Make your monsters unique: Lizzie Borden vs. Lovecraftian horrors


I watched the season finale of American Gods, and they did something brave: they portrayed Jesus as just another member of the motley horde of gods. Usually the Christian faith is excluded from these kinds of god-stories — you can’t reduce the One True God to another myth, like Anansi or Czernobog! — but the show did just that. Furthermore, they featured dozens of Jesii, because there so many different versions of him, all different and often incompatible with one another. They chickened out a little bit, though; there was a throw-away line about Jesus being the nicest of the gods, and they failed to include one prominent American god, Supply-Side Jesus of the Prosperity Gospel, armed with an AK-47 while crushing the necks of the undeserving poor under his sandals.

But it’s still an interesting point. If you’re going to personify deities, which rendition are you going to use? There are at least hundreds of gods in the Bible alone, although the devout seem to think giving one name to all of those entities, malignant and benign, is enough to unify them. Likewise that got me thinking of other mythical beings. Is there one true vampire nature, for instance? The media versions are all over the map. There’s the Stoker version, which wed Victorian disgust for sex with disgust for contagion. There’s the Ann Rice version, all sex and Catholic guilt. There’s the del Toro/Hogan version, which got rid of the sex and wallowed in repulsive infection stories. Or the Stephen King version, which is a little less gorey but is still all about dread of infection and decay and death. I shall not dwell on the sparkley angsty emo vampires, but they’re also part of the range.

One of the problems with the proliferation of supernatural variants, though, is that interest attenuates. Which Jesus are we talking about? Which vampire? I’d also add, which zombie? Pretty soon these kinds of stock genre boogey men degenerate into an unimaginative gluing together of standard tropes and the mechanics begin to show. Oh, this is a standard Stoker vampire plus tolerance for sunlight plus a functioning penis. Oh, this is a God-is-Love Jesus plus non-white xenophobia minus pacifism. It’s paint-by-numbers supernaturalism. Genre fiction (note: I include Christianity in the genre fiction category) tends to get overwhelmed with this kind of rote assembly line crap. A few original and creative stories launch an idea into popularity, and then the hacks take over. The zombie genre is in the terminal stages of the process right now. Seriously, authors, don’t bother doing zombie anything anymore, unless it’s genuinely original, and no, “fast zombies whose weak spot is the heart rather than the brain” are not original.

I love the creepy-crawly kind of horror story, the ones that make you go “eww, ick” now and then and wonder which character is going to die horribly next. But I’m tired of vampires and zombies and Christian evangelists — those monsters have been sucked dry and reduced to gristle and slime and all the thrill is gone. I am overjoyed when I stumble across a story that is new and different.

Which brings me to the point of this overlong introduction. My airplane reading this past weekend! I found something cool and fun and creepy!

I’m a fan of Lovecraftian atmosphere — but not so much of most of the stories themselves. Usually there is just some detached narrator recounting the mounting horror growing in the breasts of the victims, who will meet their demise in some climax of hyperbolic madness. There are lots of Lovecraftian pastiches out there that are little more than collections of increasingly florid adjectives and adverbs. But have you noticed that most Lovecraftian heroes are dull men with little imagination who are usually shattered by some unearthly revelation? Fine, once or twice. Boring when every Lovecraft imitator does exactly the same thing.

But Cherie Priest doesn’t. Her novel, Maplecroft: The Borden Dispatches, first focuses on the characters, but it’s still Lovecraftian. It’s set in Massachusetts in the 1890s; Miskatonic University has a featured role; there are horrors that emerge from the sea. The story revolves around the Borden sisters — that’s right, Lizzie Borden, after her acquittal from a famous pair of axe murders, and yes, her axe, and her skill with it, is very important in the story. We learn the true secret reason why her parents were killed. There is a blend of science — Lizzie has a basement lab where she tries to understand what is happening, and one aspect of the nightmare overtaking them is an unusual specimen of Physalus — and mysticism. There is a supernatural aspect to the weird absorption of the townspeople in a voice from the sea, and the fate of the individuals who touch the thing from the ocean. There’s definitely horror here: the monsters are vivid and disgusting, and portrayed with the Lovecraft Adjective Generator turned down enough to endow them with a revolting degree of plausibility. Lizzie has her axe, and also a convenient installation in her basement called “the cooker” which allows her to render monstrosities down to digested slime. It’s all very well thought out and grisly.

Most importantly, though, you know enough about the characters that you actually care about them as they are driven towards terror and the inevitable descent into madness.

Recommended, if you’re a fan of horror and Lovecraft and good writing. I’ve also read her book Boneshaker, which has got zombies in it, which are usually a turn-off for me, but it hasn’t got very many zombies in it, and they’re kind of a generic mass threat on the side, so you can mostly ignore them and read it for the story and characters.

Comments

  1. says

    Maplecroft was okay, but burdened by this odd Victorian fatalism, which was bone dry and sucked the fun out of everything, and I decided to not continue on with the series.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    “Preacher” has…”the hard-drinking Irish vampire, Cassidy”!
    What else can you ask for?

  3. blf says

    The mildly deranged penguin suggests the next fad be peas, those green balls of tasteless horror texture, snarling and scowling as they fiendishly contaminate food (at first, then the water, air, outer space, and my shoes; and then you start to find them in the bed…). It has, she points out, all the makings of a good fad — it sounds stupid, has creepy monsters and scope for amazing heroes, and THEY are lurking in your darkened kitchen! Meat cleavers won’t stop them, nor do guns (not even pea shooters).

    In addition, it’s not fiction. Peas. The horror version of the dinosaurs.

  4. =8)-DX says

    Reacting to Lovercraftian horrors by hacking them up with an axe to get specimens for your lab cooker? Sounds perfect. Don’t want spoilers, but I’m really wondering what the descent into madness is? Something about erratic p-values? Your bibliography self-extending into non-euclidian references? Transdimensional pipettes? The endless, subtle, but ever-increasing drone of a grand organisation? Intriguing.
    =8)-DX

  5. Wounded King says

    Another recent take on Lovecraft is Matt Ruff’s ‘Lovecraft Country‘. This is a connected series of short stories where the protagonists are those most frequent of Lovecraftian menaces, people of color.

  6. cartomancer says

    Gah! I’m going to have to unleash the inner pedant again (never too far from the surface). It would just be Jesi, not Jesii, since the singular is not Jesius.

    Though I must stand up for the vampire and the zombie as important cultural touchstones. Where Lovecraftian horror deals in humanity’s fear of the inhuman, the vampire and the zombie are the exact opposite – their fluctuating popularity and the guises they take tend to reflect society’s fears of other humans. The medieval vampire was a creature born of fears surrounding plague and improper burial, but the modern vampire is an embodiment of the ordinary person’s fear of the aristocracy – the haughty, eccentric, castle-dwelling elite who treat the rest of us as sustenance. It is no accident that the archetypal Stoker version emerged at the end of the Nineteenth Century, when the relationship of ordinary people to their rulers was undergoing a radical transformation, following a century of capitalist exploitation and the demonisation of the traditional ruling elite from the French Revolution onward. I think this traditional vampire is ripe for a comeback too – he is the very epitome of the 1% and their callous disregard for the well-being of everyone else.

    The modern zombie, likewise, tends to represent the fear that our individuality will be suppressed or surrendered, and we will become mindless and unthinking – whether through commercial culture, political apathy or hedonism. I’m quite surprised it hasn’t been used as a metaphor for socialism by some mad right-wing writer, but it probably has and the book was so terrible it sank without a trace. The zombie stands for fear of conformity, forced or otherwise.

  7. cartomancer says

    Then again, I’ve never been a fan of horror. Quite the opposite – I don’t like being disgusted or freaked out or frightened – so I tend to appreciate the genre from a distance, as a reflection of the social mores of its time, rather than as something I would enjoy reading. That the vampire and the zombie aren’t scary anymore is something of a plus for me

  8. blf says

    That the vampire and the zombie aren’t scary anymore is something of a plus for me

    There’s a bag of frozen peas out there, lurking, waiting, creeping closer & closer… you might be able to hear the muffled snarling… but even if you don’t, that doesn’t mean they aren’t about to POUNCE!!!

  9. cartomancer says

    blf, #9

    The frozen pea holds no dread for me. For I have traveled to the benighted slums of “the North” and seen first hand the gelid, pulsating wrongness of the mushy pea. To espy such abominations is to know true terror.

  10. cartomancer says

    That’s the peas, by the way, not the Northerners. Though on second thoughts…

  11. says

    PZ:

    I took that as part of the Lovecraftian ambience.

    I suppose. It was deathly drear. Charles Stross’s Equoid is Lovecraft based, and that was absolutely brilliant. And terrifying.

  12. lakitha tolbert says

    @12 Cartomancer:
    Actually Kim Newman wrote about Socialist zombies, and he’s not too bad an author, although I don’t think he’s a member of the alt-right. He wrote “Amerikanski Dead at the Moscow Morgue” waaay back in 1999, I think. Its not a full length novel but I did enjoy it.

  13. davidnangle says

    What bothers me about the prevalence of zombies in entertainment is the fact that zombies have seemingly been created as the version of people you can murder guilt-free. They look different, they act different, so you can openly kill them, and it’s fun and funny when you do! It’s almost like people that own guns are getting the training they want for eliminating a certain kind of person, that looks and acts differently.

  14. blf says

    The mushy pea is an oldie distraction, their sheer awfulness blinding you† to the threat of the unadulterated pea. And to the northerners, albeit leading them on a merry chase to the nearest pub usually does the trick. Just make sure to keep going out the back, else you’ll be stuck with both northerners and mushy peas… in a darkened, confined, creaking, mysterious place…

    Best advice is to stay south of the big moat separating “the north” from the continent. Unfortunately, peas have already made the crossing to the land of snails, frogs, and fast trains, so you’ll still have to be on yer guard for their much greater danger… lots of strange, different, and better hiding places for them to POUNCE from…

      † Sometimes quite literally blinding you, should, e.g., you be so foolish to try and eat some — they POUNCE off yer fork / knife / spoon / fried mars bar / whatever straight into yer eyes. They frequently miss, however — albeit mushy pea up the nose is not an improvement — and you, in thrashing about to fend off the monsters, stab yourself in the eye. That doesn’t work, they still get you.

  15. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Having “multiple incarnations of Jesus” [longform pluralization of Jesus] was to emphasize Wedhesday’s point that “belief creates… (not the other way around)”.
    One Jesus was singled out, in full lotus posiyion on the surface of a water pool. “I AM belief”, meaning he recognizes that he does not exist independently of followers believing he exists.(him putting his drink down on the water and surprised it sank, was a little disconcerting. With such an ability, you’d think he’d learned to keep holding the drink and the water only holds him up)

    zombies:
    it was gross when DeadWife Laura coughed up a sinkful of maggots to remind us she really is a deadbody inexplicably walking around. She really knows how to “strongarm” the GingerMinge (Mad Sweeny, leprechaun). ewww

  16. Trickster Goddess says

    I’m not a fan of zombie stories in general, but “The Girl With All the Gifts” by M. R. Carey is one of the best books of any genre that I have read in past couple of years.

  17. Callinectes says

    A have a book called Zombie: an Anthology of the Dead which features lots of zombie stories unlike the kind I’ve seen elsewhere. Sometimes they’re the usual type, and the plot and human characters make it unique. But a couple have very different rules and make the zombie the victim.

    One, Lazarus by John Connolly, is about the first zombie, and yes, it is that Lazarus. Jesus comes across as a monstrously alien being who is so unaware and uncomprehending of the human experience that he can’t understand why being brought back to life in such a way could possibly pose such a problem for Lazarus, his family, and his community.

    Another, What Masie Knew by David Liss, describes a world in which people can sell their bodies to a corporation that upon their death claims the body, embalms it, and animates the corpse as a sort of obedient servant-robot or cheap labour. Most people only sign up for a quick influx of cash with the intent of buying their body rights back, and just never get around to it. In the story, a man encounters for sale such a zombie and recognises it as a girl he killed with his car (and never reported). He purchases it out of a momentary fear that his crime might somehow be found out through her, and his developing anxieties regarding the existence and his ownership of this zombie sees him descend into troubling depths of neurosis and debauchery.

  18. says

    Now this is a little creepy… I just started Boneshaker yesterday! :o
    Get out of my Amazon queue, PZ!

    As far as original-ish treatments of zombies, I’d say the Aah! Zombies!! was a neat take on them. iZombie was kinda different but I didn’t really get into it.

  19. hemidactylus says

    I kinda like the del Toro vampires from the Strain as they pull double duty. First the fast almost unstoppable Strigoi were the perfect antidote for the mopey mushy emo vamps in Twilight. Vampirism desperately needed a cultural reset. Strigoi have no sex appeal, harkening back to Nosferatu in looks. They just wield their proboscis to turn their victims into collapsed Capri Sun boxes. No neck biting. Second the Strigoi also show how relatively harmless the zombies in the Walking Dead really are. Can you imagine Rick and Michonne dealing with Strigoi? The little spider kid vamps in the Strain would take out Negan and his Saviors in one episode. The skin wearing Whisperers would be episode two.

    And if Rick Grimes had awoken from his coma in a Georgia hospital to encounter the aftermath of the rage virus outbreak depicted in 28 Days Later, TWD would have been a very different experience. Good thing TWD zombies aren’t rage infected sprinters. All our favorite characters would have turned by the end of season one.

    Now a showdown between the Strain spider kids and the infected from 28 Days would be something to behold.

    I do like aspects of Fear the Walking Dead although it has come close to burning me out on the whole franchise. Being set in Mexico they explored different things such as how a subset of people steeped in Santa Muerte might react to the presence of undead. Last night’s episode was almost entirely in Spanish, which was bold. And I kinda like how they are developing Ruben Blades’ character Daniel Salazar. He started life doing more evil than either Negan or the Governor for the Salvadoran junta. He regrets his past and has wanted forgiveness, but it at least suited him for the apocalypse with a particular set of skills.

  20. rcurtis505 says

    For a different take on vampires, thy “The Vampire Tapestry” by Suzy McKee Charnas.

  21. hemidactylus says

    One good point of the Walking Dead franchise when you get past zombie Otherizing and gratuitous braining is strong character development. The original has had some strong female characters such as Carol and Michonne. And once the Alexandria storyline got going we are introduced to several gay and lesbian characters that are Us. Aaron and his boyfriend brought Rick’s group to Alexandria, after gaining their trust.

    Fear the Walking Dead has Madison who is pretty much in the same position as Rick in the original. She seems to have become the main character, since Lori’s counterpart went out the helicopter door. And something in her past gives her a seriously bad ass demeanor.

    And the one atheist in the original, Eugene, is a cowardly traitor at this point in that TV series. Not sure what to make of that.

  22. Igneous Rick says

    Not exactly horror, but I really enjoyed Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. It had some of the otherworldly flavor of Lovecraft, but with a protagonist with an actual personality.

  23. Tethys says

    I’ve only watched part of A.G, but I’m pretty sure that the guy working in the copy shop was a jesus. Episode three had a very brief scene in front of the copy store where Wednesday sees a women holding a sign that says Jesus died for your sins, and observes that White Jesus could do with a little more suffering.

  24. says

    I would second Matt Ruff’s “Lovecraft Country.” The author does a good job of turning Lovecraft’s xenophobia and racism on its head, and it is a pretty fun read.

  25. khms says

    I think I need to mention Michael Anderle here with the Kurtherian Gambit series, where it turns out there’s a science fiction explanation for vampires and werewolves (alien nanomachines), and we get a kind of superhero story where the superheroes and the supervillains are both vampires and werewolves (and the good guys hunt terrorists and create a real space program …). There are other kinds of stories in this universe, too, but so far I haven’t seen any I’d call horror.

    One thing that is very different is that Anderle seems to manage to write approximately one book per month, and still reach Amazon’s bestseller lists. (And yes, so far, I’ve liked the way he writes.) Of course, it helps that he offers all of his books for one day for a dollar when they’re new, announced over his mailing list. I suspect he sells a lot of them on that one day …

  26. Jeremy Shaffer says

    … they failed to include one prominent American god, Supply-Side Jesus of the Prosperity Gospel, armed with an AK-47 while crushing the necks of the undeserving poor under his sandals.

    The AK-47 part would have fit, but it might have felt too much of a rehash of two episodes before with Vulcan. Besides, Easter probably finds him a crashing bore and wouldn’t invite him anyway. Although, the aforementioned episode also started off one of the Jesi helping Mexicans cross the border illegally before being gunned down by one of those groups of right-wing dipshits who ride around near the border looking for crossers.

    There are at least hundreds of gods in the Bible alone…

    And they also showed a Mary at the party.

    But Cherie Priest doesn’t. Her novel, Maplecroft: The Borden Dispatches, first focuses on the characters, but it’s still Lovecraftian.

    I read that book a couple years ago after meeting Priest at DragonCon. She’s really nice, and the book had just come out. I liked it. There’s a second book, Chapelwood, Borden has to deal with similar events and a nascent KKK-fueled church and politics in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.

    If you want a pretty good Lovecraftian story, I can recommend I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas. The horror in it is probably Lovecraft’s most dreadful creation of all: his fans.

  27. emergence says

    I have this idea for vampires that suck blood through externalized prehensile blood vessels. Their vampire powers would be based around weaving the blood vessels into different shapes and secreting vampiric lymphocytes with different properties. I also think it would be pretty freaky if they can live off of any blood, not just human, and the ones that do drain humans are considered deranged cannibals.

  28. blf says

    emergence@31, Smith and Jones (Doctor Who), the Plasmavore, Not quite the same — e.g., it uses a straw and can change its appearance to mimic its victims’s species — but similar.

  29. emergence says

    blf @32 I’ve seen that episode. It’s not exactly what I was thinking of. I think I’ll write a short story about my idea.

    Here’s another idea for zombies I just came up with; zombie autobrewery syndrome. The zombies are infected with a species of yeast that compels them to consume tons of sugar and starch, they’re intelligent enough to use weapons, especially bludgeons, they infect other people by puking on them, and their breath, piss, and puke have a high enough ABV to light on fire and be used as weapons.

  30. lucy1965 says

    Ruthanna Emrys’s “The Litany of Earth” — expanded into the novel Winter Tide — deals with one of the survivors of Innsmouth, after the internment camps; Emrys cohosts “The Lovecraft Reread” at Tor.com, described as two modern Mythos writers “get[ting] girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories”. There’s analysis of the good and the problematic, in canon and works derived from them.

  31. movablebooklady says

    For an even more different take on vampires, try Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, author of the longest-running vampire series ever. Her books are basically historical novels with a hero who just happens to be a vampire (now 4000 years old), who is essentially an observer of the horror that humans perpetrate upon each other. Each book is set in a different time and place: 10th C Saxony, conquistador Peru/Mexico, mongol invasion China, Medici Florence, and so on. First book came out in 1978 and was one of the first of the good-guy vampires but still has a lot of grimness.

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