Just a Girl and Her Hammer: Katie by Michael McDowell

Katie Slape likes her hammer. She also knows when your pockets are brimming with cash. She’s pretty good at convincing you to part with that cash, and pretty handy with that hammer.

Michael McDowell’s 1982 novel about a psychic psychopath and her nasty predilection for murder is punchy and brimming with gore. Not for the delicate of stomachs, there’s some pretty memorable imagery, including some involving stomachs, exploding and worm-ridden and the like.

The title is somewhat misleading, as the novel revolves the plight of our heroine, Philo, a determined young woman whose impoverished life becomes a litany of insanity and tragedy thanks to Katie, her conniving stepmother, and brutish father.

Set in 19th century, post-war America, the novel’s setting is grimy and grimly alive, a character in its own right. McDowell’s talent for creating memorable spaces for his characters shines again, from the dusty streets of a New Jersey village to the sparkling sidewalks of Saratoga, to the smoky hell of a train wreck in a dark forest.

It’s the kind of novel that necessitates a long, hot shower afterwards; stomach-churning and bluntly told. The setting and time evokes echoes of Lizzie Borden and her suspected crime. Trade a hatchet for a hammer and a middle-aged spinster for a teenage telepath, and the rhyme could just as easily go…Katie Slape took a hammer…

img_20171010_094529.jpg

That hammer looks a bit like a hatchet…hmm

Valuable lessons abound: Sandbags may leave less marks but are not quite suitable for efficient kills. Large sums of cash should be left at home. Always be wary of teenagers. Dog karma is strong.

The big questions go unanswered, if they’re even important. The cracks out of which this vile family oozed remain undiscovered. Sometimes the only explanation for evil is evil, and nothing more.

*bits of gore

  • For more excellent horror by McDowell, check out The Elementals, a southern gothic ghost story set on an isolated spit of land that harbors more than just sand.
  • Damn, but dogs always get short shrift in horror stories. What does it say about me that I can handle all matter of exploding eyeballs and spattering brains but start weeping if a dog so much as sneezes?
  • There’s a pretty fantastically described train wreck that reminds me of a real train crash that occurred in 1867. For some real-life horror, read about that in The Angola Horror by Charity Vogel.

 

I’m So Poor I Can’t Even Pay Attention: Memory, Mind Palaces, and the Hellmouth in My Basement

One of the more incredible aspects of my reading journey is how I’m always finding links between the books I read. Whether I consciously choose my next book based on triggers from a book I just finished, or whether I sometimes stretch a little to make the associations, there’s always a thread of continuity from one book to the next, and suddenly the map of the books I read blossom like a web of interconnectivity in my mind.

I’ll begin the last book I finished, Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. Nominally the story of a journalist who decided to delve into the arcane subculture of memory championships, where participants memorize decks of cards, unknown poems, and strings of numbers all for the sake of challenging the memory and the dubious honor of the title “memory champion.”

camera_1505921684786.jpg

The book delves into not only the history of the tradition of memorization, prized in a time when books were scrolls and the printing press was still a distant future invention, but the function and creation of memory, the savants who memorize entire phone books and those who, due to brain damage, are incapable of creating new memories.

The book does not delve deeply into any of these subjects, but functions as a tour of the many, many different aspects of memory. There’s declarative and non-declarative, semantic and episodic, verbal and visual types of memory, working memory (where did I put my glasses?) and long-term memory.

The most fascinating aspect is method by which memory champs employ their immense skills of remembering: the memory palace. Coined in an apocryphal story about Simonides, the mind palace is a place or route, real or imagined, that exists in your mind for the purpose of creating a spatial architecture where you can deposit the things you wish to remember (grocery lists, the presidents of the United States, the complete works of Charlaine Harris) and then “remember” them by taking a journey through the space.

Your memory palace can be a simple as your childhood home, as complex as an entire town, or completely imaginary.

The reason this method is so effectively is simply that our brains evolved to process and remember spatial information much more effectively than verbal information. Language has only existed the last 10,000 years or so; the earth much, much longer.

The creation of these mental maps, while ingrained in our DNA, is made difficult by a world in which constant stimulation, hyper-multitasking, and information overload is the order of the day. In trying to process and remember everything, we end up retaining very little. It’s easy to watch 24 straight hours of youtube videos and awake from our fugue with several empty doritos bags and absolutely no memory of what we watched.

The irony of being a spatially savvy species, for me, is that I have struggled for my whole life with navigation, finding myself easily lost in cities and zombie-infested wastelands alike. The advent of GPS only further handicapped my navigational skills, to the extent that the only places I can reliably navigate are work, the grocery store, my mom’s house, and the dog park.

To help ameliorate my lack of skill, I read The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs by Tristan Gooley, which is full of little tips that one can use to help navigate, mostly in nature, but also in cities and all the in-betweens.

IMG_20170902_143253

While I now know how to find the North Star and can estimate the length of time to sundown using my knuckles, the biggest takeaway is simply this: slow down and look around you. Look at which side of the tree the moss is growing on, notice which direction the wind is coming from. Look at the sky. Look at the ground. Stop for just a second and appreciate the present moment. Listen to the birds.

How does this jive with memory palaces and remembering your grocery list? Because when we notice the world around us,then every walk we take becomes a potential memory palace, a space that we can snatch from the physical world and implant in our minds, places we can fill with Civil War generals or Pixar films or every World Series winner or whatever we’d like.

I decided to test out this memory palace thing with all of the books I’ve read this year, 67 so far. I took a house that I lived in for a few years, large enough to accommodate at least 100 (my reading goal) and began in the basement. I not only tossed objects around, but created a storyline that included everything from a possessed Christmas ornament to a possessed tree, incorporating real life props like that creepy old chest in the basement and the moment when I learned that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. Because so many of the books I read are horror books, the whole experience was genuinely creepy at times.

But did it work?

Yes, yes it worked, and the ridiculous story I created as I traveled around my old house and fled the apparent hellmouth in the basement was a little difficult and a lot of fun.

Woman No. 17 Hitting the Thematic Checklist

Sitting in a tire shop is not my ideal Sunday morning; I wasn’t the only patron to bring a book, and though I surreptitiously tried to suss out what the other ladies were reading without looking like a creeper, I only ended up looking like a creeper.

While the tech replaced my tire, I was able to finish Woman No. 17 by Edan Lapucki. The blurb on the cover describes the novel as “sinister and sexy” (which is weirdly also my Tinder profile.) And like my Tinder profile, it doesn’t really live up to the hype.

IMG_20170611_085345

The story presents the dual viewpoints of a well-off woman and her nanny, the women a generation apart, both preoccupied with their roles in the world as well as their mothers. In addition to the classic “my mother was a psycho omg am i my mother” conundrum, there is also an artsy slant that questions identities and whether we can put them on and take them off like clothes and at what point our assumed identities become part of us (see: Masks All the Way Down.)

There are so many Liberal Arts Intro Class themes that the novel tries to explore, the reader is in danger of a slipped disk from all the whiplash.

IN ADDITION TO THE ABOVE MENTIONED THEMES: the role of art in the world. A classic “am I an artist?” crisis.

IN ADDITION: a nonverbal son and how we treat the disabled as less than.

IN ADDITION: Approximately eight million flawed or straight up sociopathic woman. Cue Gone Girl/The Girl on the Train comparisons.

IN ADDITION: Representation of the female body on film as exploitative or powerful, dependent on the lens. Cue a really terrible art project that serves to upend the male gaze with dick pics. Subversive!

IN ADDITION: Poverty porn.

The story is compelling, the train wreck of these woman’s lives compulsively readable as they make poor choice after disastrous decision. If the novel hadn’t tried to capture so many different liberal arts elective course titles, the whole story would have felt more unified and might have led to a more satisfying ending.

*WOMEN NOS. 1-16

  • One pertinent lesson of this novel is to not let your mom use twitter. There’s actually a wide array of social media usage in this novel, including Snapchat and Craigslist. Regardless of the app, the characters in this novel manage to create disaster with every post and tweet and email they send into the world.
  • Just add booze? In my blog about Dead in the Water I complained about the lazy character shortcut of making a character a pedophile in order to telegraph to the reader just how evil the character is. Equally annoying is making a woman a boozer to depict how broken she is. Just add booze! Insta-flaw! I know this was used prominently (and as a plot propellant) in The Girl on the Train. Has it become more prevalent, or am I just noticing it more?

 

Cut the Chit-Chat and Get the F Out!: Ararat by Christopher Golden

The title of this blog post paraphrases a line spoken by a character late in Christopher Golden’s novel, Ararat. It also accurately describes the experience of reading the novel (or listening, as I did) and suffering through long passages of pointless arguing amongst a group of people trapped together in a most improbable situation: Inside Noah’s Ark high up on Mount Ararat.

29939052

See what happened was…there was an earthquake and an avalanche, which opened up a cavern in the side of Mount Ararat. The cavern turns out to be the interior of an ancient ship, and soon a large cast of characters, including a pair of fame-seeking adventurers, a priest, a covert operative, a documentarian, a UN representative, local Turks and guides, a professor and a host of grad students, phew…are holed up inside the ship. Their main object of interest is a certain cadaver which appears to be something other than human.

*mild to moderate spoilers*

And in case you’re not attuned to the finer points of Demons 101, the cadaver helpfully has horns. Like demons do.

Soon, all the members of the crew are acting a little odd and there are long stretches of pointless infighting, bizarre dreams, and grade-school musings on belief and religion. Even when they get stuck in a gruesome version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, they still find time to argue and grouse in between horrific murders. As the demon plays a round of Possession Russian Roulette with the survivors, there are some nonsensical (and unecessary) plot machinations to explain what seems inherently unexplainable.

In service of blood, gore, and arguing, some of the story’s more interesting elements are sold short. For example, the characters ask why the ship is so high on the mountain, but never revisit it or even posit a theory. Sure, if we want to go with the classic story, it was a flood, and if it was a flood, what kind of implications did that have worldwide? Who were these people and what were they running from? And most importantly, why in the hell did they take a damn demon with them?

Another shaky element detracting from the strength of the story is the tepidly described setting. It’s a mountain. It has snow. Blizzards. An ancient ark. The setting is a character itself, but at times remains as one-dimensional as some of its human counterparts.

This is a book ripe for film adaptation. The setting is wonderfully claustrophobic, an ancient rotting ship in the side of a mountain, a blizzard raging outside, the natural tension of a multinational cooperation exacerbated by a little demonic influence. Cut out some of the sniping and get to the action and we could have a serviceable film.

* “Then as God had bid him to do/ he took on animals two by two” (this poem!)

  • Christopher Golden’s novel Snowblind is in talks to become a TV series sometime in the future. Pretty decent novel with some silly shenanigans at the end.
  • The “Rosemary’s Baby” vibe at the end of the novel almost redeems everything that came before it
  • I don’t understand why demons have to adhere to certain mortal rules, such as holy water or Latin. If they operate on a different metaphysical plane than humans, why should they be subject to our language or physical objects like crucifixes? I mean, they can possess us and make our heads spin around!

 

This is how it will be when you drown: Dead in the Water by Nancy Holder

This is how it will be when you drown. – Dead in the Water by Nancy Holder

If you ever come across a copy of Nancy Holder’s Dead in the Water, published in 1995 and winner of the Bram Stoker Award, pick it up and read the first chapter. It contains phenomenal, graphic description of drowning far from the romantic auspices of classical literature.

 

Ophelia’s Drowning Fail

 

When Holder writes “You turn around to see your friends again. And they’re farther away than you thought they’d be. A lot farther,” it’s evocative of Stevie Smith’s 1957 poem “Not Waving But Drowning.” The choice of second person POV lends the chapter it’s power, effectively removing away the narrative screen between the reader and the action. It’s not some random unnamed character who’s drowning. It’s you. 

Unfortunately, the rest of the novel never comes close to evoking that emotional punch.

It’s a great setup: A group of castaways are picked up by a luxury cruise ship when their own doomed freighter sinks on its way to Hawaii. Unsubtly named The Pandora, the ship and its eye-patched captain are not what they seem. Could it be they are on a ship where all the evils of the world are percolating below its shimmering, mirage-like exterior?

Like the ship itself, the novel is an incoherent jumble of dreams, hallucinations, images, graphic violence, and characters perpetually feeling sorry for themselves. Throw in Lorelei the water spirit, excessive quoting from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and an insidious fog (because when is fog ever benign?) and the novel ends up more confusing than compelling, verbose but hardly visionary.

  • Reading Pet Peeve Alert: Lazy uses of classical myths to evoke (incorrectly) an association. Pandora was a woman whose curiosity caused her to accidentally unleash evil on the world. I don’t see how that corresponds with a murderous ghost-captain who sinks ships and enslaves the souls of the drowned in service to him. For a correct usage of this myth, please refer to The Girl with all the Gifts.
  • Reading Pet Peeve Alert Part II: Throwing in pedophilia to grant a character automatic “evil” status. The character was nasty enough; I don’t get why we need to read about that. It’s repellent.
  • Lady cop alert! How quaint that the blurb on the back of the book has to point out that the novel contains a “female cop packing a .38″ Emphasis mine. I know that may cause some readers to quake in their trousers, but don’t worry, she has a dickish, misogynist partner to balance out her offensive possession of ovaries. Who of course she’s in love with. It’s like The Wolfen on a boat!

 

The Future Will Be…WET: New York 2140 and American War

Two new releases came out this month along a similar motif: Climate Change!

That’s right! The liberal bogeyman in the closet! The biggest lie since Al Gore said he invented the internet!

I’m just kidding. Anyone who thinks climate change is a hoax, I have a Hummer I’d like to sell you.

NEW YORK 2140 By Kim Stanley Robinson

There’s a capital “M” Message in Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 that is worthy and frightening. If we continue to abuse our planet, we will pay the consequences. Those consequences are wide-ranging, from the destruction of habitats and species, shrinking coastlines, an ever widening gap between the classes, housing crises, to devastating ecological events that turn the streets of New York City into canals.

Robinson creates an astonishing vision of the future, excessively detailed, smart, complicated and imaginative. Though the POV doesn’t veer often from NYC, the glimpses outside of the city provide tantalizing possibilities of the way the world has changed just one disastrous century hence.

But all too often, the action is focused on NYC, and the canals and stranded skyscrapers and sky bridges grow a little stale after the hundredth visitation. The “Plot” (and I use that term loosely) focuses on a cast of characters living in the former MetLife building. Characters that are by-the-book carbon copy archetypes: the ambitious woman, the douchey finance bro, the impish street kids, the wise yet doddering old man, the grouchy Slavic building super…et al.

The very real possibility of Robinson’s ecological future is undermined by goofy, pie-in-the-sky plot machinations like a people’s revolution that brings down the existing financial system, a treasure hunt, a polar bear transport gone awry, a hurricane, a mysterious kidnapping, and nefarious private security firms. It’s a veritable kitchen sink of plot ideas with no editor in sight. Further bloating the text are an endless stream of quotations and list that, in the audiobook, has its own narrator!

The book reads almost like a pitch for a TV series, and would probably make a good own, as TV creators are often adept at enlargin a novel’s given universe and elaborating on character development (though not always *cough* Walking Dead.)

AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad

In a slightly less distant future, author Omar El Akkad imagines one that is equally devastated by climate change, such that the southeast borders of the U.S. have moved drastically inland, while the shrinking East and West coastlines have sent scores of displaced citizens fleeing towards the Midwest. This leads the government to ban fossil fuels, resulting in a rift that starts the second American Civil War.

In contrast to New York 2140, the novel charts the life of one little girl living far south in the Louisiana swamp and her genesis towards adulthood and the fate of a nation. The narrative is occasionally interrupted by context-setting excerpts from memoirs, reports, and history books. This provides a nice balance that heightens the plot tension as it barrels towards its tragic, inevitable conclusion.

There is a fascinating parallel between this “American War” and the wars America has fought overseas. The North is the dominating status quo, viewing the dissident Southerners as backwards hicks. The Southerners wage their war with guerilla tactics, strapping on “farmer’s suits,” fertilizer-fueled bombs and martyring themselves for the Southern cause. They set mines and ambush transports.

But they are no more unequivocal enemies than the North is righteous. The North engages in brutal interrogation techniques, suspending human rights as a wartime necessity. The detainees suffer cruelties that include sensory assault and waterboarding.

American War doesn’t waste subtleties on drawing these distinctions. Taking the war to our own backyard is a sobering shift in perspective.

***

Both books are set against the backdrop of climate change and the way it will drastically change how humans live. It will drown cities, start wars, spread disease, widen the economic divide, and extinguish species.

It’s hard to believe that in 2017 we’re still equivocating over whether or not climate change even exists, all the while ensuring a shittier future for every living thing on this planet.

When We Mess With a Good Thing: Adaptations Haunting Hill House

Just recently, it was announced that Netflix ordered a series based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. 

My first reaction: Yay!

Second reaction: Why, god, why?

Third reaction: Is it here yet?

The Haunting of Hill House is my favorite novel of all time and if you ask me about it, I will tell you all about Shirley Jackson’s spare, impactful prose, kaleidoscopic characters and overall brilliance.

IMG_20170412_214424

There have been two film adaptations of the book. Now there will be a Netflix TV series helmed by the director of the sequel to Ouija (your classic horror film based on board game fare), the fun-bad Oculus, and a couple of better-received films, Absentia and Hush. 

I am of two minds about this project. Since I can’t decided if I am happier than I am sad, I made a pros and cons list to assist me in my decision making process.

PRO: Jan De Bont is not directing. 

In 1999, a  wholly superfluous remake of The Haunting was directed by Jan De Bont. His previous films included two “hits,” Speed and Twister before he devoted the remainder of his directorial career, so far, to a superfluous remake and two superfluous sequels: Speed 2 and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. Can I emphasize the word “superfluous?”

De Bont’s foray into horror included dumbing down all the nuances that characterized the original, adding a metric crap-ton of special effects, and basically shitting over everything that was good about the original. The result was a mediocre film with a surprisingly better than average cast (Lili Taylor, Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta Jones, Owen Wilson…well, mostly better than average.)

I’m not gonna lie. The film scared me when I first watched it. I was also 14 years old and watching it by myself, so. The greatest gift that film gave me was an interest in the source material. I would eventually read the book and come to love it, despising the travesty that the remake inflicted on Jackson’s masterpiece.

CON: Robert Wise is NOT directing it. 

The first adaptation of Haunting was released in 1963 and directed by Robert Wise, whose ouvre consists of some strange bedfellows, including The Sound of Music and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Besides introducing some revolutionary sound editing in The Haunting, he managed to distill the subtleties of Jackson’s story and characterizations, in particular the complicated Eleanor and her fragile state of mind, and create a film that was scarier for not knowing what was on the other side of the door.

Sadly, Wise is no longer with us, and his vision of Jackson’s great novel draws an even starker contrast between the original material and De Bont’s abomination. Wise’s The Haunting represents for me, that elusive book-nerd unicorn, the perfect book-to-movie adaptation.

PRO: TV today is so freaking good!

Forget your Walking Deads. Forget your American Horror Stories. A newer, better brand of TV horror is reinventing old standards, from Hannibal and Bates Motel to the upcoming Twin Peaks and The Mist, there’s a revolution taking place in television. Netflix and Amazon have thrown their hats in the ring, and it’s made for better TV. Sure, there’s some mediocre horror shows floating around out there (did we really need MTV’s Scream ?) but it’s a promising trend.

CON: The temptation of the cheap scare

The most jarring difference between the two film adaptations of Haunting is the use of special effects and cheap scares. Whereas the original used effects sparingly, to enhance the story, in the remake, the philosophy is basically “throw all the shit at the wall and see what sticks.” In 1963, the SFX was limited to camera angles and sound effects. Shadows and reaction shots, implication and POV was used, often to great effect, because there was no CGI. Now CGI is cheap, a shortcut to easy scares. My fear is the director might resort to these cheap shots because “that’s what the audience wants.” Maybe that assumption is right, but I hope for better.

PRO: The slow burn

The Haunting of Hill House is a slim novel that packs a rich story with fully realized characters and a deliberately paced plot. This GQ article describes the novel as a “tense, almost unbearable book at times.” The format of TV allows the full slow burn to bring shades and nuance to Haunting that can’t necessarily be accomplished in a two-hour film.

CONCLUSION?

A peculiar aspect of rabid bookish fandom is that we as readers tend to freak out when our beloved books are adapted in a film/TV format, even though the majority of the time we know our expectations are just setting us up for bitter disappointment. We sit there with our “The Book was Better” flashcards even when the movie/show turns out to be pretty good.

In a way, we are preemptively ruined by the book. Primed to critique. Because at the bottom of our fanaticism is hope, hope for a perfect distillation of perfection. Will this time be “the one?” If not, there’s always next time.

Unless you’re a Dune superfan. In that case, you’re screwed.

 

 

 

 

Turtles All the Way Downs: The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

The Americans have no idea what’s going on in the library. It’s not your normal library, and Carolyn, David, Michael, Margaret, and their adopted siblings are not normal librarians. They always seem to bring chaos and carnage as sidekicks. Their thrift-shop fashion is too weird even for Macklemore.

Turns out this oddball group are orphans raised under tutelage of Father in a badass library. Each studies a specific “catalog,” such as war, healing, language, nature, and death. None are allowed to know the secrets of the others’ catalogs under the threat of brutal punishment.

wp-1488593367252.jpg

I’ve been trying to write about this book for months now. It’s a beautiful novel that traffics in equal parts brutality and hope. I enjoyed it in a way that’s difficult to qualify. That doesn’t happen often.

There’s a concept in the novel called “Regression Completeness,” explained as “the idea that however deeply you understand the universe, however many mysteries you solve, there will always be another, deeper mystery behind it.”

“Regression Completeness” is a phrase of the author’s invention, but it’s related to the concept of Infinite Regress, in which a proposition must be explained by another proposition, which in turn must be explained by another…ad nauseam. Like the optical effect of two mirrors creating an infinite image, the explanations never cease except to end in a tautology.

I think, therefore I am. I am, therefore I think. (Descartes was a jerk.)

There’s a charming anecdote, most likely apocryphal, but the best illustration of the Infinite Regress conundrum:

There are many versions of the “turtle” story. Here is one of the best known:

“William James, father of American psychology, tells of meeting an old lady who told him the Earth rested on the back of a huge turtle. “But, my dear lady”, Professor James asked, as politely as possible, “what holds up the turtle?” “Ah”, she said, “that’s easy. He is standing on the back of another turtle.” “Oh, I see”, said Professor James, still being polite. “But would you be so good as to tell me what holds up the second turtle?” “It’s no use, Professor”, said the old lady, realizing he was trying to lead her into a logical trap. “It’s turtles-turtles-turtles, all the way!”

— from Wilson, R.A. (1983, 1997) Prometheus Rising. Phoenix, AZ: New Falcon Publishers, 1983. (source)

I’m not going to pretend I’m smart enough to have parsed all the implications of “Regression Completeness” in The Library at Mount Char. It’ll just lead me to a mixed metaphor rabbit hole full of turtles.

As readers,  we have to be content with accepting a mystery that we can’t explain: the mystery of a book that insinuates without a clear reason. We have to be content with it, and maybe even enjoy it a little.

There’s a moment at the end of Mount Char, where the title of the book is finally elucidated, and it packed such an emotional gutpunch for me that I had to set the book down for a while.

Now I must lay to rest the idea that I need to explain something to enjoy it. Instead, I put it in the box with Anna Karenina’s final moments and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” as beautiful, devastating moments in art living outside my critical mind.

I hope everyone has a book or song or film or painting like this. Something that causes us to surrender to Infinite Regress and accept the mystery. To borrow from Milan Kundera, these mysteries are what fills out our lives with a “dimension of beauty.”

 

*forbidden catalogs

  • It’s pronounced “Char” as in “Charbroil” not “Char” as in “Charlotte” which is how I pronounced it until I figured out the context.
  • There’s a wonderful psychological concept coined by sociologist Erving Goffman that offers a kind of mental version of Infinite Regress. As explained in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: “[Erving] disputed the romantic notion that behind the masks we show other people is the one true self. No, said Goffman; it’s masks all the way down.”
  • Another fun, related concept is the Munchausen Trilemma, the episode in which the Baron pulls himself out of the mire by his own hair. Hijinks!

On Being “Team Human” – The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

You can’t save people from the world. There’s nowhere else to take them.
– The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

The sympathetic zombie is a rare, yet well-established pop culture trope. From the forlorn “domesticated” Bub in George Romero’s Day of the Dead to the tongue-in-cheek living dead modern comedies like iZombie and Santa Clarita Diet, the sentient zombie is an exercise in contradictions. Intelligent people don’t desire human flesh; zombies are meant to represent the dead-minded mob, the consumerist masses, the brainwashed masses. They’re humans without humanity. Our reptile brains run amok.

The metaphor of the zombie asks the fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? The answers vary, from our ability to control our desires, show empathy, “love,” and probably NOT want to eat human flesh.

The existence of the sentient zombie asks a similar question, but the answer is fraught with dissonance. What happens when you have the intelligence of a human packaged in with the ultimate taboo of cannibalism?

17235026

Most of the zombies in The Girl with all the Gifts are your prototypical, braindead, flesh-hungry monsters. They’re called “hungries,” based on their dominant drive, which should be obvious. Their dish of choice, of course, is human flesh. But there’s a select group of hungries, all children, who are also capable of all those human qualities like learning and language. They are more terrifying than the regular hungries, because they can think and plan and work as a community. They look like children, not monsters.

The star of this select group of smart hungries is Melanie, a little girl who is precocious and imaginative and full of questions. She is the star of the novel, the protagonist who guides us through this post-apocalyptic nightmare of abandoned cities and roaming herds of flesh-hungry monsters.

I was lucky to discuss this book in book club, and the best question came up: Are you Team Hungry or Team Human? A lively debate followed, and I reflected on the question long after the meeting ended.

Team Hungry or Team Human?

A more precise question might be this: Are you Team Human or Team Melanie? As the reader, we are invited to view the disaster from her perspective. We’re set up to sympathize with Melanie, a human monster feared and despised by almost everyone around her.

Her nemesis is Dr. Caldwell, a scientist whose ambition to save the world doesn’t exactly inspire the warm and fuzzies. Her willingness to slice open Melanie’s skull in service of humanity ironically renders her inhumane. The novel draws battle lines with the reader firmly situated on Melanie’s side, the characters trapped in their assigned roles: Heartless scientist, empathetic teacher, realistic soldier, and the tragic monster. Melanie’s responsibility is great, and her loneliness, like Frankenstein’s monster, is unbearable.

In the end, Melanie is faced with a decision that will either doom her and those like her, or the entirety of the human race. The reader is stuck in the uncomfortable position of cheering on a monster or accepting Dr. Caldwell’s policy of prioritizing the human race above all others (which, TBH, we’re pretty damn good at doing.)

So what do you do? Choose Melanie, as Ms. Justineau, the kind-hearted teacher does, and the human race as we know it faces extinction. Although Ms. Justineau might not have predicted such a bleak end, in essence she takes Melanie’s place as the lonely, if less hungry, Other.

Choose humans and choose Caldwell’s brand of impersonal experimentation. Condone the sacrifice of the few to save the many. It sounds easy but there’s an aspect of human psychology that prevents us from seeing the big picture, to stomach the means to a noble end when those means are unsavory. It’s both a weakness and a strength that allows us to inflict both kindness and cruelty.

There’s a difference between fighting for your family and friends and ruminating on the worth of the human species in the abstract. Hypothetically, it’s easy to say “screw it, we had our chance” but the world and our choices are so much more complicated than the novel implies.

The survival of humanity is not an either/or proposition. It’s not about choosing one over the other, but figuring out how we’re going to live together without destroying our planet. If we keep leaving it up to the next generation, maybe we deserve to turn into fungus. Ashes to ashes, dust to mushroom.

*spores

  • If the Sentient Hungries indeed took over the world, what would they eat? I suggested at book club that they could probably learn agriculture and farm animals for their sustenance. It didn’t occur to me until later that one of those animals they might start farming might be humans.
  • Evolution and progress are not always synonymous. What’s best for our genes might not be the most “humanitarian” option. They’re just trying to build a better machine.

Eileen and All Grown Up: The Unlikable Heroine

One of my bookish pet peeves is when someone says they didn’t like a book because all the characters were unlikable.

Well guess what, it’s not the character’s job to make you like him or her. It’s the author’s job to make you care anyway. You might care because the character is a tragic villain (see: Aaron Burr in Hamilton) or because you can’t wait to see them get their comeuppance (see: any Game of Thrones villain; Voldemort.) But you don’t have to like them.

A character can be unlikable and still be a good character, just as a character can be totally likeable, an angelic snowflake of goodness, and still make for an awful character. Characters should be judged by depth, not whether we’d meet them for drinks at Applebee’s.

I happened to read two books in a row starring some pretty unlikable characters, both of them women.

IMG_20170325_191815

Continue reading