Sredni Vashtar: the Beautiful Terror of My Childhood (Why You Should Know the Writings of Saki/H.H. Munro)


One of the biggest detriments to not-having your genre acknowledged as its own Literary genre early enough is the probability of certain authors and certain stories being simply…forgotten… in the rush to recognition.

In today’s world of out-of-sight, out-of-mind thinking, we are at perhaps an even greater risk of losing track of what has gone before (and especially for American Horror readers, if those writers and stories are not American). Those authors and those stories hide in plain sight, often labeled as “kid’s stories” or Young Readers stories…Young Adult… They are categorized within the anonymity of broad genre labels, all too often not narrowed down to the familiar genres like Fantasy or Horror.

Instead, they are tucked into anonymous collections of other stories – those peculiar selections of odd works by established, Literary names whose proximity-by-binding is designed to “hook” young readers into the discovery process of reading and creating an undefined, unshaped hunger for Literature. Yet many of these stories – while so relevant to youth – are also so keenly relevant to their individual genres that even adults are susceptible to their magic… which means something — especially when such tales are remembered decades after the reading of them.

It is a difficult and miraculous thing for an author to create such a story – so immediately ordinary by its concept and yet so hauntingly extraordinary by its telling that its mere existence bears mention and demands acknowledgement. So why don’t we know those author’s names and their stories?

For the last five decades one such tale has haunted me, reminding me of what we all as Horror writers aspire to – that one significant story that no one ever forgets... And re-reading it as an adult changes nothing. Indeed, tucked neatly in between those half-remembered reading lists and Literature textbooks with short story collections are stories I now never hear mentioned, and I wonder if we have misplaced these authors accidentally or on purpose—because just such a one provided a story whose name and details stayed with me for over fifty years after one reading…

Sredni Vashtar, by H.H. Munro, also known as Saki.

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Understanding How Horror is Discovered in an Unused Toolshed

What is it about reading a great story for the first time, about being seven years old and having a story crouch in your imagination decades later? How exactly does the mind become the tool shed, repository of forbidden feelings and childhood resentments – shaping the imagination like moonlight shapes silhouettes in a dark room?

Surely it is because it is already there…a makeshift box for all of the sins we endure, all of the sins we imagine…

It occurs to me I had some wickedly awesome English teachers in my youth.

And I am not saying it is their fault I became a writer of Horror fiction, but it certainly helped.

It was the story that seemed to have changed everything – “Sredni Vashtar,” the first Horror story I remember reading — and having it rock my world. I also remember how it made me feel – guilty and satiated all at the same time, dissociated from my own bullied life, and vividly aware of how inadequate the class discussion afterward seemed. Did they not “get” it? I wondered. Am I the only one who sees?

I know now that every child feels that way…alone, isolated…vulnerable because we are taking the whole world into the damaged vessel of ourselves trying to make sense of who we are while so many are trying to force us into shapes we do not recognize. Listening to that class discussion, I checked out. I missed the first real opportunity to understand how to read critically because I was already obsessed. I was already a Horror fan, and simply did not know it…

Because in my mind Sredni Vashtar lived…where there are bullies, such things happen.

Horror today has been neatly packed into a restrictive set of monsters and tropes. It is as though we are afraid that if we venture too far out of genre conventions, we lose ourselves. We avoid gray areas, and sneer at labeling certain tales as childish things. Yet that is exactly how the genre grows – by invading other gardens, casting spores among the resident flowers, and riding strange blooms as parasites until the new buds open blood red and spill out a new species of life…

We seem bound and determined to narrow definitions instead of expanding them, locking out certain families of Horror. Some of this comes as we prepare to establish our genre within the field Literary Criticism. But some of it also seems to rise from nefarious fears that we are losing…something…perhaps identity…perhaps control.

In the mad dash to the finish line, we have grabbed our tomes of Lovecraft and Poe and tossed Stephen King into our box of must-saves-from-the-purging-fire of the Tech Revolution. But we don’t even know the names of those who came in between, let alone that they simply have to be saved.

Hector Hugh Munro is one such author… One whose work reaches beyond childish things and right into adulthood, because with stories like “Sredni Vashtar” he has reminded us that Horror starts early – that it is those very emotions we learn to control and subvert as children that make us who we are, and feeds the monsters of our genre.

H.H. Munro is also another potential foundational author of the Horror genre, writing under the pseudonym Saki. “He adopted the name in 1900, and it’s believed to have been taken from a character from the works of the Persian poet, Omar Khayyam.” (Reimann)

Another British author (what a surprise!) Munro has been described as a “Scottish writer and journalist whose stories depict the Edwardian social scene with a flippant wit and power of fantastic invention used both to satirize social pretension, unkindness, and stupidity and to create an atmosphere of horror…” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

The son of an officer in the Burmese police, Munro was born in Burma (what is now Myanmar) in 1870. He and his sister were returned to England and the care of a “strict, puritanical” grandmother and aunts after the untimely death of their mother when he was two years old; “He later took revenge on their strictness and lack of understanding by portraying tyrannical aunts in many of his stories about children.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

As an adult he served as a police officer in India, and was posted to Burma before contracting malaria which forced his return to England in 1895, and which is alleged to have led him to become a writer. Munro “never married and may have been gay, but homosexuality was a crime in Britain during Munro’s lifetime and the decorum of the times would have required him to keep that part of his life secreted away… ” During World War I, he was killed in action at the Battle of Ancre (November 14, 1916) by a German sniper. (Summary; Raimann)

Other sources seem to confirm Munro’s “secret.” And they also reveal a very familiar “theme” for white male writers of the time: racism and a touch of misogyny. “Munro was certainly wary of the growing Jewish presence in England, and he ridiculed the mounting women’s suffrage movement. Still, however chauvinistic his politics were, Munro knew something about marginalization. As a homosexual in Edwardian England, in which one risked being tried for gross indecency, Munro chose to be secretive to the point of repression for his entire life.” (Reimann)

So why is a man so much a cookie-cutter of our genre’s representation of his period — one where Horror had begun to seriously flower — no longer worthy of mention?

The mind boggles. But it also begins to have suspicions…And Sredni Vashtar howls from the shed — because Munro’s works have indeed held their own against so many bigger names of his time (Wilde, Kipling, Wodehouse)… Why don’t we know him?

“As Christopher Hitchens wrote, Munro ‘is among those few writers, inspirational when read at an early age, who definitely retain their magic when revisited decades later.’” (Reimann) Yet those in this country who read him as children are growing older…and young people don’t seem to speak his name…

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And all the while, those of us who read him cannot forget him. Perhaps that has to do with the relevance of his writing, with the collective memory of every childhood.

“Sredni Vashtar” is iconic. He is archetype made manifest, made justice…

From the outset of “Sredni Vashtar” we are faced with the problem of an unfortunate child becoming a horrible child. ..an evil child who delights in the vanquishing of his perceived enemies with an unbridled relish that resonates within every child who has endured the bullying of adults or peers.

Yet we cannot stop there because Munro did not. In fact, “Sredni Vashtar’ might also be considered a darker version of the familiar trope found in children’s fiction: the idea of the child having a wish granted. It might also be viewed as a satirical take on religious practice and observance…” (Summary)

Truth can be a very scary thing – especially truths about how we really, bluntly feel – especially when we are children…and believe in magical thinking.

Yet growing up, we cannot escape the raw conjuring of that original thought of revenge; we remember it vividly – the need for it, the primal hunger for it, the knowledge of how it should taste.

We are confronted with the possibility that we ourselves will have to admit we have also had these fantasies – at least once as children, and now even as adults.

Of course it is unsettling; this is what psychology is all about.

But it is also what Horror is all about.

We discover the most terrifying of Horrors in the most unobtrusive of places…the “normal” places… those we would never suspect of having rich and lethal depths teeming with cries for justice that become twisted and mutilated by our own desperation…

Horror is also about the discovery of unsavory truths.

What does bullying do to us—always that perpetual child eternally wounded by words and actions that bombarded us in our most vulnerable moments, when no one came to our rescue and our souls cried out for vengeance.

Do we not carry those images and fantasies into adulthood? Who among us has not fed a coworker to a monster in the quiet depths of a lonely cubicle? Who among us has not cried out its name?

When we look for the value of Literary elements, we are confronted with them in Munro’s works. But we are also confronted with Horror. And when that Horror transcends childish things, we know it is no longer “just” Young Adult or Young Reader material.

In fact, I have had a hard time considering Munro a children’s author at all. I suppose it depends on how deep one really wants to go… But when we talk about children’s Literature – about the purpose of it – should we not also be talking about the importance and relevance of genre?

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The Importance of Spine-Tingling Tales

We often worry about what our children might see or read – forgetting that they do in fact see everything…

But what we also tend to forget is what scary stories did for us as kids. Scary stories brought out into the open the things that knifed us in the dark. They gave our fears images and resolution – even if such solutions were unsavory or socially unacceptable. With scary stories, we had permission to not only be afraid, but to fight back…to defeat our monsters…to win despite our insecurities and flaws.

In fiction, we get to weigh the consequences of our actions. And sometimes, our thoughts.

Fear is what I remember most about my childhood. Fear of displeasing authority, fear of divorce (since every other kid seemed to be going through it), fear of other kids, fear of math and math teachers, fear of getting lost, fears of being left, fears of being disliked by my own family (reinforced by a sister who clearly wished I had never come along), and fear of never being good enough. Life in the military made it better; where my sister dreaded every new school and every new post, I loved it. I loved the chance to start over where no one knew my embarrassing flaws which I blithely hoped each time we moved I had left in our last quarters.

Of course they came with me, messing up potential new friendships, leaving me perpetually shy and easily humiliated. Bullies found me quickly, my own sister often among them, leaving me feeling so often pummeled by adult criticisms and children’s insulting nicknames.

Until I found reading, I felt alone – horribly, vulnerably alone. But when I discovered the kind of stories that spoke to my fears, everything changed. The bullying continued, the shyness grew and the humiliations continued to roll in – but then I had a secret: I knew something of who I was. I knew that I had a shed, and Sredni Vashtar was in it.

The stories I remember most were Horror stories, ghost stories, tales of terror…strange tales of the unexpected… And they felt like they were written especially for me… It was like having a cozy grandpa reading me each one…It was like my feelings were more than okay to have.

So I devoured them. Each time a reading assignment happened, I was looking for the Horror, dismissing the ones that weren’t scary, embracing the ones that were…It’s how I became a fan of Greek Mythology (thank you, Mrs. Allison) and fairy tales (thank you, Mrs. Miller) … It’s how I tripped into history and found myself reading about the 1914 Russian Revolution, about Wounded Knee, about the Civil War…about Lizzie Borden…

Despite my immersion into art at that point in my life, books spoke to me. And I hunted them down with fervor. Stories – mostly short stories in that time before too much Young Adult – that were written by long-dead folks with wicked imaginations. Each time I read a good one, I wondered if the adults knew what they were promoting… I feared them being taken away…

But the one that dominated my passion was “Sredni Vashtar”… and I had to have it. I ordered it from my Weekly Reader book club in 1967. I believe it was 35 cents, and I got a whole book of Saki’s stories for the hefty price…

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(This was the one…exactly the one….yep…35 cents….)

Why might such a story be such an epiphany for a seven year old?

Perhaps because the only control a seven year old has is in their own minds. Perhaps because when you are seven, everyone else has power over you.

Conradin horrified me…that left to his own devices, he would devise a means of revenge that only a child could appreciate.Yet in my own way I knew Conradin; as does every child. We utilize and wield wishes then, as though they hold their own magical power…and then we are shaken when it appears that they do…even as we make new wishes…

The reading of spine-tinglers are an important rite of passage for most children. For some reason it is those maligned tales which open the vein to Literature for many of us. Perhaps reading them feels covert – like we suspect the teacher doesn’t really “get” it – not like we do as children (because it is not that we forget, but that we never really know for certain that our teachers were ever children…there always remains something shallow and possibly untrue when they say “when I was your age…”)

Spine-tinglers open so many doors…sometimes doors that lead to toolsheds…

When a writer transforms the ordinary, the real emotions which roil about shaping fantasies in our heads makes them come alive, turns them into marionettes that dance on desires that rise from the bully’s oppressive acts and exact the justice we so desperately need, that writer is a salvation…the work an epiphany. We can take the story at face value, sensing and riding the undercurrent that rises like an ocean swell to carry the imagination through decades of other Horrors…or we can learn to see what Literature is all about; we can talk in terms of evil, and child psychology, and the effects of bullying…

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We can even dive into the details of  a writer’s life… measure the effects of secrets on souls, explore and theorize about the true personal cost of speculation and rumor and innuendo of an author’s possible sexual orientation in oppressive times.

But we cannot do so without wondering if that speculation has anything to do with Munro’s absence in the light of our new day – at least in the educating of American Horror audiences. Has Munro – like Tanith Lee – been censored out of our canon-elect? And has he been buried for the same bigoted reason: the fear that reading his work will alter our children’s minds and morals?

It seems a very real and very dark possibility.

And if so, it is one that is cheating us out of important works – the kind that drive creativity in the genre.

“Sredni Vashtar” is about bullying, plain and simple. It is about childish, passionate revenge. It is about the wishes of childhood and the corruption of innocence as created by the bully, not the victim.

If we are looking at the work of censors, isn’t it time we stopped the stupidity? If we are going to elevate writers who strongly disliked women (Bram Stoker and Lovecraft) or those whose lives are marred by substance abuse (Poe and even King), why is author gender and sexual orientation such a source of ostracism? Are we really so moral a genre, so perfect a species?

I am saying we can’t afford to lose writers like H.H. Munro – especially because of any possibility of some misplaced moral judgment. We need to read him. We need to claim him. We need our future Horror Literary Critics to add his name to their lists for canon consideration because in Horror we all have Things living in our tool sheds…

As a genre built on the primal fears we all face as children, how can we ignore a writer so in tune with the social terrors of childhood? And aren’t we all of us damaged in some way by the world we live in?

Perhaps it’s time we embraced Saki because of the scars.

Sredni Vashtar demands it.

 

The Works Of Saki (H.H. Munro)

Novels

The Chronicles of Clovis

When William Came

 Short Stories

A Bread and Butter Miss
A Defensive Diamond

Adrian
A Holiday Task
A Matter of Sentiment
A Touch of Realism
A Young Turkish Catastrophe
Bertie’s Christmas Eve
Canossa
Clovis on Parental Responsibilities

Cousin Teresa
Cross Currents
Down Pens
Dusk
Esme
Expecting Mrs. Pentherby
Fate
Filboid Studge
Forewarned
For the Duration of the War
Fur
Gabriel-Ernest
Hermann The Irascible
Hyacinth
Judkin of the Parcels
Laura

Louis
Louise
Mark
Ministers of Grace
Morlvera
Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger
On Approval
Quail Seed
Reginald
Reginald at the Carlton
Reginald at the Theatre
Reginald in Russia
Reginald on Besetting Sins
Reginald on Christmas Presents
Reginald on House-Parties
Reginald on Tariffs
Reginald on the Academy
Reginald on Worries
Reginald’s Choir Treat
Reginald’s Christmas Revel

Reginald’s Drama
Reginald’s Peace Poem
Reginald’s Rubaiyat
Shock Tactics
Sredni Vashtar
Tea
The Background
The Bag
The Baker’s Dozen
The Blind Spot
The Blood-Feud of Toad-Water
The Boar-Pig
The Brogue
The Bull
The Byzantine Omelette
The Chaplet
The Cobweb
The Cupboard of the Yesterdays
The Disappearance of Crispina Umberleigh

The Dreamer
The Easter Egg
The Elk
The Feast of Nemesis
The Forbidden Buzzards
The Guests
The Hedgehog
The Hen
The Hounds of Fate
The Image of the Lost Sole
The Innocence of Reginald
The Interlopers
The Jesting of Arlington Stringham
The Lost Sanjak
The Lull
The Lumber Room
The Mappined Life
The Match-Maker
The Mouse
The Music on the Hill
The Name-Day

The Occasional Garden
The Open Window
The Oversight
The Peace Offering
The Peace of Mowsle Barton
The Pennance
The Phantom Luncheon
The Philanthropist and the Happy Cat
The Purple of the Balkan Kings
The Quest
The Quince Tree
The Recessional
The Remoulding of Groby Lington
The Reticence of Lady Anne
The Romancers
The Saint and the Goblin
The Schartz-Metterklume Method
The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope
The Seven Cream Jugs
The Seventh Pullet

The Sex That Doesn’t Shop
The Sheep
The She-Wolf
The Soul of Laploshka
The Stake
The Stalled Ox
The Stampeding of Lady Bastable
The Story of St. Vespaluus
The Storyteller
The Strategist
The Talking-Out of Tarrington
The Threat
The Toys of Peace
The Treasure-Ship
The Unkindest Blow
The Unrest-Cure
The Way to the Dairy
The Wolves of Cernogatz
The Yarkand Manner
Tobermory
Wratislav

 

 References

Reimann Matt. “Hector Hugo Munro: The Strange Ideology of Saki.” Dec. 18, 2015. Books Tell You Why.com. Retrieved 5/29/19 from https://blog.bookstellyouwhy.com/hector-hugh-munro-the-strange-ideology-of-saki

American Literature. Retrieved 5/30/19 from https://americanliterature.com/author/hh-munro-saki

Encyclopedia Brittanica. Retreived 5/31/19 from from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saki-Scottish-writer

“A Summary and Analysis of Saki’s ‘Sredni Vashtar.” Interesting Literature. Retrieved 5/26/19 from https://interestingliterature.com/2017/04/20/a-summary-and-analysis-of-sakis-sredni-vashtar/

Racism, Bigotry & Misogyny: Why Being Morally Dubious Does Not Affect the Prominence of Lovecraft


As new biographies and Critical works and essays are published, more and more people are learning the awful truth about H.P. Lovecraft – the man ascribed to be the Father of the Modern Horror genre – that he was a racist, classist, arrogant bigot and misogynist.

In a world where we are increasingly affected by the consequence of such views, where do we draw the line? Where should we draw the line? And why – because of his contributions – do we seem so willing to look the other way?

What makes Lovecraft different? And how can we look to Lovecraft as a creative example with all of the things we now know about him?

The answer is complicated. But for those who recoil in disgust or offense, there are very important reasons why Lovecraft cannot be damned for his faults. And while we may wish to condemn him for his offensive-yet- period-driven personal views, if we are wont to do so we must also look at his own personal arc of growth.

The lesson is this: once we open the door to weighing an author’s work based on his or her personal life, we must include the totality of that life.

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The Literary Defense

For those who dislike Literary Critics for seeming arbitrary in their judgments, Lovecraft seems the perfect example of the divide between Critics and fans of the genre. Have they not dirtied their hands and sullied their reputations elevating the creative status of a man who was not shy in his contempt for almost everyone else?

Lovecraft himself makes it easy to think so. As Charlotte Montague states in her biographical work, HP Lovecraft, the Mysterious Man Behind the Darkness, “Indeed racist sentiments can be found in his stories. ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ – described by the English fantasy fiction author [and Literary Critic], China Mieville, as ‘extraordinarily racist’…going further in my opinion than ‘merely’ ‘being’ a racist – I follow Michel Houellebecq…in thinking that Lovecraft’s oeuvre, his work itself, is inspired by and deeply structured with race hatred…” (Montague 101)

Make no mistake: this is not a maligning of Lovecraft, but a fact he himself boldly advertised in his own words and letters, confessing to being “known as an anti-Semite” (despite having married a Jewish woman), and displaying “contempt and even disgust for black people…Asians, Arabs, Mexicans, Italians, the Irish and Poles…” (101)

Yet such a reprehensible man sits at the top of our genre…

Do we not have an obligation to question why we select the people we do to elevate by excuse? Is this a case of “the end justifies the means”?

Surprisingly, the answer is no.

And a great deal of that answer has to do with Lovecraft himself – a man who “derived greatest pleasure from ‘symbolic identification with the landscape and tradition-stream to which I belong…” (Joshi 216). He was therefore a man caught in the constrictions of his own race and class at the time, a man whose search for understanding led to tremendous attempts at self-education and philosophical thought, whose own views changed during his relatively short life. This meager transition of personal growth (which some may see as underserved and inadequate), has importance in the Literary Critical scheme of things. Because an arc is an arc…

While we can recoil in disgust or “enlightened” superiority at many of his early enunciations against other races and classes, we also must acknowledge that we ourselves live in another time; we cannot know the struggle he might have had to understand his own world in the context of his personal, yet tightly shaped world view. Yet the needle did move.

For example, according to S.T. Joshi (todays’ most erudite scholar of all things Lovecraft), “Initially, Lovecraft felt that a frankly hereditary aristocracy was the only political system to ensure a high level of civilization” – an important observation when “in his preferences for political organization, Lovecraft again made it clear that the preservation of a rich and thriving culture was all that concerned him.” But during his lifetime, he did in fact begin to change, leaving fascist views behind “…as the prosperous twenties gave way to the Depression of the thirties, he began to realize that a restoration of the sort of aristocracy of privilege, cultivation, and civic-mindedness advocated (and embodied) by Henry Adams was highly unlikely, in the days of labor unions, political bosses and crass plutocrats of business who did not have sufficient refinement to be the leaders of any civilization Lovecraft cared about. The solution for Lovecraft was socialism.” (Joshi 217)

This one example reveals the simple fact that Lovecraft explored his own theories of not only what classes of peoples constituted “civilization” but how it should unfold during his brief life. We cannot know where his unrealized contemplations and potential epiphanies would have taken him; we simply know that he was a person whose ideas were in constant transit. We simply have as evidence an abbreviated life’s peripheral writings like correspondence and essays in which to frame his writings.

Should we then be privy to that private journey? Some Critics say yes, some say no.

But whether we do look at the private side of Lovecraft or not also can be said to have less direct bearing on his body of Literary work. Its total impact on the genre is not about his personal views but his world view as depicted BY his work…not so much about race as about humanity’s futile place in the cosmos. And while his personal views certainly “color” how he depicts this world view, it does not serve any greater purpose in his writing.

For Literary Critics, the reasons for this have more to do with what Lovecraft does with his writing that makes him what he is within the future Horror canon. The changes he makes there are Literary changes.

Again, we must remember that Literary Critics do not read for Criticism in the way WE might do while on vacation at the beach – the way we do every day. This is not “rationalism” but a reality. Neither is it the sign of a dog whistle – which is never heard if one is not a dog.

We read texts at face value – as fun romps through Horror universes. We are not seeking out double entendre, hidden meanings, subtext, or moral messages. In fact, we used to cede that intermediate ground to reviewers, who would point out details that made us sigh, “oh yeah…neat…” and triple our admiration of our chosen authors. Now we simply read in abject ignorance.

And we can do that with Lovecraft, seeing only the surface story. Lovecraft made such intriguing monsters – so many of them derived from real-life night terrors he experienced as a child – some still so reeking of childish imagination that we can easily identify with them– like the monster described as a mass of cosmic bubbles and sometimes seen in streams…Yog Sothoth… And for many of us any further allegory to racial superiority or class superiority is lost on us; we are indeed too obtuse to see it, too untrained, too not-caring.

It is easy to be bewitched by both monster and story… we identify with them without seeing anything nefarious, without suspecting too much in the way of bigotry or misogyny, forgetting our indoctrination by period pieces like Disney princesses because we are in fact indoctrinated…

This is not always part of a subversive plot, but more a matter of sociological evolution… we are all victims of our times – Lovecraft being no exception – and it is hard to clearly see something so thoroughly incorporated into our culture that it seems like this is the way it always was…like it has some divine endorsement.

Shaking loose of that takes generations. So when Literary Critics are faced with someone who so reeks of his time period that we can be properly “taken aback” at his “normalized” view of his fellow human beings, at his atheism, his love of Classic history, at his embrace of the scientific and the promise of astronomy… they see time capsules. And while we can cringe in discomfort at what a man like Lovecraft really, truly believed about his fellow human beings, we can also see the world he was living in.

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Lovecraft in His Time

It always sounds like an oversimplified, if not convenient excuse to say, “he was a product of his times.”

But we need to acknowledge that the further back in history we go, the more this is true. We are spoiled today with access to information – to such an extent, in fact, that we have little sympathy for those who think in narrow ways, because we cannot imagine what it is to live in small, isolated, rigidly contained islands of carefully constructed and forcefully maintained social hierarchies. Perhaps a brief recollection of high school would be helpful, because if we think our own times do not contaminate our beliefs, then we are fools.

Yet we do have to look at that – at what surrounds a writer or an artist when they are creating their life’s work – especially if we are threatening to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Lovecraft was a sickly child of failing upper class parents. Early in his life, his father suffered from a “psychosis” ascribed to syphilis by some, dying when Lovecraft was a toddler. Lovecraft, however, would claim his death was the result of a “paralyzing stroke.” The loss of his father and his father’s income resulted in he and his mother removing to the Phillips family estate, placing him under “the smothering attention of his mother and two aunts, his grandmother, and the maidservants… (Montague 15) With the death of his grandfather at age five, he began having night terrors, suffering what he called a “near breakdown” in 1898 and another two years later…Students of his life have in fact suspected he might have also suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome as well , as he showed a number of known symptoms such as antisocial behavior, reluctance to leave familiar places, etc. (26) At times exhibiting signs of depression and suicidal thought, he was frequently plagued with intolerance, insecurity, and “nervous fatigue”… (34)

People do not live in vacuums. We have families and circumstances unique to ourselves. But we also are ships on our own cultural oceans.

And if we are going to weigh the soul of Lovecraft, we must also look at the culture that was influencing him; it does not exclude him from being an often reprehensible, unpleasant creature, but it just might explain why Lovecraft successfully exploits the fear of the Other without being an instigator of it. In Lovecraft’s writings, his racism is used as setting to fuel “fear of the unknown” and “fear of invasion” and “fear of something without conscience.” Had he been alive in the 1980’s, he might well have written a literary version of Jaws….

“Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous.” – H.P. Lovecraft

No, we cannot escape the impact of a writer’s experiences on his writing. Sometimes our own culture informs our writing, and sometimes it confirms our own terrors so that we write with a perceived, implied authority – convincingly… and in ways that span lifetimes. It does not help our case if we write stories published by our own, read by our own, judged by our own and preserved by our own.

Indeed, a whole lotta Lovecraft resonates with disenfranchised white males today. And here is an example of the how and why any buried dog whistle – that institutionalized dog whistle inserted by rote in his works – might sometimes have that particular sociological effect. But what should concern us here as we judge Lovecraft the man, is that it shows no evidence of ever having been meant to.

In preparing for this post, I was immediately struck by the truth of how shaped we are by our peers when I happened across these two paragraphs while reading The Trial of Lizzie Borden: a True Story by Cara Robertson. And while that real-life Horror story does not sound like it would hold any relevance, keep in mind the Borden drama took place a mere 18 miles to the southeast of Providence and some 200 miles east from New York City, sharing by proximity the same social Petrie dish…

“In this era [1892 for Lizzie, Lovecraft—1890 to 1937], America derived its vision of the criminal classes from European models of criminality… [Cesare Lombroso, a leading proponent from the Italian school of criminology] drawing upon contemporary anthropological studies of ‘other races’…believed the physical structures of their bodies displayed their criminal natures… ’he is like a man who has remained animalized…’” (Roberston [25])

and

“In one of her popular lectures, the prominent suffragist [my emphasis] and temperance advocate, Mary Ashton Rice Livermore contended: ‘an invasion of migrating peoples, outnumbering the Goths and Vandals that overran the south of Europe, has brought to our shores a host of undesirable aliens…Unlike the earlier and desirable immigrants, who have helped the republic retain its present greatness, these hinder its developments. They are discharged convicts, paupers, lunatics, imbeciles, peoples suffering from loathsome and contagious diseases, incapables, illiterates, defective, contract laborers, who are smuggled hither to work for reduced wages, and who crowd out our native workingmen and women.” (Robertson [26])

How amazing (and disappointing) when we are faced with the fact of how little our political rhetoric has changed…even as our targets have changed, as evidenced again by Robertson:

“…Large influxes of immigrants into Fall River – mostly Irish Catholic, French Canadian and Portuguese – altered the composition of the city in the course of the nineteenth century…Irish Catholic and English immigrants comprised the majority of workers in the textile mills by 1850. By 1885. French Canadians were the most important single ethnic group employed in the region’s textile industry…Each of the city’s social groups inhabited distinct geographical sectors. The segmentation into ethnic ghettoes paralleled the pattern of settlement in other industrial New England towns of the same period…” [20-21]

This means that Lovecraft – despite what appears in his work as uniquely bigoted and racist and misogynist – was a social conformist in his time; he was not alone in his prejudices and suspicions, which were at the least regional and publicly reinforced. The fears of the sociological moment fanned his own, and did so at such an extent that those fears are inseparable from his work.

But it is also a unique characteristic of inherent and institutionalized racism that the arrogance of the moment leads to the assumption that all people of reason, all people of your own class – agree.

So there is no preaching to the reader evidenced in his writings, because in Lovecraft’s mind, only white males like him would read and assess his works and any dog whistles were naturally, subconsciously infused with no conscious effort: Lovecraft’s intended audience was mostly himself and those like himself. There was no need to explain or recruit. He simply “reported” his observations and documented his fears.

It doesn’t mean that there are not images or allegations within his stories that now rub with the intensity of a Black Lives Matter moment… but they are more like Disney films…like the horribly racist drawings meant to be amusing in those wink-wink-nod-nod ways that are so clearly institutionalized racism today that we can finally see what minorities and Others have been telling us for centuries.

No doubt Lovecraft could not have seen the forest for the trees; he was far too self-centered, too paranoid of all outsiders, of all people he deemed not his equal – which his peers acknowledge was pretty much everyone else.

But it also means that Lovecraft probably could not help himself, either. He wrote the world as he – a white male whose wealthy family lost its wealth and who needed a reason to explain his own misfortunes, turned to other white males to establish an acceptable reason. He found it in racism against immigrants and people from other classes… including women, who at the time were often ghosts in their own lives. Continues Robertson on this matter:

“In the words of a contemporary journalist Julian Ralph, her [Lizzie Borden’s]situation exemplified ‘a peculiar phase of life in New England – a wretched phase’ suffered by ‘the daughters of a class of well-to-do New England men who seem never to have enough money no matter how rich they become, whose houses are little more cheerful than jails, and whose womenfolk had, from a human point of view, better to be dead than born to these fortunes…” [24-25]

As any writer can tell you, the best stories come from the singular place in self where real fears are harbored. Lovecraft mined terror from his personal nightmares, his personal dread of women and immigrants, his awe of the universe, his doubt about God, his loss of wealth and standing and the struggle to cover it up, his need for his talents and efforts to be recognized if not valued, and the irritations that come with native bigotries – close proximity to people abhorred, sounds of languages, smells of foods, suspicion of religious practices, constant and inescapable human presence.

Once again, we have to look at Lovecraft closely…to see that much of his behavior – while blatantly racist – also masked what was probably a host of antisocial if not psychiatric disorders.

It was a perfect storm of sorts for concocting his monster mythos replete with sinister, exotic characters. We have to “own” the social messaging of the times before we can shrink from Lovecraft and his flaws. We have to see the context – even if in Lovecraft’s case it is because he so impacted the genre…

Again, this may feel far too much to be like we are using the lexicon of Literary Critics. But in this case they are correct. And the more our skin crawls, the more we need to see why they are right.

It was not only natural at the time to believe the immigrant mythologies created by frightened white people, but it was white people who controlled all media, all “official” and socially acceptable behaviors – like moving white households uptown, and passing rumors about Other cultures downtown so not-understood.

This provided a ready-made foil for Lovecraft to terrify his characters with – cultured, upper class men lost among exotic (immigrant) cult worshippers, and rural-therefore-dark and ignorantly populated (lower class) settings to seat his creative world in. In a time where “science” was looking to explain human inferiority in animalistic terms, where fear became revulsion and an almost psychiatrically derived aversion to Others, prejudice takes on a frightening life of its own reinforced by mainstream culture. These are all the ingredients a Critic can dream of. And they were the very real interpretations of the ruling class – well-to-do white people – at the time.

But do those facts exonerate Lovecraft, once it becomes impossible to not-see the truth?

As reprehensible as it might feel, the answer is yes.

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Seeing What We Want To See

Sometimes it feels like the bigger question is: do we all have our own motivations for seeing what we want to see when we look at Lovecraft?

And to some degree we do. Critics are as mesmerized by his writings as we are – so much so because for the first time they have the whole butterfly under glass – one whose life is documented, whose influence on a genre is indisputable and profound and authenticated, who provided so much information that can be used to analyze not only invention of story and impact of society on writer, but on the creation of genre…something that happened previously in the anonymity of indistinct pasts…It is the Literary equivalent of getting to see the Big Bang. They are – in a word – dazzled by the prolific collection of cross-pollinating information never before succinctly gathered in one place.

Yet for those who want to see just another angry white male, they will find plenty of evidence speaking to that – plenty of imagery that seems to reinforce that very institutionalized racism and misogyny we know we need to fix right here in our modern world…And those who just love a good mythos can get lost on a stormy afternoon as well…

For genre readers in general, there will always be some semblance of separation of author and intent, a blissful ignorance of what motivates the Horrors he or she writes about. We have come for the thrills, for the entertainment, for the escape. There really isn’t any subversive motivation to our willful blindness.

Again, when we read Horror, we read at face-value…

But we cannot escape Lovecraft’s influence. Lovecraft brought us a refinement of The Weird, he delivered us to the Literary Critic; he gave us the tentacle, and reconnected us to our English Literary roots via Dunsany and Blackwood. He opened the door to the unholy marriage of philosophy and Horror, of science and monstrosity, stretching the supernatural into the unknown cosmos.

Most of us are neither privy to nor interested in the man or his motivations. We fall in love with the monsters, the mythos, the scope of the dream worlds, because they resonate with us – not because of latent racism in ourselves, but because we are looking superficially at the monsters. We are fine with engaging in a shallow way with the decorations on the page.

In fact, we prefer not to see them… we don’t want our vision of Lovecraft or his writings sullied or ruined. Besides, we would then know we would have to ask ourselves that if we enjoy them…does that mean WE are racists, too?

The surprising answer is no. Sometimes a monster is just a monster… a cigar, just a cigar.

It really does depend on what level we are reading on…

Institutionalism from the inside is hard to spot and easy to rationalize. We might then wonder if we are doing that with Lovecraft – rationalizing for the sake of the genre’s Literary gain, and wonder further if we should be subsidizing his work, calling him the Father of the Modern Horror genre, emulating him, etc…

Indeed, Lovecraft is perhaps THE representational argument for debating the relevance of an author’s life and views on his or her work – should an author and his or her life be considered in Literary Criticism?

This is part of the big upheaval we now see in the field of Literary Criticism, where the discussion has great relevance. And I think – especially when one sees the volume of evidence and peripheral information on the life of Lovecraft – that there can most certainly be importance in Literary Criticism steeped in that author knowledge. But I also think that what cannot be applied to all authors should not be applied as a general rule of Criticism… knowing the details makes his case so very different from others and there will always be and have always been authors about whom we know precious little.

Lovecraft is that rare exception.

And through the lens of Literary Criticism, Lovecraft rises bereft of racist promotion. Rather, it is a geographical feature in his work, an accent, a layer of setting. His World View, in other words, rises free of his own prejudices to question the purpose of humanity among the cosmos…Incredibly, Lovecraft is more about religion than race.

But why, we ask, do we not penalize Lovecraft?

Again, the difference is that Lovecraft ‘s works do not preach his bigotries – but reflect them – and which are unfortunately, a product of their historical times. What we know about Lovecraft is there because other people noted and kept those details, not because of some arrogant plan for infamy and immortality; he wrote letters to acquaintances, not manifestos.

That he also did things never done before in our genre is what makes his contributions irreversible and inseparable from modern Horror fiction.

Lovecraft’s morally dubious quality of racism remains unavoidably burdensome and is not attractive, and neither was his arrogant classism. But we are stuck with him. Because there is absolutely no avoiding him or the impact of his work in the Horror genre.

So here is the truth: Lovecraft is a one-man branch of Horror tradition who represents a mere moment in time but also an incredible leap in philosophical Horror; where we go from here we go because of him or in spite of him.

But we go in his shadow. It’s time to get familiar. We don’t have to like him; but we cannot and should not ignore him.

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References:

Bilstad, T. Allan. The Lovecraft Necronomicon Primer: a Guide to the Cthulhu Mythos. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, c2009.

Joshi, S.T. The Weird Tale. Holicong, PA: Wildside Press, c1990.

Montague, Charlotte. H.P. Lovecraft: the Mysterious Man Behind the Darkness. New York: Chartwell Books, c 2015

Robertson, Cara. The Trial of Lizzie Borden: a True Story [Advance copy]. New York: Simon & Schuster, c2019.

 

Why Is Mary In the Attic? Frankenstein & the Challenge of Authorship (An Open Salon Re-Post)


(In this Women-in-Horror month re-post from my defunct Open Salon blog, “The Horror” originally published on February 16, 2015, I want to share with you a second case of Literary gender assault which I referenced in the previous post. This is a real “controversy”… a debate, and a Critical argument being discussed in academia and elsewhere. What I ask you to do is to read this post and ask “why” it is even being entertained…)

Most women who write and read Horror are used to the idea that it is predominantly men in the driver’s seat of our canon. Most of us are fine with the works chosen to represent canon. After all, we girls have Mary, author of Frankenstein. Yet a closer look reveals the very real reason the arc of feminism has risen through the Critical ashes: because several “someones” have been trying to put our Mary in the attic since the publication of Frankenstein.

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“…the first edition published anonymously in London. Mary’s name appears on the second edition…” https://www.pinterest.com/pin/83387030570722338/

 

How many of know that there is (even today) a theory which postulates that the real author of Frankenstein was Mary’s husband – Percy Bysshe Shelley and/or any combination of he and his Famous Writer friends?

Why? Because a decent woman should not and – more importantly – could not write such a critically acclaimed work…especially a woman of nineteen.

This is hideous – even for our genre. Because what message does this send to young women writers of Horror? What does it say to writers of anything?

For those who have read my prior posts about Literary Criticism, this is where Roland Barthes and his dead authors meet the pavement of reality. We and our Critics need to think very carefully about how much biographical minutiae we really want to require in Literary Criticism, and how much it matters. We also need to recognize that if we do decide that biography is relevant, that – well, quite literally in this case – what’s good for the goose is good for the gander…

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Conspiracy Theory

When one thinks of revising Literary Criticism, theories of conspiracy are not among the typical fare. Indeed, having any Critic of merit present such an argument – even in light of his times (and Critic was a man’s job in those early days) – flies in the face of modern Critical giants like Roland Barthes (1915-1980) and his own theory about the importance of keeping dead authors dead.

This theory that a large conspiracy took place to make Mary the author as a cover or a joke by a group of male poets and essay writers dredges up a Need-to-Know everything one can about every author and the circumstances of the birth of a work. It heightens the importance of copyright and the genesis of intellectual property, it takes the focus off of the work and the message of the work and makes it all about the author and the author’s times.

Is that really why a writer writes? So that Critics can thrash about in one’s personal and private existence and air the most intimate details of one’s life with the written work left as a mere afterthought? Is it really all about the writer? Do we want it to be?

One has to ask those questions and be prepared to answer them if one is equally willing to entertain the idea that Mary Shelley is our modern “who was Shakespeare” mystery.

One has to look at the motivations of all of the parties involved in such a conspiracy theory– including the very Critics who allege and support that a conspiracy was afoot. This started – after all – during a time in which decent women certainly didn’t write beyond invitations to social events and demure correspondence… and most definitely didn’t write like that (except that Mary’s own mother most certainly did). In fact, decent women were not to think at all about the world or its complicated subjects; it was not the place of women to speculate on the doings and the motivations of the doings of men. If it wasn’t about placating their husbands, raising children and looking pretty, about decorating the patriarchal parlor, proper ladies did not do it.

In such a world (argue conspiracy Critics), how could a nineteen-year-old woman with three illegitimate children to her credit write a work like Frankenstein – right under the noses of famous Romantic Poets like her husband – Percy Bysshe Shelley – or his friends also allegedly present that night in Lake Geneva– none other than Lord Byron and his personal companion/physician John William Polidori, who was also a published essay writer and who nurtured his own professional writing aspirations (Hitchcock 26-27).

Isn’t it more likely argue those Critics that such talent would have emanated from professionally established Writers and Poets? Didn’t Shelley himself admit to editing the novel in question?

Forget for a moment that “no poet of any renown would write a novel; no elevated person would stoop to read one” (Hitchcock 25). Forget the “shock” that “a popular poet would descend to write a novel, a new and not altogether respected literary form” (24). What would be the point in publishing it at all? If it could only be a professional amusement between poets, why drag it out into daylight? To put one “over” on the Critics?

Such would seem an awful lot of work with a serious risk of discovery and subsequent damage to a poet’s reputation… all for a giggle. Even given the indiscretions of youth, as well as the Idiot Gene that we all have encountered at one party or another, what is the likelihood that these young men would toy with their own tenuous reputations?

But Percy Bysshe Shelley admits to editing the work…He was present that night and many others…isn’t it at least feasible? Possible?

Many Critics thought so. Susan Wolfson and Ronald Levao state in their introduction to The Annotated Frankensten:

“Confronting a novel propelled by male adventures and transgressions, saturated in the languages and ideas of Milton, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Godwin, Byron, Shelley, and contemporary scientists such as Davy and Darwin, a novel, moreover, known to have been shopped by Percy Shelley, many reviewers assumed that the author was male – probably Shelley himself, or some other deranged, atheist Godwin disciple.” (53)

Perhaps we should pause here a moment to refresh. Frankenstein was written in an estate house (Villa Diodati) at Lake Geneva once rented by Milton in 1638 (Hitchcock 24), Coleridge, Wordsworth and Byron were publishing contemporaries of Shelley, Byron was a friend and present during the alleged contest, the “atheist Godwin” was Mary’s father, and London newspapers of the time were publishing tales of “galvanism” in which Luigi Aldini “toured Europe during the first years of the nineteenth century, demonstrating how electrical charges could move not only the legs of frogs but also the eyes and tongues of sevred ox heads as well (Hitchcock 33).

All of these things would have had influence on our Mary, who at one time recalled “how discussions of at Villa Diodati of these scientific marvels had filled her with ideas” (34). Indeed, “poetry and science, Gothic horror and reanimation—these topic tingled in the Geneva air that summer of 1816”…(34) How could they not influence any imaginative, thinking young adult? But more interestingly, how could they influence only the male members of the Geneva party on that night of nights?

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Shelley versus Shelley

I say these conspiracy Critics must be fair in their use of historic and biographical detail. What Percy Bysshe Shelley was exposed to and influenced by, so was his wife.

Some may feel the need to “compromise” by saying that the possibility of editing by Shelley would indicate that he at least co-authored the novel… to which I ask, where are the residual checks for the editors of Harry Potter or Tolkien?

Editing is not writing. Editing is about organizational and compositional guidance. It is about streamlining the flow of consciousness, the application and follow-through of logic and the rules of grammar. It is not creating…it is shaping the created. It is about dressing up a story in its finest attire.

And indeed Shelley admits to “editing” the work and Critics have long complained that his influence is indeed “obvious” and that “the manuscript shows assistance at every point…so extensive that one hardly knows whether to regard him as editor or minor collaborator” (Wolfson & Levao 11-12) – which is in itself if true a sign of poor editing – and that while his hand in the novel improved some technical quality, it also threatened the integrity of the novel in places where he clearly insinuated himself (Wolfson & Lavao 54).

Does that not imply that it would have been a far different novel had Shelley written it? Or is it merely evidence of … editing not by a professional editor?

Distinguished Professor of English Literature, author and essayist Anne Mellor says something important in her review of the evidence. Mellor, “while acknowledging Percy’s improvements on several levels—from grammar and syntax to narrative logic, ‘thematic resonance,’ and the ‘complexity of the monster’s character’ – also notes Percy’s own missteps: rhetorical inflations and Latinizings, a penchant for imposing ‘his own favorite philosophical, political, and poetic theories on a text which either contradicted them or to which they were irrelevant’ and revisions that distorted Mary’s intentions and ideas [my emphasis]” (Wolfson & Lavao 54).

And isn’t his admission that he functioned as agent, and both his and Mary’s admission that he functioned as editor(Hitchcock 70-73) good enough for conspiracy Critics?

If not, one should look at supporting evidence; for example, despite the loss of the original draft manuscript, what of the copytext manuscript which “argues very strongly against’ the story of Mary-as-scribe “(unless it is an elaborate hoax that they [Percy’s advocates] and their conspiring friends cooked up to fool future scholars)” (Wolfson & Levao 54)? J.W. Polidori confirmed Mary’s “busyness” the “day after” her inspiring reverie, and the only surviving “draft she worked on shows a lively and affectionate relation between the older published poet and his talented lover” (54). Some might say this is merely more evidence of those willing to contribute to conspiracy. But at some point, one would have to be willing to suspend an awful lot of logic.

Furthermore, it would seem that if this document could be used or cited as evidence against Mary as author, then it should also be evidence for Mary. In fact, for Critics who accept Mary as Frankenstein’s author, it is this and other existing documents that bear the greatest weight:

“Here appear numerous local rephrasings in Percy’s hand, most (but not all) retained in the publication of 1818, occasional teasings of Mary about some of her habits of style, and a few ideas about local plot developments. Although Percy was an encouraging, attentive reader and a caring adviser, Mary’s primary authorship is confirmed by documents (letters and memoirs) containing comments from everyone who knew them – Byron, Leigh Hunt, Claire Clairmont, Charles Clairmont, Godwin – that refer to her working on Frankenstein and regarding the novel as her project” (54).

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And why does this Critically intense scrutiny of the author – if the rightful author were Mary, stop at calling her a nineteen year old woman? Where is the acknowledgement of her professional pedigree, upbringing and present company?

Her parents were well-known writers and activists – William Godwin – a philosopher, publisher and social critic, a “brilliantly popular writer in the 1790’s,” her mother Mary Wollenstonecraft, a feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, both parents being acclaimed novelists and essay writers (Hitchcock 27)). Our Mary had been writing since she herself was ten years old, had been a reader in her father’s vast library, the lover and wife of Percy Shelley. Her entire life had exposed her to the arts and the writing community along with the likes of Samuel Coleridge, Blake, Keats, Milton and Lord Byron to fuel her imagination. She was a daughter of activists coming of age during the rise of the Gothic, surrounded by poets and philosophers.

Now place her in the times of rising technology – the era of electricity and science. Place her at those contemporary and surprisingly common séances and lectures on the possible reanimation of corpses. See the arcs of electricity that were common affectations of lighting demonstrations and the rise of the Gothic period in literature, the rise of the Victorians as social culture.

Now remember what it was like to be nineteen. Remember the raw emotions, the primal fears, the easy way in which monstrosities rose in the imagination and dreams came vivid in their visitations in the night. If you are a writer, remember how rich and tactile an experience it was to write at nineteen. Remember the ideas? Remember how easily monsters came unbidden? Remember the perverse joy of Horror?

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Then consider what it must be to witness the death of a child, to be surrounded by infidelities, disinheritances, public scrutiny, suicides, the endless pursuit of creditors, children birthed and dying out of wedlock… to constantly try to hide or disguise the decline of wealth, to be young and in love as passionately as you are afraid of the changing tides of your times. Imagine all of this in your primal imagination on a dark and violently stormy night with the reading of ghost stories and the ultimate challenge of writing one of your own as a contest of youth.

Consider also what it was to be nineteen in 1816. Life expectancy hovered around 40 years… (http://homepage.ntlworld.com/davidjstokes/1800.htm and http://longevity.about.com/od/longevitystatsandnumbers/a/Longevity-Throughout-History.htm) This means that even a morose teenager had some measure of right to be contemplating death and its meaning, because our Mary would have rightfully assumed she was at middle age.

Consider to be wrapped in all of that, and to be a writer. Consider the company she kept—in fact, visit the world of the Romantic Poets for a real taste of the Gothic…

Even using the very rules of conspiracy set about by those anti-Mary critics, one has to acknowledge that Mary had the necessary background – the chops as it were – to have done the deed herself. She had motive and opportunity.

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Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Many modern Critics admit that Frankenstein was Mary Shelley’s finest work, that much of her subsequent novels (and yes, she most certainly did write other novels) were lackluster by comparison, seemed somehow distracted and not as focused. But our Mary was also widowed by then, and lost even more children to untimely death.

Try writing novels and not having real life impact your voice and plot. Try being a woman with a complicated reputation in those times. Try keeping a roof over your head.

Perhaps the pressures of being a woman, and a writer, and the possible author of a work like Frankenstein weighed heavily – even like a burden upon her.

Then if all else fails, look at Harper Lee, who it was once said believed that she had nowhere to go but down after the success of To Kill a Mockingbird. Truths do not matter. What matters is what the writer believes when she is writing.

How do we know why Mary’s other novels were not as successful? How do we possibly get in her head?

Again, I say that Roland Barthes is right: we don’t belong in writer’s heads. We as Critics or readers don’t have a right to their history. We need to appreciate the work as the work.

Maybe we don’t even have a right to know for sure that Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelly wrote Frankenstein. But she said she did. Her husband said she did. All of the people who were there that night at Lake Geneva said she did. They have even found peripheral information – letters, journals, etc. corroborating those very claims – from people who knew the players of the time. No one alludes to a conspiracy but those odd, dissatisfied Critics who believe a woman of nineteen could not have possibly written a work of merit – especially if she were married to an established writer, a man of position...

How incredibly sad. And how incredibly bigoted and sexist.

It is for these very types of reasons that women in Horror today feel skeptical of the publishing machinery that makes canon fodder of them and meteoric successes of more men than women in our genre. We have to question because there are just enough idiots out there to give us cause.

Case in point: every biography of Mary Shelley includes mention of the controversy, mentions the one idiot doubt of her authorship of the work known as Frankenstein. The disenfranchisement of her work has become associated with her very history and tainted the wondrousness of the novel itself. The only male author subjected to the same scrutiny is Shakespeare. (My, Mary, what good company those skeptical Critics have put you in….)

And to the Critics who believe that a nineteen-year-old could not possibly write such worthy stuff, I say that Percy Bysshe Shelley was not that much older, and gee whiz look at H.P. Lovecraft and what his childhood nightmares did for him. I say quit trying to make controversy where historically there is none.

Quit trying to shove Mary in the attic.

We need young women writers in Horror. We need them because they become old women writers in Horror. We need them for vision and the carelessness and impetuousness of youth. We need them and our canon needs them.

The birthing of Frankenstein as a novel is one of the most documented and argued cases of inception we can summon into argument. How it came to be, when it came to be, why it came to be and a list of all the pedigreed witnesses to the birth are available for anybody who wants to do a little research and reading. Ultimately, there is little foundation for supporting the theory of a conspiracy; it’s not only unlikely, it’s just plain weird.

So get off her. Let her breathe. Our times and modern Critics are busting Mary out of the attic prison sexist Criticisms have attempted to make for her. And there are bigger reasons for leaving it to rest than Conspiracy egos can support. Bigotry has had its time, its opportunity, a socially constructed stage upon which to prove its allegations. Nothing came of it except one important truth:

She’s our Mary. She is the rightful birthmother of Frankenstein. And we as readers and writers of the genre couldn’t be more proud or defensive of her right to be. No matter who she was married to or partied with on one dark and stormy night.

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References

Hitchcock, Susan Tyler. Frankenstein: a Cultural History. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, c2007.

Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley: a Biography. New York: E.P. Dutton, c1987.

Wolfson, Susan J. and Ronald Levao, eds. The Annotated Frankenstein by Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, c2012

 

Girly-Girly Horror: Daphne Du Maurier & Gothic Romance (Because It’s Women-In-Horror Month)


For most of us who read and write Horror, there is an almost automatic tendency to cringe when we hear the word “romance” associated with our genre. Even with blockbusters which have encompassed the one-time popularity of amorous vampires to taunt us, we of the Horror genre prefer the more suspenseful, monstrous-scary kinds of relationships in our fiction.

Romance, we insist, is a whole ‘nother creature – one we banish happily to the Harlequin aisle. Romance is girly-girly stuff.

But not so fast. Because if one really embraces the genre we have come to associate with psychos and monsters and a host of demons and witches, then we must embrace our beginnings in the classics – including our beginnings in the medieval romance and folktale fairy princesses which begat the Gothic Romance and Gothick (so christened with the ‘k’ by writers like Victoria Nelson to differentiate “new” Gothic from Medievally inspired Gothic ) subgenres which lead to where we are.

It is Gothic Romance – the provenance of writers like the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, and one Daphne DuMaurier – which put Horror on the map (and in particular, the Literary map).

Forget what you think you know about romance. Because it is these ladies who put the paranormal into romance and laid the groundwork in setting and characterization for a lot of modern Horror.

If you want to understand and appreciate our genre – especially including the role of women who contributed to its modern shape – you need to read Gothic Romance. And I suggest strongly you start with a book called Rebecca.

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Girling Up Horror All Over the Place

For most of us, our exposure to romance left us covered in a kind of gauzy, glittery, pink-fairy-wing kind of stupor, or drenches us in the stereotypes of bodice-ripping erotica. It is far too saccharine for our Horror tastes. But that also means that we have had our heads turned by pulp romance, which – not unlike pulp Horror – is a subgenre that caters to a specific audience. Before and alongside that type of romance is Gothic Romance – tales that leak in sinister designs from drafty castles and isolated manses, tales that reek of the supernatural and dark, dark secret histories.

It is at once a genre of deft flexibility, and perhaps that is how and why women writers so expertly and effectlively took charge of it.

Explains Greg Buzwell in his article “Daphne Du Maurier and the Gothic Tradition”:

“Gothic fiction possesses a remarkable ability to reinvent itself. The sublime landscapes and imperilled maidens of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), for example, seemingly bear no relation to the city streets and macabre body transformations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) or to Henry James’s psychological ghost story The Turn of the Screw (1898), and yet all three tales are, undeniably, Gothic. Regardless of their entirely different storylines and settings all three share the traditional Gothic qualities of a disturbing atmosphere, a carefully described landscape and setting, a sense of the uncanny and the impression that events are out of kilter with the rational world.” (Buzwell)

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Change, as we have seen even in our lifetimes, is survival for fiction. It has to move with its readers in order to move its readers.

This is something we see regularly in Horror: monsters evolve, ghosts change tactics and motivations, monsters drift between human origins and supernatural ones. This has to happen or our audience becomes too sophisticated, too conditioned to be easily disturbed, our stories flat or trite.

It is an easy conclusion in hindsight then, that “Romance” was doomed to change, and that the Gothic period of writing would bleed from real world wounds, from actual histories being lived by the readers the stories were being written for. We forget that stories about the 1800’s were once “modern” and that readers understood first-hand the travails of their protagonists.

But this is why Gothic Romance evolved from its more straight-forward origins. Readers of the 1700’s and 1800’s could only identify so far with medieval times and cultural constraints. Readers always tend to look for stories written with them in mind, preferring their habitual devouring of story pressed through a prism they can at least imagine; readers need to see themselves in fictionalized tales.

Gothic Romance descends from stories wrought from the romance languages, making use of medieval tales of knights and ladies in distress. Where “Romance and Gothick” are not (according to the critic Northrop Frye) “two separate literary movements, one high and one low drawing from the same sources, the Gothick should be regarded as the foundation of the Romantic” (Nelson 97).

But change happens slowly, unevenly. There were writers – female writers of the Gothic – writing well before Gothic Romance became fashionable. They wrote in lesser known publications for women, and their names are harder to remember, their works harder to find. Unfortunately, it far too often takes writers with the panache, style, and timing of J.K. Rowlings and Jane Austens to awaken fame, fortune, and opportunity for others.

With the deft pens of writers like Charlotte Brontë, whose work Jane Eyre was the main transformative work to lift The Castle of Otranto (also considered the first true modern Horror story) into what we see as “modern” Literature, the genre of Gothic Romance exploded onto and all over the publishing scene, borne by the imaginations of women who it appears, saw things a little differently.

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In her book Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural, Victoria Nelson asserts that men and women write Romance differently, and with the rise of Gothic Romance, women transformed the genre by refashioning the protagonist and the conclusion of early romance into what has become coined “the Female Gothic.”

Formerly, male writers were wont to write tales in which “[a helpless young woman is pitted against] a devilish villain whom she is going to be forced to marry (The Castle of Otranto [by Horace Walpole]) or who forcibly ravishes her (The Monk [by Matthew Gregory Lewis])

“In the female-authored Gothicks that followed Walpole, in contrast, the single heroine (whose point of view we usually inhabit) escapes the villain’s clutches and marries the young man. Where the early male Gothick writers, drawing directly from the medieval romance tradition, used a faux-medieval aristocratic cast of characters, the women Gothick writers frequently introduced a bourgeois female protagonist into the mix. Where male authors favored supernatural elements, female authors – most famously [Ann] Radcliffe herself – like to titillate their readers with ghostly, chill-inducing phenomena before revealing the human agency behind them.” (97-98)

And with the advent of this new perspective and the emergence of publishing venues for women and their readers, the Gothic Romance was unleashed. Gone was the tendency toward the male-favored tragic ending, and in came the more female-friendly happy ending. But along with the surge in female storytelling, came the disfavor of Literary Critics of the time.

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Long seen as sensational, overly sentimental writing, it took writers like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters to capture Critical respect. Says Nelson:

“Literary critics have not been kind to Gothick romance. Fred Botting has dubbed contemporary women’s romance ‘Girly-girly Gothic’ after Mark Twain’s label ‘girly-girly romance’ for the identical literature of the nineteenth century. Traditional Gothick scholars and literary critics alike have delivered scathing and condescending critiques and commentators have noted the continued low status of the women’s romance in mainstream culture despite being statistically the most popular literary genre.” (106)

Enter Daphne Du Maurier, a woman whose most preeminent work, Rebecca, has sold well over 3 million copies, some 4000 copies per month since 1938 and has never gone out of print (House), yet who could not in her lifetime garner the least Critical respect (facts to which today’s Stephen King fans can relate).

For far too long her work was considered “standard” women’s fare, and not in the same class as writers like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters; and one must recognize that the Curse of Bestsellerdom is an enduring one – one that has been around as long as there have been Literary Critics who cannot fathom the fickle passions of the masses.

Far too often it takes decades, if not centuries, after an author’s death for Critics to reconcile knee-jerk reactions to sales figures with what is really going on in an author’s writing. Recounts Greg Buzwell in his article “Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca Taught Me How to Love Literature”:

“In some respects Daphne du Maurier was a victim of her own success. Her prose was so smooth, and her stories so packed with incident, that her gifts as a storyteller often overshadowed the more serious aspects of her work. It is only when you look beyond the surface polish of her stories that you begin to notice her brilliant and eclectic use of Gothic imagery.” (Buzwell)

Still think you haven’t heard of her?

Ah, ye of little faith, O Horror Fans…she is also the author of one of Horror’s most iconic stories, tagged (and therefore probably misremembered) as “Alfred Hitchcock’s” The Birds…

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Author, Author

All too often we have our attention directed to authors acknowledged and endorsed as Canon Greats, and we tend to not question the absence of a name here or there, as though there is a kind of security or gilding of the Critic’s lily in propping up “established” theories of Literary evolution and the roles certain authors allegedly play in it.

We shy away from those labelled “popular” or “mainstream” authors as thought their contributions are somehow less valid, less impactful. And we often do this whenever there is the slightest whiff of controversy – too often assuming that the lack of a Critical voice to say otherwise somehow legitimizes the exclusion of an author in the discussion of genre.

This tends to happen historically most often to female authors. And while we are getting better at deflecting such tendencies, we do little to clear the air of suspicion for deceased and historically significant writers as though to do so will cause our own reputations to be sucked into the vortex of unsavory scandal – or worse, will make an enemy of the Literary Critic/academic community.

Daphne Du Maurier is just such an author. Despite numerous accusations of plagiarism during her career – all of which reached legal resolution in her and her publishers’ favor, the cloud of disgrace associated with those defeated claims continues to disparage her reputation and deprive her of her rightful place in genre history.

Legal confirmation of her innocence is a matter of record. And yet Du Maurier is seldom mentioned with or within genre references and Critical essays with any regularity. It is as though she is being disparaged as a “girly-girly romance” writer – a pulp writer – a sentimental sensationalist instead of what she was – a Gothic writer who strongly influenced not only Romance, but the Horror and Suspense/Thriller genres.

It is time that changed. And Horror should be the genre coming to her defense. Both Rebecca and The Birds were genre-changers for us, building directly upon the psychological terror platform of Edgar Allan Poe.

But it is also time for modern women in Horror to demand Critical engagement in such circumstances as the accusation of plagiarism – not only against Du Maurier, but also against Mary Shelley (who some claim published Frankenstein under her name after her husband wrote it). Ugly rumors and greedy grabs at sensationalism should be met with immediate Critical address, and not allowed to hang over the work and reputations of such writers.

Especially because this happens historically and disproportionately to women – accusation and Critical ostracism – women need to call it out for what it is: a form of professional bullying which needs to be stopped by the nearest thing we as writers have as a governing body: the Literary Critical/Academic community. Mention of accusation is one thing; but reputations should cease to be impugned once the law has ruled on the issue. Such writers should not be omitted from works referenced in genre discussion, or from Critical analysis.

For years I have sought and expected to find essays on Du Maurier’s work, perhaps even Critical expositions. Yet references have been rare and piteously fleeting when found. I find this to be shameful, especially if not only an American issue.

And while Du Maurier is not as “well-known” in the United States as she is in the UK, not as widely read perhaps, and even possibly avoided due to her reputation for alleged anti-American sentiment in her day, her work is more than worthy of attention in this country, her name the kind which belongs on reading lists.

If a writer inspires the readership of a genre, changes the genre, and is referenced as an influence by other writers (as Daphne Du Maurier frequently is), he or she is Literarily relevant – deserving of Critical attention and (if necessary) defense.

Rebecca is one such story… It is often remembered with the same misty reverence by its intensely loyal fans as Jane Eyre…

The story of Rebecca grabs the reader from the very first line: “Last night I dreamed I went back to Manderly…” and it holds the reader entranced with the kind of language that mesmerizes Stephen King fans – accessible language that makes each scene familiar, identifiable, relatable. It is a woman’s story, one that penetrates into a common innocence, a common need for loving and being loved, the sense that we will never quite belong and whole histories await to bedevil us even as they precede us.

This is the what makes Du Maurier a favorite among favorites. With so many of her stories, we can not only imagine her heroines, we could be them.

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Says Christian House in his article for The Telegraph titled “Daphne Du Maurier Always Said Her Novel Rebecca Was a Study in Jealousy”:

“In August 1938, Rebecca caught the zeitgeist, drawing on the glamour of country society and the feeling of impending catastrophe that permeated the pre-war years. Put coarsely, it is a novel about a dead woman and a house. Both of which were drawn from the author’s life.

“‘Mum used to get fed up talking about it,” says [her son Kits] Browning. “She did get so irritated with people calling it a romantic novel. Because she always said it was a study in jealousy.'”

[and further that]

“The seed of the Rebecca story lay in Daphne du Maurier’s jealousy of her husband’s first fiancee … (House)

So firmly nestled among Du Maurier’s success were those facts of her life — and that in the end, it makes her even more human, even more intuitive as a storyteller. And yet like all women writers, there was always lurking in the shadows the problem of being a woman in a man’s world. Continues Buzwell:

“As a child du Maurier often wished she was a boy. In part this was because boys at that time had greater freedoms and opportunities than girls, but with du Maurier the desire went further. She even invented a male alter ego for herself, named Eric Avon, along with a colourful past for him in which he had been to Rugby. Eric Avon was adventurous and fearless, qualities that Daphne du Maurier had in abundance but which she was never fully allowed to express because of her gender.

“As a writer, du Maurier was able to explore this masculine side of her nature vicariously through her fiction. Many of her most famous books, including My Cousin Rachel, The Scapegoat and The House on the Strand have male narrators. Even the very early tale The Doll is told from a male perspective, the narrator finding himself rejected by the woman he loves in favour of a mechanical doll – something which, inevitably, has devastating implications for his own identity. The more you look into du Maurier’s work, the more wheels within wheels you begin to see, and the darker the imagery becomes. It is only when you look beyond her narrative brilliance that you begin to see the haunting darkness and complexity of her work.”

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Such wishes and imaginings are – if nothing else – the ghost that walks among all female-authored fiction. We always second-guess ourselves, our worth, our potential and our right to success. We wonder if we would have fared better as men, if our work would have found better Critical reception had the byline been male.

This is natural in a patriarchal society, even when we hope things are better for us than it was for women who preceded us, even when “things have changed.” We all too often find that they have not changed so very much, and there are just enough mines in the minefield that we can never truly be sure of our footing.

And when we read prominent women writers, we tend to discover troubled waters beneath the prose. This is how we write ghosts without actually writing ghosts. For example, Buzwell explains how Du Maurier builds on the tradition of ghosts as built by Ann Radcliffe:

“Daphne du Maurier’s work also contains echoes of Ann Radcliffe, whose novel The Mysteries of Udolpho came to epitomize the first golden age of Gothic literature. In Radcliffe’s work the seemingly supernatural is nearly always revealed to have a rational explanation. Du Maurier’s work exhibits similar characteristics. In Rebecca, for example, the sinister character of Mrs. Danvers is just that – a character, not a malevolent ghost; while Rebecca herself, who dominates the book without ever making a single living appearance, is a ghost only in the sense that she haunts the imaginations of the living protagonists. This psychological element contains echoes of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw…”

Indeed this is the magical recipe for originality in Horror: the taking of a device from a traditionally-established writer and altering it subtly with the result that the difference jars the plot and the reader alike. But it must always ring true.

This is how we know Du Maurier is not only Literary, but a writer of the feminine Gothic where the female protagonist’s own insecurities has captured us and simultaneously modernized the ghost story, providing the scaffolding for another generation of writers to build upon.

Yet female authors, when they do well, tend to come under scrutiny. Since the early days of Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, a woman’s ability to come up with her own ideas is always suspect, and an illogical and random variable constraint of possible talent is arbitrarily assigned to her capacity as a writer. The success and similarities of Rebecca to the absolute conventions and themes of Gothic Romance made Du Maurier a target. Plots repeat in fiction. And they often repeat more noticeably in subgenres. Yet even as she was dogged by accusations of plagiarism for Rebecca, Du Maurier won all court decisions, and still the spectre of accusations haunted the author all of her life. She lived in mortal fear of disclosing publicly the secrets and details of her own life, of her writing process, of her faults as a woman. (De Rosnay 186-191)

This remained so until her death at 81.

And despite numerous attempts at interviews and accommodating the curious, Du Maurier was at all times a typical writer – insecure, private, perhaps even a bit paranoid of the intentions of others. But she was something else: she was a pivotal player in the Gothic Romance genre, a not-too-distant relative of the Horror genre.

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She should be mandatory reading for writers of Horror, particularly female writers, and writers of the ghost story. She should be on a required reading list for Classic Literature.

Even so, perhaps you are wondering…

Why Daphne Du Maurier? What leads me to choose her as my Women-In-Horror Month writer? Why not Charlotte Bronte or Ann Radcliffe?

Because Daphne Du Maurier is least known in this country and for all of the wrong reasons.

So much of her work has been repeatedly made into films by directors who overshadow her name as an author – (The Birds) Alfred Hitchcock, (Don’t Look Now) Nicholas Roeg, (Jamaica Inn) Alfred Hitchcock, (My Cousin Rachel) Roger Michell, and (Frenchman’s Creek) Ferdinand Fairfax…and because even when we read her work, we get caught up in her stories – haunted by them – without remembering who wrote them.

Yet she is a vital part of Horror genre history. She is a major contributing player in the psychological American roots of Horror writing and filmmaking. Who among us does not count The Birds among the most relevant, inspirational, and yet disturbing Horror of our lives?

The absence of Daphne Du Maurier from our reading lists and our analysis of the history of Literature, especially Gothic Romance and subsequently Horror, has cheated us. We are blinded to a significant Literary connection to our classical roots and – most importantly in Horror – to our British roots.

Du Maurier is a transitionary writer for Horror fans and authors. She is where the Gothic romance becomes the Gothic romance. Jane Eyre and Northanger Abbey are the noises we hear in the dark. Du Maurier is the frisson.

If we are going to improve our knowledge of our own genre – especially as women writers – we need to re-evaluate how we study Classic Literature. We need to abandon the idea that our educational system has the money or wherewithal to broadly educate us in such a way that we can see the Horror from here…Instead we have to look for the Horror ourselves. We have to educate ourselves.

Having abbreviated reading lists in our schools and reduced exposure to Literary Classics in general makes this worse. Writers who are not Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters are almost ritually abandoned in our Lit classes. And the seemingly deliberate avoidance of the Gothic in general as a subgenre except as a setting device is another.

Yet especially in the assessment of contemporary American Literature, we bemoan the lack of continuity with our past, with the lack of originality, the absence of fire that animated so much early English-language Literature. This complaint has spilled over into genres and subgenres like Horror, where so many of our rejections reflect this professional frustration.

It is time Horror recognized Daphne Du Maurier for her contribution to our genre. It is time we stepped up. It is one thing to excuse such childish, professionally irresponsible avoidance and ostracizing behavior when we read about it as history. It is another when we realize our own silence reinforces the inaccuracy and injustice of prejudiced exclusion.

It is time we opened our eyes. The British continue to outpace us in accomplished Horror writing. We continue to flop about like dying fish out of water.

I say wade in. The water is fine. The water is still mostly British. And when it comes to studying women’s writing and the Gothic Romances, nobody does it better than Daphne Du Maurier.

Go on. Scare yourself. You’re gonna love it.

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References

Buzwell, Greg. “Daphne du Maurier and the Gothic tradition.” Retrieved 1/31 from http://www.dumaurier.org/menu_page.php?id=122

Crace, John. “Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca Taught Me How to Love Literature. Retrieved 1/25/2018 from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/20/rebecca-daphne-du-maurier-classic-literature

Davenport-Hines, Richard. Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil, and Ruin. North Point Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c1998.

De Rosnay, Tatiana. Manderley Forever: a Biography of Daphne Du Maurier. New York: St. Martin’s Press, c2017.

House, Christian. “Daphne du Maurier Always Said Her Novel Rebecca Was a Study in Jealousy.” Retrieved 1/15/2018 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10248724/Daphne-du-Maurier-always-said-her-novel-Rebecca-was-a-study-in-jealousy.html

Nelson, Victoria. Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, c2012.

 

 

 

Author Biographies: Can or Should You Separate an Author From Their Work?


For most of us, one of the harder challenges of writing fiction is deciding what to put in those little, abbreviated bios that editors want.

We agonize over the details. We do our best to find some outstanding characteristic of our lives, our qualifications, ourselves to share with strangers. Maybe even to impress or endear those very strangers to us.

For the most part, those brief bios are meant to be introductions: brief summations of why we might be qualified to call ourselves a writer – mentioning relevant university degrees, real-world jobs, past publication, or professional organizations (often depending on the story or the publication), or even a synopsis of the story in play– but also to shed just enough light on personality that we see a bit of author as a person. In sum, these succinct profiles are blurbs of the author’s life – not full on biographies. And that is a more fortunate thing, as it turns out.

Because if existing author biographies are any indication, actually having one written about you might not be the perk it sounds like. For example, we seldom think about the harder reality that today in particular, anyone can find out pretty much anything about our private selves. And they will. And they will publish or promote the most unsavory of these details. For all of us would-be and under-published authors, those short little author bios are – in reality – the least of our worries.

At what point is some information too much information? And should an author’s life and philosophy be kept separate from their work? Does who the author is, really matter?

In the world of reading, analyzing, reviewing and Criticizing an author’s catalog of works, author biographies can enhance our appreciation for an author, or ruin everything.

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What Do We Know and When Should We Know It?

I have always loved reading author biographies. I love them because they teach me more about the struggle to write than the writing.

As a writer, this is important. I’m not sure it is significant at what point on which train J.K. Rowling decided to write Harry Potter. But am I curious about why…about her decision making process in the writing, about her background and where she developed such a keen marketing savvy that it puts Amazon to shame.

Yet for some, knowing the details of a person’s life – like Lovecraft, for example – leaves them proudly proclaiming a distaste for the works themselves. They may declare a deliberate omission of the writing because of how the writer lived his or her life, how they THOUGHT. In short, they disapprove.

When and whether to separate an author from their work has been part a long discussion. And such things took a particularly evil and pronounced turn after the Holocaust, when scientists had to sort out whether to keep ill-gotten scientific results gleaned from torture, or to abandon it all as a condemnation of how it was derived.

One point of contention may well be intent.

While an Artist’s beliefs are not actions; their work is action. And there is a significant difference in belief and incitement to degradation or violence.

Where do we draw the line?

This is a tougher question than we think. We cannot step anywhere (for example) in the United States where we are not stepping on stolen ground, adoring older structures that may have been built by indentured or enslaved hands on property that once belonged to someone else, or even constructed for the purpose of insuring the taking or keeping of property thusly gained.

We cannot even brag on technology without facing character flaws: what of Wernher von Braun, the German rocket scientist who gave us our Space Program in exchange for overlooking his service as a member of Hitler’s SS? Or perhaps we justify that today things are less threatening when we consider that the founder of Facebook was alleged to have stolen the concept from fellow students at Harvard University. Perhaps when we benefit from advances or enjoyment, we are fine with wearing rose-colored glasses.

We manage to be myopic when it suits us. But at all times, humanity is faithful to its tendency to commit all manner of sins. And when considering the Arts and writing, this becomes important. Because when an Artist’s work reveals something too easily forgotten or buried about a time or place, that work – no matter how despicable, gains a value.

Looking at Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a recurrent visitor on the banned books list is a perfect example. The use of racist language places the book in a time capsule that in these more allegedly enlightened times should make us uncomfortable, yet it reveals nevertheless an important question as to whether or not the book still serves a purpose. That it does, but now perhaps presents an additional purpose, keeps it relevant. The language and context are now important things to discuss. And perhaps that raises the age when the book should be read, but it does not negate the most important message of the book: Life for many of our fellow citizens is often unfiltered and unpleasant…. It is time we look at what is under the whitewashed fence.

H.P. Lovecraft has long been the Horror poster child for these arguments. But he is by no means alone. In fact, there have been times when the flaws of many of our greatest American writers have all been paraded past us like they are qualifiers for greatness.

If you are a writer, that probably gives you pause. And it is certainly not why I read author biographies.

Like all writers, perhaps I seek a community awareness, some reassurance that the best writing often does come from enduring horridly difficult times, dashed childhood dreams, flawed thinking, lost friends or absent or invisible ones, the bitch-slapping life of poverty so many of us wind up in, the sense of being outcast, downcast, and just plain lost.

As Arts people, we have long endured the rumors: that the true geniuses among us are fatally flawed characters… They are not only misfits, but drunks and drug addicts, mentally disturbed and disrupted individuals, living tragic, abbreviated lives we all should envy for the permanence and quality of their life’s work.

It makes it hard to want to be successful if one must sacrifice one’s life, health, and sanity to the cruel gods of creativity. And it makes one wonder what could possible go right in a writing career if one isn’t spectacularly flawed enough?

But is it true? Must we be ruined human beings to be successful writers? Or perhaps the right question is: is it ever NOT true?

After all, part of being human is being flawed…is living. We are all damaged, to some extent, by our own navigations of life and by the intrusion of unwelcome others within it. Whether it is having the unloving, nasty family of Poe, or the loss of support family members and terror of racially different people like Lovecraft, we create our own mental baggage that we perpetually lug around with us in our writing.

Likewise, we experiment with different ways of soothing the open wounds, of denying the pains and humiliations of living.

Who among is NOT thusly shaped and affected?

Like with writing, it is what we DO with those bits of baggage that makes or breaks us.

It is always comforting to know other writers overcame, and that many needed to. It is sometimes helpful to know how, or to see that Art is shaped by the strain of battle…it is born in turmoil.

But it is always helpful to realize that living a life in the Arts by its very nature is one of struggle, that in fact it may well have called to us because we can SEE the intimate connection.

Yet when should we know the gory details?

How much is too much information?

The answer is not that easy. But Literary Critics have finally begun to address the issue themselves, and all because production of possible Literature is outpacing the number of Literary Critics needed to READ it all… a collision of facts derived from living authors and suppositions and allegations made about dead authors forced a radical idea to the surface.  Just how connected ARE authors and their lives to their works?

By 1967, we had so many more living authors producing published works, it became vividly apparent that knowing details about an author – especially ones still alive and verbally kicking – was having an effect on Critics. And French Literary Critic and theorist Roland Barthes wrote a detailed essay on why the knowledge of an author’s intentions paired with biographical facts should have no bearing on the Criticism of their works. https://writing.upenn.edu/~taransky/Barthes.pdf

It is this very essay that created a schism in the school of Literary Criticism, which had up to this point used an author’s biographical information – facts like politics, religion, prejudices, preferences, lifestyle, class, etc. – to decipher their catalog of works.

But with the increasing amount of living authors, Critics began having difficulty divesting their judgment of author lives, of author intentions, and author blowback.

Tremendous verbal battles have spilled their vitriol all over the recent decades (most notably for Horror fans in the verbal barrage between esteemed Literary Critic Harold Bloom and Stephen King fans), and which has had a terrible effect on both the field of Literary Criticism and how we all see various authors and their works. In fact, the worse consequence had been the inserting of the uninformed opinions of the common reader into the Literary Critical academic process.

Once again, the function of Literary Critics is not to devolve into mudslinging arguments about writing quality with the secular crowd, but to present academic arguments to other academics for or against the admission of a work or catalog of works into the Literary Canon based on Literary Critical Theory.

The introduction of the concept of the author’s intimate life details having no bearing on the decision is an important one.

Because without it, we must keep asking that pesky question: at what point should we know, and how much should we know?

Maybe the MORE important question is: in knowing it, what should we DO with the knowledge?

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http://enjoy-teaching.com/enjoy-teaching-biography.html

The Whole Dead Author Thing

One of the dangers of reading intimate details about a favorite author is never looking at their work the same way again.

Whether you are “just” a reader or a budding author or Critic, knowing the backstory is not always a good thing.

Words and situations take on new nuances. We begin to ascribe hidden meanings, possible subtext, and autobiographical details to stories we once loved for their own sakes. And we may get it all wrong…because then we begin to drag in our own interpretations based on our own experiences…which have NOTHING to do with the writer’s works or what he or she INTENTED…

The truth is, once we know about an author, their loves and losses, their frustrations and failures, we often lose the magic that their work represents. We start looking for the author inside their work.

And I can tell you as a writer, that is never the intent of the writing. The story is meant to stand on its own, to sneak up on the reader and send a familiar chill down their spines. I want them to see something of themselves in my stories, not something of ME in them.

Of course I am in them. They derive from my own memories, my own fears, my own revulsions and yearning for justice. But no one character is me. No one story is true. No one reader is invited to dissect me psychologically.

Therefore in my opinion, knowing “too much” about me as a writer and person might well get in the way of the magic I intend to conjure. It’s like having a pesky reporter behind the curtain with me in Kansas, giving away my tricks.

Yet I also can’t help but be grateful for the biographies I have read about other authors.

Could it be there is a time and place to know an author more intimately?

I do believe so. And sadly, for the most part I think that time comes after an author is dead.

While I also believe it helps to read biographies only after one has read a catalog of an author’s works, so as not to taint any reading of them, I find that reading such details as one finds in biographies leaves me reading new works and rereading old ones differently.

If the catalog is fixed, then I begin to look at them slightly askew like a Critic might look at them. But because I am not a Critic, I find it changes things in subtle, sometimes uncomplimentary ways. The work does lose its magic, and that is replaced by a study of and appreciation of technique.

Now, as a writer, that is exactly where I need to be. I need to see how the trick is done, and appreciate how a writer took some event or memory from their lives – no matter how major or how trivial – and turned it into something living.

But what I must resist doing, is making excuses for an author. And if we have certain details of an author’s life, that is exactly the natural thing to do…”of course, the book was not as good…his wife had just died, after all…”

We also tend to blanket “approve” certain sentences or paragraphs that the editor in us might suggest should not go unchallenged…assuming that it was the opiates, or the fury of battling unsympathetic Critics. If one is going to learn about an author’s technique from the finished product, we simply cannot be running in front of every word with a broom and dust pan.

And on the reverse side, we cannot devalue the importance of a work because we find out the author was, for instance, a bigot.

So at what point does knowing an author become detrimental?

I think it is when and only when we excuse an author for the wrongdoing.

Lovecraft is the obvious example in Horror. Many of his opinions were nothing less than offensive, odious attitudes toward immigrants and women.

But reading his fiction, we weren’t supposed to “know” that. Deduce it, yes. But to condemn Lovecraft’s writing on the basis of his failures as a human being is also to overlook the whole of the human condition.

We are – all of us – flawed. And history has come to place Lovecraft on the wrong side of political correctness, the wrong side of morality.

Yet as a human being, Lovecraft also reflects a period in our history, in our developmental growth and national psychology. At the heart of Lovecraft’s work is nothing less than irrational fear. That’s what bigotry, racism, misogyny and religious persecution is all about. So as sadly pitiful as his beliefs have come to be, he not only represents the time in which he lived, but sadly, even a subculture that exists still today in this country and all others.

Lovecraft is a lesson in humanity. His writing is a showcase of our flaws, many of which many of us still proudly display, and that should give us pause and cause for discussion.

But should we elevate the work of such a man?

I say with Lovecraft yes. The reason is because even in his writing Lovecraft was not advocating for violence against those he feared. He was simply displaying his fear by using some pretty amazing monstrosities and nightmares to emphasize the terror that beat in his bigoted, misogynistic heart. In other words, he reflected us…humanity….and our struggle to accept each other.

This is not the same as someone who “preaches” in their work to rise up and destroy other people, other genders, other nations, other religions.

The key here is whether a work is Literary by depicting or revealing a truth about ourselves or is a manifesto – incendiary and inciteful, meant to groom hatred.

If we started tossing out Art because of the thoughts of the Artist, we would be left with nothing to make us think.

Poe, like many writers of his time, was a drunk and an addict. If we throw out his work as ill-begotten gain born of drug trips and poor judgment, we need to lose the Beatles, Roman Polanski, and every Weinstein film ever made.

This is not to say we excuse the offender.

Rather, it means that we weigh the value of the message of the work. Some of the best Art has come from those dying for penance, whose secrets were the acid of their souls which in turn generated cautionary tales for the rest of us.

When a writer is still alive, it becomes a harder choice. Because then we worry about financially endorsing a behavior, for funding a lifestyle that may include reprehensible behavior. A look at how we are responding to Hollywood’s outing of sexual assault is the perfect example.

But we can also see when a writer is dead, that when his or her art imitates life – comments on it – it can elevate a work to Literature because of the mirror it becomes. It becomes useful. It becomes a teaching tool… a prompt for meaningful conversation.

Which brings us back to those little, abbreviated bios.

They should be honest. But they should also be constructed of things that are not presumptuous. Because in the end we will ALL be outted… especially if we (it turns out) are any good at what we do.

Bio3

So When Should We Read Author Biographies?

I think the answer is: when it is helpful.

Biographies contain lives. They introduce flaws that will expose your heroes as human beings. You might discover that you like their work more than you like them. But you may also find yourself encouraged, inspired, comforted in knowing that this road you are on has been traversed by many.

You may find that failure is part of the process. That sometimes rejection is a blazing sword to the heart, and that like you – writers of the past have suffered from many of the same problems – be it writer’s block, bad parenting, cruel Critics, ill health, mental struggles, lost love, betrayal, poverty, addictions, homelessness, the question of self-publishing, the search for mentoring, and a belief that all may well be pointless.

You may find that some of them were Poe, or Lovecraft, or Dante, or Shakespeare. You may even find an awkward kinship with a select few.

Biographies will tell you things about why you feel as you do, about the commonality of lives lived in service of the Arts.

And it may cause you to realize that we might not really like our idols, especially on their worst days…Just as sometimes we don’t like ourselves, or fear being thusly revealed to others…

This is the case of Lovecraft for me… I adore his monsters, love the British Horror atmosphere he managed to transplant to America for us to savor. But reading him is to see the more distasteful aspects of his quirky, misfit personality, to realize how little we have changed. Reading him also makes me worry about myself, and my flaws. It makes me agonize over those darned little bios.

The trick is not to rationalize. We are none of us saints.

The trick is to take biographies for the lessons they offer us: that there is hope we can communicate our deepest fears and anxieties in story form, that we can entertain as well as educate, that we can hope to persuade and shape our times by holding up a hand mirror to those who need to see the images therein.

By all means, don’t deprive yourself. Just know that once the genie is out of the bottle, he will not be put back in. Be sure you are ready for the capriciousness of magic.

Beware the power of enchantment. And then go forth anyway…

Bio4

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/320388960975160324/

Recommended Author Biographies

Ackroyd, Peter. Poe: a Life Cut Short. New York: Doubleday, c2008.

Franklin. Ruth. Shirley Jackson: a Rather Haunted Life. New York: W.W. Norton, c2016.

Gaiman, Neil. The View From the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction. New York: HarperCollins, c 2016.

Joshi, S.T. I am Providence: the Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft v.1. (& 2). New York: Hippocampus Press, c2013.

King, Stephen. On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft. New York: Simon & Schuster, c2000.

Montague, Charlotte. H.P. Lovecraft: the Mysterious Man Behind the Darkness. London: Chartwell Books, c2015.

Montague, Charlotte. Edgar Allan Poe: the Strange Man Standing Deep in the Shadows. London: Chartwell Books, c 2015.

Ramsland, Katherine. Prism of the Night: a Biography of Anne Rice. New York: Plume, c1982.

Skal, David J. Something in the Blood: the Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula. New York, Liveright Publishing, c2016.

Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley, a Biography. New York: E.P. Dutton, c1987.

Sturrock, Donald. Storyteller: the Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl. New York: Simon & Schuster, c2010.

Winter, Douglas E. Clive Barker: the Dark Fantastic: the Authorized Biography. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, c2002.