Sick notes

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My ear was recently grabbed by a radio show on how diseases get their names.

The show was the BBC's Word of Mouth presented by Michael Rosen and Laura Wright. The guests were Laura Spinney, author of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World and Professor Peter Piot, co-discover of Ebola.

Listening, I learned that diseases used to be named after places, often misleadingly. Take 1918’s global pandemic of Spanish flu, for example. It got its name because during World War I neutral Spain was the only country where the government was honest about the existence of the disease.

The episode also covered new rules drawn up by WHO in 2015 to ensure that disease names are informative, without attaching stigma to particular places or social groups. For example a bacteria that affects the lungs of pregnant women might be called Streptococcal Maternal Respiratory Disease, or SMRD. It would not be called Bromley Breastfeeder's Lung.

However, these rules are regularly flouted – recent newspaper stories about Japanese and Aussie flu show old habits run deep. Ultimately, if a name catches on it is very hard for the authorities to change it.

My novel, The Splits, tells the story of a communicable disease that ramps up to the maximum the anxiety we feel about infection.

In the book, the official name for the disease is Scott-Lapidot Disease (SLD), after two scientists who 'discover' it. I didn’t know it when I made this up, but this is now considered to be in very bad taste - it's the microbiology equivalent of 19th century explorers naming countries after themselves. In the episode, Professor Piot stressed that the discovery of a disease actually involves collaboration on a massive scale.

SLD also, I now realise, isn't informative. It doesn’t tell anybody anything about what causes the disease, who it affects, or how.

If I were going to use WHO's new rules, SLD might be called Severe Contagious Complex Amyloidotic Dissociation, or SCCAD. I’m not sure that has much of a ring to it. If I was going break those rules I might call it Mad Corpse Disease.

Perhaps I’ll play around with these new naming conventions in the next Splits novel. Or perhaps I’ll stick with the visceral, descriptive common name that springs from the lips of some shocked eye-witnesses in the book – the Splits.

It could have had any number of similar names. I actually quite liked 'the Cold' but that's already taken! 'The Pressure' or 'the Hate' might have worked. But the Splits captured both the physical and psychological manifestation of the disease, so that was what I went with.

If you read the book, you’ll see 'the Splits' say more about the disease than SLD, SCCAD  - or even Mad Corpse Disease - ever could.

 

Title Fright 1: World War Z v Train to Busan

WARNING: SPOILERS

Voting has begun on World War Z v Train to Busan. Voting closes this Thursday, 21 December at 9am UK time.

Use #titlefright and vote:

  • In the comments section below
  • On YouTube in the comments section
  • On twitter - vote in the poll and reply with your reasons
  • On Facebook - leave a comment with your choice and your reasons.

Public Information Campaign - Alone at Last

The way the world would look if the Splits was out of control.

The way the world would look if the Splits was out of control.

This is the infamous noughties 'Alone at Last' ad from the UK Splits Authority. It's drab and depressing - the situation at this time was dire and the message had to be strong. There were complaints, but it sure as hell worked. We're digging out similar examples to complete the Archive.

Deadgirl vs The Corpse of Anna Fritz!

WARNING: SPOILERS

Why pit Deadgirl (2008) against The Corpse of Anna Fritz (2015)?

Well, they are both about young men who have sex with dead women – a zombie in the former, an expired film star in the latter.

This is not usually my thing, but in the era of #metoo, extreme metaphors for sex crimes feel useful rather than gratuitous.

I made the connection about a week ago when I saw the following tweet:

I was instantly reminded of Deadgirl, even though it’s almost ten years older.

I think this is my favourite shot of deadgirl's face. Look at her bright, flickery, uncomprehending eyes and her hungry mouth. She's part zombie, part pornstar, part baby rooting for milk. Just horrible!

I think this is my favourite shot of deadgirl's face. Look at her bright, flickery, uncomprehending eyes and her hungry mouth. She's part zombie, part pornstar, part baby rooting for milk. Just horrible!

Some people see the films as too similar.

And they are similar. But they are also quite different. The really interesting question is, which one is better? Let’s take a look.

WHAT BINDS THESE FILMS...

Beginning

Both Deadgirl and The Corpse of Anna Fritz (DG and COAF from hereon) start with young men letting off steam at a hospital.

In DG, Rickie and JT run down the corridors of an abandoned mental asylum breaking windows and throwing trolleys at walls. In COAF Ivan, Javi and Pau drink spirits and snort coke behind the hospital dumpsters.

Group dynamics

In both films there’s a conversation between the boys where moral norms are broken down – you can’t just go straight into having sex with a dead/undead girl after all.

In both there’s one boy (JT, Ivan) who is already morally detached and leads the charge towards transgression. There are tensions between this character and another (Rickie, Javi) who is horrified by the idea.

Fear of discovery

In both DG and COAF, the boys are terrified of the outside world knowing what they have done. Maternal figures invoke the greatest fear – JT’s last words are  “don’t tell my grandma”, while Pau’s dread of his mother finding out makes him commit murder.

The girl

In both, there’s a sense that girls’ minds are difficult, and finding one without a mind is a solution.

In both, the actor playing the girl does most of her acting with her eyes, and this is extraordinarily powerful.

In both, the girl gets her revenge.

…AND WHAT DIVIDES THEM

To decide which film is better, let’s take a look at the differences.

Characters

In DG the boys enlist your sympathy. They’re outsiders - born without priviledge into families that are messed up or non-existent. JT’s grotesque attachment to the dead girl gives us a window into his loneliness. Rickie is a vulnerable and trying to do the right thing. When I first saw the film 10 years ago I probably fancied him (NB he doesn't have sex with the girl!). Now that I'm married with two kids I just want to give him a hug and tell him he's doing fine.

Whereas COAF is a nightmarish morality tale with limited characterisation. We never learn anything about the three ‘horndogs’ past. We only get to know them in the context of the morgue. What we see is deeply unpleasant.

The girl

In DG the dead girl is a zombie. She survives bullets, strangulation, beatings and a broken neck. She has no reaction to being raped but if you get too close she takes a bite.

Whereas in COAF Anna is actually alive. She’s a real person. She’s not a supernatural conceit or a thought experiment.

Moral payoff

DG’s director calls the film a coming of age story. When Rickie realises the dead girl is the best he can expect, he enters into a sad sort of manhood. The dead girl is a catalyst for his - very crooked – development. As such the film isn’t about her, it’s about him. Sex with a woman who cannot consent is a metaphor for the male characters’ stunted lives. The film does condemn this way of relating to women, but only indirectly.

COAF on the other hand whacks you over the head with its message – having sex with a corpse is bad and wrong. The ending – which I won’t give away – suggests the film is really about Anna, not the boys who rape her. It suggests she’s been through something much worse than what happens in the morgue. Essentially that being raped by men who think you’re dead is not that different from the casting couch, and what you’re really seeing is Anna’s previous life.

WHICH FILM IS BETTER?

To sum up, DG is a film for the age of Donald Trump and Brexit, when you choose something you really shouldn’t. It’s a sympathetic portrait of people who are genuinely suffering and make disastrous choices.

COAF is a film for the post-Harvey Weinstein, post-Jimmy Saville age, when it becomes clear a lot of powerful men don’t think women are actually human.

In other words, they’re both equally relevant! HELP! HELP ME DECIDE! This isn’t a gimmick. Ask anyone who knows me, I’m a legendary fence sitter.

Which do you think should win? Deadgirl or The Corpse of Anna Fritz?

***

UPDATE: click here for the verdict.

Original 1990s Splits leaflet

In the 1990s there was a major public health campaign about Scott-Lapidot Disease  - AKA 'the Splits' - which aimed to clear up a number of persistent myths about the illness. I found an original leaflet from that campaign tucked down the back of my aunt's sofa. I've scanned it so I can post it up for anyone who's interested. Well worth a look, I think. It's pretty accurate about the symptoms even if it's got the root causes of Scott-Lapidot Disease (SLD) totally wrong.

Front of leaflet

Front of leaflet

Back of leaflet

Back of leaflet

Zombies & fine writing - Colson Whitehead's Zone One

When I first set out to write a zombie novel I decided not to read any to avoid accidentally copying them.

The exception was Colson Whitehead's Zone One - I just couldn't resist reading the first few pages.

I nearly closed my computer and gave up there and then. I thought if that's a typical zombie novel I might as well not bother! The genre is well and truly catered for.

After I'd done with my book I finally read Zone One all the way through, and one thing became clear - it is not a typical zombie novel.

It does not skimp on the familiar elements - there's the first day of the outbreak, the lone survivor on the run, the satisfying violence against the (denatured) human form, the post-apocalytic society. But it uses these to craft what is almost a prose-poem. Whitehead's sentences are up there with the greatest writers the US has ever produced.

The main character is nicknamed Mark Spitz. He is a mediocrity by his own admission who has paradoxically flourished in the era of the 'skels', as the zombies are called. He provides a mournful, meandering account of how the world has changed.

This slow narrative is punctuated by powerful shocks however, as he recalls the old world - our world - through the lense of the post-apocalypse.

In places it's sharply funny - Mark Spitz gets into a spot of bother with the zombies in the Human Resources department of an office he is clearing as part of his job with the recovery effort. In others it is tragic. Mark Spitz can't forget a woman called Mim, and I couldn't either.

Whitehead's plague creates a social class cohered by trauma, which again speaks to our present. At the same time he shows the old power structures still gasping and wheezing and try to resurrect themselves.

Once I finished Zone One I sighed with relief. It isn't the final word on zombies. It's actually a symptom of the genre's ongoing health.