Posts Tagged ‘science horror’

As many of you know by now, I’m in the middle of editing The Pure World Comes, a Gothic horror novel I wrote earlier this year. The novel follows a maid living in Victorian England who goes to work at the estate of a mad scientist (yes, that’s my elevator pitch for the story). Since a mad scientist features prominently in the story, I thought I’d take a moment to discuss the trope, as it’s extremely common in fiction, especially sci-fi and horror.

With that being said, I decided to do some research before working on The Pure World Comes. I couldn’t find many articles on the trope (and those I did were pitifully short), so I asked one of my Facebook writing groups for help. I got way more responses than I’d expected. Some of them gave me some funny responses like including wild, white hair and a funny accent, or differentiating mad scientists, who do mad experiments, to mad engineers, who build mad things. Some were not helpful at all, like imagining them as autistic overachievers (excuse me? I’m on the spectrum and an overachiever! I take offense at that).

However, there was some good information given to go with the few articles I could find. To start with, the mad scientist trope is over two-hundred years old, with the prototypical mad scientist being Victor Frankenstein of the novel Frankenstein.* However, the stereotypical look of the mad scientist–wild hair, crazy eyes, and “quasi-fascist laboratory garb1“–as well as the outlook for the lab, was influenced by the character Rotwang and his lab in the German silent film Metropolis. Rotwang also had numerous traits we associate with mad scientists (more on that later). After the horrors of WWII, such as German experiments and the atom bomb, and the outbreak of the Cold War, mad scientists began to reflect the horrors and fears of that age, often working on projects that could destroy all or almost all of mankind.

Given the state of the world now, I’m expecting an influx of mad scientists interested in virology and/or social engineering.

Alongside their history, I found out mad scientists have some common subtypes:

Victor Frankenstein (here renamed Henry for some reason) is a great example of an unethical mad scientist.
  • Mythical scientists. These are the mad scientists who seem to be working with godlike powers, either through unexplained, futuristic science bordering on magic or actually studying/utilizing magic items. Science-colored wizardry, as one FB commenter put it.
  • Unethical scientists. These are the scientists who are actual scientists but have dropped their ethics/morals. These types are usually based on the Nazi scientists, the Tuskegee doctors who studied on unknowing black men, and so many more (sadly), though Frankenstein technically falls into this category.
  • Cutting edge obsessive scientists. These types aren’t always so bad. They are good at their work and love it deeply, but tend to get obsessive to the point it can cause trouble for them or other characters. Often, after causing a lot of trouble, they can get a redemption arc. A good example is Entrapta from the She-Ra reboot.
  • Scientists with mental illness. These are self-explanatory, and are becoming more and more common in media these days. This can be a bit of a double-edged sword, as it can be great representation for the disabled, but it can also give a bad name to the disabled by linking their evil behavior to their mental illness.

Obviously, these types can cross over with each other. And there’s probably more than what I’m listing here.

Whatever their type, type combination, or era of creation, all the types have some commonality. For one thing, they generally deeply believe in their goals or research. They also tend to think of themselves as a protagonist in their own personal story. Even the ones who acknowledge they’re evil still believe they’re a main character on the world stage. Pride, greed, or the belief that they know better is generally what drives them, and is often what leads to their downfall.

As for how to write mad scientists, it’s less having to do with the trope and with the character itself. Because of what the mad scientist can do, they’re often used to fulfill a number of needs in stories, but unless you’re making them a satire of the trope or just including them for comical effect, you need to really think about their character. What motivates them? What are their odd ticks or quirks? Think of them like you would any other character and apply the same amount of love and development. Hopefully then you can create a great mad scientist.

Entrapta in the She-Ra reboot is a great subversion of the mad scientist trope.

You can also try going against clichés. Most mad scientists are older white males with nefarious intentions, so going against one or more of these traits and then making the character your own might be a good idea. Looking at you again, Entrapta from She-Ra! You wonderful, robot-obsessed, magic-haired princess, you!

Mad scientists are common characters in fiction and for good reason. And while there’s no sign they’re going away any time soon, there’s plenty of room to innovate and make them your own. Especially if you do your science homework before you start writing.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. This will probably be the last post I make for 2020. If that’s true, I’ll catch you all next year. In the meantime, I’ll be bingeing TV, sleeping and editing The Pure World Comes (I’m currently in the chapter where I reveal who Jack the Ripper is).

Until next time, stay safe (and don’t travel), Happy New Year, and pleasant nightmares!

*Fun fact, Victor Frankenstein never actually finished college, so he’s not a doctor, though people think he is. But since the discipline of science hadn’t been formalized and all the other stuff by the early 19th century, we can still call him a mad scientist.

My copy of Remina from the library.

I’ve been looking forward to this book getting an official translation and release here in the US for quite some time. And I was so excited when it arrived at the library, I stopped by yesterday afternoon to pick it up rather than wait till Friday. As you can guess, I stayed up late reading it, hoping the story within would give me some pleasant nightmares.

Known as Hellstar Remina in Japan, Remina kicks off with the discovery of a new planet that seemingly appeared from a wormhole several lightyears away. The discovery is hailed as the greatest development in astrophysics ever, and its discoverer, Dr. Oguro, names the new planet after his beloved, beautiful but shy daughter Remina, causing her own star to rise alongside the planet bearing her name. However, planet Remina is moving through space in ways that defy physics and sense. Planets and stars disappear in its wake. And it soon becomes clear that not only is this planet headed to our solar system, but it spells doom for all on the Earth. Especially the young woman who shares a name with it.

Oh man, I don’t think I’ve loved something from Ito this much since Uzumaki!

First off, the concept is well-executed. Ito takes this idea of a planet flying through space towards us, threatening everything we found our worldviews on as well as our lives and our planet, and turns it into this strange, dread-inducing story that somehow manages to ramp up more and more with every page. The planet itself is rather terrifying. There’s so many unknowns about it, and the more you learn and see of Remina, the more questions you have and the more you learn to fear it. It really puts the “cosmic” into cosmic horror.

I was also impressed with the human characters. Remina Oguro, the planet’s namesake, is easy to like. She’s shy and humble, and really only becomes an entertainer because she’s suddenly famous, so she might as well use it to get through life more easily. Which makes the hardship she goes through later so heart wrenching. As the planet bears down on the Earth and no solution seems to work, people begin to wonder if the Oguros, particularly Remina herself, have some hand in bringing the planet to them. In their terror, many abandon reason and decide the only way to save humanity is to kill Remina Oguro herself.

It’s not only an excellent example of cosmic horror–of humans dealing/reacting to their insignificance in the universe in the only ways they know how–as well as making you feel for Remina, but it feels really relevant to our current predicaments. Whether it be COVID-19 or the national election, you see people embracing the most insane conspiracy theories rather than accept an obvious reality. That is illustrated so well in Remina, and I felt a chill reading that.

This shot encapsulates so much of what makes Remina great.

Other aspects of the story worked as well. Ito’s art is amazing, as always. Earth in this manga is portrayed as being a few decades ahead of us a la The Jetsons, flying cars included, and it’s cool to see Ito give Earth this futuristic look. The characters are well-drawn, with our protagonists given a more realistic look while those driven mad by fear or anger are hyper-exaggerated to best portray their emotions. But the best illustrations are the spreads taking two full pages. They portray that cosmic dread so well, I spent quite a bit of time looking at them.

And as for the science aspect of the story, while more pseudoscientific than based in reality, it seems plausible enough to believe in for the moment.

The one aspect I disliked was just how quickly things escalated in the first chapter. Within about thirty or forty pages, things go from excitement and new promises to gloom-and-doom and psychotic, murderous behavior. I would’ve preferred things to move a bit more gradually before getting to that level.

All in all, Remina by Junji Ito earns itself a splendid 4.5 out of 5. It’s terrifying in both its cosmic and human aspects and will be hard to put down for any reader. Pick it up, settle in for a terrifying ride, and never name anything Remina.

Also, someone please adapt this story into a movie or miniseries! Live action or animated, this would be a great spectacle to see on screens. Just lay off the CGI except when absolutely necessary and it could be awesome.

On Sunday, I posted about finishing my first short story of 2020, a science-horror story called “Primordial Nuclear Soup” (what a title, right?). I mentioned in that post I wanted to find a beta reader to take a look at the story before I edited it and tried to send it anywhere. Thankfully, I found someone very quickly who turned out to be the right sort of reader for this story. They gave me some excellent feedback on ways the story could be improved, but there’s one point that I wanted to focus on.

With “Primordial Nuclear Soup,” I was going for an ambiguous ending to the story. You know, the kind where things are left kind of open, leading to readers wondering what happened after “The End”? Yeah, apparently I confused my beta reader with that. They actually asked me if I’d cut it off early.

Now, this may have been because I simply forgot to put the words “The End” at the end of the story. But it got me thinking: when is an ambiguous ending good for a story, and when does it actually get in the way of telling the story?

As usual, when faced with a writing quandary that I can’t reason out on my own, I go to Facebook groups for writers. I got a variety of opinions on the subject, some of which felt more on the mark than others, but one response in particular resonated with me. The writer in question said that ambiguous endings work best with ambiguous stories.

What do I mean by ambiguous stories? Well, these are stories where so much is up in the air, that an ending where things are up in the air makes sense. A story with an unreliable narrator fits this description, or a story like The Haunting of Hill House, where we’re not sure if the house is really haunted and we feel the psychological strain on the characters. By the end of the latter, we’re still not sure whether the house is haunted, so an ending that still leaves us questioning what the hell just happened fits nicely.

Of course, some more “definitive” stories may benefit from an ambiguous ending, especially if it ramps up the tension. “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away,” a Stephen King short story about a traveling salesman contemplating suicide, has an ambiguous ending dependent on whether the protagonist sees a light from a farmhouse through a snowstorm.* It’s a great way to top off a story revolving around a troubled man wondering whether or not he should kill himself or live to write a book about his encounters on his travels.

As for my own story…well, it’s science horror. And science/science fiction tends to deal with exactness. Even though the Xenomorph from the pinnacle of science horror, Alien, has an unclear origin,** everything else in that film is clear as crystal. So perhaps I need to give my own story a clearer ending.

Well, we’ll see. I’ll give the story an edit before I start that essay (yes, I’m going to write it) and see what I can do with it. Hopefully, I’ll make something a magazine won’t want to throw in the trash after the first page.

A dramatic shot of “Rose” I couldn’t help but take.

Oh, and while I have your attention still, did you know today is the two-year anniversary of when I announced Rose was accepted for publication? Yeah, it happened on this day in 2017, and a lot’s happened since then. A year of edits and rewrites, the release and all the marketing, the audio book, and so much more. More and more, people have been telling me they’ve enjoyed the story, and hearing that is the most gratifying feeling ever. Makes me want to keep writing.

If you haven’t read the Kafkaesque story of a young woman turning into a plant creature (and that’s just the start of her problems), and you’d like to check it out, I’ll include the links below. And if you do read it, please let me know what you think. I love feedback, and reviews help me out in the long run.

That’s all for now, Followers of Fear. Until next time, pleasant nightmares!

Rose: Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Audible

*It’s been 19 years since it first came out, so I’m not sorry I didn’t include a spoiler warning.

**I like to pretend Prometheus and Alien: Covenant never happened. They take all the mystery out of the franchise.

Well, this has been a busy day today. Met with the Ohio chapter of the HWA for a very productive meeting, ran some important errands for stuff happening at work and in the Jewish calendar, watched a movie with dinner, and…oh yeah, got the first short story of 2020 out of my way. It looks like I’m making good progress on those writing goals.

“Primordial Nuclear Soup” is a science-horror story about a team of scientists and their military escort who go into a nuclear power facility two years after a meltdown, and what they encounter there. It was inspired by a YouTube video I watched going into some of the science about the Chernobyl disaster, and was further influenced by a certain Stephen King story and a certain Godzilla movie (neither of which I can reveal without giving too many hints about the story). It’s about sixty-five hundred words long, so it’s not super long. And as it’s partially science-fiction, there will hopefully be plenty of magazines or anthologies that would consider publishing it.

I had a lot of fun writing this short story, but it was also challenging. I thought I knew which way it was going to go, but the story ended up going in different directions than I expected. I was actually pantsing for the last half or so, but it ended up working out in the end. Maybe that’ll give it a bit more surprise for any readers.

For now though, I’m going to see if I can’t get someone take a look at this story before I edit and submit it anywhere. I want it to be in top shape, after all.

As for what’s next, I’m going to do some research into essay writing for that essay I mentioned wanting to write. If I feel up to the task, I’ll write that essay. If not, I’ll move onto my next story. After all, I have nine short(er) stories I mean to work on, and I’ve already figured out which one I’ll be tackling next. Should be good to get it out, considering how long it’s been knocking around this twisted head of mine.

Well, it’s late, and I’ve got work in the morning. Goodnight, my Followers of Fear, and pleasant nightmares!

The Colour Out of Space (yes, with a “u” in Colour), is my fifth favorite HP Lovecraft story (click here for my Top 8 Lovecraft stories). There have been a couple of adaptations of the film over the years, but they’re either foreign films that are hard to come by, or are really bad for one reason or another. So when word popped up in late 2018 that Nicholas Cage was going to star in a new adaptation of the film, directed Richard Stanley in his first major outing since the 1990s, fans of Lovecraft, horror and/or film in general were piqued. We only got more excited as news from the film trickled back to us. When the trailer came out, I immediately knew I had to see this film.

I got back from seeing it a little while ago, and I’m happy to report, it was well worth the wait. This film is freaking terrifying!

Color Out of Space follows the Gardner family, who are living on the family farm and have converted it into an alpaca farm.* One night, a meteor lands on their property, giving off a strange, colorful light. Soon after, lightning strikes the meteor several times during a storm, the meteor disappears, and then things get weirder from there. The animal and plant-life start changing shape and color, technology goes haywire, and the family starts acting unhinged. All of it can be traced to a mysterious light. An entity. A color. From out of space.

If you’ve seen the film Hereditary, Color is a lot like that. It’s a slow, excruciating build with the characters going through a downward spiral, punctuated by moments of strong terror that left me petrified in my seat. The use of CGI is sparing, used only when practical effects in the style of The Thing aren’t possible. And by the way, those practical effects are amazing! They create some truly horrifying visuals, and Richard Stanley knows when–or even if–to truly reveal the mutated monster. There are also a lot of excruciating scenes involving bodily harm that left everyone in the theater freaked out, including me (not easy to do), and they added to the film in the best way.

As for the actors, they all do an excellent job. This might be the first time I’ve actually enjoyed Nicholas Cage in a movie, as they managed to balance his noncommittal acting style with his crazy acting style in a way that works. It’s funny to see him go from “normal” to acting like a bitchy teenager, but it’s also horrifying because you see how it’s connected to whatever’s affecting the family. The rest of the actors are great, embracing their roles and really convincing you they’re going through this tragic event.

Did I mention that Colin Stetson, who did the music for Hereditary and will be doing the music for the upcoming anime adaptation of Uzumaki by Junji Ito, did the score for the film? Will, he did and it works really well. Sound plays as much a big role in this film as visuals, and Stetson’s score adds the perfect touch to the atmosphere.

First time I’ve actually liked Nick Cage in a movie. How about that?

My only criticisms are that there’s a scene involving the Necronomicon (yeah, there are quite a few Lovecraft Easter eggs in this film) that I feel wasn’t given the best payoff. That, and the character of Ezra, played by Tommy Chong of Cheech & Chong fame, felt kind of extraneous. If you cut him out of the film and have one of the Gardners say some of his lines, it wouldn’t change much.

All in all though, this is not only an excellent adaptation of Lovecraft’s work, it’s a great horror film that’s both faithful to the spirit and text of the original story and terrifying to watch. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving Color Out of Space a 4.8 out of 5. Any fan of Lovecraft, or of horror in general, should come away satisfied (or freaked), so buy a ticket and get ready to see the first great horror film of 2020.

(I already plan to buy the Blu-Ray when it comes out. And I really hope the disc is more colors than just blue, if you get my meaning.)

*Yes, it’s an alpaca farm. And it’s that kind of farm for more than just laughs. Also, the family “dog” is a wolf-dog. Trust me, I researched it. What kind of family owns alpacas for farming and a well-behaved wolf-dog used for herding, I don’t know. It would make for a great reality show, but I digress.

Well, it’s been a year since I last had a Lovecraft binge (see Parts 1, 2, and 3 for my previous binges). And while I didn’t read any actual Lovecraft stories in the year (holy cow, that long?) since my last binge, he was certainly never far from my mind. I read a lot of fiction influenced or modeled after his work, including the Lovecraft/YA novel Awoken* (read my review here), shopped around my own Lovecraft-themed story The Red Bursts (still working on that), and wrote an article about why there’s not more adaptations or even a cinematic universe based on his work. No, surprise, after all that I was ready for another dive into his work. And boy, did I enjoy the eldritch swim.

So if you’re not familiar with HP Lovecraft (and I’d bet good money that you’re not), he was an early 20th-century author whose ideas and stories proved very influential on storytellers like Stephen King, Guillermo del Toro, and Allan Moore, among others. He’s considered the father of cosmic horror, the idea that humans are basically ants in our universe, that there are beings and truths so great and terrible that even glimpsing them can cause madness and death. It’s pretty bleak stuff, if you think about too much about it (which I have).

So this time around, I read “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” Lovecraft’s only finished novel, “The Colour Out of Space,” “The Dunwich Horror,” “History of the Neconomicon” and “The Whisperer in Darkness,” as well as several fragments, one letter excerpt, and one parody story, but I won’t go over those. And I got to say, these were definitely some of the most enjoyable of Lovecraft’s stories. They were consistently creepy and kept me engrossed in the story, as well as with the most accessible language (dude liked to pretend he was a contemporary of Poe, rather than a contemporary of Ernest Hemingway). Or am I just used to his style now?

The interesting thing about these highlighted stories is, they also mark Lovecraft’s shift from pure horror to science-horror. Sure, he’s done that before–“Herbert West: Reanimator” is the story of two men trying to discover the key to bringing back the dead using science, a theme also explored in “Charles Dexter Ward,” but more thriller and magical than science-fiction–but here there was definitely a more sci-fi element in his work. “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Whisperer in Darkness” both involved aliens, with the former involving a sort of alien infection and the latter involving aliens that have been visiting Earth for centuries.

Why did Lovecraft make this shift? Well, around the time these stories were written–late 1920’s and early 1930’s–was also the birth of science fiction as a proper genre. Pulp magazines like Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories were huge sellers, and since pulp rags like these were where Lovecraft normally published his work, he would’ve been aware of the young genre and its exploration of humanity’s possibilities through space exploration, technology, and aliens. It’s no surprise that he’d take elements from those stories and give them a freaky twist. And lo and behold, it led to Lovecraft writing some of my favorite works by him (especially “Colour Out of Space.” God, that was freaky, considering that what happened in that story could maybe happen in real life).

Honestly, I’m glad I decided to check out HP Lovecraft two-and-a-half years ago. Sure, his early works can be hit-and-miss, but as time went on, he got better. And by this point in his bibliography, he was very good at writing stories that stayed in your mind. It’s a shame he didn’t achieve more of a following during this time, because maybe then we’d have more works by him (sadly, he died in 1937 at barely forty years of age), and he’d be more well-known today.

And while I’m done with my latest binge, I’m looking forward to my next one, whenever that is. Especially if the stories from this point on are as good as the ones I read this time around. And seeing as At the Mountain of Madness is the next story in my collection, I’d say that’s a definite possibility.

Have you read these stories or others by Lovecraft? What are your thoughts on them?

*Funny story about Awoken: so I follow this woman named Lindsay Ellis on YouTube (check out her channel here) who does a lot of videos on our media and culture. Yesterday she uploaded a video about whether or not the hate over the Twilight franchise was warranted. During said video, she mentions she and friend/frequent collaborator Antonella “Nella” Inserra wrote Awoken as a parody of Twilight, only with Lovecraft characters instead of vampires. My mouth hit the floor. I had no idea that the novel was a parody of Twilight, let alone written by those two women under a pen name. Though now that I think about it, it explains quite a bit.

I reached out to both women on YouTube and Twitter, letting them know that I read the novel, my ignorance of its authorship, how much I actually liked it, and that I reviewed it on this blog. They asked for a link, and I sent it to them. Since then, I’ve gotten hundreds of views from their readers/viewers on that one review, and the number of reads is still growing. Wow. Didn’t expect that. Pretty cool. Probably won’t last a week, but it’s still cool.

Also, I learned about Poe’s Rule: if you write a parody of something, unless you ad a healthy dose of comedy, people will think it’s serious fiction in a particular style. Which is apparently what happened to me, as these readers are telling me. Good to know.