With today’s genre, I wanted to explore a realm the generally coincides with my own chosen genre of fantasy, science fiction. In fact, many people often think they two are the same genre- to be clear, fantasy is purely a realm of imagination, with elements and worlds that would never happen in the real world. Science fiction however, is based in science,; while we cannot fly to distant plants or create life from lifelessness yet, there is still the possibility that we may someday through scientific advancements. So in that sense, here are five of my favorite possible scientific scenarios to consider.
#5 Frankenstein- Mary Shelley
Considered by many to be a horror novel (and it is truly frightening) this still functions as warning about science without morals or foresight. The doctor’s classic story is motivated by a single, unthinking urge to surpass death, largely motivated by the death of his mother. And without any thoughts to the implications, he blindly goes about abusing science to create his ‘man’, only to be repulsed and refuse to accept responsibility for his actions. While there is a spiritual side to the story, it is clearly a case of using science irresponsibly for personal desires, and trying to distance yourself from your failures, a message for any person, regardless of their life pursuits (the Dean Koontz reimagining is also a worthwhile read, as it expands on these themes using modern medical science).
#4 The Martian Chronicles- Ray Bradbury
A collection of short stories rather then a full novel, this work details various aspects of the Earth migration to Mars. Bradbury takes the age old concept of man exploring the Red Planet, and filters it through every possible viewpoint and scenario. We see the future destruction that could cause man to leave Earth, the beings he finds on the surface of the planet, the things he might leave on Earth, and he very future of humanity. Familiar parts of society are reflected here- the forced relocation of a people, leaving behind “dangerous” materials and books, racism, and man’s failings at improving himself. But throughout it all, Bradbury keeps the material firmly grounded in the idea of fiction, which makes the book a warning about man’s failures, and the things he truly needs to leave behind before exploring the galaxy.
#3 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea- Jules Verne
Exploring the seas, rather then space, Jules Verne used the concept of ocean exploration and the world’s greatest submarine, to tell the personal story of a man who shunned the world at large. Captain Nemo, builder and commander of the Nautilis, may save the narrator and his crew, but is clearly estranged from the world as a whole, preferring to use the incredible science and discoveries of his voyage to increase his own knowledge, and acts with extreme violence towards the people that shunned him. While science is more of a background feature in this tale, it functions as a reminder that the greatest discoveries are sometimes lost because we turn away or shun those that make them.
#2 The Invisible Man- H.G. Wells
A tale by the godfather of science fiction, most remember it for the classic film starring Claude Raines. However, the tale itself echoes both Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde, telling the story of a tremendous scientific idea that is turned to ruin. The title character is trapped inside his achievement, and forced to work in secret to cure himself, though he is never able to succeed. His frustrations at his failures and his condition eventually push him to the brink of madness, where he performs various criminal acts and evil deeds before he is finally brought down. One of the earliest and best tales of science gone wrong.
#1 The Island of Dr. Moreau- H.G. Wells
A masterpiece from the sci-fi godfather, this stories is one of the most tragic and frightening examples of both scientific misuse and man’s abuse of natural order. The titular doctor, rejected from the modern world, has surgically altered animals to resemble humans in appearance and intelligence. But he has also made a society where he is worshipped as a god, and he is uncaring of the pain he inflicts on the animals he experiments on. Worse still, he continues to operate because the process is imperfect- the new men slowly regress to their animal states in time. Seeing intelligent beings revert to animal instincts is frightening for people as whole because it is so easy to happen (even the narrator finds it hard to be around humans after what he’s seen). But the novel’s greatest lesson, which has been echoed in stories like Jurassic Park, stays with the reader long after the final page is turned- that just because science can do something, doesn’t mean that it should.
One thing I’ve always been careful in my blogs on writing or my influences is to be mindful of the tastes of my readers. While I may talk about my influences from comics or music or film, I have to remember how to approach it from the perspective of all types of writers. For example, I pointed out the sense of identity in using music for characters, and how writers can use the basic premise of revenge and obsession in Darkman and The Crow. And while I try to make my blog as universal and helpful as possible, there are still certain areas that I can offer more expertise in then others. As such, I’d like to start offering some influences for writers of specific genres. And to begin with, I’d like to start with the first genre I truly became immersed in- horror. While I have already discussed writers like Stephen King, looking over an author’s entire work is an exhausting task for any aspiring writer. So I’ve spent today’s blog composing a list of my five favorite horror novels, and what makes them essential readings for those that wish to chill the spines of their own readers.
5. Something Wicked This Way Comes– Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury is a writer that has dipped into various types of literature through his short stories, but in this, one of his few official novels, he gave a chilling tale of horror and temptation. Drawing inspiration from the carnival and performers that caused Bradbury to start writing, the story flips the idea over, creating an evil fall carnival run by Mr. Dark, the head of a vampire-like group (the ‘autumn people’) that feed on pain and suffering. What truly makes the story effective is how it is built on temptation- the carnival folk work by twisting around the secret natures and desires of the townspeople, which is hinted at being how they populate their ranks. This is most effective in the case of two main characters- Jim Nightshade, a young boy bereft of a father that longs to be an adult, and Charles Halloway, the library janitor who is feels unable to be a good father due to his age. Bradbury plays with these desires, as well as the very nature of light and dark, building the scene in his usual unique style. That, combined with the classic tale of temptation and desire, makes Something Wicked an excellent study in both the atmosphere and the method of a great horror novel.
4. Herbert West, ReAnimator– H.P. Lovecraft
One of the earliest American horror writers, H.P. Lovecraft delved into tales of otherworldly beings and worlds that existed both before and beyond humanity. While he is most remembered for his tales of the Elder Gods, this may be the story that perhaps best captures both humanity’s desires and their obsession. The story is the decades long tale of Herbert West, a doctor obsessed with creating a cure for death. He manages to do so, but the formula is consistently unstable, requiring various horrifying experiments that may be regarded as among the first zombie stories. At its core, however, the story is both an exploration of man’s fear of death and his arrogance towards the greater order. The reader is compelled to both fear West’s recklessness and yet hope his success, until his experiments have grown so wild and dangerous that death is preferable to their continuation. It both attracts and repulses the reader, and leaves them with a frightening moral reminder- the truest example of a classic horror tale.
3. The Shining– Stephen King
While most of us think of Jack Nicholson with an axe when this title is uttered, the tale itself is far more terrifying. King created the ultimate and most violent example of cabin fever ever, with a family taking care of a haunted hotel during the winter in an isolated part of Colorado. But perhaps the most terrifying part of the tale is watching the family torn apart both figuratively and literally. The father is a recovering alcoholic with a violent temper that is slowly pulling both his personal and professional life together. However, the ghosts circumvent the love he feels for his family by playing off his insecurities and weakness for drink. As such, the tale is a family falling apart, a man’s descent into madness, and the ghostly machinations of the dead. Any one of these things alone would be a great story, but all three are woven together in a tale that both frightens and saddens at the same time.
2. The Tell-Tale Heart– Edgar Allan Poe
Widely known as the first American poet to live solely on his work, Poe wove classic tales of the macabre, as well as dark poetry and detective stories. This particular tale however, is frightening because of it’s universal themes, namely obsession, murder, and guilt. The central character is mad enough to kill a man because of his eye, and arrogant enough to bury him under the floorboards. However, the extreme guilt, brought to life by the auditory hallucination of a beating heart, is enough to destroy his fragile mind and force him to admit his guilt. It is a simple concept, but one every person can understand and has lived through- trying to conceal a wrong-doing, only to have it eat away at you. And the depth in which Poe submerges the tale makes it all the more frightening.
1. Pet Sematary– Stephen King
While I was reluctant to put two Stephen King pieces in this list, this book has managed to frighten me every time I’ve read it, which no other horror novel has accomplished. The tale clearly takes influence from Herbert West in the idea of repeated, imperfect resurrection, but as with The Shining, King adds a personal touch. His story centers around a family, namely a doctor (devoted to saving lives), and a wife that fears death. While the first resurrection is basically harmless and somewhat motivated by love, it still fills us with dread. And the second, which is a true horror but based in a father’s love, we are again filled with both horror and sadness. After all, what parent wouldn’t risk everything to save their child? What makes the story even more frightening is that King based the child’s death on a near fatal accident involving his own children. It is that personal touch that grounds the Lovecraftian elements of the supernatural burial ground, and makes us both fear and pity these characters, especially the doctor’s last words of “Something got into him. But she’s only been dead a little while.” Those are the words I usually muse on, as I close the book a night and look up at the shadowy ceiling.