Quote of the Moment

"What's Past Is Prologue." - William Shakespeare

Friday, September 24, 2010

Mood and Monster - Cycle of the Werewolf

SPOILER ALERT! If you have not read Cycle of the Werewolf there are spoilers in this essay.

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Mood--this is what pulled me into Stephen King's Cycle of the Werewolf and kept me turning the pages. He has a way of setting up each chapter, each attack of the werewolf, with just the right description and tone for an ominous mood each time. Every chapter is like a story in and of itself. Unfortunately, since we don't discover who the werewolf is until the third to last chapter, we don't get into the monster's head quickly enough to make him more real and rounded. At least that was the case for me.

Every chapter is a new month, the full moon, when the werewolf attacks. The chapters are vignettes, a peek into the lives of the town of Tarker's Mills--and the first couple lives we visit are ended abruptly at the close of these chapters. I loved February, the Valentine's Day full moon, and Stella Randolph's death. King sets up this scene so beautifully. "The moonlight has been blocked out by a dark shape--amorphous but clearly masculine, and she thinks: I am dreaming...and in my dreams, I will let him come...in my dreams I will let myself come. They use the word dirty, but the word is clean, the word is right; love would be like coming" (21). And the punch at the end doesn't disappoint: "'Lover,' she whispers, and closes her eyes. It falls upon her. Love is like dying" (24).

It isn't until chapter six, June, where we discover that the werewolf is someone in Tarker's Mills that everyone may know, and then it's not until chapter ten, October, that we finally learn the werewolf is Reverend Lowe from the Grace Baptist Church. Once I found out who it was, I actually wanted to go back and re-read chapter five, May, since that chapter was in Reverend Lowe's viewpoint. The discovery puts that chapter into better perspective, but I think it did a disservice to his character to have such a gap.

The werewolf wasn't truly real to me until we end up back in Reverend Lowe's point of view in November, chapter eleven. This is where we find out he finally knows that he's the monster that's been slaughtering the townsfolk. Before this chapter, the werewolf was a two-dimensional figure, but when we see into Reverend Lowe's head and how he views his own transformations and subsequent murders, that's when the monster became three-dimensional to me. It's the human flaws that hook me into this monster, and I wish King would have instilled that humanity much sooner.

The thing is, Reverend Lowe isn't ashamed of what he does. Instead, he tries to rationalize and justify his transformations into a werewolf. "I am a man of God and I will not kill myself. I do good here, and if I sometimes do evil, why, men have done evil before me; evil also serves the will of God, or so the Book of Job teaches us; if I have been cursed from Outside, then God will bring me down in His time. All things serve the will of God..." (111). This was a great way to make the monster in this novel more human, in my opinion. True, you can't really empathize with him, but most people can't say they don't relate to this in some way. There is at least once in all of our lives where we justify our actions, where we feel the need to give reasons for what we did or are about to do. And it only makes sense that someone with strong roots in religion would use that religion to explain and justify why this is happening to him--it is God's will that he is afflicted with becoming a werewolf. Reverend Lowe's justifications are only backed up in his eyes when his next victim is a man who beats his wife. "He was not a good man. All things serve the Lord" (113).

Although I like how King humanized the monster, brought some depth to the werewolf, I felt that it came too late in the story. It was simply the mood and description that pulled me along chapter to chapter, not the monster itself. I guess this just reminds me that I like my monsters to be a little bit human for me to be drawn to them, and in Cycle of the Werewolf that humanity came too late for me.

Works Cited

King, Stephen. Cycle of the Werewolf. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1985.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Primal Beast - "Rawhead Rex"

SPOILER ALERT! If you have not read "Rawhead Rex" there are spoilers in this essay.

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"Rawhead Rex" by Clive Barker is the tale of a monster that is the epitome of an ancient, primal, and animalistic archetype. Since I prefer my monsters more human than animal, most of this story didn't appeal to me, but I can see where it would draw many horror readers in, especially those who enjoy monsters from long-forgotten times brought into modern day.

We are in Rawhead's mind for part of this story, and even though his thoughts seem more human than animal, he even admits to himself: "He'd never been a great thinker. Too much appetite: it overwhelmed his reason. He lived in the eternal present of his hunger and his strength, feeling only the crude territorial instinct that would sooner or later blossom into carnage" (372). This can be seen in his actions throughout the tale. His hunger drives him, snatching children to feed upon. The animal instinct in him is demonstrated through the defiling of a man's genitals and marking his territory, in this case a worshiper. Even at the end of the story, the animal in him is his downfall. He can only think of destruction, and using the gasoline he discovered burns so well, he sets the town ablaze, heedless of the damage it does to his own body.

Because Rawhead feels he owns the land that the humans now inhabit, he raises himself to the status of a god. "And when he was ready he'd throw those pretenders off his throne, he'd cremate them in their houses, he'd slaughter their children and wear their infants' bowels as necklaces. This place was his" (371). This god status doesn't just exist in his mind, though. Declan, the Verger for the local church, worships the beast as a god as well. "Had he known all along that if the beast were to come sniffing for him he'd kneel in front of it, call it Lord (before Christ, before Civilization, he'd said), let it discharge its bladder onto him, and smile? Yes. Oh yes" (385). Even Reverend Coot struggles against Rawhead's lure--it takes all of his focus to not kneel down and allow Rawhead to baptize him as he had Declan.

There is always of course the other side of the coin. Gods can be vicious, but are his acts more those of a demon? Ron Milton watches Rawhead kill his son, Ian. From that point on, he makes it his mission to destroy Rawhead. He's never been religious, but circumstances beyond his control make him rethink things, consult the near-dead Reverend for advice, and seek out the one thing in the Church that Rawhead may fear. To Milton, Rawhead is no god. "But he was prepared to be openminded, and now that he'd seen the opposition, or one of its troops, he was ready to reform his opinions. He'd believe anything, anything at all, if it gave him a weapon against the Devil" (399).

So yes, Rawhead is a monster from ancient times, long before Christianity was established, a horror that brings its wrath down on the town's ancestors. Who doesn't fear a loathsome creature from the dawn of time? It was a well-written story, but in the future, I hope to avoid monsters like Rawhead--child and baby eaters just aren't my cup of tea.

Works Cited

Barker, Clive. "Rawhead Rex." Books of Blood: Volumes One to Three. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1998. 362-407.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Believability in Breeding Ground

SPOILER ALERT! If you have not read Breeding Ground there are spoilers in this essay.

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Breeding Ground, by Sarah Pinborough, didn't work for me. Most of the issues I had with this novel were with believability. Even in a piece of fiction, I feel the reasons for certain occurrences should be believable enough to make the reader think the events could actually happen. This suspension of disbelief is harder to attain when you are working with a story or novel that actually takes place in our world--Pinborough didn't reach that level, in my opinion.

At the beginning of the novel, we discover that the women are putting on weight rapidly for some inexplicable reason. Not one woman here and there, but nearly all of them. Matt, our main character, takes his girlfriend to the doctor because she's pregnant and he's worried about her health. The doctor shoos them out of his office saying everything is fine. When Matt runs into the doctor a short time later, he finally discovers everything is not fine. "We're all just going to have to wait and see. That's all we can do. Wait and see" (52). This is what the doctor tells Matt, and this is the first instance where my suspension of disbelief is shattered. True, some things can't be explained, and not every sickness can be treated, but only waiting to see what happens is a bit of a stretch for me. This is happening world-wide. Doctors know, the government must know. No thoughts of a quarantine or taking certain precautions? Nope, the doctors and the government just plan to wait and see what happens, and not by actually observing the afflicted women in a secure environment, but by allowing them to go on with their lives so they eventually give birth to the monstrous widows within their own homes. I can't easily accept this. No thought of any possible damage control had me baffled.

I patiently waited for an explanation as to how these widows came about--I understand not revealing it right away, and I was hoping the novel would redeem itself with a good solid explanation that made sense. Unfortunately, all I found was more disappointment. "Genetically modified food. That's where the smart money is. They, or I suppose I should say we, let it get out of control" (219). The words of a geneticist. He goes into a lengthy explanation, of course, but it's still not enough to make me believe that this is the true cause. If it was genetically modified food, how is it that this happened to most of the women around the world at the same time? This reason would have made more sense to me if the creatures spawned in a more scattered pattern. Everyone consumes different foods, different proportions of those foods, and because of that, I would think people would birth these monsters at innumerable varying rates. And why did it effect only women at first? The mates of the widows do not start spawning from the men until the end of the novel. I was hoping the genetically modified food was a guess and that we would find out the real reason further in, but that never happened.

Near the end, they discover that a certain kind of blood is like acid to the widows, killing them effectively. It just so happens that this blood is from a deaf woman and a deaf dog. "It seemed that the simple genetic defect that had probably been a curse to them throughout their lives up to this point was now what made them the envy of every other survivor on the planet" (318). At this point, my faith in Pinborough's ability to back up anything with a solid explanation was shaken, so the whole blood-of-the-disabled-is-poison caused a sigh. What exactly is so different with this deaf woman and dog that it effects the widows? The closest connection is that the widows are telepathic, but that's a fraying thread. Not to mention, deafness is caused by an array of things, not only genetics.

Perhaps Breeding Ground isn't my type of monster novel. I found it impossible to suspend my disbelief, unlike with I Am Legend. This caused the monsters to be less effective for me, in the end. I'm sure others feel differently, but I couldn't bring myself to accept this post-apocalyptic world Pinborough created.

Works Cited

Pinborough, Sarah. Breeding Ground. New York: Dorchester Publishing Co., Inc., 2006.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Short Story Conventions in "The Funeral"

SPOILER ALERT! If you have not read "The Funeral" there are spoilers in this essay.

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Since "The Funeral" was written in the 1950s, it's interesting to compare the conventions used in short stories at that time. Many of the things we're taught to avoid in writing today, like overuse of adjectives, speech tags, and point of view slips, are prevalent in this story by Richard Matheson. Once you get past those changes in style, though, the core of the story is a fun and quirky romp.

The beginning of this short is bogged down with heavy adjective use--things like "placid clasp", "leisured pace", and "flaccid-fingered hand" (254). Those are just a few from the first page. To me, who has learned an overuse of adjectives bog down prose, it was overwhelming. It slowed the start of the story for me, making it hard to slip into right away.

Because the adjective usage is so prevalent, and I had to read the beginning through more slowly than usual, I also noticed a couple other style quirks that writers are warned against today. When you are writing a close third-person story, you're supposed to stay in your narrator's head and not pop out of it. This usually means it's difficult to describe the narrator if they aren't looking at themselves. Matheson doesn't follow this convention, especially in the phrase, "blinking meditation from his liver-colored eyes" (254). The other style quirk I noticed in the first page is a speech tag--the use of which made me flinch when I read it: "'Ah, good evening, sir,' he dulceted" (254).

What this shows is that conventions and tastes change throughout the years. Back in the 1950s, it seems that more of an omniscient approach was favored, over a close, inside-the-character's-head third person. The writing was more flowery and dense, chock full of adjectives. Who knows what will be standard in another fifty years? Perhaps in the future, second-person, adverb-heavy prose will be the big thing--no one can predict.

Although the first couple pages tripped me up initially, once the hook of the story presented itself, it was an enjoyable read. Three pages in, we finally find out that Morton Silkline's customer, Asper, intends to have a funeral for himself because he didn't have a proper one the first time. This was great, and it pulled me in. I wish it wouldn't have taken that many pages to hook me, though. I suppose that's another convention of the times. In today's day and age, a short story needs to pull the reader in on page one, even the first paragraph or sentence. If you have to wait for the hook until page three, there is a great possibility an editor won't even read that far. This could be a reflection of the instant gratification much of society seeks nowadays.

Once at the heart of the story, with the funeral event in full swing and a hodgepodge of monsters all in one room, I ate it up. The characters come alive. Matheson uses his technique as he does in I Am Legend to not reveal too much to the reader, so we can figure some things out for ourselves. Not one monster is labeled, the descriptions and actions the characters take providing enough hints so we can guess which archetypal monsters are at the funeral.

So, in the end, even though some of the devices used are ones I am used to avoiding, "The Funeral" was a fun read. I'll admit it--I wasn't able to figure out all of the monsters. Perhaps I will on a second read-through and a bit of research.

Works Cited

Matheson, Richard. "The Funeral." I Am Legend. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 1995. 254-263.