Book Review: Bloodsucking Fiends, by Christopher Moore

Oh look, I’m reviewing yet another vampire novel. Whatever. Just be happy I haven’t resorted to Twilight yet.

Bloodsucking Fiends tells the story of a newly formed vampire who, in order to function in modern society, recruits a human to do stuff for her during the day. Inevitably and for no good reason, they fall in love with each other.

Christopher Moore is known for writing humour, and that is really the main draw here. The ridiculous situations and jokes embedded in every sentence make for an entertaining read.

Plot-wise, it’s not as strong. Events seem to unfold only for the sake of setting up the next event, or sometimes for no reason at all other than for a punchline. Entire plot lines are introduced with good promise, but then left as pointlessly dangling as a classic vampire’s cape. Maybe the two sequels pick them up.

If you’re into sexy vampires, there are certainly less sucky ways to spend your time than reading Bloodsucking Fiends.

Double Book Review: Books With Weird Titles Edition: Wool and Draculas

Here are two books I’ve read recently, with not much in common other than having weird titles and being released directly to digital.

Wool, by Hugh Howey

Wool is the first in a long series of books about wool about people living in a mostly-underground silo after some sort of apocalypse makes the outside world inhabitable. Their only view of the outside world is through cameras that get dusty over time, until someone is sent out to clean them (with wool), then inevitably succumb to the poisonous atmosphere.

It’s a small book with big ideas. It’s small in its novella length, but also in its limited scope. It follows one character through an intimate story, never straying too far into the larger consequences of it. Yet the small story explores bigger themes of, among other things, truth and beauty.

There’s nothing too new here, but it’s nicely written, and balances emotional depth with hard sci-fi ideas. The second one was also good, but felt more like a tour of the setting to set up future instalments than a story where anything actually happens. Each instalment is only a few bucks and they are released frequently; it’s definitely worth checking out the first one to decide if it’s worth jumping into the rest of the series.

Draculas, by Jeff Strand, F. Paul Wilson, Jack Kilborn, Blake Crouch, and J. A. Konrath

Yeah, four authors. Yeah, Draculas with an S.

When an elderly, dying millionaire buys a skull with sharp, stabby teeth, then proceeds to stab himself in the neck with it, it starts an outbreak of vampires with similar bitey stabby tendencies. That’s the premise of Draculas, in which vampires are slobbering, near-mindless animals with rows of needle-sharp teeth that need blood like we need air. It’s a refreshing take on the played-out vampire trend.

The violence in Draculas is over the top, managing to be both hilarious and disturbing. It’s clear that all four authors had a hell of a lot of fun writing it, which makes it a hell of a lot of fun to read.

There’s not much in the way of plot; this is a summer action movie in novel form. But having no idea who will live or die keeps it interesting enough, especially with the strong characters. I particularly liked Randall, the borderline-challenged lumberjack whose substitution of “vampires” with “draculas” spreads through the characters faster than the vampire epidemic itself. And I won’t spoil anything, but Benny the Clown’s story takes some of the greatest twists and turns.

Despite the police-lineup-sized list of authors, Draculas is one cohesive novel-length story. On top of that, the Kindle Edition of Draculas comes with a bunch of DVD-like extras in it, including short stories by the authors and deleted scenes. Of particular interest to me as a writer, they included the unedited string of emails between authors that got the project going and worked out the logistics of writing it. It’s fascinating — maybe even more fascinating than the book itself — to get that raw look at the creative process.

Anyway, if you’re into monsters with sharp teeth and their intersection with human flesh, give Draculas a try.

P.S. It was almost impossible to write that review without mentioning sparkly vampires.

Why Horror Movies Are Scary, and Why People Like Them Anyway

A while ago, I was contacted by a PR agency who had seen one of my talks about the psychology of horror. A British media company was putting together a Halloween marketing campaign, and wanted some advice on how to use some scariness to make it more effective. I wrote them the below summary of why people regularly expose themselves to horror. I have no idea if the campaign ever went anywhere, but I figure it makes for an interesting read, so here it is.

Why are horror movies scary?

The answer to this is less obvious than it first appears. It might seem self-evident that scary movies are scary because they have scary things in them. But that just shifts the question to “what makes things scary?” Plus, fear is, by definition, an emotional response to danger. People sitting in a comfortable chair with their friends, munching on popcorn, are in no danger. They know they are in no danger.

So why are they scared anyway?

1) Because horror movies show us things that we were born scared of. Millions of years of evolution have programmed us to be frightened by things like spiders, growling monsters, and darkness. Early people who weren’t scared of these things tended to die, so they never got a chance to be our ancestors. With the survivors’ genes in us, we can’t help but feel the fear that kept them alive.

2) Because horror movies show us things that we’ve learned to be scared of. We may not be born scared of knives, needles, or clowns, but a few bad real-life encounters with them and we learn to fear them pretty quick. Movies can take advantage of the lessons we’ve learned from being scared for real.

3) Because we get scared when people we like are scared. Horror movies show us shots of people being scared just as much as they show us what is scaring them. When we’ve grown to like a character, we can’t help but feel some empathy for them when they appear to be frightened.

4) Because filmmakers exaggerate. No matter how realistic, a scary image on a screen pales in comparison to the real thing. That is why filmmakers need to exaggerate to make up for our safety from real danger. Extra dark settings, disorienting camera angles, anticipatory music, and discordant sounds (think the violins in Psycho) all make a scary image even scarier.

5) Because our bodies tell us we’re scared. For all the reasons above, our brains and our bodies are tricked into thinking we’re really scared. Our heart rates go up, we sweat more, and we breathe faster. These bodily reactions feed back into our conscious experience of fear. Furthermore, horror movies are one of the most visceral types of film. In one study, horror was one of only two genres that had a significant and identifiable physiological response. (The other was comedy).

So why would people watch something that scares them?

Again, fear is an emotional response to danger. Usually one that makes us want to run away, or at least turn off the TV. Why would we not only keep watching a scary movie, but pay money to do it?

6) Because some people like the rush of being scared for its own sake. Studies have found that the more scared people report being during a movie, the more they enjoy it. For some fans of horror movies (but not everyone), excitement is fun, whether it’s from joy or fear. My research shows that people high in sensation seeking—who say they frequently seek out intense thrills—said they like the horror genre more than people low in sensation seeking.

7) Because some people like the relief when it’s all over. The happy moments of a horror movie can be just as important as the horrifying parts. A moment of relief after escaping the bad guy can seem even more positive than it would normally, because our hearts are still beating with excitement. The leftover emotion from being scared can translate into happiness when the source of fear is gone.

8) Because you can control your image by controlling your reactions to a horror film. In my study, even though everyone had about the same “gut reaction” to horror imagery (a negative one), what they said they liked varied a lot. People with rebellious sorts of personalities were proud to say they liked horror movies.

9) Because it helps us hook up. Although they have the same negative “gut reaction” to horror, men say they like the genre more than women. Research has supported the fact that men and women who act “appropriately” to frightening films—men being fearless and women being fearful—tend to be liked by the opposite sex more. Horror films are perfect for dates.

There you go. Just a few of the many reasons that we’re happy to be horrified.

The Myth of the Evil Genius

Joker by Nebezial

The evil genius only exists in fiction.

An evil genius cannot exist in reality, because in reality, intelligence and evil are incompatible. A genius acts rationally, and history constantly proves that it is rational to be good.

Genius and evil are two terms that are nearly impossible to define, but most people know it when they see it. Adolf Hitler was evil. Osama Bin Laden was probably evil. Albert Einstein was a genius. Bill Gates is probably one too.

It’s not that evil doesn’t pay; genius and evil both pay, in some sense. Bill and Osama both have mansions, and could probably afford the most expensive bacon at the grocery store (though I guess Osama would pass). The difference is that Bill is living a comfortable life that leaves a trail of advancements and improved lives. Osama is at the bottom of the ocean riddled with bullets, and has left a trail of destruction and ruined lives.

Osama and Adolf did gain power, but was it through genius? I doubt it. They excelled in some areas—charisma, mostly, and probably a good helping of being in the right place at the right time—but I doubt they were geniuses. Not in the sense meant here: extreme mental ability for coming to correct conclusions.

On both an individual and a societal level, it is rational to be good. More often than not, the correct choice between a good option and an evil option is the good option, all things considered. Murdering a person you can’t stand may be easier than altering your own life to get away from him (say, packing up and moving away), but on an individual level, murder will probably put you in jail or dead yourself, and on a societal level, allowing people to murder willy-nilly wouldn’t be conducive to happiness and productivity.

That’s why the evil genius doesn’t exist. Even if the impulse to do evil was there, a true genius would take a moment, and think “hmm, considering all the consequences, maybe genocide isn’t such a spiffy idea.” If The Joker was really so smart, he’d figure out a way to resolve his Batman problem without blowing up innocent people and getting thrown in Arkham again and again.

Evil cannot result from the cool calculated machinations of a genius. In real life, evil is in the hot passion of an argument when a knife is nearby. It’s in the subtle biases of a politician whose values are misguided. And in that sense, evil is in all of us; luckily we also have an inner genius to play superhero.

Book Review: World War Z, by Max Brooks

World War Z was not what I expected. Brooks’ previous effort was The Zombie Survival Guide, and I thought World War Z would be his attempt at a straight-forward zombie novel. That is not the case.

The book can be considered a collection of very short stories that take place in the same world (which happens to become overrun with zombies). They are in rough chronological order, so an overall timeline develops, but characters only rarely appear in more than one chapter.

The amount of detail, breadth, and creativity in these tales is incredible. Brooks is well aware that no segment of society is safe in a worldwide zombie apocalypse. Stories cover everyone from Paris Hilton and her chihuahua to the K9 units in the military to the soldiers who specialize in fighting zombies under water.

Each chapter is great as a standalone story, and that’s both the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Just as you’re getting into a situation, the chapter ends. There’s something to be said for leaving the reader wanting more, but when there is no more, it can be frustrating. Many of the ideas here are so damn good they could have been expanded into full novels of their own, and sometimes I wish they were.

Still, bite-sized giblets of zombie goodness are better than nothing. World War Z is essential reading for anyone who loves the living dead as much as they should.

Book Review: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavres, by Mary Roach

Stiff tells various tales about what happens to our bodies after we die. From experiments with car crashes and bullet impacts, to good old cannibalism, it’s a fascinating look at some stories that would usually remain buried.

Aside from being willing to go places few people would dare, Roach’s strength is in the personality that comes through in her writing. Rather than a dry reporting of facts, she describes in first-person her experiences with people—both living and dead—who she sought out to research the book. Describing her own reaction to every odour adds a real punch, but her sense of humour is always there to keep it from going too far.

I listened to the audiobook edition, and Shelly Frasier’s narration is perfect. Her perpetually sardonic tone perfectly captures Roach’s darkly sarcastic writing.

It doesn’t all come up roses. The gross chapters—like the one devoted to research on human decay—are always, um, engrossing. Others can be dry. In the chapter on new methods of disposing of bodies (such as removing all the moister, shattering them, then using them as compost), Roach describes, in great detail, a conference she attended where these methods were debated. While an inside glimpse into the politics of the funeral industry is interesting for a few pages, it goes on for way too long.

Stiff is lively more often than not, though, and is definitely worth reading for anyone interested in the deader side of life.

Normal Activity

It’s Halloween time, so as one would expect, many ghostly happenings have been … happening.

A few nights ago I had a lovely date night with myself. I got some snacks and some wine, turned off all the lights except for a single candle, and sat down to watch a scary movie. I’d never seen The Changeling before, but it had a few rare moments of freaking the hell out of me with its simple but effective scares. It’s all the ghost story clichés done right.

Then today, at the Central Library, I went to see a talk by ghost researcher Cameron Bagg, who presented these same ghost clichés as fact. It was an interesting presentation; he told the story of how he first encountered ghosts (mysterious sounds, feeling a presence, teleporting objects, etc.), the tools he uses to hunt ghosts, some spooky anecdotes, all that. He showed some pictures of ghosts and spirit orbs. Ambiguous shadows and spheres of light.

At strange gatherings like this, I find the audience makeup and reactions as fascinating as the talk itself. This was a diverse group of people – old, young, crazy, not-crazy. Good old Roy McDonald was in attendance (he seems to be everywhere at once … like a ghost). And their reactions; well, I think this was the defining moment:

Bagg took out a television remote control. A regular remote, with an infrared transmitter on the end. He pointed it at the audience, clicked a button a few times, and said “does everyone see the flashing light?”

Many in the audience nodded. Murmurs of “ah, yes!” and “I see it!”

But there was no flashing light. His point was that cameras can see frequencies of light that are invisible to the naked eye (e.g., infrared; indeed, a flashing light could be seen when he pointed it through a camera). But there is a deeper point that inadvertently came out: when people are presented with a suggestion, they are likely to see things as consistent with that suggestion. When shown a static bulb and told it was flashing, many people in the audience, they literally thought they saw it flashing.

Similarly, when someone believes she is about to see ghost photographs, then you show her a shapeless shadow, she will see a human figure in it. Suggest that a dead woman lived in a house, and a picture of an empty room contains her face in a blob of reflected light. The noises at night aren’t the people in the next apartment bumping around, but ghostly rapping. An object appearing where it shouldn’t isn’t a lapse in memory, but a mischievous poltergeist.

I’m not saying ghosts aren’t real. Ghosts are an intense phenomenon genuinely experienced by a significant proportion of the population. These experiences can’t be explained by the speculations of armchair debunkers, and even though I wish he was more objective about it, I am glad that people like Cameron Bagg are out there actually trying to figure it out. But aside from any paranormal explanations, there is a lot of equally fascinating normal human psychology going on in the minds of those looking for ghosts.

Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer

Under the Banner of Heaven tells three interwoven true stories: the history of the Mormon faith, the current life of Mormon fundamentalists, and the 1984 murders of an innocent woman and her baby daughter at the hands of brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, two such fundamentalists. The implication is that the Lafferty murders were not an isolated incident, and indeed, the history and current practice of Mormonism are littered with acts of brutal violence.

Krakauer writes as if he takes the insane things that the killers and other Mormons believe at face value. It’s sort of an inside perspective, describing not what is objectively true, but what the major players believe to be true. This can be humourous when writing about, say, Dan thinking that his bowel movements are a sign from God. Krakauer doesn’t need to inject his own opinion into the descriptions; the stories are ridiculous enough in a straight telling.

That same matter-of-fact style can also be heartbreaking. Like when describing the Mountain Meadows massacre, in which Mormon militia slaughtered an entire wagon train of innocent travelers. Or when the timeline of the Lafferty murders is described in great detail, partly through Dan Lafferty’s own unrepentant words (Krakauer interviewed him directly in prison, where as far as I can tell, he still lives to this day). It’s hard to understand how any sane person could murder a baby.

Yet Krakauer argues that the Lafferties are not insane. The take-it-at-face-value writing underscores that, given what the brothers believed and their rationalizations for any setbacks, they acted rationally. At worst, he identifies Ron as having symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. The combination of the radical beliefs of Mormon fundamentalists, coupled with an extreme personality — the same sort of personality that has fueled the prophets behind all of Mormonism’s violent history — can be a dangerous mix.

This quote illustrates some of the workings of extreme religious minds:

“In one of Ron’s revelations, God had, in fact, instructed him to send his brother Mark to Nevada to wager on a horse to race to raise funds for the City of Refuge. With the Lord letting Mark know which mount to bet on, it seemed that they couldn’t lose. But they did. Afterward, Onias couldn’t resist telling the brothers ‘I told you so,’ causing relations between Ron and the prophet to deteriorate even further.”

With examples like these, on top of more serious ones, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could believe in prophets. In the history of mankind, no prophecy capable of coming true has ever come true. Ever. The bickering and splintering of the church over whose “divine” revelation is better further emphasizes that they are pure fantasy. Yet people do believe. There are over 13 million Mormons worldwide, their faith based on a prophet who, less than 200 years ago, claimed to have “translated” a book of golden plates an angel showed him in the woods, by putting a magical rock in a hat then stuffing his face in the hat. And these are the less delusional, non-fundamentalist ones.

What may disturb readers is that their own beliefs — especially other religious ones, but this applies to some atheists too — could be just as unfounded and dangerous if left unchecked. Krakauer briefly makes an explicit link with Christianity, but I think the lessons of this book are even broader. All beliefs should be questioned, as should all sources of authority – be it the voice of God, a charismatic prophet, or Richard Dawkins.

If I had to complain about one aspect of the book, it would be its overemphasis on polygamy. The polygamist relationships of both modern and historical Mormons are whipped out as if the mere mention of multiple partners should send shivers up the reader’s spine. I may write a follow-up post to this, but my opinion, in short, is that it’s not polygamy itself that is troubling. Rather, it is the irrational beliefs that are the cause of polygamy in Mormons, and the monumental abuse of women and girls that polygamy often (but not always) leads to, that should be eradicated.

Sarah lent me this book, thinking it’d be up my alley, and she was so right. It’s hard to say I “liked” it, since much of my reaction to it is jaw-dropped horror, but especially in the early chapters when both the historical background and the murder story are fresh, it is an astounding, mind-blowing read. Anyone with any interest in religious belief, true crime, or both, should pick up Under the Banner of Heaven immediately.

Book Review: Club Dead, by Charlaine Harris

Club Dead is the third book in Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries series. See my reviews for Dead Until Dark and Living Dead in Dallas for the general gist of the series. Vague spoilers for Club Dead lie ahead, but nothing you won’t forget before you get around to reading it.

A lot is familiar here, having read the first two books. The writing is better but still full of awkward moments. I suspect Harris started following some new writing advice, such as mapping out her locations before writing about them (in too much detail; “I walked into a 100 square foot room with a window in the wall in front of me, a door in the center of the right wall that lead into a hallway that lead into a bedroom which also had a window, and a broom closet on the left wall. I then left and never came back”), and buying a word-a-day calendar (which she cleverly gives to Sookie as an excuse for the sudden appearance of big words). Vampire Bill is still up to his delightful rapist ways, and adds a few other unforgivable wrongs on top of that (which are quickly forgiven). But this time he’s joined by a whole cast of loveable sexual predators.

Oh, and maybe I’m beating a dead horse here (LOLvampirehorse), but Sookie’s extreme shallowness also makes a return. Seriously, she’s about to go on dangerous mission with dangerous people, her life in jeopardy, and the first thing she thinks of is what to do with her hair. The world conspires to conform to her bizzarre superficial wishes, and the whole next chapter is spent describing her getting a surprise makeover. Let me reiterate: in this book full of vampires and werewolves and telepaths, a whole chapter is devoted to a fucking makeover.

As the hero of the novels, Sookie doesn’t really do many heroic things. For example, here is the complete Sookie Stackhouse Manual for How to be a Detective:

  • Get your hair done. Find a cute outfit.
  • Show up somewhere where there may or may not be stuff relevant to the case.
  • Get seriously injured.
  • Get saved by a supernatural creature.
  • Wake up in the right place at the right time to witness the mystery’s solution.

But there are a lot of good reasons to read the book anyway. For the first time, I felt there were actually some compelling mysteries, with answers that made sense but weren’t completely obvious. Also, that really dumb character I alluded to in my review for Dead Until Dark makes a significant reappearance, but this time doesn’t seem so out of place, and his silliness does add some comic relief.

All in all, I give Club Dead the same recommendation I did the other two books: read it for cheap thrills and nothing more.

Fighting Sexism With Sexism in the Horror Genre?

The British Fantasy Society has recently taken criticism because their new collection of 16 interviews with horror authors failed to include any women. It’s pointed out that there are “a lot” of women who write horror, and of course, Mary Shelley’s name comes up.

On the surface it does appear to be blatant sexism. But I think it’s important here, as with many gender issues, to look deeper and make sure we’re not accusing people of sexism based on premises that are themselves fundamentally sexist.

What proportion of horror writers are female? And of those, what proportion are among the best in their field? This list of the top 20 horror writers of all time does not include any women. Maybe its author is himself biased, but there is no question that serious horror (i.e., not Twilight) is a male-dominated community.

Let’s estimate that, say, one out of every ten serious horror writers are female. And let’s say that, for this controversial interview anthology, its creators had to randomly pick from all of the horror authors worthy of inclusion based on their writing alone (i.e., not their gender). The probability of, by chance, picking 16 male authors, then, is (.90)^16 = .185, or 18.5%.

So not a great chance, but still a chance. In the lingo of science, if lack of sexism were the null hypothesis, this wouldn’t be enough to reject it (i.e., prove sexism). My numbers could be off, but I predict my point is valid: even if no sexism were operating and authors were picked from a pool based on merit alone, there is a non-negligible chance that the collection would include zero females.

One could argue that a woman author should have been sought out for inclusion just to represent her gender in the community. But this is itself a sexist premise. It is proposing that a woman should have been given special privilege based on her gender alone, rather than her merit as an author. It’s the same principle behind affirmative action, and in my humble opinion, horribly misguided. It should be self-evident that the key to eliminating sexism is not more sexism.

What is the key? That is a complex question, but I think it needs to start at the bottom. We can’t force the top of any merit-based honour to comprise 50% of each gender. What we can do is make sure there are no obstacles for women on the road to the top, and that safe passage there is based on merit alone. Even more importantly, we can encourage more women to get on that road in the first place if they want to. Even then, there is no guarantee of a 50/50 split – it’s quite possible that horror simply appeals to men more than women because of some genuine difference between the genders – but any women that do hop on board shouldn’t face any sexist roadblocks.

It’s possible that some sexism occurred in this interview collection (either consciously or unconsciously), but there is not enough evidence to convince me either way. I am convinced that writers should be judged based on their writing rather than their gender, and that knee-jerk accusations of sexism need to be carefully examined lest we make the problem even worse.