12 October 2010

"Cycle of the Werewolf" by Stephen King

Cycle of the Werewolf-1985
The 1985 Signet edition. Source
You can't think of modern horror without thinking of Stephen King, so his presence on this blog was inevitable.

I've read some Stephen King: It, The Shining, Desperation, Rose Madder, The Eyes of the Dragon, to name a few. Most of these stories I read while I was in middle school and high school; I departed from King after that and went into a different direction with my reading altogether, sampling numerous authors and genres at random.

This is the first work I've read of King's since high school (I did purchase Under the Dome based on reviews, but haven't touched it yet. Have you read it? What did you think of it?), though I think this might have been a work more suitable for my tastes in middle school. But it's a fun read and worthy of exploration!

The concept for Cycle of the Werewolf is neat--a short, slim, illustrated novel detailing a single year in the life of Tarker Mills, the year this New England village was visited by the werewolf. For each month there is a vignette structured around a member of the town and their encounters with the monster. Many of these episodes are also tied to the holidays and seasons of that month as well (what horror author can resist messing with Valentine's Day?).

The first few stories, like the werewolf attacks themselves, are at random.  A cohesive tale really doesn't start to come together until the month of May, and the story's key characters don't appear until July.  Readers may dislike the delay in revealing the core of the story, but I thought this was a good choice for King to make. The violence is quick and intense, the victims and their deaths varied, so equally the stories are just as scattered about. I think this mimics the wolf's killing patterns--a werewolf is a hungry hunter; there is no premeditation. You kill the prey you find, period. So it would make sense that the stories would also not have an identifiable "motive" or modus operandi. We are in the same shoes as the townspeople, and we are experiencing the murders the way they would. We are supposed to feel the chaos and confusion for a little bit.

We meet the main protagonist, Marty, in July, because they cancelled the fireworks due to the murders. Marty is David to the Werewolf's Goliath. He is a young boy, wheelchair bound, misunderstood, and teased, especially by his sister, who is back and forth with him: "See? You don't always get what you want" (65) or "You always get everything you want, " (97) ..."just because you're a cripple" (65).  But Marty is a kid with great aim (firecrackers and guns, oh my!) and is the only one who can piece together what's happening, and who the werewolf is.

Without the presence of Marty and his discovery in October, the reader can still ascertain the monster's identity from the month of May. The truth often comes in dreams, and Reverend Lowe has a doozy. With this scene, I don't think King is pushing for any element of surprise or suspense. The werewolf's identity isn't a shocker (and the type of person King chooses to be the Great Beast is a bit predictable) but that's not the point. The emphasis is on Marty's process--his personal awakening is tied to his experiences and discoveries with the monster. In essence, the werewolf "creates" Marty--he is the key to his self-actualization.

This was a quick, breezy read. As far as werewolves go, this was pretty standard fare, with one exception: the werewolf in this story is able to recognize what it is. You don't have this a lot in werewolf stories or movies, at least none that I've encountered.
German Woodcut of a man changing into a werewolf, dated 1722.  Source

Usually the victim (cursed or bitten) is aware that he is losing control of himself, but takes a bit longer to put two and two together that he is in fact the wolf. Even when he comes to the realization that he is a monster, he also realizes that he kills at random and cannot control himself. Usually the wolf man will tell the woman he loves, or his family, this information: "Stay away from me, I don't know what I will do, I only know that I am a monster" etc, etc. The major point is that these observations are made only when the monster is human.

A lot of werewolf films put in a "five second moment of truth" in which the wolf (the animal, not the man), who is cornered at this point by those who would shoot him, recognizes what he is. This tends to happen with the help of a loved one, who is about to be torn to shreds by the monster: You know it's me, you know you love me, I know it's you in there and not some monster, etc. The heroine pleads, the wolf makes eye contact with his lover, or whimpers, or some form of acknowledgement occurs in--you guessed it--five seconds. The connection is made, then the wolf succumbs to its inherent nature to kill...but during the human connection it experiences, the creature is made vulnerable. After the five seconds of 'emotion' the sixth second is the wolf returned, and the guns have gone off by that point.

This story stays away from that. The werewolf does not pause to reflect that it is about to kill a child in a wheelchair. Even more surprising--the werewolf has deliberately sought Marty out to kill him. We are back to premeditation again, a most human concept indeed!  Marty has solved the mystery of who the werewolf is, and begins to send him taunting letters, such as "I Know Who You Are" and "Why Don't You Kill Yourself?" (110-111) but Marty does this anonymously, waiting for any (or no reaction) to confirm that he has properly identified the man behind the monster.

A final letter is sent out, and Marty signs his full name to it, revealing his identity. As Marty expected, the wolf man comes to call, and since Marty waited for him with a .45 Magnum and silver bullets, you know how this story will end.

What's interesting is that with this werewolf, the human and animal sides never completely subverted each other. For almost the entire story, the wolf man was a man, or a wolf, but never both at the same time....until the final scene. It was a fusion of identities, a new type of consciousness that would allow an animal to have a preconceived motive to kill. This is what made the book particularly interesting for me.

Work Cited

King, Stephen. Cycle of the Werewolf. New York: Signet, 1985. Print.

10 October 2010

"Books of Blood" by Clive Barker

Books of Blood-1998
The 1998 special edition. Source
Before I knew of Clive Barker, I knew of his work, thanks to Hollywood. Two horror movies that scared me when I was younger were Hellraiser and Candyman. I didn't make the connection that the characters and premises of the films were a product of Barker's creative mind, but later as an adult, I found the stories again in Barker's short fiction anthologies and his novel, The Hellbound Heart.

If you aren't yet ready to dive into one of Clive Barker's novels, I strongly recommend taking a look at Books of Blood, Volumes 1-3. This anthology of short fiction demonstrates the variety of skill Barker possesses, with stories in every mood and tone that horror is capable of exploring. For the horrific or the humorous, I would read Barker's stories "Rawhead Rex" and "The Yattering and Jack." These serve as an excellent introduction to Clive Barker, who is probably one of my favorite horror writers, period.

Rawhead Rex

This story centers around an evil, ancient creature that was buried alive centuries ago deep within the grounds of the old English country town, Zeal. The monster is awakened and uncovered when Thomas Garrow digs into the field to clear it for ploughing, and immediately Rawhead Rex begins his hungry, murderous rampage.

Barker prefaces this story with a description of the town of Zeal:
Of all the conquering armies that had tramped the streets of Zeal down the centuries, it was finally the mild tread of the Sunday tripper that brought the village to its knees. It had suffered Roman legions, and the Norman conquest, it had survived the agonies of the Civil War, all without losing its identity to the occupying forces. But after centuries of boot and blade it was to be the tourists--the new barbarians-- the bested Zeal. [...]
Gradually these city-weary people began to work a gentle but permanent change on the village. Many of them set their hearts on a home in the country; they were charmed by stone cottages set amongst churning oaks, they were enchanted by doves in the churchyard yews. [...] At first few, then many, began to make bids for empty barns and deserted houses that littered Zeal and its outskirts [...] So, as the years passed and the natives of Zeal were picked off by old age, the civil savages took over their stead. [...] 
Indeed, as time went by the invaders found a yet more permanent place in the heart of Zeal, as the perennial demons of their hectic lives, Cancer and Heart Disease, took their toll, following their victims even into this new found land. Like the Romans before them, like the Normans, like all invaders, the commuters made their profoundest mark upon this usurped turf not by building on it, but by being buried under it (362-363).

I thought this was a brilliant way to establish context before diving into death, blood, and gore, as this sets up an opportunity to garner a strange kind of sympathy for the monster that is Rawhead Rex.

The issue of the demise of village / country life is a very serious one, especially in England and Wales. The "out-of-towners" buying their way in to revamp homes, or simply to own homes just for the duration of summer, is a major cause of contention, as Barker's story suggests. It erodes some of the way of life, history, and tradition that has existed in these areas for hundreds of years. These towns may bustle with life during tourist seasons, but then when "peak season" is over, the towns are virtually empty, leaving only a few permanent residents, who tend to be the descendants of families who have resided in these areas for years.

When I lived in Wales to study six months at what was then known as Trinity College in Carmarthen, I also studied Wales and Welsh culture, in addition to visiting many locations all over the country, ranging from the more populous (Cardiff) to the rural (Anglesey). As I visited and learned about these areas, the issue "tourist invasion" certainly came up. The "tourist invasion" is not unique to Wales, but Wales has a unique perspective on it.

In Wales, it is seen to a certain degree as another attack on Welsh identity, with the tourist invasion coming mainly from England (and there are centuries of conflict between both countries, literally, metaphorically, culturally). This is where I first heard of the group Sons of Glendower. This nationalist group is portrayed as both heroes and villains (depending on who is doing the talking) and were known for setting fire to vacation homes purchased by "outsiders" (mostly the English). Here are some articles on this group and the issue of invasion--notice the varying tones in reportage and the different interpretations of the problem:
On one hand, those moving to these areas have the right to purchase property and live where they choose, and could argue that they are improving the area by revitalizing the homes they are purchasing. On the other hand, there is the concern that the village culture is being eradicated, the value of the area is going down (due to "the dormitory lifestyle"), and natives are being pushed out by the wealthier tourists. The issue is not black and white, and there are many, many layers to it. But as soon as Barker mentioned the slow invasion of the city folk, I knew right off the bat that I would be more inclined to hold sympathy for the old Zeal as opposed to the new Zeal. And Rawhead Rex is definitely old Zeal...but he is a force of complete destruction, so he really isn't "the good guy" either.

Let's take a closer look at the monster that is Rawhead. The name Rawhead serves as the description for his head and face (skin rubbed raw, or like raw meat, if you will) and Rex is from the Latin, for "king." When Thomas Garrow uncovers the monster, we get even creepier details:
His head was breaking surface now, his black hair wreathed with worms, his scalp seething with tiny red spiders. [...] His torso was free. Shoulders twice as broad as a man's; lean, scarred arms stronger than any human. His limbs were pumping with blood like a butterfly's wings, juicing with resurrection. His long, lethal fingers rhythmically clawed the ground as they gained strength. [...] [Rawhead's face] was huge, like the harvest moon, huge and amber. But this moon had eyes that burned in its pallid, pitted face. They were for all the world like wounds, those eyes, as though somebody had gouged them in the flesh of Rawhead's face then set two candles to flicker in the holes (368).
In the story, Rawhead's physical description really unsettled me, and I was even more horrified by the indiscriminate ways Rawhead killed. Barker doesn't dumb things down or spare the gore--everything in this story happens quickly and without mercy. And there is so much that happens! Barker doesn't shy away from sexuality, fertility, archetypes, religion, myth, and paganism, and if these subjects get too heavy for you, don't worry, because it's balanced by KILL, KILL, KILL! The most horrific death for me--and horrific not so much by gore, but by the sheer "Oh my God!" factor, is the death of Ron's son, Ian (Pp. 394-398 in the 1998 collector's edition. Read it.).

Demon-chicken, 1544
The Demon of Calicut by Sebastian Munster (1544)

The Yattering and Jack

In this piece, The Yattering is a lesser demon from Hell who is commanded by "the powers" (Beezlebub & Co.) that he must torment a nobody named Jack Polo. The Yattering is at first excited by the prospect and schemes and plans things in his mind, but when he goes topside to haunt Jack and win his soul for Hell, he ends up having an extremely difficult time of it. Jack is generally oblivious, ho-hum, and mum. Jack's personal motto is "Che sera sera" (aka Que sera sera, "whatever will be will be") and this ends up being an infuriating taunt to the Yattering, who is unable to shake Jack's resolve (and he does work hard to do so: exploding cats, for crying out loud!).

When Jack's daughters visit for Christmas, the Yattering seizes the opportunity to torment Jack by tormenting his family. He is very close to reaching his goal, but the Yattering ends up violating a cardinal rule: as a lesser demon, he is restricted to the grounds of the man he is torturing. The Yattering can go through the house, but not beyond it outside, and he can use objects to touch his victim, but cannot touch his victim directly. After doing some creative stunts (spinning objects, bringing a cooked turkey in the oven to life) but still not quite reaching Jack, the Yattering loses its resolve and chases after Jack outside.

Interestingly, Jack has become aware of the demonic presence as each episode has gotten weirder and weirder. He has not let onto the fact that he is this aware, and by the end of the story Jack ends up manipulating the demon into coming outside after him and making physical contact with him (The Yattering tries to crush Jack's head in his hands)...which violates the rules. Thus the Yattering reveals himself completely to Jack, and in doing so, Jack becomes his new master. In defeat, the Yattering concedes with a "che sera sera." We've come around full circle in this story. It's a good tight piece with some creepy, funny moments and worth a read, and shows you Clive Barker's range as an author. Good stuff!

Works Cited:

Barker, Clive. “Rawhead Rex.” Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three. Special Collector's ed. Vol. 3. New York: Berkley, 1998. 362 – 407. Print.

Barker, Clive. "The Yattering and Jack." Books of Blood: Volumes One to Three. Special Collector's ed. Vol. 1. New York: Berkley, 1998. 43-64. Print.

07 October 2010

"Breeding Ground" by Sarah Pinborough

Breeding Ground-2006
The 2006 edition. Source
We've left the realm of Richard Matheson and are moving onto the British horror author Sarah Pinborough. Take a deep breath, especially if you're arachnophobic; we are trading vampires for giant, milky mutant-spider creatures!

Certainly spiders have to be up there as one of the most loathed and feared creatures on the planet. I would argue that the fear of spiders is primal, in that it is simply human instinct to detest them.Roughly 4% of the adult population in the United States has a fear of spiders. If my math is right, that's 12,416,440 people who are terrified (by any degree) of these eight-legged freaks. And there are studies suggesting that the human fear response to spiders (and snakes) is both a learned response and an instinctive response--nature and nurture combined, if you will.

How does a horror author take a creature universally acknowledged to be scary and make it scarier?

I think it is the challenge for any horror author to make the frightful frightening. It's easy for an author to get scares from something that automatically elicits horror. If I were to write a horror novel about spiders, WHAM! Some of you have cringed automatically, already responding in fear to the subject of spiders without me having to explore it, develop it, or write about it. If I left my story at that, then I'm just plain lazy, and some writers in fact are. But a good horror author pushes you past that gut reaction and forces you to reexamine that fear by adding a new element to it, or by exposing its underbelly, or simply going overboard on the fear altogether, hitting you with it over and over again in new and disturbing ways.

Pinborough certainly has created an admirable task for herself by choosing to use spiders as her monster of choice in Breeding Ground. How does she make them different? Does she make them scary?

Here's the premise: We're in England, in the area of Milton Keynes and Stony Stratford (Pinborough prefaces her novel with this information, mentioning her hometown connection to the area). Matthew Edge has a gorgeous and perfect lover named Chloe, and they soon discover that they are having a baby. However, Chloe's pregnancy takes a disturbing turn when she exhibits symptoms that are beyond the norm.

Matthew and Chloe learn with tragic consequences that she is not pregnant with their baby, but something worse--a nightmarish spider-like creature that women all over town are suddenly giving birth to (whether they are pregnant or not). Soon the monsters overtake and devour everything in the area, using women as hosts as they breed and repopulate the area. Nasty, nasty!

So right off the bat, we know that we are dealing with Spiders Who Are Not Quite Spiders. Imagine humans harvesting giant spiders inside their body? Ewww. Not normal at all. But how else does Pinborough distance these creatures from the common arachnid? She takes what we already know and expect from the spider and distorts it. For example:


It looked like winter had settled in there, every surface covered with pale, shiny strands, like cobwebs covered in frost, but not quite, too thick, their heavy substance stretching from stairs to walls to tables, with no sense of rhyme or reason and none of the intricate beauty and structure of a spider's web (99).

Notice how Pinborough plays with the idea of beauty and control. Though spiders are feared by many, they are a product of Nature, and are oddly beautiful only because they in turn produce something beautiful and natural: the webs they weave are detailed and patterned, like lace. Pinborough touches on the idea of beauty by describing the spider silk in lovely imagery--a room like winter, shiny and frosted. Pretty, yes? And quickly this image deteriorates, the substance being unnatural: too thick, too gross, and too random (silly string from hell?). In essence, the spider webs in Breeding Ground are distinguished by being the polar opposite of a what a real spiderweb is and represents.

I was about to move forward, God help me I was, when from behind him, from where slick sucking sounds drifted towards me, one milky, translucent leg, thin and sharply jointed, came over his side, wrapping round him like a lover, and I froze. I stared at the shiny footless limb in disgust, as another crept over the man, and then another until four held his limp body in place [...] Looking over his shoulder I could make out the smooth, curved edge of the creature's body pulsing behind him, completely inhuman, like some awful pale insect, huge and mutated (66).
Pretty gross description. These spider monsters don't just look different (they even have two mouths!!). The Widows have a symbiotic relationship with their hosts (human women) and communicate telepathically; along those lines, they inflict damage both inside and outside the human body; they have the ability to "freeze" a body by using a degree of psychic power (this happens even when the spider is gestating inside human women) to hold the victim painfully still; they can mimic human voices and taunt their victims; they are fully cognizant of all pain and fear they inflict; and they are HUNGRY all the time. These creatures are deliberate and menacing in everything that they do.

Real spiders may be harsh killers and wily predators, but they were created to be this way. Everything they do is instinct and survival (I suppose you could argue that the monsters in this novel operate the same way, but the difference is in recognition and understanding--these spiders possess awareness and a different kind of consciousness that real spiders do not have). In the larger picture, the spider is integral part in the cog that is life, in that its killing is beneficial to humans (annoying flying insects, anyone?).

But in this novel, the Widows are a complete force of destruction. They are hungry and will feed on anything, but they destroyed all of the women first--women, who symbolically, are the givers of life. This pretty much guarantees the annihilation of the human race. It seems much more than instinct and chance with how these monsters kill.

Spiders in real life bother me, but I'm not super-terrified of them (I even allowed someone to put a tarantula on my arm once to try and "break" the phobia--it kinda worked, but felt weird). The descriptions of the Widows were scary, but I found something even scarier... Breeding Ground struck a nerve with me.

As I mentioned immediately at the beginning of this post, there are fears that are universally experienced by humans--a type of primal, innate, instinctive fear; an evolutionary fear.

What are fears of a mother-to-be?
  • I have no control over my body
  • There is a creature growing inside of me
  • I will give birth to a monster
  • The child will consume me or kill me
These are genuinely terrifying concepts, and Breeding Ground disturbed me the most when it addressed the fears surrounding pregnancy and childbirth.

If my post about large, milky spiders didn't intrigue you or bother you, I leave you with this scene. It is my primal fear as a woman and someone who may one day be a mother:

'There isn't much time. It's starting.' [...] She shook her head and sighed before meeting my gaze. I could see pain in there, as if she were fighting something [...] she looked at me pityingly from those strange blank eyes.

'I'm not me anymore. I'm...I'm something different. And I can't control it much longer.' There was something in her eyes that I couldn't understand. 'And I'm not sure how much longer I'm going to want to.' [...] 'It's too late. It's too late for all of us.'

'We're having a baby, Chloe. Have you forgotten about that? Can't you fight for that, even if you can't fight for me?' She couldn't give up on our baby. Not my Chloe.

'There isn't any baby. Not anymore.' [. . .] I think there's something else growing inside me. [...] 'A different baby.' She smiled unpleasantly into space, rubbing the expanse of stomach. 'A new kind of baby' (48-50).

Now that's some scary stuff.

Work Cited

Pinborough, Sarah. Breeding Ground. New York: Dorchester, 2011. Print.