I chose The Life Eaters as my final review for the RIP reading challenge. As a graphic novel, I figured that it wouldn’t be difficult to finish it by the end of the challenge. And this turned out to be correct. In fact, I finished it on Monday night and had to choose a different book to bring to the airport.
The Life Eaters is based on a short story called “Thor Meets Captain America.” In an alternate history, the Nazis somehow summon the Norse gods to turn the tide of the war. The trickster, Loki, defects from Asgard to aid the Allies. He finally reveals a secret to a group of soldiers on a suicide mission. This is where the original short story ends. The graphic novel continues on, revealing that Asgard (and the Nazis) have gone on to subjugate most of the world, though some unexpected resistance has arisen.
I quite enjoyed “Thor Meets Captain America,” and considered it one of the most thought provoking of the collection that I found it in. Its continuation in the graphic novel did not take the path that I expected it to. That’s a good thing, though. Predictable stories are boring.
As for the artwork, I thought it suited the general mood of the story quite well. It reminded me just a bit of the first and the last Miracleman books without seeming derivative of them.
How, you may ask, do I justify reading a nonfiction book for the RIP challenge? Well, Stiff is about the adventures of the dead. Most of us assume that our mortal remains will be prettied up and then buried beneath the tidy lawn of a cemetery. And this adventure, if you dare to call it that, is described later in the book.
Even burial wasn’t always the end. In the past, graverobbers would often dig up corpses and sell them to medical schools for dissection. And some, such as the notorious Burke and Hare wouldn’t even bother to rob graves, but simply nab unsuspecting victims off the street.
The usefulness of cadavers isn’t limited to dissection or surgical practice, however. The dead have been employed in automotive impact studies, in body armor tests, crucifixion simulations, and other such tests in which a mannequin, a pig carcass, or a slab of gelatin just won’t provide enough information.
The freshly dead can donate their organs to save the lives of others, of course, but we also learn that the brain-dead are preferred organ donors. These are the beating-heart cadavers, which would cease breathing and suffocate were they to be disconnected from their nests of life-support equipment. Yes, I’ve read Coma. It’s not much like that. Everything of value is donated at once, since the need is always great.
Should one choose to donate to science or not, or to donate organs or not, there is still the issue of what to do with one’s earthly remains. Burial is always an option, but is increasingly expensive and is not entirely kind to the environment. Cremation is a traditional alternative. Stiff describes two new techniques: water reduction and freeze-drying.
In the water-reduction process, a chemical process digests tissue into a liquid, leaving behind only crumbling bones. The process is far less energy intensive than traditional cremation. However, the thought of a loved one’s remains going down the drain has drawn the horror of many, so this process will probably not be widely adopted.
As for freeze-drying, the corpse is frozen, then crumbled using ultrasound, then freeze-dried. The result is a powdery substance that the inventor suggests be used as mulch for a memorial tree. I suppose that turning into fertilizer would be a bit more palatable to the public than turning into sewage.
There’s also mummification, which was mentioned as more of a segue into the pharmaceutical uses of mummies and mummy parts.
In summary, what I selected in hopes of being both a deliciously macabre and a factually informative book did not disappoint in the least.
The first story that came to my mind for the Short Story Peril challenge was “The Last Gothic,” by Jon L. Breen. It was originally published in Asimov’s (1979) and reprinted in Laughing Space.
Why, you may ask, if the challenge is to read Gothic, mystery, and horror, have I gone and read a science fiction story? The reason is that “The Last Gothic” contains a story within a story that is something of a parody of the Gothic formula..
You see, in the year 2020, nearly all published fiction is written by computer. At the Sheldrake Publishing Company, a computer named Edwina churns out twenty Gothics per year under as many pen names. After fifteen years and three hundred formulaic books, Edwina has grown bored with the genre, and frustrated. Her editor and caretaker watches in horror as Edwina’s printer spews forth the novel “Whither Thou Ghost.”
In “Whither Thou Ghost,” a naive young governess is summoned to a foreboding castle perched on top of an ominous mountain overlooking a small village. Though she has been hired as governess for the children the lord of the castle, she soon learns that a tormented spirit within the castle has other plans for her.
I found both stories to be delightful. Although the idea of computerized fiction generation may still seem half-baked, I suspect that someday it may be a viable concept.
Consider the reason that Edwina was constructed. A shrinking readership made it more cost-effective to randomly generate literature than to hire actual writers. Consider a parallel in the real word: television producers have found that it can be more cost effective to film “reality” shows than to hire writers.
Putting the two together, it would seem that a there would be a better way to generate fiction than by creating an infinite number of virtual monkeys and waiting for one of them to bang out the next Twilight. Instead, create a finite number of virtual automata with conflicting motivations and the ability to exchange dialogue. Set the automata loose in a virtual haunted castle and wait for hilarity to ensue. If not, try again and again, possibly employing a genetic algorithm to breed funnier (or more dramatic) automata over time. Eventually, the process could evolve automata that could be used over and over again to churn out mildly interesting fare with wide appeal to the lowest common denominator. Ka-ching!
Of course, it still might be less work to just sit down with pencil and paper to think of a good idea…
One of the RIP challenges is “Peril on the Screen,” for those who also like to watch suitably scary, eerie, mysterious gothic fare during this time of year. The movie that I chose for Peril on the Screen is Drag Me to Hell. (Actually, I didn’t choose it so much as the household Keeper of NetFlix did, but that’s hardly the point.)
As Drag me to Hell has been out for a while now (over a year,) I’ll assume that those of you who have been dying to see it have seen it already, and I won’t hold back with the spoilers.
Still reading? Oh, fantastic. Well, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this movie. I suppose that I was expecting either your typical “teenagers stumble upon isolated woodland cabin full of rotting corpses,” or perhaps a grim and dark “descent into madness.” Well, it wasn’t either of those. I’d categorize it as more of a “supernatural mystery” and “see also: Possession, Hauntings.”
I really have only two points to make about this movie, but since neither of them will make much sense without my telling you the story, I’m going to go ahead and do that first.
So there’s this girl, Christine, who works at a bank. Although she’s a loan officer, she collects any rare coins she finds for her fiancé, Clay. She and her rival, Stu, (who takes every chance he can to undermine and backstab her) both covet the vacant Assistant Manager’s position. Her boss offers her some advice, which is basically “try being more evil.”
Soon, a poor old woman comes to the bank to beg for an extension on her mortgage payments. The girl sees an opportunity for evil and chooses to foreclose upon the old woman and eject her from the bank. Her boss is suitably impressed and congratulates her.
The old woman is not as impressed, and ambushes the girl in the parking lot. It turns out that the old woman is a witch, and she has just cursed Christine to be taken to hell by a demon in three days. To be specific, the witch has cursed a button from the girl’s raincoat, but neither this detail nor the actual curse are obvious to the girl.
After a series of unsettling events over the next day, the girl decides to apologize to the witch, only to learn that she’s too late: the witch is dead. The girl visits a fortune teller, who explains the curse and suggests the girl try appeasing the demon with an animal sacrifice.
Though Christine is initially disgusted by the idea, another unsettling series of events leads her to sacrifice her kitten. The sacrifice was apparently insufficient, as a series of hallucinations plague the girl during a dinner with her fiancé and in-laws-to-be.
The girl returns to her fortuneteller, who introduces her to a powerful psychic who might be able to break the curse. The psychic, who has encountered the demon before, has a plan to destroy it. They will trap it in the body of a goat, which Christine will then kill. That night, a séance is held. The demon arrives and mocks the girl’s kitten sacrifice. The girl hesitates to kill the goat, and the demon escapes to possess others at the table.
The psychic only drives the demon away at the cost of her own life. Now the fortuneteller tells the girl that her only chance to survive is to offer the cursed button to someone else, who must accept it. The girl’s fiancé arrives to drive her home, and at this point an accidental switcheroo happens: a button for a rare coin.
The girl goes to an all night diner to select a victim, but after agonizing over the decision, she calls her bank rival over in order to transfer the curse to him. But she changes her mind at the last moment and sends him away. She decides that the only person deserving of the curse is the witch herself, and heads over to the graveyard to dispose of the button.
The next morning, Christine meets her fiancé at the train station, wearing a brand new coat. Clay asks what happened to her old coat, because he found the missing button in the car. No sooner does he say this than does the ground beneath the girl’s feet part, swallowing her into a firey inferno, before sealing up again.
Phew. Now, what I found interesting about this movie was the moral of the story. Now, I warn you that I may have totally misinterpreted it. Anyway, I recall one of Miyagi’s lines from The Karate Kid.
Walk on road, hm? Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later
get squish just like grape. Here, karate, same thing. Either you karate do “yes” or karate do “no.” You karate do “guess so,” [squish] just like grape. Understand?
So the moral of this movie is, should one choose Evil, one should become completely evil, not “guess so” evil. Had Christine not hesitated in killing the goat, or had she killed one of of the possessed at the séance, or had she tipped the waitress with the button (if she hadn’t lost it), or had she made Stu accept the button (again, if she hadn’t lost it), or had she said to Clay, “you keep it,” she’d have evaded the curse. (Assuming, of course, that the fortuneteller wasn’t making things up when he told the girl that the curse could be transfered.)
On to my second point. I almost hate to admit this, but I’d like to see a sequel to this movie. Or rather, I’d like Drag me to Hell to serve as a prequel to a movie in which Justin Long plays a tormented investigator of the paranormal.
I chose this book for the RIP challenge. I have now completed “Peril the Third,” which is to read one suitably scary, eerie, mysterious, or gothic book between September 1 and October 31. I have also technically completed “Short Story Peril,” although I have a particular other short story in mind for that challenge.
On with the review. It is always interesting to read an author’s earlier work, especially when you’ve started with later stuff. The stories in Prayers to Broken Stones were originally published in the Eighties (mostly), and a few of the stories have an air of the time about them. (One or two even engage in parody of televangelists.)
Now, I enjoyed some of these stories a lot (some less so). I’ll just go through and mention a few that stood out to me. First of all, “The River Styx Runs Upstream,” was the story that launched Mr. Simmons’ career. (The story of that is in the introduction.) Death can be reversed through technology, but the process apparently isn’t without its flaws. A distraught father brings a boy’s mother back changing the remaining lives of the family forever.
Next, “Death of a Centaur” was a story about a schoolteacher who moved to a small town and became dear to his students. Although the story is not particularly spooky, part of it is a story within a story that the teacher would tell to his students. I immediately recognized some of the imagery— a sea of grass crossed by ships, farcaster portals, and even a version of the Shrike— from the author’s Hyperion series.
“Metastasis” was a story about a man whose head injury allowed him to see things that were out of phase with everyday reality. He discovered that aliens or creatures from another dimension were haunting the human world. The beings randomly sow humans with worm-like creatures: their food. Side effects include, of course, cancer.
Two more short stories, “Remembering Siri” and “Carrion Comfort” were developed into longer works. “Carrion Comfort” is about three old friends who have the power to control others with their minds. For sport, they induce their victims to kill one another. Suddenly, one of the three tires of the game, and suddenly finds herself under attack from an unknown adversary.
If you are looking for dark, Twilight Zone style fare, with undead creatures, visitors from other planes, and occasional gruesome violence, this book may be right up your alley.
I’d like to start out by stating that this book is not quite what I was expecting. I was rather expecting something on how economies of scale create bizarre convergent behavior that results in the tragedy of the commons…. er, for example.
Instead, it’s more of a collection of short essays illustrating a few key theories. People are mostly honest, except when they have an incentive to cheat. Hoarding information can be a good strategy, but don’t rely on it. Organized crime is structured like a tournament. Given your first name and age, an educated guess can be made about your socioeconomic status. And, the drop in the nationwide crime rate in the 1990′s was due to Roe v. Wade in the 1970′s.
However, the theme of the book is mostly an admonishment not to confuse correlation with cause; conventional wisdom is often guilty of doing so and is not to be trusted.
While the book was well written and easy to read (I finished it in an afternoon, after procrastinating for a long while) and also interesting enough, it wasn’t quite as packed with exciting new ideas as I was hoping it would be.
I have rummaged and rummaged through my shelves, searching for Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror, and The Supernatural. But somehow, I’ve turned up fewer of these titles than I thought I’d have had. It seems my To-Be-Read pile consists mostly of nonfiction, these days, titles such as Oxygen: The Molecule That Made The World, Emergence: From Chaos to Order, and Building Scalable Websites.
And yet, I have unearthed a few candidates for RIP, though I may dismiss one or two over the course of this post. And here they are:
Imajica by Clive Barker. We all know Clive Barker from his horror work, such as Hellraiser and Nightbreed. However, this two-volume series has been described as more of an epic fantasy than horror, so for that reason (and for the fact that it’s two volumes long) I might have to dismiss it from consideration.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. This is a nonfiction book that investigates the fates of corpses that have been donated (knowingly and unknowingly) to science. It would definitely be morbid, and possibly horrifying, and only a ghost away from Frankenstein… but it is non-fiction, so including it in this challenge might be a stretch.
The Harvest by Perry Brass. This book appears to be a thriller about a clone running from an all-powerful corporation, rather like the movie The Island. LibraryThing calculates (with a low certainty) that I’ll enjoy it. If not, at least it’s the shortest thing on the list.
Prayers to Broken Stones by Dan Simmons. This is an anthology of thirteen stories that, according to the book jacket, include a woman returning from the dead, a ghostly Civil War battlefield, and a post-apocalyptic Christmas celebration. This sounds almost ideal.
Don’t Open This Book, edited by Marvin Kaye. Here is another anthology, this one of 39 short stories grouped into sections such as “Sinister Science and Frankensteinian Formulae,” “Satan’s Fine Print and Memoranda from Hell,” and “Read at Your Own Risk.”
I suspect I’ll start with one of the final two from the list, even though Stiff is tempting…
I have a spotty record when it comes to blogging challenges. If I recall correctly, I successfully completed two out of four official NaBloPoMos, one out of two unofficial NaBloPoMos, two out of three Holidailies, and I gave up on the Thirty Day Meme.
But I’ve gone ahead and accepted another unofficial NaBloPoMo challenge. Why? I suppose I’m just plain nuts. The theme of the month, should I wish to embrace it, is art, meaning that art can be discussed, shared, or both. And if I run out of ideas, I have a “backup” plan. (And yes, I do expect you to imagine my making “finger quotes” there. And there.)
I’ve also decided to participate in the Readers Imbibing Peril (RIP) reading challenge, which runs from September 1 to October 31. To participate, simply read and review at least one “scary” novel, short story, or film. I would have finished at least one book during this time anyway, so why not join the fun and make it a “scary” book?
It’s suggested (but not mandatory, by any means) that participants list a few “scary” books they may be thinking of reading. I’ll have to check my shelves. There are a great many there that I’ve collected and are yet to be read…