Sunday, 28 November 2010

Vampires, Memeplexes and McFly

This is not one of my planned blog posts - I have some interesting things lined up to say on Shakira and on medieval research at the University of Manchester - but it came to me, and I feel compelled. Apart from being a scholar of medieval literature and contemporary popular culture, apart from being an aspiring novelist and a published poet, I am also a massive McFly fan. And I make no apologies for that.

When I heard that McFly were releasing a video featuring vampires (for the 2010 single 'Party Girl'), I was interested on two levels. One: I adore McFly. And two: I have a scholarly interest in vampires, monsters and all things strange. Given the preponderence of abstinent and sympathetic vampires in literature (and I mean here, in all literature - I am of the school of thought that sees Dracula as a break in tradition, not the tradition itself), I expected this band to appeal to the Twilight generation. I thought I would see tragic, struggling vamps, forcing themselves to endure blood pangs with a romantic fortitude. (I mean, I love McFly, but I still expected them to tap in to mainstream tastes.)

However, this is the video:

Some really interesting things occur to me in watching this video, and I think the theory of memes and memeplexes is useful here. A meme is a piece of information, which survives and flourishes through transmission, replication and mutation. The idea of the the meme was originally posited by Richard Dawkins in 1976 - before he went all fundamentalist athesist - and was understood as the cornerstone of human intelligence. Call it 'understanding', 'intelligence' or 'consciousness', it's all down to 'memes'. Furthermore, memes evolve in much the same way as genes do... they pass on through endless repetition and replication; a mutation occurs; the mutated version is then relicated. (Although, unlike genes, memes do not need a mutation to be 'beneficial' in order for the mutation to survive.) A memeplex is a complex group of memes, which exists in much the same way. Within the memeplex are a wide variety of memes, all or some of which are necessary for the overall concept to be understood. Thus, the 'vampire memeplex' is a complex 'grab bag' of ideas that exists (in some combination or another) for the concept of the 'vampire' to be understood. We might include in this aversion to garlic, aversion to sunlight, heightened sexuality, heightened sense of morality/immorality, aversion to silver, affiliations to the Victorian era, etc.

The idea of the 'memeplex' overlaps, to some extent, with the idea of 'mythos'. Additionally, issues of intertextuality are equally difficult to separate from 'memeplex'. This overlapping and intercrossing is evident in watching the McFly video. As the video starts, we see red letters on a black background, and a cross serving as the letter 't' in 'party'. This draws on both colour associations and intertextual reference to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The font of the wording should also be familiar to any pop culture vampire afficianados.

Following this, we have a series of visual referents for the vampire genre: black birds circling, a single star, a tortured male face. At 00.15 in the video, you will also notice a clear visual depiction of an eclipse (referencing Stephenie Meyer's book/movie of the same name). Next, we see a gargoyle - evidence of the use of gothic architecture in almost all vampire fiction.

The image which follows signals a diversion from the more common pop culture 'abstinent male vampire' memes. A large, red-lipped, fanged, and undoubtedly female mouth fills the screen. The mouth reminds me of Barbara Creed's association of the vampiric mouth with the mythical 'vagina dentata', and this reminds us that the focus of the song is a 'Party Girl'. The lyrics, and much of the rest of the video, concentrate on the idea of dangerous and seductive femininity. We see Harry engaging in seedy sex in a dark room, being infected and singing 'fangs out' on stage. We also have an image (at 1.30 in the video) of 'Dracula's brides' attacking the male protagonist. Words flash up on the screen to remind us of this feminine monstrousness: 'doomed', 'kill', 'kiss', 'sinks her teeth in'.

Nevertheless, there is much more to this video than simply a rehashing of the monstrousness of female sexuality. Consider, for example, the fact that the main female vamp is originally presented (at 1.03 in the video) as an apparent victim of sexual assault. Her appearance as a killer (1.17) is shadowed by the earlier image of her victimhood. Additionally, the video makes explicit reference to ideas of uncontrollable and dangerous testosterone: see 1.18 as an instance. At 1.54, there is an image of a very gentle and feminine female face, followed immediately by a further image of the 'macho' male lifting weights. Polaroid photographs suggest pornographic treatment of women. And, towards the end of the video, we see blood dripping slowly down a very phallic guitar, before the McFly boys break into another riff.

In this way, the Party Girl video presents images of out-of-control feminine sexuality/monstrosity, while always undermining them with the violence of patriarchal masculinity. This is further underlined by the ambiguity of the lyrics: "I love this little party girl/ yeah/ she likes to dance all by herself". Is this the story of the fetishization of an infantilized female? Or the empowerment of the female through monstrosity?

The McFly video plays around with pop culture references. Among them are a vamp-dusting in the style of Buffy and (my favourite) Breaking Dawn-esque flying feathers (1.33 onwards). This demonstrates the overlapping of 'memeplex' - the ideas that create our concept of 'vampire' - and intertextuality. However, what is also of interest is the apparently easy crossover between the vampire memeplex and that of the werewolf. At 1.47, Harry stands illuminated by a full moon, in the grips of an apparently painful transformation (sans shirt). At 2.43, Danny is heard to say 'Dougie - don't go into the woods!': surely, this is more reminiscent of werewolf films than vampire films?

So, what do we make of these conflicting referents in the McFly video? It could be argued that the team behind the video are simply cashing in on a slew of visual referents to mainstream pop culture texts. Nevertheless, I would suggest that this video, in fact, reveals how use of a 'grab bag' mythos - or memeplex - along with a 'postmodern' sense of intertextuality, creates twenty-first-century cultural products. All contemporary vampiric texts have one eye backwards and one eye sideways... McFly are simply utilizing this to encourage downloads. The complexity of the references in this particular video, along with the ambiguity of the lyrics, is one of the main reasons why I am not ashamed to describe myself as a McFly Fangirl and Proud. I love pop culture in all its bizarre forms and complexities.

And in case you think that the vampiric context of this latest video is simply a cash-in on recent pop culture trends, have a look at the video for McFly's 2007 single 'Transylvania'. I know I've admitted I'm a fangirl - but even the most anti-McFly amongst you will be hard-pressed not to love such a beautifully absurist mash-up of vampire memeplex, WWI imagery, fin-de-siecle extravagance, cross-dressing, Nosferatu and 'Bohemian Rhapsody' reference. And it begins with a sample for Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor'. Enjoy...

And here's a lovely presentation of zombie imagery with reference to the 'Thriller' vid (and a nice little intertextual reference to the film that gave the band their name - released the very year guitarist/vocalist Tom Fletcher was born):

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Call for Submissions: Steampink Anthology

Library of Fantasy presents

Steampink: Queered Visions of Steampunk

Edited and compiled by Bill Tucker and Tonia Brown

Searching for steampunk stories that have a queered twist. The stories should have at least one glbt main character and/or theme.

Word count is 3-7k.

Rich text format please.

Indent paragraphs 1 tab.

Single spaced.

Use italics - do not underline.

No page numbers/headers.

Place your name, address, telephone number, email and the approximate word count on the title page please.

Payment is 1 cent per word and 1 contributor copy.

Please email submissions to this address (click for link).

Last day to submit submissions is March 15, 2011.

Click here for further details.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Light of my life... fire of my loins... My Comment on Twilight

In the past ten days, I have worked my way through Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series. Although I have been tweeting my immediate reactions to the books, I felt that a lengthier review was in order. This post is intended to address my main misgivings with the series. I think my approach should be fairly self-explanatory.

Quotations are taken from Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955; Penguin Books, 1995) and Stephanie Meyer, Twilight (Atom, 2006); Eclipse (Atom, 2007); Breaking Dawn (Atom, 2008)

Light of my life... fire of my loins...

"While my body knew what it craved for, my mind rejected my body's every plea. One moment I was ashamed and frightened, another recklessly optimistic. Taboos strangulated me." (Lolita, p. 18)

"He started to pull away - that was his automatic response whenever he decided things had gone too far, his reflex reaction whenever he most wanted to keep going. Edward had spent most of his life rejecting any kind of physical gratification. I knew it was terrifying to him trying to change those habits now." (Breaking Dawn, p. 23)

"He had the utmost respect for ordinary children, with their purity and vulnerability, and under no circumstances would he have interfered with the innocence of a child, if there was the least risk of a row. But how his heart beat when, among the innocent throng, he espied a demon child..." (Lolita, pp. 19-20)

"'Quil... imprinted... with a two-year-old?' I was finally able to ask.
'You're making judgments,' he accused. 'I can see it on your face.'
'Sorry,' I muttered. 'But it sounds really creepy.'
'It's not like that; you've got it all wrong,' Jacob defended his friend, suddenly vehement. 'I've seen what it's like, through his eyes. There's nothing romantic about it all, not for Quil, not now. [...] When you see her, suddenly it's not the earth holding you anymore. She does. And nothing matters more than her. And you would do anything for her, be anything for her...'" (Eclipse, p. 156)

"Let me repeat with quiet force: I was, and still am, despite mes malheurs, an exceptionally handsome male; slow-moving, tall, with soft dark hair and a gloomy but all the more seductive cast of demeanour. Exceptional virility often reflects in the subject's displayable features a sullen and congested something that pertains to what he has to conceal. And this was my case. Well did I know, alas, that I could obtain at the snap of my fingers any adult female I chose; in fact, it had become quite a habit with me of not being too attentive to women lest they come toppling, bloodripe, into my cold lap." (Lolita, p. 25)

"'That's Edward. He's gorgeous, of course, but don't waste your time. He doesn't date. Apparently none of the girls here are good-looking enough for him.'" (Twilight, p. 19)

"When he sat next to me in class, as far away from me as the table would allow, he seemed totally unaware of my presence." (Twilight, p. 59)

"I find it most difficult to express with adequate force that flash, that shiver, that impact of passionate recognition... the vacuum of my soul managed to suck in every detail of her bright beauty..." (Lolita, p. 39)

"I could see that now - how the universe swirled around this one point. I'd never seen the symmetry of the universe before, but now it was plain.
The gravity of the earth no longer tied me to the place where I stood.
It was the baby girl in the blonde vampire's arms that held me now." (Breaking Dawn, p. 331)

"I shall probably have another breakdown if I stay any longer in this house, under the strain of this intolerable temptation, by the side of my darling - my darling - my life and my bride." (Lolita, p. 47)

"'Why are you doing this to me?' he said through his teeth, his tone suddenly angry. 'Isn't it hard enough without all of this?' He grabbed a handful of lace that was ruffled on my thigh. For a moment, I thought he was going to rip it from the seam. Then his hand relaxed. 'It doesn't matter. I won't make any deals with you.'" (Breaking Dawn, p. 93)

"By this time I was in a state of excitement bordering on insanity; but I also had the cunning of the insane. Sitting there, on the sofa, I managed to attune, by a series of stealthy movements, my masked lust to her guileless limbs. It was no easy matter to divert the little maiden's attention while I performed the obscure adjustments necessary for the success of the trick." (Lolita, p. 58)

"His hand curved around my elbow, moving slowly down my arm, across my ribs and over my waist, tracing along my hip and down my leg, around my knee. He paused there, his hand curling around my calf. He pulled my leg up suddenly, hitching it around his hip.
I stopped breathing." (Eclipse, p. 165)

"In my self-made seraglio, I was a radiant and robust Turk, deliberately, in the full consciousness of his freedom, postponing the moment of actually enjoying the youngest and frailest of his slaves." (Lolita, p. 60)

"'Getting married is a stretch for me. I'm not giving in unless I get something in return.'
He leaned down to whisper in my ear. 'No,' he murmured silkily. 'It's not possible now. Later, when you're less breakable. Be patient, Bella.'
[...] He was too beautiful. What was the word he'd used just now? Unbearable - that was it. His beauty was too much to bear...
[...] 'I'm not saying no,' he reassured me. 'I'm just saying not tonight.'" (Eclipse, p. 399)

"The word 'forever' referred only to my own passion, to the eternal Lolita as reflected in my blood." (p. 65)

"I laughed breathlessly when his urgent kiss interrupted my efforts again.
[...] 'Damn it,' he growled, kissing hungrily down the edge of my jaw.
'We have plenty of time to work on it,' I reminded him.
'Forever and forever and forever,' he murmured." (Breaking Dawn, p. 699)

"Then she crept into my waiting arms, radiant, relaxed, caressing me with her tender, mysterious, impure, indifferent, twilight eyes - for all the world, like the cheapest of cheap cuties. For this is what nymphets imitate - while we moan and die." (Lolita, p. 120)

"... so tonight I pulled out one of the scarier pieces as I got ready in the panelled bathroom. It was black, lacy, and embarrassing to look at even when it wasn't on. I was careful not to look in the mirror before I went back to the bathroom. I didn't want to lose my nerve.
I had the satisfaction of watching his eyes pop open wide for just a second before he controlled his expression.
[...] I couldn't tell if he was moved by the tears trembling in my voice, or if he was unprepared to deal with the suddenness of my attack, or if his need was simply as unbearable in that moment as my own. But whatever the reason, he pulled my lips back to his, surrendering with a groan." (Breaking Dawn, pp. 92; 98)

"I was still firmly resolved to pursue my policy of sparing her purity by operating only in the stealth of night, only upon a completely anaesthetized little nude." (Lolita, p. 124)

"I still didn't turn around. 'How often do you come here?'
'I come here almost every night.'
I whirled, stunned. 'Why?'
'You're interesting when you sleep.' He spoke matter-of-factly." (Twilight, p. 256)

"This was a lone child, an absolute waif, with whom a heavy-limbed, foul-smelling adult had had strenuous intercourse three times that very morning. Whether or not the realization of a lifelong dream had surpassed all expectations, it had, in a sense, overshot its mark - and plunged into a nightmare. I had been careless, stupid, and ignoble." (Lolita, p. 140)

"His eyes tightened. 'How badly are you hurt, Bella? The truth - don't try to downplay it.'
[...] 'Why would you jump to that conclusion? I've never been better than I am now.'
His eyes closed. 'Stop that.'
'Stop what?'
'Stop acting like I'm not a monster for having agreed to this.'
[...] Under the dusting of feathers, large purplish bruises were beginning to blossom across the pale skin of my arm. My eyes followed the trail they made up to my shoulder, and then down across my ribs. I pulled my hand free to poke at a discoloration on my left forearm, watching it fade where I touched and then reappear. It throbbed a little.
So lightly that he barely touching me, Edward placed his hand against the bruises on my arm, one at a time, matching his long fingers to the patterns.
[...] 'I'm... so sorry, Bella,' he whispered while I stared at the bruises. 'I knew better than this. I should not have -' He made a low, revolted sound in the back of his throat. 'I am more sorry that I can tell you.'" (Breaking Dawn, pp. 80-82)

"Presently, making a sizzling sound with her lips, she started complaining of pains, said she could not sit, said I had torn something inside her." (Lolita, p. 141)

"I took a deep breath. I was feeling more of the soreness now, but it wasn't that bad. Sort of like the day after lifting weights." (Breaking Dawn, p. 83)

"I want to protect you, dear, from all the horrors that happen to little girls in coal sheds and alley ways, and, alas, comme vous le savez trop bien, ma gentille, in the blueberry woods during the bluest of summers. Through thick and thin I will stay your guardian, and if you are good, I hope a court may legalize that guardianship before long." (Lolita, p. 149)

"'It's going to sound cruel, I suppose. But I've come too close to losing you in the past. I know what it feels like to think I have. I am not going to tolerate anything dangerous. [...] No werewolves.'
'I'm not going along with that. I have to see Jacob.'
'Then I'll have to stop you.'" (Eclipse, pp. 29-30)

"'I don't need any fanfare. You won't have to tell anyone or make any changes. We'll go to Vegas - you can wear old jeans and we'll go to the chapel with the drive-through window. I just want to make it official - that you belong to me and no one else.'" (Eclipse, p. 404)

"... with patience and luck I might have her produce eventually a nymphet with my blood in her exquisite veins, a Lolita the Second, who would be eight or nine around 1960, when I would still be dans la force de l'age..." (Lolita, p. 174)

"'Because you're the one who told me this. Do you remember? You said we belonged in each other's lives, right? That we were family. You said that was how you and I were supposed to be. So... now we are. It's what you wanted.'
[...] 'You think you'll be part of my family as my son-in-law!' I screeched.
[...] 'Do you remember how much you wanted me around three days ago? How hard it was to be apart from each other? That's gone now for you, isn't it? [...] That was her,' he told me. 'From the very beginning. We had to be together, even then.'" (Breaking Dawn, pp. 415-16)

"First the old ogre drew up a list under 'absolutely forbidden' and another under 'reluctantly allowed'... She might visit a candy bar with her girl friends, and there giggle-chat with occasional young males, while I waited in the car at a discreet distance..." (Lolita, p. 186)

"The Quileute school was already out for the summer, so he told me to come over as early as I could. I was pleased to have an option besides being babysat. There was a tiny bit more dignity in spending the day with Jacob.
Some of that dignity was lost when Edward insisted again on delivering me to the border line like a child being exchanged by custodial guardians.
[...] He laughed again, but suddenly stopped when we turned the last bend and saw the red car waiting. He frowned in concentration, and then, as he parked the car, he sighed." (Eclipse, pp. 282-83)

"On playgrounds and beaches, my sullen and stealthy eye, against my will, still sought out the flash of a nymphet's limbs, the sly tokens of Lolita's handmaids and rosegirls." (Lolita, p. 257)

"I kept going north, and it got more and more crowded. Eventually, I found a big park full of kids and families and skateboards and bikes and kites and picnics. [...] I walked around for what felt like hours. Long enough that the sun changed sides in the sky. I stared into the face of every girl who passed anywhere near me, making myself really look, noticing who was pretty and who had blue eyes and who looked good in braces and who had way too much make-up on. I tried to find something interesting about each face, so that I would know for sure that I'd really tried. [...] As time went on, I started noticing all the wrong things. Bella things. This one's hair was the same colour. This one's eyes were sort of shaped the same. This one's cheekbones cut across her face in just the same way." (Breaking Dawn, pp. 304-305)

"She was frankly and hugely pregnant. Her head looked smaller (only two seconds had passed really, but let me give them as much wooden duration as life can stand), and her pale-freckled cheeks were hollowed, and her bare shins and arms had lost all their tan, so that the little hairs showed. She wore a brown, sleeveless cotton dress and sloppy felt slippers." (Lolita, p. 269)

"Bella's body was swollen, her torso ballooning out in a strange, sick way. It strained against the faded grey sweatshirt that was way too big for her shoulders and arms. The rest of her seemed thinner, like the big bulge had grown out of what it had sucked from her. It took me a second to realize what the deformed part was - I didn't understand until she folded her hands tenderly around her bloated stomach, one above and one below. Like she was cradling it.
I saw it then, but I couldn't believe it. I'd seen her just a month ago. There was no way she could be pregnant. Not that pregnant." (Breaking Dawn, p. 160)

"'You chump,' she said, smiling sweetly at me. 'You revolting creature. I was a daisy-fresh girl, and look what you've done to me. I ought to call the police and tell them you raped me. Oh, you dirty, dirty old man." (Lolita, p. 141)

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

On Werewolves, Witchhunts and Cooks Source Magazine

Many of you may already be familiar with the story of Pernette Gandillon, as it is recounted in both Sabine Baring-Gould's The Book of Were-Wolves and Henri Boguet's Discours des Sorciers (Baring-Gould, in fact, draws his version of the tale from Boguet's earlier work). However, for those of you who are not, I will give a brief overview.

Pernette Gandillon was a young woman who lived in the Jura Mountains in the late-sixteenth century. As Baring-Gould and Boguet recount, Pernette was prone to running around the countryside on all fours, and apparently believed that she was a wolf. In 1598, she is reported to have attacked two young children, as a result of her "sudden passion for blood". When the male child, a four-year-old, attempted to defend himself and his sister, Pernette tore at his throat and fatally wounded him. When this was discovered, the people of the village tore Pernette to pieces in "rage and horror".

Following the lynching of Pernette, other members of the Gandillon family were rounded up for trial on charges of witchcraft. Pierre and Georges were alleged to have led children to the witches' sabbath, transformed themselves into wolves and attacked local animals. Antoinnette confessed to having had sexual congress with the devil at the sabbath. All three confessed, were found guilty and were hanged and burned.

While by no means isolated, the story of the Gandillon family is an interesting illustration of the complexities of werewolf belief in the sixteenth century. Note, for example, the connection between lycanthropy and devil worship, and the insistence on an unnatural bloodlust in the transformed wolf. Baring-Gould also reports that Pierre and Georges behaved like "maniacs" while imprisoned, and labels Pernette's "transformation" as an ostensibly misguided "belief she was a wolf". This suggests a link between madness and werewolfism.

The Gandillon story also tells us something about sixteenth-century justice and punishment for werewolves. Pernette is dealt with by mob justice - there is no question in any reports that she committed the murder, and she is never brought to trial. Her execution - or, more accurately, lynching - is a gruesome (and, one suspects, public) dismemberment brought about by "rage and horror", rather than by a desire to see justice done. It is interesting to consider, here, whether or not we believe Pernette to be as guilty as did the vigilante mob of executioners. If, indeed, she was a werewolf, do we feel the punishment met the crime? Was she mentally unstable? Was her crime due to "diminished responsibility"? How much evidence did the mob actually have to confirm her guilt?

Baring-Gould is rather coy on the subject of the other Gandillons' confessions, simply stating that they "readily admitted" to various charges. Our knowledge of sixteenth-century techniques of extracting confessions from heretics and witches may lead us to question how "readily" the Gandillons gave forth their stories. We may also wonder why the Gandillon family were arrested "directly after" the lynching of Pernette. Were they tainted by association? Was Pernette's crime too hideous to be an isolated instance? Do we, enlightened twenty-first-century readers that we are, really believe that the Gandillon family were guilty?

Fast forward to November 2010...

As I'm sure many of you will be aware, a social media storm erupted on Thursday 17 November. Food blogger Monica Gaudio blogged that an article she had posted on her blog had been printed (without permission or remuneration) in the now-infamous Cooks Source Magazine. For the sake of my eyes and yours, I will limit the hyperlinks in this post to the above (which links to the Guardian's analysis of the controversy). A simple Google search for 'Cooks Source Magazine' will let you fill in any blanks.

Gaudio not only blogged about the infringement of her copyright, but also published the condescending response she had received from Cooks Source's editor, Judith Griggs. Griggs' response revealed an arrogant disregard for Gaudio's intellectual property rights, and a distinct lack of understanding as to the role and function of the internet in the publishing industry. Other bloggers linked to Gaudio's piece, and the story began to be circulated via Twitter. The first tweet I received about the story appeared to be a cautionary tale to warn bloggers of potential danger. However, events soon started to move in a different direction.

Filled with "rage and horror" at Cooks Source's crime, and disgusted by Griggs' unapologetic attitude, social media users embarked upon what has been described by some as "frontier justice". The Cooks Source Facebook page was inundated with hostile, insulting and threatening messages. Fake Twitter and Facebook accounts were set up for the magazine, and for Griggs herself - who was, by now, the scapegoat being led to slaughter. As the mob grew, the phone number and address of Cooks Source magazine was circulated to literally thousands of people. People screamed across cyberspace for an end to Griggs' career and financial security - as well as for worse.

Directly after the figurative lynching of Griggs, people's attention turned to the advertisers who had paid for promotion in Cooks Source magazine. Many of these were small businesses, who received thousands of emails - many angry and abusive - and phone calls which disrupted their working day. One company reported being told that "when you lie down with dogs, you're bound to get fleas". No advertiser publicly stood by the magazine. All "readily admitted" that they had paid for advertising in a publication that was beyond redemption, and accepted that they would not do so again.

While no-one (thankfully) was physically torn to pieces in this case, one is left pondering the similarities between the sixteenth-century lynching of Pernette Gandillon and the "frontier justice" administered to Judith Griggs.

At no point in the past week has anyone questioned Griggs' guilt. We know she was guilty of copyright infringement - we saw the email - just as those Jura villagers saw the child's body. Both Gandillon and Griggs committed crimes recognized and punishable by recourse to contemporaneous legal channels, and yet were dealt with outside of official channels. Both cases enabled further accusations to be levelled against those associated with the original 'monster', and resulted in further coerced 'confessions'. The punishments of both women seem somehow out of proportion to the crimes committed. It is possible that Pernette was, in fact, being punished for being 'different' (perhaps, mentally ill), while Judith Griggs was undoubtedly being punished more for her lack of knowledge of the how the internet works than for her initial plagiarism - consider the scorn poured upon Cooks Source when they claimed their Facebook page had been "hacked", when, in truth, it had simply been bombarded with comments. Pernette Gandillon and Judith Griggs were not, by the standards of their day and the environment in which they operated, 'one of us'.

Some internet users are very aware of the comparison to be made between early modern witchhunts and the Cooks Source Magazine debacle. Some have spoken of "pitchforks and burning torches", others directly referring to "witchhunts" and "lynchings". The Cooks Source Facebook page has become a repository of other 'humorous' charges levelled at the magazine and, more specifically, its editor. One ironic poster claims "Cooks Source magazine has commerce with the devil." Wasn't that what Antoinnette Gandillon was burned for?

Nevertheless, the majority of posters seem somewhat less aware. Their messages are crude, designed to cause cruel laughter and provoke further response. Those involved do not appear to be directly affected or concerned by Griggs' crime - in fact, many have ceased making any reference to it whatsoever. The initial transgression of the accused is no longer the issue, the point is to keep waving the pitchforks until you have someone to burn.

One wonders how the Jura villagers felt after the dismemberment of Pernette Gandillon. Were they relieved to have dispatched such a great threat? Were they fearful that such a thing might happen again? Or were they exhilarated in the wake of their "driveby justice"? There must be something quite compelling in the idea of being part of a mob baying for justice - after all, five centuries on, people are still pretty quick to pick up their pitchforks and lift up the torches. Reading the relish with which bloggers and online journalists have described the fate of Cooks Source Magazine, it would seem that people enjoy a virtual lynching. All that "rage and horror" has not gone away, it's just gone online.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Review: Hassan Blasim, 'The Truck to Berlin' (Comma Press, 2009)

In 2009, Comma Press published a collection of short stories by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright. The collection, entitled The Madman of Freedom Square, features a series of surreal and hyperreal stories inspired by the Iraq war, and by the West's troubled relationship with Iraq. The stories span over two decades and explore paranoia, exile, human trafficking, the refugee experience, as well as many other issues. The collection is uncomprising, sometimes shocking, unnerving and challenging.

As a Mancunian writer, I am (naturally) a big fan of Comma Press. For those of us who live in Manchester, Comma represents a real home-grown success story. For those that don't, Comma is a champion of the short story form - unusual in today's publishing world. Until earlier this year, I was more familiar with Comma's anthologies, particularly their excellent horror output (The New Uncanny and Phobic). In the course of organizing the She-Wolf conference, Comma editor Ra Page recommended that I take a look at The Madman of Freedom Square, and especially the story entitled 'The Truck to Berlin'. This was my first real experience of Comma's works in translation, and I was very impressed.

'The Truck to Berlin' is a story of people smuggling. Specifically, it relates a tale of young men being transported from 35 Iraqi men who pay to be transported from Istanbul to Berlin. The men each pay $4000 for a journey in a closed truck by the pious smuggler Haj Ibrahim ("the best and most honest smuggler in all Turkey"). It is, above all else, a story of desperation. The Berlin story is framed by a narrator's own attempts to save enough money to pay "those who smuggle the human cattle of the East to the farms of the West"; before beginning the story of the ill-fated truck, he relates a previous incident in which a group of Afghan men were deceived into parting with money only to be loaded onto a truck, driven around the city in darkness, and left in a public garden in Istanbul to be arrested.

That the truck will not reach Berlin is made abundantly clear in the opening sentence: "... if I were destined to write it again, I would record only the cries of terror which rang out at the time and the other mysterious noises that accompanied the massacre." I won't go in to too much detail about the circumstances of this "massacre", although it will most likely to be clear given the usual content of this blog. However, this story does not hinge on a shock reveal or a supernatural terror. It is a carefully crafted piece of uncertainty, paranoia and dread. Blasim's writing (translated from the Arabic by Wright) is a perfectly-pitched blend of real and fantastic horrors. In fact, distinguishing the 'real' from the 'fantastic' is not even possible. For example, in describing his own exile, the narrator states: "... I was on the run from the hell of the years of economic sanctions, not out of fear of hunger or of Saddam Hussein. In fact I was on the run from myself and from other monsters."

So, what is responsible for the "massacre" on the truck to Berlin? Though it may seem obvious, given the usual subject matter of this blog, the story gives no concrete answer. The whole story is presented thirdhand. The Serbian police officer who finds the truck is not listened to; the story comes into the hands of "Ali the Afghan" who is "a treasure trove of smuggling stories", and relates it to our narrator; we are told the story dispassionately, but by one who appears to believe.

Are we expected to believe the implied explanation of what occured on the truck? Perhaps the more important question is can we believe it? Given the context of the story, I would argue that we can. The Madman of Freedom Square introduces us to a sometimes hallucinatory, sometimes nightmarish, world where extremes of violence and terror are all too real. At the beginning of 'The Truck to Berlin', the narrator outlines this hyperreality: "... in my view the world is very fragile, frightening and inhumane. All it needs is a little shake for its hideous nature and its primeval fangs to emerge."

As many critics have noted (including Fred Botting, whose Limits of Horror was the last book reviewed on this blog), today's fiction often presents us with sympathetic monsters: werewolves and vampires have become the 'norm', rather than the aberration. Horror and fantasy have long been mediums through which we explore our humanity and its limits. 'The Truck to Berlin' is a different type of horror. Here the reader is challenged to confront the limits of our inhumanity. In Blasim's work, those "primeval fangs" that are so often part of something recognizable, comforting, attractive even, are detached from romance and Gothic sensibilities and resituated in a "frightening and inhumane" world that is, nevertheless, all too real.

For more information about The Madman of Freedom Square, please visit the Comma Press website.