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Wednesday 13 September
Yes, well. It’s been a while, I know, but apparently we’re allowed to keep updating this until mid-September, so I’ve got a few more days to finish. This little project went by the wayside there for a couple of months, while I was finishing up a full-length nonfiction project on food and horror, but I’ve got back into it. Nearly done now! I hope to finish this scientists and horror project in the next three days.
When last I updated, I was about to start on a chapter on demography. I did about half of it before pulling away into a different chapter altogether, one about consent. Basically, when scientists are performing science on human subjects – or human analogues, capable of understanding and communication – they’re generally required to get informed consent. (Obviously this is an area that deals primarily with the biological and medical sciences.) In horror, that consent is… not always respected.
Anyway, so I did that, and now I’m back to the demography and oversight chapter, which I hope to finish up tomorrow. After that there’s a brief introduction, and a concluding chapter in which I “fingerprint” various horror film scientists using a table of characteristics I’ve developed over the past few months. It’s pretty interesting to discover the connections between the characteristics…
So, that’s where I’m at. If you’re still interested, please consider donating to the Clarion West scholarships – I think they’re still taking them, and it’s for a good cause!
Monday 17 July, Week 5
Okay, it’s been a slow fortnight! I’m a little behind where I wanted to be at this point, but still making progress. I’ve finished another 5K words, on how scientists are variously integrated into the primary power structure in the text. Sometimes they’re fully embedded into it, like the psychiatrist Father Karras in The Exorcist – a card-carrying member of the Catholic Church, the main power brought in to deal with pea soup spewing little Regan. Sometimes they’re booted out of it, like Dr. Cameron Lorenzo who in The Mad Monster was fired from his university position for his dodgy work on werewolves. And sometimes they’re from a neutral organisation, like the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, who does not give a toss about the turf war between mayor and police chief when they send their biologist Matt Hooper to poor shark-ridden Amity.
But scientists are individuals as well as members of institutions. They have their own particular power advantages or disadvantages, and that comes with demographics. For a long time the primary image of the scientist was a straight white man, and deviations from that model were just sort of shoved to the side. But they did exist, and exist even more so today.
The point of this – and the subject of my next chapter – is how demographics plays into privilege. I think we all know why horrible historical events like the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment were performed on black men rather than any other group, for example. How the individual’s demographics interact with their position in a power structure impacts their actions in horror…
If you’re interested in reading more, please consider donating to Clarion West! As a former scholarship student myself, those scholarships are SO IMPORTANT.
Tuesday 4 July: Week 3
We’re at the beginning of the third week now and I’m on track! In this last week I’ve completed 5000 words on how science looks at the natural/supernatural in horror. It does so in a number of different ways, and I gave a brief over-view of these in the last update (see below). These are an important baseline to establish because how scientists define the nature of the problem impacts how they deal with it, and how their position in the scientific world is affected by (or affects) the problem at the centre of their horror story.
But last week was more about scientific problems than it was scientists. That’s all changing this week, as with the first chapter out the way I’m moving onto the next, and this one is where I start to bring the role of the scientist in horror into focus. It’s the subject of this mini-monograph after all, so might as well get to it.
Over the next week I’ll be working on another 5000 word chapter, and the subject of it is the working relationship between the scientist and the dominant power structure of the narrative. Some scientists are really embedded in an organisation that gives them a lot of power: they may be backed up by the military-industrial complex, for example, or even by religious ideology. Alternately they may be linked to that power structure but with some independent movement, or they may be neutral with respect to it. They may also be exiled from a place of authority, or they may be absolutely hostile to the primary power in the text and actively working against it.
Some of the examples of scientists in horror that I’ll be using in this upcoming chapter are Damien Karras, the psychiatrist priest from The Exorcist (who has the power of the Catholic Church behind him and is fully embedded within it) and Dr. Lorenzo Cameron of The Mad Monster, who was exiled from the scientific community and fired from his university position due to his dodgy experiments in lycanthropy.
I’ll let you know how I get on! But in the meantime, if you’re at all interested in this project please consider donating to Clarion West. Every little bit helps to pay for scholarships in the future, and I’m sure the next writers to receive them will greatly appreciate it!
Monday 26 June: Week 2
Heading into the second week, and I’ve begun writing. I took the first week to think about structure and to gather examples, but over the next five weeks I’m hoping to produce five chapters of about 5000 words each.
The first chapter, that I’ve started today, is on how scientists in horror experience the natural/supernatural. This is important because it tends to play into power relationships later on (the subject of next week’s horror writing binge!). It also crosses over a bit into the idea of the unnatural. How is the unnatural defined by (or interact with) the natural, or with the supernatural – and how do scientists approach it through either of these perceptions?
Basically, in this first chapter I’m categorising the problem. You know, the hideous centre of the horror film, the thing that’s causing all the trouble. There are five different categories I’m exploring this week:
# the natural horror – for example, the great white shark of Jaws. Horrible beast, likes to eat people, but still recognisably of the natural world.
# the abnormal natural – when nature does dodgy shit. Jaws is an outlier individual, but still recognisably a great white shark. Watch the delightful episode “Home” from The X-Files, however, and you see a mutant baby suffering from every inbred genetic disaster under the sun.
# the augmented natural – when humans do dodgy shit to nature. Sticking with sharks, for instance, recall the genetically engineered mako sharks of Deep Blue Sea, bred for size and super intelligence to terrible effect.
# the rational supernatural – when science is used to explain or control events or creatures that would previously be considered supernatural. For example The Mad Monster, wherein a scientifically developed serum can artificially induce lycanthropy in test subjects.
# the destabilising supernatural – when science is totally hopeless at dealing with the supernatural, and even becomes a hindrance. For example the total failure of psychiatry to effect a medical cure in The Exorcist.
So that’s what I’m doing this week! I’ll update on Thursday to let you know how I’m going. If you’re interested please hit the donate button, and help future students at Clarion West!
If you want to read some of my horror nonfiction, there’s a whole year of Food & Horror columns over at The Book Smugglers!
|What I Write||
I’ve a PhD in science communication, so finding new and interesting ways to write about science is something that really interests me – especially science history, because it’s stuffed full of weird stories that people would be absolutely delighted by if they only knew about them!
I also write horror. This past year that’s tended to focus on fairy tales and non-fiction – I wrote a series of columns on Food and Horror for The Book Smugglers, and I’m currently editing an anthology of food-horror stories for Upper Rubber Boot books.
My favourite thing I’ve written – and as far as I’m concerned the best! – is the short sci-fi novel The August Birds, which is available free at the link: time-travelling ravens from Norse myth transport a boy into pivotal moments in science history for every day of the last month of his life.
If you’re a science geek you may also like The Ghost of Matter, my SJV award winning novella about Ernest Rutherford, the splitting of the atom, and the ghosts of his drowned brothers. Or there’s The Life in Papers of Sofie K., a novella of maths and monstrosity and magical realism centred on the life of the Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya. Or, if you’re into poetry, there’s my Elgin-nominated collection Chemical Letters, in which a dead scientist spends her afterlife wandering an apartment block in the form of the periodic table.
If you prefer horror to science, my most recent novella is The Convergence of Fairy Tales, published by The Book Smugglers.
This is my first Write-A-Thon; I’d never heard of it until I attended Clarion West last year and then I knew I had to give it a try. The only reason I was able to go to CW2016 was a very generous scholarship – I’d had to turn down a place at Clarion San Diego two years previously because of lack of money and that was pretty gut-wrenching – so if I can help someone else get to a Clarion workshop in the future I’ll be happy.
As it’s my first Write-A-Thon I’ve entirely lost my head on the goal front. Last year I presented a paper on scientists in horror films at the New Research in Horror conference, and it was pretty well-received if I do say so myself. I put the paper to one side and made a note to turn that presentation into a mini-monograph – something of about 25K words. The time has come!
After all, it’s my two favourite things: science and horror. And when these two come together, what they have to say about power relationships, about the demography of power, about consent and oversight and how the emphasis on such changes over time, is fascinating stuff. So, buckle up for American Mary, for The Exorcist, for Jaws and The Mad Monster and Frankenstein, because over the next six weeks they’ll be vivisected and graphed and fingerprinted for their portrayal of scientists… and for what that portrayal says about us, the viewers.