The Beauty in The Beast

The spirit of the wolf lives on in every dog.
The spirit of the wolf lives on in every dog.

Beasts: how we love them. Love to fear them. Love to hate them. Love to hunt them. Love to tell tales about them.

Since before the dawn of printed words, stories of wild animals whose actions blur the line between species have fascinated humans. To talk to the animals, to know what they think and feel, remains a subject of vivid interest. And of all animals, dogs have shown the greatest ability, and desire, to bond with humans, to serve, follow, and work for them. But . . . inside every dog, from the tiniest Chihuahua to the burliest mastiff, lurks genetic memory code of its ancestry — the wolf. Not exactly man’s best friend.

Wild inside.
Wild inside.

The romance of this idea has been exploited for centuries. And while modern teenagers may think, judging by some of the gushing postings on the web, that werewolves were reinvented solely by the author of the “Twilight” series, the truth is more complicated. The concept of the man/wolf, or the beast within us all, has been the subject and/or inspiration of many imaginative works, both literary and cinematic. When the “Twilight” generation were still wearing Pampers, Jack Nicholson astounded audiences in 1994 with his riveting portrayal in “Wolf.” One of the things that made Nicholson’s performance so impressive was that his convincing transformation from man to wolf was produced without the aid of digital enhancements or fake fur. It was all in the eyes, the attitude, the snarl.

Last week Benicio Del Toro joined the ranks of fine actors who have taken a walk on the wolf side in the new film, “The Wolfman.” It’s a grittier rendition than, say, Hugh Jackman’s pimped-out Wolverine character in the X-Men movies. But that’s part of what makes the genre entertaining. In literature and film, you really can teach a dog new tricks.

In Toby Barlow’s brilliant 2007 debut novel “Sharp Teeth” the myth of the lycanthrope is given a terrific noir spin. Set in modern LA, with a cast of characters that include a down on his luck dogcatcher, some female werewolves with sharp teeth of their own, and some competitive bridge players with more than cards up their sleeves, the story deals with issues of loyalty, justice, compassion and community without ever slipping into sentimentality. And, did I mention the entire thing is written in blank verse? I know. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to hack it. But the clarity and occasional poetic power of the language, the nimble pace, and the fine-edged tone of the whole is such that you forget about the form and get swept away by the wonder of a good story well told.

Allen Ginsberg would have loved it.

What the Frack?

I have succumbed to “Caprica.”

I didn’t even put up a fight. As a former fan of “Battlestar Galatica,” the smashing Sci-Fi Channel series which set pulses racing with its taiko drums and noir attitude, I didn’t stumble unwittingly upon “Caprica.” I saw the slick ads in The New Yorker. I allowed myself to hope that the show might measure up.

And, so far, it’s not bad. The writers have a lot of compelling themes to work with – the uneasy alliance between artificial intelligence and humanity, the contested zone between religion and science, the limits of love and friendship in a world gone mad. The show is stylish, layered, and occasionally has the foreshadowing of those addictive drums.

But last night for the first time I heard one of the characters use the word “frack” as a verb to suggest—well, what we all assumed it meant in BG—a word that can’t be uttered on major networks. And it sounded natural in the fictional context. However, my own understanding of the word has irrevocably changed since I came across a story on the news wires earlier this week. The story by Associated Press Writers Marc Levy and Vicki Smith dealt with a drilling technique that has been used since the 1990s to tap natural gas fields.

The technique is called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” And all this time I had thought how clever the writers of Battlestar had been to get around the confinement of obscenity rules by inventing a brand new euphemism which had the virtues of being both explosive on the tongue and somehow suggestively smutty. Yet, it turns out, the drilling technique, which involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into wells to fracture the shale where the gas is trapped, produces a salty, foul wastewater too loaded with chemicals to be restored by conventional sewage and drinking water treatment plants. Hmm. Maybe the term is more obscene than I thought.

Of course, we all want energy to run our TVs and video games, not to mention the robots who will be doing our dirty work in the glorious future. But if our energy experts don’t figure out a better way to manage the millions of gallons of polluted water that fracking leaves behind, at some point in the not too distant future we may find ourselves well and truly fracked.

We Came For The Vampires

A little more than a year ago I went on a road trip that wound through some of the more spectacular scenery here in the Pacific Northwest. We took in the view from Hurricane Ridge, watched orcas cresting in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and felt our own insignificance beside ancient trees in the Hoh Rainforest.

One sight that we more or less breezed through on a pit stop was Forks, the tiny hamlet on the edge of the Olympic Peninsula which, since the release of the film version of Stephenie Meyer’s chart-breaking bestseller Twilight has become something of a tourist hot-spot, especially for families with adolescent girls. Visitors now can enjoy seeing the high school where Bella, the awkward heroine, first encounters Edward, the sensitive but extremely macho vampire. They can also see other sites touted to be the actual places these fictional events occurred, although true Twilight aficionados will tell you the film was actually filmed in British Columbia, but it’s the thought that counts, right?

At the time of our road trip the Twilight books were selling like hotcakes, and I had brought the first volume along for something to read, and to see what all the fuss was about (and this was before the fuss really got its game on). As we drove slowly through Forks we saw one homely sign that touted a “Twilight Special” at a local motel, but that was about it. The Twilight fans had not been hit with the image of Robert Pattinson yet.

Not long ago we had dinner with some friends who have a daughter in the target market age, and they regaled us with an enthusiastic account of their recent pilgrimage to Forks, where they saw not only the house Bella lived in, and the school she attended, but the truck she drove, the house Edward’s family lived in, etc. etc. Clearly the Twilight tide has lifted many boats in Forks.

It’s become fashionable in certain literary circles to sneer at Stephenie Meyer’s writing, as if anyone could have done what she has, such as land a $750,000 contract during a pitched bidding war with the first book she ever wrote. Hah. I suspect most of those sneering may be feeling just a wee pinch of envy at the 75 million books Ms. Meyer has sold so far with her Twilight saga.

I read the entire series eventually, although I slowed down after the second book because it looked to me as if we were headed toward a conclusion that no mother could love (although Meyer is the mother of three sons, so clearly the ending felt right to her). But, although the end of book four ties things up squarely for the most part, my criticism remains. Perhaps some mothers would be pleased to see their daughters become vampires and suck happily ever after. But while I yield to no one in the readiness with which I can suspend disbelief in the most improbable fictions, when it comes to a mother’s love, I’m less flexible. I didn’t enjoy Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for instance, because it was just too painful, but I wouldn’t deny the power of her observation and the truth of the emotions she puts on the page. The mother in Beloved commits a horrific act, but one that is consistent with a mother’s passion for her children. There’s a lot of passion in the Twilight series. But a mother’s love is nowhere in it.

Still, that hasn’t hurt sales. And the cross marketing continues to boldly grow where vampires have never gone before. This Christmas the hot Barbie dolls are the “Twilight” series, Bella and Edward in plastic, proving that reality still tops fiction for sheer wackiness.

There Is No “I” In Scream

I once went to a truly scary movie by accident. It was “Repulsion,” a riveting psychological suspense thriller starring Catherine Deneuve as a delusional young woman alone in her apartment, imagining the worst. There was very little actual blood, no monsters lurching, biting or slashing. The horror was all in the heroine’s mind, and Ms. Deneuve conveyed her terror with such conviction that I could hardly bear to sit through the entire thing.

So. Not such a big fan of the horror genre. That said, I appreciate a finely wrought suspense film or novel, and admire the mastery of Hitchcock, the snarky brilliance of Polanski. But I wonder sometimes about the current gentrification of horror. Tonight is Halloween, a holiday which once occupied a single day, and was celebrated mostly by children under the age of twelve. Now in this country, the only country where Halloween has undergone a kind of Hollywood makeover, the Halloween season lasts for the entire month of October, and adults throw themselves into it with far greater abandon than the kids. I know, because I was once one of the happy party people arrayed in wigs and sparkles and fake gore, where applicable, and it was fabulous fun.

But as I wandered past the Halloween stores in the malls near Washington, DC, last week, I found myself wondering if perhaps we haven’t taken the thing too far, and if so, why?

For myself I know that Halloween used to offer a kind of release, a temporary escape from the altogether more frightening and far more entrenched terrors of the modern world. I’d list them but I don’t see any point in Pox News. Maybe the reason Halloween has grown so huge commercially is that people are responding to the underlying paranoia that lurks like a poisonous gas beneath the surface of our slick technological confidence.

If only werewolves and vampires and zombies were all that we had to fear.

I just finished reading “Boneshaker,” a cool steampunk novel by Seattle author Cherie Priest which explores the ways in which we humans allow fears and rumors to keep us from taking positive steps to fix problems. I related to the novel not only because it was set in a kind of alternate Seattle, but because the heroine is a mother battling hordes of undead and fiendish psychopaths in addition to her own sense of inadequacy as she tries to make things right with her only son. I like a heroine who can kick ass when it’s called for, while still retaining a core of emotional vulnerability.

That’s just one reason I detest most of the “women-in-jeopardy” films and novels which purport to be entertainment. Women all over the world are in enough jeopardy, and have been since the days when they were considered chattel. To perpetuate barbaric attitudes and to depict them in such quantities that people get numb to the ideas embedded in them seems criminal to me.

However, if the annual crop of slasher films is any indication, clearly the hooligans are dictating the playbook these days. It seems a large number of people enjoy screaming in horror at the movies.

I guess I understand. In the face of of global warming, nuclear threats, terrorists and plagues, it’s easier to avert an imaginary disaster than to work to prevent the real thing. I could just scream.

Zombie Chic

The enthusiastic reviews of the current bestseller “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” by “Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith” encouraged me to buy a copy. I laughed when I first saw the book displayed in the window of a Capitol Hill bookshop. So clever, so droll, it seemed.

And yet. Now, having dutifully read through the thing, waiting for the moment when it would make me laugh, or smile, or even admire the inventiveness of Mr. Grahame-Smith, I find myself back where I started, at the title. The title is funny. The rest of the book, rather like its purported innovation, lifeless. Things happen, the plot plods along, more or less faithfully following the events of the original masterpiece, but the added element of zombie attacks thrown in at intervals is rather like a nudge with an elbow to a sleeping classmate who has been called upon to comment on last night’s reading assignment in English class.

On the back of the book the claim is made that Grahame-Smith’s reworking of the Austen classic “transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read.” Well, I suppose I should have realized from that telling phrase that the book was written by someone who never appreciated Austen and thus could hardly be expected to improve upon her work. And since I am one of those who reread Austen’s six novels regularly for pleasure, rather in the way that some other people might go to a spa for a lift, I should have guessed that, for me, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” would fall short of entertainment.

For me, reading “P&P&Z” was like reading a copy of a beloved text that had been cut up by some toddler with his first pair of scissors and then scribbled on by some novice graffiti artist. I have nothing against toddlers. And I respect graffiti as an art form and a means of personal expression which, like all art, can run the gamut from the extraordinary to the toddleresque.

But I guess I was hoping for a bit more sparkle, a bit more cleverness. Hell, even a touch of irony in these irony-rich times would have been welcome. But no. It was not to be. What we get in “P&P&Z” is a dogged reassembling of Austen’s components—all the characters are there, all the main plot points, etc.—without a spark of wit (unless your taste in humor is satisfied by the occasional quips about Mr. Darcy’s musket balls). Sigh.

The most amusing aspect of the entire book is the “Reader’s Discussion Guide” at the end, in which Grahame-Smith gleefully skewers the sort of stuffy essay questions that turn a lot of students against literature.

Oh well. The important thing is to get those kids reading, right? And if it means we have to butcher the classics and remove all the brains from the writing, well, perhaps that’s not all bad. It could have been worse.

But, it could have been so much better. Not all zombie fiction is lifeless and flat. Consider, for instance, the Discworld fantasies of Terry Pratchett, whose zombie Igor is fully fleshed out, wryly humorous and even a sympathetic character. We care about Igor.

What if Mr. Darcy had become a zombie in the course of the story, and had handled himself with a quiet dignity and self-deprecating humor, and Elizabeth had been irresistibly drawn to him in spite of his rotting flesh? Ah, the possibilities.

Still, I expect we haven’t seen the last of the brain-eating hordes. When a mash-up novel about a plague of zombies makes the New York Times bestseller list, can a sitcom about madcap zombies be far behind? Got brains?

Map Quest

Is there anything more potent, more magical, more surreal than a map?

Some may think maps mundane, the stuff of Google, soulless grids charting featureless terrain, mere means to an end. But a good map can do so much more than just get you where you want to go. It can tell you what to look for, what to avoid, where the hidden treasure lies, where the roads end. And in a work of fiction a well-drawn map can open a whole new world in your mind.

Of course, not every genre lends itself to mapping. But none has done more to chart the unknown than fantasy. I recently finished reading “The Elfstones of Shannara,” a 500-plus-page journey into the misty domain of writer Terry Brooks, whose bestselling books have won legions of fans in the sword and sorcery camp.

I must confess that although I’d seen Brooks’s works around for years, until recently I’d never summoned the will to commit to reading one, due to an attitude I acquired while reading “The Hobbit.” This was back in the day when Tolkien worship was white hot and fresh on college campuses, and I dutifully tried to feel the passion. But I found it a trial, slogging irritably through the page after page of repetitive scenery descriptions, waiting in vain for the appearance of a single admirable female character. Seriously. Swept away I was not.

Of course, in principle I enjoy the classic fantasy tropes of an epic journey, a battle against overwhelming odds, and magical weapons to ensure victory in the struggle between good and evil. But really, all those dwarf songs? Hardly karaoke material.

However, map-wise “Lord of The Rings” set a new standard for those of us who like to boldly read where no one has read before. And Terry Brooks has a firm grasp of the map element. Also, to his credit, he crafts some engaging female characters, so that, on the whole, I think I prefer his Shannara to Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

But while maps enrich works of fiction ranging from the sunny innocence of Winnie the Pooh and his 100 Acre Wood to the dark twists of Neil Gaiman’s alternative London underground in “Neverwhere,”  the power of maps transcends fiction. In fiction maps often lead to treasure or talismans of power. In real life, a good map is a treasure in itself.

So much of life is uncharted. The perilous path of parenthood, for instance, can be a twisting, gut-wrenching trial no matter how many guidebooks you read. Jane Hamilton’s brilliant, heartbreaking “A Map of the World” takes the reader through a nightmare of parental fears, but the author leads us out into the light with a flickering torch of hope held high. Though her work is nothing like escapist fantasy, it offers a similar redemptive resolution by suggesting that no matter how carefully you work to guard and protect your children, things happen over which you have no control.

Ultimately, there are no maps for parenthood. Every child is a whole new world, one that you may spend your life discovering. As Dr. Seuss noted, “Oh the places you’ll go!” We went to Los Angeles recently, on a sort of post-graduate parenting mission. Our daughter was running in her first marathon and, knowing that running 26 miles would be a challenge, we wanted to cheer her on. What we didn’t anticipate was the challenge of driving in downtown LA on a major holiday during the marathon when countless streets were closed and barricaded. Luckily, I had a map. Not a bad map, but sadly lacking in the kind of useful tips that set apart great maps from the mediocre. Your great maps offer helpful bits of advice such as, “Here be dragons.” In our case, one that warned, “Here be traffick barriers” would have been nice.

As we waited out the hours while the marathon progressed, our quest was more modest than that of Frodo or Wil Ohmsford. We simply wanted to find an open coffee shop, a public restroom, a route to the finish line of the race. Unfortunately, I was hampered by the fact that we had parked in an underground lot, and the overcast early morning skies offered no sunshine to help me get oriented. Normally I feel fairly confident about my sense of direction, but no matter how long I stared at the map I couldn’t figure out which way was up. My head was spinning from lack of sleep and coffee. What I needed was a magic ring, or, failing that, an enchanted sword, but there’s rarely one of those around when you need it.

Unless you’ve got a volume by Terry Brooks in your backpack. In which case, no worries. You can fight your way out of the blackest pit of underground parking and climb into higher realms of glory. Or at least find a place to grab some lunch.