Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

What's it like to rot alive?



I'm fascinated by the concept of rotting alive, of maintaining consciousness while your body slowly decomposes. This is why, as soon as I read the plot of the movie "Thanatomorphose" (2012), at a nearby struggling Movie Studio, I knew I had to watch it. Then, when I googled it, I found out about a more recent movie, "Contracted" (2013), based on the same idea. "Contracted" is the better movie, but "Thanatomorphose" is more philosophically ambitious. 

We figuratively say that someone is already dead when they are divorced from their own lives, trapped in a mindless routine, and they don't have the inner strength to make any meaningful changes. Their alienation is an absolute fact, their minds cannot spin any more narratives about themselves, their center of narrative gravity becoming a point of vague, constant anxiety.  

We say that these people are overwhelmed by life, pounded into submission by the external world, raped and strangled, stripped even of the luxury of suicide. 

Exploring this metaphor artistically implies taking some liberties with regards to what is scientifically possible. Obviously, from a materialist point of view, the mind will have to disappear once the body dies and the structure of the brain crumbles. So the artist, for the sake of his creation, should have to make use of the dualistic principle that the mind and soul are separate from the body. However, depicting the process of putrefaction as realistically as possible adds to the vividness of the artistic product. 

I don't remember the main character in "Thanatomorphose" having a name, so I'm just going to call her Rose, after the name of the actress. Samantha is the main protagonist in "Contracted". Both women go through an existential crisis. Rose is affected by a sense of malaise. She no longer finds pleasure in her sex life, in her relationships, or her artistic work (she's a sculptor). Her body's decomposition is triggered by a persistent, deep-seated sense of alienation and unhappiness. Samantha's sickness has a more precise cause. Although a committed lesbian, she isn't happy with her female partner, Nikki, and ends up having unprotected sex with a guy at a party, thus contracting a venereal disease. Ooopsy! The guy is a necropheliac, so —a fitting but unscientific consequence — the disease Samantha contracts is decaying of the body while the mind stays awake and witnesses the spread of the gangrene. Ooops again!!

Rose and Samantha start by feeling cold and somewhat stiff. Green and brown blotches appear on their bodies for unknown reasons. Then they start pissing and shitting blood and their nails fall off. An especially effective addition to this list of symptoms is Samantha's eyes turning red and then one of them turning milky white. Just like the cum which infested her body, right there on her face, impossible to ignore, the sight of her morbid weakness.  

When we're not strong, all of us, male or female, run the risk of becoming mobile cum-dumpsters, swallowing the salty, alien will of those around us, our bosses, our friends, our families, our gossipy neighbors and co-workers. We end up squinting at the world through a viscous curtain of fermented semen. And that seed's bloom is filth and decay. 

Both Rose and Samantha first react by trying to hide the symptoms of their putrefaction from themselves and from others. Rose keeps applying make-up, although her face is covered with dark spots and her teeth are falling out. Samantha starts wearing sunglasses and a tuque to cover her bold spots. 

At the same time, the gods Eros and Thanatos show up to meet the two rotting victims. The women are overwhelmed by a sex drive coupled with homicidal tendencies. They both end up violently murdering their partners, Nikki and Rose's abusive boyfriend. In an especially disturbing scene, a cadaveric Rose is playing with her worm-infested clit while fantasizing about stabbing her boyfriend repeatedly. Also, Samantha, although in a rough shape, manages to seduce a male friend of hers. When he penetrates her, he moans with pleasure that she's so "wet", but when she pulls out he realizes her pussy was crawling with worms which now want to burrow into his penis. The guy runs into the bathroom screaming. 

While Samantha slowly turns into a zombie and goes after her annoying mother, Rose maintains her lucidity till the last moments, when she's reduced to a bag of bones and there's no muscles left to articulate her screams. This is why I think "Thanatomorphose" is the more original, philosophically challenging movie. Rose doesn't turn into a zombie, but holds onto her identity in an extreme situation, and this contributes to the emotional punch of the movie. By contrast, witnessing Samantha turn into a zombie makes the viewer not care about her as much. 

Both movies are very graphic and hard to watch. But they both miss an important phase of the putrefaction process: bloating. A few days after death, "the gas produced by the proliferation of bacteria exerts more and more pressure on the body's outer wall, causing a dramatic ballooning effect that nearly doubles the corpse's volume. Of course, the abdomen is particularly infected given the large quantity of bacteria there, but other regions are also affected, notably the head: the eyeballs are pushed out of their orbits, the lips swell and the tongue hangs out." (Death: The Scientific Facts to Help Us Understand It Better, by Richard Beliveau and Denis Gingras) Adding this aspect to the movies would have made them even more graphic, gross, and gut-churning. That is, it would have made the films better and more realistic. 

Picture from www.shutterstock.com
The two films also miss another crucial point. The greatest fear triggered by the realization that one is rotting alive is not that one is dying, but that one is already dead. For some reason, assuming the dualism between mind/soul and body the body didn't catapult the soul out to the heavens at the moment of biological death, but kept it caged inside its ruined fortress. The thinking subject is still there, brooding, observing, expecting, fearing, trying to scream for help. Neither of the two movies managed to capture this horror of being forever paralyzed inside the dome of one's own skull. Will the soul facing an empty eternity try to escape inside its memories or its dreams? How long before it will surrender to insanity? How hard will it have to prey for the blessing of nonexistence?

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Stephen King's "Dr. Sleep", much ado about nothing



I'm happy to be one of the millions of Stephen King fans, one of his Constant Readers. I had looked forward to reading Dr. Sleep, the sequel to The Shining, but I found the novel disappointing. Don't get me wrong, I totally enjoyed reading it, it was just not one of my favorites. Even worse. I mean The Dead Zone wasn't one of my favorites either, but it was an awesome book. The same with 11/22/63. But Dr. Sleep is nowhere near The Dead Zone or 11/22/63

Dr. Sleep reads like a collage of previous Stephen King novels. It reminded me how much I loved the Stand, and Dreamcatcher, and Insomnia. But when you peel off the stuff King borrows from his earlier works, there's not much left for Dr. Sleep to be, except a small puff of steam dissipating in darkness.

Let's just say that Dr. Sleep is much better than a Dean Koontz novel, and not as boring as Bag of Bones.

But it's not a good Stephen King novel. 

Dr. Sleep is about Dan Torrance. The kid from The Shining is now a grown man fighting alcoholism and a bad temper. While he tries to stay sober, he decides to redeem his sins by using his shining in a positive way. That is, working in a hospice, he helps sick people die peacefully. After being coached by Dan, a.k.a. Dr. Sleep, old people manage to give their last breath "the gasp" and there is a red steam rising out of their mouths, nose and eyes. The mist hovers around their body and then fades mysteriously. 

Now, Dan gets in touch with another prodigy who has the shining, Abra Stone. Her paranormal powers are even greater than Dan's. But that's what makes her a perfect prey for a group of psychic vampires called the True Knot. These vampires don't look like Dracula, no fangs or capes, but they appear as boring RV people traveling around. Their leader, Rose the Hat, deposits their victims' steam or psychic gas in canisters she keeps hidden in her Earth Cruiser. She feeds her crew from time to time, when they get hungry and there's a shortage of "steamheads". Now, their supply is running low and they go after Abra, "the mother of all steamheads". The girl's shining, especially if extracted by severe torture, will keep them going for a few hundred years at least. 

Predictably, Dan joins forces with Abra and defeats The True Knot forever and ever. 

Two aspects of the novel stand out as original: the characterization of the True Knot, and the psychic wars between Abra and Dan on the one hand, and the circle of the True Knot, on the other. King moves away from the image of evil beings roaming the earth under the guise of a traveling carnival; an idea going back at least to Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. King keeps the idea that satanic groups are nomadic, but instead of equating them to the roaring Hell's Angels, he portrays them as the Mild Angels, the placid RV people. They get away with their crimes because they blend perfectly in the environment, nobody pays attention to them: 

"You hardly see them, right? Why would you? They’re just the RV People, elderly retirees and a few younger compatriots living their rootless lives on the turnpikes and blue highways, staying at campgrounds where they sit around in their Walmart lawnchairs and cook on their hibachis while they talk about investments and fishing tournaments and hotpot recipes and God knows what. They’re the ones who always stop at fleamarkets and yardsales, parking their damn dinosaurs nose-to-tail half on the shoulder and half on the road, so you have to slow to a crawl in order to creep by. They are the opposite of the motorcycle clubs you sometimes see on those same turnpikes and blue highways; the Mild Angels instead of the wild ones."
The only difference between this group of vampires and the normal RV people is that vampires don't have dogs. 

"They don’t like dogs, and dogs don’t like them. You might say dogs see through them. To the sharp and watchful eyes behind the cut-rate sunglasses. To the strong and long-muscled hunters’ legs beneath the polyester slacks from Walmart. To the sharp teeth beneath the dentures, waiting to come out. They don’t like dogs, but they like certain children. Oh yes, they like certain children very much."
That is, tasty children who have the shining, like Abra Stone. 

King is very inventive in his account of the parapsychological war between Abra Stone and Rose the Hat. Abra is able to jump bodies and see through other people's eyes, while others see through her eyes. This is what she and Dan call turning the wheel. Using this trick, Abra is able to fool Rose the Hat, not once, but twice, by giving her the wrong location. That is, in one instance, Abra jumps into Dan's body and gives Rose the impression she is where Dan is, that is on her way to Colorado, when in fact she's at home in New Hampshire. These mind games are reminiscent of the ones between Jonesy and Mr. Grey in Dreamcatcher.
 
While these aspects of the novel are original and entertaining, the story doesn't have enough emotional depth to make the reader care for the characters. I never cared for Dan Torrence as much as I did for Ralph Roberts in Insomnia, for instance. The depiction of Dan's struggle with alcoholism and with the demons of his dad and the Overlook Hotel is powerful and gripping. But then, we don't know enough about his gift of helping people die peacefully. How did Dan stumble upon this gift and how does it work exactly? Also, how can it go wrong? What if someone doesn't die peacefully? What's so terrible about that? Is the dull red mist that raises from the dead man's head, their soul? Is it going to go to Hell or Purgatory? Or keep roaming the earth aimlessly? If the novel explored this part of the story more, it would have been much better. 

Similarly, the author doesn't tell us much about the True Knot. And there must be a lot to tell, since they've been around for centuries. They are empty devils, concerned only with staying alive and finding new recruits and having lots of sex. But their characters, including their leader, Rose the Hat, are not really fleshed out. What's it like living such long lives? What keeps them going? What do they believe in? Do they feel loneliness, anxiety, fear? When they die there's no mist hovering above them. Their bodies just disappear. Does that mean they have no souls? King is silent on that point. 

All in all, one gets the impression that King wanted to fit too much in a book which ended up being about nothing. One reason why the novel doesn't work is that Dan's mysterious ability to help people die peacefully doesn't fit with his helping Abra against the True Knot. The only moment his strange power comes into play in the battle against the Knot is when he manages to trap Abra's great-great-mother cancerous steam in his mind and then release it against the members of the True Knot. But that's just a clever artifice. There's nothing substantial drawing these two essential strands of the book together. Maybe this book should have been two books? Or three books? Either way, on its own, it fails. But it can serve as a reminder of how good other Stephen King books are.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Review of Matthew Lett's He Who Walks the Corridors



Teddy Roosevelt is a middle-aged black man from Oklahoma, named after the 26th president of the United States. One day Teddy decides to help his friend Derek rob a convenience store. Bad idea! The Japanese owner has a shotgun ready for uninvited guests and shoots Derek. Startled, Derek has time to fire a wild shot, a shot which kills the only customer in the convenience store: Teddy's mom. 

Charged with armed robbery and manslaughter, Teddy goes to jail. Things go from bad to worse when, in a gesture worthy of Camus' Meursault, Teddy spits in the face of Father O'Brannigan, the prison's spiritual counselor. In retribution, he is thrown in Detention Block X. According to Teddy, "X block is the worst the worst of the worst; the place where the prison condemns you to stay when even the other inmates can't stand the sight of you. 'Special cases", you might say." 

Besides Teddy, there are five other 'special cases' in Detention Block X: Jo-Jo, a murderer, Trevor Harding a.k.a. Hard-On, a pastor child molester, Sammy, an arsonist, Rodney, a robber and murderer, and Frank, a grandma rapist and killer. But there's someone else in Block X, someone who walks the corridors at night and terrorizes the inmates. Sammy is its first victim. Sammy burned down an elementary school while classes were in session. Now he screams at the ghosts of his victims, telling them that he didn't mean it. Next stop for Sammy: the loony bin. Rodney is the next victim of the mysterious visitor. As opposed to Sammy, Rodney gets butchered and leaves his cell in a body bag. The remaining inmates are more and more horrified by the midnight visitor. Hard-On, the pastor with a taste for kids, claims that "it's the wrath of God. [..] A dark angel; both beautiful and terrible to behold, who wields a fiery sword forged by the sins of man. Its edge is bitter and sharp in righteousness; its thirst for vengeance and judgment an unshakable torment to the wicked." Hard-on says that repentance is the only way to salvation. When he feels it's time to face the Dark Angel's judgment, Teddy reconsiders his crime and his relationship with his mother and prays for her forgiveness. 

He Who Walks the Corridors is a very emotional, gripping story. Matthew's Lett's portrayal of prison life is reminiscent of Stephen King's Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. The story is written in the first person, and reads like a confession. After the absurd killing of his mother, Teddy tries to lose himself in the strict routine of the prison, and keep the dark thoughts of suicide at bay:

I’m not that bad off yet, but time has a way of standing still in prison. It’s like someone hitting the Pause button on a DVD player showing the movie of your life and then forgetting to press Play. There you are, living life; working on the weekdays and partying on the weekends, making love to your girl, playing with your kids, hanging out with your buddies at the house, paying the bills and hoping that someday things will get a little bit better.

Then, BAM! Like a lightning strike on a hot summer’s day, life stops. It all stops, and you’re left with nothing but your thoughts and good intentions to keep you company on nights that seem to draw out into an eternity of misery. I wouldn’t wish this on any man (except for maybe Hard-On), not even on the guards here at the penitentiary because I know they’re just making a living and feeding their families, and can only tell you that dealing with this amount of solitude must be like dealing with a retarded child that you call your son or your daughter; the frustration, loneliness, hurt, and fear of the unknown, where all a person can do is pray and hope that one day the sun will start shining on your face.
Extreme loneliness amplifies the horror of the Dark Angel's nocturnal visits. Like the other inmates in Block X, Teddy has nowhere to run and hide. He needs to face the Angel's ruthless judgment with no external help. The outside world doesn't care about him and to the prison guards and administration he's nothing more than a number. Teddy has no one to turn to, no spiritual counselor, no therapist, no family. The sight of the Dark Angel punishing Trevor Harding, a.k.a. Hard-On, the only one left in Block X besides him, drives Teddy to the brink of madness. 

Too afraid to move, but more afraid not to, I stood there with my arm through the bars holding the mirror, watching as the cloud began to swirl and take shape, stretching itself into a vague human form. Despite the chill and dampness of my cell, I was sweating; droplets of terror streaming down my cheeks and stinging my eyes. My mouth had gone drier than the Sahara, and I remember thinking that it was all a dream, that like the death of my mother, it was happening to someone else and not me, that things like this didn’t have a place in the rational world, especially where Teddy Roosevelt was involved. But it was happening now as a dark figure stood in front of Harding’s cell. The shape was unusually tall, near seven feet and thin as a cat’s whisker. What it was wearing I couldn’t tell in the shifting gloom, but it did have a hooded cloak blacker than pitch wrapped about its shoulders. The figure seemed to be studying Harding. A withered, pale hand stole out of that cloak, stroking at an invisible chin. It chuckled then, a heartless empty sound that chilled my heart.
The Angel is not moved by Trevor's pleas and the pastor's claim that he repents. His punishment must fit his crime.  

A fresh chill swept over the corridor, my skin tightening against its icy bite until I thought the flesh would rip off my bones, watching as the Angel released its ‘children’; small puffs of wraith-like smoke pouring from within the specter’s outstretched cloak and into Harding’s cell. Girls with long hair and pony-tails and bows tied in their braids came tumbling out, each of them ghostly in appearance, but still brilliant in the lost light of their youth. And the boys who followed after were no different, exuberant and full of spice and vinegar , pushing and shoving one another in their eagerness to pay Hard-On a visit. They were laughing and giggling and rough-housing like kids are apt to do, and with a sickening realization I knew in my heart that these children were some of the unlucky ones. Children that hadn’t survived Harding’s brutal sexual attacks behind closed doors, and that the authorities had never known about. These were the unknown children, the lost, children who had never been given the chance to look life straight in the face and say, “I’m young and I want to live, love, and enjoy life,” and the Angel was simply their vindicator.
The children kill Trevor and slurp his meat, leaving behind a pile of skin and bones. His body is "missing all of its internal organs: brains, heart, lung, liver, etc. Emptied, and then discarded like an old laundry bag."

While Lett does a good job of building the tension toward Teddy's facing the judgement of the Angel of Death, the use of the first-person narrative takes away some of the suspense. The reader knows that Teddy survives to tell the story. So the meeting with the Dark Angel neither kills him nor drives him crazy (since he's able to form a coherent narrative). One interesting way of getting around this problem would have been to have Teddy write a journal and have the climatic scene narrated from a different perspective. Maybe from the Dark Angel's perspective? 

Which brings me to another point. Lett portrays the Dark Angel as a supernatural, fantastical creature, shrouded in mystery. And the fact that we don't know much about him contributes to the suspense of the story. However, the reader is bound to be puzzled by a few things the Dark Angel says and does, which could have been clarified and developed further by the author. For instance, after killing Trevor, the Dark Angel answers Teddy's terrified question regarding his identity. 

“I come from beyond the sun, the moon and the stars,” he told me in a dry, pitiless voice. “A place where no man dwells and no one enters unless summoned by me. It is neither a happy place nor a place full of sorrow, but constructed by man all the same. Like your friend here…” 

The Angel reached inside his cloak and removed a shining orb, roughly the size of a bowling ball. Blue fire flickered inside it, bouncing off its smooth dome with sparks of electricity. It gave off a soft humming sound, like the drone of a beehive. “This is Trevor Harding,” the Angel informed me, holding up the sphere. “The rest of him—” He motioned toward Trevor’s cell. “— lies on the floor, useless, an empty carcass fit for the rats and dogs and vultures if they’ll have him.”
Now, the Angel's claim that he comes from a place constructed by man, a place that is neither happy nor full of sorrow, is quite strange, since according to Christian metaphysics, an Angel can come from either Heaven or Hell, either a place of happiness or a place full of sorrow. And neither of those places is created by man. The Angel also traps Hard-On's soul in a crystal ball, but it is not clear that he's taking it to Hell, as expected. My point is not that the author should have subscribed to a Christian ideology, but that the metaphysics he relies on is not sufficiently fleshed out. Compare, for instance, with the evil shop-owner in Stephen King's Needful Things or The Illustrated Man in Bradbury's Something Wicked This Ways Comes. In both these works, the fantastic elements come with a story which allows the reader to grasp their logic. But this again goes back to the author's choice to tell the story from the first-person perspective. And Teddy, he's more interested in saving his soul than in bothering the Dark Angel with metaphysical questions. 

Terrified by the next imminent encounter with the Angel of Death, Teddy goes through a period of deep introspection and soul-searching, trying to find his mother's forgiveness: "The forgiveness that a loved one will bestow upon a person and the willingness of the receiver to accept it." This inner quest for his mom's forgiveness forces Teddy to recollect and relive the most important moments in his relationship with his mother: her sadness and disappointment at his becoming a drug dealer, her joy at him getting his college diploma and starting a family and so on. Teddy realizes that his struggle with poverty and his inability to end the toxic relationship with his friend Derek led to his fall from grace. These parts of the story are very powerful and touching. Lett shows that only such deep reflection on our lives and the ways our actions affect our loved ones can lead to our salvation. Each individual's salvation is a matter to be settled between him and God, and God is all-knowing, so nothing can be hidden from him. 

All in all, Matthew Lett's He Who Walks the Corridors is a very powerful and entertaining story, a story that can both scare you and move you to tears. It is an authentic record of a man's terrifying journey from the darkness of fear and alienation to the inner light of received forgiveness.  



Matthew Lett's novella is available through Wolf on Water Publishing. 



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