Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 2: This Is Not Good

So where has the vampire gone since Dracula? Well, I think we all know the answer to that one. It's gone many places, of course, but currently, and for a while now, what was once, and originally, a symbol of immortal evil has for some stupid reason become a symbol of deathless romance. Vampires still, I guess, bite people on the neck and drain their blood, it's just that now you have to weigh the pros and the cons. "But they kill people, suck their blood, leaving them dead or in some hellish state of undeath, their souls corrupted for eternity!" "Well, but their love is eternal, so...". It's really the whole sex thing, of course, because despite all the stuff in Dracula, which is the source one way or the other for all this shit, that has nothing to do with, and is more interesting than, whatever sexual subtext you might find/infer/make up as you read Stoker's novel, sex is finally the only thing anyone cares about. It's all boners with you people, and to think otherwise exposes you as a rube.

There is some kickback to some of this. Not the sex part so much as the glamour and romance in modern day vampire fiction, which means the bright idea (one I admit to trying to develop myself at one point in my youth) to reverse that is to just, like, reverse it, in other words to cast vampires out of their affluence and force them to live either like homeless people, or just like the rest of us poor miserable schlubs. That's the engine that drives B. H. Fingerman's Bottomfeeder, a 2006 novel that I latched onto in the bookstore one day simply because it was new and I hadn't heard of it and it was published professionally and I guess Ramsey Campbell liked it, or at least blurbed it. So did Max Brooks and Jerry Stahl, but you take the good with the bad.

Anyway, that is the whole idea behind Bottomfeeder, a singularly plotless novel. Which I don't mind so much, and it's a breeze to get through, but in terms of laying out the basic narrative thrust, there's not much to say. Phil Merman is our vampire, has been for a while, though not so long that he should have already died (though he should have aged, something that causes a bit of strife on occasion), and works a lousy job as a color timer at a photo archival house. He specializes in bloody crime scene pictures, and one of the running ideas in the novel is that he occasionally runs across photos of his handiwork, victims he's fed on, and will sometimes be reminded of another time which might lead to one of the books weirdly infrequent and totally shapeless flashbacks. Merman also once had a wife, but once the vampirism started to take hold, that ended pretty fast, and now he just bums around New York, doing his job -- it's a night job -- feeding when he has to, and focusing that feeding on the dregs of society. The homeless, junkies, criminals. The idea being that this is morally more justified than just swooping down on whoever. So you also got that idea, the monster trying to justify itself.
And it's all so damn boring! I swear to God, the only thing that could make vampires interesting again is to put them back in their empty, rambling Gothic castles, where they solitarily plot their wickedness while surrounded by cold, ancient brick. Sticking one on the streets of New York and having him constantly remind us that he's an atheist, because this ain't your grandpa's vampire, motherfucker, is just being reactionary towards tradition. Not that traditional vampire lore is something that needs to be defended to the death and never, ever changed, but certainly the B. H. Fingermans of the world are giving us nothing to work with. Oh, they think they're clever, as you can see in this passage, where Merman confidentally steps up in favor of Reason:

There's a condition called Erythropoietic Porphyria which can cause acute allergic reaction to light, resulting in severe burns. Critical photosensitivity. So what I am -- what we are -- it's explicable in rational terms. It's a mutation. I'm certain there's a scientific, biological explanation for it, but to the best of my knowledge the Discovery Channel hasn't done a show on it. Yet.

And so the bloodsucking in immortality, those that the Erythrowhatever shit too? When you're allergic to light, is the allergic reaction to live forever?

It's just dumb, is what I'm saying. And poorly written, too. Fingerman is one of those guys who has just enough style to have convinced himself, and apparently others, that he's operating on a level above standard horror fiction. This attitude leads to no consideration for what you're putting down on paper, and this in turn leads to:

The couple on the dressed in latest haute couture. It must be haute because it's hideous but radiates costliness. Clothing this ugly has got to be expensive.

Or what you could have said is "If it's this ugly, I bet it also costs a lot" or "Unpleasant to look at often equals exorbitant sums of money, in my experience anyway!" My point is, there's no reason to stop at just two versions of the exact same thought. Also:

Ribbons of her long, elaborately curled hair fan out across my chest like an exit wound.

Do exit wounds tend to either curl or fan? No, but the woman in question is a redhead, so you know, like blood. The structure of the rest of the sentence is irrelevant when you're sitting on that kind of gold. Red/blood/wound. Boom, writing.

There's more, obviously, both in terms of bad writing and the novel's actual plot. Mainly it has to do with Merman discovering he's not alone, and the strange world of high-class decadence that he falls into, which involves Darwinian justifications for the vampire lifestyle that I'll just bet Fingerman thinks is both grotesquely humorous and politically interesting or astute or something ("The Third World is our Costco," says one well-off vampire). None of this is new or well-rendered or anything other than smug. There's also the question of who the vampire was who turned Merman, but of course this is initially presented as something that can never be known wink wink, and there is a grand total of one (1) character in all of Bottomfeeder who, if one were inclined to think Fingerman might have a surprise in store for us regarding the identity of that vampire, would make any sense as a plot twist. And that's who it turns out to be, if you can even believe it.

But Bill, I hear you asking, what about Fingerman's attitude towards black people, and the mentally handicapped, or "retards" and "mongoloids", as he puts it? Great question. Okay, look: I do not typically find myself in the position to question the political correctness of others' attitudes. I'm very much against, typically, the idea of reading with a tally sheet next to the book, so the reader can keep tabs on the positive versus negative portrayals, or absence of any portrayal whatsoever, of various ethnic groups. But do me a favor, as an experiment. Get a copy of Bottomfeeder out of the library and read it, and then get back to me about how you take his portrayal of race. Because all black characters are junkies or homeless or criminals and say things like "Local coo-zeen? Damn, y'all niggas are way losted." Or if they're not those things, they're Merman's new boss at the photo archival place, who gets off on pictures of corpses (this, by the way, happens relatively late in the book, and goes absolutely nowhere. If it went anywhere at all, it might not have stuck out as so weirdly and uneasily in line with the other black characters in the book). That's all there is, and there's a lot of it. Am I crazy? Has my general dislike of Bottomfeeder made me way more sensitive to this sort of thing than I might otherwise be? I do not believe so, as there's a striking repetition about it all, starting very early in the novel, when Merman encounters a "youngish black dude" on the subway screaming that we "Shoulda heard what da judge said!", right up until near the end, where the homeless black man is laughing about "coo-zeen" (that's "cuisine" to you and me).

As far as the mentally handicapped go, there's a scene where Merman is shown a hidden school for such children, all of whom have been turned into vampires. This is an absurd scene that's played for laughs -- self-consciouly tasteless, not actually achieving the gallows humor it's aiming for because Fingerman has no feel for it. It's all just empty extremity:

A tug at my jacket casts my glance down [it does? - Ed.] on a tiny crone with a large lightbulb-shaped noggin, her forehead huge and swollen, her little birdlike nose hooked and pointy. Her eyes, clear and intelligent, lurk between puffy lids and massive eyeglasses -- the kind favored by old Hollywood leading men, like Gregory Peck or Robert Mitchum [no idea what he's talking about here - Ed.]. Her small mouth is pursed and nearly lipless. Perched atop this huge cranium is a thrift store wig and I think back to the crazy foulmouthed black woman on the subway.

Oh look, there it is again. Also, Fingerman's writing throughout this passage reminds me of the Robert Bloch story "Freak Show". Wonder if he's ever read it.

So pretty awful, by the end of it. If this is the antidote to Twilight, you can fucking keep it.


Greg F. said...

Wow, I can't wait to read it! Sounds great!

Okay, seriously, you're about as unconcerned with political correctness as anyone I know so, yeah, I'm going to go ahead and say the thing has a weird racial thing going on.

And now I know I'm safe with the story/book/screenplay I want to do about vampires where they're not romantic at all but vicious, grotesque monsters, dangerous and hard to kill. That's the other direction from Twilight, not dull, listless ennui. Who is this idiot?

P.S. - I'm not actually writing a vampire story, but I do want to see vampires portrayed that way again sometime before the century is up.

Bryce Wilson said...

There is no antidote to Twilight but there is a vaccine. Near Dark and it managed to somehow do Vampire Romance and keep them totally vicious. Finger Licking good.

This was a pretty great review, but dare I ask you to extrapolate on your dislike for Brooks? Dare I? I supposed I just dared. I mean yes "Zombie Culture" (and yes I had the decency to shudder while writing that) is annoying, but as far as gateway drugs go you could do a lot worse than World War Z.

bill r. said...

Greg - Seriously, the race thing is weird! Any individual example is meaningless to me, but the sheer pile up, apropos of nothing at all, and reaching its apex/nadir with the stupidly cartoonish pervert have to wonder what's going on here.

And now I know I'm safe with the story/book/screenplay I want to do about vampires where they're not romantic at all but vicious, grotesque monsters, dangerous and hard to kill.

That's sort of what I meant when I said the only way to make vampires interesting again was to put them back in Gothic castles, etc. Write a vampire story like that, and I'll be on board. Not you, but, like, horror writers.

Bryce - I know I sound like a horrible curmudgeon, but I didn't like NEAR DARK the one time I saw it. I would love to think differently when I see it again, and since I have the DVD, that shouldn't be too long from now.

As for Brooks, just wait a couple days, and I'll get to it. I'm doing zombies for the next couple days -- Jesus, I picked up a lot of zombie anthologies this year, and in one is a short story by Brooks. I haven't read it yet, and may love it, but regardless I will be getting into my objections to WORLD WAR Z in that post.

Robert H. said...

Fingerman also takes on zombie culture in his novel PARIAH, and his last several comic projects (he made his name in underground comics).

Suffice it to say, you may not like those either.

bill r. said...

I have PARIAH -- I bought it and BOTTOMFEEDER before reading either. PARIAH's looking less interesting to me now. He also has a story in one of the zombie anthologies I picked up recently.

Have you read Fingerman, Robert?

Bryce Wilson said...

I can totally understand someone not liking Near Dark. It's definitely a flawed film, the cop out ending only being the worst of it.

But man it's got some fucking energy to it. And Henrikson and Paxton are both at a career best.

Robert H. said...

I've read some of his autobiographical comics and other work. BOTTOMFEEDER I wasn't too impressed with - I don't think that I actually finished it. PARIAH was better, but it didn't really bring anything new to the party, so to speak.

As far as the racial thing is concerned... there's a graphic novel called WHITE LIKE SHE, which is essentially a body-switching comedy along race/gender lines that he did a few years ago. Worth a look, but it's slightly outside the current subject.

otherbill said...

Two days- two NOVELS. Now you're just showing off.

But seriously, thanks for saving me from a time/money investment in BOTTOMFEEDER. I'd been circling it for a while because of some of its better notices, but had always hesitated because of my general dislike for Fingerman's comics work.

I've come to very much look forward to The Kind of Face You Slash. Hope the grind doesn't prove too onerous. Do know that the work is read and appreciated.

bill r. said...

Bryce - I remember everything about that movie feeling very forced. The roadhouse scene everyone loves so much did nothing for me, mainly because, as I remember, they had to make the victims a bunch of redneck shitkickers. So even though the vampires are bad in that movie, the big violent centerpiece is made less effective because we've been told to not like the victims.

Robert - Well, whether I give any of his comic work a try will be dependent on what I think of PARIAH, which, despite everything, I'm more likely to read someday than not. So we'll see.

otherbill - The novels thing...I had such ambitions for novels this year! I still have a post on another novel pending, and I have two novels about half read, but man, I thought I was going to be slamming through novels all through September. I read BOTTOMFEEDER in two days, which gave me an infalted sense of myself. Now I wish I'd focused my novel reading on different books.

Also, thank you.

Bryce Wilson said...

Well in that scene maybe, but they certainly don't shy away from killing nice people at other times.

That's not even entirely true of the bar scene, the guys they pick the fight with might be rednecks, but they pick the fight. And if you watch the scene there are a lot of bystanders there.

nd said...

Hm, you encountered Charlie Huston's Joe Pitt series? It strikes me that it might satisfy your yen for a gritty deglamorized take on vampire mythology, while actually having some interesting plotting & characters & some great hard-boiled writing. (It sounds like it might have some things in common with the Fingerman book judging from the passage on porphyria--in Huston's books vampirism is caused by a disease known as "the Vyrus".)

The racial politics are way more clued-in, too.