As part of my MFA program, I’m taking a class on monsters in the horror genre. I read Snow, by Ronald Malfi, as an assignment for that class. The below blog post may contain spoilers.

Earlier in the semester, my class had a discussion about things that can make a monster ineffective. In my opinion, Snow is an example of one of those things: making a monster too complex.

The monsters in this story are basically snow creatures. Todd and his crew are driving along in a snowstorm when their car breaks down, and they end up stuck in a town that has been invaded by monsters. These monsters have so ridiculously many features that, each time a new one presented itself while I read, I got more frustrated. Here’s a list:

1. They’re made of snow. On its face, this is an awesome concept. It’s original, and in a snowstorm its particularly terrifying.
2. Their long arms can form into blades, which they can use to cut people.
3. Through cutting into a person’s shoulder blades, this snow monster can climb into the body and basically wear it as a skin suit.
4. While in the skin suit, the monster becomes zombie-like and eats people.
5. Children lose their faces and their ability to speak when used as skin suits.
6. A snow monster basically becomes a harmless weirdo after it occupies a body for too long.
7. Snow monsters can combine together like Voltron (or Power Rangers, if you’re too young for that reference) to form a super-mega snow monster.
8. If some of the snow is separated, it turns into a puss-filled, worm-like creature.
9. By some miracle, the monster manages to jam and scramble electronics.

For me, this would have been a much better book if the author had stopped after point 4 in the above list. The electronics-scrambling was worthwhile for isolating the victims from the rest of the world, but still, it was unnecessary. It’s a snowstorm! Why not have the electricity, phones, and cable go out? That would have done the trick without adding yet another layer to this monster.

This book made me sad. It started off with great potential. My first reaction when meeting one of these snow monsters was something along the lines of: Awesome! But that feeling died a little each time we learned something new about the thing.

In the end, the monsters disappear up into the clouds. They are not defeated; they simply leave. Perhaps the author created such a powerful, complex monster that there was no true way to rid the town of them. Thus, they had to leave of their own free well.

When I think of the monsters that stay in my memory, it’s not a list of things about them that keeps them with me. It’s just one or two things. With zombies, I fear catching the virus or being eaten. With vampires, I fear getting my blood sucked or my neck ripped out. With a werewolf, I fear getting ripped to pieces or turned into a werewolf myself. These monsters have a simple essence, and that’s enough. They don’t try too hard because they don’t need to.

There’s beauty in simplicity, and that’s the one thing the author seems to have left out of this book.

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As part of my MFA program, I’m taking a class on monsters in the horror genre. I watched the movie The Thing, directed by John Carpenter, as an assignment for that class. The below blog post may contain spoilers.

I was unimpressed by this movie. In a way, it reminded me of a story we read earlier this semester, Rawhead Rex. Something I noticed in Rawhead is blown up even larger in The Thing: blood and gore and shock value do not equal a good horror story.

In this movie, an alien known as simply “the Thing” massacres a group of researchers in Antarctica after being dug up from 100,000-year-old ice. The Thing imitates other creatures, presumably so that it can kill them for no apparent reason. It doesn’t seem particularly interested in eating the other creatures; it just likes to imitate and kill in odd ways.

It annoyed me that the biology of the creature seems to change with each person it infected. For some victims, all the inner organs remain intact. For others, the organs seem to be replaced by green stringy stuff. In one scene, the doctor is using the defibrillator, and the monster suddenly develops teeth in its torso to bite the doc’s arms off. According to other scenes, the monster needs time to imitate a being, yet it can suddenly develop giant torso teeth at will. I ain’t buying it! It seemed as though the monster’s biology in each scene was selected for maximum gross out, as opposed to being based on telling a cohesive story.

When the blood-and-wire test proved one of their group was infected, the infected person started to bleed from the face, as if proving the point. He made no immediate attempt to run or kill. Instead, he got all gross. What was the point of this except shock value? I love horror that is intelligent, and I found no sense in this moment.

Let’s jump to the climax scene: The Thing emerges from the floorboards in all its glory. It has tentacles, a human head, random face teeth, and half of a dog all combined in one being. The combination of parts in the scene didn’t scare me; rather, it made me cringe because of its sticky, slimy grossness. All those parts would make sense if they each put up a fight. The dog and face teeth could bite. The tentacles could strangle and pull. The human could … I don’t know. But do something.

Instead, in an anti-climactic moment, MacReady blows the whole thing up without much of a fight on the monster’s part. So as far as I could see, the monster’s appearance at the end did nothing but gross me out.

This movie gets glowing reviews. I believe it’s a cult classic. But it didn’t work for me. Gross is no substitute for scary.

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As part of my MFA program, I’m taking a class on monsters in the horror genre. I read The Wolfman, by Jonathan Maberry, as an assignment for that class. The below blog post may contain spoilers.

As far as I can recall, I’ve never before read a novelization, a book that’s based on a movie. When it comes to movie adaptations of books, I generally believe that it’s a different medium, and therefore changes must be made in adapting the source material. A movie based on a book can be different from its source material and still excellent. Unfortunately, while I’ve seen that happen successfully, in most cases, I find that the movie adaptation isn’t nearly as good as the book. While I didn’t love either the movie or the novelization of The Wolfman, I preferred the source material as usual.

The Wolfman movie poster The Wolfman book cover

When adapting a book into a movie, I imagine the filmmakers must think about what material can can be cut. In contrast, for a novelization, those involved likely must consider how to add material and how to deepen relationships. While I have great respect for this task and the work that must have gone into it, I think some of the choices simply did not succeed.

In The Wolfman, Lawrence Talbot returns to his family home after his brother Ben dies, apparently killed by some kind of animal—which of course later turns out to be a werewolf.

First, and most significantly, the novelization seems to have inserted long conversations and musings between the action scenes that originally existed in the movie. For me, the result is simply a version of the movie that drags on far too long.

Second, and also significant to me, I’ll talk about the medallion. In the book, the butcher gives Lawrence a medallion that was “among his [brother’s] possessions.” (Maberry, Jonathan. The Wolfman. New York: Tom Doherty Associates. Kindle file.) The medallion bears an image of wolves attacking a monk. The book emphasizes that Lawrence takes interest in the butcher’s wording, meaning the fact that he said “among his possessions” and not “on his person.” While listening to this story (via audiobook), I found it strange that Lawrence insisted on making this distinction. As far as I’m concerned, “among his possessions” can mean “on his person” (i.e., wearing it) or not.

Medallion appearing in the movie

Later in the book it is suggested that the medallion is not simply a depiction of wolves, but is also protection from werewolves. A Gypsy woman says as much when Lawrence shows her the medallion. Also, during the werewolf’s massacre of the Gypsy camp, the beast spares a boy who happened to be wearing the medallion. Thus, Ben would have been protected had he been wearing the medallion.

In contrast, the movie makes no suggestion that the medallion is magic. There are no ramblings in the film about the meaning of “among his possessions” versus “on his person.” The medallion itself is simply a depiction of wolves, and its existence encourages Lawrence to visit the Gypsies. I wish the novelization hadn’t tried to make the medallion more than it was in the movie. Instead of deepening the story, the book’s version of the medallion presented more questions: Where does the medallion’s power come from? And why, if the medallion is so powerful, does it disappear from the book without being taking advantage of?

The medallion could have been a useful weapon against the werewolf. It wouldn’t be the first time some sort of talisman was used as protection against a monster. But in this case, the use of the medallion for that purpose is wasted.

The romance between Lawrence and Gwen. In my opinion, this aspect of the story was handled much better in the movie than in the book. In the book, Lawrence is immediately attracted to Gwen, his late brother’s fiance. The attraction seems to be mutual almost right away. It comes across like love at first sight, and I believe too much emphasis overall is placed on this romantic relationship.

Lawrence and Gwen kissing

In contrast, the movie allows the relationship to grow organically. Although the two characters appear to love each other after spending time together, and although they kiss once, it doesn’t entirely come across as a romantic love. It feels more like a growing admiration that’s rooted in the loss of a shared loved one. In my opinion, the book turned the romance into something it was not, and did so in a way that was unbelievable and artificial for two people in mourning.

Last but not least, I object to the introduction of “black rain.” In the book, when a werewolf is out and about, black rain sometimes falls from the sky or flows out of dying people. I assume this is meant to be symbolic in some way, or is at least meant to set a dark mood in the monster’s presence. But I expected the black rain to be explained, and it never was. Like the medallion, the black rain seems to have been added to create a deeper story, but instead created only unanswered questions.

I’ll close this blog post on a positive note. While I didn’t love the story, I don’t attribute my issues with it entirely to the author, Jonathan Maberry. I imagine there were many folks with a stake in the movie who were also involved in the novelization. What I do attribute to Maberry are his fantastic action scenes. As I mentioned above, I listened to this book on audio, and I remember on a couple occasions planning to to listen “only until the current action scene ends.” But then the scene would up being an hour long! Maberry’s action sequences are appropriately long, high tension, and exciting, with great visuals.

In the final action sequence, in which the “Wolfman” and the “Werewolf” battle it out, Maberry did a nice job of taking advantage of both werewolf strength and human intelligence. As the so-called Wolfman, Lawrence seemed to remain more in touch with his human side than did his opponent, and the result made for an interesting duel.

I would definitely read another of Maberry’s books.

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As part of my MFA program, I’m taking a class on monsters in the horror genre. I watched the movie Alien, directed by Ridley Scott, as an assignment for that class. The below blog post may contain spoilers.

I’ve watched this movie a couple times in the past, and I love it every time. I think one of the reasons I love it is articulated by one of the characters, Ash, who describes the xenomorph—the alien in this movie—as “[a] perfect organism. It’s structural perfection is matched only by its hostility … I admire its purity. A survivor unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” (Alien. Dir. Ridley Scott. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1979. Film.) That sums up the xenomorph in a nutshell, except I disagree that the creature is hostile.

The xenomorph is indeed a perfect monster. It’s a killer whose blood is acid. Because of the acidic blood, fighting back is difficult or impossible to do. If you lose the fight, you die. If you win the fight, you still may die burning in acid.

For me, an interesting aspect of this film is the fact that it’s unclear how the humans die. Whenever the xenomorph is about to kill, its mouth opens and that weird mini-mouth thing comes out, and then the scene changes focus to something else. We don’t see the actual death, but we hear the screams and sometimes see the dead body from a distance. As a result, there’s an air of mystery surrounding the xenomorph’s actual method of killing.

I wonder whether this movie would have been more or less scary if we could see the moments of death. The movie would certainly be more gruesome, but I tend to think that with respect to fear factor, the movie is nearly “perfect” as is. There’s something terrifying about the unknown. It’s human nature to fear the unknown, including death. In a way, by leaving the xenomorph’s killing blow in the realm of the unknown, the xenomorph becomes even scarier.

Although most people will probably disagree with me on this point, I’ve always found the xenomorph to be a sympathetic creature. The movie is called Alien, and while the xenomorph is alien to humans, it is presumably a native to the planet where the humans found it. It was minding its own business, when the humans came along.

Contrary to Ash’s statement that the xenomorph is “hostile,” I believe this monster is simply surviving. It uses human bodies to propagate its species. I’m guessing that, because this use is necessary for the xenomorphs to exist, it’s also instinctive. Thus, the monster’s primary goal is to survive as a species and not to kill other species. To this end, it doesn’t go out of its way to seek out victims in this movie.

When trapped on the humans’ ship, the xenomorph hides in the ship’s nooks and crannies. At some point, it even curls up and goes to sleep, minding its own business. In contrast, the humans hunt the xenomorph, and the monster merely fights back. For me, it’s hard to feel unsympathetic to a creature that does nothing but try to survive for the entire movie.

I love this movie, and I look forward to watching it again in the future.

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As part of my MFA program, I’m taking a class on monsters in the horror genre. I read World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks, as an assignment for that class. The below blog post may contain spoilers.

It may go without saying that this book did very well, and a lot of people like it. I can appreciate how much work Brooks put into this book, and I think I understand why it’s so well liked. But it simply did not work for me. Any tension or excitement I might have felt was smothered by the constant historical and political references.

The premise is interesting. A zombie war has come and gone, and the story is told in the form of a collection of interviews about the war. In theory, this premise works due to the nature of zombies. Other monsters tend to exist on a much smaller scale. For example, vampires usually lurk in darkness. Even giant monsters like Godzilla only terrorize one part of the world at a time.

In contrast to most other monsters, zombies and the zombie virus traditionally threaten the whole world. Zombies threaten the existence of humanity as a whole. Because of this, a story that’s a collection of interviews with people all over the world makes sense. If zombies are a worldwide problem, a worldwide zombie story should be perfect.

But for me, it wasn’t.

For me, this book lacked tension, which was replaced by history and politics. From page one to the last page, the book simply did not hook me. Because of the sheer number of characters, I had no opportunity to become invested in any of them. The use of interviews as a storytelling mode did not help either because, as a result, I felt separated from the subject of each individual tale. I was told the story, instead of being able to experience it with the characters. World War Z was interesting and intriguing, but that was due to a gimmick that couldn’t sustain my interest.

I might have felt tension were it not for the overwhelming amount of historical and political references—some fictional and some real. I spent every year of my time in college avoiding history classes. Yes, history is important. No doubt. But it was never my subject. I’m a math/science person who happens to also be a creative. The social sciences (like politics and history) have always escaped my understanding. All the history and politics in this book made my head hurt. Each reference drew me further out of the events of the story and made me want to run for cover. I felt like I needed to memorize facts instead of just enjoying the story. In short, this book felt like work.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to respect how much effort and research must have gone into this. Brooks is a scholar, and World War Z is a masterpiece, weaving fiction and non-fiction together so deftly that I couldn’t always tell where real history ended and fictional history started. Kudos to Max Brooks, but World War Z was not for me.

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