Friday, October 23, 2015

Think Galactic: Vampire Junction & Annihilation

For October's meeting of Think Galactic, we had a Monster Mash: a double-header book-club featuring S.P. Somtow's "Vampire Junction" (1984) and Jeff VanderMeer's "Annihilation" (2014). Spooky stuff.

While we had a fairly low completion rate for "Vampire Junction", we had a pretty interesting discussion, especially qua horror novel.

"Annihilation" generated a ton of discussion--it's a really engaging novel from a literary angle, and doing a lot of interesting things with genre as well. We got pretty far out on some possibly shaky but definitely fruitful theoretical branches for this one.

Probable spoilers, Monster Mash MIDIs below:

Oh my gosh, I can't figure out how to embed a .midi file. It's like the Internet itself just outgrew its invisible friend. That's just...terrible.  Anyways I guess you can play this:
Just terrible.

As is sometimes the case, we wound up having some intriguingly different editions of the works. VanderMeer's "Southern Reach" trilogy has some of the best covers I've seen in ages, enough to kind of make me want to track them all down. Asked if the cover art itself contains any spoilers, I can only say that, if we're together, there's nothing we can't face (except for bunnies).

Seriously, look at those mitts.
Also we really can't decide which Vampire Junction cover we like more--the pre-teen-heart-throb Timmy, or the Timmy who looks like a school photo but with disturbingly large hands (no relation. RIP).

Nice pre-discussion of Think Galactic's love of maps, and how the word "balkanized" from KSR's "2312" should be a word of the year--specifically talking about the difficulty of bridging different web-based communities. In trying to raise book-club awareness for Positron, for instance, I am constantly baffled by the balkanization of individuals (those who are or might be interested in the books/clubs/events) into non-overlapping communities/platforms: Facebook and Goodreads being the prime case, but also Meetup, Pinterest, and a plethora of others, including archaic but robust forms like individual forums/comment boards and listservs.

Also from "2312": Wahram's "pseudoiterative" concept of life is both intriguing and useful.

But! Let us open those covers, and peer, perhaps with horror, WITHIN. In practice we actually did a pretty good job of mashing the two discussions together (it was a graveyard smash!) but for ease of bloggolating I'll do "Vampire Junction" first.

 We had a bit of a discussion of the hunt for this book--being out of print, if one was not willing to resort to the Great Beast (Amazon), it turned out to be fairly tricky to get ahold of--which reason was definitely part of our low total readership on this book.

Personally, I had a lot of trouble reading "Vampire Junction"; the best description I can give is that I found it very hard to stick with it as it sort of staggered drunkenly from one violent set-piece to the next. It's a species of gross-out gore & depravity that I rapidly became desensitized to, but it never felt compelling or even comic, just grotesque. Structurally I also found it very weird (not in and of itself), particularly the way it got its major points out in the open super early, and also the way it continued to add to and then divest itself of minor characters in giant lumps. While Somtow's doing something with Jungian archetypes here, or wants to, it didn't click in any satisfying way for me, and as result just felt like some half-baked theory tacked on to the story.

And again, just, not really impressed with the trying-to-be-disturbing approach to violence.

However! There were a lot of things the group found interesting about the novel; it earned praise for its deep knowledge and use of opera, for instance--Somtow's experience as a conductor/composer shining through. Also there's this "pop star concert" crossed with "macabre horror" thing going on throughout. (The scene was rockin', all were digging the sounds / Igor on chains, backed by his baying hounds.)

We also commented onthe way it embraces theatrical/cinematic techniques. It uses stage/film-like language for many of its transitions (*dissolves* etc.), and some scenes read very script-or-screenplay-like. Furthermore, one of the many sub-plots brought in a very media-heavy angle: a character who only understands the world in terms of television & movies, which worldview then spills over when she becomes a vampire.

While the vampire powers here are fairly classic--Stoker-esque, I would say--there are other supernatural things in play (most prominently the magic idol storyline), and also bits of the novel itself that drift over into a more magical-realist, less material mode.

We talked for a bit about Timmy's house, the upper rooms of which seem to flip into a supernatural/multidimensional/psychological what-have-you, no longer obeying the rules that apply elsewhere. Some comparisons made here to Danielewski's "House of Leaves" (2000, which is a maybe-someday Think Galactic selection), and also to Jonze/Kaufman's "Being John Malkovich" (1999).

We also compared "Vampire Junction" to other vampire & horror works, particularly in terms of chronology and the horror techniques used here (the sex/violence/gore trifecta). While those who had read both found it superior to King's "Salem's Lot" (1975), Rice's "Interview with the Vampire" (1976) was thought to be the better-written.

Also couldn't help but
remind me of this
freaking kid.
Tried to suss out some of the psychological stuff going on here, but we couldn't quite extract the Jungian structure: we're told that the vampirism here is a function of deep archetypes, a projection (or source?) of collective unconscious desires, but we couldn't do much with that idea--although we did toy around with the notion of the vampire as a sort of a priori entity (not the last time discussion would take a Kantian flavor this evening), and whether Timmy is a function of dreams/nightmares or is himself dreaming the world. Obviously there's a lot going on here in terms of sexuality, feeding, and the fact that Timmy is gelded--we discussed the psychology of this vampire as sort of doubly-eternally presexual (really seemed to me like it could have been one or the other, not sure what both did for the narrative).

Also took a brief digression on castrati vocalists (if you haven't heard, there's a surviving recording or two out there).

We used the psychoanalyst in "Vampire Junction" as a connection to "Annihilation"--the psychologist--and also talked for a bit about the trope/trend of talk therapy as used here, Freud, Jung, and Carl Rogers' person-centered treatment. We also talked for a bit about Somtow's actual connection to Thai royalty and his story in "Mothership", which Think Galactic read back in June.

I've been kicking around an idea for a while, a feature I want to do on Positron: "hypothetical syllabi". After our "Junction" discussion, hoping to convince Gremlin to do one on the vampyr.

In talking about "Annihilation", one of the first things we brought up is how spare and minimal the text is, especially in contrast with "Vampire Junction." The horror here is of a few different types, including a deep species of paranoia. Some of us felt that the dryness/abstractness of the narrator removed some of the spookiness, while for others (including me), this considerably enhanced it.

If you haven't read "Annihilation", can't recommend it (and the rest of the "Southern Reach" trilogy) enough. "Weird" is a common descriptor; I also really like "strange pastoral" (from Roberts' Strange Horizons review). The Southern Reach is a government agency set to watch/investigate/resolve "Area X", a mysterious patch of wilderness surrounded by an even more-mysterious border. "Annihilation" follows an expedition composed of four nameless women--psychologist, surveyor, anthropologist, biologist--as they attempt to learn more. The biologist is our narrator--we eventually learn that we're reading her written account.

To lay my cards on the table: the biologist is one of my favorite characters in fiction, period, and for me her tone in presenting the tale made her completely transparent. Hers is a species of observer, of landscape lover, that I really identify with, and rarely see portrayed. That focus, coupled with the minimal writing and first-person narration, lent a documentarian, hand-cam kind of quality to the story that worked very well for me. At group we talked about her as "introverted", which is definitely the going term but not, I think, quite right: she isn't turned inwards, but wholly outwards towards nonhuman things. More concerned with seeing, being part of a place than of doing anything with that. Reminded me of one of my favorite of Keats' letters: "A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity--he is continually in for--and filling some other Body" (1818).

Lots of interesting discussion making thematic and stylistic comparisons. We brought up Lovecraft--it seems unavoidable--for the sense of an incomprehensible, sanity-destroying alien presence impinging on our characters. However, where Lovecraft is incredibly florid and often relies more on the "reaction shot" than the horrid thing itself, the biologist's account is spare, specific, focused on actual detail. (Incidentally, worth looking at Lovecraft minus descriptors if you didn't catch that floating around.)

Other works we brought up:
  • J.G. Ballard's "The Drowned World" (1962), which I haven't read but is now on my list.
  • Algernon Blackwood's "Wendigo" (1910).
  • Which led to me bringing up Fessenden's 2006 film "The Last Winter" (Fessenden also wrote/directed 2001's "Wendigo")--which has a lot of odd resonances with "Annihilation", being a sort of supernatural-monster-psychological-ecological horror movie where the landscape is a big player.
  • M.R. Carey's "The Girl with all the Gifts" (2014), for its particular fungal/transformative apocalypse (also a CNSC selection last year).
  • The brothers Strugatsky's "Roadside Picnic" 1971, which contains something quite a bit like "Area X".
  • Lem's 1961 "Solaris", for the "confronted by ineffable" alien theme. Also the doppelgängers. Also the theme of "crypsis", of mimicry. (Also a Classic Sci-Fi selection.)
  • Think Galactic's last selection, Byrne's "The Girl in the Road" (2014) came up because of the unreliable narrator issues--although the biologist is a different type of unreliable. Also, though I forgot to bring this up at group, it occurs to me that the biologist's "brightness" has some parallels to Mariama's "kreen".
  • The "infected and possibly turning into/replaced by something else" is obviously a big trope and and we brought up tons of examples. Bringing up the Thorian from "Mass Effect" (2007-12), I lamented the difficulty of discussing a video game at Think Galactic-- "Mass Effect" would definitely be worth it, and even has some non-gamer-friendly mechanics, but alas! Still probably too hard/big a time commitment.
Geese, for instance: beautiful, yet
also truly terrifying. Sublime.
The horrific aspects of this novel are intermingled with a kind of love of landscape and nature that led to some interesting discussions. Kant's notion of the sublime as a kind of aesthetic pleasure that is also terrifying, for instance--a lot of his examples are things like tall mountains, thunderstorms, etc. It also seems that one could do a strongly Kierkegaardian reading of "Annihilation" along these lines.

I also connect this idea--a kind of beauty that is simultaneously threatening--with some passages from a few of my favorite nature writers--Leopold's "Sand County Almanac" (1949), for instance, where the knowledge that there is danger in a landscape (predators, falls, severe weather) enhances its beauty and richness.

VanderMeer has provided a great list of influences on "The Southern Reach", which lines up nicely with our discussion's philosophical/ecological/literary digressions. I still want to do a hypothetical syllabi on "Annihiliation" someday, but honestly he's done most of the work for me with that list.

Ways to my heart: include lots of geographical/botanical description.
Have a map.
(Apparently this a semi-official one, though not inclued in my US copy).
For a while we just kind of bandied about what we found scary/unsettling in the text: there's a lot to choose from. The moaning thing in the reeds! The Crawler! The paranoia, especially after you learn that the biologist is 1.) hypnotically compromised, 2.) infected by whatever "the brightness" is, and 3.) an unreliable narrator insofar as she acknowledges that she has lied/distorted/omitted at a few different points. For me, one of the dead-creepiest parts was the (ineffective) hypnotic command to "continue to see the tunnel as made of stone"--AS OPPOSED TO WHAT IT'S REALLY MADE OF...The best part of the horror here is it's very cognitive, you have to be there and involved and trying to figure it out--so when you find, for example, that giant pile of rotting journals, and realize that the "previous eleven expeditions" are only the tip of the iceberg---oy.

To be fair, it wouldn't be too
surprising to run into something
like this in Area X.
We also talked for a good long while about the words on the wall:
Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dim lit halls of other places forms that never were and never could be writhe for the impatience of the few who never saw what could have been...
Didn't do much for some people, really affected others. Having grown up with a certain amount of King James Bible-style Protestant sermonizing, the rhythms and weird imagery really got to me, but others compared it more to Carroll's "Jabberwocky" (1872)--mostly nonsensical.

For me, the words on the wall kind of lift this novel out of easy genre-placement, elevate it to something weirder. Without the words, the story is kind of a (frustrated) "invasion whodunit"--figuring out if there are aliens or military experiments gone wrong or whatever to blame for all this. "Area X Files", as it were. With the words on the wall, it becomes apparent that something much weirder is going on, both within the fictive world and in terms of generic placement.

There's a lot of linguistic...signification going on here, the more apparent perhaps because all our central characters lack names. A particularly effective scene is the surveyor demanding to know the biologist's during their confrontation, for instance. We talked about the debate on whether it's a "tower" or "tunnel", the reader-y horror of all those journals rotting away, and the scream-inducing effect of the biologist discarding the psychologist's letter unread (compared to a similar unread letter in Chabon's "Kavalier & Clay" [2000], also).

Words on the wall, language significance, possible alien invasion leading John to use Burrows' quip that "Language is a virus from outer space". Shades of Stephenson's "Snow Crash" (1992) & Delany's "Babel-17" (1966). But in tracking down that Burroughs quote--looking in "Naked Lunch" (1959)--I found this passage:
Democracy is cancerous, and bureaus are its cancer. A bureau takes root anywhere in the state, turns malignant...and grows and grows, always reproducing more of its own kind, until it chokes the host if not controlled or excised... Bureaucracy is wrong as a cancer, a turning away from the human evolutionary direction of infinite potentials and differentiation and independent spontaneous action to the complete parasitism of a virus.
Pairs nicely with "Annihilation", yes, the contrast/parallels between Area X and the Southern Reach bureau? (BTW, PKD had some thoughts on this. Looking at you, John. LOL. KTHX.)

One of the weirdest, heaviest connections that sprang to my mind on reading "Annihilation" was with Sartre, particularly his novel "Nausea" (1938). That has this bizarre centrepiece where the narrator encounters the "real existence" or some such of the world, focused on a tree in a park. And it is HORRIFIC, for him at least:
So I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn't remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me. Then I had this vision. It left me breathless.
The vision here (my eyes beheld an eerie sight) is of "existence itself", not the mental constructs we make of our surroundings. (I'm sure I'm doing all kinds of injustice to this idea. Sorry, JP.) What's weird is that Sartre tries to convey this through descriptions of how grotesque or horrific everyday objects are, as though there is something deeply repellent hidden beneath the surfaces around us. A kind of disgust at the way that the matter of the universe doesn't care about human meaning, much as Sartre elsewhere finds very troubling the way that our identity lies somewhat in the purview of the others who look at and think about us.

Very weird, and syncing up somewhat with the world of "Annihilation"--except that, for VanderMeer, nonhuman reality is not in and of itself bad, may be beautiful, may be a source of redemptive or liberating transformation. The biologist is a very different character than Roquentin, though--well, enough with Sartre.

Although I must stick in the quip that someone at the table said--"Hell is Other Landscapes". Too good.

So much to talk about with this novel! I really like Gremlin's point/read, that there is a sense in which "Annihilation" is actually (though pretty covertly) a love story, the biologist's actions and narrative really all about her relationship with her husband. In a way, with lots of caveats, but I really like this idea as one layer going on.

We talked about the structure of the novel, the psychologist's management style and character, and the Crawler/lighthouse keeper reveal, which is kind of like an inverted Scooby Doo conclusion--the monster was really kooky Old Man Evans all along, but that turns out to be far more terrifying than we thought. We talked about "the brightness" and zen meditation, the way the "re-pristine" landscape reminded us a tinch of "Station Eleven" (2014, recently discussed). Because one Buffy ref is not enough per post, I am obligated to record that Area X and the tower/tunnel were compared to the Hellmouth. We talked about gods of creation and destruction (and Eddie Izzard's bit on that), and, somehow or other (bureaucratic impulses coupled with unearthly voyages?), Buzz Aldrin's travel voucher. For $33.31. Huh.

Great discussion, as per always. Also I sort of fumblingly brought up the idea of maybe changing our meetup structure slightly--meeting earlier, or with a set end time--to allow some more post-discussion food/drinks/more discussion. But we'll see! Next time: "Saga", as many volumes as one is inclined to read!

By the way, here are a few of the alternate & international "Southern Reach" covers I'm so enamored of:

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