage of gore, I still thought that World War Z was more about the response to the zombie than the zombie itself. The zombie is the monster du jour: an oft-cited metaphor for an uncontrollable world, for pandemics, nuclear war and economic collapse. If we accept the zombie as metaphor, then World War Z becomes a tale of an overwhelmed world, our modern fears illustrated by a vast, unstoppable zombie horde, and it ends with the possible route to regaining control.

Then again, it might just be about monsters.

Either way, it works for me. I read in two thoroughly enjoyable sittings (which would have been one but for the need to attend work). In my view, it’s right up there with Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century in terms of zombie excellence. If you’ve read it, or read any other zombie books that you can recommend, let me know in the comments!

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