Brace yourselves for the spook fest! When October is here, you know Halloween won’t be too far behind. Here’s my stash for the upcoming days – from classic horror to contemporary thrillers, my Halloween reading pile is ready. The bookstore even sent Halloween-themed bookmarks. So cool! I’m currently reading Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived In The Castle” on Kindle. Will move on to these paperbacks soon enough.
John Carpenter’s cult classic of the eighties, The Thing, was one of my favorite horror movies growing up. I recently found out the movie was based on a book by John Campbell titled “Who Goes There” , published in 1938 under the pen name Don Stuart. In the 1970s the book was voted as one of the finest science fiction stories ever written, and was adapted into three films. I haven’t watched the 1951 “The Thing From Another World” , but I loved the 1982 “The Thing” , and didn’t think too much of the 2011 prequel to the 80s movie of the same name. Carpenter’s film is the most faithful adaptation of the book and the most well made, with it’s haunting theme tune.
I picked up the book as soon as I heard about it and finished it over the last two nights. Set in the extreme climatic conditions of the Antarctica of the 1930s, the story follows a group of researchers towards the end of winter and awaiting spring, who happen to discover an alien spaceship crashed and buried in the snow. Assumed to be over twenty million years old, the team attempts to thaw it with a thermite charge, but end up destroying the ship. They do discover the equally frozen remains of the pilot, buried some distance away from the craft – possibly having emerged out to look for warmer climates and succumbed in the harsh new environment. Hoping to not repeat the damaging result of the aircraft, they carry the ice block with the visitor frozen inside, to thaw it “naturally” in their headquarters. And that’s when havoc ensues.
In spite of being a complex organism, the creature’s cells function like those of simple organisms – they revive when thawed and the animal comes to life. The peculiarity of the unwelcome visitor is that it’s cells function as a separate entity from the whole organism. “Every part of it is all of it. Every part is a whole. Every piece is self-sufficient.” It can latch on to other beings – birds, animals and humans alike – and mimic their cells perfectly to form a whole new organism that looks, thinks and behaves exactly like the original, and the original organism dies in the process.
The team of pathologists, biologists, meteorologists, physicists, aviation mechanics, and those of varying expertise in their fields must now work together to quarantine the shape-shifter before it takes over all the humans and animals on camp, and moves on from Antarctica to the rest of the world population. But how can the team trust each other when anyone could be a potential threat? “We’ve got monsters, madmen and murderers. Any more M’s you can think of?” Are people going mad due to cabin fever? Are sane men murdering potential mimics? How do they discern friend from foe, identify who are the real humans and which ones are the clones? Are the sled dogs really dogs or mimics? Are the cows they are milking providing real milk or foreign entities? How does one destroy a creature with no natural enemies? If it can become whatever attacks it, no one or nothing is seen as a threat but as a means of absorption and assimilation into a whole new organism.
The entire book is written in the third person narrative, ensuring the reader is constantly kept guessing about who/what/where the alien could be. Do we look for behavioral signs? Any hint of suspicion in what the characters are saying? Do their feelings, thoughts or dreams identify them as potential aliens? “The idea of the creature imitating us is unreal, because it is too completely unhuman to deceive us. It doesn’t have a human mind.” As the suspense and paranoia build up slowly, the reader is left questioning one’s own sanity about what and whom to believe. Every one says “I’m human”, but what makes us human? The way we look, our thoughts, our feelings, our ambitions, our will to survive. If all of these are mimicked to perfection, can the mimic be called “human” too? A must-read for sci-fi and horror fans, the book can be described in one word as atmospheric.
~ “Three quarters of an hour, through -37° cold, while the aurora curtain bellied overhead. The twilight was nearly twelve hours long, flaming in the north on snow like white, crystalline sand.”
~ “It was white death. Death of a needle-fingered cold driven before the wind, sucking heat from any warm thing. Cold and white mist of endless, everlasting drift. It was easy to get lost in ten paces.”
~ “The huge blowtorch McReady had brought coughed solemnly. Abruptly it rumbled disapproval throatily. Then it laughed gurgingly, and thrust out a blue-white, three-foot tongue.”
~ “A low rippling snarl of distilled hate. A shrill of pain, a dozen snarling yelps.”
~ “The three eyes glared at him sightlessly. He realized vaguely that he had been looking at them for a very long time, and understood that they were no longer sightless.”
~ “An odor alien among the smells of industry and life. And yet, it was a life-smell.”
Very creepy and well written, with a pounding sense of dread that makes one marvel at the era in which the writer produced it. There are references to the first people who ever made it to the North and South Poles, with these memorable expeditions so close to the time when the story was actually written. Antarctica is a harsh continent even today. One shudders to think of the conditions the crew would have to deal with in the 1930s. The plot is riveting, the pace evenly thrilling, and just like the creature, each part of the story adds to the whole. The characterization is excellent, with each specialist’s contribution to the proceedings imperative to the monster being dealt with. A seminal piece of old-school horror and science fiction that was way ahead of it’s time! Go ahead and read it, if you haven’t already.
Some casual browsing on Netflix led to a movie titled “Warm Bodies” , described as a horror comedy, featuring Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer and John Malkovich. Surprisingly, this was a 2013 release and I had never heard of it before. The presence of well known actors egged me on to give it a shot, even though I didn’t expect much beyond the regular zombie fare.
“What am I doing with my life? I’m so pale. My posture is terrible. People would respect me more if I stood up straighter. Why can’t I connect with people? Oh, right, it’s because I’m dead.”
The story starts off with “R” (Nicholas Hoult) – introduced as a highly introspective zombie. He has no memories of his past life, his family or friends, how he landed up at an airport, or even his name. Zombies don’t talk; then only grunt. And “rrrrr” is all he can come up with if he tries to speak – hence the default “name”. Narrated in the first person, R is part of an undead horde living at an airport, and has himself taken over an entire plane as his personal space. R considers himself an unusual zombie – he has thoughts but no memories of his former life. And when he feeds on humans, he doesn’t turn them into fellow zombies – preferring rather to consume their brains as well, which leaves them completely dead. In turn, he receives their memories on devouring their brains, an act he considers his only connection to being human – by feeling vicariously through the memories in the brains he consumes.
While scavenging for living humans to feed on one day, the undead face off with Julie (Teresa Palmer) and a group of humans searching for medical supplies to take back to the living. R kills a member from the party who was about to shoot him in the head, and on eating his brains realizes the man, Perry, is/was Julie’s boyfriend – memories of Perry and Julie come rushing into R as he eats. This causes him to share Perry’s feelings for Julie and in turn protect her from the other zombies. He promptly takes her along with him, sharing his airplane “home” and all the items he has scavenged – music records, books, canned food and beverages, showpieces. Julie is his only link to humanity, and R realizes he is getting warmer. Is there hope for a corpse to become alive again? This change also seems to be spreading among the local undead population like a virus – they start to remember and feel, and speak with some effort.
R and Julie have larger issues to face when their friendship is threatened from two opposing parties. Some of the zombies are too far gone – having been undead for a very long time their skin starts too shed, turning them into skeletons called “bonies” , and they are a threat to both other zombies and humans, devouring anything in sight. At the same time Julie’s father, General Grigio (John Malkovich), is the leader of an army of humans out to kill all zombies. The human-zombie duo is consequently caught in a crossfire – unless the humans can be convinced that the zombies are indeed getting warmer, and are not corpses anymore.
A unique take on the possibility of zombies turning into humans again, of the living and the undead sharing space and mutual understanding and acceptance. The story is fresh, fast paced, and an original delight. The movie can be described as a mix of genres with humor, horror, romance, sci-fi and drama all thrown in – and it never seems too chaotic. Nicholas Hoult is hilarious with an understated performance – he is stone faced as a zombie, but his thoughts and introspection reveal a lot of emotions, and his monologues are the highlight of the movie. The scenes of R pretending to be human, and Julie pretending to be a zombie – to blend in with each other’s coterie – are absolutely laugh-out-loud. All of the supporting actors do a tremendous job, including the actors playing the zombies – it is never over the top and the humor comes in at just the right places. The movie is funny without trying too hard, the romance doesn’t come across as clichéd, the popular actors don’t ham their way through (as often happens in these off-beat movies), the effects are well presented (especially the characters of the bonies). “Warm Bodies” definitely brings something original to the zombie genre and deserves to be watched.
From the credits, I also found out that the movie is based on a book by the same name. Isaac Marion’s novel came out in 2010 – described as a zombie romance alluding to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, hence the lead characters of R and Julie pulled apart from both sides by their people. I just downloaded the book on Kindle and will read it over the weekend. If one goes by routine experiences of movie adaptations from books, a movie this good would make the book an obvious must-read. Give the movie a watch too; it’s well worth the time.