Monthly Archives: October 2015

Welcome to Night Vale

I have a theory about human nature. When it comes to the strange, confusing or taboo, we have only three possible responses. We can be disgusted, which prompts us to avoid whatever it is. If that avoidance isn’t allowed, our other options are fear and humor. This makes comedy and horror oddly companionable. Though externally they seem extremely different, they have the potential to explore similar topics, and many stories successfully combine them; the Scream franchise, The Cabin in the Woods, Sweeney Todd, Shaun of the Dead, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and so on. Sometimes the comedy is dominant, sometimes the terror. Where the subject of my final October review falls may be up to the individual.

Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast (and as of a couple weeks ago, a novel) about a small desert community where Lovecraftian terrors are just part of the everyday backdrop. In Night Vale, time only flows in a linear progression when it feels like it, street cleaners and librarians are everyone’s worst nightmare, city council is some sort of eldritch flesh-eating hive mind, and the faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home is really more of a petty trickster than an actual threat. Unless you’ve recently beaten her in a mayoral election, of course. Everyone is used to this and accepts it, running their everyday lives as best as possible around all the weirdness, experiencing the same hopes, fears and heartbreaks as humans everywhere.

The podcast is narrated by Cecil, host of Night Vale Community Radio. He brings us community news, the weather, updates on the struggle against the latest unearthly horror to terrorize the town, and of course traffic. There’s a strong element of unreliable narrator to the show. Is Cecil saying what he thinks, or what the Secret Police insist that he says? Is his information accurate, or biased by his status as a devout mountain unbeliever? Are we, the non-Night Valian audience, simply misunderstanding him because we didn’t realize antiques have tails? Despite Cecil’s fallibility, it’s hard not to trust him; not in the simple sense of believing everything he says, but in the deeper sense. When Cecil talks, you can hear his love for his town. I always get the sense that, in all the chaos, it’s Cecil who really binds Night Vale together. He might not always be factually accurate, but he can hear and diagnose the heartbeat of Night Vale.
The novel is more straightforward. As it’s so recent, this will be a brief and spoiler-free review. It follows two citizens of Night Vale, who are seeking to unravel a puzzle that is less apocalyptic, more personal. I loved it, and I don’t think you need to have listened to the podcast to enjoy it. It’s highly recommended, especially if you like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or the Discworld books. As those were to space opera/fantasy, this is to horror.
Night Vale, to me, isn’t scariest when the space-time fabric rips open and tentacled monsters invade. That is so everyday it is hardly worth mentioning. It’s scariest when there is a small, personal threat; anything to do with Carlos, Cecil’s boyfriend, makes me hold my breath a little. This is a common element of life in Night Vale. The town can weather any number of injustices and catastrophes, then go back to school and work the next morning. This is also a common aspect of human nature. We acclimate, even to things that sound horrific.

There are upsides to this, and downsides. One of the negatives is that we can accept things that we really shouldn’t, just because that’s the way they are; slavery comes to mind. Another is that, even as we acclimate, wounds can build up under the surface and reveal themselves later, like a soldier gallows-humoring through combat only to develop a bad drinking problem back home. The positive is that, well, without that ability we could never survive in an imperfect world. Sitting around and waiting for life to become safe, or refusing to participate in a world that fails to be perfectly just, both end in sitting alone until you die. Life in Night Vale is about finding a balance between complacency and paralyzing terror. So is life everywhere else.

Happy Halloween, everyone! Stay safe, and have fun.

Babadook and Dark Water

Supernatural horror is a massive subgenre, and many excellent works have been made simply using ghosts and demons as scary monsters. They let us all indulge the little parts of our mind that, in the middle of the night, goes back to our ancestors in caves and wonders “what if there really is something out there?” Then there are those that try using the supernatural as symbols of a real world terror. Not all of those work as well as simple chillers, but when the writers have a good understanding of the issue they are talking about, and a good grasp of the art of subtlety, the results can be wonderful. In fact, they can be used to talk about issues that are hard to portray directly.

Because nobody is more vulnerable than a child, and a few billion years of evolution compel us to protect them, horror loves to involve children. This is the case with two of my favorite films, The Babadook and Dark Water (the Japanese version, not the American remake, yes I’m a snob). Both have single mothers as protagonists, struggling to maintain a normal life for their child while supernatural forces stalk them. Spoilers ahead.

The Babadook

The two children are very different. In The Babadook, Amelia’s six year old Sam has behavioral troubles. He’s obsessed with monsters and weaponry, cycling between begging to play with weapons and read scary stories, and screaming fits of terror. Also, he has tantrums and at least one seizure. His behaviors get him in trouble at school and alienate him from all his peers. For the record, he’s a very accurate portrayal. I’ve worked with more than a couple Sams. Many similar stories would have him as the unsettling demonic child; this movie actually gives him a lot of sympathetic motivations. His father died in a crash the day he was born, and Sam’s fear seems to come from concern for his mother. He fantasizes that he is the protector of the house and concocts elaborate scenarios where he protects Amelia. Combine that with a kid who is often oblivious to how he comes across, and you get a kid who is actually quite likable, yet you don’t envy anyone who has to deal with him. Amelia, unfortunately, has a shortage of help. In addition to the loss of her husband, Sam’s school is not very good, and her sister’s half-hearted attempts to help only make Amelia feel more isolated.

In Dark Water, Yoshimi’s daughter Ikuko is sweet and responsible, especially for a five year old. Yoshimi was extremely neglected as a child, and in fact she is divorcing her husband because she sees him neglecting both her and her child in the same way. He is now doing everything in his power to gain custody of Ikuko, seemingly just to spite Yoshimi. Yoshimi has had a history of anxiety attacks and nervous breakdowns. Her in-story excuse is that she was disturbed by a job proofreading horror novels, but flashbacks make us suspect the underlying cause is lingering wounds from the subtle, toxic abuse of neglect. This makes her connection to Ikuko all the more important. It is both a chance to redeem herself, and the one relationship where she feels the unconditional love that she has always needed.

Dark Water

In both these stories, as in most great horror, the threats start slow and subtle. A creepy book appears in Sam’s bedroom and Amelia can’t remember where it came from. A little red bag keeps returning to Yoshimi and Ikuko’s new apartment, no matter how Yoshimi throws it away. These things serve the usual purpose of slowly raising the tension, but they also serve the particular purpose of illustrating the vulnerability of both women’s situations. In many horror stories, the victims are reluctant to face the eerie events in front of them, but in these, there is a reason for that. The women’s natural reactions of fear are interpreted by those around them as feminine hysteria, possibly indicating that they aren’t suitable caretakers. Rather than losing sympathy by not taking the obvious option, they gain it by showing us how all their options are bad; embrace what’s happening and be seen as crazy, or try to ignore it as the threat encroaches closer and closer.

As the threat grows, the audience starts to realize that the child isn’t the target. It’s the parent. In Yoshimi’s case, she and her daughter are being stalked by a the ghost of another little girl whose parents neglected her. In this case, the neglect was fatal, and now she’s desperate to find the mother she always needed. The ghost is determined to supplant Ikuko. Amelia is even closer to the monster. After she gets rid of the book, a new version appears, just for her. The Babadook says, “the more you ignore me, the stronger I’ll get.” Amelia is disturbed, but we begin putting pieces together as we watch her behavior. She is a loving mother, but the cracks are beginning to show. We are all familiar with the way we can snap and say something we don’t want to say in a stressful situation, and how unpleasant we can be when that stress becomes chronic.

The Babadook and the ghost are both manifestations of a truth we all know unconsciously. When we feel abandoned by those we love, by those who are supposed to look after us, that pain has the potential to turn us into something horrible.

One of the great things we love to tell ourselves is how wonderful families are, how much a source of unconditional love and blood is thicker than water and we will always be connected and so on and so forth. But in truth, there is always a choice. Some families are horrible, not in the quirky dysfunctional sitcom sense, but in the real, pathological, destructive sense. It’s easy to think of those families as people who are half real, who exist in news stories and not in our own neighborhoods. Dark Water and The Babadook, through supernatural symbolism, show us the other side; the destructive power of abandonment, isolation and neglect in families that might look very ordinary. They both do this in a way that is sensitive to their characters, honest about the pain and, at the last minute, oddly hopeful.

Absentia

Absentia is one of my absolute favorite horror films. I don’t measure my enjoyment of horror films quite the way I do others. Normally I look at both my enjoyment the first time around and how it holds up after a few rewatches. With horror, I don’t want to watch it too often. I want to forget the jumps and the twists, so that I’ll still get tense when the lights go out and nothing has gone wrong in almost three minutes. So, instead, I pick favorites based on how much they haunt me. Despite not seeing Absentia for two years before I watched it for this review, I’ve thought of it more than any other horror film I’ve seen. It’s damn good.

Absentia Callie

The title comes from the legal term “in absentia,” meaning that legal proceedings are going on despite the absence of something. In this case, Daniel Riley disappeared seven in years ago, and his wife Tricia is having him declared dead in absentia. She misses him. She loves him. She wants him to stay in the potentially reversible category of missing, not the rather permanent one of dead.

Also, her bills have piled up, her life has been on hold for seven years, and she’s pregnant. It’s time.

Her sister Callie, a recovering drug addict, visits to support her through the process. While she’s there, they both begin seeing things they can’t quite explain, but that seem to center around the concrete tunnel where so many in the neighborhood have disappeared.

I won’t give away the nature of this story’s monster or what it does, because the way this film builds the suspense is too good to spoil. Furthermore, it’s not really necessary to the great idea of Absentia. Unlike some stories, which use the monsters as clear metaphors for something, Absentia uses the confusion of the characters, whose lives are being torn apart by events they can’t begin to explain, to talk about how we deal with that. What do we do when life isn’t even willing to give us the closure of answers?

Absentia Tricia

Callie and Tricia try everything; substance abuse, blame, religion, science, outrage, meditation, and when everything else fails, stories. Pure, fabricated guesses of what might have happened, what might be going on. Absentia shows us all of them, shows us the ultimate futility of them, and does not for a moment blame its characters for resorting to them. It simply invites us to witness, understand, and empathize. Unlike so many horror movies, which flatten and stereotype its protagonists, Absentia makes them so human you will cry.

There is so much love in this movie, and not sappy, idealized love. It has messy, frustrating love directed towards messy, frustrated people. It also isn’t love that is magically strong enough to undo all the evil spells or stop bad things from coming. It’s just there, warm and real. There is a moment with a hug, and then after the hug there are bad things that the hug couldn’t stop. That’s okay. At least it was there when it could be, doing what good it could.

Absentia sisters

When I talk about ideas, I don’t always mean answers. Absentia doesn’t have any answers to what you do when there are no answers. That would defeat the point. It’s about reminding us that sometimes there aren’t any, and appreciating the heartbroken guesses of the people left behind.

Side Effects; A Missed Opportunity

Horror and action are genres that both frequently deal with dangerous situations, and yet it’s fairly rare that they get mixed up. Action is about the point where danger is active, and can be battled out in the open. There are clear boundaries between danger and safety, good and evil. It typically stars someone highly capable of handling the threat. Indiana Jones, Batman and Imperator Furiosa may have the odds stacked against them, but they are still trained and resourceful in exactly the ways the crisis demands. Horror, on the other hand, tends to focus on dangers that are lurking, liminal, or hidden just out of sight, and they involve protagonists who are completely unprepared to deal with the threat when it will finally come out of the dark. Action lets us escape to a world where we can take on our greatest foes; horror tells us what to do when we can’t.

Straddling the line between the two is the thriller, where events are a little too mundane and the emotional palette too varied for true horror, but there is an intensity and level of suspense above that of conventional action. This can be a really fun genre, both to write and watch. The danger lies in the temptation for the author to pull their punches, to pretend they are saying something profound but deliver escapism at the last moment. And just to be clear; I think both brutal honesty and exciting escapism are great. They each have their place and they can also be mixed in interesting ways. But sometimes they are combined create a garish chimera.

Let’s move on to the review, shall we?

Side Effects

Side Effects has an interesting premise that involves topics that are very important right now; medications, the danger of overprescription, the danger of paranoia around overprescription, the way medicines are marketed to the doctors who prescribe them, the frivolous lawsuit problem, so on and so forth. The main characters are Jonathan Banks, a young psychiatrist played by Jude Law, and Emily, his patient played by Rooney Mara. Emily is struggling with depression and suicidal urges. Banks prescribes her an experimental medicine that he is being paid to push, and as a result, she kills her husband in a sleepwalking incident.

The buildup to the events is excellent, because we aren’t allowed any easy answers. It’s easy, from the description above, to blame the doctor, but his characterization meticulously builds up sympathy for him. His first scene has him de-escalating a situation by culturally mediating between an anxious Haitian patient and a cop, potentially saving a life. He doesn’t see his patients as a pure opportunity for profit. He sees complex humans who need someone to understand them. Also, while he’s willing to take a little money from drug companies it isn’t in a blatantly unethical way. He isn’t pushing it on patients who would likely do better on another drug, he isn’t aware of any dangerous side effects and he is even upfront about both it’s experimental status and his relationship with the company. Emily takes the medication because she can’t handle the side effects from other, more common prescriptions and insists she prefers the experimental drug, right up until the death of her husband. The thing about dramatic side effects like this is that there’s always a first person to exhibit them. It’s so easy to think about the person who greedily recommended it in full knowledge of this danger, or without having done basic research. It’s hard to think of the essentially good guy, the innocent woman and the dead man, all connected by nothing more than really terrible luck.

This story threw me into a situation where I wanted a bad guy, and there was none to be seen, which in an odd way was scarier than any evil monster. I didn’t realize this until the movie, but when things have gone suddenly and irreversibly bad, sometimes the only thing left is the idea of justice, of a cosmic balancing of the scales. Even an unbeatable enemy is oddly comforting; there can be the comfort of wallowing in fantasies of some day when some hero will come along and give the bastards what they deserve. But if there’s no villain, nobody to blame or resent, then there is truly no hope for justice. I can’t think of any way to make things worse than that.

Everyone in the story is affected by this absence of a villain, and in sweep the lawyers and the PIs to help everyone find their bad guy. The temptation to find one slowly topples each character. The most effected is the protagonist, who, realizing he is everyone’s favorite choice to take the blame, begins acting hostile towards his former patient, essentially becoming the villain everyone wants him to be.

At this point in the story I was hooked. Unfortunately, this is also where it decided to massively disappoint me. See, it wasn’t about the horror of realizing that your desire to not be the bad guy turned you into the very villain they were looking for. It was about an evil lesbian conspiracy.

I really wish I didn’t  have to write that. But seriously that’s the only way to put it. Honestly, I think the original piece was the brilliant movie that I thought it was two-thirds of the way through, and then in some writer’s meeting a studio executive said, “you know, I just worry that this story is such a downer. And it’s going to be over everyone’s heads. Can’t we give it a sexier ending?”

And somebody said, “what, like evil lesbians?” before they realized that once those two words were spoken, the brainless studio executive would never, ever let the idea go.

I think that’s really awful, because of anti-vaxxers. And lots of other people, but anti-vaxxers are big in the news right now so I’ll go with that. It’s a movement that is so totally displaced from medical science that it’s kind of hard to argue with. If someone quotes that old nonsense about only using ten percent of your brain, you can explain that misconception came from the fact that we typically don’t use more than ten percent of our brain at once, but it’s a different ten percent from moment to moment so yeah, we use our entire brains. There’s enough common ground to get the conversation going. But when the other person really isn’t interested in any studies except the one, thoroughly discredited one that confirms their preconceptions, it’s hard to talk about the issue at all. Which sucks, because we had almost gotten rid of the measles and now it’s back.

What many people miss is that anti-vaxxers hang onto their theory because it gives them a bad guy. A largish minority of children with autism will, at some point in their childhood, experience a bad regression. Some will even spontaneously develop autism. In a country where most children are regularly vaccinated, the law of large numbers dictates that sometimes the vaccine and the regression will happen around the same time, giving grieving and understandably frightened parents a potential scapegoat. Add one misleading study and an internet to hook everybody together, and you’ve got a community united, comforted by a common enemy. Even if that enemy is a boogeyman. Before you go blaming the parents exclusively, remember that for years therapists did the same thing; they claimed that autism was caused by “refrigerator moms” despite no real evidence or even a clear definition of what that meant. They didn’t know what to do, so they blamed the scared parent and/or feminism and went home able to sleep better for it.

My point is, this issue is a part of human nature that we need to talk about. It is relevant to the times, relevant to our safety, and relevant to our ability to handle a crisis compassionately, and to really cooperate rationally on a solution. This movie had a chance to facilitate that conversation on a cultural level, and it blew it.

It’s probably all Donald Trump’s fault.

I Am Not a Serial Killer

Typically I write my reviews on movies, not novels, for two reasons. One is that it is less of a commitment of time and effort to rewatch a movie with notepad in hand to make my overthinking extra overthinky. The other is that I’ve heard from several authors that it’s a good idea to leave the bad reviews to the professional reviewers. I often get a lot out of analyzing stories that I think did something poorly, and when I do that I always go for Hollywood. However, for my first idea-rich horror review, I am breaking that trend. There’s no need to reread I Am Not a Serial Killer, because all the relevant details are stuck quite firmly in my mind, and there will certainly be no need to say anything negative.

I Am Not a Serial Killer is the first book in a series by Dan Wells, about a teenager, John Cleaver, who doesn’t want to be a serial killer. Normally that isn’t something teenagers have to deal with, but in his case there are a number of warning signs, from a diagnosis of pre-sociopathy to frequent bloody fantasies to the fact that his name is John Wayne Cleaver. His life is lived by a rigid code designed to protect him from his temptation to kill. When his small town is stalked by monsters, he seems to have been presented by a win-win situation; the opportunity to stalk and kill without being in the wrong. Naturally, this situation gets sticky very, very quickly.

While there is plenty of gore, the book is primarily psychological horror. We like John and we don’t want to see him give in to his dark side. I’m not sure John is a perfectly accurate depiction of a sociopath, though that is less Dan Wells’ fault and more a consequence of the mystery of what sociopathy truly is. John has all the classic marks, except that he has a desire to be better. It’s that tension that makes him both strangely fascinating and extremely relatable. That conflict is fundamental to every moral question. What do we do when what we think is right and what we want to do are at odds?

There are two approaches that John is caught between. One is of setting a clear, firm boundary between himself and who he fears becoming. It’s not enough for him to not kill. He has to not follow people around. He has to say something nice to someone if he has a fantasy about brutally dismembering them. He can’t eat meat. The other is of choosing a release that is supposed to be safe; it’s okay to kill someone if you think they might be dangerous to others, right?

I’m interested in moral questions, and I’ve been all over the political and religious maps. John’s list of rules reminds me of the preferred methods of Christian fundamentalism, and many other conservative worlds, while seeking an acceptable outlet tends to be preferred by liberal and secular worlds. While I’ve settled with a strong preference for the approach of outlets, to be honest there are downsides to both.

Take sex for example. Now, I tend to think sex is needlessly stigmatized, but in the Western world I think it is the area where the average person is most likely to experience a conflict between what they want to do and what they think they should do. The trouble with rigid boundaries is that they can heighten the tension, and thus the intensity of the temptation. They can easily result in a sliding scale. Consider standards of modesty; in a world where chests and thighs must be covered, shoulders and knees become erotic. When the legs and arms are covered, the wrists and ankles become scandalous. Meanwhile, the behavior of the people who have placed these boundaries does not necessarily improve. In the United States, we are used to hearing about the affairs, call girls and rent boys of politicians, typically the most religiously conservative ones. I personally am in favor of peeling back all the restrictions to the bare minimum; physical safety and consent are important, but otherwise why worry. Still, for people who feel the urge to cheat, or who hate condoms, or who are attracted to someone who doesn’t consent, simply saying “here’s a minimally restrictive alternative”doesn’t necessarily mean they will do the right thing. I’ve known people in highly relaxed, poly and kink friendly circles who only seek to play lawyer and see how much they can get away with. Loopholes are sought, definitions pushed and rules bent and sometimes outright broken, and people still get hurt.

The problem, of course, is that no amount of rules can make you do the right thing if you fundamentally don’t love your partners enough to take care of them. Which brings the matter back to John. He experiences both types of problems. He bounces back and forth between rules that only make breaking more appealing, and releases that make him seek even more loopholes. Whichever tactic he takes is destined to fail, unless he can learn true empathy; to care about people for their own sake. That is the question at the heart of the series. Can he learn to connect with others?

This is by far not only one of my favorite horror series, but one of my favorite series of any genre. It is exciting, creepy and fun, but also has one of the most compelling character arcs of anything I have read. If you’re looking for some Halloween reading, and you haven’t read this series yet, go check out I Am Not a Serial Killer.

Why We Need Scary Stories

I love Halloween. I love seeing the world covered in skulls, vampires, bats and zombies. I love the excuse to watch scary movie after scary movie. I love the way that, once out of the year, the world is joining me in contemplation of the grotesque and horrifying.

I have some issues with anxiety. Even when nothing is wrong, my brain likes to pump my head full of scary juices. In fact, it’s worst when nothing is wrong. An actual crisis, for me, is like a vacation. All the unnecessary panic feels like rehearsal, and I can finally put all the adrenaline and hyper-awareness to good use. Perhaps that’s why, so often, my thoughts turn towards disturbing topics or terrifying stories. The emotions are going to be there anyway. It’s nice to give them some appropriate subject matter, to keep them company.

Even for people who aren’t like me, I think there’s benefit to scary stories. That isn’t to say that everyone needs to go watch 28 Days Later or read Lovecraft if that’s not their thing. I’m not trying to police anyone’s genre preferences, or cajole anyone to try horror if they are uncomfortable with it. The benefit I’m talking about is broader, more social.

Here are a few premises for you.

Premise one; the world is in many ways a terrifying place. We all face innumerable challenges, unforeseen tragedies, losses of control and, eventually, death. And that’s just everyday life for the privileged. Once you accept that, you have to take into account certain other facts, like that Kim Jong-un exists.

Premise two; we don’t like thinking about awful things like that. Looking at these issues makes us uncomfortable.

Premise three; we can’t deal with any problem without taking an honest look at it. Attempting to handle a situation without real understanding of it often results in making it worse.

Premise four; stories have the power to teach us about situations by making us live them vicariously. They can be like flight simulations for real life, sometimes in straightforward and obvious ways, other times in subtle and symbolic ways. How a story handles uncomfortable subject matter can teach me how to handle similar feelings in my life.

Conclusion; stories that scare have the power to teach all of us to deal with unpleasant ideas that are still an essential part of life.

Once again, I don’t mean that all of you have to go watch a movie you swore you would never watch because the idea was too scary or icky for you. For one thing, I think these lessons and ideas can be introduced through stories, and then trickle through a whole society by cultural osmosis. I’m not a big fan of romance stories. I’m still familiar with many romantic tropes and their corresponding ideas about love, the good and the bad.

For another, just because scary stories deal with those essential ideas, that doesn’t mean every one handles them well. I am bothered by how many horror films, particularly the gory ones, handle their subject matter by making the victims very flat and eroticizing the violence. I don’t object to eroticism, and I don’t object to gore, and I don’t… well, no, I do object to making the victims flat on the grounds it’s poor writing, especially when they are supposed to be protagonists. But what bothers me most about that combination is that it does position the reader to deal with violence by identifying with the villain. I’m all for understanding, sympathizing with or even empathizing with a villain. Identification with the villain, on the other hand, is uncomfortably close to identification with the oppressor. Humans, uncomfortable witnessing someone suffer, sometimes shut off their ability to sympathize with the ones suffering and instead fixing on the one causing the suffering, who seems interesting and powerful in comparison. In the short term this feels better; in the long run it is the reason former victims are sometimes future abusers. All of which was a long of saying that although I think scary stories can teach us how to deal with fear, not all of them are great teachers.

I do, however, think that every genre, from romance to sci-fi to literary fiction, has examples of stories that handle their subject matter poorly. There is still plenty of fiction in the horror genre that handles awful subject matter in a way that is insightful and artistic, and for the rest of this month I’ll be writing about some of my personal favorites.

Hope you enjoy, and thanks, as always, for reading. Happy Halloween!