Werewolves In Storytelling

I’ve previously taken a close look at wolves in literature, specifically in children’s stories. Werewolves are a separate archetype from wolves and play a different storytelling role.

 THE HISTORY OF WEREWOLVES IN A NUTSHELL

Werewolf literally means ‘Man Wolf’. Were is from Old English ‘wer’ meaning ‘man’. The maleness of ‘were’ has since been lost in modern English, but if we wanted to seem technically accurate, the female equivalent would probably be ‘wifwolf’, and that’s not ideal in an age where women don’t always appreciate being referred to in relation to men. (Wif is the Old English word for ‘wife’, in an era where women did not exist as autonomous human beings, belonging only to fathers, husbands and sons.)

In Europe, people really used to believe werewolves were a thing. Imagine believing that. Imagine thinking that, if you weren’t careful, you yourself might turn into a werewolf. How would you regard the moon, if this were your worldview? Don’t know about you, but I’d stay inside on moonlit nights.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, reports of werewolves pervaded much of Central Europe and sections of France along the Swiss border, notably the Jura and the Franche-Comfte. The surgeon Johann Dietz witnessed a crowd of villagers in the northern German town of Itzehoe chase a werewolf with spears and stakes. Even Paris suffered sporadic attacks. In 1683, a werewolf on the Notre-Dame-de-Grace road supposedly saved a party that included several priests.

At Day’s Close, A. Roger Erkich

WEREWOLVES ACROSS CULTURES

Something about wolves that leads humans to think, across largely unrelated cultures, that people can turn into them. Horror storytellers have since turned all number of creatures into were-creatures, from horripilating to comedic effect and everything in between. Wallace and Gromit gave us the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, for instance, comedic because rabbits are not naturally terrifying (on their own).

Here is a good summary of werewolves across cultures.

The ‘were’ of ‘werewolf’ originally meant ‘man’ (man-wolf). This gendered meaning has largely been forgotten in contemporary English. We can therefore have female werewolves.

werewolves and the moon

There is a long history connecting moon cycles to changes in the human body:

Best known of the many “planets” said to influence the rhythms of everyday life was earth’s closest neighbour, the moon. While a welcome source of light, the moon reputedly affected the internal workings of the human body much as it did the flow and timing of ocean tides and the course of the weather. France’s “first philosophe”, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, was one of many learned authorities to perpetuate the medieval theory stressing the moon’s importance to physical health: “As it passes through its phase, it exerts a great influence for better or worse over the course of illnesses.” So potent was its power that the moon could alter the amount of moisture within a person’s body, including the brain, thereby driving some individuals insane or “moon-struck.” Observed the authors of Maison Rustique, or, the Countrey Farme (1616), the moon was the “governesse of all such humidities as are in earthly bodies.” When the moon was full, women were thought at particular risk to become “lunatics.” Some victims died on the spot. In London’s St. Botoloph’s Parish between 1583 and 1599, as many as twenty-two deaths were attributed to planetary influence.

At Day’s Close by A. Roger Ekirch

But the story which connected the moon so closely to werewolves for a modern audience was the 1941 Wolf Man movie. Earlier werewolf stories were more fairytale in nature. The person turning into the wolf tended to put on a certain item of clothing such as a magic belt or coat.

WEREWOLVES IN MODERN STORIES

When it comes to werewolf tropes, the tropes differ depending on the medium. Movie werewolves are most often supernatural horror villains, there for the gore and slashing, and could be swapped out with many other horror villains. For this reason, these werewolves are not particularly interesting.

Twilight shifted the status of werewolves — the character of Jacob paved the way for a modern werewolf who is also a potential love interest.

Werewolves can be used to convey many things, depending on the ideology of the storyteller. One common use of the werewolf (among various other wild animals) is as a proxy for overwhelming teenage sexuality:

It can be a hard thing to be a teenage girl. You face pressure from both your peers and society at large to rush into sexual activity you may not be ready for. You’re judged for your clothes, your makeup, your interests. You have to navigate that blurry line between childhood and adulthood, exemplified by physical changes that can make your body feel like it’s not your own.

Also, you might turn into a werewolf.

Or a mermaid.

Maybe a succubus.

At least that’s the case in the movies, where there exists a long and storied tradition of associating of female puberty with the supernatural.

Or, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing: “Help, I’m a teenage girl coming into my own as a sexual creature, while also turning into a literal creature who transforms into a deadly animal/can control objects with my mind / has an all-consuming hunger for human flesh / bites dudes’ junk off with my vagina” (circle where applicable).

Supernatural sexuality is nothing new at the movies.

It’s a horror subgenre that’s shown its face time and time again throughout the decades. In 1942’s Cat People, a sexually repressed young woman refuses to be intimate with her husband due to her (justified, as it turns out) fear that doing so will cause her to turn into the killer cat that looms so large in her people’s mythology.

Mashable

As such, the werewolf as sexual beast trope can be used to try and suppress sexuality, or to encourage readers to embrace it.

PROBLEMATIC WEREWOLF TROPES

The problem with many werewolf stories is that the wolf is based on inaccurate, outdated science, in which wolves were studied in captivity, not in the wild. When studied only in captivity, scientists came up with the following:

  • In each pack there is an alpha male and an alpha female running things.
  • The alpha male is more powerful than the alpha female.
  • There will be wolves at the bottom of the hierarchy (omegas).
  • Wolves mate for life.

In the wild:

  • The parents are in charge of the pack. ‘Alpha male’ and ‘alpha female’ are mum and dad taking care of the teenagers. (Not so sexy now, right?)
  • Wolves don’t mate for life.
  • The ‘males are stronger than females’ thing is never so simplistic, whether we’re talking about animals or humans. It is a fantasy to imagine that men can protect us all. To take an example from a different species, it was only recently that researchers shared that male, alpha chimpanzees are only the alphas of the other males, and that an alpha male chimp can easily be dethroned if all the females decide to reject him. It is certain that the sexual hierarchy of wolf packs is equally nuanced and complicated as it is in chimpanzees.

If storytellers go with the captivity inaccuracies, this results in a romantic view of the (human) patriarchy, which is intimately connected to the One True Love story. We see this in Twilight, in which werewolf Jacob’s One True Love is Bella’s baby.

Consent is a complicated topic in storytelling because sexual fantasies are somewhat separate from what an audience will accept in reality. Or is the line really so clear? The very definition of ‘fantasy’ becomes muddied when narratees live in the real, non-fantasy world in which non-consensual activity happens to people frequently. Werewolf stories set up under the (human) patriarchal system require ‘underdogs’ do as they are told. While this hierarchy can pave the way for con-non-con fantasies, is it still a fantasy when the characters within the setting are unable to give their own consent? Con-non-con activities are in fact consensual. There is a dearth of stories modeling conversation which needs to take place beforehand. To what extent should stories model good behaviour? Does there need to be that wrapper story in which readers are gradually immersed further into the fantasy world?

As mentioned above, the alpha werewolf in a patriarchal werewolf story is more powerful than the alpha female. This is an uncritical presentation and serves to reinforce ‘the natural order of things’ (for humans).

Some werewolf stories present werewolf as analogue for disease. J.K. Rowling has said that in the Harry Potter series, the werewolf part stands for AIDs. Even if readers are supposed to get the message that ostracising werewolves (diseased people) is bad and we shouldn’t do it, the very act of writing a diseased character as a supernatural monster is in itself problematic, and perhaps relies too heavily on the audience’s ability to see the storyteller’s intent. Zombies are also used in this way.

Werewolves in modern stories are sometimes presented as protectors of nature, which is not problematic in its own right. It can become problematic once non-native writers include tokenistic, appropriated indigenous cultures and transfer those symbols onto wolves.

WHAT MAKES FOR A PROGRESSIVE WEREWOLF STORY?

In better stories, a werewolf can make for an interesting, rounded character in its own right. An adept storyteller can almost transport us into a canine body ourselves and send us running through the forest.

Modern werewolf stories tend to say one of the following:

  • Friendship makes you stronger. The metaphor here is the wolf pack. Teen Wolf is a good example of that, with the additional message that ‘those in your pack don’t have to be wolves’, which conveys a message of diversity and ‘chosen family’.
  • Werewolf stories can say something interesting about anger management, and the struggle to control one’s emotions.
  • Werewolf stories can more generally be about Being Different — this plot is certainly not limited to werewolf stories.
WOLVES, TRANSFORMATION AND SEXUALITY

One modern and interesting way writers are using werewolves: As symbols for how hard it is to fit into the rules of the patriarchy.

The following example makes use of wolves rather than werewolves, but these wolves are functionally ‘were’- wolfish:

“St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” by Karen Russell is […] about a pack of wolf-girls sent away to live with nuns so they can transition into normal young women. I think Russell uses animals in this story as a symbol for the wildness in young people and how there is an expectation, especially for girls, to abandon rough or wild behaviour as they mature. It is about societal pressure, but it is also about the kinship people feel toward animals, and similarly the divide between animal and human that we can never traverse. Pulling from this set of examples, what are some of your favourite short stories and in what ways are animals used in them?

“Dear Amelia” by Anne Valente, explores a similar transformation in reverse. The story is narrated by a group of girls that is turning into Maine black bears, a secret that they keep to themselves. To me, this story is so much about the private discovery of the self as you come of age, an experience that is at once mysterious and magical. What better way to enact that than through this literal transformation?

The Masters Review

MORE ON WEREWOLVES

Passages, Hallways and Corridors

Herbert Thomas Dicksee - Memories, an Old Man Seated in a Church 1885

When storytellers focus on the hallways and passages of a building, look for metaphor. Take note of the width of the passageway: Narrow passages might represent the will to escape. Broad passages represent freedom and space.

The tunnel is the naturally occurring equivalent of the manmade passage.

I love scenes set in hallways myself. In Midnight Feast, the hallway is a transitory space between reality and the freedom of imagination, functioning similarly to a fantasy portal.

the hallway from Midnight Feast by Slap Happy Larry
the hallway from Midnight Feast by Slap Happy Larry
In the next scene, the corridor has turned into a stage.
In the next scene, the corridor has turned into a stage.

CASE STUDY: HOUSE AS CONTROLLING MATRIARCH

The house described by Dawn French in her 2015 novel According To Yes is one of those huge, very old New York apartments that only the wealthy can afford. The main character is a ‘blithe spirit’ archetype similar to Mary Poppins who indeed arrives in New York from Wales as a nanny. She is a fish out of water. The house belongs to a stiff, upper-class, domineering woman and her ‘henpecked’ husband.

This corridor wasn’t intended to be dark, requiring internal lighting at all times. It’s the kind of space that is supposed to have light thrown into it by the leaving open of various doors all the way along. That doesn’t happen in this apartment under the rule of Glenn Wilder-Bingham. No. All doors remain neatly shut, and all the corridors off the main hallway, of which there are four, remain gloomily dark. It’s not that Glenn Wilder-Bingham is a vampire, it’s that she is a consummate control freak. If she could she would control all the light and doors in the world. As it is, she has to satisfy herself with the light and doors in this vast apartment only. Until she takes over the world, this will have to suffice.

Dawn French, According To Yes

In this example, the house functions metaphorically as an architectural version of the matriarch — formidable, dark and unwelcoming. (This same metaphor — house as formidable matriarch — is used and abused in the children’s film Monster House.)

By saying that Glenn Wilder-Bingham is not a vampire, the narrator encourages the reader to think of her of exactly that (the technique of paralepsis). Vampires lead us to bats. The hallway in this house, therefore, functions as an urban cave.

CASE STUDY: WALLS AS PASSAGEWAYS

If you’ve ever had a rodent infestation you’ll know that rats and mice love ceilings and walls. The Rats In The Walls by Lovecraft makes the most of what was surely a familiar night-time sound before the invention of Rough On Rats (and subsequent safer poisons).

Neil Gaiman was perhaps thinking of that famous Lovecraftian short story when he conceived of The Wolves In The Walls, in which a child’s fear manifests in… well… it’s all in the title.

I wonder how common it is to imagine monsters in the walls of one’s house. Is it as common as Monsters Under The Bed? The particular horror of something residing in the walls is that it’s right there but you can’t see it. Once something is in the walls, it might as well be in the house.

Leonard Campbell Taylor (1874 - 1969)
Leonard Campbell Taylor (1874 – 1969)

SEE ALSO

Header painting: Herbert Thomas Dicksee – Memories, an Old Man Seated in a Church 1885

Free Radicals by Alice Munro

free radicals

My reading of “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro (2008) is highly metaphorical. To me, this is a story about the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, and the new vulnerability older women feel when their male partner dies before them.

Read literally, though, and this is the story of one woman’s brush with a serial murdering intruder — a rare crime story from Alice Munro.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “FREE RADICALS”

The structure of this short story is exquisite: a metadiegetic narrative within a dream sequence within a framing story.

Before diving deep into “Free Radicals”, refer to the Kubler-Ross Change Curve, especially as adapted for Story. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is famous for her research into grieving and end-of-life psychology. Her stages of grief have since been mapped onto a narrative arc. (This psychology applies to anything major and shocking in our lives.)

Kubler-Ross Change Curve for Story

There are various versions of this chart because psychology has changed over the decades. Here’s another one adapted for the Shawn Coyne way of looking at story:

Kubler Ross Shawn Coyne
Kubler Ross Shawn Coyne

Alice Munro lost a baby daughter soon after giving birth in her early twenties. By the time Munro published “Free Radicals” in February 2008, she was no stranger to ageing, ill-health and grief.

The interaction in the kitchen between Nita and the intruder forms a mini-grief story in its own right. Refering to the chart: At first Nita is Shocked by the man as he stands in the doorway. She is shocked again when he demands something to eat, but she plays along with the situation, trying to tell herself — and him — that she’s not scared. Denial.

There’s a metadiegetic narrative nested one level deeper in the kitchen scene, when Munro transfers the Anger stage of Nita’s grief onto the (imaginary) intruder, who has just murdered his own family.

Why did he murder his family? Because he couldn’t face the care responsibilities imposed upon him without warning. It wasn’t what he was expecting as ‘part of life’s deal’. So he abdicated his responsibility entirely, as Nita perhaps feels her own husband did to her.

Nita feels residual guilt about what happened with her husband’s first wife. Thus, due to the ghost set up in the first section of the story, Nita imagines herself as this man. It is easy for her to imagine she is just like him. She tells him they are as bad as each other.

She also imagines this man as her husband who, likewise, took off without hanging around to fulfil his obligations of care (to Nita, rather than to the disabled sister).

See how Alice Munro masterfully achieves both proxy amalgamations at once?

This is how Nita works through her grief — imaginatively. This melodramatic kitchen incident is our explanation for why she is so scared to go down to the cellar — terrible things come up from there.

In the symbolic dream house, the cellar is a place where dark things happen. As the dream house predicts, bad things come up the stairs from the cellar. The cellar is the housing equivalent of the fairytale forest — it is the subconscious. It’s all very Freudian. But Gaston Bachelard is the go-to guy for reading all about that.

SHORTCOMING

Nita is grieving and that is her main psychological shortcoming. It is kept as a reveal that she herself is dealing with cancer and will be dead within the year. Her much older husband, who just received a clean bill of health at the doctor’s, has died suddenly. She is therefore in shock. She feels betrayed.

Off the page but important: Nita’s husband is not going to be around to take care of her now. Nita will face the worst of her illness completely alone. Unlike her husband’s swift death, her demise is a slow one. Unlike Rich, Nita needs to find a way to cope with all that fear.

We are offered a few clues about Nita’s vulnerable psychological state. I’ve written separately about my theory that she’s a candidate for hoarding disorder. But this is not a story about that. And really, the hoarding disorder interpretation is a bit of a stretch on my part because it tends to come on a year and a half after a sudden and expected loss, not immediately. I still find it fascinating and, in some counter-intuitive way, an intruder coming to take Nita’s husband’s car might actually be an easier way to get rid of the darn thing rather than her having to sell it herself, thereby offering up for sacrifice yet another remnant of him.

Nita is immensely vulnerable now. She can’t drive, for example. She no longer has a driver in her husband. Worse, there are places in her own house where she won’t even go. Nowhere is safe. Life itself is not safe.

She doesn’t even consider this her own house anymore. She came by it in a slightly underhanded way, she feels. We learn this via backstory — she was the other woman who broke up her husband’s first marriage. Especially in earlier eras, ‘the other woman’ was always blamed in such situations.

Munro reminds us of that, but doesn’t parse the unfairness of it. That’s up to us. Munro simply tells the reader that Nita lost her office job because of it. Rich kept his job, but — perhaps only in his head — he feels he missed out on a promotional opportunity that was owed to him. (This is how we know he’s a white man — his sense of entitlement.) Important to remember: It wasn’t young Nita who cheated. It was the husband, who betrayed the trust of his first wife.

This relationship history (her moral shortcoming) is Nita’s ghost — an event from the distant past affects her psychology in the present. Munro weaves this backstory concisely throughout the story of the present. (Is there such a word as frontstory?)

DESIRE

In a bereft state does anyone truly desire anything, other than to reverse time and get their loved one back? Since no one can do anything about that, this deep desire doesn’t make for a satisfying story.

As for the surface level desire, living from day to day, Nita would like to clean up the house. She knows she needs to deal with the logistics of losing her husband. She needs to sell his car, for instance.

Clearing out his stuff means she has to go into parts of the house that scare her, which neatly joins ‘desire’ to ‘shortcoming’. (All of the best stories do this.)

This is what she wants to do in this particular story, or rather in the second portion, when she’s starting to come out of her Shock.

OPPONENT

Nita’s husband has let her down. He was supposed to stick around and take care of her. Rich is her opponent.

But rather than be angry at Rich, who is dead, and who didn’t die to spite her, Nita invents a proxy upon which to paste the Anger stage of her grief.

Perhaps within the real world of the story a man does come to check the meter and then leaves. I think Nita makes up the story about the serial killer intruder. She either imagines this scenario while the man is down in her cellar, or she imagines it later, after the police officer tells her that her husband’s car has been stolen. Perhaps the police officer and the stolen car is imagined as well. But since it’s not melodramatic, I decode that section as real.

The main clue: Nita feels vulnerable in her own home, ‘unable to sit down until he’s gone’. When this meter reader arrives and apologises for startling her, insisting on removing his shoes, this is completely at odds with the man he reveals himself to be. That’s not to deny that trickster criminals exist, of course. Besides that, I find this story implausible on a literal level. And a crime story about an encounter with a psychopathic murderer doesn’t fit well into Munro’s oeuvre. An imaginary encounter fits much better.

In fact, I believe Nita is a fairytale trickster and the intruder is a fairytale fool. Poison itself is very fairytale, harking back to stories of witchcraft. Hence, I propose the incident is imagined.

In case we missed that Nita has invented this story for the (imaginary) intruder, she makes sure to tell us, which is an interesting choice. Some critics have said that if she hadn’t told us, we’d never have known.

But the very idea that it would be easy to kill someone with rhubarb leaves is a bit of a stretch in itself. Sure, they are poisonous, but you’d have to eat a LOT of it. So much that you’d definitely know you were having it:

The chemical villain in rhubarb leaves is oxalic acid, a compound also found in Swiss chard, spinach, beets, peanuts, chocolate, and tea. Chard and spinach, in fact, contain even more oxalic acid than rhubarb—respectively, 700 and 600 mg/100 g, as opposed to rhubarb’s restrained 500. Rhubarb’s killer reputation apparently dates to World War I, when rhubarb leaves were recommended on the home front as an alternative food. At least one death was reported in the literature, an event that rhubarb has yet to live down.

Oxalic acid does its dirty work by binding to calcium ions and yanking them out of circulation. In the worst-case scenario, it removes enough essential calcium from the blood to be lethal; in lesser amounts, it forms insoluble calcium oxalate, which can end up in the kidneys as kidney stones. In general, however, rhubarb leaves don’t pose much of a threat. Since a lethal dose of oxalic acid is somewhere between 15 and 30 grams, you’d have to eat several pounds of rhubarb leaves at a sitting to reach a toxic oxalic acid level, which is a lot more rhubarb leaves than most people care to consume.

National Geographic

(Did the guy who died on the war front really die from rhubarb leaves? Or was it perhaps something else entirely…?)

PLAN

Imaginatively, Nita’s plan is to convince the murderer that she is also a murderer. If they each keep the other’s confidence, he may choose to let her live for a while longer.

BIG STRUGGLE

As I’ve already proposed, the kitchen is the Battle scene, but it’s a proxy for the psychology of grief.

(The real Opponent is Nita’s dead husband, who isn’t there and so cannot take the blame.)

ANAGNORISIS

Nita realises how very much she misses her husband. This probably marks the moment where Nita moves past Anger into something darker but more real (Depression).

I found myself lingering on the following sentence, absorbing the weight of it:

Rich. Rich. Now she knew what it was to miss him. Like having the air sucked out of the sky.

NEW SITUATION

Unless we interpret the intruder as a dream sequence, how to explain why Nita wouldn’t tell the police about him?

The policeman (who I interpret as real within the story) gives Nita a ‘stern lecture’ about leaving keys in a car. He puts the wind up her, when she really doesn’t need that. He has underestimated how vulnerable she already feels. The story ends with “You never know”, repeated.

Then again, perhaps Nita finds it comforting on some level to imagine the worst almost happened to her in her own kitchen, yet didn’t.

Imagining worst case scenarios is one common way of coping with fear. I notice it especially when women are advised to buy weaponry for self-protection. People are quick to suggest this, thinking a gun in the handbag can save you. The statistics don’t hold up. Your own gun is far more likely to get you killed than to kill your assailant. Yet we like to imagine that if we only concoct a strong enough plan, then that plan will protect us, if worst comes to worst.

If only. If only. Stories about the ‘if only’ are emotionally resonant.

Likewise, Nita has a plan for living in her house as a single, ailing old woman. If this meter reader who startled her at the door does turn out to be a psychopathic murderer on the run, she’ll tell him she is, too. She’ll draw on a past event and tell him as catharsis. They’ll build empathy, she’ll give him the car (because she needs to get rid of it anyhow) and he’ll leave her be.

That’ll definitely work.

We know our worst-case-scenario imaginings won’t work, yet we imagine them anyway.

OTHER WRITING TECHNIQUES IN “FREE RADICALS”

the narrative pause

Apart from the story nested inside a dream, there’s an especially noteworthy technique Munro uses in this story. She speeds us up then applies the brakes.

A little while ago I started looking more carefully at how stories are paced. I’d read Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode.

According to that continuum, the slowest pace a narrative can achieve is the Pause. In a film, that’d be a freeze frame. But how is the ‘freeze frame’ achieved in the case of the written word?

Alice Munro uses two separate techniques for achieving the Pause in “Free Radicals”.

  1. She describes what is Not rather than what Is. Nita walks into the rooms of her house and all she notices is that her husband is not there.
  2. The intruder has a photographs. Well, two photographs actually — the second is gruesome and produced as a jump scare. When the narrator describes that photo, the narration is now on a different kind of Pause. (This is a technique known as ekphrasis — writing about art used to be very popular and a subgenre in its own right. Before artworks and photographs were commonplace, that is.)

These deliberate pauses slow the story right down to a standstill, yet at other parts of the story we get summary. This is Munro speeding the story up then slamming on the brakes. Psychologically, Munro is replicating the feeling of grief. At times there’s the never-ending weight of it, the feeling it will never leave you. Then there’s the looking back in time, realising how fast life seems to have passed you by.

TRAIN MOTIF AS FATE

Which brings me to trains. Alice Munro is a big fan of trains. A writer can eke a lot of symbolism out of trains, for sure.

What about the train thread in this story? First, the sexe en plein air near the tracks, between Nita and Rich. Later, the train reappears and now it is a symbol of fate.

“You wait till I say. I walked the railway track. Never seen a train. I walked all the way to here and never seen a train.”
“There’s hardly ever a train.”

The train track itself led the murderer to Nita’s house. There was nothing she could do to stop him. This fate was set in place the moment she started the affair with Rich. (And even that was probably fate.)

It is comforting, sometimes, to think that certain events set our lives in motion and that there was nothing we could possibly have done to change them. I watched an episode of Insight (with Jennie Brockie) once in which mothers talked about losing their young children. One woman stood out as different from the others. She appeared to be dealing much better than they were with the loss of her daughter, who was pushed off some train tracks into the path of an oncoming train. She reasoned it like this: The child was only given so much time on earth. And when her time was up, it was up.

I wish I could believe that. I think that view would be helpful, more than the view that our choices determine everything, in which case our decisions could imaginatively extend our own lives, or the lives of our loved ones. If only we had lived life differently.

THE TITLE

Its title suggests an additional version of the operations of possibility-space and its constitution. These radicals are highly reactive, which makes them likely to take part in chemical reactions, but only in so far as they do it according to their own pre-coded set of possibilities. Being an atom with unpaired electrons, the radicals seek balance by stealing an electron from another atom that then becomes a free radical. A chain reaction is caused. As the metaphor for a story that features a woman visited by a dangerous murderer, there seems to be a chain reaction caused by a miserable childhood. However, it is suggested in the story that bad or good are not features so easily dug out, and as the metaphor suggests chemical reactions can be both bad and good.

Ulrica Skagert

The health significance of this title will probably get lost over time, but I definitely remember a time when health media was all about avoiding free radicals. Certain wonder foods would get rid of them. Nobody but scientists actually knew what they even were, except we knew they were very bad.

Then there was an about face, as with all dietary messages. Now we were told that a certain number of free radicals are essential for human health. (The same applies to cholesterol, viruses and a bunch of other ‘bad’ things.)

Free radicals have long been associated with tissue damage. A new study shows that they also promote regeneration.

an article from 2018

Antioxidants may encourage the spread of lung cancer rather than prevent it

Science news from 2019

As part of all this scaremongering, the public were told that free radicals cause cancer. Hence the cancer link in this story. But there’s also the feeling of betrayal at work here, I think. Nita was betrayed by by the message that red wine is good. She still got cancer. (This explains the constant reference to drinking, too.)

In the early 2000s, Alice Munro herself underwent major heart surgery. She came through it well, but has said in interview that she couldn’t understand why a major artery was fully blocked. She’d done exactly as she thought she was supposed to — she ate well and exercised daily. Her doctor told her she was simply old. She had to face up to the fact of ageing. I hesitate before mapping an author’s life too closely onto a the life of their fictional inventions, because it’s never a one-to-one correspondence. But I feel that experience of heart surgery must have partly inspired this story.

We are all betrayed eventually, even if we manage to avoid health news parsed by the media. Old age is one long betrayal. We are betrayed by loved ones dying around us. We are betrayed by our own bodies. Long before that, we are betrayed by this message that if only we are sufficiently well-behaved, if only we can control ourselves, then we can dodge death.

See how this all links up to the kitchen scene? Nita dodged death. But only for now.

WHAT TO SAY TO THE RECENTLY BEREAVED

  1. I’m Sorry You’re Suffering, from Persephone.
  2. When It’s Not God’s Plan: 8 Things to Say to Grieving Nonbelievers from AlterNet
  3. What To Say and Do For The Recently Bereaved at Medium, who recommends this book:
  4. Joan Didion’s essay on grief

MAYBE NOT

A dead creature is in every respect identical to a live one, except that the electrochemical processes that motivate it have ceased.

from Here on Earth (by Tim Flannery)

A Brief History Of Science Fiction

Along with fantasy, horrors and Westerns, science fiction is one of the highly metaphorical categories of story.

SCIENCE FICTION A BRIEF HISTORY

WHAT IS SCIENCE FICTION?

THE UNIVERSAL EPIC

Science Fiction is about human evolution on the grandest scale, literally the universal epic.

Science fiction stories often use the myth form, not only because myth is about the journey but also because myth is the story form that explores the most fundamental human distinctions. What Is Meant By Mythic Structure?

Science fiction is the biggest of all genres, as huge as the universe and beyond. That’s why it’s so notoriously difficult to write well. It has a broad, loose structure that covers vast scales of space and time.

Science fiction is the most creative genre, because you can take nothing for granted. The writer must literally create everything, including the space-time rules by which human life itself operates.

THE MODERN PROPHECY

Howard Suber points out that science fiction is the modern ‘prophecy’ story, which has been popular forever.

As is true for any prophecy, one must understand not only the specifics of what is predicted but also the yearnings and fears they express.

— Suber

THE FICTION OF IDEAS

Ray Bradbury broadly defines science fiction as ‘the fiction of ideas’. He also thinks science fiction as a genre is not taken seriously enough.

Science fiction is the fiction of ideas. […] Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible. […] The mainstream hasn’t been paying attention to all the changes in our culture during the last fifty years. The major ideas of our time—developments in medicine, the importance of space exploration to advance our species—have been neglected. The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery. […] I often use the metaphor of Perseus and the head of Medusa when I speak of science fiction. Instead of looking into the face of truth, you look over your shoulder into the bronze surface of a reflecting shield. Then you reach back with your sword and cut off the head of Medusa. Science fiction pretends to look into the future but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us. So you have a ricochet vision, a ricochet that enables you to have fun with it, instead of being self-conscious and superintellectual.

— Ray Bradbury

FEATURES OF SCIENCE FICTION

A typical science fiction film has a form as predictable as a Western, and is made up of elements which are as classic as the saloon brawl, the blonde schoolteacher from the East, and the gun duel on the deserted main street.

STORYWORLD

Science fiction is defined more by setting details than by other story elements.

Place

Sci Fi is often set on other planets, in outer space, or on a future version of Earth. But these settings are not limited to sci-fi. In war films, also, the setting takes place on ‘a front’ — in sci fi and Westerns it takes place on ‘a frontier’. Dramatically, these are equivalent places. At the front/frontier, the organised forces of society are weak, get in the way, or trap the hero.

Technology is a major component of the setting.

Time

Sci Fi requires an extrapolated or theoretical future science in order to fit the genre.

SCIENCE FICTION AND GENRE

GENRE BLENDS

As long as there is science, technology and a future/alternative history, the conventions of almost any other genre may be blended, including comedy, action-adventure and mystery.

HARD VS SOFT SCIENCE FICTION

An ongoing debate in the science fiction community is about the merits of “hard” vs “soft” science fiction. And the role of gender is significant here. 

Hard science fiction tends to be a boys’ club, while soft science fiction can be seen as more accommodating to female writers. There is a perceived hierarchy of merit operating in these classifications as well: “hard” sounds masculine and virile, while “soft” connotes a weaker, less potent, feminised form of the genre. This is why “hard” science fiction is more likely to be considered among the “best” science fiction, and why the “soft” science fiction that more women tend to write doesn’t often make the cut.The Digital Reader explains that SF written by women is more likely to be called fantasy:

In 2013, the judges of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Britain’s most prestigious science fiction prize, disqualified a number of submitted books on the basis that they were not “technically” science fiction. They were deemed by the judges to be fantasy – a genre that does not require the realism of science – which has twice as many female authors compared to science fiction. As Damien Walters has observed, women’s writing is “dismissed as fantasy, while the fantasies of men are granted some higher status as science fiction”.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY

The major distinction between fantasy and science fiction is, simply, that science fiction uses one, or a very, very few new postulates, and develops the rigidly consistent logical consequences of these limited postulates. Fantasy makes its rules as it goes along . . . The basic nature of fantasy is “The only rule is, make up a new rule any time you need one!” The basic rule of science fiction is “Set up a basic proposition—then develop its consistent, logical consequences.”

— John W. Campbell (1910–1971), American science fiction writer, editor of Analog Science Fiction and Fact

Many disagree with this distinction. That was written in the 1960s and speculative fiction has come a long way since then. Obviously this explanation has implications for the gender divide described above.