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.

26 September 2010

"The Funeral" by Richard Matheson

The 2007 Orb edition. (Source)
I would like to preface this post with my recent experience, which many of you can glean from my previous entry. My father passed away unexpectedly and my Mom, brother, and I had to travel to NYC to meet up with my sister, who has lived with Dad for the past seven years. We were there for five days and it was rush, rush, rush, calling hours, funeral, clean up, and we're flying back to our homes again.

You can understand to a certain degree why I've put off reading horror altogether. For a while I just wasn't in the mood to think about monsters and dead people, and when I reminded myself that I am in graduate school and would like to succeed, I snapped into overdrive. I checked the roster: Richard Matheson's "The Funeral." I didn't feel like reading it at first, but that's because I judged the work simply on the basis of the title and the melancholy, grieving mood I was in. That's just as bad as judging a book by its cover. But it was a pleasant surprise and not at all something that would cause a bereaved person to have nightmares about funerals.

This was a fun, quick read, and if you are partial to the deliberate over-inflation and embellishment of the English language, you will enjoy how Matheson plays with it in this piece.

"The Funeral" would have to be the complete polar opposite of Matheson's famous work, I Am Legend, in terms of form and function. In my previous post you can see that Matheson employs straightforward, sparse diction. It's a tense work, and as such, language can be a burden if you are shooting for urgency in your writing. In comparison, this nine-page short story reads like the offspring of the lace on an Edwardian Valentine's Day card and your grandmother's old doilies. For example:
I Am Legend: "On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back" (13).
"The Funeral: "Morton Silkline was in his office musing over floral arrangements for the Fenton obsequies when the chiming strains of "I am Crossing o'er the Bar to Join the Choir Invisible" announced an entrant into Clooney's Cut-Rate Catafalque" (261).
"The Funeral" plays with the idea of the undead, namely Ludwig Asper, requesting a funeral: "You see, [...] I never had a proper going off. It was catch-as-catch-can, you might say; all improvised. Nothing--how shall I put it?--tasty. [...] I always regretted that. [...] I always intended to make up for it" (263).

Of course, when Asper's fellow monsters attend, it doesn't go so smoothly. We have the presence of a witch, the generic disfigured manservant ("Ygor" in this story instead of "Igor"), a "gentleman from Carpathia" (vampire, alluding to Dracula), the Wolfman, and others in attendance. Essentially what we have is the Monster Mash! A graveyard smash!

And every monster who makes an appearance fits his stereotypical image to a tee. So not only is the actual premise of this story humorous, but again it comes back to language and tone. When I began reading, I was filled with sounds and images: I thought of stuffy brocade jackets and cravats of the overly proper 19th century gentlemen,  and, for whatever reason, the narrative voice of Peter O'Toole. After all that, I was crossing my fingers for a bowler hat and monocle to appear.

This may not be the image Matheson wants to plant in his readers' heads, but due to the overly flowery language and diction, it makes for a funny story, but also a cautionary tale. "The Funeral" is a piece-by-piece demonstration to the fiction novice of how NOT to use language in the narrative of a serious, straight piece...unless of course, you want to be viewed as stuffy, antiquated, or unintentionally hilarious. Great vocabulary does not always impress, and can detract from the story. And the beginning novelist who fattens his prose with such wording may ultimately reveal that he has no idea of what he is actually trying to say.

Work Cited

Matheson, Richard. "The Funeral." I Am Legend. Orb Trade Paperback ed. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 1995. 261-69. Print. Ser. October 2007.