William Vitka is a journalist and author. He’s worked for CBSNews.com, Stuff Magazine, GameSpy and NYPost.com. He’s been published in On Spec, The Red Penny Papers, Necrotic Tissue, and Everyday Weirdness.
His debut novel “Infected” is goddamn ridiculous.
He lives in New York City.
by William Vitka
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature.
That quote from Lovecraft should be familiar to every reader of fantastic fiction—whether or not they like, or feel allowed to like—that reclusive weirdo from Rhode Island. Who I unrepentantly admire—as a writer, at least—not necessarily as the broken human being he was.
If it’s wildly unfamiliar to you, you’d be doing yourself a favor if you read the essay it came from. If you’ve decided to take upon your shoulders the kneejerk cross of, “Well, he was a racist garbage pile, so who cares if he almost single-handedly created the modern horror/scifi/weird tale, I ain’t reading squat.” Well…you’re a bit dim. And we wouldn’t get along anyway. I bet you’re no fun at all at parties. So shove off.
No, you pay for your own cab.
I don’t even remember inviting you.
Ah, I broke the fourth wall there, but you can see where even a tiny interaction like that is a kind of invasion. Hell, if you’re still reading, I’m invading your mind. And maybe you’re trying to figure out what voice this should be read in.
Personally, I’d vote for Christopher Walken. But now his voice is invading my brain.
If we take Lovecraft’s words to be true (they are), then our greatest fear—as a species, planet, nation, community, individual—boils down to an unending dread of invasion.
“Invasion,” of course, is the taking or trespassing or treading-upon of what’s “ours” by the unknown. The “other.”
Which, if you’re a modern human—as I am coincidentally—can be almost any damn thing.
Bacteria on the subway. Ye gods. I’ve never met those prokaryotic bastards. And there’s another dead hobo on the F-train. Don’t get me started on crappy air recycling in office buildings (our modern human filing cabinets). It’s 2015 and motherf—-n Legionnaires’ Disease has invaded and killed twelve in New York City. So far. Because I guess cleaning air filters is just too much of a burden.
Sperm invades an egg and makes more of us and sometimes makes little squishy humans.
Sometimes those little squishy humans are invaded by addiction and depression.
Sometimes those little squishy humans are invaded by hope and determination.
My point is that the term “invasion” can encompass the vast majority of interactions in our lives.
Especially as a species. We knew what an “invasion” was before we had a term for it.
Our ancestors, naked and “unaccommodated”—as Shakespeare put it, when a king stood with what he thought was a poor man against the raging elements—duly stood against the shapeless threats to themselves.
They stood against invasion.
Those shadows moving along the horizon as the light faded and predators were on the prowl. Rain. Titanic, unknowable forces in the clouds. Those bright streaks of light. No name for it. No name for any of it. Just terror. Pure terror that one of the tribe could be stolen away by the fang-toothed invader. Terror that the jagged crags of blue shooting from above might abort any chance the humans had at survival.
We come, thankfully, of the brave who stayed and bore out that torment.
The ones who tried to appease the darkness or feed it, well, I suspect that’s where politicians come from.
But the core idea of terror of invasion bears the whole thing out. We carry it on our shoulders. In our genes. We know it and fear it. We’ve never had a hard time naming it.
Cultural fascists and fear-mongers in the pulpits and at the podiums have always been able to shriek about any number of things that threaten to invade and destroy “our very way of life.”
Those things could be alternate religions. Books. Comic books. Rock music. Metal music. Video games… I mean, we’re kinda pathetic as a species in this regard. And we’re all susceptible to it in various forms of Cyclical Stupidity.
The heyday, of course, was 1950s America. On account of communism and science (which were never particularly solid bedfellows to begin with) being apparently terrifying to readers and viewers.
“Ah! Those snatchers of bodies are invading! They want us all to be the same. Other political ideas scare me!”
“Ah! Those ants are huge and nuclear and also work within a caste system in which there is no individuality. That scares me!”
The crux of it all, over decades, is: I don’t understand [thing].
“Oh, no. [thing] is invading.”
The terror is exchangeable.
The fear is constant.
Lions and bears give way to superstition. Superstition gives way to wariness of ethnicity and nationality and religion and politicization.
Which never quite goes away, but we hide it in commercials and judgments on which cars you drive. Shove the fear of those dirty socialists into real hard “capitalism.” Because if you want to fight those North Koreans, you need a Ford.
Which keeps the whole thing going.
The most fascinating case study is War of the Worlds and its various incarnations at various dates, since each iteration reflects the zeitgeist of the moment.
It was first a serial, then book (1897/1898) that touched on British colonialism and fears. Then a radio play (1938) that exposed American denial and confusion. Then it was a film (1953) that epitomized alien invasions and shocked US audiences by showing that our might could be overwhelmed. Then it was a television series (1988) that was bleak and cynical as hell. Then in 2005, it became a Spielberg-Cruise jaunt that managed to look impressive but be a wholly shallow creation.
Nowadays, “alien invasion” stories haven’t quite ceased to exist, but what was the last truly great—or even bombastic or made a lotta money—one you saw in theaters? Hollywood certainly seems to have lost interest in it.
Video games, for example, have surpassed most forms of media in terms of storytelling and entertainment capability. One of the greatest games ever made—Half-Life 2—deals specifically with the aftermath of an alien invasion and the enslavement of the human race. It remains amazing.
Another factor is: The 2010s are a different beast than other decades. Things change. Obvious and almost stupid to point out, but obligatory at this point in the thousand-word gibberish I’ve been spouting about culture and ideas of “invasion.”
The 1950s had Americans reeling from World War II. We stopped evil. Together—or so it felt at the time for the majority. The unknown “other” was communism. The unknown was un-American. Mahalo, McCarthy.
The 1960s was the fallout of idealism. The slowly-burning realization that even though we’d stopped evil in Europe, there was still evil waiting in our own country. And let’s try this Peace & Love stuff.
The 1970s was the slowly-burning realization that Peace & Love is also utter garbage. That it had failed. Spectacularly. Pathetically. That “high water mark—where the wave finally broke, and rolled back,” as per Hunter Thompson.
The 1980s birthed, culturally, true American cynicism. One that’d been boiling. Ready to go right over the lip of the pot into cascade after cascade of blood. Punk. Metal. Gore. Barbed wire. The 1980s saw Americans get mean. And enjoy being vicious, even if it was underground for a while.
The 1990s carried that cross. Kept it going. So we split. Along a jagged blue line like the lightning our ancestors saw. Where half watched our invasion of Iraq—the first truly televised war, thanks to 24/7 cable. Tracers burning through the sky. Fireworks. Special effects—and how we stomped Saddam and thought: Christ, that was fun. We needed a nice decisive ruination to get our spirits up. And the other half thought: What was the damn point of that? The first Iraq War was a nice, neat, tidy, three-day American boner slapped across the sand.
The success of Independence Day makes some perverse sense in that light.
None of this is to say the later Clinton era was better. He balanced the budget, sure. And he was jokingly referred to as the “first black president” by late-night comedians whose writers were/are imbeciles. But he did bomb a lotta innocent people.
“Hey, that Bosnian hospital looks suspiciously like a rebel hideout.”
“Turns out that hospital looking thing was, in fact, a hospital.”
“I balanced the budget. We good.”
As Lewis Black said, “If you looked up to Bush or Clinton, you probably looked up to your f—–g high school principal.”
Now we’re at the 2000s. And the question in my own mind is: Do I even bother to mention 9/11? You’d have to be some sort of daft moron to think the Twin Tower attacks didn’t shake the hell out of America. Plus, I’m a New Yorker. I remember the Twin Towers. I remember how the skyline looked.
9/11 was my first day of class at college in Boston. I woke up just before the first plane hit.
I was putting my jeans on when my roommate, Steve, said from the top bunk, “Something happened in New York. Plane hit a building.”
I waved him off. My thoughts only being on getting to class.
I ambled through the Boston Commons and made my way up to my media studies course.
Except nobody was there. Save one dude whose name I don’t remember.
I shook the mouse at the computer to wake up the monitor. The homepage was set to CNN. A fat red banner read PLANE HITS WORLD TRADE CENTER.
My teacher appeared breathless at the door. He told me classes were cancelled. That America was under attack. I had to go back to my dorm.
I blinked at the computer screens. Squinted.
Thought: That’s… Nah, nah. That’s just some screw up. Total denial and delusion.
Until I got outside. And I joined thousands of others in some awful maelstrom of confusion and disarray. Nobody knew what was going on.
The only thing that united any of us was complete terror.
I asked one of the horseback cops, “I’m from New York. What’s happening?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. Get inside.”
I got south of the Commons. I didn’t go to my dorm right away. I went to an old church. I didn’t go inside. I smoked for an eternity outside. Just fidgeted with ash on my fingers.
It felt like the right place to be. I was raised Irish Catholic. Alter boy. All that.
So I thought… Maybe like Gene Barry in the original War of the Worlds… Maybe this was where I was supposed to be. Find my Ann Robinson while my city burned.
I don’t know.
To be alive and aware and trying to make sense of anything on 9/11 was to know true chaos.
I waited for someone to say something to me, and nobody did. Nobody tried to make sense of the situation.
I stood and I smoked, and when it was too much to bear, I left.
I went back to my dorm and I wept for hours.
The only reason I tell that story here is because in those moments I happily joined the Cyclical Stupid. I joined a different kind of “invasion” then—one of xenophobia and fear and hive mentality.
At eighteen, I wanted an American assault on the Middle East. I wanted genocide. I wanted it glassed. Nuked. I wanted it burned the way they burned my home.
The “invasion” remains alive and well.
And it comes in different flavors.
The Walking Dead isn’t popular on account of it being an invasion story—even though it very much is—it’s just that humans are terrified of other humans.
We are the “other” to one another.
It will always terrify us.
And it will never die.