by Sideshow Lew
©2003 Sideshow Lew -- all rights reserved
written by Will Self
published by Grove/Atlantic
ISBN: 0802135765; $13.00 list; Paperback, 416 pp
Controversial artist Simon Dykes is concerned he's losing perspective. His paintings, which are all about the destruction and change of the body, haven't been getting a good reception and his career hinges on an upcoming exhibit of especially shocking images. Awakening one morning after a drug-filled party, Simon finds himself and everyone else apparently transformed into chimpanzees. The catch is, according to everyone else, they've always been chimps. Simon's insistence that he's a human being in what used to be a human world is simply insanity. Humans do exist, but in this chimp-run world they're merely animals -- inhabitants of zoos, nature preserves, circuses and medical labs. Simon's strange case attracts the attention of one Zack Busner, a self-styled 'eminent natural philosopher'. All the aging Busner wants is one last interesting case that he can base a bestselling book around, Oliver Sacks style, so he can retire in a blaze of glory, and Simon looks like just the madman for the job. As for himself, Simon believes the answer to his dilemma lies in finding his son Simon Junior, the only person who does not seem to have a chimp doppelganger.
Aha, you're thinking. Just like Planet of the Apes. Well, yes and no. In Planet of the Apes, the apes were merely humans in costume, literally as well as figuratively. Their society was constructed to parallel and parody the failings of our own human world. In Great Apes, Simon first views the ape world as "...a ghastly phantasmagoria, built out of odds and ends of (his) obsessions". But the ape world's very realness and solidity denies this. Every time Simon -- and through him, the reader -- encounters an aspect of chimp society that angers, amuses, disgusts or confuses him, he is forced to wonder if it is any more crazy than what he used to do when he was a Naked Ape. By the end of this funny and disorienting book, it's hard to look at your friends and neighbors without feeling you're watching a National Geographic special about a very peculiar variety of animal.
Will Self has obviously done his homework on chimpanzees, and he's admirably clever at replacing aspects of human culture with its chimp equivalents. For example, his chimps are biologically identical to the real thing, so instead of speaking they communicate with hand signs and interject hoots and grunts into their sentences for emphasis. This literary device is a bit distracting at first, but after constant repetition most readers will probably find the constant insertions of "hoo-graah!" and "euch-euch" add flavor to chimp interaction and never lets them forget they're reading about a totally different species of critter. Self takes this to its logical conclusion, replacing phrases like 'he said' with 'he signed' and 'conversation' with 'gesticulation'. Chimp sexual mores also hold up an amusing mirror to our society: One young chimp female hates her father because he hardly ever has sex with her, and another shows her deep religious feelings not by remaining chaste but by mating with several males in quick succession. A popular chimp song goes "I want a man with a fast hand / I want a lover with a speedy touch". Self goes a bit overboard with the scatological humor, but it is all in service of the book's theme.
The originality and seamless reality of Great Apes is an antidote to furry stories in which tigers, bunnies and foxes dress, speak, and react emotionally exactly like human beings, to the point that you wonder why the author bothered making them tigers, bunnies and foxes in the first place. Very few amateur TF stories involve human-to-ape transformation, either because apes don't have the same mythic resonance in western culture as bunnies, tigers and foxes, or because, being so genetically similar to Homo sapiens, apes don't provide enough of a symbolic contrast. But Self shows that even tiny differences in basic biology can lead to huge differences in culture, and even when the cultures are mirror images, the underlying drives and meanings can be worlds apart. Ultimately, Simon must come to terms with his inner ape, and as Great Apes serves to prove, humans are animals and our culture grows from and is shaped by our biological heritage as just another kind of great ape.
The Kedrigen Chronicles: The Domesticated Wizard
written by John Morrissey
published by Meisha Merlin Publishing
ISBN: 1892065770; $20.00 list; Paperback, 416 pp
The Kedrigen Chronicles is a collection of the first three out-of-print novels by John Morrissey about the master wizard Kedrigen and his quest to undo the bog fairy's curse that has transformed his wife into a toad.
Unlike Lawrence Watt-Evans' The Spell of the Black Dagger, or Poul Anderson's Operation Chaos, in which the thaumaturgic arts are described so logically the reader feels he or she could pass an exam in Magic 101, Kedrigen practices a 'wave hand and speak mystical word' type of fantasy magic. But because magical malfunctioning is the entire thrust of the plot, it is hard for reader to get involved in the story when they don't understand how the magic is supposed to work in the first place. This also gives the story a sort of set-them-up-and-knock-them-over simpleness, as obstacles are brought up and then overcome in a neat fashion. Because the book consists of three complete novels interspersed with short stories, the multiple series of climaxes and resolutions give it a patchwork feel that can be very jarring if one attempts to sit down and read it at one go.
There are also some problems with the book's presentation. I encountered several typos and the crudely done cover painting has little or nothing to do with the contents of the book, and in fact seems to be illustrating another book entirely. Despite its flaws, however, The Kedrigen Chronicles is a decent enough light read for those who like humorous high fantasy.
written by Eric Garcia
published by Prime Crime
ISBN: 0425188884; $6.99 list; Paperback, 350 pp
Private eye Vincent Rubio is having a very bad day. Since his partner's death, his agency's gone belly up, his car was repossessed, he's so broke he can't afford his habit, and what's worse, his G-3 clamp is digging painfully into his tail...
Vincent isn't your ordinary detective. He's actually a Velociraptor (the little sickle-clawed dinosaurs popularized by Jurassic Park) in a prosthetic human suit. The human world is blissfully unaware that there's a whole society of dinosaurs in disguise living among them, and the dinosaurs take strict measures to keep it that way. The washed-up Vincent reluctantly takes what seems like a straightforward case investigating a fire at a dinos-only nightclub, but needless to say complications quickly arise, and he finds himself on the trail of the killer -- dino or human, he doesn't know which -- of millionaire Carnotaur (a type of meat-eating dinosaur) Raymond McBride. Vincent suspects McBride 'went native' and thought he really was a human, and enlisted the help of eccentric scientist Emil Vallardo to concoct a half-breed with his human lover, something that would potentially blow the dinosaurs' cover wide open. Vincent at first has the usual dino's rather condescending attitude towards the clueless human race, and is disgusted by the thought of consorting with a lower order of creature in that way. But then he finds himself slowly falling in lust, and maybe even in love, with the enchanting human Sarah Archer, who may or may not be the key to solving the case. The trouble is, the most basic law of dinosaur society is that if a human discovers a dinosaur's true nature, that human must die.
Garcia models his book on the classic pulp detective fiction of the '30s and '40s. It's almost as though he made up a list and went down it, checking off each element as he wrote. Hero is a tough guy with a heart of gold, an addiction (basil in Vincent's case), and a weakness for the ladies? Check. Brawl with a tough in a dark alleyway? Check. Contact with vital information gets bumped off? Check. Mysterious seductress with a double identity? Check. Snappy banter? Check and mate.
But Garcia doesn't take the easy way out and just add dinosaurs to a typical detective story like icing on a cake. The nature of the dinosaur-human relationship (much more complex than Vincent realizes) is integral to the plot. Each twist and turn cleverly explores the weird little kinks in the dinosaurs' manner of living. Anonymous Rex is a purely fun romp, the author's tongue held firmly in his cheek.
written by Laurel Winter
published by Firebird Books
ISBN: 0142302198; $6.99 list; Paperback, 224 pp
The title pretty much says it all. Eleven-year-old Linnet discovers her odd symptoms and her mother's odder behavior towards them are the result of her growing wings. Her mother Sarah also had wings as a girl, but Sarah's mother, unable to cope with this weirdness in her daughter, got the girl drunk, tied her down, and amputated them with a kitchen knife. On the road Linnet is separated from her mother and turns to her grandmother for help. It turns she's not the demon you would expect, just a confused, overwhelmed woman who coped the best way she knew how at the time. She takes Linnet to a colony in the woods run for and by winged people and 'cutwings', those who suffered the same sort of fate as Linnet's mother. But Linnet doesn't want the be sheltered. She wants to be a person, not a sideshow freak, not sequestered away from the human race for protection. She wants to be part of the world, and she wants to fly.
Winter skillfully invests the wings with layers of symbolism. The growth of Linnet's wings is a metaphor for growing up, and the power of flight as a metaphor for personal power, more specifically 'girl power'. She also takes a very scientific view of her winged people. None have actually flown yet. Linnet, with her large, undamaged wings and small size, might be the first. The cast of flightless and cutwing characters at the colony are potentially interesting, but more space should have been devoted to fleshing them out. The only one besides Linnet who has an in depth character arc is Andy, a black-winged girl her own age whose jealously about Linnet's better potential for flight continually undermines their friendship.
This is a slim volume, and everything seems to be wrapped up a bit too quickly, as if Winter felt the end of the page count drawing near. Although Growing Wings is not a classic, it will no doubt be enjoyed by the preteen audience it was intended for -- and by those who dream of flight.
Uzumaki: Spiral Into Horror
written and drawn by Junji Ito
published by Viz Communications
Volume 1: ISBN: 1-56931-714-3; $15.95 list; Paperback, 208 pp
Volume 2: ISBN: 1-59116-033-2; $15.95 list; Paperback, 192 pp
Volume 3: ISBN: 1-59116-048-0; $15.95 list; Paperback, 260 pp
This is a manga for those people who think they don't like Japanese comics, people whose limited exposure to the art form has left them with the impression that all manga are about sailor-suited girls with sparkly saucer eyes and spiky anti-gravity hairdos, giant robots, adorable battle-rodents and ridiculously complicated romantic polygons.
The word 'uzumaki' means 'whirlpool' or 'vortex', and the story concerns a middle-class working town being slowly and horrifically infected and transformed by spirals.
In the first book high-school student Kirie is disturbed by her boyfriend Shuichi's claim that his father's sudden obsession with spirals is indicative of a growing madness slowly consuming the town of Kurozu-cho. Because he goes to school in another town, he notices the strangeness more, while the people who live there have just become accustomed to it. Kirie is skeptical until she delivers a special spiral-design bowl to Shuichi's father and witnesses the man painfully 'becoming the spiral' by stretching and contorting his body. Soon after Shuichi and his mother find his father's broken and twisted corpse crammed into a spiral shape inside a tub. The smoke from the crematorium first forms a spiral shape, then is sucked into Dragonfly pond, behind Kirie's house. Shuichi's mother, driven mad by the sight, tries to purge herself of anything spiral shaped on her own body, cutting her hair so it can't be waved or put in a bun, even slicing off the tips of her fingers to eliminate her fingerprints, but there's one more spiral that she didn't think of, and you probably wouldn't either...
This is only the first of many spiral related incidents, and most of them involve transformations of gut-wrenching body horror. The only false note is the last episode, in which Kirie's hair begins curling up and moving on its own. The sight of two girls battling each other with living locks of hair is just too silly to be horrific, and gives Uzumaki book one a rather weak ending. Luckily, Ito hits the ground running with the second book, in which pregnant women, an odd plague of 'mosquitoes', and a crop of adjectivally delicious mushrooms all factor into one of the nastiest horror stories I've ever read. His opening salvo seems to be directly inspired by the classic E.C. horror comics, and it's followed by a chapter as funny as it is nauseating, which could have been titled I Was a Teenage Were-Snail. Book two ends with Kurozu-cho threatened by the biggest spiral of them all, a hurricane.
By book three, the town has been devastated by an unending series of hurricanes. Reporters and rescue workers who enter the city limits are trapped in the nightmare. The few survivors are being warped and mutated by the spiral force emanating from spiral staircase revealed below the now drained Dragonfly pond. With her parents missing, her brother transforming into a snail (the mollusc-people are being slaughtered and eaten by some of the starving humans), and her boyfriend's sanity hanging by a thread, Kirie's only hope is to descend the staircase and try to discover the source of the spiral's power. As a palette cleanser, each manga ends with an amusing little comic strip chronicling Ito's descent into madness (and procrastination) spurred by a combination of his research into spirals and his editor's deadlines. "I raised snails," he admits, "But all they did was leave behind orange-colored feces."
Ito claims master of horror H. P. Lovecraft as one of his inspirations, and the utterly indifferent menace of the spiral is perfectly Lovecraftian. The spiral is an abstract force that doesn't care about, and probably cannot even perceive, the mortals it destroys. It is truly a 'blind, idiot god', a cosmic force of the type Lovecraft considered the true essence of horror. Nowadays musty old monsters like vampires and werewolves have been transformed from personifications of evil and the supernatural 'other' into creatures we are supposed to find sympathetic, admirable, sexually attractive, even cuddly, by the work of writers like Anne Rice and the RPGs of White Wolf Games and their many imitators. But there is nothing human or approachable about the spiral -- you will never see a message board for people who like to pretend to be, or think they 'really are', something like the spiral. It is this essentially alien quality that makes Uzumaki such a classic piece of horror literature.
I mentioned before this is a manga for people who think they hate manga; the artwork has none of the tropes normally associated with manga -- no giant sweat drops, eye sparkles, or super-deformations here. Uzumaki could be published in western comic book format and sit on the shelf between Brereton's The Nocturnals and Vasquez's Johnny the Homicidal Maniac instead of Sailor Moon and Gundam with none the wiser. Ito's art is grittily detailed without feeling cluttered, with spirals sneaking subliminally into clouds, blades of grass and other textures. He doesn't feel the need to show gouts of blood spurting from ripped off limbs or any such gauche displays meant to shock (not very shocking anymore, we've become desensitized to gross-out depictions of horror). Instead his perfect, meticulous detailing of the bulging veins of a 'mushroom' or the slimy bumps on a snail person's skin have an almost clinical detachment, like line drawings in a biology textbook, that somehow makes them even harder to stomach. Several scenes in the second book made me so queasy I had to put it down and come back later when my stomach settled.
In Japan Uzumaki has proven popular enough to be adapted into an enormously successful live action film which might possibly be released or adapted in English (the way the popular Ringu became last year's The Ring). If you're a fan of comics (from any country), transformative body horror (think of the early films of Lynch and Cronenberg) and Lovecraftiana, there is no better gift to yourself than this wonderfully unsettling set of manga.
written by Gilbert Ralston
directed by Glen Morgan, starring Crispin Glover and R. Lee Emery
released by New Line Cinema
PG-13, 100 minutes
While transformation is a very common theme in books and comics, really good transformation movies come along so rarely it is a treat this month to review one you can actually go and see in theaters. No, this update of 1971's Willard has not been re-imagined so completely that the title character sprouts fur and a tail (although that would admittedly be pretty cool) but I believe I can make a case for it being a TF movie, and one of the best ones I've seen at that. To do so, though, I am forced to utilize quite a few spoilers, so if you don't like that sort of thing, simply take my word for it, rush out and see the 2003 Willard (now! now! now!), and read no further until you do.
Willard belongs to a subgenre of horror/fantasy/scifi movies I like to call 'A Geek and his Freak'. The plots of these films feature troubled young men who bond with uncanny critters that serve as their psychological dopplegangers, expressing emotions and fulfilling desires their human counterparts are unable to. The subgenre is fairly small -- I'd include Little Shop of Horrors (all three versions), The Pit, Monkey Shines, and A Boy and his Dog in it. Other films about guys bonding with critters (for example: E.T. or Gremlins) don't belong to this genre, since the humans aren't damaged goods and the critters don't reflect their deepest, darkest urges. Director/writers Glen Morgan and James Wong, who cut their teeth on tv's The X-Files, approach their movie with full awareness of this and with rare skill show how Willard makes a pretty pathetic human being, but a really great rat.
Crispin Glover plays Willard, a pale-faced man child of indeterminate age (the actor is approaching forty, but his weirdly angled features, adolescent gawkiness and high toned voice blur his age enough so he seems decades younger) whose life is limited to shuttling between two cages. One is the fusty, Gothic house where he is condemned to care for his overbearing mother, a batty, withered crone only slightly livelier than Norman Bates' mom. The other is his soul-crushing office job. Though Willard's dead father (played in photographic cameo by Bruce Davidson, the original Willard) founded the company, he was bought out by his partner, Frank Martin (Emery), a bombastic blowhard who gets sick pleasure from psychologically flogging poor Willard at every opportunity. For his part, Willard is pathetically emasculated by these forces controlling his life: he's so shy he can barely look another human being in the eye or sputter out a complete sentence.
The sad thing is that under the twitches and creepiness there is probably a really nice person inside the unloved Willard. Even when his mother sends him out for traps to catch the rats she insists she smells in the cellar, he selects the traps that claim you won't have to see or touch the trapped animal. When he does witness the suffering of a baby rat in a glue trap, he relents and gently releases it. When the grateful rodent scurries back to him he's so overwhelmed by he actually breaks into tears.
He names the creamy-furred sweetheart Socrates and it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Socrates loves Willard unconditionally, and even better, the smart little rat obeys his commands and teaches the rest of its swarming brethren to do the same. For the first time in his life, Willard has both love and a sense of control... but there's another contender for leadership of the rats in the form of the hulking, thuggish Big Ben.
The two rats are dopplegangers, really external versions of the conflict within Willard himself. Willard carries around Socrates, who draws out and embodies Willard's good qualities, and cuddles up next to him in bed, but when Ben, who symbolizes Willard's hate tries to climb in with them, Willard takes him by the tail and tosses him back into the basement. But Jung told us the shadow cannot be ignored or discarded.
The scene that for me makes this a TF film is when Willard leads his army of rats to devour Martin. Socrates and the kinder, gentler side of Willard have been bloodily dispatched by his boss, and weeping, he asks, "What could I do, what could I do?" Then he sees Ben, and the dark emotions he's been repressing for so long finally have a crack to enter through (just as Ben gnaws secret entrances into Willard's bedroom) and his refrain becomes, "What could we do?" With Socrates gone, all that's left is the animalistic influence of Ben, and Willard becomes one with this shadow aspect of himself. He emerges from the elevator covered in a wave of rats, one of the swarm, and directs them to tear apart his hated boss. As he confronts the man, Willard's inner rat is ascendant. You wouldn't have to scratch very deep to find fur. With costuming, lighting effects, camera angles and acting, Willard achieves a transformation every bit as stunning and total as anything that could be accomplished with prosthetics and computer morphing. Even standing fully erect, Willard seems to hunch over, his hair is slicked down in imitation of Ben's greasy coat, his sharp nose and twitching features more rat than human, a backlight shining through his ears so they appear like the rat's cupped, shell-pink ears.
Psycho references are scattered throughout and Morgan and Wong make good use of this in the final scene, which departs the furthest from the original film and book (in which Willard was devoured by his own rats). Recall how Norman Bates was completely taken over by the force of his mother's personality... Willard, in a tiny cell in a mental institution, lays like a broken doll thrown in a closet while an orderly urges him to eat using simple, one-word commands like those Willard used to control the rats. When the orderly leaves, a white rat scuttles from the shadows and animation suddenly flows back into Willard's features. Willard's rat-self has become fully internalized. In Psycho, the psychiatrist told us how Norman was never wholly himself, and now there was only mother. Willard has become a rat, finally belonging in a way he never could with human beings...
You couldn't have genetically engineered a better fit for the role of Willard than Crispin Glover, who even in real life seems to belong to a subspecies of one. Glover is in my opinion one of the most original and fascinating actors around, but early trouble in his career and his outre personal interests gave him the reputation as being a weirdo and difficult to work with. Lately, though, he's been making an effort to play nice with others (check out his wonderfully feral assassin in the summer blockbuster Charlie's Angels), and hopefully Willard will lead to more high-visibility roles for him.
I'd also like to take a moment to praise the creepily evocative stop-motion opening sequence, which evokes Jan Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay. Titles are generally the most boring part of a movie, but the Willard titles effectively set the mood or creepiness and decay.
Despite horrific elements, Willard doesn't strike me as a horror movie. I've had pet rats for years now and currently own five, so scenes of rats scuttling around don't creep me out any more than most people would be frightened of a gaggle of puppies and kittens (rodentophobes may disagree). No, this is a hybrid of dark comedy and psychological thriller, and its deft, subtle exploration of the transformation theme makes it a must-see for any fan of the genre.