Archive for April, 2008

Albert Sanchez Piñol – Cold Skin and Pandora In The Congo

Posted in Book Review with tags , , on April 28, 2008 by davehurwitz

5 out of 5 Bloody Knives

Cold Skin

I loved reading Cold Skin so much that I scoured the bookstores for any other books by Albert Sanchez Piñol. Yesterday I received an email about a new book by Piñol. I rushed to Amazon and bought the first copy I could find. You should know that Piñol is a Catalonian writer, from Barcelona, and his book has been translated into English (along with 28 other languages). So it shouldn’t surprise you that the copy I bought of Pandora En El Congo was in Spanish. I panicked. I know I wanted to read this novel and I wouldn’t wait for the eventual translation for the U.S. markets. I dug around on the Internet and found a copy of Pandora In The Congo on Amazon UK. Of course with the dollar buying what it does, the hardback, with shipping, cost me nearly $50. So why go through such an effort for a book? The answer lies in his first novel, Cold Skin. Read it and you’ll be addicted like I am. Check it out at Amazon.

There are copious reviews of this novel, more than I can count. Try reading a few: lletra, The Agony Column Book Review, The Complete Review. What I’ve found so compelling about Piñol’s novel is what it doesn’t have. I love reading horror, but so many of the novels out these days lack characters with any depth. The genre format is a cookie-cutter plot: insert psycho killer here, the requisite devil’s pentagram there. Not that there’s anything wrong with these things when they’re done right. But often they’re not. Cold Skin is a horror novel, but it steers way off course from genre.

Piñol writes with a literary flair. His commentary on what monstrosities lies at the core of humanity drives the book from page one (reminiscent of Heart of Darkness). Yet he also dives so deeply into fear that Cold Skin should not be considered literary fiction either.

Cold Skin is Robinson Crusoe turned on its head. There are only two characters in the story (humans that is). The isolation on the sliver of land near Antarctica is as compelling as frog-monsters that slink from the ocean waves each night. The creepy atmosphere works so completely on the reader’s mind that I found myself turning on the light at night just to walk to the bathroom. I devoured this work of terror, gore and sex in only a few days (I’m a slow reader, so that’s quick for me).

I anticipate Pandora In The Congo to be equally compelling. I will pounce on it as soon as it jumps the pond. Until then, I leave you with a quote:

“There are times when we must bargain for our future with the past. You sit on a lonely rock and try to negotiate between the devastating failures that came before and the utter darkness that is on its way. In that sense, I trusted that the passage of time, contemplation, and distance would work miracles. Nothing less would have brought me to that island.”

Chris Kalidor

Strange Perils of Surgery

Posted in Rotten with tags , on April 26, 2008 by davehurwitz

Just a quick post to pass on a little story my G.P. told me during a recent visit. This happened during his residency days. His supervising doctor had asked him to remove a drainage tube from a post-op patient. He gripped the tube and pulled with what seemed to him to be the necessary amount of force. Nothing happened. The tube refused to budge. He pulled ever so slightly harder, and still the tube stayed put. Resisting the urge to give the tube a violent tug, he summoned his supervisor and confessed that it seemed to be stuck. To make a long story short, an X-ray eventually revealed that one of the wires holding the man’s sternum together had snapped. One end had punched clean through the drainage tube, pinning it in place. If my G.P. had pulled any harder, he would literally have torn the patient’s chest open. I’m not normally squeamish, but I had to shudder when I heard this one.

David Hurwitz

Huang Chuncai: The Elephant Man of China

Posted in Rotten with tags , , on April 20, 2008 by davehurwitz

Huang ChuncaiThe oddities that afflict the human body never cease to amaze me. Take Huang Chuncai from China. A 33-pound tumor grew on his face, nearly obliterating his features. His left eye was completely covered and his left ear drooped down to his shoulder. The right side of his face was entirely engulfed. If you look closely, you can pick out how his face should look under all that skin.

Mr. Chuncai’s tumor first appeared when he was four years old. It grew steadily, his head puffing up like a balloon. One neighbor joked that his head was so big, he was destined to become a politician. He has almost lost his hearing and his speech is labored and hard to understand. At 25 the tumor knocked out his teeth. The weight of the mass has warped the spine of the diminutive, 4 ft 5 inch tall, man. He has not left his village of Yulan, in China’s southern province of Hunan, for the past 27 years.

Huang Chuncai in HospitalFree operations to remove the tumor were performed by the Fuda hospital in Guangzhou, southern China’s Guangdong province. The first surgery, in July 2007, removed a sizable section of the tumor. An ultrasound of Huang’s tumor showed it was swarming with blood vessels. Doctors performing needed to take care and stauch any bleeding. If not, Mr. Chuncai could bleed to death in two minutes. This past January, he underwent another operation to remove another section of the tumor.

Channel 4 BBC covered this story in the BodyShock series, drawing a tremendous viewing audience. The segment was titled “I am the Elephant Man.” The condition suffered by Chuncai, neurofibromatosis, is similar to Proteus syndrome,which afflicted Joseph Merrick the original Elephant Man. There is no cure for the Proteus syndrome, though they can be controlled through surgery. The condition is a congenital disorder that causes skin overgrowth and atypical bone development.

I’ve scoured the web for any information following Chuncai’s latest surgery, but I’ve found nothing. You can check up on the story at Channel 4’s BodyShock site.

Chris Kalidor

UPDATE: How is Huang Chuncai doing now?

Fear Changes Everything: The Mist and the Hospital Elevator

Posted in Cinema with tags , , , on April 17, 2008 by davehurwitz

When I saw Frank Darabont’s The Mist in the theater, I came home in pieces. I had to hug my kids, hard. I didn’t want to let them out of my sight. I felt as if I’d been mugged, ambushed. Horror movies are supposed to be fun, right? I’d gone out expecting something amusingly schlocky, maybe on par with Dreamcatcher. What I got was the cinematic equivalent of a kick in the stomach, a heavy dose of real horror.

Perhaps I should have known better. Darabont has directed two previous King adaptations, The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption. There are several criticisms I could level at both of these movies, the worst of which is that both are rather smarmy in places, but I would never claim that either was poorly made.

For those of you who haven’t seen The Mist, the premise is fairly simple. A mysterious mist surrounds a small town grocery store, trapping a number of people inside. Worse yet, there are strange creatures in the mist intent on eating anyone who sets foot outdoors. It quickly becomes clear that the monsters are not the only problem, or even the most serious one. Over a period of forty-eight hours, the prisoners of the mist descend into irrationality and madness, lead by the local religious crazy, played with an awful gusto by Marcia Gay Harden. This is done so skillfully and in such elegant increments that when the prisoners turn to human sacrifice, it feels both unexpected and inevitable. Even when a small number of people who have retained their minds escape from the store, they are not immune to the powerful effects of fear. I don’t want to give anything away here, but the ending Darabont conceived for his film is even more shocking than King’s original.

When I stumbled home from the theater that day, it was not the thought of carnivorous critters that haunted me. Could my neighbors, my coworkers, my friends really be this way? Could I myself, if pushed to the edge of hysteria, really do such things? I knew the truth, though I would have denied it if I could. As stock clerk Ollie Weeks (Toby Jones) says in the movie, “As a species, we are fundamentally insane.”

I can hear, or at least imagine, a few of your muttering out there. “Come on, Dave. Two days from orderly checkout lines to human sacrifice? That would never happen. People aren’t like that.” For those of you who doubt, allow me to present a real life illustration from my childhood.

In a hospital, which I shall not name, there was an elevator. Unlike the other elevators in this frequently renovated building, this one dated to the original construction. And unlike the newer elevators, it was conveniently located to the office of my Peditrician. This elevator was painfully slow but serviceable. My mother and I never had reason to distrust it.

In the course of a visit to the doctor, my mother and I got onto the elevator as usual. Riding the elevator with us was a nurse. Working at this particular hospital, this nurse must have seen, on a daily basis, sick and even dying children, young victims of accidents and abuse, infants born too young to survive. Presumably, she must have dealt with these horrors with some measure of composure. The doors closed, and the elevator began to grind its way slowly upward. Somewhere between floors, the elevator began to shake. The floor, in fact the whole car, vibrated violently up and down to the accompaniment of a loud banging noise. The nurse, this detached caretaker of wounded children, fell to her knees and began to pray.

I’m not talking about a silent prayer for strength, either. Nor was this a swift prayer before leaping into action. The nurse wept. She moaned. She called upon Jesus to save us. Jesus dwelled in the elevator’s ceiling, evidently, if the direction of her gaze was any indication. She prayed loudly and thoroughly for rescue. She did nothing else.

In contrast, my mother immediately told me to sit on the floor with my back against a wall, then helped me to do so without falling over. She scanned the elevator’s controls and pushed the big red emergency stop button. The elevator stopped shaking, stopped moving entirely. The nurse continued to pray. With some difficulty, my mother pried open the inner elevator doors. We were exactly between floors. She pressed the call button.

A cheerful voice somewhere in the hospital assured us that the elevator had been doing this off and on all week, that it was nothing serious, that we could either switch the elevator back on and proceed safely but bumpily to the nearest floor or wait for a rescue party from security, whichever we liked. My mother looked at me, seated more or less calmly on the floor. “We don’t want to miss your appointment,” she said. I nodded. I was young, and my mom knew everything. She switched the emergency stop off and pressed the button for the next floor. The elevator began to bang and bump slowly upwards again. The wailing to Jesus continued.

When the elevator finally arrived, several uncomfortable minutes later, it took quite a while for the doors to open. When they did, we saw that we were at least a foot below the level of the floor. A security guard and an orderly gave us a hand out. The nurse was the first to leave the car. She scrambled out on unsteady legs, wiping at her ruined mascara with the back of one hand. She had fallen silent as the elevator doors slid open, and said nothing more to any of us. My mother and I took the stairs the rest of the way up. We were not late for my appointment. The whole experience had lasted no more than fifteen minutes.

I watched The Mist again recently on DVD. The film was no less wrenching the second time around, though I did notice more details. The film has some thematic similarities to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which I am teaching this semester, and I thought about showing certain scenes to my students. I brought this up in class today. No one seemed enthusiastic. Several students said that the movie was “bad.” None of them would elaborate, though I asked number of questions. The Mist was just “bad.” No further explanation necessary, or perhaps even possible. It didn’t matter. I understood.

David Hurwitz

The Root Canal of All Evil

Posted in Rotten with tags , , , on April 13, 2008 by davehurwitz

What is it about dentists that so terrifies us? After all, they will numb you up with Novocain. Perhaps it’s the thought that somehow your dentist will put you in a headlock and forcibly drill your teeth when you are not numb, remember Szell from Marathon Man? If not, check out the video clip at the bottom of this post.

I recently underwent a surprise root canal. I saw surprise, because the dreaded procedure was not even in my thoughts when I walked into the dentist on Monday. The previous week I done something stupid. I chewed on ice. Children, listen up. No matter how many of the cool kids are doing it, don’t chew ice. Don’t believe me? Watch Marathon Man.

Anyway, over the weekend, as the pain grew more acute, I narrowed the pain to a crown on my lower left side (number 19 for you future dentists). I thought maybe the crown needed to be refit or even replaced. Wow, was I in for a surprise. When the dentist told me she had to perform a root canal, my first thought was of Szell leaning over me and whispering “Is it safe?” Then of course I thought of Steve Martin from Little Shop of Horrors.

Ultimately, when the three shots of Novocain hit, I didn’t care anymore. The pain was gone. (One surreal moment I had after the treatment was drinking from a water bottle and not feeling the left side of the bottle.) My fascination with how all things work took charge. I asked as many questions as the cotton in my mouth would allow.

Just before she drilled, but after I was numbed up, I was handed a legal form to sign. I read through this, much to the dismay of the dental hygienist, who had to wait to proceed. Perhaps if I had known more about the procedure, I might have balked at the wording. They mentioned having bits of the tool break off. I had thought that unlikely. Now, knowing how the tools work, not so much.

Broach FileYou see, your dentist drills down to the root. In my case, through the crown, flinging slivers of gold all over my mouth. Then she uses this little file, a bit like a bottle brush, to scrape out the root. Although I couldn’t feel the pain, I could sense the scrubbing. The most awkward part was the constant X-rays. For several of theses, the dentists left these files, called a broach file, in the tooth. It was like having acupuncture needles jutting out. I had to keep my mouth open so as not to impale the roof of my mouth.

Now that the procedure is over, and the roots are history, my mouth has reacted to all the punishment it was dealt. My left side has broken out in canker sores from the areas the dentist and her assistant leaned on. These are almost more annoying than the sore tooth. I have to eat entirely on one side of my mouth until the new crown is attached. Add to this the sensitivity of the sores, and you have on unhappy diner.

As to whether it’s safe, hard to say. Although if I were Dustin Hoffman, I would agree to pretty much anything under those conditions. Eli Roth has nothing on Szell.

Again, I’m going to plug an excellent Pseudopod story related to this. The story is Toothache by James Maddox, but I warn you, it’s not for the dentally squeamish.

Chris Kalidor

All, or Nothing at All (Body Parts)

Posted in Rotten with tags , , , , on April 10, 2008 by davehurwitz

I have just finished reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1898 short story “The Brown Hand.” (Reprinted in The Captain of the Pole Star: Weird and Imaginative Fiction, a beautiful book by Ash-Tree Press, not to be confused with the less comprehensive collection published under the same name in Doyle’s lifetime.) The story concerns a retired doctor haunted by the apparition of a man whose hand he had amputated. If the idea of an Earth-bound spirit in search of a missing body part seems familiar, you’ve probably seen it elsewhere. The device was hardly new even in Conan Doyle’s time.

A century and a half earlier, before the idea of custodial punishment really caught on, the threat of dissection was used to deter crime in England and elsewhere. In the 1700’s, virtually everything was a hanging offence, including petty theft and adultery. The murder act of 1752 turned the remains of the most heinous criminals over to London’s anatomy schools, which had few legal ways to obtain specimens. (The illegal ones included grave robbing, and in one famous instance, murder.) Fights beneath the gallows between anatomists and families of the condemned were commonplace. What motivated the deceased’s defenders was not the nastiness of dissection, but a firm belief that the body had to be buried whole. In those days, Christians of all stripes believed in a physical resurrection on Judgment Day. Gabriel would blow his horn and we would all sit up in our graves. Your recently executed Uncle Steve would be needing his body again. All of it.

The notion raises all sorts of questions. Uncle Steve murdered someone, first of all. What are the odds of his getting past old Gabe? What’s a few missing organs compared to the Mark of Cain? Second, what does Gabe care what Steve looks like? Gabe’s not manning the velvet rope at a nightclub, after all. Third, surely somebody in Heaven can fix up Steve’s mutilated bits. What, is Jesus too busy? And hey, doesn’t everybody, you know, decompose anyway?

A quarter of a millennium later, in our more enlightened times, surely no one believes such nonsense.

Right?

Actually, Judaism requires that bodies be buried as quickly as possible, with all pieces present. (Cremation is frowned upon, as are tattoos, oddly.) The Muslim faith demands the same. So do many other Eastern religions, as in the Doyle story. Even the Catholic Church is surprisingly picky about body parts, especially those of its Popes. A recent traveling exhibition displayed papal reliquaries, essentially fancy jars housing bits various Popes lost during their lives. These would, in theory at least, be buried with the Pope when he died. When Pope John Paul the Second was shot, the length of intestine removed during surgery was preserved.

Popes aside, how do whole body purists fare in our modern world? Not so good, actually. The enemy is no longer anatomy schools, but proper sanitation. In the U.S. and other first world countries, all scrap tissue and other “medical waste” must be disposed of quickly and safely. In practice, the bits cut out of you during surgery are put in a little bin, the contents of which are later dumped into a bigger bin full of a bunch of other people’s leavings. These are incinerated, cremated essentially, either by the hospital itself or a medical waste disposal service.

What happens to these mixed ashes? I’ve never been able to find out. All the websites for medical waste disposal firms that I’ve visited, while they emphasize the thoroughness of their “inventory control,” pass without comment over this issue. No one who might know what happens to the ashes has ever been willing to speak to me about it. Still, one point is clear. Once something’s been cut out of you at the hospital, it’s gone.

David Hurwitz

The Ruins (or How to Raise a Man-Eating Plant)

Posted in Rotten with tags , , , on April 6, 2008 by davehurwitz

3 out of 5 bloody knives
The Ruins raises the Venus flytrap to a new level. In Carter Smiths’s adaptation of Scott Smith’s novel, you don’t have to stumble into the man-eating plant. It will come after you. Even lure you down a deep, dank shaft to be its amuse bouche.

Over all, the movie was decent. Like Exorcist, I felt the best scares were from what the people did to each other. The leg amputation scene was superb in its ability to combine bone crunching and flesh sawing. Also, when Stacy cuts herself up to locate the plants growing inside her, the visuals deliver.

The plot drags in the beginning, and this is due mostly to the Scott Smith’s narrative. I read the novel (as much as I could get through). The concept was intriguing, but I finally had to put it down. I kept waiting for the horror to materialize, but it lingered on the Dawson Creek dynamics of the four central characters. Carter Smith (the director, and as far as I can tell, no relation) was able to shore up the action by cutting much of the melodrama in the first act. Even so, he (or possibly the studio) added the obligatory scare scene at the start to remind the viewer that yes, you walked into the right movie theater. This is a horror movie.

If you did read the novel, you’ll find that many of the character’s roles are switched (Stacy with Amy) and much of the rambling action tightened for film. The ending was improved somewhat. Instead of having Stacy kill herself as a warning, she escapes into a Hollywood horror ending.

The vines themselves are much faster moving in the film, as they should be for a horror flick. Their appearance, however, was distracting. They bore an uncanny resemblance to cannabis leaves. There needed to be a line about smoking them in the film script.

Now, if you really want to read a great short about man-eating plants try Michael A. Arnzen’s masterpiece of flash fiction, “How to Grow a Man-Eating Plant” from Pseudopod. This is a must read. I’ve never read anything funnier, and it’s actually a piece of flash fiction with an ending. Pseudopod is also free and ports the stories direct to iTunes.

Check out wikipedia for a complete summary of Scott Smith’s novel. Internet Movie Database has a full synopsis of the film (with spoilers). For Arnzen’s flash fiction, just listen to it yourself. It’s only a few minutes of your time.

Chris Kalidor