Hater by David Moody: I’m not a fan
There’s really nothing so frustrating for a writer as to come up with a great idea, than to find out it’s already been done. It can be as simple as a line of dialogue—you thought you’d come up with a cool line, but try publishing it and you’re Cassandra Claire. And even if you go ahead with your idea despite its similarity, you invite comparison to an entirely different work, like when Devin Grayson’s Rape of Nightwing story (c’mon, that’s all anyone’s going to remember it as) had to suffer, and I do mean suffer, comparison to Frank Miller’s classic Daredevil story Born Again.
But there’s some opportunity there as well. If you know where one author zigged, you can always zag, and it’s always reassuring to know that when some hack has a similar idea to yours, they write it completely differently. Badly, in fact.
Oh, is this a review for Hater by David Moody? What a coincidence.
I first knew about Hater only from the premise—ordinary people start going homicidally insane. It’s an intriguing idea; you can see why horror maestro Guillermo del Toro optioned it as one of the five million movies he intends to make once human cloning is perfected. Cut to years later, wherein I have a story idea that requires an apocalyptic scenario. I want to do something new—not another zombie apocalypse—and had the idea of ordinary people “Twisting,” or Rob Bottining into killer monsters. On the surface, they’re similar ideas, so I figured I might as well find out where Moody zigged.
The answer being, off a cliff.
To start off, the title. It’s inaccurate. We’re given numerous scenes set from the perspective of the “Hater” and they’re driven to kill by feelings of revulsion and fear, not a sudden overwhelming hate. For another thing, Hater is a ubiquitous slang term. It’s like writing a novel about zombie children called “The Cool Kids.” Because they’re kids and they’re dead, thus cool. But you’d have a hard time taking something seriously if the fearsome monsters were referred to as that, right? This book was published in 2006. The most popular definition of Hater was added to Urban Dictionary in February 2005. This tells me that no one in the publishing industry knows how to use Google.
Although, I will be having a group in my novel refer to the monsters as “Haters,” if only so the hero can say “Why, do they not like Katy Perry?” Who burnt?
Just to be incredibly egocentric, I’ll list ways in which Hater differs from my own project, and why these “zigs” are so poorly-executed that I’m tempted to list them as bad choices altogether.
First off, most zombie stories (which this essentially is) start in media res, with the zombie apocalypse already in progress. The government has broken down, the shit has hit the fan, the fat lady has sung. Two entirely separate stories, 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead, used the conceit of the hero being in a coma to skip over all the boring stuff. There’s a simple explanation for this: the zombie genre is really about normal people and how they respond when pushed to the limit, and no one gets pushed to the limit after one week without the internet. It makes them look wussy.
Another reason is that the big responses to cataclysm are usually the same, across genre. Either people are trying to get out of dodge or holing up. There are riots. Faceless stormtroopers threaten. Looting abounds. The government seems to be withholding information. It’s very hard to get much mileage out of these clichés, because they’ve been seen so many times. The way they’re depicted in Dawn of the Dead and Night of the Living Dead are downright iconic. How are you going to top Romero at the height of his game?
What Hater does is it starts with the first Hating, then goes from day to day to day. It doesn’t skip ahead at all. Which means we get a lot of scenes of day-to-day life as our heroes sloooooowly figure out something is wrong and barricade themselves in their apartment to slooooooowly wait for help.
Now you’re going to scream at me like I’m a Michael Bay fan and tell me I can’t appreciate rising tension or mystery or dread. The thing is, that’s the entire point of a horror novel, the slow burn. A movie can tread water with shock value and jump scares, but you can’t really do that in prose because oh my god a psycho just jumped out of nowhere and chopped my head off!
See? Not scary. And sure, you can make an end-run around this with loving descriptions of gore and rape—your ‘splatterpunk’ books—but that’s not really scary, that’s just helping a blind person browse Rotten.com. “And here’s a guy who blew his head off… yup, his brain is all over the place… yeah, it’s really gross.”
Only Moody didn’t get the memo. He starts every chapter with a Hating. This quickly becomes repetitive, as every scene is exactly the same. “John and Jim are doing something. Suddenly, Jim goes crazy and kills John. What’s up with that?” It completely ruins any possible mystique for the Haters in favor of cheap splatter, and very few of the scenarios even draw a visceral reaction. (The Hating that happens during a vasectomy ends exactly as you’d expect it to.) And needless to say, we don’t care about any of these characters, since they show up for at most a page before getting killed.
Still, this prolonged first act could be handy to establish characters, set up later developments, all that good stuff. Look at how movies like Alien and Predator set up a sense of camaraderie in the cast before setting monsters loose on them. Well, here’s where Hater really drops the ball. The protagonist, Daniel, is a complete sad-sack loser. Every waking thought seems to be about how he hates his job, he hates his wife (she won’t put out, dontchaknow), he hates his kids. His kids are brats. His wife’s a harpy. His father-in-law hates him. Repeat ad nauseum. I was willing to give Moody some rope on this, that he was eventually going to make a point about life or society or something, but all he did was shift into bog-standard Harrison Ford “I’ve got to save my daughter!” sentiments by the end.
The thing with a loser protagonist is, there’s only so much misfortune you can drop on them before they become annoying to hear from. That’s why movies with these kind of protagonists usually dive straight into the hero getting an upgrade, or contrast the punishment the hero gets with how sweet and/or clever they are. If a hero reacts to misfortune with wit and charm, we like him. If he just bitches and moans, he’s a whiner. Daniel’s a whiner.
You can’t even feel too sorry for him, since his principle problem is having three kids without the time, energy, or money to properly care for them. Ummm… he does know about birth control, right? No matter how naïve someone is, you’d think after the first kid, they’d figure “Wow, this is hard work! We’re not set up to handle this! We’d better practice rudimentary good sense and use the pill.” Instead, our hero is one of those people you see at Wal-Mart yelling at their seven kids. Newsflash, Walter Cronkite: You’re not such great genetic material that humanity can’t get along without fourteen of your spawn.
But you don’t care about that. Sympathetic characters, intriguing relationships, interesting plot developments, who wants that when you can have gooooooore. That’s all you care about, modern horror fans, right? Look at the cover, it doesn’t convey anything about the plot, just that there will be blood (they probably would’ve titled it that if the name weren’t taken).
Well, gore is just a subset of monsters, and the entire point of the monster is rules. You kill a vampire with a stake through the heart. A Xenomorph starts as a Facehugger, turns into a Chestburster, then ends up as a Drone. Whatever the rules you settle on, they have to be consistent and clear, otherwise your monsters are just naked plot devices, there to dole out gore when the plot’s slowed down.
The rules of the Haters are completely meaningless. They seem simple enough at first. At random, a person will zone out, then suddenly attack the nearest person. And yet, throughout the story characters get mad at each other, only for one to respond to their yelling with “ARE YOU A HATER?” Even though our hero has seen Haters turn multiple times, he still hangs onto this view of Haters as people who exhibit homicidal rage over minor slights, which would frankly make for a better story. It’s an altogether irritating attempt to depict the social breakdown that mass Hating would cause.
Then later, even though the Haters have been shown to have no self-preservation instinct or reason when attacking (one rams his car into a wall just to hit someone), hundreds of Haters are able to be corralled just by waving guns at them. How does that work? “I’LL KILL YOU ALL! NOT EVEN THE CHILDREN WILL BE SPARED!—oh, shit, you’ve got a gun. Sorry, sorry.”
Oh, did I mention that the reason the Haters are being corralled is so that they can be killed in gas chambers? That’s right, Moody’s invoking the greatest atrocity of the 20th century for his silly horror novel.
But the biggest insult comes at the end. Do we learn what’s causing the Haters? Is the problem solved? Do they succeed in killing everyone? Ha ha, fuck you, you have to buy two more books to find out! That’s right, a Hater trilogy. This premise is supposed to sustain itself for three books.
Basically, the entire book has been set-up. We waded through two hundred pages of nothing but premise, only to find out we have to pay another eight bucks to get to the good stuff. And the premise isn’t at all complicated. You could explain it in ten pages. You don’t need to waste an entire book as prequel to presumably more interesting things.
Entering into spoiler territory, the one moment of interest occurs when our hero turns into a Hater. Although we’ve already had twenty vignettes from the Hater’s viewpoint by this time, so we just get more of the same information we’ve already figured out—Haters are motivated by sudden, uncontrollable revulsion and fear. Now, this change could be novel over the course of one book, but are we really meant to buy two more books dedicated to our hero killing innocent people? Not even for an interesting reason, but because of a biological switch that was flipped. By the nature of Haterdom, Daniel can’t even feel remorse for his actions, it’s completely Us or Them for him. That would be a boring side character, let alone a lead.
I don’t have anything against sagas or sequels, but I do hate the notion that every story must be told in three pre-digested chunks, no more, no less, each costing $9.95 plus shipping and handling. Why does this story stop where it does? No conflict has been resolved. No revelation has been made (despite the fact that the story ends with an expository broadcast, the main plot points are “something something DNA” and “a lot of people are Haters. A third of everyone, even!” What the dramatic difference is between a third of mankind going homicidal and a tenth seems pretty academic).
I hate these stories where nothing happens in them that couldn’t be glossed over at the beginning or end of another installment. Terminator: Salvation comes around and all it accomplishes as a story is to say “John Connor looks like Batman now.” It’s all so pointless, and it takes the fundamental point of literature, to tell a story, and circumnavigates it to get to some sort of Ponzi scheme.
Authors, consider this: before you start an epic trilogy sure to be adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster starring that dreamy Bradley Cooper, does it really need to be exactly three books long? I know, it’s like a three-act structure, just with an entire book as each act, but is your story really so complicated that you need a whole book to introduce characters and establish conflict, or are you just being long-winded? Look at your favorite trilogy and ask, does the first chapter tell a complete story in and of itself, with room for more, or does it just exist as a support system for the stories you really want to tell down the line? Because that “first book of boring stuff” you have to write to get to the good stuff is probably going to be “the only book of boring stuff” to the audience.