Monday, November 21, 2011

Deconstruction: Night of the Living Dead Christian 10

It's the psychology of the thing...

Welcome to the detailed (and, unfortunately, spoiler-rich) review of Night of the Living Dead Christian. For a briefer review that doesn't give anything away, read the main review. If you're curious, here's a discussion of why I'm doing this.

This is a rather long bit of reaction, so I'm breaking it up into sections. Hopefully that will allow for more bite-sized discussions. So, now that you've all been fairly warned, we'll pick up the deconstruction after the jump:

The short version: Narrator-Matt has discovered various odd people in his neighborhood. One of them is a werewolf named Luther. Along with the Mad Scientist Dr. Culbetron and the Hibbs 3000 android, they are trying to help Luther find a cure for his condition. In the course of doing so, they have stopped to talk to Lara, Matt's next door vampire neighbor, who has recommended a church that is helping her regain her humanity. Luther has a history with this church and refuses to go, so they try a psychologist instead; and having dropped him off there, Narrator-Matt returns to his neighborhood and talks some more with Lara about vampirism. (If you're still lost, it might be a good idea to go back and start at the beginning.)

Following this conversation, Narrator-Matt walks past his own house (again, absentee father) and goes to check on Luther. Luther greets him at the door in full-on Wolfman mode: neatly dressed and calm, but furry and with all his fangs and claws on display. He explains that the therapist has convinced him that he can't stop being a werewolf, so he just has to accept it and use behavioral training to avoid the really bad parts of werewolf behavior. Which... just... no.

I'm a little unsure of the timing here, because it sure looks like Narrator-Matt dropped Luther off with the Psychologist, had a brief conversation about vampires with Lara, and then walked over to Luther's house - a timeline that probably wouldn't even allow Luther to finish a single session and get back home. Luther, however, is acting like he's been in therapy for quite a while, and apparently he's had time to call his wife and invite her over to see the new, improved, unabashedly-wolfy Luther. But that's comparatively minor. Here's my main issue:

...I just can't read these sections as anything other than rote bashing of mental health professionals - they do strange and silly things to learn about their patients, they think they know more than they do, and their recommendations are useless if not completely lunatic. Sure, there's a token protest by Narrator-Matt earlier in the book - he's known people who have been helped by therapy, he even has friends who are psychologists - but it comes off as a sort of boilerplate attempt at plausible deniability. (You've probably heard variations of it yourself: "I'm not a racist. Some of my best friends are black. But if you've seen how those people live...")

To be fair, the book is supposed to be humorous, and Narrator-Matt has (for reasons best known to himself) taken Luther to a psychologist that Matt himself doesn't particularly like and didn't find particularly helpful. That doesn't really excuse the depiction, though, because if this is an attempt at humor, it's a sort of humor that relies on a rather prejudiced caricature of mental health professionals. It may actually be more charitable to assume that the author is trying to indicate that counseling might be okay for some people, but we know that Jesus is the only real solution to our problems - and that Author-Matt simply mangles it in the sales job. (Come to that, the two explanations are not mutually exclusive.)

These two section (this one, and the earlier one) together probably came closer than anything else to completely destroying the book for me. And I realize that I'm not pulling samples from the text to illustrate just how unkind the depiction really is (for example, I left out the part where Narrator-Matt describes his counselor as a [metaphorical] harpy) but if anyone wants to look at this in more detail we can do so in the comments.


  1. Since Geds' comments on this section, this is the part I've been dreading seeing you talk about, because it's pretty clear that I didn't convey well what I wanted to say. You and Geds both are reading what I wrote and making absolutely reasonable conclusions from what the text says. So, from my point of view, this is me completely miscommunicating myself to the point where I can only admit that's a fair reading of the text, in fact, a better reading of the text than my own preferred (intended) reading. It honestly makes me feel sick to my stomach and wish I could go back in time and explain this all to myself so I could re-write it.

    So, in summation: ugh.

    Backstory/context of this colossal mess:

    1) What I actually was trying to say: behavioral psychology, especially when practiced in such a way that behavior is modified but underlying motivations and issues are not addressed, is insufficient. I've met one counselor in my life who does this, and heard of one other, and they cause a lot of damage. Given Luther's situation I thought it would be an interesting thing to have him fall into... but see point 4 below for poor Ms. van Pelt.

    2) My own emotional issues with two rather screwy psychologists enter in here, as my negative associations with them certainly color things to the point that I can see I wasn't reading my own text in a way that the typical reader would... all the context and background of my own experience is neither common nor sufficiently described in the book.

    3) I actually love counselors/psychologists/psychiatrists and regularly refer people to them in my job. My god-sister is a gifted counselor. I didn't mean to have a boiler plate-sounding comment about this, but in context of the rest of the story I see how that would come across that way.

    4) In one of the original drafts, the whole novel was told in therapy sessions, which gave a lot more opportunity to show where Matt-the-Narrator was being ridiculous in his attitude toward his therapist and also to show her actual profession at work (in which it would have been clear that Luther had misunderstood her instructions). It turned out to be too limiting to try to tell the whole book this way, so I eventually discarded it, but wanted to keep Ms. van Pelt... and while the reader has no way in the current form to see her as I see her in my mind, I completely missed that.

    5) I thought that Ms. van Pelt's name would be a clue to most readers as to her crabbiness/lovable nature, but such has not been the case.

    All that to say, on the topic of mental health workers, I agree with you and not the schmuck who wrote this book.

  2. Yeah, I kind of figured (from some of your earlier comments) that this piece in particular really hadn't come out the way you wanted it to.

    Point 4 - The Ghosts of Drafts Past - is particularly interesting to me, since I'm having a lot of similar problems in trying to create a second draft of one of my own projects. The story needs some rather radical revisions, but the the way the characters were originally conceived... well, they keep fighting against the new storyline. "Frustrating" doesn't seem quite sufficient to explain that experience.

    And I completely missed the allusion of Ms. van Pelt's name - which is, frankly, kind of embarrassing. I do wonder if it might have been more evident on a second reading, though I don't think that makes much difference for our purposes here.

  3. In the very first draft of NLDC, I had Matt-the-narrator teamed up with a gang of neighborhood kids (all named for famous horror movie directors or actors) who were running around trying to kill all the monsters. My biggest problem was that the junior high kids kept running off and doing things other than what I needed them to do. They were hooligans. The only thing that really survived from that draft was the attack on Luther's house with the silver coins and the net. Originally there were about five junior high kids running around during it as well. I had to cut them all out, unfortunately, to make the book move anywhere.

    One of my professors, Percival Everett, told me that he wrote more than 800 pages on one of his novels (Cutting Lisa) that he threw out before he found the section/story/characters he wanted. That sounded crazy to me at the time, but now I get it. Okay, it still sounds a little crazy. But I probably threw out about 80 pages between all my drafts.

  4. I also had to cut this Mexican priest/luchadore/super hero who was chasing Culbetron and Hibbs to get back the Communion elements they had stolen. He didn't speak any English, and I had all these hilarious (to me, anyway) scenes planned with him. But he just took things too far in a different direction. I'm hoping to use him when I write my "wake up Christians and realize that 'illegal immigrants' are human beings" novel one day. I guess that's the great thing about cutting things from your stories: recycling.

  5. Yeah, I can see where that wouldn't have fit very well. It probably would have been funny, though.


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