Readersforum's Blog

March 7, 2013

LURID: American Psycho – A Retrospective

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you’re reading.

By Karina Wilson

Happy birthday, Patrick Bateman!  On March 6, 1991, American Psycho was published amidst howls of protest, calls for censorship, and vicious reviews dismissing it as superficial trash.  Twenty-two years later it’s considered a classic. It’s sold more than a million copies in the US, been reprinted more than fifty times, and its anti-hero is guaranteed to make an appearance as a costume at a Halloween party near you.  How did such a reviled book become such a vital cultural reference point?

The brouhaha surrounding American Psycho began months before the book hit stores. In August 1990, when female employees at Simon & Schuster learned about the subject matter of Bret Easton Ellis’s third novel, they objected in the strongest terms to scenes detailing the torture and murder of women. After Time and Spy magazines ran stories about the protests (Time called the book a “childish horror fantasy”) including leaked excerpts, Simon & Schuster (despite the $300,000 advance paid to Ellis) abruptly canceled publication.  48 hours later, Ellis’s agent resold the manuscript to Sonny Mehta at Vintage, sparking even more outrage.

Tammy Bruce (from the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women) described it as “a how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women” and called for a boycott of all Vintage books if publication went ahead.

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June 23, 2012

LURID: Bad Trips – Ten Novels With Serious Drug Psychosis

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you’re reading.

By Karina Wilson

Thanks to a spate of lurid headlines (Cannibals! Zombies! Demonic Possession!) over the last few weeks, drug-induced psychosis is clawing its way back into public consciousness as Social Evil No.1 – if it ever really went away.  We may never know what caused Rudy Eugene to chew off 75% of Ronald Poppo’s face in Miami on the 26th of May, but the collective media finger of blame has been jabbed at “bath salts”, the street name for concoctions of amphetamine-related compounds sold as personal hygiene or cleaning products under innocuous-sounding names like Ivory Wave, Red Dove, Blue Silk, Cloud Nine, Ocean Snow or Vanilla Sky.

Bath salts have provided a convenient bête noir for outraged tabloid reporting for the last couple of years, a way of making connections between those anomalous “Man Bites Dog” (or Man Dressed In Bra and Panties Kills Goat) stories that would otherwise get lost in the ‘Random WTF’ files.  Whether users are car surfing naked, eating their roommate or ripping out their own intestines and throwing them at police, the presence of bath salts in their system makes them part of a collective trend, shared time and time again on social media, and fuel for a growing moral panic.

As a society, we find it difficult to accept that people do crazy things.  That has unfortunate implications for our (lack of a) mental health care system.  It’s much easier to believe that people only do crazy things on drugs, tipped over the edge by psychosis-inducing substances they have willingly ingested, despite all warnings to the contrary.  Before bath salts led the pack in the blame game, crystal meth, crack, PCP, LSD, reefer madness, cocaine, opium and gin have all had a spin on the scapegoat carousel.  Historically, of course, none of these drug menaces has actually destroyed society, or even a generation, but they generate great copy and headlines, and over the centuries, have provided the narrative spine for some extremely lurid books.

In fiction, writers have always reached for the “drugs made me do it” device when it’s time for an otherwise rational character to do a crazy thing.  It’s quick and easy.  From the magical flower juice in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that causes a queen to fall in love with a donkey to the amyl-based hallucinogenic cocktail in Hannibal that compels Mason Verger to slice off his face with a shard of mirror and then feed it to his dogs (“Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time”), drugs are a convenient way of making a character behave out of character, with maximum dramatic effect.

For the aficionado, however, there is also a whole sub-genre of popular fiction that acknowledges that there is nothing quick or easy about a drug fix, and that addiction is an integral part of a character’s essence, rather than a temporary aberration.  Part confession, part cautionary tale, part panegyric, these books feed into readers’ desire to learn about the boundaries of human experience from the safety of the middle.  We may not be prepared to risk our own health and sanity in the pursuit of the ultimate high, but we sure like to read about those who did, and who, ideally, lived to tell the tale.

On one end of the spectrum is the refined, scientific prose of Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1953), his account of a fine May afternoon spent in West Hollywood under the influence of mescaline.  He admires flowers in a vase, browses art books in a drug store, listens to classical music, and has a nice sit down in the garden.  Huxley’s experience is all about accessing a higher consciousness, using the influence of the drug on his normal sensory perception to open himself up to greater truths.  It’s all very intellectual, all very noble, and about as far from naked cannibalism on the MacArthur Causeway off-ramp as it’s possible to get.

At the other end of the spectrum are the self-proclaimed Bad Books, the ones that go deep into the dirty nasty.  Mostly autobiographical, they’re front-line dispatches from the war on drugs declared long before Nixon signed it into law in 1971.  Salacious, sensationalist and sometimes very sad, these books tap into the damaged psyches of users and abusers, offering up a plethora of perverse pleasures to the armchair tripper.  They take us through garbage-strewn alleyways, piss-smelling staircases and into the fetid apartments only an addict would willingly frequent.  They put us in dangerous, stupid and criminal situations only an addict would voluntarily risk.  And they hint at the paroxysms of ecstasy only an addict can aspire to (“Take yir best orgasm, multiply the feeling by twenty, and you’re still fuckin miles off the pace” – Trainspotting).  Here’s a Top Ten of those mucky puppies, definitely to be handled with latex-gloved care.  You know only too well the kind of filth and degradation these stories have been through.

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April 6, 2012

LURID: Spanky Panky, Fifty Shades of O

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 7:40 am

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

By Karina Wilson

Fifty Shades of Grey has caused all manner of sensation.  The Twilight fanfic turned erotic bestseller has garnered column inches and thousands of fans, reignited sparkless marriages, been the subject of a Hollywood bidding war, inspired a parody (Fifty Shames of Earl Grey) and made everyone look twice at the woman on the subway enthralled by the content of her Kindle.  However, erotic literature is nothing new.  In all languages, from The Song Of Solomon to Fanny Hill, from Catullus and Plutarch to Anais Nin and Henry Miller, people have been looking to fiction for kicks since writing was invented – the earliest surviving erotic literature in existence was hand-copied, by monks – and it’s only in our sexually schizoid times that the popularity of such a book comes as any surprise.

So, why all the fuss?  Despite the ‘Mommy Porn’ hype, FSOG contains little that’s genuinely scandalous.  It’s a straightforward tale of Girl-with-low-self-esteem meets ridiculously handsome Boy, gets Boy, has lots of sex, angsts.  It’s straight outta Barbara Cartland or Danielle Steele.  In keeping with the genre, the protagonist, Anastasia, is a virgin at the outset, therefore her belief that her lover, Christian, is the Best Thing Ever to occupy her vagina is not unexpected.

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March 16, 2012

Love Love Lovecraft

Filed under: Authors — Tags: , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 7:07 pm

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

By Karina Wilson

Seventy-five years ago today, Howard Phillips Lovecraft slipped out of this world in a morphine daze, after a long battle with intestinal cancer.  He was a prolific writer of stories, poetry and letters, but had never published a novel. Although he was not unknown among fans of the Weird Tales oeuvre, he remained unrecognized in mainstream circles.  He was living in poverty and suffering from malnutrition when he died.

Posthumously, as is so often the way with starving artists, he became a literary luminary, thanks to the efforts of his fellow writers, specifically August Derleth who founded the Arkham House press in order to publish collections of Lovecraft’s work.  Lovecraft is now acknowledged as a ‘Master of the Macabre’, a direct heir to Poe whose influence has shaped the visions of countless horror writers and film-makers.  In Danse Macabre Stephen King describes him as “the twentieth century horror story’s dark and baroque prince” and credits a volume of Lovecraft stories for triggering his own interest in the genre:

Lovecraft… opened the way for me, as he had done for others before me: Robert Bloch, Clark Ashton Smith, Frank Belknap Long, Fritz Leiber and Ray Bradbury among them.  And while Lovecraft, who died before the Second World War could fulfill many of his visions of unimaginable horror, does not figure largely in this book, the reader would do well to remember that it is his shadow, so long and gaunt, and his eyes, so dark and puritanical, which overlie almost all of the important horror fiction that has come since.”

But Lovecraft is not the easiest writer for the casual reader to enjoy.  His work is mired in xenophobia and outright racism – even by the standards of his time (compare him to Edgar Rice Burroughs).  His female characters carry trays of food around, faint and little else.  His rambling descriptions of oddly shaped rocks or non-Euclidian geometry can be impenetrable after a paragraph or three.  His obsession with committing to paper “unnameable things” which must not, indeed cannot, be described (except with terms like “noisome” or “eldritch” or “formless”) made him a poster boy for post-structuralists, who commandeered his use of language to support their pompous polemics in the 1980s and 1990s.

Worse still, Lovecraft’s loosely linked set of ideas about ‘the Old Ones’ which he used to underpin his storytelling (he termed it, flippantly, Yog-Sothothery) became the Cthulu Mythos, a framework which other, lesser writers used to create lumbering fanfic allegories about Good vs. Evil.  The concepts that Lovecraft came up with as a sly joke between himself and fellow antiquarians (like the existence of an ancient, evil grimoire, the Necronomicon) have been entrenched, via repetition and repurposing, in a faux-scientific fanboy universe, where individuals who take themselves far too seriously vie to be Cthuluier than thou.  Lovecraft’s writings are discussed and disputed as philosophy and scientific theory, as opposed to genre fiction, and usually collapse under the weight of critical expectations.

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February 25, 2012

LURID: Deadlier Than The Male

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

By Karina Wilson

Murder is a man’s, man’s, man’s world, supposedly.  There’s a rigid gender equation at work in both newspaper headlines and airport paperbacks: male killer, female victim(s).  The traditional view has been that female killers are rare, that those of the “gentler sex” have to be provoked into murder most foul by extreme circumstances, usually sexual abuse.  Even in fiction, they have to be (in Shirley Maclaine’s telling categorization) a “victim, doormat or hooker” first, before they are permitted (by their usually male creator) to embark on a vengeful rampage.  In order to be a sympathetic character for the reader, they must maintain their fragile, feminine core.  Yes, Lisbeth Salander, I’m looking at you.

It gets off-putting for female readers if women keep ending up on the mutilated-and-dumped-on-an-empty-lot side of the crime thriller equation. Especially when there are five seasons of Investigation Discovery’s most decidedly Lurid true crime show, Deadly Women, in my Netflix queue that suggest that the tables are often turned.  While male killers seem to grab the headlines and the stereotypes, over the centuries the female of the species has been quietly poisoning, suffocating, and even stabbing and shooting her victims.  It’s just that you never noticed.  She’s clever like that.

FACT: female serial killers escape detection for, on average, eight years, almost twice as long as their male counterparts, and may even go for decades before anyone even realizes that there is a serial killer at work.  Put that in your electric chair and smoke up a side of beef.  No, wait: juries are often reluctant to give women the death penalty, and prefer to hand down life sentences, unless the convicted’s crimes are heinous indeed. Carol Bundy, one half of the Sunset Strip Killers, got a life sentence (although she died in jail) while her partner, Doug Clark, was sent to Death Row.  Not all murderers are equal under the law and sexism cuts both ways.

There is a long-established culture of females who kill (and kill again) that gets less and less underground by the day. The number of women convicted of homicide has exploded since 1970, and on the other side of the law, governments are recognizing that women operatives represent a valuable resource. My top secret source (thanks “J”) tells me that many new Delta Force assassins are women, and I’m sure you all saw that story about Iranian female ninjas.

So where are their fictional sisters, goes the cry? Where are the female Hannibal Lecters, Dexter Morgans, Patrick Batemans, James Bonds, Tyler Durdens and Tom Ripleys?  It’s true they’re more difficult to spot than their butcherly brethren, and are often the far-off object rather than the first person subject of narratives.  Nonetheless, deadly damsels have been a staple of Bad Books for centuries – where would Shakespeare be without Lady Macbeth and Tamora, Queen of the Goths?

Aside from revenge killers, like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, or Dawn Kincaid in the Kay Scarpetta books, female multiple murderers can be categorized into six basic types, according to Michael & C. Kelleher’s Typology (Murder Most Rare, 1998).  Although this list was derived from US studies in the 1990s, the real life categories have plenty of fictional antecedents. You just have to look in some of the less obvious places.

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February 15, 2012

LURID: My Top 10 Bloody Valentines

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

By Karina Wilson

Happy Valentine’s Day! Whether you currently count yourself as a lover, or not, today’s thoughts naturally turn to that biggest of Big Questions: what is Love, anyway?

A friend once told me that his version of Love was watching his girlfriend drink coffee in the morning and thinking “everything is going to be alright”.  That’s cute, but… really?  I’d say Love is the polar opposite; it’s glimpsing your loved one doing something innocuous (like sucking on a latte) and experiencing a stomach-churning mix of terror, vulnerability, pain, ecstasy and the discomfiture of your blood leaving your brain and flooding your nether regions.  It should make you stumble. It should make you weep. It should make you painfully aware that everything is not “alright”, and it never will be again so long as both of you exist on this planet — and in some cases, thereafter, and down the generations of your luckless descendants.

In my book(s),  Love is… dangerous, insane, complicated, dirty, vicious, inconvenient, overwhelming, destructive, humiliating and often fatal.  Bad Books are not driven by healthy relationships.  Au contraire, the dynamism comes from couplings that are twisted, unnatural, shocking and just downright wrong. The flame of passion blazes even brighter because there’s nothing safe, stable or sensible about the connection between two individuals. Does anyone really want to read about “happily ever after”?

If you want genuine fireworks this Valentine’s Day, instead of the sappy, Hallmarked, cute-coffee-drinker variety, then let these Lurid couples illuminate how Love truly burns.

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February 4, 2012

LURID: Crazy, in Love.

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 5:24 am

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

By Karina Wilson

It’s February, and, as restaurants, florists and card-shops build up to their most lucrative day of the year, I have to ask, who’ll be your 2012 Valentine?

Do you have a soul mate, a perfectly balanced relationship in which they love you as much as you love them?  Are you completely reasonable in all your dealings with your lover?  Is every interaction logical and even-tempered? Do you feel calm and in control when you’re together? Do you feel entirely sane in their presence?  Do they feel the same way?

Or do you think either one of you might be the tiniest bit crazy, in love?

Love and insanity have always been equated in literature.  People fall madly in love, go insane with desire, are absolutely nuts about one another.  That’s meant to be a positive part of the experience. Nonetheless, writers over the centuries have recognized that love is an aberrant state of mind.  In As You Like It, Rosalind (disguised as Ganymede) informs Orlando that  “Love is merely a madness, and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do”  – before offering to cure him of his lunacy.  Charlotte Bronte waxes lyrical on madness and love in Jane Eyre; passion for Mr. Rochester condemns Bertha to the attic and causes Jane to lament “I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs.”  In the 1970s, Marilyn French identifies love as “…Insanity. The ancient Greeks knew that. It is the taking over of a rational and lucid mind by delusion and self-destruction. You lose yourself, you have no power over yourself, you can’t even think straight.”

In the twenty-first century, fMRI scans have shown that the first flush of love is, indeed, akin to temporary madness, and stimulates the same zones of the brain as gambling, drugs and violence – those associated with addiction, and lack of control.  Finally, science and poetry are on the same page.

While there’s plenty of overlap between the general symptoms of love and other psychological conditions (substance dependence, mood disorders, narcissism, paranoia, antisocial personalities, borderline personality disorders, dependent disorders, histrionic personality disorders and schizophrenia), there’s one syndrome that stands out from any other kind of fatal attraction: erotomania.  This is the delusional belief that another person – usually of a higher social status – is in love with you and is sending you secret, coded messages to that effect.  You flirt with them.  You think they’re flirting back.  They have no idea you exist.

This Valentine’s Day, go on, ask yourself, is this love that you’re feeling?  Is this the one that you’ve been waiting for?  Or are you suffering from the syndrome De Clérambault defined in 1921 as “psychose passionelle”?  Given that regular love is crazy and stupid at the best of times, how can you tell if you’ve crossed the line?

Thankfully, there are a number of Bad Books out there that deal with erotomania and – as when identifying psychopaths – serve as handy field guides.  Unlike movies, novels have the power to take us inside the protagonist’s mind, exploring their particular psychosis through the rhythms of their internal and external speech.  In the modern era, no one has nailed erotomaniac obsession quite like John Fowles in The Collector (1963).  This Bad Book is both a page-turner and a case-study.  When you finally put it down, you’ll know if you need to seek help, shoot yourself, or if you’re just suffering from the usual lunacy of love.

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November 19, 2011

Vampires: No Longer “The Ultimate Zipless Fuck?”

Breaking Dawn Part 1

Column by Karina Wilson

As Twihards throng the multiplexes for the release of Breaking Dawn Part 1, it’s time to reassess Stephen King’s 1981 hypothesis (in Danse Macabre) that the oral penetration promised by vampires constitutes “the ultimate zipless fuck”. Today’s vampires penetrate both ends simultaneously – at least they do in the stories aimed at grown-ups – and are looking for long-term commitment.  When a vampire says “I’ll love you forever”, he really means it.

There are a lot of Horror aficionados who turn their nose up at paranormal romance or urban fantasy, preferring the Kingly bulk of Justin Cronin’s The Passage, or the dry bones of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, and their traditionally carnivorous vamps.  However, beyond the bland teen pap (“written” by the likes of Hilary Duff) there are plenty of guilty pleasures to be had with the children of the night.  Why should gangs of teens in “Team Edward” t-shirts get all the thrills?

The idea of welcoming a vampire into your home and bed might seem repellent, even downright warped to anyone who read ‘Salem’s Lot or Interview With The Vampire in the 70s and 80s, but somewhere in the 90s, between Anita Blake finally letting Jean-Claude have his wicked way and Buffy giving it up to Angel, vampires stopped being scary and started to embody the Ideal Boyfriend.  Did the vampires change, or did we?

Vampires are a nineteenth century creation: the first post-industrial monster was invariably represented as an aristocrat of the old school, perpetuating feudal hierarchies by treating the serfs as a free food supply.   The first literary vampire, Polidori’s Lord Ruthven (in The Vampyre) appeared in 1819 and was a caricature of Lord Byron and his cavalier view of women as playthings, to be used for dark pleasures then tossed aside.  Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Stoker’s Dracula are ghouls in this mold, bloodsuckers exercising their inviolable right to drain the weak and the needy, the 99%.  In the 1970s, Rice’s Louis was a landowner, her Lestat a rockstar. King’s Barlow was a wealthy immigrant  who buys up expensive chunks of property in ‘Salem’s Lot.  Vampires have always been our overlords.  And what use are fancy piles in the country and bank vaults groaning with centuries of accumulated lucre if you can’t use them to grease a little tail?

Money attracts sex.  And vampires have never been above flashing their cash: it’s what usually puts the “willing” into “victim”.  For the first century and a half of vampire writing, the two-fanged bite was all about sex.  Those who found themselves at the wrong end of a blood-sucker’s teeth had somehow transgressed, given in to forbidden sexual desires and unbridled lust, and were paying the ultimate price.  Unless a Van Helsing-type looked lively and staked the master vampire within a three-day window, the victim would be going straight to Hell.  The message was clear to generations of titillated readers – Tall Dark Handsome Stranger = Beware.

It would perhaps surprise Stoker and Polidori that we continue to devour vampire stories in these sexually enlightened, irreligious times, but they’re still the best pop culture metaphor we have for the discussion of oral fixation, Eros-Thanatos complexes, Transubstantiation, and even homosexuality.  As our attitudes towards sexuality have fluctuated, so have our attitudes to vamps.  The current popularity of the leather-trousered, Fabio-haired, benevolent vampire is a sign of our sexually schizophrenic age.  Penetration needs to be wreathed in fantasy as much as it did in the 1820s.

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