Saturday, January 29, 2011

Guest blogger: Books: The Last Werewolf

Guest blogger Jessica is married to CRWM, but does not consider herself a "horror person". She owns an independent bookstore in Brooklyn, and sometimes her reading interests overlap with the interests of this blog. She is writing this herself, so please forgive the snarkiness with which she disguises her deep adoration for her clever and handsome husband.

Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf was one of the hot galleys at Winter Institute, an annual gathering of independent booksellers and publishers that has started to become one of the places where a book can get "made." Among my fellow booksellers, it is commonly referred to "the sexy werewolf book." I met the author briefly at a reception -- he is the civilized and self-deprecating Brit you might expect, despite the hair.

This is terrible, but I have to say... I devoured this book (cringe). I read it on cold street corners and in subways and bars and kept trying to tell CRWM about the plot points. The novel is obscenely well-written and brilliantly sexy (and vice versa -- very few pages go by without mention of the narrating werewolf's sexual organs. Apparently sex is what sets them apart from the more coldblooded/pansyish immortals, the vampires). Reading Duncan felt a little like discovering Anne Rice for the first time -- only with more energy, more irony, and a dry British sense of humor that makes the absurdities of lycanthropy into a cosmic existential joke instead of a teen fantasy.

The detailed pleasures of the fantasy/horror genre are there in spades (the logistics of the transformation, the luxuries of immortality, the glimpses of werewolf culture and their conflicts with both vampires and a more sinister, corporate version of the BPRD). That's balanced, though, with an achingly believable love story and a self-loathing descent to extinction which turns into a fierce fight for life (not unrelated).

If this doesn't give werewolves an equal literary standing with vampires, I can only assume some sort of conspiracy is at work. Also, it made me crave cigarettes, good wine, and mellow whiskey, consumed in posh surroundings with an air of world-weary appreciation. When it comes out in July I highly recommend you snap it up -- and keep an eye out for the undead side-taking that is sure to follow.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Movies: Take this job and shove it. I'm not getting demonically possessed no more.

It is sometimes theorized that the ability to tell stories, the seemingly innate narrative drive of humans i a byproduct of a survival-critical system meant to allow us to evaluate hypotheticals. At some point, when our tool use and ability to work complex plans as a team grew formidable enough, we suddenly had "fight" next to the reliable "run and scream" as threat countermeasures and we had to figure out option would end best for us. By projecting possible scenarios onto the future, we could weigh the outcomes in advance, hopefully freeing use from trial-and-error experimentation in situations where error = death.

As common sense as this argument is, there are some reasonable objections to it. For example, if it is so survival-critical that we be able to evaluate potential outcomes, why are humans so profoundly bad at logically constructing outcomes from existing evidence? In study after study, we prove that we regularly misidentify risk levels, allow ourselves to be influenced by illogical external factors, reconstitute memories to serve current desires, and otherwise make a real hash the evaluation process. As often as not, it seems we're not evaluating outcomes, but convincing ourselves that the only reasonable outcome is the one we want.

Still objections aside, there's something intuitive about the idea that stories are, essentially, narrative teaching tools. Assuming we accept this, what do we learn from NIght of the Demons, Adam Gierasch's surprising not irredeemable 2009 remake of the 1988 flick of the same name?

There are, I think, several key lessons: patience is a virtue, all things in moderation, don't plunge sharp objects into your breast and then fish them out of your vajayjay - all important things to know. But the lesson I most took to heart was this: don't work for morons.

After a nicely done black and white intro, the first 15 or 20 minutes of NotD is essentially a long character introduction montage. We get a few scenes, crammed next to one another, introducing the main protags as they go about their early evening Halloween activities. This obligatory mise en place is handled in a perfunctory manner, though the fact that Gierasch's characters are, at their core, blank narrative functions, gives the scenes a weird disconnected aimlessness that verges on the creative. We know we're being getting the key players introduced not because we're learning important details about the characters or we're seeing crucial plot points come into focus, but rather know, through the Propp-like understanding of horror narratemes that genre fandom has given us, that we always spend a few moments meeting the victim pool. Since the very definition of this narrative unit, "meet the victim pool," tells us all we really need to know about what we're seeing, there's no story-telling demands placed on the director and he can just wander about post-Katrina NOLA giving us disjointed bits of his characters' lives. It's the extremely poor man's horror-inflected Short Cuts.

It during this scene that we meet Colin, a down on his luck, small time drug dealer played by a very down-on-his-luck looking Eddie Furlong. For those of us who haven't been keeping track of Mr. Furlong's post-T2 career (and I'm willing to wager that there's more of us who haven't than have), there's something almost poignant about Furlong's current bagginess. In Colin's intro, he's got to confront Nigel. In the world of professional illicit substance retailing, Colin is Nigel's direct report. We catch Colin at his mid-year interim review. Nigel, it's revealed, is not happy. Colin doesn't have many accountabilities - all three of them are "make Nigel a lot of money" - but Nigel's put Colin down for "needs improvement, with extreme prejudice" in all three.

Colin tries to argue that people don't want to pay Nigel's prices.

Nigel counters by explaining the law of supply and demand. The supply of drugs has remained: "The drug supply around here hasn't changed." However, demand has increased: "We are in a city that was destroyed by a fucking hurricane. People are desperate, people are unhappy, they want their fucking drugs." This combo - steady supply and increasing demand - should lead to higher prices. In fact, Nigel says, with typically villainous confidence, there's "no way" prices could go down.

Colin passively agrees to this logic and tells Colin he'll try to make is Q3 numbers by making a big push at a massive Halloween party that's going down. He is, of course, subsequently trapped in a cursed mansion, chased around by flesh-craving demons, and generally made unhappy unto death.

But it didn't have to be this way. Nigel's actually wrong about the situation and a massive push in Q3, at Nigel's higher prices, probably wouldn't help them hit their numbers. Why? Because they're in a city that was, to use Nigel's phrase, "destroyed by a fucking hurricane."

Nigel's mistaking individual demand with demand understood as a market aggregate. No doubt the drug users of New Orleans still want their dope. Their drug users, it's really the only consistent thing about them. What's putting the cramp in Nigel's numbers isn't that drug users want drug less than they used to, but rather that there are simply less drug users around. After Katrina, about 40% of New Orleans's population left the town. In the course of a few weeks, the population of the city dropped from about 450,000 to to just 270,000. Admittedly, given the socio-economics of drug use, I think we can assume that drug users, as a group, were not proportionally affected by the depopulation; but even if we say they stayed at a noticeably higher rate - say, +10% - then you've still lost 30% of your drug taking population.

Let's make a simple model. Let's say, pre-Katrina, Nigel had a customer base of 10,000 drug users. We're going to measure their aggregate demand in an imaginary unit called a Burroughs. Casual users, which make up the bulk of Nigel's customer base, contribute one Burroughs each to the aggregate demand. Let's say that 80 percent of Nigel's customer base - or 8,000 drug users - are casual users. They contribute 6,000 Burroughi to the aggregate demand. The remaining 2,000 users are hardcore users who contribute two Burroughi a piece to the aggregate.

Pre-Katrina aggregate demand of Nigel's clients = (8,000 x 1) + (2,000 x 2)
= 8,000 + 4,000
= 12,000

Now, let's remove 30% of the drug dealing population, assuming for the sake of simplicity that both segments of Nigel's customer base were impacted equally. Thirty percent of 8,000 is 2,400. That leaves us with a casual user base of 5,600. If we remove 30% of the hardcore users - 600 users - we're left with 1,400 users.

Post-Katrina aggregate demand of Nigel's clients = (5,600 x 1) + (1,400 x 2)
= 5,600 + 2,800
= 8,800

Now, arguably, the movement of casual users to hardcore users could eventually push demand back up to pre-Katrina levels. But for that to happen, 4000 casual users - more than 70% - would had to have made the cross over. This seems unlikely to me, but not impossible. I think there's every possibility Nigel's full of crap and he's suffering under the delusion that there far more aggregate demand out there than there really is.

Furthermore, Nigel's probably making matters worse by jacking up his price. Faced with lower revenues, Nigel's charging more to recoup the lost revenue. In a low demand, high supply market, this drives users to cheaper sources. This means Nigel's got more costs to recoup, which history suggests he'll try to recoup by jacking up his prices. Basically, Nigel's shoddy grasp of market economics is putting his drug biz into a death spiral. And that, more than Colin's half assed pushing, is the problem.

But Nigel is stupid, so Colin gets his soul ripped from his body and ends up dead.

Lesson: If you don't want to be hideously used by a gang of sadistic demons, don't work for a dummy.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Stuff: But you can still write off that eye of newt.

In 2010, possibly fearing occult reprisals, the Senate of Romania rejected a proposal to impose a tax on professional witches. But it would seem that, just like us more mundane folks, witches can't avoid those inevitable taxes forever. The New Republic reports that Romania's new legal definition of self employment will require that withes fork over 16% of their income to the state. That's right, Brumhilde, the tax man cometh.

As goofy as this sounds, there's two strange and noteworthy undercurrents here. First, there's the unsettling degree to which the Romanian government seems happy to concede to widely held superstitions. If this were just a case of widespread magical thinking, it would be unfortunate enough; but the larger danger is the conspiracy-minded thought this kind of logic leads to. In 2010, after receiving a surprisingly thorough beating at the polls, then presidential candidate Mircea Geoana blame his defeat not on policy positions or the will of the people, but on an attack by occult forces:

Not only did Geoana snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, however, but he proceeded to invite ridicule upon himself and his party by claiming that he had lost the ballot after being attacked with “negative energy” by a parapsychologist employed by the wily [incumbent, Traian] Basescu.

This occult assault wrecked his concentration during a televised debate, he complained, and was part of a strategy by his rival’s election team to harness the mystical “power of the purple flame” by wearing purple ties, socks and other accoutrements on certain important days.

Second, there's the unfortunate specter of ethnic unrest. TNR reports:

It's no surprise that the Romanian government has been eager to tap into this sometimes ostentatious stream of wealth for years. But could its new tax on witchcraft be motivated by more than money? Witches' main activity is fortune-telling, an occupation that has long been associated with the Roma population (often called "Gypsies"), toward whom prejudices run deep. A 1991 poll revealed that 41 percent of Romanians believe that the Roma should be "poorly treated," and a 1994 study found that Romanian newspapers might have directly incited hatred toward the Roma. And this negative attitude toward the group has shifted little since then. As far as I am aware, the Romanian government has not drawn any connection between the new tax legislation and anti-Roma politicking—and the Romanian embassy did not respond to my phone calls or e-mails—but some Romanians still think that the new taxation is an attempt to satisfy latent prejudice by drawing attention to and taking money from a marginalized population. As writer and poet Andrei Codrescu sees it, the new law represents "a cheap populist, nationalist move" that "plays well to the yo-yo's."

Friday, January 21, 2011

Movies: As far as Mr. Sullivan is concerned, the whole "y'all got bigger penises" thing is all the reparations anybody has got a right to expect.

An unnecessary sequel to an uncelebrated remake of pretty trashy film, 2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams marks a step back for a young director who has yet to take any appreciable steps forward.

I have a soft spot for this flick's grandpappy. I'll honestly admit that Two Thousand Maniacs! (Lewis's punctuation, not mine) provides a completely unjust and tawdry revanchist thrill to what little Dixie pride I might have, but that is not the film's chief claim on my nostalgia. Rather, my predominant attitude towards horror as a genre was formed by Lewis's cheapee little splatfest.

First, as a child of the slasher besotted 1980s, horror's dreariest era, I was pleasantly shocked by Herschell Gordon Lewis's general disdain for his supposed protagonists and his blithe willingness to off them mercilessly. Compared to the jump-scare-to-the-kill spasms of slasher flicks, character's in TTM! suffered fates worse than death and then died. Watching, one got the sense that the survivors got out not because they were privileged - like the schematic final girls of slasher cinema - but rather because Lewis's cruelty, like that of cat, is bounded only by his ability to get bored easily. It was as if he'd simply had his fill of blood (or run out of money to buy more red paint), announced the martini shot, let his remaining near-victims go free, and called it a day. Whether this was a genuine insight into the narrative strategies Lewis was trying to employ or not, it left me with an exhilarating, teasing sense of horror cinema as something that was played without a net. To this day, if I can tell in the first reel who makes it to the last reel, I feel played for a sucker through the rest of the flick.

The second, and perhaps weirder legacy, has to do with a single scene in Lewis's original. In the 1964 flick, one of the victims gets placed in a wooden barrel and sealed in. Then long metal nails are driven into the sides of the barrels. Finally, the barrel is rolled down a hill. At the bottom of the hill, the barrel is opened to reveal that the nails have done their fatal work and the victim is a bloody mess. The redneck cannibals go wild! Ever since I saw that scene, I've been obsessed with the idea that there's got to be some way to survive this trap. I haven't fully figured it out yet. I'm convinced that a person desperate enough to survive could, in fact, push against the sides of the barrel and brace themselves throughout the ride. This would send nails into your back, which admitted would suck a billion kind of ways. But I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be fatal. In fact, it may just be what saves you, as being impaled from the start might help you from bouncing around the inside of the barrel. The problem is, as I see it, even if you survive the ride down, you've ended up at the bottom of the hill severely injured and surrounded by a mob of pissed-off ghouls. That's the sticking point: how to get out of the barrel and use the lead you've gained by rolling down the hill to your advantage. I'm still working on that part. Anyway, the important thing is that it started in me an obsession with watching films with an eye towards thinking, "How would I get out of that?" This isn't your standard "victims are stupid" stuff - on the contrary, perhaps my least favorite aspect of slasher cinema is its cynical formula that dooms certain characters from the start, essentially robbing characters of the opportunity to genuinely fight to live - but rather a fascination with what humans could do if facing impossible odds.

The two things are connected, of course: to get the sense that you're able to battle against the odds, one has to get the sense that there are still odds. A cinema without a safety net is the only cinema in which you can feel people are really struggling and the outcome is always in doubt. And that, oddly, is perhaps my criteria for what makes good horror, though I know it's inadequate to solving genre disputes or helping folks bash Twilight: a good horror film pits humans against the most extreme consequence, without the consolation of a predetermined end.

Oh, here I've rambled on and not discussed 2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams. Though, honestly, I'm okay with that.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Mad science: Are we inherently tasty?

In what must surely rank as one of the strangest articles ever posted by Slate, writer Jesse Bering pulls and info dump on long pig in the name of making "an evolutionary case for cannibalism."

Bering brings up the work of Lewis Petrinovich argues "contrary to critiques arguing that man-eating is a myth conjured up by Westerners to demonize "primitives"—we really have been gobbling each other up for a very, very long time. We're just one of 1,300 species for which "intraspecific predation" has been observed. Among primates, cannibalism can usually be accounted for by nutritional and environmental stress, or it appears as a reproductive strategy in which mothers, for example, consume their unhealthy infants to make way for more viable offspring."

To be honest, I don't know if I'm sold. If one is going to make the case that evolution tricked us out with the ability to eat other humans, then you have to make a similar case that it also tricked us out to make it fairly uncommon. (In the article, Bering attempts to make the case that cannibalism is, in fact, more common then we admit, but I don't buy it; Bering is probably right in the assertion that cannibalism has happened more often then we'd care to think, but the real comparison you'd need to show is that it happens regularly when compared to other eating habits, and compared to how often we eat something other than people, the practice is still statistically negligible.) Furthermore, there's always the possibility that it is simply a side effect of some other, less sensational adaptation. For example, we evolved to eat meat. People happen to be meat. The adaptation wasn't aimed at them, but it opens up the possibility. That said, I can't really do justice to his argument here, so check out the article.

Still, whether or not Bering successfully achieves he goal of evo-devoing up a just so for anthropophagy, there's quite a bit of weird data to found in his article. Here's some choice tidbits, as it were.

One pair of anthropologists, for example, actually crunched the numbers, concluding that the average human adult provides 66 pounds of edible food, including fat, connective tissue, muscle, organs, blood, and skin. Protein-rich blood clots and marrow are said (by the rare connoisseur) to be special treats.

Or this bit on inducing mammalian cannibalism in the lab:

Pinpointing the specific factors that cause cannibalism is a rather difficult affair in the laboratory, mainly because of those pesky university ethics review boards. Still, an intrepid Japanese researcher shrugged off these considerations and induced cannibalism among a captive population of squirrel monkeys by feeding the pregnant females a low-protein diet. This led to a high rate of abortion and the mothers' devouring their aborted fetuses—a much-needed bolus of protein.

The idea that we're all cannibals and that it can be induced by controlled conditions was actually the middling Hunger, reviewed on this blog not too long ago. I was also reminded of philosopher Max Stirner's grim vision of the human condition as metaphorical cannibalism: "For me, you are nothing but my food - even as I too am fed upon and turned to use by you. We have only one relation to each other, that of usableness, of utility, of use."

Oh, and happy new year.