THE LUMINOUS DEAD: down in the underground, you'll find someone true

I came to Caitlin Starling’s THE LUMINOUS DEAD via any number of reviews and recaps promising me deep, vicious horror underground, and all of them were right. What I didn’t get prepared for was exactly how somatic the experience was, how clearly I felt an echo of the protagonist’s physical experience as she delves deeper and deeper into the unnamed cave that has eaten so many people already.

I’m into the horrors of the deep. Fans of Internet mythologia will be familiar with the tale of Ted the Caver, which up until the very end has the validating ring of possibility; fans of oh god this really happened underground horror will be able to tell the story of Floyd Collins’s bad death in a crevice underneath Kentucky. There’s instance after instance of humans being caught or lost in the deep passages under the earth, and storytellers have always capitalized on this profound horror. Look at Junji Ito’s The Enigma of Amigara Fault for the clearest and most chilling distillation of this particular fear.

Starling doesn’t rest on this particular coasting tide of horror. What sets her caving protagonist aside is the fact that she — Gyre Price — is cocooned inside a self-contained suit which renders her capable of exploring the underground passages for an indefinite period, powered by batteries, recycling her own waste and relying on nutrition via external cartridges of nutrient paste injected into her gut via an indwelling catheter port. The only connection Gyre has to the world outside the dark maze of the cave is her handler Em, a woman with her own agenda and purpose whose reasons for sending Gyre down into the dark become more and more horrific as the narrative proceeds.

THE LUMINOUS DEAD is a story about desperation, about depersonalization and about what it means to trust a single voice in the dark, when that voice has the capability of shutting down your life support at their solitary whim. It’s about trying to learn to believe someone after they have violated that trust, and the vast, helpless mental shock of learning that they might possibly care for you after all. About the awful drowning terror of being alone in the dark, of perhaps not being alone in that dark when one ought to be; about trying to make sense of someone else’s sins and how they can be rectified, while all around you the living rock shakes and trembles with the passage of a much vaster and more terrifying fear.

The pacing of the novel is sometimes suspect, and the nature of the supernatural elements at the conclusion is not as clear as I would have liked; but the full force of this book is in the way it makes you feel the simple, vicious horror of Gyre’s situation and her desperate and self-destructive efforts to survive.

I bought the novel on ibooks and binged it in one reading because I simply could not stop reading; I intend to go back and read it again, slower, with more breathing space, but I can unequivocally recommend this to anyone who’s into sci-fi horror and not horrendously squicked by descriptions of claustrophobic subterranean fear. Looking forward to what Starling’s up to next.

“Please Remain Calm”: Chernobyl, Episode 2

The first episode of HBO’s Chernobyl was focused on foreshadowing. With the second episode, the scope of the disaster is beginning to become clear.

The single clearest departure from real history is the insertion of a fictional character, Dr. Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), who appears at an opportune moment to warn everyone about the fact that melting nuclear fuel plus water equals thermal explosion and unimaginable destruction -- on top of the unimaginable destruction that’s already happened. I get why they decided to inject a female character with expertise and agency into the narrative -- otherwise it’s a colossal nuclear sausage-fest, apart from grieving will-be widows and the occasional doctor -- but I have trouble believing that Valery Legasov would have made such an enormous and elementary error as to assume that all the water the firemen have been throwing at the reactor and all the remaining water from the plant’s broken pipework would not have collected in the bubbler pools underneath the core. Adding Khomyuk as the voice of reason undercuts Legasov’s authority in a way which, to me, doesn’t do the story any favors.

But really this episode is about Boris Shcherbina, Gorbachev’s Minister of Energy (Stellan Skarsgard), and the arc he undergoes from lol-no-everything’s-totally-fine to oh-shit-no-it’s-not to one thousand percent determined to do whatever is necessary to deal with an unprecedented and unspeakable situation. Shcherbina and Legasov are a deliberately odd couple, and the way Chernobyl shifts the initiative and authority from Legasov as the technical expert and Shcherbina as the obtuse politician ordering people to die because he does not understand the situation to the place where they end up at the close of the episode is beautifully done.

As in the first episode, the cinematography is deliberate and deft. Throughout, muted and dark colors give a sense of not only ago, of the past as another country, but of the bleak and awful danger of the entire situation. The costumes and hair design are bang-on accurate. There’s a scene in which hospital staff realize that the clothes patients are wearing are hideously contaminated and have to be disposed of immediately -- heaps and heaps of clothing hastily discarded in the hospital basement -- which is indistinguishable from photographs of those same heaps in the real Pripyat hospital taken decades later. The caravan of buses heading toward the town to evacuate the entire population is splendidly sinister, as is the choice to avoid translating or subtitling the orders to evacuate read over a loudspeaker. Where Chernobyl goes foreign, it goes effectively foreign, which renders the accessibility of the rest of it even more approachable.

Information is also deftly controlled. Early on there’s a scene in which Shcherbina, sent with Legasov to go and deal with the situation, orders him to explain how a nuclear reactor works. Because Legasov has to describe it in a way which makes sense quickly and easily to someone with no scientific background, he is also explaining it to the audience without overtly infodumping. This is tricky to manage, and the show does it very well, covering the crucial concept of moderation that underlies why this particular type of reactor is such a bloody awful idea. By contrast, the condensed BBC version of the Chernobyl story from 2006 never goes into much detail about how the thing works. The pacing here is cleverly managed, keeping a level of suspense maintained throughout; some events are telescoped into one another, such as the crash of a helicopter during an observation flight. In reality, the crash happened during the mission to drop sand and boron over the burning reactor, and it happened not because the pilot flew through the lethal smoke and lost control of his aircraft; the rotor simply hit a construction crane’s cable and disintegrated, but the show’s version is better TV.

Other than the introduction of Khomyuk -- who works out what must have gone wrong and where based on the isotopes contaminating the air, and proceeds to go and get herself involved because she can’t get anyone local to take her seriously -- the other profound difference between the BBC version and HBO’s Chernobyl lies in the scene where Legasov asks for volunteers to open the valves under the reactor and drain the water from the bubbler pools. This is one of the most moving scenes in the entire story, and the BBC uses it as a key emotional moment for Legasov. Adrian Edmondson nails it hard: in one of the interview segments, tears in his eyes, he talks straight to the viewer: we’d seen so many walking dead, and sent so many to their deaths, but never with such certainty...I don’t believe there’s even a handful of nations in this world that could still produce such unquestioned sacrifice. We see him looking through the window of an armored personnel carrier, witnessing a group of soldiers all stepping forward at once to volunteer, knowing what it means, and over it all is Kharitonov and the Red Army Choir singing The Cliff. Contrast that with the HBO version, in which Legasov tries and fails to convince a group of plant workers that 400 rubles is a sufficient bonus to be worth this particular peril. It is entirely believable that none of them want to be voluntold to go and die; it is also entirely believable that Legasov has no way of persuading them, and it is enormously satisfying when Boris Shcherbina is the one to tell them why they should do it: because it must be done. Skarsgard is brilliant here. In the course of the episode he has gone from obstructionist to leader, and the speech he gives has some of the same valence as Legasov’s in the earlier BBC version. (Amusingly, we then have practically the same exact shot of Legasov looking out the window of the vehicle looking at the volunteers being prepared.)

Here, the scene in which they enter the flooded corridors of Unit 4 is extended, and it is very probably one of the nastiest and most effective bits of horror I’ve seen on film in a long time. We can’t hear them clearly through the dive masks and hoods; their words are blurred, dim, vague. The only other sound, over the splashing as they wade into the unspeakably contaminated water, is the Geiger counter’s rising tone, the clicks at first distinguishable and then blurring together into a higher and higher buzzing that becomes a scream -- and then, one by one, their flashlights fail.

I have seen a video from inside an industrial irradiator. As the camera approaches the accelerator’s scan horn, the faint glow of ionized air is visible; specks of interference, static-snow, begin to appear on the screen, rapidly intensifying. The crash and hiss of static grows until we pass directly underneath the beam, when everything blanks out in a terrible violet-white light accompanied by a hum which I have not heard anywhere else until this scene in Chernobyl: the sound of the counter screaming in the dark.

HBO's Chernobyl: deftly horrifying

The opening scenes of HBO’s Chernobyl are as bleak and dully miserable as its protagonist, the Soviet scientist Valery Legasov, himself. We see him first in a horrible little flat, green-lit with bad fluorescents, a man counting down his life in minutes: a man with no other way out. Whatever story he’s just told his tape recorder is very obviously something dreadful, and we cut directly from his own departure-via-suicide to the event itself, witnessed from the city of Pripyat by a young woman who knows without being told that the fire which her husband will shortly be called to fight is no ordinary fire.

It is impossible not to compare HBO’s Chernobyl with the 2006 BBC version, Chernobyl: Surviving Disaster, written and directed by Nick Murphy, starring Adrian Edmondson of Young Ones fame as Legasov. In many ways the two versions are very similar – both open with Legasov’s last words, both employ British accents instead of faux-Russian ones, both have similar structures. Many scenes are nearly identical, word for word – but this is because both productions are telling the same story, and faithfulness to that story results in extremely similar dialogue. Where they depart from one another is in their approach to the storytelling itself. HBO’s version is separated into multiple episodes, of which we have only yet seen the first one; the BBC chose to condense the entire narrative into a single hour. Edmondson’s Legasov talks to the camera in intercut sections, telling the story as it happened; his voiceover throughout lends the film a deliberate poignancy. He draws us through the narrative, skipping forward in time through the medium of his interviews with the tape recorder.

HBO’s Craig Mazin and Johan Renck have more space and time in which to tell this tale, and don’t need the shell-structure of interviews for Jared Harris, as Legasov, to lead us through the gaps. We’re going to get to see everything, the whole grueling miserable sequence.

From the firefighter’s wife we cut to the control room of Unit 4, moments after the explosion, and here is where things start to get truly tragic: as the audience, we know what’s happened, the scale of the disaster, and the poor bastards in the white surgical caps have no idea: will not believe it, cannot believe it, and are directed by the deputy chief engineer Dyatlov to address an altogether different and imaginary accident. It is Dyatlov who sends the operators down into the ruined heart of the plant, Dyatlov who insists there is nothing more terribly wrong than a hydrogen explosion, Dyatlov who refuses to listen when another operator, his exposed skin already turning scarlet, tells him there is no core, the core exploded, it’s on fire. It can’t be, of course. RBMK reactors don’t explode. Soviet engineering has no faults, the design is perfect, the blame lies with the operators. Anything else is unthinkable. Later on he will shout you didn’t see graphite on the ground, you didn’t, because it’s not there, just before collapsing in a fit of vomiting.

In the crushed and sagging corridors, with the alarm klaxon wailing, we have the sense of entering something vast and terribly damaged, a gut-shot giant who has not yet collapsed all the way. As the operators struggle through haze and rubble and fallen girders to reach their missing comrades, the scale of the plant becomes evident. This is not a large building: this is a huge building, and whatever has gone wrong is also huge. We see more and more men collapsing, faces burned horribly scarlet, convulsed with retching, and when they finally get to the reactor hall and see with their own eyes exactly what is left of Unit 4, staring into the terrible beauty of the burning reactor even as their skin turns red, we know they are dead; that they have died, are dying, that it is only a matter of time before they finish the process. They are, quite literally, cooked.

Much of what makes Chernobyl so powerful hinges on that fact: that we know what’s happening but the characters do not. When a curious firefighter picks up a piece of graphite moderator lying on the ground outside the ruined building and shortly afterward starts to scream in agony as the skin of his hand comes off, his buddy’s casual and unheeded warning “I dunno, don’t fuck with it” echoes for a long time. Running underneath the whole story is the profound tragic error of the Soviet approach to safety culture: reality is what we say it is. One of the most chilling scenes in the entire episode comes in a local Party committee meeting early on, in a bunker deep underground, when the full scope of the disaster has not yet been understood: when the people ask questions that are not in their best interest, they should simply be told to keep their minds on their labor, says the terrifying and somewhat Palpatinian ranking Party official. They are to lock down the city of Pripyat, and cut the telephone wires to halt the spread of distracting information. We shall all be rewarded for what we do here tonight, he says, and smiles: you can see the skull beneath the skin. This is our moment to shine.

Chernobyl’s foreshadowing is deftly handled. At one point a doctor, looking out at the distant fire from a hospital maternity ward, asks if the hospital stocks iodine pills; it seems like a random question unless you know that human thyroid glands are thirsty for iodine and, unless saturated with the regular kind, will soak up radioactive iodine-131 – released from the damaged reactor – like sponges, a reservoir of poison poised to kindle cancer. Her colleague scoffs: why should the hospital stock iodine pills? It’s all the answer we need. Another effective scene has very little dialogue at all, showing the Pripyat residents watching the plant burn, looking up in wonder as what looks like snow begins to fall. At the end we see the children of Pripyat walking to school, laughing and chatting with each other, in bright sunlight: just after their feet pass by, a dying bird falls to the sidewalk and convulses briefly before lying still.

The cinematography is excellent, the visual effects effective, rendering the scope of the damage viscerally clear. I can’t tell how much was filmed using some other very similar plant as a stand-in and how much is CGI, which tells you how good the CGI is. I particularly appreciate the unflinching depiction of what unthinkable doses of ionizing radiation do to humans; I’ve read IAEA reports of industrial-irradiator and criticality accidents (hi there, Mayak), and the descriptions of victims suffering from the acute central-nervous-system type of radiation sickness is right there on the screen. Even the little details, like the taste of metal in their mouths. It’s enormously satisfying to watch.

The soundtrack is minimal, very little familiar or recognizable music behind any of the scenes; what there is is faint, pulsing, vaguely ominous. It works exceptionally well in scenes where all we hear is that background music, rather than the cacophony that is clearly happening behind it; there’s a scene in which Dyatlov is half-carried between two guards past ambulances, stretchers, men and women who are clearly dying, firefighters with faces burned bright red, and in the distance the ruined reactor building still billowing black and lethal smoke, and we hear none of it. The realization unspools behind his eyes, as we watch, and the lack of voices or background noise makes the viewer feel as dazed and horrified, unmoored from reality, as he does.

The minimalism of the soundtrack is one of the crucial tonal differences between this Chernobyl  and the BBC film – which uses musical cues to brilliant effect. Leonid Kharitonov’s Red Army Choir recording of The Cliff is played at a particularly moving point, underscoring not just the narrative of the story but the underlying Soviet narrative itself, from the inside. The gorgeous, operatic presentation of a traditional folk song juxtaposed with what Legasov describes as unquestioned sacrifice illustrates what he calls the Soviet heart: it’s 1941 all over again, the same desperation, the same lack of readiness, the same courage.

None of Chernobyl’s actors, just like the BBC’s actors thirteen years earlier, attempt to perform Russian accents. Instead, they all speak with British accents. This is an extremely well-done choice, and one which I am glad was repeated by the HBO production. For one thing, fake Russian is inherently distracting and somewhat farcical, and serves to insert a kind of unnecessary barrier between viewer and film; for another, it makes no sense -- these people are speaking to one another in their own language within the story, rather than an accented foreign language. Having these people talk in a more familiar and ordinary way – to the American and British audience, at least – immediately serves to make the story more accessible. It’s the same concept behind doing Shakespeare with colloquial, conversational pacing and pronunciation, rather than ~declaiming~ it: the familiar cadences of speech render the other, the unfamiliar, the difficult to follow, into something immediately more ordinary and thus in some ways more real.

In coming episodes, we will see in detail the brutal struggle to put out the fire and to drain the water from the chambers underneath the reactor before what’s left of the core can melt all the way down and meet that water in an unthinkably massive thermal explosion, rendering large stretches of the Ukraine uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. There will very likely be a great deal of well-researched information presented in a way which renders it both accessible and understandable, which is a net positive – anything that can help people understand what is, and is not, true about radiation and reactor design and design-basis accidents is enormously welcome. We are also, I anticipate, going to be given lovingly graphic illustrations of the progression of radiation injury in man, most of which I’m going to have to close my eyes for. I can, and do, read about this stuff with avid interest; seeing it is not my cup of tea, but body-horror enthusiasts are going to have a ball.

In sum: you need to see this, for a number of reasons; it is a deftly conceived and executed horror story, made more horrific by the fact that it is real.

Link to the BBC version

I will be posting a separate discussion of reactor design and why Chernobyl cannot happen at all in any American nuclear power plant shortly, so stay tuned :)