Sunday 26 March 2023

Pieces of Hate by Ray Garton (Crossroad Press) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Horror collection shows gorging on hatred has stomach- and mind-churning consequences 

Most of the stories within this horror collection feature characters who hate something: cats, homosexuals, bullies, heavy metal, themselves. There’s even a guy who’s not sure why he’s so full of hatred. And most of the time, the hatred does not pay off. 

Garton has a talent for transforming a seemingly inane situation – a talk show interview or hospital room interaction, for instance – into an attack of ancient Roman barbarity. Some stories have all the subtlety of a hook through the cheek, while others go out on (or detach) a limb to show the repercussions of abuse, moral rigidity, and herd mentality. 

In “Bait”, one of my favourite splatterpunk (and extremely controversial) stories, a nine-year-old boy and his younger sister living in a seaside town discover what’s been happening to the missing children seen on milk cartons (yes, that used to be a thing). The short but terrifying read shows mankind’s potential for cruelty. It also slips in an ecological message, as well as a warning about taking the focus off our children.

The heavy metal musician protagonist of “The Devil’s Music” dies and meets Satan but refuses to believe it’s him. The story, reversing the common belief that the devil likes heavy metal, takes a shot at censorship and politicians who take a moral high ground. 

“A Gift From Above” starts like a Hallmark Channel film and warps into a bloodbath worthy of early Stephen King. Margaret, once spurned by her classmates and living in her sister Lynda’s shadow, has reinvented herself as an attractive and successful advertising agent. Then she receives a supernatural gift of healing but is warned it could “sour” her. The story offers a supernatural take on the ramifications of holding on to grudges. 

In “Cat Hater”, a feline version of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, Clive Allen Trumbles (note the initials) has always hated cats. He thinks them conniving, snobby, and even intent on taking women’s attention away from him. When he accidentally kills one, he starts to believe the cats in his neighbourhood are conspiring against him. 

“Ophilia Raphaeldo” – the name is a clever mixture of once-popular talk show hosts – takes a jab at exploitative talk shows. Four women watch a show hosted by the titular character. An interview with a novelist devolves into an indictment against him for not calling a woman back after a first date and an attack on his chauvinistic writing. Though the author’s explanations seem perfectly rational, Raphaeldo fans the flames growing within her female audience. The story comments on how groupthink can cause one to abandon one’s beliefs and even rationality. 

The lead character in “Choices” embraces capital punishment, rails against abortion, and shames those who think differently from him. A severe electrical storm projects him into a bleak future, where he discovers his way of thinking may have consequences. 

In “Pieces,” Garton substitutes the typical psychological impact of sexual abuse with a physical one. The resulting short tale achieves a surprisingly moving outcome. 

“God’s Work” is a story that every Christian (or anyone who aspires to be a good person) should read at least once a year. Paster Gill Freeman – that surname is no coincidence – is new to his congregation, whose members like to cast judgment on others who clash with their ideals. The story, flipping between Freeman’s sermon about acceptance and the congregation’s protest of a horror author doing a signing at a bookstore, offers a rare Christian argument for free speech. 

Though neither victim nor perpetrator is likely to escape unfazed in Garton’s tales, the reader will likely emerge with more to chew on than flesh – that’s something that doesn’t always happen in horror.—Douglas J. Ogurek*****

Saturday 11 March 2023

The World-Ecology of Climate Change Cinema – Rafe McGregor

Climate Fiction

‘Cli-fi’ is an abbreviation of ‘climate fiction’, which was popularised in the last decade and refers to a category of genre or literary fiction that takes global warming or climate change as its subject. The prototype is probably Jules Verne’s Sans dessus dessous (1889, translated as The Purchase of the North Pole), an uncannily prescient novel involving a conspiracy to change the Earth’s climate to make more fossil fuel available to a corporation. Cli-fi includes novels, novellas and short stories featuring natural as well as anthropogenic climate change and J.G. Ballard’s early contribution, a quartet in which human civilisation was destroyed by all four of the classic elements, deployed both causes: The Wind from Nowhere (1961, air), The Drowned World (1962, water), The Burning World (1964, fire, later published as The Drought), and The Crystal World (1966, earth). Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973) is an early example of cinematic cli-fi and although it was a commercial and critical failure at the time of its release, it was regarded with greater respect in the year in which it is set – 2022 – in consequence of its critique of the capitalist mode of production. Ballard’s quartet provides a convenient heuristic for selecting a characteristic sample of the cinematic genre as it emerged at the end of the 20th century: Kevin Reynolds’ Waterworld (1995, water), Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004, air), George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, fire), and Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up (2021, earth). Climate change is anthropogenic in all four cases, although the cause is implied in Waterworld and complicated in Don’t Look Up.

Cinematic World-Ecologies

Sociologist Jason Moore opens his magnum opus, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (2015), by defining capitalism as a way of organising nature rather than an economic or social system. He warns against the separation of capitalism or modernity from nature or ecology because the two have been inextricably linked in a relation of life-making since the long sixteenth century. As such, Moore adopts a world-system approach he refers to as capitalist world-ecology. Capitalist world-ecology is not an interaction of world-economy and world-ecology: world-economies just are world-ecologies. He regards human exceptionalism, the view that human beings are independent of the spatiotemporal web of interspecies dependencies, as deeply misguided because human agency has always been a part of nature and his inquiry begins with the co-production of human and nonhuman animal life and the environments that maintain them. Capitalist world-ecology has been converting energy into capital in increasingly innovative and expansive ways since the coincidence of the Dutch agricultural revolution, Central European mining revolution, and Madeiran sugar-slave nexus in 1450. This year marks the beginning of the ‘Capitalocene’ (Age of Capital), in contrast with and in opposition to the ‘Anthropocene’ (Age of Man). The Anthropocene is used to describe the geological epoch during which humanity has had a significant impact on the Earth’s ecosystems and climate and is usually dated to either the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840) or the First Agricultural Revolution (10000 BCE). In Moore’s assessment, the current epoch is characterised by the impact of capitalist civilisation, which was inaugurated between the two revolutions, rather than by the impact of humanity as a species.

My elemental quartet of climate change cinema are the product of either the Hollywood film industry or Netflix’s streaming service and, as such, inextricably bound up with capitalist world-ecology, both constituting and mediating a market reliant on cheap labour and free nature to hundreds of millions of consumers across the globe. In each of the films, the narrative moves from an unstable inaugural condition to a retrospectively inevitable condition and the transition from inaugural to closural order both represents and evaluates an imagined world-ecology. The quartet and its genre can be subdivided on the basis of whether climate catastrophe is part of the story’s setting (Waterworld and Fury Road), exploring themes of adaptation and recovery, or a diegetic event (The Day After Tomorrow and Don’t Look Up), exploring themes of anticipation and mitigation.

Narrating Climate Change

Both Waterworld and Fury Road establish their respective postapocalyptic settings very quickly and very concisely, the former as a world with nothing but water and the latter as a world where everyday life has become a hunt for water. At exactly a minute into the opening sequence of Waterworld, the Universal Pictures logo disappears and the camera moves to a position above the north pole of the rotating Earth. As it zooms in, the ice cap melts, the sea levels rise, and a brief voiceover explains what the audience is seeing. The whole exposition takes less than forty seconds. The voiceover in Fury Road begins at eighteen seconds into the opening sequence, with Max (played by Tom Hardy) introducing himself and providing all the audience need to know about his world as consisting entirely of ‘fire and blood’. His voiceover, which is interrupted by the contributions of anonymous others, continues for another forty seconds, during which a great deal is explained quickly: the apocalypse was anthropic in cause, the Earth can no longer sustain human life, and the global ecological collapse is mirrored on the personal level by Max’s psychological breakdown.

In contrast, The Day After Tomorrow and Don’t Look Up open in a world that seems almost identical to our own. This signals that the catastrophic event has not yet happened and that either it or its threat will be one of the sequence of events that constitute the plot of the narratives. Both films begin with scientific teams, one on the Larsen B Ice Shelf in Antarctica and the other at an observatory at Michigan State University. In The Day After Tomorrow, the ice shelf cracks and breaks away, the significance of which is explained in the following scene when protagonist Professor Jack Hall (played by Dennis Quaid) tells the United Nations Conference on Global Warming in New Delhi that another Ice Age may be imminent. In Don’t Look Up, postgraduate student Kate Dibiasky (played by Jennifer Lawrence) discovers a new comet and she and her supervisor, Professor Randall Mindy (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), determine that it will strike the Earth in six months. This immediately sets the plot in motion as the two scientists try to communicate their discovery to those in a position to take action.

The plot of each of the four films moves through the unstable inaugural condition to a closural order that is unforeseeable but retrospectively inevitable. Each closural order represents a world-ecology that is politically, morally and aesthetically ‘right’ because it is consequent on the responses of the protagonists, antagonists and other characters to the inaugural condition. Don’t Look Up closes with the destruction of the Earth by the comet, which is an inevitable consequence of the power elite’s decision to abort a perfectly feasible plan to destroy the comet in favour of an incredibly high-risk plan to exploit its mineral resources for profit. Fury Road closes with the literal ascension of Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron) to power, following the overthrow of a male supremacist hierarchy by a revolution with a firm basis in economics – the communal distribution of the Citadel’s currency, water. The Day After Tomorrow closes with an inversion of power relations that reverses the polarity between the Global North and Global South, establishing a more just (but not obviously more sustainable) world-ecology. Waterworld closes with the Mariner (played by Kevin Costner) delivering a small group of people to Dryland, a Garden of Eden in which humanity can flourish and create a new world-ecology.

The world-ecology represented in the closural order is either represented as desirable (Waterworld, The Day After Tomorrow, and Fury Road) or undesirable (Don’t Look Up) and the audience’s desire is enlisted by a complex and manifold combination of narrative form, cinematic style, and thematic content. The desire that drives Waterworld is stimulated relatively late in the narrative as it is only after Helen (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn) makes a deal with the Mariner that the audience’s ambition becomes focused on the three of them reaching Dryland. The quest for Dryland is both reflected and complicated in Fury Road, where it takes a circular shape. The audience’s desire is for Max to assist Furiosa to achieve her goals, which change from taking the Five Wives to the Green Place to turning the tables on their pursuers, attacking the Citadel, and transforming its sexist and elitist political economy. The desire that drives The Day After Tomorrow is also stimulated relatively late, at the halfway point when Hall sets off to New York to rescue his son from the climate catastrophe in progress. From the very beginning of Don’t Look Up, the audience desire that the imminent catastrophe Dibiasky and Mindy have discovered be averted, which requires first that the scientists communicate their discovery to the authorities, then that the authorities believe the prediction they have made, and finally that the authorities take preventative action.

Shaping Desire

As already mentioned, Hollywood and Netflix are part of capitalist world-ecology, exploiting both labour and nature to make massive profits with their films, in spite of paying grotesque salaries to selected stars. All four of my quartet sustain this world-ecology by means of their contribution to the global world-system and promote that global world-system by providing audiences of millions of people with distraction, diversion, and dissipation. What I mean is that time spent watching the films is time spent not doing anything about climate catastrophe and perhaps – given how enjoyable they are all – taking a perverse pleasure in the greatest (more accurately, ultimate) mass harm humanity has ever inflicted on itself. The quartet can, once again, be subdivided, into those that are complicit in capitalist world-ecology (Waterworld and The Day After Tomorrow) and those that are both complicit in and resistant to capitalist world-ecology (Fury Road and Don’t Look Up).

Waterworld’s driving desire is simply for the status quo, finding that last remaining piece of Earth – Dryland – that has not yet been exploited to ruin and can sustain what is left of humanity (before we inevitably destroy it too). The Day After Tomorrow subsumes the desire for a world-ecology that is not devastated by climate catastrophe into a personal quest – Hall’s rescue of his son (and his son’s rescue of his love interest) – prioritising the individual and the family above the collective and failing to integrate the private with the public. The same two criticisms can be made of Ballard’s original quartet, with The Wind from Nowhere aspiring to the status quo and The Drowned World, The Burning World, and The Crystal World subsuming the political under the psychological. Fury Road is more successful, establishing a convincing link between more equitable modes of production and more just social structures and Max’s intervention succeeds where the Mariner’s fails – in transforming the existing world-ecology into something better. Don’t Look Up is even more successful, achieving its impact in a different way, with a downbeat rather than uplifting ending. While the Earth is destroyed, it is destroyed by human greed rather than the deus ex machina of the comet.

Changing world-ecology requires a reconstruction of the global economy and indeed Moore predicts that capitalist world-ecology is reaching its own closural order, although he is not optimistic about what the replacement will be. A reconstruction of the global economy will not, however, be achieved by top-down measures alone – if it all. One only needs to recall the very recent memory of resistance to relatively minor impositions like social distancing, mask-wearing and lockdowns to see how reluctant human beings are to give up any freedoms whatsoever, even when there is overwhelming scientific evidence in its favour. If world-ecology is to be changed completely, it must be from the bottom-up, which will require a reconfiguration of human consciousness to desire different things, such as sustainability over consumption. Culture shapes desire and cinematic narratives are a sizeable and significant part of our culture. Climate change cinema thus has an important role to play and films like Don’t Look Up and Fury Road have demonstrated the shape that role might take.—Rafe McGregor

Published online ahead of its appearance in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #75, due in June 2023.

Thursday 9 March 2023

Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay (William Morrow) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Plague novel explores the power of friendship amid the delicate dance between life and death

A rabies-like outbreak has invaded the world of Natalie Larsen and Dr. Ramola “Rams” Sherman. After a deranged man bites Natalie, who is eight months pregnant, the longtime friends go on a short but harrowing journey to find her the appropriate care. 

Author Paul Tremblay tones down the ambiguity for which he is known, opting instead to keep the reader wondering whether Natalie received her vaccination in time to prevent major complications. Are her symptoms merely attributable to late pregnancy? Or will she succumb to the infection that has reduced so many to slavering, enraged wanderers?

Natalie comes across as self-centred and irritating. Rarely does she reflect on the fate of her recently deceased husband, and throughout her journey, she uses her phone to record voice messages for her unborn child. Though likely meant to sound spontaneous, these rambling passages fringe on the annoying talky fiction in which a first-person narrator spews colloquialisms and reveals little that contributes to the plot. 

These criticisms are not to suggest that Survivor Song fails as a novel. Once again, Tremblay proves he’s a horror author to be reckoned with. He kicks off the action quickly by killing off a key character named Paul – interesting name choice – perhaps signalling that the author will deviate from his typical path.

Ramola, the more intelligent and less abrasive half of the duo, is a paediatrician who has never wanted a child of her own. Still, she exemplifies resilience and heroism by doing everything in her power to help her annoying friend and her unborn child. 

The book also introduces adolescent buddies Luis and Josh. Their boyish banter – they call each other “guy” – and the juxtaposition between their love of apocalyptic movies and the reality of what is happening prove both humorous and charming. Romala must repeatedly remind the boys that they are not warriors fighting against zombies.

Though there is nothing groundbreaking about this story, Tremblay’s storytelling skills shine through, particularly in his depictions of the infected: their ferocity, their unpredictability, their jibber jabber, their awkward gait, and even their attempts to return to humanity. An early scene involving the observation of a figure and the sound of its feet on gravel illustrates the author’s knack for stretching out an approaching threat. 

Survivor Song, published in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, also echoes many of the polarizing issues that emerged at that time. 

More than once, the author states that this story is not a fairy tale but rather a song. If this is the case, then there are several skippable parts, but there are also goosebump-inducing passages like the greatest songs have. These scenes involve non-traditional “dances” in which healthy individuals attempt to help those in the throes of the disease while trying to avoid getting hurt.—Douglas J. Ogurek***