Saturday, November 15, 2008

Books: Not-so-hopeful monsters, looking for love in all the wrong places.

Recently, long-time ANTSS supporter Screamin' Sassy asked if I thought Frankenstein's monster was the new zombies.

I answered that I hoped werewolves were the new zombies.

In truth, deep down in my shriveled black heart, I fear that were about to suffer a recrudescence Rician vampire romance, a genre so tired and tedious that even its chief practitioner has left it for something more credible: an un-killable Jewish magician who is the product of spectral rape and who ends up eventually bringing about the end of the world in the name of his father, an all-powerful elder god. Unfortunately, Rice's latest tales have been a hard sell to the wrist-scar and black eye-goo set who, since the demise of Buffy and its sundry spin-off co-morbidities, have been left without significant media templates for the validation of their necro-erotic fantasies. That is, of course, until Twilight arrived on the scene, with its canny mix of taboo-busting teen girl passion and parent-pleasing lack of actual sexual material.

Visit the YA section of any big box bookstore and you can already find shelves full of knock-off product, including my personal favorite: a series that seems to revolve around a cabal of sexy and sassy teenage vampire surfers. I kid you not. The short term future of horror looks like Dracula in board shorts, with a "DED LIFE 4-EVER" tat across his gym-toned pecs, texting Mina: "D Chill-dr3n of D Nite, ? B U Tful MU6 dA M8k. C U L8tr."

We should all just learn to live with this now.

Still, it would be awesome if it was werewolves.

While hordes of dubiously-heterosexual Teenbeat-grade undead heartthrobs fill up bookstore shelves and legions of pro- and amateur critics stretch out their scorn muscles so as to not pull a hammy when Twilight makes its street date and they are go for outrage, werewolves have been quietly staging a two pronged attack on the collective psyche that we dub pop culture.

The traditionalist front is hoping to gain cinematic ground. Not only is a big-budget remake of the seminal Universal flick in the works, but retro flourishes can be seen in the monster designs in new Underworld flick.

But the real interesting stuff is happening in the lit world – where the revisionist front is making its stand.

Early this year, Toby Barlow's genre-mutant Sharp Teeth, easily the best epic free-verse poem about werewolf gangs prowling modern day Los Angeles that you'll ever read, set the overall tone.

This was followed not long after by the English translation of Victor Pelevin's The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, another brilliantly revisionist novel about were-beasts in the modern world.

We can expect more neo-werewolf action soon. Word on the street is that David Wellington's next series, after the conclusion of his current vamp-centric project, will center around werewolves. As Wellington's already given us zombie shaman wizard thingies and vampire-busters as haggard civil servants, I think we can expect some equally unorthodox beasties from him.

Today, though, we focus on Pelevin.

Victor Pelevin ranks as the only modern Russian author to score significant readership outside the confines of the former Soviet Union. His blend of paranoid black humor, surprisingly broad erudition (he's the only author I know that can convincingly blend references to the work of philosopher George Berkeley, Russian underworld slang, macro-economic theory, and Chinese folk legends into single novel without seeming to break a sweat), and Buddhist-tinged nihilism seems like it wouldn't travel, but it has won him a global cult of readers (that includes critics at The Guardian, The New York Times, and other mainstream press outlets).

The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, a 2005 novel that got its first English edition this year (translated by long-time collaborator and Pelevin translator Andrew Bromfield), follows the surreal romance between the centuries-old prostitute and were-fox A Hu-Li and Alexander Sery, a FSB (the new post-Soviet KGB) agent, werewolf, and bandit petro-capitalist, who may also be the embodiment of a messianic figure from the ancient mythology of the were-creatures.

The were-fox is a major figure in Chinese mythology, where they figure as symbols of feminine cunning, seducing men and sapping them of their life force. A Hu-Li, who appears to humans as a perpetually pre-pubescent Asiatic girl ("I don't need to tell you about Lolita," she says. "Even the lolitas have read Lolita these days."), make a living – literally – hanging around upmarket Moscow hotels and playing the role of the prostitute. It is all a mystical con, however. After seducing her target, she basically traps them in a magical simulation of whatever sexual fantasies they can cook up. As they have their way with a faux A Hu-Li in their own heads, she quietly reads a book and saps them of their life force – always leaving just enough in them not to bring down karmic retribution.

A Hu-Li carefully organized way of life collapses when she runs across the boorish and violent Alexander, a werewolf who can, at will, tear through the illusions she creates. The tempestuous relationship between these two creatures forms the bulk of the novel. Originally repulsed, A Hu-Li finds herself strangely attracted to the seemingly inferior Alexander. However, this uneasy superiority is threatened when Alexander undergoes an unexpected transformation that may have turned him into a legendary wolf-figure from Norse mythology.

Along the way, Pelevin gives us ample bits of bitter comedy, various glimpses of were-fox and werewolf society, heaps of scathingly satire regarding the Westernization of Russian culture, explorations of esoteric religion and post-classical philosophy, and he even finds time to take a shot at Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (A Hu-Li derides the work as the product of a "broker culture" where marketing and re-branding trump real creativity).

What Pelevin's new work is not is scary. Sacred Book isn't really a horror novel in any conventional sense of the term. Though it uses some common tropes of horror literature – this is actually the second time Pelevin has written about werewolves – the main characters are too human, too fully-fleshed out to be monstrous. This in not to say that there isn't some suspense and tension in the book, especially when A Hu-Li and Alexander's relationship begins to sour. But, rather, that these beast are part of a fairly monstrous world. They are predators in a world full of human and inhuman predators. The wolf form of Alexander seems threatening, but it is really as sinister as the violent gangster capitalism that is the dominant economic system of modern Moscow?

For die-hard traditionalist, Pelevin's new one is bound to leave you dry. But, for those looking for odd catches at the fringes of the genre, I recommend it highly.


Book Nerd said...

I feel your review writing is at its best when you get a chance to sink your teeth (so to speak) into a work that uses horror tropes so intelligently as to draw the mundane world into focus -- as with the millenial version of Dracula, or gangster capitalism amongst the werewolves. You're so widely read that the monster stuff that allows you to reach far and wide puts you at the top of your game. I'm hoping you'll review the Damnation of Faust production next, since an ambitious opera with acrobatic demons and made-up hell language seems right up your alley.

Not that you can't write a smokin' review of your straight-up killer croc flick. You're a man of many talents, and you wouldn't let a total lack of lasting value get in your way.

Logan Lamech said...

Great review, it covers both ends.

Logan Lamech

Sasquatchan said...

Interesting bit on the vampires.. I dug underworld as a genere mixer (a'la blade 2, it introduced a conflict between the two baddies..).. And the lead in underworld is pretty easy on the eyes..

So with the vampire-sex-lite twilight, how's that compare to the one we grew up with, The Lost Boys ? The unmatchable mixup of the Corries, and California surfer vampires ? (hmm, you spoke as if that were a new thing? Heck one of the Corey's stared in the recent remake, didn't he?)

Jack did a good job in another "Wolf" flick we sorta grew up with too.. If Jack's done it, throw in the towel, can't top his performance :)

(ps and is it fair to have close ones flog your blog, so to speak ? ;)

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

All comments are unsolicited. Though, honestly, the glowing language makes me think that somebody needs to borrow 20 'till payday.

Do any of the vampires actually surf in Lost Boys? I know that hang out on the boardwalk and all, but do we actually see a vampy hang ten?

As for the Jack rule, Ledger seems to have rivaled Jack's Joker.

Sasquatchan said...

You know, I'd have to go watch lost boys again.. I know they have the bonfire party on the beach, and play in the caves.. But you're right, can't recall actually seeing them on a surf board, more implied than direct.

Well, I haven't seen the new batman yet.. But it all depends on which kind of joker you're looking for. Caesar Romero did a GREAT joker, but it was a very light hearted one.. Jack, I thought, pulled off the f'ing crazy psychopath pretty well, but with humor, not brooding darkness. I still enjoy watching that batman.. So when Heath's batman comes out on DVD, I'll try to redbox it and see.. But fear it's apples/oranges on which joker you want to see..

Instead of a 20, see who'll do the laundry and dishes instead ;)