Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Dance of the Undead: Why I don't like zombies and why that doesn't matter

The tide, thank Gods, has finally turned. Twice, twice! in the last two days, my twitter feed has revealed to me people disparaging zombies and the zombie genre. It's overdone! Give it a rest! Too mainstream!


I'll be honest with you: I've never had much time for zombies. If we're going to have revenants emerging grisly from their tombs, I prefer them to be incorporeal. If we're going to have monsters ravening for the flesh of the living, I prefer them to be equipped witty conversation and reasonable dress sense. Between friends, I'm a ghost girl, I'm (and I'm sure this will be a surprise to everyone) a vampire girl.

Zombies. I just don't like 'em.

What? You need reasons from me?

Okay. I think my first reason is the type of surface narrative zombies seem to engender: post-apocalyptic worlds, scratching faceless hordes, heroic (or anti-heroic) types marching round the place toting huge-arsed guns. It's food supplies and water filtration and constant, knife-edged danger. That's... well, that's okay, I suppose. It's not really my scene. I don't, in my escapist moments, imagine myself as some kind of tooled up commando, fighting for survival in a ghost world. I am not hard-bitten and taciturn, I am loquacious and somewhat effete.I know that there are vampire narratives like this, and I don't read those much, either.

Then, there's the second reason. Zombies are, actually, that little bit too scary for me. Perhaps it's just paranoia, but the idea of some huge population disaster that leaves us scrabbling around in the ruins of our civilisation seems just a mite too plausible. As, for that matter, does a worldview that sees a significant chunk of the population as faceless, needlessly destructive, and possible to be killed with a clean conscience. This is the kind of world I dread leaving to my children. I have nightmares about zombies. That this counts as a point against zombies troubles me, but it brings us to reason number three.

Zombies just aren't any fun.

Even the worst, most hackneyed vampire narratives are entertaining to me, whereas bad zombie narratives are just dull. Even good zombie stories only serve to make me jumpy, and while maybe that's part of what they are supposed to do, I just don't get off on that, thank you very much.

Thing is, the function of literature, should always be, to some small extent, to give your reader their jollies. Sure, hurt them; don't pull your punches, kick 'em while they're down, give them nightmares so bad they sleep with the light on for weeks*, or make them feel so sick that they can't eat for three days;** but while you're at it, throw them a fucking bone, won't you?

We escape, we fantasise, we fancy dress. We flinch from crucifixes.

Which brings us to four: from the little I've seen, zombie narratives seem to be more about the survivors. You didn't get bit so you acclimatise yourself to grief, to killing the monsters who wear the faces of your loved ones. You survive at all costs and maybe you lose. You try to live with yourself, with others, with terror, with grief. It is humans put in extremis - the zombies are more of an environmental hazard. And, again, this is too much like life. Vampires stories, ghost stories - these are far more concerned with the monster and that is where my interest lies, especially if we're given a ton of that pesky moral grey.

But... but... but... All this is personal taste. I'm convinced there is some brilliant zombie fiction out there, inspired, intelligent, gripping stuff. There is also a lot of enjoyable dross, and reading is something we do for pleasure, right? Zombie fans, go out and enjoy yourself, gorge yourself on the current glut.

Don't mind me, I'll be lurking with a well thumbed copy of Dracula.

So why the "yippie"?

Well, here's the thing: for the past five years I've heard one heck of a lot of "Vampires, oh God, that is so mainstream and overdone... Zombies, now they're hardcore." I've heard Goths (Goths, for Pete's sake) talk about how vampires have become 'stale' and how they are really pushing the envelope with 'zombie chic' (also, actually, zombie chic? WTF?) and been roundly mocked and condemned for my continuing allegiance to the children of the night.

My point is this: zombies, vampires, ghosts - they are all mainstream, they always have been. One comes to prominence for a bit and everyone jumps on the gravy train until the non-core fanbase get fed up and the wheel turns again. Vamps have had their turn, zombies, take a bow and slip back beneath the ground for a bit. It won't be for long.

So why the "yippie"?

Because you notice the third article on that list?

Come on, Montague Rhodes James!

*or too afraid to turn the light on because then they can see it coming for them...
** I'm looking at you, H.P Lovecraft

Incidentally, if you are a zombie fan, even after my reasons as to why you shouldn't be, check out the Science Museum's Zombie Lab: http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/Home/visitmuseum/events/festivals/zombies.aspx

Friday, 18 January 2013

Anne Rice: On falling in love with one's characters and 'the iron bar' factor

I have very recently come into possession of the majority of Anne Rice's 'The Vampire Chronicles'. So now I've got them all, and I've been reading them. Well, okay, not Blood and Gold or Mnenoch the Devil because the person who gave them to me didn't have those ones. Never mind, eh? Not like I've missed anything controversial or direction changing about the series then.

Now, I've always enjoyed Anne Rice, but, before I begin I will admit to a couple of pet peeves. There's the small matter of continuity – exactly how her vampirism works, as well as the physical characteristics and ages of her changeless vampires are somewhat open to discussion. Is Armand auburn, or is he strawberry blond? And, curly? Did his hair always curl? And is this blog really the place for insanely geeky speculations about relative strengths and telepathic abilities of her vampires?

I can answer that last one: No. So, Alys, stop it. Now.

Then there are the more significant concerns: her pervasive tendency to preach, whether her ideology of the moment is materialism, secularism or Catholicism; the absolute, conspicuous consumption of all her main characters as a way of burning through their obscene, nay, limitless wealth; her occasional, and irritating lapses of voice; the minor, subsidiary and unconvincing roles of her female characters; her bizarre, and frankly patronising, conception of age (especially annoying in the historical circumstances;) her total, I mean absolute inability to to write a convincing English gentleman, and her insistence upon narrating an entire book from such a vantage point.

The fact is, Anne Rice is a flawed writer, but I would argue that, in some measure, it is her flaws which make her lovable; I want to assure you of that before you come to the conclusion that I'm having some manner of apoplexy. So, while in several matters or style, taste and skill Anne Rice is far from perfect, she is still a remarkably compelling writer. And, for the record, I loved Merrick and think David Talbot is wonderful – he's not English by any stretch of the imagination, but he's none the worse for it.

So, for a quick review: although I found The Vampire Armand dragged in places, I've never had that much time for him as a character anyway, it was amusing enough. Pandora was a refreshing and thought provoking look at one of her much underused minor figures. Yes, Merrick stumbled in places, and Blackwood Farm in others, but both were well rounded, enjoyable reads – and to be honest, meeting some new faces was rather pleasant after so long with the same old crowd. Throughout all of these books there is a commitment to character and world development in the aftermath of the events of Mnenoch the Devil; events of which, I'll admit, I have only the foggiest understanding.

Which brings us to Blood Canticle. Which brings us, if I'm honest, to my biggest misgiving about the entire Vampire Chronicles series, a misgiving standing – as he so repeatedly tells us – 6 foot tall with his blond hair, blue eyes1 clad in understated designer clobber or else in velvet, leather and lace. Yes, dear old Lestat; Lestat, the Brat Prince who breaks down the fourth wall with all the subtlety of a bulldozer. Lestat, the demon turned anti-hero turned rock-star turned demi-God turned Saint turned... no, hang on, I'm a bit lost. Er...

Let's start again. Without Lestat, there would be no Vampire Chronicles; okay, we might have Louis moping into eternity with his irritating but compelling melancholy, because his Lestat is not our Lestat. Without Lestat, it is arguable that the world – and certainly Rice's fictional universe – would be a duller place. I have no problem with Lestat. I even have no problem with Lestat being snatched up into the ether and going on some strange, metaphysical journey, meeting Saint Veronica, meeting Chris and converting back to Catholicism. I don't mind that Lestat wants to be good; on some level, Lestat has always wanted to be good. At times, I might argue, he even succeeds.

No, my problem with Lestat is that he and Anne Rice get a little bit too close. Always, he has been given too much emphasis, too much power, too many excuses. Every now and then, his voice slips and we see no longer our alluring, conceited murderer desperate for redemption but a writer who wants us, who needs us to believe that Lestat is really okay. That what he did to Louis, or Claudia, or David, that any of that can be shunted under the carpet; that really, this being is a consummate charmer, a doomed individual worthy of our sympathies, of our love.

I can understand why Rice does this; she loves Lestat. From what I understand of her biography, he is, to an extent, her mirror. When we love someone, we invariably want the world to focus on their good characteristics – their flaws must always be seen as forgivable. When I write, before I get heartily sick of my protagonists and start being really unpleasant to them, I want the same thing: I want them understood, nurtured, I want to hand them over to people who will understand them in all their complexity. And in the intimacy of the first person, the confessional nature of it, this impulse is very hard to ignore.

Rice is lucky, of course. Lestat is very easy to love, if you're into that kind of thing; mouthy, attractive and impulsive, tortured, affectionate, sexual – oh, so very sexual – and dangerous, too. Readers who enjoy her books are generally willing to forgive him – at least, within the scope of the books themselves. All is well; the Brat Prince receives the adulation that he so clearly wants, and which Rice desperately asks. Then... then Mnenoch the Devil, which I haven't read.

After that, a slew of books about other people; Lestat is a minor figure, comatose and tragic, or else moving slowly and plagued by doubts. Taken from the limelight we can feel the equal measures of devotion and scorn which he invokes; and because David loves him, because David has forgiven him, we love him also. Quin falls in love with him on sight, and Lestat behaves with a charity suitable to the capricious and ardent nature we've seen elsewhere. Everywhere, he is shown to inspire love and to make some effort to be worthy of it. That's it – Claudia, Louis and David, that poor girl in Tale of the Body Thief who's name I've forgotten, all those past betrayals brushed under the carpet. The massacre of some thousands of men in Queen of the Damned of no further import. Impulsive, yes. Mislead, yes, easily mislead, but evil? Well, only enjoyably so.

On to Blood Canticle, and, as the effusive blurb informs us, “Lestat really is back with a vengeance”, an expression which will henceforth fill me with as much enthusiasm as a Doctor Who story entitled 'Insert appropriate noun of the Daleks'2.

Yes, Lestat is back, and Lestat is pissed off that people aren't taking his redemption seriously. Lestat is back and, however much he might doubt it, something important happened to him, dammit! Lestat is back and Lestat is... whining. He wants us to understand, wants us to see how important and seminal his experiences were and how we've no right to speak about him as a fictional character and complain that his behaviour has become inconsistent, just because he's changed. “How can I be inconsistent,” he asks, “when I'm as badass as ever?”

And this is my complaint: here he is inconsistent, here he is no longer being badassed. Frankly, Lestat is exactly the type of Vampire I'd expect to have some massive, spiritual experience. The image of him soaring up to heaven, plummeting down to Hell, drinking the blood of Christ himself and stumbling back into the modern day with an insanely valuable relic is his style precisely. If he's going to go all 'born again' on us, I wouldn't expect him to do it in any kind of understated, 'good works and clean living' kind of way; after all, in Queen of the Damned he didn't just bring the Vampires out into the light – he pretty much brought about their extinction as a species. What I don't expect him to do is mewl about it; “It's not my fault, it's not fair,” is the kind of thing Armand, might say, although even he'd say it with more dignity.

The whole problem, for me, is summed up in the character of Mona. About a third of the way through the book, she writes a little essay on what it means to have become a vampire, having been a committed Catholic until that point. Written in the style of a first year Lit student, it's main point seems to be that as Vampires can no longer be assessed within the human moral framework, she cannot know until she dies whether they are part of God's plan and can still achieve a form of salvation, and therefore can but try. All well and good – what else would a Christian, even a lip-service Christian, be worrying about after getting turned if not salvation, damnation and one's altered place in the grand scheme of things. Thing is, this is nothing new – this is what Rice was getting at in the first four bloody books. And the sixth. And the seventh. It takes Lestat 200 fucking years, and God knows how many pages, to reach the conclusion that 'maybe there is a God and, if there is, maybe he has a place for me and I'm not damned after all. I can't be sure though, as the only way to find out is through snuffing it, which I can't do. Cue existential despair.'

We get it, Anne Rice, we bloody well get it. It sounded better the first six times.

1Unless they're purple – I forget.
2This article was written, obviously, before Asylum of the Daleks, which, aside from a few minor points, was a marvellous example of storytelling. Well done, Moff. Keep up the good work.