Autumn Culture Round Up

I haven’t done one of these link round-ups in ages, but I’ve been inspired to get back to it by the quantity of good stuff I’ve read recently.

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This Week’s Culture Round-up

Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower (1995)

To get along with God,

Consider the consequences of your behaviour

Parable of the Sower is one of the most harrowing, intense novels I’ve ever read.  I had a feeling that I shouldn’t read it while in a raw emotional state, but I picked it up one afternoon, started it and couldn’t stop.  Butler has a deceptively simple writing style that hooks you quickly and then grabs you round the throat and shakes you to your core.  I don’t think I’ve ever come across another writer who has less pity on her readers.

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In Praise of Fright Night (well, sort of)

The forthcoming remake of Fright Night (1985) has spurred me on to write a post about the original film, which was a favourite of mine when I was a teenager.  I’m aware that this post may largely consist of me rationalising my attachment to a homophobic and sexist film, but what can I say? I loved Fright Night when I was a kid and, when I sat down and watched it again recently, I found that I still loved it almost as much.

For me, as a teenager, Fright Night appeared extremely queer.  It presented a hero who was more interested in spying on the handsome man next door than in consummating his relationship with his girlfriend.  Meanwhile, the handsome man next door lived with another man who appeared to be devoted to him.   The hero’s best friend, ‘Evil Ed’, could be read as the kind of gay kid who protects himself from attack by becoming the class clown (fun fact: Stephen Geoffreys, the actor who played Ed, stars in gay porn films), as could the washed-up, horror film actor, Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell), who is represented, at least initially, as the nervous, fussy, effeminate gay male stereotype.

Fright Night reinforces homophobic discourses most strongly in the representation of the vampire, Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon), as the predatory, older gay or (perhaps more accurately) bisexual man and, in 1985 when so many gay men were dying of AIDS, the homophobic metaphor of infection that he carries as a vampire can’t be ignored.  The film also has little to offer feminism.  Charley’s mother is a silly woman (bad single Mum!) who endangers her son, and Charley’s girlfriend, Amy, who is generally submissive to men, ends up as the object of exchange in a classic homosocial triangle through which Charley and Jerry channel their relationship with each other (another fun fact: Amanda Bearse, the actress who played Amy, is a lesbian).  Also, as soon as she’s vamped Amy manifests the monstrous female sexuality that vampire fiction by male authors has traditionally assumed to lurk in all women, and also treats us to some rather exciting vagina dentata imagery.

So far, so homophobic and sexist, but Fright Night is just so clever, so witty, and winks at its audience so outrageously, that I can’t completely condemn it.  It does something interesting is in its presentation of two gay role models for the boys – “evil” Jerry Dandridge versus “good” Peter Vincent.  It’s very unusual to see the effeminate gay man (as Vincent seems to be portrayed) being represented as heroic at all on film, and rather than simply saying that gayness is bad, the film suggests that there are good and bad ways to be gay.  Poor Ed makes the fatal mistake of identifying with Jerry (but you can understand why he does), while Charley is wise enough to hook up with Peter Vincent instead.  Of course this opposition between “good” and “bad” gayness is in itself homophobic, but it’s a little more interesting than a lot of other horror films.  I also feel that Fright Night is, on another level, sort of about homosexuality and homophobia in horror film, insofar as it acknowledges and plays with the gay subtext that is such a longstanding feature of the genre. In particular, it seems to be saying something about the role that the gothic and horror genres have played in telling coded stories about queerness that have been especially attractive to young people trying to sort out their feelings about sexuality.

At the end of the film, Charley still hasn’t managed to consummate his relationship with Amy and still gets distracted by looking out of the window.  You never know, he might manage it after the credits roll, but you can decide that his options are still open.

Little link round-up

Tanith Lee, Sabella, or The Bloodstone (1980)

In the pink hills of Novo Mars, while the wolves howled, Sabella lay in the arms of men.  And the transparent crystal at her throat turned scarlet as she took their blood.

They really, really should have filmed this book around 1983 – I can just see it, everyone with huge eighties hair and reflective sunglasses, acting in front of painted backdrops representing the desert, and of course, a David Bowie soundtrack.  It would have been awesome.

Set on a future Mars-like planet colonised by humans, Sabella, or The Bloodstone is the story of a vampire stricken with a guilty conscience about the strapping young men she despatched during her teens and much existential angst concerning her vampire nature.  Sabella eschews the company of humans and feeds on animals. Then she meets a man called Sand who pursues her until she gives in to temptation and allows him into her bed, with the inevitable conclusion.  But shoving his body in the incinerator doesn’t solve her problems because his dangerous, charismatic brother, Jace, is on her track and Sabella is in for a reckoning when he catches up with her.

I wish I’d read this book when I was 19 because I would have loved it then.  I’m a little too old for Sabella and her bloodstone now, but I still found it an enjoyable science fiction vampire tale, with the superior quality of writing that you can expect from Tanith Lee.  I liked the twist towards the end which pulls it above your standard vampire tale.

You could probably say a lot about Sabella from feminist and psychoanalytic perspectives – dead mothers, doubles, sex equated with death, womb imagery, eroticised relations of domination and submission are all featured –but I’m not going to try and talk about any of that.

It’s vampires on Mars; it’s fun.  Give it a go if you liked Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, or C.L Moore’s ‘Shambleau’

A short post about Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood (or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer) (1983)

My immediate reaction to this collection was to feel stunned by the breadth of Tanith Lee’s imagination.  As rewritings of fairy stories go, I’m also very impressed by Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, but I prefer Lee’s versions, not least because she goes beyond the sexual readings privileged by Carter.

In Red as Blood Lee retells nine fairytales: the Pied Piper of Hamlyn (Paid Piper), Snow White (Red as Blood), Sleeping Beauty (Thorns), Cinderella (When the Clock Strikes), Rapunzel (The Golden Rope), The Frog Princess (The Princess and her Future), Red Riding Hood (Wolfland), The White Duck (Black as Ink), Beauty and the Beast (Beauty). She sets them in specific time periods from the last century B.C. to the far in the future.

Each story turns the original folk tale on its head, drawing out its darkest and creepiest implications.  Most are told from a female point of view. The Pied Piper is a god, Snow White is more frightening than her stepmother, Sleeping Beauty can never truly awake, Cinderella is a vengeful witch, Rapunzel’s prince is Satan himself, the Frog Prince is a monster, Grandma is a werewolf, and “the beast” is an alien from another world.  .

The only story I didn’t enjoy was ‘Black as Ink’, which just didn’t draw me in, possibly because I’m not familiar with the original.   The rest were great and my favourite was the last one, ‘Beauty’, in which Lee plays to one of her storytelling strengths, exploring a case of unconventional love.

Horror Movie Halloween Special

I’ve decided to list, not so much my favourite horror movies, as the ones that have stayed with me.  I have no idea why I love being terrified by horror movies.  I suppose a psychotherapist might suggest it’s my way of dealing with death anxiety, in which case I’m glad I found a way to deal with death anxiety and have fun at the same time.  On an intellectual level, I love the horror genre because it’s where you see cultural anxieties stripped bare, especially the things we like to pretend we’re ok with (but we’re really, really not).

I have put the post behind a cut to save the sensibilities of those of you who don’t like reading about horror films.

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Martin H Greenberg (ed.) New Stories from the Twilight Zone (1991)

Oh, the mild disappointment of discovering that a book you thought was amazing when you were 16 isn’t all that groundbreaking after all. New Stories from the Twilight Zone “blew my mind” when I was a teenager and got me interested in science fiction. I loved the TV show too, but didn’t get to watch it very often because it was always on after midnight.

The stories collected here were all used to create scripts for the 1985 Twilight Zone series. The earliest was written in 1953 and the latest in 1988. In other respects it’s a limited collection because almost all of the authors are white and male.  Still, with contributions from the likes of Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon and Richard Matheson, there’s a lot to like here.

Reading it for the second time, I was struck my just how many of the stories are about religion. In Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Star’, a Jesuit priest and astronomer is confronted with the discovery that the star above Bethlehem was created by a supernova that wiped out an entire civilization on another planet. In Joe Haldeman’s ‘I of Newton’ a Mathematician must trick a demon out of taking his soul. Greg Bear’s ‘Dead Run’ follows the adventures of a trucker who runs damned souls to Hell. In ‘Yesterday was Monday’, a man accidently goes behind the scenes of our reality to find that human beings are nothing more than actors in an elaborate play directed by God for the entertainment of unknown parties.

When the stories are not about religion they have a strongly moral bent.  Harlan Ellison’s ‘Shatterday’ considers what might happen if a bad man’s conscience became manifest and locked him out of his apartment. The other two Ellison stories in the collection are also morality tales. William F. Wu’s ‘Wong’s Lost and Found Emporium’ is a warning against losing the things that are truly important to us. Meanwhile in ‘Button Button’ Richard Matheson addresses the old question of temptation.

I would say the best stores are Clarke’s ‘The Star’, Sturgeon’s ‘A Saucer of Loneliness’, which is lyrical and mysterious, and Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Burning Man.’ When I was 16 ‘The Burning Man’ terrified me and I’ve never forgotten it.  A boy and his aunt take a trip to the beach.  They pick up a hitchhiker who frightens them, so they throw him out of the car. On the way back they pick up another hitchhiker, this time a young boy; then their car breaks down and the boy in the backseat starts to repeat the man’s strange talk.  I don’t know what it’s about, but it is creepy.

All in all, it’s not as awesome (and much more pulpy) than I remembered, but it’s still a strong collection which won’t be taking a trip to the charity shop anytime soon.

The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease (2008)

First, some definitions of the uncanny:

‘if we have a sense of the uncanny, it is because the barriers between the known and the unknown are teetering on the brink of collapse,’ David Punter.

‘The uncanny has to do with a sense of a secret encounter: it is perhaps inseparable from an apprehension, however fleeting, of something that should have remained secret and hidden but has come to light’, Nicholas Royle.

‘It may be that the uncanny [‘the unhomely’] is something familiar [‘homely,’ ‘homey’] that has been repressed and then reappears, and that everything uncanny satisfies this condition […] Our conclusion could then be stated as follows: the uncanny element we know from experience arises either when repressed childhood complexes are revived by some impression, or when some primitive beliefs that have been surmounted appear to be once again confirmed,’ Sigmund Freud.

Taking Freud’s 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’ as a starting point, the editors of this new anthology challenged 14 leading authors to write new interpretations of what the uncanny might mean today. I love Freud’s essay and the Hoffman short story, ‘The Sandman’, upon which it is based, and I am very interested in the uncanny as a concept, so I was quite excited about this book.

There’s no ‘new uncanny here’ – it’s the same old uncanny, but updated to contemporary settings.  I don’t mind that and I was interested to note that several of the stories (Mathew Holness, Nicholas Royle, Christopher Priest, Alison Macleod) took as their theme the abuse of women and children, suggesting just how much this problem has become a repressed horror at the centre of our culture.  Unsurprisingly, fears about technology featured quite highly.  Jane Rogers took on an airport foot massager, Adam Marek makes Tamagothci’s seem pretty alarming and Frank Cottrell Boyce succeeded in putting me off the idea of playing SIMs.  Meanwhile, A. S Byatt fell back on that old staple of the uncanny – the doll.

I was a little disappointed to find that a lot of these stories felt a bit forced (trying too hard to be uncanny), while other writers seemed to be doing ‘the uncanny by numbers’ and weren’t trying that hard (Ramsey Campbell).  The worst story was Ian Duhig’s which I found completely unreadable and the last story by Etgar Keret wasn’t in the slightest bit uncanny.

In my opinion, there are three superb stories in this anthology and they are great because the writers really grasped a sense of the uncanny:

Sara Maitland’s ‘Seeing Double’. This story doesn’t feel new at all. It feels as old as the fears it raises. I think Hoffman would be impressed.

Matthew Holness’s ‘Possum’ is a story so terrifying you really start to wonder about the mind of the writer.  Puppets are always nasty, but this puppet is the worst.

Christopher Priest’s ‘The Sorting Out’ is a brilliant ictionfal description of what it feels like to be emotionally abused and stalked.

Overall this is quite an entertaining read, but if you really want to experience the uncanny, it doesn’t come near Nicholas Royle’s anthology Narrow Houses, which ostensibly deals with superstition, but contains some of the most uncanny stories I have ever read.

The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease

A short post about Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild (1996)

It turns out that Octavia Butler hated writing short stories, but I’m glad she made the effort.  Each story in this collection is accompanied with a short commentary by the author.  The first two, ‘Bloodchild’ and ‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night’ are classics.  The content of the former is pretty much my worst nightmare and my girlfriend had to listen to me shrieking my way through it.  “Stop reading then!” she cried, “No, I have to find out what happens now!” If you are at all squeamish about insect life, beware this tale of very unusual love.  The second story also veers into the territory of horror.  It is set in a future in which a percentage of the population are infected with a disease that will eventually cause them to attack their own bodies.   ‘Speech Sounds’, ‘Amnesty’ and ‘The Book of Martha’ are also strong stories.  Butler had a very clear writing style and a real gift for playing on our fears.

The two essays about writing included here are also interesting and useful.  ‘Positive Obsession’ recounts her own development as a writer and ‘Furor Scribendi’ contains refreshingly direct no-nonsense advice for aspiring writers. In summary:

  1. Read everything you can get your hands on and never stop learning
  2. Take every opportunity to attend writing courses and workshops
  3. Write every day
  4. Revise constantly
  5. Submit your work for publication no matter how much you get rejected
  6. Forget about inspiration and talent – writing is about habit and hard work

Finally, don’t worry about imagination. You have all the imagination you need, and all the reading, journal writing, and leaning you will be doing will stimulate it. Play with your ideas. Have fun with them. Don’t’ worry about being silly or outrageous or wrong.  So much of writing is fun. It’s first letting your interests and your imagination take you anywhere at all. Once you’re able to do that, you’ll have more ideas than you can use. Then the real work of fashioning them into a story begins. Stay with it.


A short post about Clive Barker’s Cabal (1988)

Like a lot of queer writers, Clive Barker is interested in identifying and exploring the distinctions between morality and moralism.   Cabal is a wonderful story about otherness and Barker locates the source of evil, not in the monstrous Nightbreed, but in the institutions of law, psychiatry and the church.  The hero, Boone, is a “mad” man accused of committing terrible crimes.  Persuaded that he is indeed guilty, he sets out to join the Nightbreed a mythical race of undead beings with magical powers of transformation.  The Breed may be monsters, but it turns out that they have a sense of integrity and community which Barker envisions the “normal” world as lacking.  There is clearly an allegory here about the position of queer people in the ultra-homophobic 1980s.  But Cabal is also a story about unconditional love. Boone is aided by his lover, Lori, and the absence of misogyny in his depiction of this character was also a relief.  Lori’s story is not that of a woman mindlessly pursuing some silly notion of “true love”, it is about someone discovering inner resources she couldn’t imagine and having the capacity to take risks and love beyond boundaries.  My only complaint about this book is its brevity.  At times the action feels rushed and I really think this story could have supported a longer novel.

The movie adaptation is terrible, though. I watched it when I was incredibly drunk and it was still awful.

Clive Barker, Cabal