Hello, everyone. I am Ithaka. And this is Sponge, a podcast where we absorb elements from the world to form a perspective of our own and find beauty.
The theme for today’s episode is this: humor makes the most gruesome horror bearable—even enjoyable. That is something I absorbed while reading “Manitou Blood” by Graham Masterton.
Spoiler alert, everyone. Spoiler alert. “Manitou Blood,” written by Graham Masterton, is a fictional work. In this episode, there will be quotes from various parts of this book. If you plan to read “Manitou Blood” and do not want spoilers, do not listen to this episode at this time.
This is gonna be a super straightforward, comparatively short-and-sweet episode. Or so I intend to make it. In that sense, hopefully this episode is like this book. It’s a super straightforward book, which is… not short in the absolute sense, and not sweet either, given the subject matter, but it certainly feels short and sweet, thanks to the humor and just how masterfully Graham Masterton writes. It’s a true page-turner, I enjoyed it very much. This writing style, and the subject matter of this book, it’s one of those things where… it seems like it exists purely for entertainment, and it is entertaining, but to actually write this way, so purely kind to the reader, is really difficult. At least it’s difficult for me. There is so much to learn from this book. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
That said, the blurb:
Quote, “An army of the undead threatens humanity.
In one of the hottest summers for decades, New York City is swept by a strange and terrible epidemic. Doctors are helpless as victims fall prey to a bizarre blood disorder. They can no longer eat solid food, they become hypersensitive to sunlight and they have an irresistible need to drink human blood.
As panic grips the city, psychic Harry Erskine must enter the shadowy realms between the living and the dead, and call on Native American spirits to help him…” End quote.
Ah! The drama!
Yeah, the book felt like a movie, in a good way. I do think there are styles that are more prevalent in movies, or seem more prevalent in movies, because movies require a way larger budget than books in order to ever be produced. Movies, because of the requirement in the number of humans required to create them, and the insurance, other legalities and safety issues, scheduling, location availability, all of those factors—movies are simply more expensive than books. Perhaps because of that, when movies do get made, and especially when movies make a profit, they tend to be the ones that also come with a huge advertising budget, which are the blockbuster movies, the superhero movies, the mainstream flair.
But with books, you could have five hundred aliens, all from different alien species, and writing about that would require about the same budget as writing about regular humans. There is no need to worry about the cost of CGI, no need to worry about who to hire, no need to worry about the time it will take to render the CGI aliens. In books, you can write about anything. All you need is a writer who is willing to sit in a room and make stuff up.
Now, that does not necessarily mean that there will be more writing about five hundred aliens from five hundred different alien species in book format. But it does seem to mean that there is a greater variety in the types of writing that see the light of day and actually find readers. Because, it also takes a lot less digital storage, bandwidth, to upload and download books. Which, in turn, means that the books that become super popular or make a lot of money aren’t necessarily the ones that have blockbuster stories. Although, yes, straightforward stories do seem to appeal to the mainstream audience more than too-internal, too-introspective stories.
And there are other factors besides production cost and the cost of sharing, such as how writing gets into the head of the character and thereby the reader, whereas movies are more of an observer POV medium. So perhaps that is why the blockbuster-feel shows up less in the novel area, compared to the movie area. Yes, thrillers are hugely popular, especially in the United States, but even there, when in book format, there is a certain tone, and when in movie format, there is a certain tone.
The reason I talk about all this is that, as I said, this book, “Manitou Blood,” felt like a movie. And it felt thusly, in large part because of how, unlike some other books I have read, the story didn’t stay in the head of the protagonist too much. Actually, there is very little brooding. Very little thinking. And when thinking does occur, it’s all coupled with humor. And that humor, done in a way that appeals to me—because, everyone has different tastes—occurs so rarely, I was ecstatic while reading this book. Humor is just really difficult to nail. Everyone has different tastes, and on top of that, everyone has a different sense of humor. So it’s really difficult to nail, but for me, this book, the humor in it, the lightness that pulled up the heaviness of the subject matter—which is, as was stated in the blurb, a blood-sucking disease—was just amazingly beautiful.
And… I often just start reading a book without reading the blurb. And I don’t look up reviews. And in the case of this book, I am especially glad that I started reading it without any former knowledge of what it was going to be about or how the style was going to be, because, one, the blurb doesn’t convey anything about the humorous style of this book, but I appreciate this blurb for being so concise and to the point. It’s a great blurb.
Another reason I’m glad I didn’t start reading this book with any foreknowledge is that the book doesn’t start with the protagonist’s POV. It starts with one of the other major characters, and for a while, I thought he was the protagonist. And I liked finding out who the main protagonist was, from direct reading, not from the blurb.
The last and major reason I’m glad I didn’t know anything about this book before reading it is that, I didn’t know the book was about vampires. And I love vampires. So when the book started talking about blood disease and so on, I was truly surprised, and in a pleasant way.
Of course, now I’m telling you all this. So, now you can’t read the book without knowing anything about it, besides the title and the author and the cover. But, hey, there was a spoiler warning, so, yeah.
Humor makes the most gruesome horror bearable—even enjoyable.
What are some of the gruesome horror scenes within this book?
Here is a description of the vampire monsters, from the POV of a character called Frank:
Quote, “In that split second, though, he had seen something horrifying. The storeroom window was open, and a girl in a bloodstained nightgown was climbing out of it. She was turned toward him, so that he could see how white her face was, and the dried blood around her mouth. Her hair was long and black and wild, and it was flying upward, as if it were being blown by a furious wind.
A young man was rising up from the floor to follow her, his green-and-white baseball shirt blotted with blood. He was being helped up by a dark, attenuated figure, which Frank couldn’t make any sense of. It was less like a person than a sloping shadow, with an elongated head that rose toward the ceiling, and high, diagonal shoulders. It was leaning at an impossible angle, in the way that only a shadow could.
Yet just before the lights went out, it had snapped its head around, and Frank had glimpsed two black, blurry eyes, and a stretched-open mouth that was more of a grating than a mouth. In the darkness, he heard an explosive, hate-filled hiss that sounded like air brakes, and then a high, piercing shriek—a shriek so terrible that he felt as if his brain was being blinded, as well as his eyes.” End quote.
So. Mr. Masterton can get serious when he wants to. What clear, crisp description. Ah. So amazing. Anytime someone writes in a way that seems easy, usually it’s difficult to do it. Or, at least it’s not easy for me.
Anyway, in this book, there is also intense ritual sex. At some points, things get really serious. However, there is so much humor sprinkled throughout the book, and… oh, and another major reason I thought this book had a movie-like feel was that the dialogue is so trailer-worthy. You know, frequently, book dialogue feels different from movie dialogue, in that book dialogue continues on from the character’s headspace. Internal and external are sometimes difficult to separate. Movie dialogue, everything is uttered out loud, unless the lines are narrated. But I feel like… narration doesn’t happen often in mainstream movies. Maybe it’s because internal monologues just aren’t what movies are great at.
Anyway, out-loud movie dialogue, for that reason, tends to be crisp. Characters talk to each other. They exchange dialogue. And in this book… there isn’t that much of an internal monologue or self-description aside from scenes in which characters are introduced. So, when the characters do speak, the lines need to be like movie dialogues, in that, the readers must be able to understand the message without all the background of the internal monologue. So, reading the dialogue in this book, it felt trailer-worthy. As in, there were many lines that you could completely take out of context, and still they would be dramatic or humorous or both.
Here’s another snippet where things are serious. I wouldn’t say sad, but potentially truthful and painful depictions of life are in this scene. But here, because the POV character is the protagonist, Harry Erskine—the “I” character, the first-person character—we start seeing the juxtaposition between humor and such potentially painful-but-true depictions of life.
Quote, “I went through to my tiny kitchen, opened the icebox and took out a bottle of Guinness. It’s an acquired taste, Guinness: like burnt toast, only beer. But it’s good for a man living on his own, because it’s food and drink in the same bottle, and you never have any dishes to wash.” End quote.
Quote, “I’m never truly fulfilled unless I’m desperate. Like the painter Edouard Munch of The Scream fame once said, “Without anxiety, I would have been a ship without a rudder.” End quote.
See, here, this style. “Like the painter Edouard Munch of The Scream fame.” This is a very recognizable way, the way this character puts things. He makes a lot of pop culture references. Well, pop culture… I wouldn’t say Munch is pop culture, but he makes a lot of historical, artistic, media references. And he doesn’t say “Like the painter Edouard Munch, who is famous for The Scream.” He says “of The Scream fame.”
And then, this character goes on to say,
Quote, “I had discovered the terrible truth that happiness isn’t everything. To know that we’re alive, we need challenges, and we need problems, and most of all we need worry.
So here I was, the Incredible Erskine, Herbal Visionary, with all the worry that anybody could wish for, and absolutely no money, but alive.” End quote.
Certainly, life isn’t like this for everybody. It’s this character who thinks this. And for him, this is the truth. And it seems that one of the ways in which he copes with the worries of his life is by drawing from humor. And thanks to that, we, the readers, can enjoy the juxtaposition between seriousness and humor.
And the juxtaposition becomes stronger, the more serious the external situations get. When our Harry talks about why dead people hate the living,
Quote, “Put it this way: If you were dead, how would you feel about all those smug bastards who were still alive, especially if they kept getting in touch with you and saying Hello? Hello? Is anyone there? What’s it like being dead? Where did you hide the US Steel stock certificates?” End quote.
Meanwhile, Frank, the other major character who is written in the third-person, talks about one of the cops who came to talk to the doctors about the earliest patients of the blood disease,
Quote, “…at last Lieutenant Roberts took out a very white handkerchief, unfolded it, and blew his nose—and, to his credit, didn’t inspect it.” End quote.
Frank, compared to Harry, is a serious character. Frank is the third-person character, who is a doctor. Harry Erskine is our protagonist, the first-person character, the psychic. And yet, even Frank, he gives Lieutenant Roberts credit for blowing his nose and not inspecting it.
And the entire time, Harry calls another character named Bertil by the wrong name. He calls Bertil “Bertie,” literally the entire time. Bertil is married to another psychic, Amelia, and the following snippet is written from Harry’s POV. So, we have Amelia calling her husband correctly, Bertil. Then we have Harry calling Bertil Bertie, out loud. And we also have the non-dialogue lines, all of them, calling Bertil Bertie.
“But Amelia said, “Harry… Bertil simply doesn’t believe in ghosts and demons and things like that. He thinks that they’re caused by a glitch in the human brain.”
“In particular, an aberration of the amygdala,” said Bertie, “the center of human fear.”
I looked at him in disbelief. “Amelia hasn’t told you about Misquamacus?”
“Of course. Amelia has told me everything about the life she lived before we met.”
“Bertie—Misquamacus was no aberration of the Dalai Lama, or whatever it is.”
So, first of all, mixing up the amygdala with the Dalai Lama. And then, this tiny part “said Bertie.” You know, when there are dialogue tags. He said, she said. Bertie said this, Bertie said that. But Bertie’s name isn’t Bertie. It’s Bertil!
There are many more examples, so many more instances of serious situations juxtaposed with humor. But instead of listening to me read these short quotes, you might as well read the book, if this sounds like the kind of story you might like.
And there are many touching moments in this book as well, and for that, we’ll look at some additional quotes. Even in these, our Harry keeps the tone light by adding humor. At some point during this disaster, he meets Gil, who was a soldier. And Gil helps Harry survive the attack of some vampires. After that, Harry says,
Quote, “Gil gripped my shoulder so hard that it hurt, although I didn’t let on. I’ve never had too many friends, especially friends who were capable of beating the crap out of people, but that night I believed that I had found a friend in Gil. I really liked his straightforwardness, and his complete lack of cynicism. He was GI Joe, right out of the box. But most of all I liked him because he had shown me that I could beat the crap out of people, too, if I really needed to. He had made me feel brave.” End quote.
Aw. Friendship. Aw.
And also, there is love. The aforementioned Amelia, the other psychic, apparently used to have a thing with Harry before she was married to Bertil/Bertie. And it seems that Amelia and Harry liked each other, potentially loved each other at a deep level, whether as a friend or as a romantic partner. They’re both psychics, they can see and hear things that others do not even acknowledge the existence of.
So, when they find themselves in this vampire disaster, there is a sweet moment of them together. And in this scene, they mention Misquamacus, who is the grand villain of this story.
Quote, “Amelia came up to me and held both of my hands. “Another strange adventure,” she said. “Why do these things always happen to us, Harry?”
“We’re mystics. It’s our job. Who else is going to do it, if we don’t?”
“Do you think this will work? Calling up Monster Slayer?”
“I don’t know. I hope so. But I still have to find Misquamacus, and fix him.”
“You’ll come back to see me, won’t you? I don’t want you to disappear and never find out what’s happened to you.” “End quote.
Aw. You know, so it’s just… this book is so well written. I think it is not easy to transition so smoothly from gruesome horror to humor to sweet, touching moments, and then back to gruesome horror. Also, the human connection is quite amazing.
You know, sometimes, the characters in a story, or real-life people, are so in their heads that they don’t react to situations when they actually happen. They have an idea of how things are, and even though real things happen to real people, they stick to that idea more. And after the fact, after the real things happen to real people, they get to analyzing what happened.
But the answer is simple, in that: just be in the moment. And all these characters in this book—even Bertie/Bertil, are there. Mr. Masterton wrote them in that way. Even when they are fighting against each other, for example, Harry and the grand villain Misquamacus, they’re not in their heads. They just fight. Very straightforward. They live in the moment.
I guess that’s one of the requirements for a story to feel so… refreshing. This book, you could pick it up, and even though it’s clear that there was some history that came before this story—such as the potential love thing between Amelia and Harry—still, you can understand everything. And that doesn’t take away from the beauty of this book. There are some observant moments, such as the snippet I quoted about the place of worry in a person’s life, or how Amelia wants to know what happens to Harry.
I will finish up this short-and-sweet episode with another quote that is sort of… sad. Well, not sad, exactly, but… somewhat regrettable.
Quote, “He didn’t want to wake up yet and he didn’t want to dream. He never allowed himself to dream. In dreams people told you critically important things that you couldn’t understand, and you formed attachments to people who didn’t exist.” End quote.
Ah. Given that the word “dream” has many meanings, this quote is especially… lamentable. But also, it’s not impossible to understand why this character says this. Indeed, in dreams, critically important information is shared, and you often have no clue what they mean. And some dreams are so crisp and clear, you cannot believe that they aren’t a prophetic dream. I’ve had dreams like that in the past one year. I don’t usually have them, but in the past one year, many things were different from before, and I had those dreams.
But now those dreams are just… I guess they’re just shrug-worthy? So, whatever I thought was important was probably not important, and whatever I thought wasn’t important was probably important. And dreams, they’re always a jumble of all those things. And yes, you form attachments to people who don’t exist. Even when dreams are about people from your so-called real life, the dream people come from you. Maybe even in the so-called real life, everyone who isn’t you comes from you. I don’t know. So do they really exist, or don’t they? Do we really exist, or don’t we? Or is it that only the things that come from you can exist, anyway?
Yeah. Parts of this book have ideas worth dwelling on, for a little while. But, the book then continues to its adventurous parts, with its gruesome horror and humor. And just like in real life, that is what makes this book’s tragedies bearable—even enjoyable. One almost begins looking forward to what Harry Erskine is going to joke about, in a particularly disturbing situation.
And that is all for this episode. Thank you for listening.
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You can find a link to the full transcript in the show notes. Also, visit ithakaonmymind.com to find out more about everything else I do, besides Sponge.
Stay true, everybody.
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