Just as chefs innovate for a repetition-weary palate, so too I try to offer today’s sophisticated readers something novel for their money. Turns out entertaining you all is hard when everything’s been done. When inspiration fails — which is most of the time (don’t wait for it) — my weapon of choice is INVERSION. I take something you know and turn it on its head.
Take Vernal Wort, my scoundrel from FANTASMAGORIA. (Yes, his name is a play on venereal wart. Because that’s what he is.) We’re all familiar with the basic werewolf story, which, like its analogs Jekyll and Hyde and The Invisible Man, is an adventure-study of the beast within. So here, a fair man gets bit by a foul creature, becomes infected, and carries out wanton acts of lust and ego-indulgent revenge.
Good Victorians in the time of cholera were both fascinated and terrified by two great evils: contagion and sin, which their myths told them were synonymous — sinful acts could corrupt like disease.
Hence the aphorism “one bad apple spoils the bunch,” which came about in the days before refrigeration when apples were a key foodstuff because they would keep through winter. The mold that ruins them spreads by contact, so each apple had to be inspected before being put away for the season. Otherwise, as the saying goes, one day you would open the larder to find that one bad apple really had spoiled the bunch. (And you couldn’t just run to the store to get more.)
In a world of contagious examples, you can see where there would be a kind of constant, low-level anxiety about “sinners,” and how you wouldn’t want your son or daughter — but let’s be honest, particularly your daughter — to hang around them lest some of their wickedness spread. Like wearing dresses that revealed her ankles. Or dancing.
We see remnants of this belief today in the popular fear of homosexuals in places of worship or positions of authority (priests, teachers, camp counselors, troop leaders) because if there’s too much contact then little Jimmy might contract the gays.
As an aside, you can blame the advent of refrigeration and the freewheeling 70s — Donny and Marie in particular — for popularizing the reverse phrase “one bad apple doesn’t spoil the bunch,” which, while philosophically palatable, is technically complete horseshit. Don’t get your wisdom from pop music, kids. Get it from me.
The werewolf, then, is a wonderfully Victorian fear, namely that a good, sexually repressed man (because women were angels, you see) might contract an erection– I mean lycanthropy and lose control to the sinful beast within. Thankfully, the Victorian worldview is in decline, although still not dead, and few contemporary readers will find that fear very compelling. Hence in contemporary literature the werewolf has devolved into a kind of totemic uber-human with model-like good looks.
Enter my character Vernal Wort, the inversion, who contracts a form lycanthropy where laughing (instead of a full moon — Oh, wretched sign of woman!) triggers his erectio– I mean, change. But instead of a basically good man becoming beastly, Vernal is a bad apple who becomes benign. He’s a scoundrel who turns into a unicorn, and, whilst afflicted, is “filled with pleasant thoughts. Ugh!” The beast is his noble self, let loose by mirth, the release of anxiety.
Because in contemporary society, the problem we have is not keeping hold of the beast — we’re all pretty much sinners these days; certainly we don’t fear sex — but of ever rising above, of being something more. Instead of fearing our repressed sexual desire, we fear our noble (creative) self. We suffer, acutely, the loss of autonomy that follows life inside the bureaucratic malaise of global cosmopolitanism. We’re one employee in tens of thousands. We’re one citizen in tens of millions. We’re one person in several billion. We sit at computers and repeat the same activities year after year, often to secure less and less purchasing power, like a machine winding down. Everything is organized, structured, and safe, but soulless. We’re not dead. But we’re not alive. And we seem incapable of lifting a finger to escape.
Enter our present fad fear, the zombie apocalypse, which operates at two levels. The first, as described above, is the fear of becoming a zombie, of losing our self, of being dead in all but name. And note how it spreads through contagion — that eternal fear — like the werewolves of old, rather than through witchcraft. We’re one apple in a bunch succumbing to a creeping rot with no way to escape the larder.
(The original voodoo zombi was a slave, reflecting the social institution that spawned it. A zombi was a person who had their soul removed through black magic — the opposite of redeeming Christianity, and thus technically not the reanimated dead, like a mummy. And it was personal. You became a zombi the way you became a slave, individually and through the effort of a specific evil person, often someone you knew, rather than through the happenstance of mass contagion.)
But the zombie apocalypse also reflects a structural fear. As much as we might chafe under the bureaucratic systems that cradle and dehumanize us, we also acknowledge that insurance, unemployment, and all the rest work to keep us safe. And yet we have no control over their structure, their effectiveness, or even their continued existence. And so the fear isn’t just that I’ll turn into a zombie, but that we’ll ALL turn into zombies and the whole fragile system will collapse.
Indeed, urban-dwelling survival hobbyists who maintain bug-out bags with which to escape the impending collapse of the state often look with longing to the days of the yeoman farmer, who — the theory goes — was truly autonomous, free, and in control — possessed of everything needed to support himself and his family. Despite that that isn’t true, and that farmers in 1750 were embedded in a then-200-year-old socioeconomic system that stretched from India to the New World, it also overlooks their own ever-present anxieties: that the rains would fail, that the locusts would come, or crop-rot, or tick-borne animal fever, or small pox, or cholera, or witches (don’t laugh; it was real to them), or the imperial tax man, or the army to conscript the only affordable labor (their children) to die in a foreign country for the glory of the prince, and so on, any one of which could bring ruin.
That’s why you went to church every week, to ask Jesus or Allah or Yahweh or Krishna to keep it all at bay. Because the fact is, we’ve never had control. There is no risk-free world, no barrier the terrorists can’t breach, no haven from foreign beliefs, or homer-sexuals, or whatever “sin-contagion” keeps you up at night. There’s no creative utopia, no organic paradise, no land free from racism or violence or greed.
Which is why, as a species, we need fiction — not just prose, and not just horror, but stories of any kind — to indulge our fears, safely, and to produce a psychological catharsis, an inoculation against the impending sin-contagion: that pesticide-eating, SUV-driving morons will bring about the collapse of the welfare state and the return to religious semi-barbarism.
It’s also why we consume the same stories over and over again: not because we’re lazy or stupid or startlingly unoriginal, but because we experience the same fears, and so we need the same release. Because we never feel as alive as when we’re facing death, even a fictitious one at the hands of the anti-Christ who threatens to unleash the Darkness upon the world and who can only be stopped by, ultimately, ourselves as actors in our own hero-play.