In honour of Halloween, this October instead of my weekly Sunday Sofa Sojourns posts I will list a few of my favourite creepy things. I’ve written about horror graphic novels, kids’ books, and music videos.
I hate to be that person but, but in the case of these three books – they really were better than the movies.
1) World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (2006)
First line: “It goes by many names: ‘The Crisis,’ ‘The Dark Years,’ ‘The Walking Plague,’ as well as newer and more ‘hip’ titles such as ‘World War Z’ or ‘Z War One.’”
From George Romero’s game-changing Dead movies, to scary shibito in the Siren PS games, to the crazy fast hybrid versions in ’28 Days Later,’ I find the concept of zombies fascinating. Zombies are the perfect foil to humanity’s complicated emotions: survival, compassion, mercy, grief, hope. The undead can even potentially be a great teaching tool of various values for kids.
Anyway, nowadays zombies have been done to death (pun intended). TV shows, movies, games, chibi versions – they’re everywhere. The United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention even has a special site on zombie preparedness.
But if you’re a fan, as far as books with the undead go World War Z remains one of my favourites. It’s written as a collection of interviews across the globe complete with a believable introduction from the book’s anonymous narrator. The narrator traces the “Z epidemic” from its first victims all the way through to the final chapter. The zombies are great equalizers: most countries pitched in to combat the threat. The debate of what is right or wrong on the subject of preserving the human race comes up in the “clear, logical, efficient” solution proffered by one character.
The book covers a wide variety of practical situations: dealing with the undead in winter, the most important people a community needs to rebuild after a crisis (unsurprisingly, bankers don’t feature very highly on the list), what the Queen of England would do.
All sorts of characters are revealed too: the opportunists, the crazies, the disbelievers, the everyday heroes, the governments who bungled their response vs. those who didn’t. What’s interesting is that if you replace the zombie epidemic with a more realistic event (say, a certain ongoing pandemic), the scenarios and characters are not far-fetched at all…
Overall, the movie butchered the nuance in favour of a tidy story. If you’re a fan of the genre, pick up this book and start reading.
2) I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)
First line: “On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.”
I put down the book abruptly. I was in between Chapters 4 and 5, and Robert Neville had just realized his watch had stopped. The afternoon was bright outside, and next to me on the couch the Hub kept on playing his NBA game on the console, nonplussed. “What’s wrong?” I remember him asking. I could feel my heart pounding, fast. “I’m scared,” I replied.
Matheson’s I Am Legend still scared me in broad daylight. It pulled me in and held fast. The book is about Robert Neville, sole survivor of a disease that turned everyone else to vampires. His wife, daughter, and neighbour Ben Cortman (who, in vampire form, seems to relish tormenting Robert on a nightly basis by camping outside his house) have succumbed to the disease and are either dead or undead.
Robert is dedicated to finding the cause and cure for the disease, and had established a regular routine: eating breakfast, making sure his car was in good condition, burning bodies, gathering ‘subjects’ for experiments, fixing his house barricade, and drinking. There are some interruptions: a poor dog that wanders by (unlike the movie, the dog wasn’t with him from the start — but both versions are just as heart-breaking), Robert losing track of time as the day turned to night, the possibility of another survivor.
What I like best about I Am Legend is how Matheson forces us, over the course of the novel, to think about the power of perspective and majority rule. Who is the hunter and the hunted? Following that, what dictates our sense of right and wrong? Matheson prompts us to consider this early on in the story, as Robert argues with himself in a drunken haze:
“Vampires are prejudiced against. The key of minority prejudice is this: They are loathed because they are feared…
At one time, the Dark and Middle Ages, to be succinct, the vampire’s power was great, the fear of him tremendous. He was anathema and still remains anathema. Society hates him without ration.
But are his needs any more shocking than the needs of other animals and men? Are his deeds more outrageous than the deeds of the parent who drained the spirit from his child? The vampire may foster quickened heartbeats and levitated hair. But is he worse than the parent who gave to society a neurotic child who became a politician? Is he worse than the manufacturer who set up belated foundations with the money he made by handing bombs and guns to suicidal nationalists? […] Is he worse, then, than the publisher who filled ubiquitous racks with lust and death wishes? Really, now, search your soul, lovie — is the vampire so bad?
All he does is drink blood.”
3) Tales of H.P. Lovecraft by Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937)
First line: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” (The Call of Cthulhu)
I remember my first Lovecraft story very well. “The Rats in the Walls” was one of the stories in Great Short Tales of Mystery and Terror, a Reader’s Digest compilation I loved so much, I tried to steal it from my high school library. The story made such an impression on me I had nightmares about the underground ruins and “flabby, fungous” shapes that night.
Lovecraft is probably best known for his style of writing about fantastic, hopeless terrors on a vast scale, a genre known as cosmic horror. I think his stories don’t scare in a jump-out-of-your-skin sort of way, but in the creeping dread that you get when reading it. Before you dive in to the many films Lovecraft’s work has inspired, it would be better to read the man himself.
My compendium of Lovecraft stories is edited by Joyce Carol Oates. In her introduction she mentions the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ which is an alternate mythology where “there are no gods, but only displaced extra-terrestrial beings, The Great Old Ones who journeyed to Earth many millions of years ago.” Cthulhu is one of these Great Old Ones, with its “cuttlefish head, dragon body, scaly wings,” “a green, sticky spawn of the stars” with “flabby claws,” and the awful ability to fuse itself right back despite being stabbed in the stomach by a “sturdy yacht.” (“There was a bursting as of an exploding bladder, a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish, a stench as of a thousand open graves, and a sound that the chronicler would not put on paper.”)
Reading Lovecraft describe “distant wastes and dark places” in 1920s Providence has a dreamlike aspect to it (my mind imagined his words in soft focus). His horrors were ancient and vague — monsters that lived in the dark depths of the sea, humanoid water-beasts, alien colours — far away from where I was, reading next to the brightness of my laptop.
Lovecraft’s stories continue to fascinate and draw me in. Whatever the setting, fear itself is timeless. As Lovecraft himself said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
That ends my Sunday Scares edition this year. Join me as I resume “travelling” next week! ✈️
Think critically dear readers,