Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Music: A song of ol' eldritch Brooklyn.

The California-based Mountain Goats, formed around frontman/guitarist/chief instigator John Darnielle (who thought of the band's name while he was working as a nurse at mental hospital), do a nifty tune about H. P. Lovecraft and his unhappy days in my own beloved Brooklyn. Here's "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" live.

Lovecraft isn't the only the pulp writer to get a shout-out from the boys of Mountain Goat. The man behind Fu Manchu – the evil genius and embodiment of the "Yellow Peril" – also gets a song. Here's the video for the Mountain Goat's "Sax Rohmer #1."

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Stuff: Sea monster attacks Manhattan again!

A trailer for Cloverfield 2: Clover Harder? Not quite. This collapsible fabric Nessie sculpture was installed over a Manhattan street grate. The rushing wind of subway trains passing underneath inflated the beastie.

The artist, Joshua Allen Harris, has made numerous inflatable sculptures in various locations around NYC. You can check out his polar bear and a garden of oddly plant-shaped monsters here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Movies: Why isn't this shark smiling?

In keeping with the informal theme of reasons never to visit the developing world, this humble horror blog turns its attention back to Mexico, recently covered as the source of man-eating evil vines. Today we discuss a different, but no less sinister threat: really crappy movies like 1977's Tintorera.

I start this review with some reservation. This flick was so infuriatingly bad that I was unable to finish it and, without sticking through to the very end, I must admit the infinitesimally small possibility that, somehow, in the last 20 odd minutes, the movie completely turns about and becomes a cinematic masterpiece. So, in order to be completely above board, I hereby specify that what follows is not a review of the film Tintorera, but rather a review of the first 60 excruciating minutes of said flick. I cannot, and will not, hold it responsible for whatever happens in the last 20 minutes.

The first 60 minutes of Tintorera focus on a bearded Anglo square who takes doctor-mandated R & R in a Mexican resort. There he crosses paths with a sleazy gigolo. These two briefly squabble over a hot tourista who beds both of them, in sequence not tandem, before conveniently making herself a victim of the titular tiger shark ('tintorera" is Spanish for "stock footage"). The gents, assuming their mutual lady-friend simply left town (one morning, without taking any of her belongings, or checking out of her hotel, like ladies do all the time), become friends and the gigolo starts teaching the square how to bag local trim, where to score weed, and other essential life skills of the late 70s.

All the while, all too infrequent tiger shark attacks "terrorize" the populace. And by terrorize, I mean nobody seems to much notice the suddenly disappearing cast members.

I quit watching when, bored of T & A and pot, the "heroes" of our story go shark hunting. For these scenes, the actors and stunt doubles actually kill several sharks on camera. Mostly its relatively harmless beasties, like lemon sharks and small blues, that fall before the boredom of these mighty hunters. I can put up with a lot of crap in a movie, but the unnecessary killing of animals ain't one of them.

One could argue, on a theoretical level, that life is short and art is long: aestheticized suffering and death gain the victim a sort of immortality as a work of art. But then you would be talking about some imaginary worthwhile flick, 'cause Tintorera qualifies as art only in the sense that it is the intentional byproduct of human interaction with recording devices. Unlike Cannibal Holocaust, perhaps the most infamous instance of grindhouse cinema's lack of animal treatment standards, Tintorera lacks the thematic unity or emotional power to even attempt to justify itself (for the record, I think CH fails to justify itself as well, but at least it tries). It is simply easier to kill animals than fake up some effects, so that's what the filmmaker did.

Where it not for it callous disregard for the lives of some truly beautiful animals, this flick would be just another bit of sleazy post-Jaws detritus. But the idea that animals died to make this crap flick happen graduates it to the level of something genuinely depressing.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Stuff: Why is this conceptual shark smiling?

Normally, in the cut-throat world of blogging, one tries to avoid directing traffic away from your site. They're my readers, darn it, MINE. Down down down mine mine mine!

But, I'd be jerk of a horror host if I didn't hip you to Wordsmith Books' bookshop blog, the location of what I can safely say will be the best week-long tribute to Steven Hall's genre-warping mutant horror novel Raw Shark Texts held in Decatur, GA this year, if not ever: screamers and screamettes, I'm talking about Raw Shark Week!

Secret origins, beheaded kitty cats, theoretical meme predators, indie rock – it promises to be 100% unadulterated cool, so click on over and check them out this week, won't you?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Music: The one true international language.

Some say it is love. Others point to Esperanto. Still others point to the Euro.

These people, however, are complete idiots. They should be taken out back, forced to dig their own grave, and then shot.

The only true international language is surf rock. And here's proof of this indesputable fact.

Screamers and screamettes, from Valencia Spain, appearing for the first time on the ANTSS virutal, let me hear you give a big horror hound hand for Los Tiki Phantoms!

I don't know diddly about these wacked-out cats. They're apparently Spanish. They dig cocktails, surf rock, cheese horror, and are made of 100% grade-A prime cut neato. What else do you need to know?

And, since you can't be a masked surf band unless you cover the Munsters Theme, here's Los Tiki Phantoms covering said obligatory tune.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Movies: What a croc.

Welcome screamers and screamettes. Today your humble horror host gives you yet another reason to never venture into the developing world. We covered the hazards man-eating plants pose. Today we discuss the real and imagined dangers posed by giant crocodiles.

At the heart of Michael Katleman's 2005's giant crocodile flick Primeval is a genuine monster story: the story of the real Gustave.

The Real Story

Reports of the real Gustave began to surface in 1998. At first, they seemed incredible. Fishmen who made their living freediving in Burundi's Lake Tanganyika reported that several of their number had been devoured by a giant crocodile. They claimed this beast would show up every few years, kill several humans, and then vanish again for several years.

In 1999, French ex-pat naturalist Patrice Faye identified the giant croc. The creature was enormous: it measured about 20 feet in length and weighed a ton (making the animal about twice the size of the average adult male crocodile). The average male crocodile lives on 45 years, but Faye estimated that this animal was at least 65 years old. The animal had numerous scars from small arms fire. In one reported incident, soldiers fired AK-47s at the crocodile as he dragged down a 15-year-old student. The croc didn't seem phased by the weapons and, in the words of one of the soldiers, "swallowed the bullets."

Faye dubbed the beast "Gustave."

Park records of the animal's frequent disappearances from it "home" in the Rusizi National Park showed a correlation between this croc's absences and numerous fatal crocodile attacks along the Rusizi River. Combining park records and the reports of locals, Faye estimated the killer croc might have claimed as many as 300 victims. Controversially, Fay suggested that Gustave was not attacking humans for food. Crocodiles are not gluttonous eaters by nature. After one large kill, a single croc might not eat again for a month. By contrast, this beast would go on violent binges, attacking, in one instance, 17 human victims in the span of three months. In 2004, over the course of two bloody weeks, Gustave took five victims all within two days of each other. Faye's grim conclusion is that the animal kills for amusement.

In 2002, efforts were made to capture Gustave. A giant steel cage was built, but Gustave easily spotted and then foiled the trap. One year later, Gustave vanished. It was widely believed that he was killed by one of the heavily-armed rebel factions fighting in Burundi's off-again, on-again civil war.

In 2007, after a nearly four-year absence, Gustave appeared again. He attacked a group of fishermen, killing one of them. Since then, Gustave has been hunting the Rusizi.

The Fake Story

With such a horrific monster in the starring role, the saddest thing about Primeval is that it simply never catches fire. Despite it's truly horrific inspiration, the film never rises above the status of B-grade horror fluff. It takes the real croc, the real horrors of Burundi's civil war, and the template of the real effort to catch Gustave, and turns it all into a generic action flick with a big croc as just one of the many dangers our rag-tag team of jungle flick archetypes must deal with.

The film follows Tim, a reporter who is in the doghouse because 1) he seems incapable of buttoning most of the buttons on his shirt and 2) he just botched a story and libeled an important government official. As a make-good, he's assigned to hottie reporter Aviva and sent to Burundi to capture Gustave. Tagging along is Steve the cameraman, played as comic relief by former 7-Up pitchman Orlando Jones. Once in Burundi, our first world heroes meet up with the inevitable Great White Hunter and the naïve Ineffective Intellectual Scientist.

What follows is a pretty much by the numbers story of the hunters becoming the hunted as a semi-convincing CGI Gustave turns the tables on our heroes and begins snatching them up one by one. The croc doesn't look bad – though one of the least convincing scenes involving Gustave happens pretty early in the flick and this throws off the disbelief. Take a lesson from Jaws, kids: save the monster for the end.

Viewers are also treated to many of the standard Dark Continent Adventure plot points: there's a ritual dance by native shamans, the white woman gets sexually menaced by a savage African, somebody contrasts the beauty of the country with it brutality, and so on. The inherent racism of some of these tired stereotypes occasionally becomes weirdly explicit, as in a bizarre "joke" Orlando Jones makes about slavery being not so bad in as much as it got his people out of Africa. You might not find this stuff offensive, but I'll wager you won't find it particularly funny or interesting either.

This generic story template is given a slight tweak, however, by the introduction of a second, concurrent storyline involving murderous rebel soldiers and their mysterious leader: the bloodthirsty "Little Gustave." (As an aside, in real-life, the croc was named after the rebel leader and not the other way around.) Actually, it is in these scenes that the flick finds some of the petrol so missing elsewhere. Katleman is an able action director and his flick really snaps along when he pits his heroes against human protagonists rather than CGI monsters.

Primeval is a middle of the road flick. It is too solidly built not to deliver on a minimally sufficient level. If this thing showed up one lazy afternoon on cable, you probably wouldn't hate yourself for popping some popcorn and flopping down on the couch. But that's about as far as this flick is going to take you.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Movies: Hollywood and vine.

Not entirely unlike the remains the vegetal baddie of The Ruins leaves behind, the film version of Scott Smith's sophomore novel is stripped to the bare bones. Compressing Scott Smith's 300+ page book into in a nimble 91 minutes, director Carter Smith (no relation) pares the novel down to its most basic moving parts. The results are mostly postitive. The film takes the often dreadful, dwindling feeling of the novel and tightens it into a more muscular and propulsive tension. This is, I think, a good move: the screen usually demands tighter storytelling. The cost, however, comes at the characterizations of our protagonists, whose personalities and conflicts are flattened for the sake of dramatic efficiency.

The plot, for those familiar with novel, remains pretty much the same. Four young Americans partaking are busy drinking, dancing, sunning, and puking their way through a Mexican resort vacation. There's Jeff, the Responsible One, who horror fans might recognize as one of the teens/meat sources from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. Jeff's dating the boozy and flirty Amy, who played Donnie's love interest in Donnie Darko. They're traveling with ex-X-man Iceman, here known as Eric, and his Stacey, who appeared as herself in, of all things, The Real Cancun, the MTV produced Spring Break trash-umentary that would have been greatly improved by the presence of a man-eating plant. These four victims to be fall in with a German tourist and a trio of wacky Greeks. The German is named Mathias while the Greeks are totally unintelligible and remain unnamed, but this hardly matters as the Greeks' chief interests seem to be drinking heroically, wildly flailing about in a wacky manner, and shouting "Whoooooooo!" a lot.

For their last day, the named protagonists and one of the Greeks (it doesn't matter which) decide to trek into the jungle to check out an archeological dig that Mathais' brother is supposedly working. On arriving at the ruins, a single stair step pyramid covered in vines, the tourists are quickly surrounded by locals armed with bows and firearms. These locals are determined to keep our hapless hikers at the site. They're so determined, in fact, that they kill the nameless Greek when he attempts to approach one of them. Trapped on top of the pyramid, our soon-to-be-fertilizer learns the grim secret of the ruins. The decaying structure is home to a sinister meat-eating plant species. From this point, things go from "downhill" to "shear cliff-face" and we watch as the heroes have what must surely rate as one of the single worst vacation experiences of all time.

There are a few key differences in the plot: the character list gets whittled down faster, the vine is somewhat "depowered" (no acidic sap and its powers of sonic mimicry are scaled back a bit), the story unfolds over the course of fewer days, some of the escape attempts that appear in the book are dropped entirely, and, perhaps most importantly, the film has a very different ending. The tone is shifted too. In the book, personality clashes between the four main protagonists - five really, Mathias is more important in the novel - are crucial to the story. In the movie, these get reduced to a couple off dramatic screaming matches that come and go without really impacting the film's direction. This is for the best. The characterization and tangents Smith could use to build his cast of characters would have bogged the movie down. Instead of being a strange parable of the failure of people to work together (shades of Smith's first novel, A Simple Plan), the film becomes a pretty straightforward struggle for survival.

Like the book, the tension the film builds is not one of sudden "jump-out" scares (though there are a couple of those). Instead, the film's suspense comes from a steady ratcheting up of the hopelessness of our protagonists' situation. This is less about thrills than a steady sinking feeling. This doesn't mean the flick isn't without its gory moments. Two surgical scenes, one well-meaning but conducted under nearly Neolithic conditions and the other more crazy and self-inflicted, stand out at the high or low points in this, depending on your point of view. The plant looks good – the combo of puppets and CGI go a long way to making the most outrageous aspect of the flick believable enough to be enjoyed without feeling stupid. The acting on the part of our four main characters is solid. Because this is almost a stage piece, with a majority of the action taking place on a tiny little chunk of the pyramid's roof, the actors all had to carry a considerable portion of the film. All of them did a good job.

The Ruins is a smart, effective, and mostly entertaining adaptation of a deceptively simple novel. Less a dumbed-down version of the original than a distilled version, the film is an original standout creature feature in a year that looks like it will otherwise be dominated by limp, half-hearted slasher remakes and retreads.

Now, just so you get the full story, here's a really hilarious review that thought the movie really sucked – and it acts the film out with figurines in the blogger's garden (sort of garden, I guess – she lives on a Christmas tree farm, no foolin' – perahaps her blatantly pro-vegetation lifestyle is at the root, so to speak, of her The Ruins hate, but that's just unfounded speculation on my part). It's darned funny, but the reenactment does give away the end, so you've been officially spoiler notified. Don't bring your bitchin' and moanin' to me, 'cause I won't give a hoot.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Stuff: Hello, poetry lovers.

Recently I wrote a long review of Sharp Teeth, using that book as a launching pad for discussion of the importance of experimentation in genre fiction. Today, to support the other side of the coin, is a short poem by American poet Ron Padgett. Enjoy.

Mad Scientist

Up goes the mad scientist to the room in his tower
where his instruments gleam in the half-light
while his thoughts are surrounded by the half-dark
that filters out from his heart, but when he goes in
and looks around, all he can see is the chair
covered with a bright red and green serape
and sparks are fizzing in the thought balloon
above his head, for yes, he is a cartoon scientist,
just as everything I think about is a cartoon something
because anything cartoon is immortal
in its own funny little way.

You can find "Mad Scientist" in Padgett's 2007 collection How to Be Perfect from Coffee House Press.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Stuff: El Santo!!!!!!!!!!

I have nothing newsworthy to share with you today. So, instead of a review or links to horror-ness, here's a clip of the Hero of the People, The Man in the Silver Mask, the one and only El Santo, kicking some monster butt!

Happy Friday!

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Stuff: Giant monster art rampage!

During the 1960s, Marvel and Atlas Comics ran several series of monster anthology rags featuring oversized monsters that stomped their way around various, usually anonymous, cities. The slim plots of these tales were about a formulaic as they could come. The monster would rise out of the depths or fall from space. The citizen panicked, defenses forces proved useless, doom seemed certain. Then, always, some lone guy figure out the beast's Achilles heel and the day was saved! We were safe . . . but for how long? Dum dum dum. For a full run down on these beasts, check out the nifty Monster Blog (see sidebar), an entire blog dedicated to these big baddies.

In tribute to this cheesy but fun era of outsized monstrosities, several artists have gathered together to create tributes to the Atlas/Marvel giant monsters. Tremble before the horror of Orogo! Thrill at the awesome might of Gomdulla! Ponder the boundless oddities that are The Things from Nowhere!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Books: Hopeful monsters, Sharp Teeth, and a defense of mutant genre literature.

Very recently, Curt over at the Groovy Age of Horror (forgive me for not yet fixing my sidebar Curt) wrote a thoughtful defense of repetition and cliché in genre fiction. Check it out and then hustle on back 'cause it is well worth your time.

Curt's spirited defense is part of a broad movement (a movement in which Curt could be counted among the vanguard of) to renew, revitalize, and reassess the role and value of genre literature. In academia, this began in the 1980s and '90s with the second generation of postmodern criticism. The early postmodernists, despite their rebellious and playful attitudes, were still very much classicists. It would take a second wave of literary and cultural critics, all thinkers who began with the assumptions of postmodernism, to toss out the old high/low culture dichotomy and bring academic methods to the study of popular texts, especially genre works.

During this same period, within the publishing world, the new genre crusade was fought on two fronts. First, genre masters old and new were revitalized. There was a hunt for "ignored geniuses" that somewhat resembled the '60s hunt for prototypical blues men. No ground was more fertile than mystery (always the genre with "most favored outsider" status) and sci-fi. Hammett and Chandler and Jim Thompson got the trade paperback treatment. Leonard and Ellroy and King started getting glowing full-page profiles from establishment book reviewers. Vintage launched a project to bring every Philip K. Dick novel back into print (a project which, honestly, threatens rather than preserves his rep). University presses are publishing anthologies of the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. Finally, even H. P. Lovecraft was published in an archival quality Library of America edition. There was a degree to which this genius hunt still partook in some of the old snobbery. The conceit was that, among the pulpy rough, some diamonds had been overlooked. Though, by the mid-1990s, partially due to the success of the film Pulp Fiction, the floodgates opened. Anthologies of pop lit genres are now a dime a dozen. Because these re-issues and anthos are published by major publication houses, they are more widely available than they ever were before. Add to this the existence of organized networks of vintage dealers who trade over the web and I think it is safe to say that it's probably easier now to get your hands on the work of most major pop lit authors than it was back when they were first published. We may, despite the perpetually beleaguered tone of genre lit proponents, be in pop lit's true Golden Age.

Second, on the authorial side, genre is back in a big way. I believe that the McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales anthology was a real paradigm shifting moment in this cultural sea change. Edited by Michael Chabon (who had himself been launched from respectable cult status to national star status by a genre bending book about comic book creators and their heroes) this anthology still acts as a sort of manifesto for the new status of genre lit. It combined known genre titans – like Elmore Leonard, Harlan Ellison, and Stephen King – with cult authors from what Terry Southern used to call "the quality lit game." Nearly all the alumni of that anthology have gone on to continue their genre experiments. And they do so in a literary climate that seems uniquely welcoming to genre tropes and trappings. Even literary giants like Philip Roth have gotten in on the act: his alternate history The Plot Against America is part of a long sci-fi tradition of historical what-ifs.

Although genre lit's proponents continue to lay siege to the castle, they've already got the throne. Take a look at the NY Times bestselling hardcover fiction list and you get three mystery novels, a decidedly romanticized look at how amnesia makes a Scrooge-ish old lady a better person, and a romance novel by a woman who spent some time writing DC's re-launched Wonder Woman series. One of the common refrains of the standard genre jeremiad is a list of a few novels by genre masters - say Hammett, James M. Cain, and Budd Schulberg - followed by the bold claim that academics just don't have anything to tell us about these narrative masters. This, of course, ignores that within American academia courses and academic papers featuring works by these authors are about as common, if not more so, as those featuring, say, Nobel Prize winners Anatole France and George Simeon.

This is genre fiction's day.

Now, in the same vein, but in a different direction, I'm going to use Toby Barlow's debut book, Sharp Teeth, as a defense of experimentation in fiction. First, let's talk about the book at hand.

Sharp Teeth is a curious book. On one hand, it is clearly a work of genre fiction. It is about gangs of werewolves going to war in modern Los Angeles. The outline of the plot will be familiar to anybody with even a passing knowledge of the werewolf sub-genre. Los Angeles is home to several warring packs of werewolves. These packs feud with one another while hiding their existence from the human populace that would destroy them if they found out. Against this backdrop, we play out a love story between a dogcatcher named Anthony and a "dog" (the werewolves prefer the term dogs and, in full transformation, are often mistaken for conventional canines) who is known throughout the book only as "she." Barlow plays slightly with the genre conventions: the werewolves are given a vaguely Native American origin story and, within limitations, they can control their transformations (thought this doesn't always work – the smell of frying meat at a fast food joint causes a few dogs to wig out, transform, and slaughter everybody inside). However, these tweaks to the standard werewolf lore are still well within what I think most of us would consider standard fare.

So, what's so unusual about Sharp Teeth? Most explicitly, Barlow wrote Sharp Teeth as an epic length free-verse poem. It isn't a "novel" in the conventional sense. In fact, it was recently nominated by the National Critics Circle in the Best Poetry category, making it perhaps the first werewolf horror story to have a shot at the title of "Best Poetry Book of the Year." (Though the prize for the first extended wolf/person poetic work must go legendary Beat poet Diane di Prima's thematically unified collection Loba, published in 2005.) Structurally, this frees up the author the way the invention of montage techniques freed up Silent Era filmmakers. In fact, as poetry, Barlow's book is middling at best. But the freedom it gives his storytelling is exhilarating. Barlow cuts between locations and time frames with manic speed. He puts demands on the reader that traditional storytelling does not. If the plot is a collection of standard werewolf riffs, the form of the book requires the reader examine their knowledge of the werewolf clichés and use them as tools for understanding the mosaic of experiences and scenes that Barlow presents.

Aside from this, Barlow makes a series of clever narrative choices that, I think, undermine the traditional werewolf story in smart ways. Some of these are played for laughs. For example, these werewolves don't magically become super-specimens of humanity. We see them doing wind sprints up and down their home stairs to prevent chunkification. Barlow also works in some surprising characterizations. Lark, one of the more sinister gang leaders, spends some time on the lam hiding out as the pet of a lonely and emotionally needy young woman. Despite his violently ambitious streak, he finds himself enjoying his servile domesticity and ultimately must make a decision to remain a beast of the night, constantly hunted and hunting in a life and death struggle with other dogs, or become a pet, protected and free from responsibility in a gilded cage. These touches, and nearly every character gets a few pleasingly unexpected moments, give the book a welcome depth of feeling and humanity. Finally, there's the humor. Although there is plenty of agony and gore, we also get slapstick and puns – including an extended riff on the idea of card-playing dogs. In a way, these touches are all connected to the form of Barlow's work. Just by choosing such an odd form, Barlow telegraphs to the reader that genre expectations are going to be subverted, including an open ended conclusion that is either the perfect way to end this hybrid what-is-it or a really frustrating cop out, depending on your point of view.

So, what does all this have to do with genre? The key to genre literature is repetition. Curt's insights into the nature of genre lit speak to this point. Genres are born and die to the degree that recognizable elements within them are reproduced. Let's take an example from film history. In the early days of film, there was a recognizable "train film" genre. Images of trains captured in motion were a draw for early filmmakers and audiences. I won't even attempt to explain why, but somehow trains and their passengers where something of an obsession with the inventors of film art. Though it now resembles a western, the famous "The Great Train Robbery" was, to audiences of the time, a "train film." But, ultimately, the elements that would become "the western" and not the elements that made the "train film" were reproduced and one genre died while another was born.

Curt's essay locates some of the root need for repetition and the pleasure it gives us in Freudian theories of childhood development. Personally, I believe it goes deeper than that. It is a biological adaptation. Humans are pattern-seeking animals. The ability to see patterns and predict the their outcome has a massive impact on our ability to survive. To the degree that this ability is important, nature has provided that the discovery and manipulation of patterns would be pleasurable. It is like reproduction: sexual pleasure isn't a biological end in and of itself, but if it feels so good that it will hopefully drive enough of us to do enough lovin' to make up for any non-reproductive behaviors we might, as a species, engage in. As a strategy, it's been very successful. In the same token, engaging in the play of patterns is pleasurable for its own sake as a way of sharpening our abilities for when it counts. I quote Brian Boyd, long time editor of Nabokov and proponent of such an evolutionary literary theory:

Art is a form of cognitive play with pattern. Just as communication exists in many species, even in bacteria, and human language derives from but redirects animal communication along many unforeseen new routes, so play exists in many species, but the unique cognitive play of human art redirects it in new ways and to new functions.

Play exists even in the brightest invertebrates, like octopi, and in all mammals in which it has been investigated. Its self-rewarding nature means that animals with flexible behavior—behavior not genetically programmed—willingly engage in it again and again in circumstances of relative security, and thereby over time can master complex context-sensitive skills. The sheer pleasure of play motivates animals to repeat intense activities that strengthen and speed up neural connections. The exuberance of play enlarges the boundaries of ordinary behavior, in unusual and extreme movements, in ways that enable animals to cope better with the unexpected.

This is, I think, the secret to the pleasures of genre literature. We're simultaneously wired for and wired by our repeated exposure, in the context of playful pleasure, artistic patterns. Though we don't go in for completely repetitious work. Again, Boyd:

If information is chaotic, it lacks meaningful pattern and can’t be understood. If on the other hand it is completely patterned, we need not continue to pay attention, since the information is redundant: indeed the psychological process of habituation switches attention off if a stimulus remains, if the pattern of information can be predicted. The most patterned novel possible would repeat one letter, say q, over and over again—a queue no reader would want to wait in.

I kept his joke in there. He's a Nabokov scholar. They think that sort of thing is the limit. You'll have to forgive him. The point is that even the most avid genre fan requires some variation, within the limits of the pleasure-giving pattern, or the input becomes monotonous. Hence, within the horror context, we get fast or slow zombies, magical or scientific vampires, and so on. Artists, who literally thrive on attention, capture the attention of their readers by altering the input without violating the pattern. Too much pattern violation and the information becomes white noise.

In a way, there's an evolutionary parallel. The slight tweaks represent the minor transcription errors and other random quirks of DNA reproduction that give rise to genetic variation. Like most mutations, the variations in genre lit are minor. They may confer some benefit on the work (in terms of being an influence on other genre writers and hold the attention of the audience) but the overall difference doesn't impact the species, which is to say genre, as a whole.

Enter the hopeful monsters.

Using this evolutionary metaphor as our framework (and it is, in this discussion, just a metaphorical framework – the intentionality of artistic creation means that we are not dealing with random mutation and therefore we are not dealing with a truly evolutionary process), we can propose a role for genre warping works like Sharp Teeth. Experimental genre fictions - like House of Leaves, Sharp Teeth, and so on – are hopeful monsters. From the brilliant (and quite sexy) Olivia Judson, author and science columnist for the The New York Times:

The term [hopeful monsters] was introduced in the 1930s by a geneticist called Richard Goldschmidt. He was interested in the question of how radical changes in morphology evolve.

As an example of radical change, he gave flatfish — the flounder and its relations. These are descended from fish with the usual fishy symmetry: the same left-right symmetry that we have. Larval flounders have it, too. But as adults, flounders have a profound asymmetry — one side has been completely flattened. What’s more, they have deformed, twisted skulls, and an eye that has migrated from one side of the face to the other. It’s as though you had both eyes on the same side of your nose. How did they get this way?

Goldschmidt speculated that big changes like this could be caused in one step by a mutation acting on the developing embryo. Most such mutations, he suggested, would produce individuals that were plain monstrous, and doomed to die without issue. But every so often, one of these mutations would happen in an environment where it could be beneficial. Then, the individual sporting it would be a hopeful monster, because it might have an evolutionary future as the founder of a new lineage.

I propose that genre mutants like Sharp Teeth are the literary equivalent of hopeful monsters. They, in a single step, introduce massive formal changes in an effort to permanently shift or create new paths for the evolution of a genre. It is important to note that this isn't always productive. As Goldschmidt theorized of massive biological mutation, most such leaps are doomed to failure. This is where proponents of "experimentation for experimentation's sake" miss the boat. Most experiments fail. If their success was assured, they wouldn't be an experiment. However, the hopeful monsters, those that do pass on some of their conventions, represent perhaps the most exciting growth potential for the genre as a whole.

Though, one might ask, why should we care? If we gain pleasure from the current patterns, what is the point in evolving them further? This is a valid question. To go back to the evolution metaphor, even without the engine of mutation, natural selection in the form of consumer tastes would ensure a certain level of evolutionary change no matter what. From a literary perspective, you could go along recombining the tried and true elements of a genre in various combos for decades, possibly centuries, before exhausting artistic possibilities. However, there is a downside to this. Let's revisit Boyd's theory of play for a moment. We aren't just wired to see patterns; the patterns wire us to see them. Repetition of the same pattern over and over again basically wears a groove in our psyches. Surprise, a denser pattern, new and disruptive data has an intellectual value:

Expectations are possible because the world and its objects and events fall into patterns. But we learn more from the surprising than from the expected, since surprise signals something new worth notice. Stories fall into patterns of patterns, which storytellers can play with to arouse, satisfy, defeat, or surprise expectations—and no wonder that expectation and surprise drive so much of our interest in story.

New patterns, denser patterns, surprising patterns rewire the brain to see more. And that's the value in mutants like Sharp Teeth. This is not to say that experimental fiction is inherently better than genre fiction that "plays by the rules," so to speak. In fact, a truly successful hopeful monster starts a new line of development and becomes the template for a genre. An experimental novel that works is just tomorrow's genre lit. But I feel that it is important, for the health of a genre, to not attempt the impossible and try to stop mutation. Defenders of genre lit often attack hopeful monsters as the product of sterile intellectualism, as if they were created in the spirit of spite and condescension. Rather, they should be accepted for what they are: the necessary mutants that, live or die, are the best proof that a genre still has a future.

Sheeh. That's a lot to say, "Read Sharp Teeth and support your local hopeful monster."

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Music: Getting a little cramped in here.

How is it that we've dragged on for a year and some change now and I've never featured the trash-glam tastelessness that is the Cramps in a musical segment? I don't know. Utter negligence on my part.

Well, screamers and screamettes, with your kind indulgence, I will rectify that error right now.

Here's the Cramps performing their "I Was a Teenage Werewolf."

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Movies: Aliens + Ghosts = Ghalians? Alosts?

Writing a review for Ghost of Mars feels strangely like talking about a talented retarded kid. What the kid does is not entirely unimpressive, within the extremely narrow context of his own limitations, but any objective assessment of his achievement is going to come off as ruthless criticism.

In its own clunky, uneven, and embarrassing way, Ghost of Mars isn't utterly stupid. (See how awkward this for me?)

When reviewers can't think of an intro because the film has robbed them of the capacity of insight, they leap quickly into a plot summary, like so:

In the distant future, humans have begun to colonize Mars. They are terraforming (that is sci-fi geek speak for "creating a reason for the actors to not have to wear big old un-photogenic space suits") the planet and a series of title screens at the beginning of the flick reveal that Mars's atmosphere is very nearly like that of Earth. These title cards also inform the viewer that Mars is home to a matriarchal culture. This is the first of several odd creative flourishes that aren't totally wasted, but also never completely develop into a significant subplot. In fact, one of the most interesting, and simultaneously frustrating, things in this flick is the number of odd plot devices and narrative techniques it introduces only to fail to develop them in any real way.

Into this skiffy setting, we place a western plot. Specifically, a Howard Hawksian plot. Carpenter seems to have a real thing for Hawks. He remade The Thing, which legend has it was directed via proxy by Hawks. Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 lifts liberally from Hawks's classic Rio Bravo. And now we've got Ghosts of Mars which lifts from Hawks's El Dorado. Not that this is a bad thing. If you're picking influences, you could do a heck of a lot worse.

The flick starts with Nattie "Species" Henstridge at a discovery hearing. Nattie is the sole surviving member of a crew of Martian cops who traveled to a remote mining town to secure wanted outlaw Ice "Three Kings was a highpoint" Cube and bring him back to the capital for trial. At the hearing, she begins to describe what went down on her ill-fated mission. This will begin a series of flashbacks and narratives within narratives that, at first, strikes the viewer as an interesting way to tell what would otherwise be a straightforward action story. However, it quickly becomes clear that the leaping between perspectives doesn't change the essentially objective nature of the story. We don't get into conflicting viewpoints or get our expectations messed with. It is, like the gender politics that get introduced only to ever get lightly touched on, just another example of the flick's unfulfilled potential.

What unfolded was this: Nattie and crew – including the fortune teller's daughter from Carnivale, Pam "Coffy" Grier, Jason "Why am I famous at all" Statham, and some dude who dies first – find most of the town's citizens have become possessed by the spirits of the primitive and warlike pre-colonization Martians. These Martians spend most of their time inflicting themselves with piercings, listening to their leader rant in Martian, and killing humans. The cops, along with a trio of gang members who came to spring Mr. Cube and a handful of the town's survivors, must battle their way back to safety (except we know they don't 'cause the film reveals from the start that Nattie is the sole survivor).

What follows is, depending on your standards, fun general carnage or brainless explosions and lots of running around. The standard battle plot is given a slight tweak in that every time a baddie is dispatched the ghost inside them goes looking for a new host. Consequently, taking down a bad guy is in many ways worse than letting them live. That said, this too doesn't come too much (another wasted opportunity) as the solution the heroes come up with is to shoot the crap out of the possessed folks and simply hope for the best.

In fact, that seems to the prevailing ethos of the flick in general: just shoot a lot and hope for the best. And, that plan works about as good as can be expected. Which is to say, not all that well. Both the characters in the flick and Carpenter would have done well to come up with a plan B.