Return of the Mummy: Re-Wrapping Unsavory Truths for a Globally Aware World


It’s not just about grave-robbing anymore…

Somehow, that is the potential problem that plagues the modern Mummy, still interpreted by Hollywood primarily…Instead we are obsessed with special effects, popular movie stars, and ancient curses we manage to make up ourselves. Always we decorate our interpretations of Mummy stories with elaborate bigotries and racist caricature.

Nowhere in the past have we treated the culture we are robbing to tell the Mummy’s tale with the respect it is due, nor in a way that enhances the story.

What a shame…For with the Mummy we stand among the most powerful subgenres in Horror – in the fertile ground of the Gothic Romance and the Ghost Story, amidst a magnificent example of marginalization of the Other: the grave-robbing of an antiquated culture for fun and profit, and the exotic dead laced with the desperation of revenge.

Somehow, with visions of pulp and action adventure blockbuster receipts dancing in our heads, we have lost interest in what the Mummy really represents. The true heart of the story is not about love and reincarnation: the real purpose of the Mummy has always been revenge for the wanton disregard of the dead of Others… And we have carefully crafted something else again.

As we await the release of a yet another new Mummy film and the recent publication of a new (overdue) Mummy anthology, we are reminded to consider exactly why the Mummy disappeared from view, becoming the least-utilized trope in contemporary Horror.

Why did the Mummy go away? And is his tale done being told?

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Orientalism: Our Nasty Little, Overripe Secret

Most of us today aren’t quite sure what to make of the Egyptian Mummy, of Bog People, of ancient Andean Children found mummified on mountain tops… We are, after all, human. We are curious, simultaneously drawn and repulsed by the exposure of the desiccated bodies of mysterious, long-dead people. But we are also voyeurs. We relish the encouraged and unseemly study of remains, the ghoulish poking and prodding of one who cannot expose our unnatural interests, the very public humiliation of a helpless human being we can dehumanize further by simply pronouncing that being “ancient and dead” in the same sentence.

It is a most intimate and unforgivable form of desecration. Under cover of scientific curiosity we allow it because of the historical distance we can put between us in our modern civility and sophistication, and (ironically) a primitive people who were so technologically advanced we are still trying to decipher how they did so many wondrous things.

We have not only talked ourselves into an entitlement to find and break into tombs in the name of research, but we have made ourselves the official filter of their stories. And we have long taken liberties.

Why, then, was this ever okay?

Is it because we believe now as we believed then that we deserve to know the secrets of vanished civilizations? Is it because we also fear becoming vanished and hope to avert whatever dictate of fate caused the demise of those civilizations? Or are we simply hiding behind a convenient behavioral pattern humanity has historically exploited since our sordid beginnings – one that inspires those in power flaunting the most cultural currency to mock and then destroy the cultures they overrun?

Why is it not only okay but fashionable to display the bodies of ancient or conquered cultures? We are obliged to admit we have done this before… and indeed, we continue to do it…

The answer is called Orientalism… which according to Edward Said, dates from the period of European Enlightenment and the colonization of the Arab world. It is also a Critical term, and as such it means that using art and writing, we interpret predominantly Arab cultures not with facts, but with wild imaginings that include the distortion of actual facts, the exaggeration of unfavorable characteristics, the labelling of local practices as primitive, suspect and dangerous, the strong suggestion that choosing to live certain ways or adopt certain religious beliefs other than Judeo-Christian ones are simply proof of superstitious ignorance.

For instance, with the Mummy, we have created malevolent Egyptian spirits and forcefully superimposed the belief of reincarnation on a culture that had no such religious interpretation, the idea of which would have been as abhorrent to the Egyptians as the concept of reanimating a corpse. (Guran 10-11) Indeed, despite our contemporary obligation to tell modern Mummy stories that conform to the historical facts we dug them up for, we have not always been so considerate to our Mummies as fictional characters.

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We have taken liberties that seem to be inspired by what we know about Mummies in general – that there were a lot of ancient Egyptians who lived and died, and a lot of them were mummified as part of religious burial practices, some historians estimating that some “730 million corpses were mummified” during the period, and that there were so many, they ran out of places to put them… (Stephens x) With so many, with no names, with no place to keep them, what harm is there?

Assumptions were then made based on our knowledge of human nature – that if a body is buried with any form of valuable, that burial site might well be pillaged for the wealth by anyone, thereby providing ample need for a curse or two and a ready explanation for inscriptions found on the occasional tomb but which we do not understand. We take “poetic license” and color our fiction with it –letting fear imply truth, despite facts.

The misinterpretation of what we have pronounced “curses” might – according to researchers – “have been directed at would-be tomb-robbers of their own epoch” whose efforts to extract even minor wealth might damage the mummy or the tomb and therefore the identity and spiritual welfare of the person buried within, rendering the spirit homeless and nameless (Weigall 2). And while it is the mark of good fiction to commandeer such details to create a good Horror story, we still have a responsibility to remain truthful.

Indeed, perhaps we came to assume once too often, eventually even believing that within witnessing the local misappropriation of mummies for all manner of uses – including thatching roofs, grinding up as elixirs, as fertilizer, as a food condiment, locomotive fuel, and general disregard (Stephens x) – was an implied permission to further abuse the memories of those dead. But those who descend from a culture have their own ancestors to answer to in the end. And those who are not-so-related have an obligation to decency – even in fiction, which sometimes survives longer.

We may be better educated today, but Orientalism is, alas, not a thing of the past. And this has inhibited the creation of new (and better) Mummy stories. Rather than get our hands dirty by doing research and letting the truth inspire better told tales, we cling to our old, tried and true Orientalist tendencies. Or we remain silent entirely, moving on to other, more easily rendered monsters.

We prove it each time we refuse to educate ourselves on the wars in the Middle East, when we look at a Sikh and call him a Muslim, when we look at a Muslim and see a terrorist… even when we look at Native Americans and name sports teams after them. We are far from out of the woods… some days farther than others.

But the difference is that today if we write something and don’t properly vet the information, there are more people willing to stand up and call us out on our ignorance. That is scary if one thinks of creative writing as a place we can make facts up to carry the plot in a story about a real people, because that simply isn’t true.

It is daunting once one realizes how far out of our own depth we are when we write about other cultures. It should be.

And there are more people who are willing to really look at what our interpretation of Egyptian mythology and religion says about us… proving that turnabout is indeed, fair play…

When the internet happened, suddenly a lot of us discovered just what a minority we are in the scope of the world, and just how ignorant our own ignorance was making us appear to be.

It was the Mummy’s fault, of course. He’s been after us all for a long, long time. Perhaps it was all that glossed-over, rationalized grave robbing…

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So we disappeared the Mummy partly in embarrassment.

Times changed.

Suddenly, there was no good way to tell a Mummy story without being politically incorrect. But instead of embracing that and re-working the Mummy stories into what they always were at heart – a really great ghost story – we just re-entombed him.

We recycled the old infused with new special effects, but we contributed nothing to the dialog…at least until Anne Rice tried her very adept hand in 1989. Yet still the Mummy did not seize our imaginations anymore.

We buried him with the truths science was bringing forth, allowing ourselves to be intrigued and amazed – but never to be outraged that we are circulating the bodies of the un-exhumed dead. Could it have been a wee bit of guilt?

Make no mistake. These are dead people. People consigned to the earth under the implicit promise we all expect to be honored that our eternal rest will not be disturbed…

What are we doing putting them on display?

And why do we assume that those so long dead are simply not aware, in whatever afterlife they may reside?

I cringe each time I see these exhibitions glorified…each time a tomb is discovered and opened. Granted, maybe it is watching too may Horror movies, maybe it is reading and writing far too much Horror…

But there are stories. True stories. And they should rattle your inner Mummy…Because if you are looking to write a new Mummy story, you don’t have to go farther than some real Ghost Stories..

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The Black Hope Horror: a Modern Mummy Tale Without a Mummy

In 1982, they made a little summer blockbuster called Poltergeist. But what most people don’t know (or perhaps remember), is that the movie was loosely based on fact: that an entire modern housing area was built upon an old cemetery – a cemetery of a certain age and containing the remains of African Americans, some of whom were freed slaves. The movie had absolutely nothing to do with poltergeists. It had to do with what happened in real life: the disturbance of graves.

So old was the cemetery in question with the last burial in 1939, that developers decided it would be too expensive to relocate the graves and relatives too deceased themselves or too scattered to be the wiser. A wealthy subdivision was built in the 1980’s on what had once been the Black Hope Cemetery in Houston, Texas.

 

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And the odd occurrences began almost immediately, accelerating for one family when they attempted to build a swimming pool. Some families were more troubled than others, some claim were never troubled. But the bottom line is that the incredible amount of alleged occurrences resulted in some of the most documented hauntings in modern American history.

 

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The remains of Betty and Charlie Thomas were found in the Haney’s backyard

 

And unbeknownst to many, this is not an unusual circumstance – this desecration of old cemetery grounds in the U.S. by developers and energy companies. Older cemeteries in rural areas are often overtaken by modern greed when they are found to be neglected, or so old descendants are not to be found to defend them. A number of coal companies are watched quite suspiciously in the Midwest, with aging descendants worried about what happens when they themselves are no longer around to protect the family plot.

Imagine that.

But would you believe that even within Black Hope, we hear this little parcel of Orientalism:

“Respect Houston is willing to move these graves to give them a proper burial,” she said, “provided we identify the people who are buried.”… http://www.chron.com/neighborhood/article/Black-Hope-horror-doesn-t-haunt-this-hood-9565799.php

Pardon me, but…they had a “proper burial.” The proper thing is to buy back the homes and raze the neighborhood. I don’t care how expensive it is. That is the “proper” thing to do because it doesn’t matter who these people were…they were people their community and loved ones buried. Period.

Yet these types of things are ongoing… Somewhere in the midst of our individual Orientalism we lost the respect for our own collective dead. Many of us just rationalize that “certain things must be done for the greater good” or that “the dead are dead and the living have needs that surpass promises made.”

One sees it all of the time in Horror fiction: the person who refuses to acknowledge a haunting because to do so means attrition must be made and compromise means loss; it is far easier to hope denial will make the facts go away.

Yet isn’t this fine fodder for any new Mummy? Because isn’t the message the same?

 

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Building a Better Mummy

Why did the Mummy go away in Horror fiction? The answer is because as he was, we out-grew him. The caricatures and racist overtures were embarrassing if not self-implicating. And as the world began to merge with social media and a cacophony of international voices found their stages, it was quickly apparent that we could no longer expect to just make things up and not be called on it. Justice for the Mummy came on the wings of the internet…

Thank heaven for Paula Guran and the Mammoth Book imprint. At last we now have a modern anthology of Mummy tales that manages to “go beyond” a bit, encasing a little less orientalism – provided you don’t look too close at the cover (if you modernize a mummy, you shouldn’t cheapen the effort by abandoning harmless yet important factual detail by using gauze to do it)… Overall I liked this collection – especially because of the attempt to recapture the “spirit” of the monster in more contemporary ways.

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The Mammoth Book of the Mummy: 19 Tales of the Immortal Dead is long overdue, and although “padded” with older tales, offers some new versions of the story…But then many of us stay away from the Mummy, worried no doubt about the ease of misrepresentation. This collection proves we are at least trying to get there. And I for one challenge writers to try their hands at a good Mummy story… a good don’t disturb-the-sleeping-dead story… because they are indeed harder to write well today.

But be respectful. First, be human. Then, be civilized.

What is not-human is willingness to disturb, to rob, to steal the tiny real estate that is a gravesite for fame and monetary gain.

What is not-civilized is to parade about the body parts like those individuals have forfeited their right to peace and respect by the lack of living guardian-relatives.

It’s more than time for new Mummy tales. It’s time for a reiteration of the real message hanging blatantly beyond cheap shot summer blockbusters and tomb raiding which we continue to accept because we employ scientists to do it on our behalf. We are just not “entitled” to dig up dead people to satisfy our curiosity. And if we can’t academically help ourselves, we should respectfully study, document, photograph and return such remains to their rightful tombs.

It really is time we lived up to what we claimed – that we just wanted to learn about these people and their culture, no harm intended.

Those Mummies have told us their tales. It was amazing. I am grateful. Now put those people back. And it wouldn’t hurt to apologize – especially for whatever Tom Cruise is about to do.

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The fact is, the Mummy ‘s tale is far from finished. We have merely begun to scratch the surface of what it means to disturb the dead no matter how long they have been put to rest.

Within these parameters the Mummy could not be more timely – right now when the populations of many cities in many countries are overflowing, and the demand for real estate to accommodate housing and the growing of food has never been more pressing, when wars and atrocities spring up like weeds in spring. We are no longer at liberty to not-reside in properties that have not seen death, and we are like the ancient Egyptians before us, running out of places to bury people, have lost track of old cemeteries, have lost records of old murders and battles and tragedies. We are going to have to rediscover what it means to live alongside our legacies – the good and the bad – to appease angry spirits of those we might well offend.

Surely there is a great Mummy story in that. Because even now we are so not without blemish…And the reason it should haunt us is a human one. A primal one.

Make no mistake. Treating corpses like “things” is a slippery slope…first it is an unwrapping party, then it is digging for coal under great, great grandma… or building houses on old black cemeteries…

Eternal rest. Now that’s an entitlement no matter who you are.

 

References

Guran, Paula, ed. The Mammoth Book of the Mummy: 19 Tales of the Immortal Dead. Germantown, MD: Prime Books, c2017

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, c1979

Stephens, John Richard. “The Truth of the Mummy’s Curse” (introduction). Into the Mummy’s Tomb. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., c2006, 1999

Weigall, Arthur. “The Malevolence of Ancient Egyptian Spirits.” ). Into the Mummy’s Tomb. Edited by John Richard Stephens. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., c2006, 1999

Have Yourself a Scary Little Christmas: Horror From The Good Old Days


It may come as a surprise, but once upon a time folks liked their Horror at Christmas. One could surmise that the increasing hours of darkness, the howling of hungry wolves, and the entrapment of inclement weather were co-conspirators to the cause; it is far too easy to become preoccupied with one’s own mortality when the temperatures send frosty ghosts to drift across candle-lit rooms and skeletal branches claw at window panes while the animals in the walls scurry ever deeper to find warmth.

In so much dark and quiet there is isolation, and the ever more loudly heard “sounds of silence” echoing in your ears. We forget how very dark and how very quiet the world once was. And maybe that is why our modern ghost stories are often found lacking the connective tissue of eerie tales of yore.

Technology changed things; we haven’t embraced so much light since humanity learned how to make and keep fire. And we haven’t surrendered our senses to so much noise in our daily lives since…ever.

Poor, poor ghosties….all drowned out by our modern day distractions.

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God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

If we really wanted to detail the history of ghost stories and dark times, we might well have to revisit Darwin and his Theory and explore early human brain development – as far back as when the animal brain diverged into homo sapiens. We would have to give more than a passing nod to rural folk and fairy tales, myths and legends, to the very human fear of naming things we cannot control – all for the sake of mitigating the chaos when not outwitting it. Because “the ghost story is the oldest form of supernatural tale…” (Dziemianowicz  xiii)

So where has it gone? Have we simply shuttered it away with childish things and suffused it with jokes made at the expense of our own mortality, or have we simply catalogued it to death? To know for certain we have to look at the last time ghost story-telling was king…

The ghost story – as we recognize it today – is more the “modern” invention of the Literary crowd. And of course the British started it…

It was the Victorians who spurred the whole renaissance in scary tale-telling, all by focusing on an infatuation with toying with the senses and exploring mortality, gazing with fascination at the changes spilling forth from the open maw of the industrial revolution and measuring it against the loss of all things past. (Perhaps this is what happens in a strictly regimented, class-driven, repressed society exposed for the first time to the seemingly unlimited promises of a newly born culture of science.) But once our invisible friends rose from the primal ashes of campfires in caves and collided with the tradition of the Christmas serial, a ghostly bonanza of spectral fiction ensued.

That’s right: we owe our Golden Age of Ghost Stories to the weird collision of Christmas and the rise of publishing.

Many consider the writings of Charles Dickens to be the main transformative template upon which many modern Christmas traditions and many ghostly tales gone traditional had their start. And while supernatural tales were long told round winter fires in the dark months of brutal seasons in many countries, this is what happens when the right writer delivers the right tales at the right time – what we now consider the J.K. Rowling Effect – wherein entire national imaginations are captured and slain. Dickens in his time was every bit as powerful, his influence felt across oceans and continents. And he is still selling and influencing today…Which is not at all bad for a dead guy.

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With the explosion of print onto the scene, there were magazines both pulp and “professional,” newspapers and book markets seeking to pump up slower Christmas sales all jostling for the new reading public’s precious coin. Many indulged in serial publication of stories – profiting more when such were delivered by writers of Dickens’ Literary merit and standing, but taking off when connecting the supernatural with the intimidating darkness of winter months.

And what prompted him to write ghost stories? The wonderful answer is his own childhood experiences…meaning that the remembered telling of scary stories and folk and fairy lore in the short, bleak days of winter colored his imagination; the oral tradition begat the written one of telling ghost stories at Christmas. (http://www.hypnogoria.com/html/ghoststoriesforchristmas.html)

What Dickens did was Literary: he incorporated his own experiences into his stories, his own impressions – from socio-economic conditions of the London he knew to his own memories of supernatural tales told round the Yule. This elevated his tales just enough to win the hearts of his public and melt a few of the Critics’. His contributions then helped legitimize the tradition of ghost story, as well as to help inspire other Literary writers and even those lesser efforts in the creation of the subgenre. It became a kind of tradition for writers of every professional ilk and genre to try their hand at Christmas ghost story telling. Louisa May Alcott, Hans Christian Andersen, O. Henry, H.H. Munro, and William Locke are just a few of those Literary writers who went “rogue.” And Horror got some great foundational stuff from both the exposure and the expanded audience.

But Dickens also colored our views of the environment in which these Christmas ghosts appear. And he did it by changing our Literary and then literal expectations of the holiday itself.

Did you ever wonder why we expect White Christmases? How so many songs came to be about deep snows and blizzard conditions, bitter cold, and the starving poor? Bits of coal and prowling elves? Did anybody else have childhood trouble trying to reconcile the birth of baby Jesus with snow and wise men in deserts?

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It was Dickens. Or rather, it was the whole of Britain with an unprecedented weather event often referred to as a “mini ice age” had while in his youth that colored our imagining of the holiday. He did what he did so well and we wound up permanently entangling his magnificent tales with weather patterns none of us have seen much of since, and sweeping the images of an Arctic landscape draped over the English with snowstorms of soft powder drifting like clouds of sugar on Christmas Eve over toy stores and holiday lights even in this country…Just visit Bedford Falls…

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Or look again at The Shining… that almost-Christmas tale. Sooo much snow around the isolated “manor house” that the connection to those English ghost stories is unmistakable. Yet today most of us do not have Christmases with mounds of snow and spiritual awakenings. And as for ancestral mansions, well, we are admittedly at least working on that piece of the equation

All this time, I thought it was rotten luck – the number of years a White Christmas failed to make an appearance in my life – even here in Colorado or the mountains of New Mexico, the hills of Indiana or the swamps of Florida. No snow. No reindeer tracks. And worse, even fewer ghosts. How tainted was my expectation of the holidays…

From Shakespeare to Washington Irving, there seems to have always been some spooky business afoot during the darker days of winter. And maybe that comes from early Christians commandeering earlier (and probably scarier) winter celebrations to affix the new beliefs upon the skeletons of the old…Bones tend to poke through now and again…

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But it was Dickens who through the Miracle of Modern Publishing solidified the trend as a campy tradition. Says editor Richard Dalby, “After Dickens’s A Christmas Carol first appeared in 1843, ghost stories became an ever-popular and essential ingredient of weekly and monthly magazines, especially the Christmas Numbers…xi-xiii). Today, whether Christmas remains in the story or not, the oppressive atmosphere of those once-wintry months remains – the cold, dark isolation, gloomy weather and gloomier estates…these are now standard Horror conventions – mandatory for ghost story telling.

And it all morphed again slightly once it crossed the pond: “the ghost story became equally popular in America, following the success of Dickens and his disciples…” (Dalby xii). Whether it was cheap imitation, British envy, or a thirst for our own Literary traditions mixing with social evolution, the ghost story form was embraced by women’s periodicals as a vehicle for expressing the concerns of women’s rights and children’s rights and henceforth civil rights. With the rise of the pulps and a more literate general public with money to spend, the subgenre took off in this country. Even though it languished in the literary dens of iniquity referred to as “Sensation” fiction – a consequence of any writing designed to illicit emotion and inflame passions – flourish it did, leading to what is often referred to as “The Golden Age of the Ghost Story.”

But then the electric light banished the dark with a flick of the finger. And for the ghost story, it was THAT finger.  Soon, if it were not for Halloween and teenagers eager to explore the concept of death, the ghost and its stories would have been banished completely back to superstition and folklore. But maybe that is not altogether a bad thing… Piggybacked on the traditions of Halloween, a good ghost story can garner quite a few miles…And more importantly, the good ones get remembered.

So isn’t it a shame we seem to have abandoned that Christmas tradition? And why exactly do we whine about bad ghost stories when no one is really working the edgy, Literary ends of the subgenre?

While some may argue all versions of the ghost story have been done, I say maybe we just gave up digging around in our darker folkish roots a wee bit too soon.

Ghosts are, after all, so much more than fragments of the human soul. Sometimes they aren’t human at all.

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The Return of the Christmas Horror

“Santa Claus…

How vile your name upon my tongue. Like acid, hard to utter without spitting. Yet I find myself incapable of speaking little else. It has become my malediction, my profane mantra.” – Krampus the Yule Lord, by Brom

It’s been a long time coming…But change and Horror is once again on the wintry breath of the Holidays. The ghost story is back…slightly amended, twisting backward upon an even older arc to restart our imaginations. We are talking about the fearsome mythologies and folklore of old…all of which count as ghost story.

It doesn’t mean we get it right – there is, after all, such a thing as poetic license. But back to the depths indeed we are called.

We can easily admit that our enduring affection for Halloween just doesn’t get enough reciprocal Literary love, and that simultaneously, many of our later efforts have indeed been wanting. Something was missing – something unnamed and unnamable. But wait – the door knob has begun to turn…slowly…deliberately. Something has been waiting for the opportunity to present itself for a dramatic return… That something is old, and dark, and distant enough in our proper memories that when our primal blood curdles, a new spark has been loosed. That spark has manifested in the form of…

The Krampus.

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For those who might think it a simple and modern take of Santa gone bad, the news is much more interesting: the tradition of the Krampus is far, far older…far, far darker. It comes indeed from a time when stories whispered in bleak isolation took on such lives of their own that eventually it became difficult to discern which came first – the story, or the creature in it (whether real or misinterpreted, imagined or misremembered).

Krampus, it is said, is “not really an individual’s name, but a class of entity, e.g. ‘vampire’ not ‘Dracula’” (Ridenour 14). Imagine that…a class of entity….implying other entities, and oh so, so many interpretations…

Isn’t this the very thing that made Lovecraft, Lovecraft? Isn’t this the very thing that animates our graphic novels, our video games, our superheroes, our fan fiction, our movie sequels, our darkest fantasies? Mythic monsters, demons of folk and fairy tales, that whole concept of hell-and-afterlife thing? Of wars between gods and humanity as puppets or prizes?

Ah but it is so easy to rumor that cults and weird traditions still linger in isolated places, just enough peculiar parades and effigies and misunderstood rituals to fuel the imaginations of those of us bathed in the false security of artificial light, tainted with just enough exoticism that we cannot look away, and just enough of our ancestry that we can feel those unseen eyes upon us. And so such legends capture our primal attention…punctuate our darker nights when the power fails…

How much blood lineage is enough for an entity to track our whereabouts? Our offspring? Our sins?

Krampus represents a return to darker things at the Holidays, and yes – a diversion from the “true meaning of Christmas” which has been so long obscured by the commercialism of Christmas that even the faithful have wandered into zombie territory. We are all ripe for the return of the Krampus and all of its kind…Primal, punitive, judging. We have taken our safety and freedoms in this world for granted. We ignore our obligations to each other by pretending we are too busy to see injustice. We have turned up our noses at superstition, and considered the scientific act of relegating religion to that category. We think ourselves untouchable…on par with the unseen.

The Krampus reminds us that such hubris has been the source of supernatural come-uppance in the past. And opening our imaginations to the monsters and demons of our darker histories might well serve to remind us of why we needed our religions to begin with, of the importance of living honorably.

Even dark entities abide by rules. Does it not then beg the question of who set those rules, and provoke the question of why humanity would be exempt when all other creatures are not?

And does that not lead right back to the backbone of the ghost story – the execution of justice?

And does that not in turn lead right back to Christmas, which for Christians implies the coming of the ultimate judge?

Ah yes, Commercial Christmas pales in the light of the gifts of heaven or hell… And the Krampus is bringing us right back to our point of origins…reminding us that there is no light without the dark.

And the greater the light, the greater the dark…

“America’s recent love affair with the Krampus, like any infatuation perhaps, tends to distort the object of its interest…” (Ridenour 10) Perhaps we should be more aware of what we make light of. What if we have summoned into our awareness the sword of justice from more primal times? One can only imagine the amount of justice-letting about to ensue…

Because just as we have distorted the ghost story to fit a Hollywood Blockbuster, we have distorted the meaning of Christmas and its lessons of our place in a dangerously unstable spiritual hierarchy; we have blissfully forgotten upon which plane we reside.

As one of my own fictional story characters once said, “On this level, we are all meat.

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So why not embrace the concept of the Krampus and his ilk? The timing could not be more perfect, with so much of the world still at war with itself, with the ever constant battle of “the Other” so ever-present and just out the front window when it isn’t right in our own homes. When has there been a greater need for justice when the loudest, most obnoxious voices are the most visibly rewarded? When the simple, quiet person just trying to survive is the one who is imprisoned, humiliated, murdered, castigated, blamed and disappeared because his or her existence becomes a random affront to someone else – someone who seems to get away with it sometimes under the very gaze of the world?

Don’t we all crave judgment? Don’t we all cry out for justice? And don’t most of us understand that unless it comes from some all-seeing entity, it will not happen at all?

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And of course this begs the question: how innocent are you?

Enter the Krampus…a handy instrument of the immortals who might be watching our every thought and move. Draped in Christian accoutrement but ever so much older and less inclined to mercy… Doesn’t every one of us in a moment of selfish disenfranchisement crave the reality of his existence? And don’t we all hope it is not us who he comes for?

The Krampus is a gift to modern Horror. Here is our opportunity to take back the fundamental concept of primal judgment…of a vigilant and swift executioner of justice. Once again we can deck the halls with things quite converse to the saccharine holiday we hijacked from its original purpose, reawaken those personal awarenesses of our own stupid mistakes and arrogances that will not go unpunished or ignored if original religion and mythology are to be believed…even reawaken the fear…

Come on. Get Literary. Resurrect our dark holiday tradition.

Write a ghost story for Christmas… root about in the old, forbidden stories. Turn out the lights. Look your demons in the eye.

I dare you.

 

References

Brom. Krampus the Yule Lord. New Yor: Harper Voyager, c2012.

Dalby, Richard, ed. Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories.New York: MetroBooks, c1995.

Dziemianowicz, Stefan, Robert H. Weinberg & Marlin H. Greenberg, eds. 100 Ghastly Little Ghost Stories. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, c1993.

Moon, Jim. “Christmas Spirits Part I: The Origin of Ghost Stories at Christmas” posted 20 December 2011. Retrieved 11/30/2016 from:  http://www.hypnogoria.com/html/ghoststoriesforchristmas.html)

Ridenour, Al. The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House, c2016.

The Haunting of America’s House: Have We Killed the Ghost Story?


One of the most difficult subgenres to write successfully in Horror is the ghost story, and through a century of technological intrusion and religious minimization, the task has not grown any easier. Speculation abounds: have we exhausted the medium? Have we outgrown the concept? Has everything already been done better than we can do it today?

Critics are not sure. Some are of the opinion that the masters of the medium have come and gone along with the “perfect storm” of timing – specifically the literary finesse of a better classically educated writer and the vulnerability of an audience enduring that absolution of all sin – the technological twin projectiles of electricity and the industrial revolution. Others speculate that we are somewhere on the cusp of reinvention because “in short, genres evolve – often through the influence of both aesthetic and economic factors” (Bailey 108).

Either way, there is a truth to acknowledge: our ghost stories – American ghost stories – are failing. Miserably. The question I have, is why? The British in particular are still pulling it off. And although we even might have bested them briefly, in the early 1900’s, when Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Francis Marion Crawford, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James were still part of mainstream reading, we’ve lost that precious story-telling thread: the connective tissue between the ghost and what it represents.

Real Ghosts Scare People

The last time I read a really good ghost story, it came from Iceland. The book was I remember You by international crime writer Yrsa Sigurðardóttir… I cannot praise this book enough for bringing the power of the ghost story back to mind, and any writer who gives me nightmares is welcome on my permanent bookshelf.

How did she do it? She did it by invoking the power of local folklore muddied with the trope of the True Story, and weaving it together with the most famous of the ghost story conventions – the search for revelation and justice, creating empathy for the ghost even as she created terror of its presence. Sigurðardóttir used the possibility of a real ghost of a real person to scare the sound sleep out of us. And it worked. Because real ghosts scare people…not their image, but their possible reality and what that means for all of us.

So what are we missing?

I didn’t have to go far for the answer: we are missing the ghost. Somehow, we have managed to drift away from the actual haunting and turned the haunted house into a circus of absurdity. We have taken one of the most powerful representations of world view in Literature and neutered it, drenching it in distracting contests of evil that by their combined sheer weight, make truth and accountability impossible.

Too many times our ghost fiction is relying on a kind of absolute worst-case scenario… as in Dale Bailey’s recounting of “David Martin’s 1997 crime novel Cul-de-Sac, which pays deliberate homage to the tradition of the haunted house tale. The ill history of the eponymous house reflects the protocols of the formula: Cul-de-Sac began as a vast pre-Civil War hotel that drained the resources of its owner, served at various times in its history as a military hospital and an insane asylum, and became the site of a brutal decapitation murder. The locale is rumored to be the home of Satan, and visitors hear strains of a ghostly piano and encounter infestations of flies…” (Bailey 109).

Ye gods!

This is what the American ghost story has morphed into. And if you don’t think it is a parody of itself, read the classics, or another crime writer like Sigurðardóttir, for example – whose more subtle handling of crime and ghost are lightyears ahead of our game and seated in the real tradition of ghost story telling.

It is almost as though we have lost faith in our own ability to conjure up a ghost that can adequately scare us on its own. And maybe we have. Clearly we are not doing it right: what is more terrifying than the possibility that the afterlife is not at all what we expect it to be, and that any of us could become trapped where we don’t want to be – away from the eyes of God, away from the comfort of others, away from all chance of absolution, alone with our sins and ourselves, denied even the judgment and punishment that ends it all?

What has happened to us? The answer seems to be rooted in that infamous and ongoing battle with Britain over ruins.

That’s right. Piles of stone. Because we don’t have any. Whine, whine.

Being bereft of actual historic ruins that date back into the earliest history of man, we’ve had to improvise. For most of us, home is cookie-cutter suburbia. And when we ran out of ancient Indian burial grounds and curses, when we stopped being world savvy and we rediscovered and fully embraced Poe and his Fall of the House of Usher it occurred to us: maybe it wasn’t about the ghost after all, maybe it was the house…the home, the family, the American Dream…

What if the haunted house is the stand-in for our own twisted sense of entitlement? Eureka…

Apparently, that is most certainly something we could sink our teeth into. Says Bailey, “as long as houses remain a central symbol in American culture, our writers are likely to inhabit them with the anxieties of our day-to-day lives” (109).

This is bad news for traditional ghost story lovers. The promise is one of mundane familiarity, of boring detail, of the self-centered spoiled brat spawned in effigy as the Me Generation (I can say that being born in the thick of it), of – even worse – a kind of revisionist historical view. We have successfully re-written our past out of our spectral fiction. And we have excised the Literary root along with it. We managed to convince ourselves that the ghost is secondary… a mere appendage to wave at our vanishing birthright.

In lieu of castles, abbeys and moors, we went straight to our three-car garages and 900 square foot living rooms. We choose to mourn our own poor choices instead of taking responsibility for them, finding our worst fears materializing in our pantries and mud rooms and personal gyms… Why deal with the uncomfortable truths when you can sit on your overstuffed couch and convince yourself you earned it and the gigantic flat-screen TV guaranteed to blind any ghost in the room?

See, what I find truly sad, is that here we have an opportunity as writers to re-awaken our collective sense of responsibility by invoking the traditional ghost story. And we abdicate. We default to security cameras and found footage.

Certainly, we don’t have those awesome castles and moody moors… but we do have historic tragedies, nationally protected battlefields, ghost towns (ironically), and some pretty awesome and eerie scenery of our own. We don’t have to lurk in a covered bridge to imagine angry peoples cheated of their own heritages, to understand beheaded horsemen, exploited immigrants, stranded pioneers, massacred natives, massacred miners, fires, explosions, collapses, fraud, intimidation, theft, murder, financial ruin, domestic abuse, suicides… we’ve had them all right here without a single castle or downed abbey. For every crime there is an offender and a victim. And every one of us lives our lifetimes built on blood.

For certain, many ghost stories are meant to be nothing more than campfire tales. But do we need more than that to summon the kind of depth that follows us into the dark? The Critics think so. And they may have a point.

Knock, Knock. Who’s There? Boo. Boo Hoo.

Are all great ghosts Literary? Certainly not. But most of the best ghost stories are, even when they are not canon-class. Ghosts are always the after-image of something we have done… A ghost without a backstory is just a special effect. And we have seemed to embrace that formula which by its nature excludes the very humanity of ghosts and conjures unlikely scenarios to magically summon their presence in a plot. The focus is on the family-as-victim – more often the White Anglo Saxon Protestant family as victim. And to clearly not make things racist, the ghost is typically  entangled with legends of an anglo witch, a dead (or alive) psychotic murderer, or the very Devil himself.

We don’t know how to successfully include history or other peoples in our haunted houses without sounding trite. So we just simply don’t. And in creating so much of this kind of two-dimensional fiction, have we killed the American ghost story?

We’d have to turn out the lights to see… yet we are always in possession of artificial light, so we can better enjoy our artificial values. Does this mean despite the prolific dominance of technology that we are still really afraid of ghosts? That we have more than a few skeletons rotting in our closets which we are too afraid to acknowledge? I think it does.

Today the American ghost story is all hype, flash and bang with no substance. We are wrapped up in and consumed by our own sense of loss and fear of the future. What started out in the 1900’s with promise has all but languished on American bookshelves of late, victim of its own failed promises. Or maybe it is the premises that have failed.

Really. It’s Not the House That’s Haunted.

The first time I heard that phrase it turned me a bit on my ear. It was kind of thought-provoking, an interesting theory about ghosts, a reversion to “the purposeful ghost” of the seventeenth century whose dogged appearance was motivated by “the need to address wrongs, warn of danger, reveal secrets, or cure sickness” (Bennett 18). Such promise lies with those ghosts. Such promise in the phrase itself… But then we really tinkered with it, and before long it also smacked of our American penchant for “evil” … the need for speed in accelerating our terror element beyond the capacity of the story itself. And once we get started, we can’t seem to stop ourselves.

Here we are not revising or expanding the ghost story, we are simple trampling it. And the truly weird thing is that we are using things we profess to not even believe in to do it. Is it any wonder we aren’t scaring anyone?

One has to ask why a country so at ease in dismissing the interaction of God, Heaven and Hell in real life cannot keep our mitts off of Pure Evil for Evils’ sake (even in our fiction). And why is that supposed to scare anyone? If the Reformation purged the reality of ghosts from our midst (a view coincidentally enhanced by the electric light), how can any mere ghost hope to advance an agenda without it? Yet if we don’t accept the duality of magical thought – that neither good nor evil exist without the other – have we not reopened the very argument the Reformation was meant to seal forever? And doesn’t a reluctance to advance at least the questions asked by religion sabotage the ghost before it can walk? Is that why we dust off the devil so often?

Tradition would suggest so. Because the ghost story tradition is all about accountability, justice for the marginalized. If The Devil Made Us Do It, are we not absolved? Blameless? Innocent as newborn babes?

The British writers of spectral fiction clearly know this is a cop-out. And let’s face it, the Reformation started in their neighborhood. If anyone was going to be derailed by Protestantism in the ghost story, it should have been them. Yet there is no such disorientation in British ghost stories. The weird gyrations are all ours, and that makes the explanation all the more personal.

From what I see as a reader of ghost stories, the problem is the American aversion to the confession of sins. Maybe it is our Protestant roots showing, or maybe it is our more alarming contemporary tendency toward historical revisionism. But the ghost story is all about confronting our own sins and the American ghost story has morphed into a blame-the-victim plot point. By victim, I do not mean the haunted person, or the haunted house; no, our victim has become the ghost itself and everything it stands for

What better way to proclaim our own innocence?

We do not seek to empathize with the ghost, to solve the mystery, to bring it peace, to wish it well, to coax it into The Light. Instead, the hapless spirit becomes the tool of something bigger, larger, worse. The Worst. The Worst EVER.

That way, we can set out to banish it. We can blow up the house it inhabits, the very same way our dreams have been imploded by those we cannot quite reach as they build ever larger mansions above us.

Remember, it’s not the house that’s haunted. It’s poor us. We are the victims.

Yet we built the house. And the house is the problem.

Knock, Knock. Who’s There. You. You Who?

In his Critical look at the ghost story, American Nightmares: the Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction, Dale Bailey states, “The contemporary haunted house formula dispenses not only with ghosts, but the ontological uncertainty – did anything spectral really happen? … Instead, the formula opts for a flatly prosaic depiction of the supernatural in which the house itself is sentient and malign, independent of any ghosts which may be present (and very frequently none are)” (5-6).

Vengeful ghost trouble? We’ll fix you… Responsible for building a wondrous country on a hideous legacy of genocide, child labor, slavery, and misogyny? No problem. Tah dah! It was the house…Evil happens. Not our fault then. Still not our fault.

Yet the house itself is a “tell.” And it is telling on us.

Says Bailey, “…the tale of the haunted house, while rooted in the European gothic tradition, has developed a distinctly American resonance…In part, I think, the answer grows out of the clash between American ideals and realities, the three or four key themes in American life to which the house, and especially the haunted house, naturally lends itself as a vehicle for commentary…Good haunted house novels… often provoke our fears about ourselves and our society, and, at their very best, they present deeply subversive critiques of all that we hold to be true – about class, about race, about gender, about American history itself. In part because of the formulaic construction, such novels frequently employ their settings not only to indict American culture, but to suggest ways it might be profitably reformed” (5-6)

Try hiding from that under your bedsheets…

So the house itself, in becoming home, also became a symbol of the American Dream and by its placement in neighborhoods, its illustriousness of walls, it defines who gets to participate, who is nurtured by the Dream and who is devoured by it, or worse, who is sacrificed in its name.

The irony is that no one is immune. Forget the ancient Indian burial ground: we are our own personal devils. Continues Bailey, “The afterglow of the American Revolution had barely worn off when a new generation of American writers began to suspect a startling and unpleasant truth: that they had toppled King George only to raise King Dollar in his stead” (7). The centuries since, have informed all of us that equity was not going to be part of the promise kept.

So where is the writer in all of this? Why aren’t we hearing a voice of outrage cast in luminous ectoplasm?

Maybe we’re just too busy trying to baffle ’em with bullsh**t. Or maybe we are afraid we won’t get published if we call it like we see it. Or maybe it’s a little of both.

Chaos is Not Enough

In reading Literary Critic S. T. Joshi’s critical essay on Horror author Peter Straub, I found phrases that seem to apply alarmingly frequently to the modern American ghost story. For example, we too often neglect to “account adequately” for a viable origin of the supernatural element, (Joshi 204), or even occasionally fail to commit to whether the supernatural is even really involved at all, leaving the reader to stew over the reality of events (205), or we sabotage the climax with an anti-climax in some misconstrued attempt to surprise the reader with some misbegotten truth (205). Too often we share what Joshi calls “an awkwardness in writing a plausible conclusion’’ (206), or even a “penchant for happy endings… [including] the complete elimination of the horror, whether it be natural or supernatural” (207).

Why are we doing this? And if it isn’t ignorance or ineptitude, is it fear?

In my opinion, Joshi nailed all of our coffins closed with one essay. American ghost stories today come across as lazily conceived, half-baked, over-anticipated opportunities for special effects. And if you love ghost stories – really love them – you know that the worst always happens in your own head.

The classics were written with this very awareness. We were not plagued with mundane details, the minutiae of ordinary life and boring characters designed to lull us into a false sense of security… because why pay to read what we all already live? Yet it seems we can’t stop ourselves. And the result is mind-numbing; we see more and more ghost story fiction that seems to be taking its tradition from screenwriting in place of Literature, utilizing the idea of the mind-as-camera, foisting us –willing or otherwise – into the long preamble of a supernatural event being developed as we read, absent of creative control and abandoning all hope of Literary intent.

Once again I discovered useful and appropriate phrasing within the context of another Joshi essay, this time on Robert Aickman, addressing the need for logic in supernatural fiction. Because I also see the obvious suspension of logic being used as an excuse for “mystifying” the reader, or dazzling the reader with alleged arcane detail that simply has no connection to events that the reader can make or appreciate…as though making the reader murmur, “I don’t get it” is supposed to imply that the writing is “deep” when it is just convoluted.

Therefore, I find myself in agreement with Joshi in his quote of L.P. Hartley, “a master of weird fiction…” who stated, “The ghost story writer’s task is the more difficult [i.e., than the detective story writer’s] for not only must he create a world in which reason doesn’t hold sway, but he must invent laws for it. Chaos is not enough. Even ghosts must have rules and obey them” (220).

So have we ruined ghost fiction and the story of the haunted house? I think not, but it’s time for a change from our current trajectory. We have explored this spur of the track as far as it goes and it is a dead end (no pun intended). We have to stop the chaotic dance that makes our spectral fiction read like a cartoon and Hollywood salivate. We are fiction writers, and our tradition is to poke the beast, not bribe it.

Is our haunted house really the American Dream? Maybe. But nobody likes a whiner, and right now, to write our ghosts disguised as mourning the ease of access to the American Dream which was itself a unique phenomenon in an unrepeatable period of American history is no less than whining. Our ghosts are better than that, and so are we. Maybe we should look at the poetic justice of it… And channel ghosts – real ghosts – in much smaller, age-appropriate houses.

Now that would be terrifying.

 

REFERENCES

Bailey, Dale. American Nightmares: the Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, c1999.

Bennett, Giliian. The 100 Best British Ghost Stories. Gloucestershire: Amberly Publishing, c2012.

Joshi S.T. The Modern Weird Tale. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., c2001.

Sigurðardóttir, Yrsa. I Remember You: a Ghost Story. New York: Minotaur Books, c2012.