“What it takes to Survive in this World”: Some all Too Serious Reflections on the The Walking Dead

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A few thoughts on the mid-season finale of the Walking Dead but first an important announcement. I’m doing something a bit different with the blog for the next few months. Every few editions we’ll do a “MONSTERS MAILBAG” in which I’ll answer your questions about the stuff from the book, criticisms of the book, things the book made you think about, or just monstrous thoughts in general that you’ve had and want my take on. You can send me questions through the website, on our Facebook page and on twitter. I’ll gather those up and answer them. You can let me know if it’s ok to print your name and where you are from and even your question. So, send those Monster questions in….yell at me, interrogate me, tell me about how the book changed your life, tell me how and why you threw it hard across the room or set it on fire, whatever.

Ok, zombies. And guess what…this is spoiler-free.

Most of us were glued to the tube Sunday night for the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead. I know a lot of fans complained about how grindingly slow the show had become…I complained about that at one point. In fact, I think we all started to sound a bit like Shane “Why are we looking for this girl? Shouldn’t we get on to Fort Benning?”

If you are a long-timer reader of the comic, as am I, you already knew what was in the barn. But you weren’t prepared for how the show used that fact to pull together some of the threads of this half season in a frankly brilliant way.

The zombie genre is, in part, an arena of ethical reflection.  Freud argued in Civilization and its Discontents that civilization, the way we get along with one another in the world, is the product of repression. Our desires to use and abuse are held in check because we don’t want to live in an anarchic maelstrom, a war of all against all. We want everybody else to hold their desires in check, so we do the same.

But what happens when the constraints are gone? Governments collapse. Money is worthless. Even the electricity is off. And there are flesh-eating monsters out there. Who do we become then? What’s left? What matters? What happens to morality in a world seemingly abandoned by God?

A sub-theme in the second season of Walking Dead has dealt with what it takes to live in such a world and, thus, what really matters. This is why the subject of religion has haunted the edges of this season. And maybe its why some of us have kept wondering; “why is Rick wasting all this time looking for one missing girl, why does it matter so much?”

I don’t want to give the final moments of this season away, but they tell us something about what it means to be the person who chooses ethical assertion over the twin temptations of mob mentality and passive acquiescence to cruelty and wrong-doing. Over the past few episodes these questions have been in the background as Shane and others wondered aloud if Rick can lead the group. Is he made for the post-apocalyptic world? Does he have the stuff?

In the end, we learned something about what it means to be one of the walking dead, (as we all are) and also a hero in a world of monsters. The hero is the one who tries to stop the madness, who tries to calm the crazy. But, because of what it takes to survive in this world, the hero is usually the one, the only one, willing to pull the trigger, to do the unthinkable that has to be done. That’s what it takes to survive in the world of the walking dead. Our world. So here’s to Rick Grimes. And to stepping up and doing what has to be done even when it hurts.

Short blog this time and will save pop culture goodness for next post and I’ll talk about what I’m reading, watching, listening to and console gaming. I await your monster questions and I’ll do my best to answer them!

The One Where I Go After Roger Ebert even while Feeling Bad About It

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There you go again Roger.

Roger Ebert has never been a fan of horror films. Indeed, he is more or less convinced that they are they are products of sick and twisted minds that extrude material only appealing to adolescent boys. He’s been on the attack even recently, responding to a reader’s question about horror in the Chicago Sun-Times by describing these films as “a metaphor for lust, raging hormones, male insecurity, conflicting emotions, etc.”

Wow. That makes those of us who love this stuff quite the bundle of horror ourselves, doesn’t it? And if you write a book that you describe as “a valentine to the horror community” (as I’ve described Monsters in America several times) then, well, you must be a quiet loner who keeps to himself and has a really big freezer.

This isn’t even close to the first time Ebert has launched a broadside against the genre. He infamously coined the term DMT (“Dead Teenager Movie”) to describe, well, more or less every slasher film ever made. He makes the argument that these films essentially plot a narrative that begins with a group of teenagers and proceeds to their gruesome doom. End of story.

Why this long war on horror films? Why reduce the complex and long-running slasher genre to tales of killing teenagers that allow other teenagers (especially weird little boys) to work out their angst? Why, even when explaining the artistry of the great Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, did Ebert describe it as “effective production in the service of an unnecessary movie?”

During the wonderful Q&A at my appearance at Hub City Books back in October, a very smart person who clearly had a strong background in psychology cited several studies (most of them a few decades old) that suggest that violent media has an ill effect on children. This is, of course, part of a long-running cultural debate that has found expression in everything from Tipper Gore’s late 80s crusade against rock music to current discussions about violence and video games.

This isn’t Ebert’s concern but he does draw on some of the same simplistic ideas about how people interact with media as passive observers with very little control over their own response or how they shape the meaning of what they experience.

It’s really a hydraulic view of the human personality. Pressure gets applied to one part of the mechanism (violent and distrubing images) and the pressure comes out of another spout in the mechanism (misogyny, violent tendencies, and anti-social behavior, lack of empathy). “Garbage in, Garbage out” is the garbage that numerous teachers, clergy and other authority figures have tried to feed us over the years.

But guess what? Human beings are more complex than this and so are the cultural forces that constrain and construct them. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously noted that human beings are “suspended in webs of significance” we have spun ourselves. We’ve created cultural productions of all kinds, and find ourselves entwined in them. Even the kid who goes to the “DTM” to watch some gore and see some boobs runs the risk of having an encounter with ideas about mortality, sexuality and the experience of terror that will turn them into a filmmaker, a writer, a film critic, or, worst of all, a cultural historian.

Now, let me put in a good word (as if the great man needs one from me) for Roger Ebert. Film geeks everywhere love him and for good reason. David Canfield, a critic for Twitch magazine based in Chicago, describes Ebert as just a really cool person, courtly and kind. And, Ebert has always given a tip of the hat to classic horror (by which he tends to mean silent-era stuff…but also the kind of thing a lot of contemporary horror fans ought to spend more time on).

But one of the most telling things about Ebert’s most recent broadside against the horror genre is his contention that the films are plotless and only tell us about the issues of the filmmaker and the issues of the audience. Maybe so. Maybe they even tell us about the society that produces them, its fears and conflicts, Maybe film always does that and maybe that’s why they provide primary sources for cultural historians like me.

I’ve got more to say on this discussion and I bet you do too. Talk to me in the comments section and on Twitter and Facebook.

Cool stuff going on this week. I’m on Minnesota Public Radio on Monday and the internet radio program “Late Night in the Midlands” that night to talk monsters and horror. We’ll be posting these new interviews soon. Now, a bit of pop culture goodness.

What I’m Listening to: I’ve really gotten into the old-school British progressive/psychedelic rock band the Strawbs lately. I’m especially interested in their early bluegrass, American traditional, phase and how they morphed into some of the weirdest rock of the 70s. Think Wishbone Ash meets Pink Floyd meets the Decemberists. Also, picked up Tom Waits new one Bad as Me. First studio album in like seven years or something. I love, love, love it…favorite is “Last Leaf on the Tree” where Keith Richards joins in on guitar and vocals.”

What I’m Reading: I’m researching the Highgate Vampire panic for my contribution to an essay collection. This has allowed me to revisit some classic favorite like Bill Ellis’ Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions and the Media and Joe Laycock’s Vampires Today.  Back from my travels, I’ve caught up on my comics pile and am loving Gail Simone’s Batgirl, Snyder’s new Batman and his Swamp Thing. I’m a Marvel guy. Am I turning into a DC guy? Can’t let this happen.

What I’m Watching: Twilight Zone marathon recently and Beth and I watched the great Buffy Thanksgiving episode “Pangs” to commemorate our annual holiday of animal cruelty and ritual sacrifice. I’m watching the Walking Dead and American Horror Story and loving them but need to catch up.

What I’m playing: SKYRIM! SKYRIM! SKYRIM!

Book Tour Part II: Monsters, horror fans and indie bookstores

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Independent bookstores are some of the most important cultural institutions in the world. You can find almost anything at a big box bookstore—at least almost anything that has come out in the last few months from a major press. Moreover, much of the store will be built around books that are largely corporate creations…franchises tied into films that are tied into video games that are tied into the general influencing machine of the global media. Teams of people write some of these floor space-chewing books under the auspices of some media/political personality who is more brand than person and more celebrity than author.

If you bought Monsters in America in such a place, I don’t fault you. We have copies in stores like that and we don’t mind their business and certainly we don’t mind yours.

But you may have missed out on a special experience by not visiting your local indie bookstore. These are places where you can buy a new book like mine and find a cheap copy of David Skal’s older, but wonderful, book The Monster Show. You might also see a book you’ve never heard of from the 1930s or the 1890s. You might talk to the bookstore owner who turns out to be a horror nerd like you and points you to some little known pulp writer in the 1920s (“Oh you like H.P Lovecraft…well, you’ll love…..).

Other than local libraries (including the Greenville county library that gave me access to books and ideas that made my rural, and provincial, teenage years barely bearable) independent bookstores have given me some of the most important cerebral and cultural experiences in my life. So I was more than delighted that last week’s “Circle of Horror” book tour took me to a number of independent bookstores in the Southeast.

I had the chance to do signings and talks in upstate South Carolina and in and around Atlanta and reconnect with some of the bookstore owners we had the chance to meet at SIBA ’11 (Southern Independent Bookstores Alliance). Stops included the Fiction Addiction in Greenville, Hub City Books in Spartanburg, Yawn Books in Canton, GA, Peerless Books in Roswell and Eagle Eye Books in Decatur. All of these proved great fun.

Lots of folks wanted to talk about zombies, which I was glad to do. Plenty of people wanted to talk about their favorite horror flick and gave me the sense that lots of fans out there have already thought long and hard about the relationship between America’s monsters and American history. Many wanted to talk about the role of the monster more broadly in America experience…what is a monster, why we do love them, why do we fear them.

In other words, I got a week of talking about more or less what I love talking about with smart people. I also picked up plenty of good books along the way.  Monster kids everywhere will be jealous that I found a wonderful copy of Monster’s Who’s Who from the 70s at Eagle Eye Books (which has a great, great horror section) like it was sitting there waiting for me. Filled with pics and descriptions of everything from Godzilla to the Hammer films, it’s the kind of book you might sit with for hours when you were a kid (or, actually, an adult).

Thanks, deep thanks, are due to the bookstores that made this possible. Go buy books from them, people.

I made it home in time for Halloween and, in fact, I made it home in time for Beth’s annual Halloween party (and surprised her by calling her from the front yard…it was THE NIGHT HE CAME HOME we joked).  Also made it home in time to do a ton of fun interviews for CBS radio’s Late night with Esme, Doug Padgitt’s progressive radio show, the David Boze show in Seattle and Minnesota Public Radio’s Midmorning program with Kerri Miller (what great fun we had…I will be back on there soon). While on the road, I also had the chance to do an interview with Twitch magazine and with Dave Canfield’s Fangoria Blog. We are posting links to all this various stuff as quick as we can and as it becomes available for anyone who missed it live.

Hey, more soon on my responses to reader questions and comments as Monsters in America walks forth upon the earth. Keep those coming on the Facebook page and write me directly through the site. Reader reflections and comments, even about stuff you maybe don’t like so much, is great fun.

Next week I’ll be going to Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where I’m a visiting scholar in the English department. I’ll be giving a talk to students about my adventures with SC’s cryptid, The Lizard Man. I’ll also give a public lecture on the themes of Monsters in America.

What I’m watching: Halloween night was Nightmare on Elm Street night (the original, of course). I also caught the Bride of Frankenstein for maybe the 17th time after I got home this week. Chicago trip plus last week’s tour has seriously cut into my film viewing/TV watching. Beth and I did finish watching the latest season of The Guild last night (I loved this season’s Neil Gaiman appearance and all the inside Con jokes).

What I’m listening to: I uploaded The Complete Brownie McGhee to my IPod for a Piedmont Blues listening experience as I made my way through the piedmont. Also have to mention that friend of the book and my new friend Jeremy LC Jones literally gave me three boxes of LP’s when I was in Spartanburg. I simply have not had time to begin exploring these treasures but I’ve already found some pretty special stuff…more on this later.

What I’m Reading: I’m reviewing Jonathan Lethem’s new essay collection Ecstasy of Influence and am starting to get into it. I have to say its less fun than some of his earlier collections, more abstract, more self-consciously learned. Haven’t decided about it yet.  My students are reading Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter so I will be spending some time with that so we can discuss how historians respond to or criticize alternative and fantastical histories.

Book Tour: Monsters invade Chicago

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Scott with Stephen Asma, author of On Monsters

What a weird and wonderful week. I’m just wrapping up my time in the Windy City (that did get suddenly really, really, really windy and cold and rainy this week) and its been one of the most fascinating experiences I’ve had in a while. Getting to meet some of you Monster people has been the best part of the trip.

Tuesday night the 18th I had a wonderful discussion with Stephen Asma, author of the extraordinary book On Monsters in a public forum at 57th Street Books. What a brilliant gracious guy. Our conversation sort of meandered between zombies, monsters and spirituality and whether evolutionary fears are the best way to make sense of the monster. We had some great audience questions about the future of horror. I really enjoyed this and Stephen and I spoke about the need to take our show on the road at some point (and we both thought that Timothy Beal, author of Religion and Its Monsters, needed to be in on our discussion).

Thursday night I had a very odd and wonderful experience. Covenant Church, Jesus People USA, invited me to take part in a screening and discussion of the 1932 classic film Freaks. Twenty-something horror fans made up the bulk of the audience, most of whom had never seen the film. Our discussion afterwards ranged from the treatment of the Other in American society to religion and the notion of Monsters. I appreciated the wonderful questions and especially appreciated how they overlooked our pretty serious religious differences to have an engaged and engaging dialogue with me. Dave Canfield of Twitch magazine (and a member of the community there at JPUSA) facilitated the event and discussion. Here are a couple great pictures from that evening.

I also taped an interview on Thursday with the regional NPR show “American Variety” that will air by Halloween. Very interesting hour long discussion that really got underneath the hood of the book. I loved it and I think you’ll be interested in it as well.

Friday turned into a really busy day that included taping a short segment on Monsters for WGN TV. This is supposed to air on Halloween and, like all this stuff, we’ll try to post links and/or air times as they become available.

Friday night I was a guest at the “Terror in the Aisles” event at the historic Portage theatre. “Terror in the Aisles” screened some classic horror and raised money for a local Chicago HIV charity (www.vitalbridges.org). Talked to a lot of horror people and had some really fun conversation with them about the book.  Sold a few books and got to meet David Naughton, THE American Werewolf in London. I, of course, totally geeked out on him but he was very kind to me, signing pics for myself and friends. Great guy.

Saturday, I signed some books at Horrorbles Horror Collectables…and bought some horror collectables at that wonderful, really darkly magical, place.

All in all, I’ve found that my reflections on the book from the last post are holding true. Books change when they leave an author’s mind. In fact, so many of the issues discussed in the book have become much clearer to me, and some I think about in a different way, now that I’ve been out on the road talking to you. I plan to write a post soon about some of those changes and reevaluations. You are teaching me as much about monsters as I am teaching you, maybe more!

Starting October 25, Monsters in America will be all over Atlanta and the southeast. Please take a look at the event schedule, come out and get a book signed, come out and talk to me about Monsters.

I want to mention that the blog is taking part in the Coffin Hop project between now and Halloween. Check this out as it links up numerous horror bloggers and fiction writers, many of whom are having special Halloween events.  You can follow posts on Twitter through this hash tag #CoffinHop.

What I’m reading: Reading Dan Simmons Hyperion for the first time. Many of you sci-fi fans probably envy me! I’m also taking along on the tour Kim Newman’s updated version of his classic Nightmare Movies that somebody sent me a copy of. Can’t wait to get back into Newman’s brilliant analysis. Also doing some research for an essay I’m writing about vampires, religion and moral panics, so I’m bringing along Mary Y. Hallab’s Vampire God: The Allure of the Undead in Western Culture. Hoping to have some time, especially in the mornings, to do some good reading and writing this week. I’m sure being in all these wonderful indie bookstores will provide inspiration!

What I’m Watching: Like the rest of the world, I watched the second episode of the Walking Dead last night. I love how we are getting to see new layers of all the characters and I’m interested in the role religious faith seems to be playing this season. I do think it’s moving grindingly slow but you can’t fault the focus on character. PopMatters sent me the William Shatner project The Captains that I haven’t the chance to watch yet. Hoping to get into it tonight before I leave (Monday)

What I’m listening to: When I’m away from home, I miss Beth and I miss my turntable! The latter I can make up for with some vinyl shopping and in Chicago I made it to Dusty Grooves and Reckless records. I found a pretty decent copy of Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes on vinyl.

The Monsters are in America: Book Release Week

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It’s finally here or, should I say, they are.

Monsters in America is out this weekend. I’ll be out more and more talking about it. Hope you’ve already had chance to catch some podcasts, radio shows or print interviews/reviews. There are more on the way.

Books have an eerie life of their own. As a reader, I feel a strange relationship with the books that have been most important to me. Sitting there on the desk, the shelf or the bedstead, you almost feel like they are chanting, gibbering, snickering or just humming with life. Imagining these things that have such power, sitting alone, still holding the beautiful and terrifying things they hold….

It’s a little unsettling, especially when you like to keep as many books around as I do.

Authors have an even stranger relationship with their own work.  If the books are sitting there silently speaking, they are speaking in your own voice. Aren’t they?

You would think that this would be a comforting feeling, the voice of ones oldest friend. But who is really their oldest friend? If you’ve read much Poe, you know the frightening power of the doppelganger.

And, once it’s out in the world, it’s not just your voice anymore. The book changes as readers read it and respond to it. Reviews create a discourse around it. Authors do interviews where, if they are like me, they talk about aspects of the book that, suddenly, they realize they wish they had emphasized more in the actual writing.

You understand your own book better. You realize that other people may understand it more than you do.

It’s all very weird.

In any case, now that its out, there are some things you could do for me. Like, for example, join our Facebook page. We’ll be using that to post extra content, including the “Armchair Horror” feature I’m starting on Saturday. Every day leading up to Halloween, a mini-mini blog on a great horror flick you can watch through Netflix streaming.

Also, would you consider sharing the website, or other links to the book on your Facebook page or on Twitter? Huge help, obviously.

And then, you know, buy the book. How exactly?

Scott @ SIBA

Scott's monster presentation at SIBA

My preference would be for you to come out to some of the fun indie bookstore events I’ll be doing over the next few weeks. Please check the schedule and come see me in Chicago, Greenville-Spartanburg, Atlanta, Augusta and Charleston. Doing a few events in the Boston area in mid-November. We are looking into the feasibility of a DC Metro-Philly leg of the tour. Next year I will see you in Asheville and at a Book Festival in Orlando and hopefully other places to.

You can, of course, also grab the book on-line from our favorite bookseller. They are all carrying it and you can find their portals here on the site.

And then read it. And talk about it. And talk to me about it. You can e-mail me through the site or follow me on twitter. I’d love to hear your thoughts and watch the voice of my own book change.

I’ll be updating you from the road on how things are going. Chicago next week, regional tour the following….

What I’m reading: Spending some more quality time with Stephen Asma’s On Monsters as we get ready for our public conversation at 57th Street Books next week.

What I’m Watching: I’ve finally caught up with the rest of the world and Breaking Bad now that it is streaming. I’m hoping to get some fellow horror nerds out to see the The Thing remake in Chicago next week and talk about how John Carpenter did it better. And cant wait for the movie marathon I’ll get to see as a guest of Twitch magazine at Terror in the Aisles.

What I’m Listening to: Blind Blake, I love you.

You are Going to Die in There: Some Thoughts on American Horror Story

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Last nightamerican-horror-story-fx I watched the premier of American Horror Story on FX. Reviewers have given it a decidedly mixed reception though my hopes have been up. The early previews made it seem a bit Twin Peak-ish and I’m obviously excited about anything that attempts to Americanize horror.

Having seen the first episode, my biggest complaint is that this is a show rife with cliché, at least in its premises. Anybody who has watched a good ghost story knows that a troubled family looking for a fresh start does not go and buy a house with period charm and a dark, notorious past.

Luckily, the clichés stop here and we get the beginnings of some old-school psychological horror a la Shirley Jackson in Haunting of Hill House.  There is a lot of dream-like imagery and moments in the show where it’s not clear if the members of our unlucky our family are dreaming or waking. There’s also, and this was really effective, just a general atmosphere of dread that pervades the whole story.

My own favorite moments were all about Jessica Lange who is creepy and threatening as an aging southern psychotic. She chews scenery and will maybe give you bad dreams.

I do worry that this strong opening will not really be sustainable. This feels like a really good mini-series or short-season show that could well be ruined with a lot of Lost-like puzzles that the writers introduce and never resolve.

Certainly one good thing I have to say about AHS is its willingness to tap into some of the dark undercurrents of American attitudes toward sexuality and gender. In fact, it feels like a compendium of all the family horrors we’ve been pondering in American society for fifty years. The show explores everything from fears about pregnancy to anxiety about sexuality.

Monsters in America does something very similar. In a chapter called “Haunted Houses,” it looks at how the dynamics of gender, sexuality and conflicted households have provided the subtext for American horror from Rosemary’s Baby forward. American Horror Story involves many of the same kinds of themes—betrayal, family dysfunction, spirits that inhere in the architecture of our private lives. Family is scary.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how much of our most popular television programs have dealt with the idea of what I call “subverted normalcy.” AMC’s Breaking Bad and Showtime’s Dexter and Weeds have showcased efforts by suburban families to lead the good life while, to quote from Dexter, some kind of “Dark Passenger” subverts this effort. Tony Soprano was the paradigm of this idea, living the dream in a “McMansion” while also dealing with the troubles of his other “family.”

I’m wondering if the darkness of the last decade, the subversion of dreams of middle class comfort by the real and growing economic crisis combined with fears of terrorism and “War without end”, have made Americans ready for another kind of narrative, a narrative of terror in which the façade of normalcy gets torn away rather quickly, in which its characters cannot compartmentalize their lives (cooking meth/teaching chemistry or being a dad/being a mob boss).

Now we are ready for narratives that take us to the strangest of places, where the terror jumps out of out closets, runs around in the new real estate we’ve purchased, threatens our sanity, our closest relationships and our lives. Welcome to the American horror story.

What I’m Watching: Recently caught the Norwegian indie Trollhunter and highly recommend it. It’s “found footage horror” though significantly less dark than the genre tends to be. Also, the trolls are awesome and the overall narrative highly original.

What I’m Reading: Was just sent a prelease copy of Jonathan Lethem’s new non-fiction collection of essays called Ecstasies of influence and am excited to get into it. Still reading Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and loving it.

What I’m Listening to: There is no foul mood that listening to Velvet Underground’s Loaded album will not cure.

Historian trapped on Dead Island, surrounded by Undead Hordes, must collect fruit juice packages and canned goods to survive

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Yeah, so, like horror nerds everywhere, I’m playing Dead Island, the new zombie “adventure horror game.” The setting is the resort island of Banoi that suffers a pretty nasty case of zombie outbreak.

Unlike a lot of zombie games, this is not a simple shooter (the line between zombie aficionado and gun nut seems fuzzy to me at times). For the most part, especially early in the game, you are forced to wield shovels, wrenches and pipes, as well as do a lot of running away.

I almost always read lots of reviews before I buy a game. I broke my rule on Dead Island for the wrong reasons. The heartbreaking trailer that suggested that this was a different kind of zombie game reeled me in like a fish.

What was I expecting? I thought we were getting a zombie game about loss, regret and moral indecision. In other words, I thought it was Bioshock with zombies.

Sadly, I was mistaken

This doesn’t mean it’s a bad game and my purpose here isn’t to really review it in terms of gameplay. I will say that it has a bit too much repetition for my taste. Too many quests involving driving places to whack zombies and take canned goods and fruit juice only to be sent out for more canned goods and fruit juice.

Not that you wouldn’t be doing a lot of that in a full-on zombie apocalypse.

Having said that, I’ll admit that this game delivers on story, much more than most zombie games out there. This is not the run and gun of Left 4 Dead. Also, it’s a much darker game than the Dead Rising franchise. It captures more of the spirit of Romero even than games that have sought to copy some of his plot points directly.

What is missing is the sense of apocalypse. This is in part because the action is taking place on an island, with the feeling that this is a mini-apocalypse that can be escaped (I’m wondering if this changes). At least early in the game, you don’t get that sense of the entire world collapsing into ruin. And isn’t that what gets our pulse up about zombie fictions?

Why is that? What’s so fun about the zombie apocalypse?

In Monsters in America, I connect the zombie narrative to notions of the apocalypse that have become an important in American culture. I’m convinced that this apocalyptic sense of the world has pretty deep roots, going back to the beginnings of the Cold War and really blossoming darkly in the 1970s and beyond with the increased influence of Christian millennialism in popular culture (thanks Hal Lindsey).

Does this mean the zombie genre is a simple outgrowth of our apocalyptic fears? Nope. In fact, I think it’s in some ways a reaction against these fears. Zombie narratives are narratives of survival and community, the effort to build or maintain ties in the face of the complete destruction of everything we think is stable and secure.

So, while I’m probably going to continue whacking zombies across the head with my shovel on Dead Island, I am missing the kind of narrative about human loss and yearning and fragility that could have transformed this from a good game into a mythic game. Also, I’m pretty tired of collecting canned goods.

Stay tuned, later this week I’ll be posting about the first episode of American Horror Story.

And, lots of fun over on the Facebook page. We’ll be posting some of the reviews of various monster DVD’s I’m writing about for PopMatters.com during the Halloween season. And starting October 15, you’ll get a microblog called “Armchair Horror.” This will clue you in to fun stuff to watch leading up to Halloween that you can stream right from Netflix without ever having to walk in the world of humans.

What I’m Watching: Beth was out of town over the weekend so there was a Friday the 13th marathon. Friday the 13th: The Ultimate Collection is out this week, and I received an early review copy from PopMatters.Com. We’ll post my review on Facebook when they publish it.

What I’m reading: Just read Scalped #52. Can’t get enough of Jason Aaron’s dialogue or the moody atmosphere of R.M. Guera’s art. But, sadly, it appears the series is ending with issue 60.

I’ve gotten started on Junot Diaz’ The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s as good as you’ve heard.

What I’m Listening to: John Lee Hooker’s “Best of” album on the Crescendo label. This is more of his repackaged stuff but it’s a good repackaging that contains some great live performances. Also wondering if I should pick up “Join Us” the first non-kids They Might Be Giants album in a while. Excited to read about The Decemberists forthcoming EP as well.

I am Nancy: In Praise of the Final Girl

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I am NancyThe folks at www.Iamnancy.net were kind enough to send me a gratis copy of the new documentary I Am Nancy, a short little jewel that follows Heather Langenkamp, star along with Robert Englund, in the original (and the best) Nightmare on Elm Street.

I was expecting to like this and I did. Nancy plays an important role in Monsters in America, particularly in my examination of “The Final Girl” in the slasher genre. I’ve tried really hard in the book to situate the slasher in the midst of both the sexual revolution and conservative counter-revolution. Actors like Jamie Lee Curtis and Heather Langenkamp are central to understanding the cultural politics of these films and the history of the American 80s.

Ok, so, gotta say, Nancy has always been important to me. The ultimate girl-next-door in her iconic pajamas with rose petals, she is the only one of her friends willing to face the death that comes in dreams. She fights Freddy Krueger with weapons that range from a sledgehammer to a coffee pot to a series of booby-traps she learns to rig up from a freakin’ Special Forces manual.

She’s the only one who faces the truth. Not only does Nancy refuse to hide from the Dream Demon. She goes to sleep to purposefully yank him out of his realm and into ours. Back in the day when I first saw Nightmare, she seemed a wonderful combo of many of my female friends, a composite of all the awesome women I knew in high school (here’s looking at you Heidi Parker, Stacey Clark and Shannon Moreland!), as if Wes Craven had blended all of them into a horror-superhero named Nancy.

You’ll enjoy the easy pace of a film that knows it needs to get its message across and wrap things up. Along with meeting assorted Freddy tattoos and walking the floor of a Horror-Con, Langenkamp spends some time with Robert Englund and Wes Craven. We even hear her chat with Jessica Craven, daughter of the great director, who apparently served as inspiration for at least parts of Nancy’s personality.

Not surprisingly, these conversations are real, and revealing treats for fans. Englund is his utterly charming self and has some interesting things to say about what he calls “the real feminist spine” of the Nightmare series. Craven is equally charming and thoughtful, and gives a bit more insight into some of the influences that informed the creation of Freddy and the meaning of Nancy. Hint: go read your Gurdjieff.

Other than these sterling interviews, the film follows Langenkamp as she goes on a quest to learn about how Nancy is remembered. She discovers that, when it comes to the mountain of Freddy merchandise that’s been produced over the years, her character has mostly been forgotten. But she also meets the fans, an international, motley crew of fans, for whom Nancy is as important as she has been to me. Indeed, for some of them, she has been life changing.

Scott as FreddyOk, so I actually like an inspirational stories and sentimental empowerment dramas about as much as I like an unexplained rash. But they really got me in this film. The horror fans Langenkamp meets are obviously not sentimental people and, frankly some of them have been through serious shit. We meet one fan that is paralyzed from the waist down. She describes how she found in Nancy’s character, and the darkness of the series itself, a way to face her very real personal tragedy.

These are not naïve people talking about their troubles. And by giving them a voice, I Am Nancy really goes beyond its own stated theme to suggest ways that horror is therapeutic, that it can provide a healing mirror for people willing to face, rather than hide, from the darkness at the edge of town and the things that haunt our dreams and waking.

There is something of an elephant, or rather a dream demon, in the room. There’s no real discussion of the utterly atrocious decision to kill Nancy in Nightmare 3. Craven, of course, shares no blame in this as he more or less lost control of the series between the original Nightmare and 94’s excellent (I don’t care what you say) New Nightmare.

Still, making the final girl not so final really screwed the Nancy mythos and it still makes me angry every time I see it (even though I find Dream Warriors the most watchable of the non-Craven entries into the franchise).

This doc has my full endorsement for fans of Nightmare, monsters fans everywhere, my feminist friends, my not so feminist friends and even for those non-horror fans who want to understand what horror is all about and why some of us love it so.

Back in a few days with some scribbling about how I’m doing on Xbox 360’s Dead Island. Wow, do I love swinging that shovel. I’ll also be blogging next week about the premier of American Horror Story. Can’t wait as some are saying its premise shows some similarity to the dark currents in Monsters in America.

What I’m reading: There’s a new “Best of” collection from Roctober magazine called Flying Saucers Rock and Roll. Jake Austen edited it and so far its a fun romp through that strange rock culture mag’s history. PopMatters.com sent it to me for review so we’ll post that on the Facebook page when it’s published.

Recently had a chance to read some great short horror pieces out of Christopher Golden’s new collection The Monster’s Corner. Some great contemporary horror writers like Jonathan Maberry Kevin J. Anderson and others all writing narratives through the eyes of some of your favorite monsters (and a few new ones). Great stuff.

I still haven’t had the chance to read the Junot Diaz novel The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao. Going to make time for that this week, if it means cutting into sleep.

What I’m Watching: Recently caught the Tom Sizemore flick The Last Lullaby. Decent film, pulls you effortlessly into the story of a retired assassin who falls in love with the woman he’s been hired to kill. Nothing extraordinary, but worth your time. I also saw Nicole Kidman’s extraordinary performance in Rabbit Hole. She is consistently amazing.

What I’m listening to: I really like the new Dum Dum Girls and even if you haven’t been a fan in the past, give them a try.  Bit of a departure for them. My soundtrack for today has been Mississippi Fred McDowell, some cuts off the Biograph “When I Lay My Burden Down” platter that he shares with Furry Lewis.

Here Comes the Bride: Monsters and Subversion in Bride of Frankenstein

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Elsa Lanchester as the BrideThe Monster rises from the burning windmill that we thought had become its grave, homunculus dance in bottles, the Creature meets the Mephistophelian doctor among the dead, and then those final transcendent and terrible moments when She is born and then is destroyed in a final conflagration.

All of these fever dream images are part of what is perhaps my favorite horror film, the 1935 James Whale project The Bride of Frankenstein. It is justly famous for its campy humor, its deeply sympathetic portrayal of monstrosity and how its cast and sensibility make it seem like a literal coming-out party for Hollywood’s 1930s gay subculture.

It’s hard to know where to begin talking about this film as there is so much going on in every frame. Its often startling imagery sits at the intersection of sexuality, religion, science and even the meaning of art.

As many of you know, Whale chose to frame the story of the Monster’s search for a mate with a strange little opening that featured Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and Mary Godwin Shelley. It’s a representation of their 1816 holiday in which a ghost story telling contest resulted in Mary Godwin’s Frankenstein.

Much of the film follows the Creature through his struggle to relate to the human world, a struggle that includes the acquisition of language, the discovery of music and cigars, and a doomed friendship with a blind hermit. We don’t meet the Bride until the end, though it’s certainly the most unforgettable moment in the film.

The Bride’s appearance at the denouement of the film is an interesting inversion and subversion of social, political and religious values, a good illustration of how the monster movies easily become a playground of differing cultural sensibilities. She’s built to be a mate, she’s born for no other reason than marriage to the Monster … an Eve constructed out of the ribs (and other parts) of assorted corpses to become a Bride.

We all know she refuses this identity. In fact, her reptilian/avian hiss and shriek in response to her destiny is one of the most memorable moments in horror. It’s a sound that signals a rejection of her Creator’s intentions. She’s a New Eve, but an Eve that transforms the patriarchal symbolisms that surround her through rebellion. In fact, she and her intended end up burning those expectations to the ground.

Subversive symbolisms aside, Elsa Lanchester is a wonder to behold in the final frames. She’s almost a kind of architectural achievement, her famed hairdo an art deco masterpiece. Side note, I read recently that this coiffure was achieved by using Lanchester’s own hair and weaving it through a beehive constructed of wire. This is a very literal beehive hairdo.

I don’t want to leave the reader thinking that I see simple political propaganda at work here. In Monsters in America, I make the point there that monsters don’t yield easily to simplistic political or religious meanings. They are anything but simple allegories.

Bride of Frankenstein illustrates this point. Nothing I say above should be read as suggesting that the film works as a simple critique of religion or patriarchy. Like all good horror, it can’t be contained by those kinds of boxes. While it includes these things, it embodies so much more; an opportunity for us to see our selves in the yearnings of the monster and in the Dionysian rejection of our human limitations portrayed in the mad doctors. Unfortunately, we probably also meet ourselves in the howling prejudices of the pitchfork wielding mobs that seem just outside every frame of every Frankenstein flick. There they wait to come charging after what they hate and fear.

The Monster contains multitudes. Give Bride a watch if you’ve never seen it or if it’s been a while.

Do you feel it? The “air itself is filled with monsters.”

Hey, back soon with a quick review of the documentary I Am Nancy, a reflection on horror celebrity, fandom and, of course, Freddy Krueger by Heather Langenkamp of the Nightmare franchise.

Little Scott, Little Frank

Scott doing the Frankenstein walk

Ok, pop culture goodness below….

What I’m Watching: Watched Scream 4 on DVD this weekend. Its street date is October 4 so look for my review for PopMatters.com soon. We’ll post it on the Facebook page when PopMatters publishes it. And hey, has anybody else seen The Guard with Don Cheadle and Brendan Gleeson? Caught it on Saturday and it’s a great romp for anybody who loved In Bruges or the Guy Ritchie crime oeuvre.

What I’m Reading: Enjoying some of DC comics “New 52.”  Batwoman has been a fav with its surreal art and title character Kate Kane’s back story that is a real departure for the Bat franchise. I’d add that there have been plenty of gay comic characters before, but Kane has the potential to be the first truly mainstream lesbian superhero. Pick this one up; it’s an ongoing series now.

I’m also kind of a fan of Marvel’s Daredevil relaunch with Mark Waid.

I’ve also been re-reading Stephen T. Asma’s wonderful book On Monsters. This was a companion for me while writing Monsters in America, and I cant wait for my public discussion with the author at 57th Street Books in Chicago on October 18.

What I’m Listening to: Great Record Expo in Charleston this weekend and was able to pick up some good stuff. I’ve wanted an original pressing of Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat and found it. Also, picked up a nice copy of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica and I’ve really wanted that on vinyl for a while. Listenable copies are not easy to find … one of those records that got played to death under, well, let’s just say less-than-ideal circumstances for vinyl preservation.

Sadly, the traditional Blues pickings were very slim, at least within my price range. Plus, a lot of the good stuff I saw were reissues of stuff I’d rather have on the original Folkways or Biograph.

Finally, in the legitimate hubbub over the anniversary of the release of Nevermind, don’t forget about Bleach. Nirvana’s first album has some incredible gems like “No Recess” and “Floyd the Barber,” as well as “About a Girl” and “Negative Creep.”

Spitting on Graves: Feminism and the Horror Tradition Part 2

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I Spit on Your Grave DVD coverIn a recent, informal Facebook exchange, I asked actress Camille Keaton to tell me a bit about what it was like to play the lead in the infamous film I Spit on Your Grave. If you were a teenager in the eighties, you remember the lurid VHS cover and how watching it seemed to represent something far beyond the pale of all that was good and right with the world.

If you don’t know the I Spit on Your Grave story, here’s a brief synopsis.  First of all, this is not the French civil rights drama from 1963 that some of you art house aficionados may know. Released on the drive-in and grind house circuit in 1978, I Spit tells the tale of a rape victim who wreaks a terrible vengeance on her attackers, offing them in various horrific ways. British “video nasty” laws banned the film and, in most of the US, viewers could only see it after the VCR revolution.

Keaton herself remembers it as a difficult film to shoot, for obvious reasons. The rape scene takes up close to fifteen minutes of run time and is utterly graphic and intensely brutal. Notably, however, many of the critics who derided the film as “vile” focused on the intense and bloody scenes that show Keaton taking vengeance on her male attackers, rather than on the vicious gang rape that starts the cycle of violence.

I couldn’t really get Ms. Keaton to tell me if she thought this was a feminist film or not (she literally just said “yes and no”).  For some, it’s an absurd question. How can a film that graphically portrays violence against women have any meaning, other than a purely negative one, for dedicated feminists?

Actually, it’s a film that strengthens the argument of scholars like Carol Clover who have written about horror from a feminist perspective. Clover notes (in her work Men, Women and Chainsaws) that critics of the horror film have tended to assume that the audience experiences the violence from the perspective of the knife-wielding maniacs.

Clover points out that the audience just as frequently sympathizes with the victim, that male fans tend to cheer for “the final girl” who is almost always responsible for defeating the monster and surviving the night. Perhaps you could even argue that the final girl helped prepare the way for the female action hero, now more or less omnipresent in popular culture.

Feminism and horror may then be natural allies, rather than enemies. It’s a question I explore further in the book when I look at the history of the slasher film and the context of cultural politics in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Next post, I’ll be talking a bit about my favorite horror film…and one of the most politically and culturally subversive films of the 1930s. In the coming weeks, I’ll be using the blog to review a great new documentary about Heather Langenkamp of Nightmare on Elm Street fame called I am Nancy. I’ll also reflect on my experience with the new hit zombie game Dead Island and, by mid-October, I’ll be blogging a bit about what’s happening with the book tour as Monsters in America goes on the road to Chicago, Atlanta, upstate SC and western NC, Boston, DC and, undoubtedly, places yet unknown.

What I’m reading: Scott Snyder’s comic series Severed. If you missed his American Vampire, you missed an powerful interweaving of the dark places of American history with pure, undistilled horror.  Severed may not turn out to be as much of a classic but I like where he seems to be headed. Also, hoping to catch up with his new Batman series. I’ve also been reading Theodore Roszak’s The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein. This is an incredibly interesting exploration of the inner life of the “real” bride of Frankenstein. I love how it breathes the air of the age of revolution and comes with a healthy dose of old-school feminism from Mary Shelley’s mom!

What I’m watching: Re-watched Danny Boyle’s unforgettable take on the zombie genre today, 28 Days Later. Over the weekend I also caught Roger Corman’s 50’s cult classic Bucket of Blood, a bizarre interpretation of the beatnik scene. It’s a completely insane premise and, of course, Corman is at his best with those.

What I’m listening to:  Doing a lot of small writing projects these days and, since I listen to music while I write, that means I’ve had a bit of everything on the turntable. Today some Dinosaur Jr., some Dylan, the Vaselines and some Mudhoney. Caught up on the new Robert Earl Keene as well. My local indie record store is having a big, fat record expo this weekend so I hope to have great new stacks of vinyl to report on soon.