Tag: horror

Review: The Sandman – The Doll’s House

If Preludes and Nocturnes introduced us to Dream, then The Doll’s House, the second volume in the cult Sandman graphic novel series written by Neil Gaiman (collecting issues #9 through #16, if you’re counting*), really starts fleshing him out.

For the confused: Dream is one of the Endless, who personify human concepts like – to name some of Dream’s siblings – Desire, Delirium and Death. In Preludes and Nocturnes Dream escaped the clutches of a cult who had kept him magically imprisoned for seventy years, and set about reclaiming three magical artefacts that were stolen from him. The Doll’s House sees him start to repair some of the damage his long imprisonment has wreaked both on the world and on his psychic realm, the Dreaming.

But it seems to me that what the volume is really concerned with is Dream’s relationships: with his lover, his friends, his siblings, his dream-subjects, with the humans he comes across in his work. I like the way the volume unfolds this, across eight stories with a range of tones, settings and styles: the folk tale Tales in the Sand, which tells of Dream’s only human love; the dark, almost Twilight Zone-ish horror of Collectors, which sees two humans wander unwittingly into a convention of serial killers; the (relatively) light-hearted Men of Good Fortune, which zips through a century every double-page spread or so.

Dream is referred to in Preludes and Nocturnes as the “master of stories”, and there’s certainly something of a Neil Gaiman self-insert in him, so it feels appropriate that he can move through a number of story types and play a number of different roles (for example: abusive lover in the style of the Greek gods; knight in shining armour come to rescue the damsel in distress; morality figure trying to teach someone a lesson about life). He’s a trickster figure, a creature who can control, and slip between, seemingly fixed narratives. That’s why, I think, The Sandman works so well as a graphic novel: it can, to a certain extent, go beyond the linguistic surfaces of traditional narrative structures, the better to allow us to peer into the (wordless) collective unconscious, where reside the fundamental concepts that underpin those narratives – the raw stuff of Story. It’s here that Dream lives. It’s here that lies behind all the roles that Dream plays, all the stories he passes through – so, by extension, here must lie the true reality.

That’s at once the series’ strength and its downfall. As I noted in my review of Preludes and Nocturnes (almost exactly a year ago, wow), Gaiman’s work is powerful – it tugs on our imaginations – precisely because it taps into our collective unconscious, the treasure-house of narrative which we use to read the world. Gaiman knows that we know, on a fundamental and unconscious level, that things always come in threes, that you should be careful what you wish for, that dreams are never just dreams. We know these things because we’ve been told them, over and over again, in books and films and TV shows and anecdotes – in stories. And Gaiman is one of the best writers out there at laying them bare and expressing them in their purest form.

But, by the same token, Gaiman’s work is problematic because (in my opinion) it doesn’t ironise those concepts enough. In particular, it treats that collective unconscious not as culturally specific and contingent upon certain assumptions about what kind of person it’s worth telling stories about, but as global, universal and timeless – literally, in the case of The Sandman. Which means that it’s eternally trapped by the very concepts it exposes; it always, quietly, insidiously, unconsciously encodes nostalgic, conservative, oppressive structures into itself.

To take an example from The Doll’s House: the first issue in the volume, Tales in the Sand, is, as I’ve said, framed as a folk tale about Dream’s human love, Queen Nada. Nada knows (as we all know, from folk tales like this one) that loving a deity is a bad idea, so she rejects Dream, repeatedly and vehemently. He ignores her, repeatedly; pushes her boundaries; has sex with her, against her express wishes. (But it’s OK, because she was turned on by it, so obviously it was Meant to Be.) The sun rises on them together, and, horrified by this unnatural pairing, destroys Queen Nada’s city, at which point she dumps Dream. The spurned Endless sends her to Hell, proving that she was right all along that their coupledom would only bring disaster.

Now, there’s a scene in the middle of this tale when Nada, driven to desperation by Dream’s refusal to leave her alone, takes her own virginity with a sharp stone – in the belief that he won’t want her any more if she’s not a virgin.

The series constantly ties women’s worth and character to their physical appearance or their sexual attributes, while it’s reticent to the point of prudishness about male sexuality and nudity. Although it’s clear that Nada’s belief in virginity as the basis of love is rooted in the fact that she’s a character in a folk tale (this in itself is problematic, though, as the tellers of the tale are non-white desert-dwellers – who the collective unconscious is fond of casting as backward and regressive), what’s jarring is that, despite the fact that Dream proves himself outside that narrative by refusing her non-virginity as a reason to leave her alone, he never manages to ironise her action. The narrative wants us to see it as heroic, self-sacrificing if futile, rather than a stupid thing to do; in short, it sees the virginity = desirability equation as a function of how the world is, one of the narrative archetypes out of which Dream’s world is made. Dream is not trapped by it, but the work is. It doesn’t apply to Dream, but only because Dream is special, and can escape it.

And that, dear reader, is my problem with Neil Gaiman. I like engaging with his work – especially, I has to be said, the Sandman series – and I like arguing with it, because it’s fun and useful and helps me draw out my thoughts about narrative and fairy tale and Story. But actually reading it often makes me feel – uncomfortable.

*Incidentally, Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge also informs me that the first collected edition of The Doll’s House started with issue #8, The Sound of Her Wings, which I think makes more sense thematically than shoving it at the end of Preludes and Nocturnes. Anyway.

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Top Ten Books Set in Summer

Miraculously, we have actually had some decent weather so far this summer (touch wood!). So here are some novels to read in the sun.

  1. Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier. One of the fascinating things about Rebecca is that it’s set in the 1930s, on the very brink of World War 2. Du Maurier couldn’t have known that when she wrote it, but nevertheless this tale of a single summer on a glorious English country estate, shadowed by intangible menace, is highly suggestive of that enchanted, always-fleeting time between the wars: the last summer of the English aristocracy.
  2. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville. Another Gothicky masterpiece, set in the stifling, sleepless heat of a city summer. It’s a book that’s full of nightmares, in a place whose inhabitants are just too close together for comfort; a book that will drag you in, if you let it.
  3. The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon. This is a brilliant postmodern confection of paranoia, pastiche and the postal service. It’s no accident that it’s set in the summer: holidays, after all, traditionally were and still are a time when the natural order is upturned, when things are in flux.
  4. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe. Actually, it’s quite astonishing how many Gothic texts are set in the summer. Udolpho, an 18th-century doorstopper, is also set in Europe; its descriptions of Venetian summers and tours of the Alps are hypnotic and beguiling. They seem to pause time, stretch it out, in the way that the hottest summer days do, languid and breathless.
  5. Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen. Of course, Northanger Abbey begins with Catherine Tilney being sent away to Bath for the summer: her first summer away from home. It’s a time when the rules of her life are set topsy-turvy, and anything seems possible – including implausible Gothic plots about wife-murdering landowners.
  6. The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant – Stephen Donaldson. Admittedly the summer of the Land in the Second Chronicles is a desert pestilence brought about by Lord Foul, the ultimate evil. There isn’t really a “but” to this one: it’s not a light read – but you could do worse than this for a summer holiday project read.
  7. The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien. I love that Bilbo keeps thinking to himself of the haymaking and the blackberrying and the picnics that are going on in the Shire while he is tramping across the Wild. Technically the action of the book encompasses an entire year, but most of the journey is in summer: it really does feel like an extreme summer holiday, a sabbatical from the Shire, a moment of change for its hero.
  8.  Lagoon – Nnedi Okorafor. Lagoon is set in Lagos, Nigeria; the beaches of Lagos are central to its plot, and though there is violence and terror, on the whole this polyphonic tapestry of aliens and humans and gods and sentient fish has a carnivalesque feel to it; again, a reversal of the natural order, an upsetting that heralds the start of a new phase of being.
  9. Lyra’s Oxford – Philip Pullman. I’m not entirely sure this is set in summer, but it certainly feels like it is, and perhaps that’s good enough. It’s a powerful story about belonging, a story about home; and surely the season of nostalgia is summer, an impossible, elusive golden light suffusing a place that really only exists in our memory.
  10. Moving Pictures – Terry Pratchett. I read this a couple of months ago, which is probably the reason why I’m thinking of it here. The unnatural summer of Holy Wood makes the people of Ankh-Morpork do strange things; normal rules of reality are suspended in favour of a shared fantasy that becomes horribly real. (It’s also quite funny.)

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Doctor Who Review: Oxygen

This review contains spoilers.

Well, the space zombies were not actually as bad as I feared. We’re not in the-moon-is-an-egg territory yet.

Oxygen is a horror story whose ultimate villain is capitalism. Following a distress signal, Bill and the Doctor find themselves on board a mining space station whose crew is nearly all dead – killed by their own spacesuits. Those intelligent spacesuits are now hunting down the survivors, taking their dead occupants along for the ride. So: space zombies.

At root, Oxygen is satire. Its conceit is that, this far out in space, oxygen is enormously valuable; so the corporation running the station supplies oxygen “for personal use only” – through the suits, rather than filling the station up with air. If the workers aboard the station want more oxygen, they have to buy it. Capitalism at its most efficient! It’s an exaggeration of the kind of financial logic that makes budget airlines charge you to check in. And the Doctor’s ghoulish conclusion at the end of the episode is that the suits (there’s a wonderful play on words that equates the spacesuits with “suits” – the accountants, lawyers and compliance officers popularly equated with The Man, and popularly portrayed as zombified by such allegiance) are murdering their occupants to save money – the crew have become unproductive and are to be replaced by a fresh one, and what’s the point of giving idle hands valuable oxygen? (And that sentiment feels chillingly Victorian, or even Trumpian.)

I think the episode’s power as satire, though, is diminished by its failure to understand capitalism as a truly overarching social system. I am aware, by the way, that this is but an episode of Doctor Who and I cannot expect it to do everything; but I do think there are a couple of ways Oxygen could have gone to be a little less…mendacious about capitalism’s power.

The moment of the episode that really sticks out to me here is the moment – in many ways the emotional crux of the episode – when Bill’s spacesuit malfunctions, anchoring her immovably to the station floor while an undead horde approaches. The survivors try to carry her, but are informed by the malfunctioning spacesuit that this is “an illegal move”. “Health and safety”, one of the survivors explains. It’s funny and makes a kind of sense against the satirical framework of the episode up until that point, but, crucially, makes no sense when the solution to the spacesuits’ behaviour is revealed: why would a company so obsessed with the bottom line that it’s prepared to kill its workers care about health and safety? Health and safety doesn’t exist because it’s intrinsically good for companies; on the contrary, it gives rise to a hell of a lot of paperwork they could probably do without. Health and safety exists because legislation has ensured that it potentially costs a company much, much more in damages not to do it. But, if this is a company that can, again, kill its workers (and I definitely read this as a systematic practice, not an isolated incident), then surely we can assume that no such legislation exists any more?

My point is, I suppose, that, far from being the party-pooping capitalist gremlin it’s popularly imagined to be, health and safety legislation is actually a quite astonishingly effective way of making sure that companies don’t kill people wantonly any more. And Oxygen‘s failure to recognise that is surely a failure to imagine capitalism properly.

The other moment that takes the wind out of Oxygen‘s sails, so to speak, is another throwaway line, this one at the end of the episode: the Doctor tells Bill that the upshot of the events on the mining station is that two of the survivors go to “head office” and make a complaint. And so ends capitalism.

What?

I mean, this underestimates capitalism’s ability to defend itself to an extent that’s actually laughable. And, again, it’s supremely easily fixed. Perhaps the company folds, and everyone sees that killing people in the name of efficiency is not good for the brand. Perhaps the legal battle stretches on for years, and in the end new, far-reaching legislation is put in place.

But the conclusion “and they all lived happily ever after” is one that doesn’t even make sense for Doctor Who‘s moral universe, and it certainly isn’t helpful for the project of the episode. The way out of capitalism isn’t whistleblowing alone; it’s years and years of legislation, of hard work that isn’t monetised, of sustained political activism. We can start at whistleblowing, certainly. But that’s not where we’ll end. And, generally, the Whoniverse tends to resist such easy answers.

At a micro level, then, there’s a lot that’s good about Oxygen: apart from the satirical elements I’ve mentioned above, the Doctor has a great line about being responsible for bad stuff:

You know what’s wrong with this universe? Believe me, I’ve looked into it. Everyone says it’s not their fault. Well, yes, it is. All of it. It’s all your fault. So, what are you going to do about it?

Which to me looks like a recognition of the state of complicity that capitalism puts all of us into; although the Doctor is feeling guilty about leaving Bill behind to be potentially zombified at this moment, so I think there’s a possibility that this line unhelpfully conflates capitalist complicity with the Doctor’s patriarchal god complex. Still.

At the macro level, though, Oxygen doesn’t quite do enough work to give itself real teeth as a satire. “The Doctor against corporate greed” has been done a number of times before (see, for example, Sleep No More, which even had a similar industrial spaceship setting), as has the link between zombies and capitalism. The latter’s practically a trope now, in fact. Oxygen is a better episode than Knock Knock; but it’s not exactly good, either.

Doctor Who Review: Knock Knock

This episode contains spoilers.

Ah, well. I suppose three good episodes in a row was too much to hope for.

Knock Knock is the requisite Scary Episode of this season. It starts off very scary indeed (well, bearing in mind that I used to get freaked out by the Daleks) and goes downhill quite rapidly.

So. Bill and five friends-of-friends are searching for a student house to rent and having abysmally little luck when a mysterious stranger played by David Suchet approaches them and offers to rent out his mansion for an absurdly low price – provided they don’t go into the tower.

Pro tip, student househunters: never, ever rent a room off a mysterious stranger you just met. Particularly one played by David Suchet.

Against all common sense, the gang sign the Landlord’s contract and move in. But why do the floorboards creak so in the empty corridors? What’s the noise like tiny footsteps that one of the housemates keeps hearing above his head? Why does the tree outside sway in the non-existent wind? And what about Pavel, the housemate who’s not been seen for a day?

These are profound questions, well asked. The paranoia and claustrophobia build up in the house until it’s nearly unbearable, and the differing reactions of the housemates – some passing it off as a prank, some genuinely terrified – are a nice touch. (Actually, Knock Knock has overtones of the spin-off series Class, thanks to its diverse ensemble cast, each with an actual character to play rather than what feel like inherently supporting roles.)

And then – the tension breaks as doors slam and shutters seal themselves and the walls knock, knock, knock. The housemates are trapped.

But they are, at least, trapped with the Doctor, who’s been helping to move Bill’s stuff in and has refused to leave since then. The Doctor quickly gets to the heart of the action and solves the mystery, and Everything is Made Better by Love. Overacted love.

Doctor Who has two problems with horror stories. The first is that 45 minutes is really too little time to build up enough tension to make it scary while also having a decent payoff for that tension. It is possible to strike the right balance, as Blink proved, but it’s difficult.

The second is that the writers always try and make the payoff emotionally meaningful, usually in a way that is entirely, painfully unsubtle. Again, it is possible to have an effective, meaningful payoff, but, again, it’s difficult, especially on a show still nominally aimed at twelve-year-olds.

In this case, the episode is trying to be about parenthood. Specifically, it turns out, the Landlord has been keeping his mother alive by feeding people to the alien woodlice which infest the house. Only he’s told her, for…reasons, I guess? that she’s his daughter, and that as her father he knows best.

That’s the battleground of Knock Knock: who knows best. When the Landlord’s mother discovers the truth, she also discovers that she can control the woodlice. That would be an interesting device, if it was established as a point of worldbuilding: that the lice respond specifically to motherhood, or something like that. But it isn’t. Apparently motherhood just gives her a natural authority – which she uses, effectively, to commit suicide and kill her son along the way.

Mother knows best!

And there are troubling overtones of parenthood in the relationship between Bill and the Doctor, too. Embarrassed by his presence – an embarrassment which I read as Bill fearing her new housemates might think she was sleeping with him – Bill pretends that the Doctor is her grandfather. She repeatedly tries to get him to leave the house in a way that makes it clear that she’s trying to set some boundaries:

This is the bit of my life that you’re not in.

Look at the way the episode frames Bill’s boundary-setting. We know, of course, that there’s something badly wrong with the house, and that the best chance for Bill and her friends is if the Doctor sticks around. So, not only does the Doctor refuse to leave; we as viewers are forced into recognising that he’s right not to leave, because, after all, grandfather knows best!

Except the Doctor isn’t Bill’s grandfather. And Bill is an adult woman. What this episode is doing is trampling all over her agency, undermining all the work the series has done to establish her as smart and independent and progressive. Being the Doctor’s companion, being under his protection, apparently makes it OK for him to infantilise her in a way that the narrative structure of the episode validates and supports.

This, by the way, is pretty similar to the Doctor’s relationship with Clara.

Knock Knock wants to be a moving exploration of the power of parenthood. In fact, what it is is a look at two very fucked up parenthood models. That’s the core problem of Moffat-era Doctor Who for me (note: this episode was not actually written by Stephen Moffat): it tries to make us believe in, and root for, relationships which are not just flawed but actually, dangerously rotten to the core. It doesn’t know what healthy relationships look like. That’s why its more emotion-driven plots don’t work.

Next time, zombies in space. Really?

Top Ten Most Unique Books I’ve Read

  1. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings is the trilogy that launched a thousand imitations, but no-one’s really tried taking on The Silmarillion. No-one who’s succeeded, anyway. It’s not really a novel, because it doesn’t really have characters. It’s not a fictional history, either – it’s too self-consciously literary. It’s a fictional myth cycle, and I’ve never heard of another one of those.
  2. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski. Oh, House of Leaves! A real puzzle-box of a novel, a horror story about the treacherous power of story, one that thinks about the intersection of text and space, the uncanny and the unheimlich, in such a fascinating way. It’s almost a literary essay in its own right.
  3. The Gormenghast Trilogy – Mervyn Peake. This is kind of impossible to place in any particular literary tradition. It’s definitely not realism, but it’s not quite fantasy either; by turns deeply, claustrophobically psychological and almost absurdly Dickensian in its caricature. It’s precisely that indefinability that makes it so interesting, though.
  4. Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. This is quite recognisably literary fiction; but unlike most literary fiction I’ve read, its approach to the big questions in life feels specifically shaped by literary theory. It’s also bewitchingly charming in a way that I can’t quite pin down.
  5. Nova – Samuel Delaney. I read this a couple of weeks ago, and it’s very unusual indeed: sixties SF that’s formally innovative, eschewing scientific infodump in favour of sensory affect and literary theme.
  6. Evelina – Frances Burney. Evelina is a gem. Published in 1778, it’s a novel about a young woman coming out into society. It mixes sensational melodrama with sharp social comedy in a way that’s really quite interesting, and revolutionary, too, for a woman writer in the 18th century.
  7. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. I still haven’t read anything like the first few books of the Dark Tower series, with their apocalyptic dream-sequence landscapes, their uncanny echoes of our world; and I don’t expect I ever will.
  8. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. Each of Valente’s novels is different in theme and setting and approach, though they’re tied together by her approach to myth and story. Palimpsest isn’t my favourite – that would be Radiance – but it is the one I most wanted to savour: its meaning unclear and becoming ever more multiple the more you think about it.
  9. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe – Charles Yu. This was another surprisingly literary SF novel, one that plays with the inherent metafictional tendencies of SF to say something about science fiction and about reality.
  10. The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan. This is interesting because it talks about the intersection between science and culture, a theme that doesn’t crop up too often in SF. Also, feminism!

(The prompt for this post came from the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Things on My Bookish Bucket List

  1. Get a novel published. I mean, I have no intention of stopping at one if I can help it. But one is a start. One is the doorway.
  2. Have my own personal library, i.e. a room that is just for books. This is a goal that is very much for when I am Grown Up and am living in more than one room. I mean, you don’t really need a living room, right?
  3. Own one of Jay Johnstone’s Tolkien paintings. Like, one of the big oil paintings with a commensurately big price tag. They are gorgeous: very different to how Tolkien’s work traditionally gets represented visually, but at the same time instantly recognisable as Tolkien art. It would go in my library.
  4. Get a reader’s card at the British Library. You’re only supposed to use the BL’s collections if you can’t find the text easily elsewhere. So I need a good excuse to do some proper primary text research – which would, in itself, be very cool.
  5. Write a long research piece about how buildings and texts work in the Gothic. I did my undergraduate dissertation on “breathing buildings”: how crumbling Gothic piles take on lives of their own and threaten the reader as well as the characters. It had Freud in it. I got a First for it and I feel like I have so much more to say on the topic – so whether it’s a Master’s dissertation or something else, I definitely want an excuse to do some more work on it.
  6. Know more about book binding. Ever since I read Inkheart at age 12 I’ve wanted to be the kind of person who can look at a book and go, “Yes, that is a classic Coptic binding with oak boards,” or whatever. I went to a British Library conservation day the other week, which was fascinating, and I need more!
  7. Meet, have a book signed by or otherwise interact with China Mieville. Mieville is probably the one author I would fangirl at meeting. (Terry Pratchett would have been, too, but alas, that chance is gone forever. I have a birthday card signed by him, though. It has a cat on it.) Not only is he a stupidly clever fantasy author, he is also really quite attractive.
  8. Watch the upcoming film adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series and pray that it is not terrible. I’m seriously nervous that it’s not a straight adaptation but an alternative take on the series – that could be a great decision, or…not. Plus, they seem to have cut Susannah? And Eddie? And Oy? This teaser poster, though. I approve.
  9. Read all of Saga. I think I got to…about #5 and stopped? This one is probably dependent on finding a library that has the volumes in it.
  10. Make one of the projects in my Steampunk Your Wardrobe book. This could be tricky as I am terrible at sewing – and, indeed, anything requiring more than a modicum of hand-eye coordination. I want to try doing a bustle skirt, though.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Ten Popular Authors I’ve Never Read

  1. E.L. James. And I’m fairly sure I don’t want to: it’s so saturated into popular culture as a Trashy Book (not to mention Rapey Book) that I wouldn’t be able to look past the trashiness (and the rapeyness).
  2. Jim Butcher. I’ve sort of vaguely been meaning to read the Dresden Files for a while now, and I will! Eventually! When I forget that the last person who recommended them to me also expressed admiration for Orson Scott Card and surprise that a woman might be able to write space opera. Awkward.
  3. Jeff VanderMeer. VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is one of those things which I sort of always mean to pick up but which always seems less interesting than other things in the shop. One day.
  4. Ursula K. LeGuin. I know that she is one of the founding mothers of modern fantasy, but I’ve never felt very drawn to her work. Sorry.
  5. James Herbert. Nuh-uh. I cannot deal with horror stories. Unless they are called House of Leaves or written by Marisha Pessl. And sometimes not even then.
  6. Jodi Picoult. It’s just not the genre I read in, or have any particular interest in reading.
  7. Cassandra Clare. I mean, Clare is quite infamously a plagiarist, and her books sound very extruded-fantasy-product-ish.
  8. Franz Kafka. I will read Metamorphosis one day. Probably.
  9. Jonathan Franzen. Franzen’s on my mind because of the Tournament of Books, really. There is a small chance that I will read Purity, but I probably won’t.
  10. Lois McMaster Bujold. I will start the Vorkosigan saga this year! I do believe in fairies!

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)