Monday, October 22, 2012

Influence webs

In 1997, both the book Reliquary and the movie Mimic were released. By coincidence, I read Reliquary just two weeks after I saw Mimic. Both stories involve murderous creatures living far beneath the New York city streets. Now this isn't the first time the New York subterranean world made a splash in pop culture. I was first introduced to that realm in Diane Duane's So You Want to Be A Wizard (1982), and I loved the original Beauty and the Beast tv show. Plus, I know I'll never forget the abandoned subway scenes in 1989's Ghostbusters 2. The old City Hall station was amazing!

But something struck me while I was reading Reliquary. There were two phrases in the book that I'd just heard in Mimic: "mole people" and "track bunny." Mole people meant people who live underground, homeless people taking advantage of New York's many underground structures. Track bunnies meant rats. I thought it was funny that two works could use these exact phrases, and I have a hunch that Reliquary's authors (Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child) might have explained a lot when in the acknowledgements of Reliquary they mentioned the book The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City, by Jennifer Toth.

There's a lot of doubt about the veracity of this book, but it came out in 1993 and was a huge splash. Did it influence the people working on Mimic? I bet it did. Does it matter that the book might be more fictional than the author claimed? Not really. The things Toth said inflamed the imagination.

I love to see the way literature weaves its way into popular culture, leaving ripple effects across our mental landscapes. There are lots of famous books we can think of that transformed our culture with great ideas: The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin; The Interpretation of Dreams, by Sigmund Freud; The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx. But smaller texts (and movies count as a kind of text) still change our culture. People skipped out on their beach vacations because of Jaws. Wizards became normalized after Harry Potter. And of course, none of these works actually stand on their own. They were spun from thousands upon thousands of texts that created their authors' frames of reference. Some influences just stand out more than others.

The story of the mole people continues threading its way through our culture. You might recognize it if you pick up Guillermo del Toro's The Strain series.

PS: If you are interested in the New York underground, subway enthusiast Joseph Brennan has a fantastic site packed with diagrams and photos, as does

Monday, October 08, 2012

Memento Mori

I'd say one of the great influences on my writing, and heck, world view, is the Gothic. The very notion of The Gothic begins with Gothic architecture, that delicious, overwrought style of construction emerging in the late medieval period. Think of Notre Dame, and you think of the very roots of "goth." The term itself wasn't applied to the style until a renewed interest Greco-Roman Classicism triggered a sneering criticism of these medieval works--the word itself comes from the Goths, a bunch of Scandinavian tough guys who kicked a lot of Roman ass.

Here are some words I draw from that summary of Gothicism: ornate, dark, medieval, anti-classical, bloodthirsty, Catholic Church, afterlife, death, demons, hell, saints, fasting, holidays, law-abiding, punishment, superstitious, supernatural, Inquisition, torture, confession, gargoyle.

For me, those are the flavors of The Gothic. Damn, but they are delicious! Those spices have mixed and remixed over the years to give us some of the lasting wonders of art, literature, and other cultural artifacts. But some of the most delightful creations emerged in the 1800s, when a blossoming scientific scene, a muscle-flexing British empire, and a sudden amoral explosion of industry collided to create the wonderful Victorian period.

If Victoriana makes you think primarily of Steampunk, I'm sorry. It should make you think of ornate houses and cushions dripping with fringe. The Victorian period used wood trim and fringe to achieve the same lacy, overblown wonders that the medieval builders created from stone. And with Queen Victoria's long mourning for Prince Albert setting a sort of standard, the popular culture of the time was focused tightly on the morbid--carrying locks of lost loved ones' hair was pretty much de rigueur, and collecting items associated with death was fashionable. This means Victorian home decorating was a fascinating marriage of your grandmother's doily collection and your deranged uncle's taxidermy collection. I love it. Luckily for my husband, I also enjoy Mid-Century Modern and am allergic to dust, which limits my willingness to collect Victoriana. Nonetheless, someday I will shop Madame Talbot's Victorian Low Brow to my heart's content.

The Victorian obsession with death makes a lot of sense. Medicine hadn't quite vanquished the common ailments, so most people had a much more intimate experience with death. If you made it to adulthood, you were not only  lucky, you had also probably already attended a great deal of funerals. But new developments in science offered up plenty of hope to not just fight death, but actually overcome it. The ground was ripe for greedy pseudoscientists with an interest in the afterlife. Victorians paid good money to attend seances. They adored ectoplasm. And since they collected lots of dead body parts (I don't think it's a coincidence that Egyptology was really taking off during that time period--what good Victorian wouldn't adore owning their own mummy? Or at least visiting one at the British Museum ...), it made sense that the two hobbies might collide. One of the most delightful examinations of Victorian interest in collecting the dead is Colin Dickey's book Cranioklepty. Run, go read it.

All about science. And creepy stuff. Read it.

Part of the beauty of Victorian decor is the memento mori, the small arrangements focused on death that remind us that we, too, will die. Sure, reminding yourself that you will die sounds depressing, but I find that when I think on my mortality, I am more inspired to live well, to spend my short time on Earth as wonderfully as I can. I'm also inspired to do my best to extend that mortal coil as much as possible. That's why I'm going to leave you to go do some writing and to make one of these delicious, healthy kale salads. Because if there's anything that can help you live forever, it's kale. And that's no pseudoscience!

Thursday, October 04, 2012

October is for reading

I'm sitting in my office wearing a fleece jacket and wondering if I need a third cup of hot tea. Yep, it's fall! And the best thing about fall is layering up and reading outside in the last sunshine of the year (if you live in Oregon, that is. Those of you in Minnesota are already enjoying your first blizzard!).

I decided that this October, I'd be exploring my influences and sharing them with you--fiction, nonfiction, films and places.

I just finished re-reading a book that I believe is still working its way through my psyche. A remarkable study of family life, The Minotaur, by Barbara Vine (a pen name for Ruth Rendell), is a Gothic novel transported to the 1960s. Like all Gothic novels, the action spins on sex, betrayal, and madness, but the dusty Britishness of the characters reins it all in.

What makes this book work so well for me is the engagement between the characters and the setting. The family lives in an unloved and underfunded mansion, entirely covered with ivy. Far enough from town to require a long hike or a drive, the characters are removed from reality and forced to stew in their own company. In fact, as the book progresses and winter closes its grip on a house with very limited heating, a very gripping sense of claustrophobia settles over the story.

I deeply enjoy novels where the majority of characters are intensely unlikable. Indeed, there are only two really sympathetic characters in the entire book--the others are so pathetic that I found myself feeling sorry for them even as I wanted to kick them in their butts. The ending is really enjoyable.

In case you don't remember, I grew up in a house buried in the woods, a dark and gloomy sort of place. I loved almost everything about it and still pine for it. (Our house was destroyed in a house fire when I was a young teen.) The majority of our community and the communities around it were supported by the timber industry. Needless to say, much of the show Twin Peaks deeply resonates for me--the countryside even looks a lot like home.

I'll be quoting and referencing Twin Peaks all month, leading up to re-watching my favorite episodes in November. To kick it off, here are the opening credits. On the soundtrack, this sounds perfect, but every episode I've ever seen on a television sounds under pitch, just like this copy of the intro does. For some reason, it makes it feel more real!