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


It’s not just about grave-robbing anymore…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Orientalism: Our Nasty Little, Overripe Secret

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

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

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

Why, then, was this ever okay?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So we disappeared the Mummy partly in embarrassment.

Times changed.

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

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

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

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

What are we doing putting them on display?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Imagine that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Building a Better Mummy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

The Witch: What a Bookless Film Teaches Us About Writing in Our Own Genre


You might not have noticed, but one of the more critically acclaimed Horror movies that you didn’t hear much of not long ago hit DVD/Bluray release. The Witch, a 2016 debut from Robert Eggers, came at us from the Sundance Film Festival. And it came bookless – without fanfare, and without the promise of a sequel.

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Yet in theaters and in DVD stores, the film has failed to ignite, the sales not so stellar.

Why do Critics and some fans give this film the highest of marks, when it does not resemble what we have come to expect from “successful” Horror films? And specifically, if you have watched it and did not feel affected, why not?

The answer would be because this film is not conventional Horror: it is about Horror – it is how Literary Horror looks when filmmakers understand the importance of punctuating their plots with something deeper than splashy effects. This is an important lesson for writers of Horror to understand…Because even if you choose to write in-genre and somewhat pulpy fiction, you need to grasp just how to utilize words, setting, symbols, and psychological effects and then be able to deftly select from a smorgasbord of actual history, folklore, superstition, and disease (social and literal) to better enhance your Horror – to layer it in the intent of getting under the skin like a parasite. It’s why films like Insidious (the first one) worked where the plot and acting was less dimensional – there it is the imagery and the suggestions it makes to our subconscious that delivers the shivers. But it is also why so much 1980’s Horror worked – why Classic Horror still works…

When these ingredients are properly combined, films like The Witch, The Exorcist and The Birds result. The reliance on jump scares may still be present, but they are to a much lesser degree – relying instead on the direct connection to the personal fears of human beings – whether it is the reality of the Devil and his army of demons, or a preternatural and unsettling unification of nature against humanity.

In The Witch, there are pretty strong references to fear, terror and real Horror the way most of us imagine it. Yet a large chunk of our audience – the Horror audience – was unimpressed. Indeed, the reviews aren’t particularly stellar – especially among movie-goers and subsequently – Horror fans: according to film review site Rotten Tomatoes, only 55% of viewers liked it. But 91% of Critics did. Why the point spread? And what does this say about our genre?

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Tricks Are For Kids, Silly Rabbit

One of the first clues is the subtitle “A Folk Tale.” This film unabashedly shows its lineage to the viewer. For a murky, moody tale surrounding the Salem witch trials, it is not about the Salem witch trials – but the atmosphere created by the paranoia and dread such rampant fear invokes. Nested within rests the possibility, the suggestion that witchcraft and its consequences are real…the extension of which is the possibility that for the witch, perhaps not all is as it is promised.

We forget that the time period in question birthed the phrase “witch hunt” – a frenzied, irrational attack on anyone unfortunate enough to warrant a finger-point, whose differences or poor luck or gender was enough to justify their own persecution, torture, and death. But we also forget that tucked neatly away within our own religion are warnings about such fraternization with things unseen, with the dangers of envy, the vulnerability of being faithless.

We also forget that caught in the middle of such historical moments are real people, fearing that their own reactions or behaviors – however innocent –might be misinterpreted, costing whole families everything. We forget how easy it was to acquiesce to the momentum of the moment rather than take a risk, to see that the price of loyalty might well be one’s own life. We forget – especially today and in this country – what it is to fear the accusation of another that leads directly to death.

This is the importance of history, and of this specific time in our history. Because if we don’t see the mistakes that were made, we cannot prevent their cousins from rising as specters in the future.

And yet we have already managed to forget.

We make light of witches, even as our unpalatable history rests intact in Salem, Massachusetts. We amuse ourselves with the idea that our ancestors were simply superstitious, gullible, ignorant – not enlightened like ourselves.

We also make light of witchcraft, chiding ourselves into believing that if we play at it, we might be in charge of pre-selected consequences; we might dabble, be amazed, and then escape. Yet such is warned against in all religions; because in all religions are unwritten rules, forgotten wisdom, hidden Horrors. And the greatest Horror of all is not that one would be detected, persecuted and put to death… but that any such engagements might carry extenuating clauses in their contracts – ones that call for sacrifice of those loved other than the self.

But bad things, if they happen, happen to others. And we are all pretty certain sitting under our electric lights, that it is all superstition anyway.

Is that why we can sit disaffected by such a film as The Witch?

Indeed, much of our own religion today minimizes the possibility of the supernatural, the reality of a witch, or a ghost or a demon – all while handing us biblical verses mentioning those very possibilities. We have separated ourselves from those passages, determined to make them “symbolic” or “parables” or “metaphors.”

This film asks what if they are not? What if they are more – be it in the mind or the making?

Primitive humanity has always allowed for the unseen. And perhaps that is the problem: we seek to disavow our primal fears from our new, glossy, sciencey selves.

It’s why so many viewers might have missed the symbolism of the rabbit. To get it… to let ourselves be made very afraid we have to engage the folklore that might have its origins in very primitive truths.

While modern Horror fans are conditioned like Pavlov’s Dogs to quiver at vampire love and laugh at the startled scream after a scary face leaps from the dark of the theater, real terror – real fear – has more to do with things not-seen and things once seen that cannot be unseen…things that follow you because you saw them.

Tricks are for kids. The thing that wants your soul has something else in its toolbag. And it hides those things in the ordinary.

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The Devil In the Details

If you’ve ever had a bout of the Serious Superstitious, you know that once that roller coaster ride gets started, danger is everywhere. This means that whether you are writing Horror or watching it on the Big Screen, it is important to provide layer after layer of detail. Accurate detail. The imagination cannot be allowed to escape, to dismiss the entity come for you because the scroll saw marks are on the wood of the clapboards.

This is how The Witch ensnares the wary, the skeptical, the Modern Human. The senses are so burdened by detail, by the weight of the period the viewer can almost smell the farm animals, the sweat, the decay of crops, the whiff of goat.

This is not the same dark forest of Hollywood, but the thick tangle of copse and ravine that cradle our folk and fairy lore – the ones that left their echoes outside our safe houses, in the skeletal, wet-black branch that claws at our windows in a storm, that still lives as a microcosm in our National Parks, and spills forth from children’s book illustrations. This is the dark wood our ancestors walked and succumbed to… a wood where death happens, and where a scream goes unheard and unanswered.

If you have never had the privilege of walking in a natural wood, you cannot imagine the depth of the darkness, the ease of disorientation, the uncanny sense of being watched… or stalked. Nor can you appreciate the stories of our folk heritage that came from such a place, the legitimacy that wilderness gives them.

Yet it is why we tore down the woods, killed the wolves and the bears, and planted our tame crops to feed our domesticated animals to ourselves. It’s how we beat The Witch… we tore down her temple.

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We hung our pictures of blond Jesus, and separated ourselves from all but the most sacred of miracles, we philosophized Hell, and electrocuted our ghosts.

Yet. What if? What if even some part of the parable were true?

This is how we build great prose. This is how the Horror classics still terrify. When we read classic Horror, we allow ourselves to identify with and in a sense become the character whose very times and place are darker and more indistinct than our own. We suspend our belief and accept that of the character.

Modern presentation of character and scene are not the same. The character goes into a house…a modern house, just like all the others. There is no depth of description because it has become a stage set upon which the all-important action will occur. Yet it is anticipation of action that equates to dread. Those moments of anticipation are laced with the observations made by the mind – the analysis of shadow, the assessment of danger, the awareness of the rise of adrenaline, the shakiness in the legs and hands. All of that is dependent on detail.

So much detail. Like the tangles of knots in Celtic design meant to entrap the curiousity of fairies, rendering them harmless…the writer or filmmaker must overload the senses for mistakes and miscalculations to be made. We have to be ensnared. For that, we have to be persuaded to believe.

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Bookless, She Came From the Woods to Terrify Us All

I find it wonderful that this film comes without a book or promise of sequel. It is a folktale – a warning, a tale of caution.

There is so much here for the writer to learn from another artist’s medium. This is storytelling. At no moment does the viewer not feel the connection being made to much older stories – actual accounts of such things being used by Eggers to fortify his imagery. In this film, the story is firmly rooted in Horror tradition, in folktale tradition, in fairytale tradition… yet it is no also-ran. It is an outgrowth, another link in the chain of evidence of such storytelling. It is a modern rendition of the folktale told using the harsh and vulnerable times of Colonial America to do so.

This is a lesson in how to build on tradition in the way the British have managed… This is what has been so lacking in contemporary American Horror.

If a writer is willing to really watch this film, there are important lessons here about story-telling and the best delivery method for Horror: the primal one already there, just under the skin, just under the surface – the one that creates surface tension like the skin on water.

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This is not your ordinary night at the campfire, but the slowly unfolding tale of all that goes unforgivably wrong in human interaction and hides somewhere between deceit and coincidence. It is about failure, and desperation, and need for answers. It is about the things that hear you in your darkest moments and most hopeless prayers. It is about choices and faith and the relentless stalk of the predator upon the alleged innocent.

It is also about how we look at misfortune, how we primitively expect good behavior to be rewarded with all manner of blessings: how we seek to lay blame and accusation to rationalize and rebalance…Life. And then it is about how far we will all go to restore the balance – to re-conjure our own illusions about ourselves. How quickly do we turn… Such is the makings of some of the world’s greatest Literature – the rationalizations for so many oppressions and genocides and wars, for exploiting children and locking up women, for labelling people criminals and fanatics and less equal, for silencing whole generations and rewriting history… for hunting, trying, and burning witches.

That which does not or cannot conform is a threat to our theory of how the world works. Therein resides the deepest of human Horrors pressed out of the fabric of our secret fears.

Sometimes you have to sneak up on an audience, dragging them deep into the imagery of their own making… to hold up mirrors. This is why The Witch works for some and not others: some are afraid to see what else is reflected in the glass, to allow it out…

Critics love this film because so many layers offer so many interpretations of what the film symbolizes: the role of the nonexistent apple tree and its connection to original sin, the questions about faith and afterlife and coming of age of our nation, the nod to the dark ages of superstition coiled in the body of a recurring rabbit.

But there is so much more for the Horror fan, should he or she be willing to admit that the contemporary explosion in jump-scare Horror and found footage is a phase. Sure, such films are great for grabbing your significant other or reasonable facsimile in the theater; they are a summertime blast.

But do you really want to be scared? Exorcist-scared?

Then you’ll have to let go of the bar. Because Horror is bigger than flashlights under the chin.

Horror is about the Big Questions that unsettle us all.

You have to be willing to ask yourself just how much of the real world is real, and how much is illusion. You might even have to wonder about life and death and what comes after, that if it is anything at all, there may be players in the game you cannot see and whose motivations you cannot sate or outmaneuver.

You might have to admit that we live at the mercy of others and the luck of fate, that we may have success or long life because we managed to avoid the notice of Others.

They say that most Horror writers do not believe in what they write about. Perhaps this is so. But I tend to think that at our very primal core, none of us is sure. We live according to our theories, and sometimes we think that the supernatural is a fun place in which to scare ourselves silly.

But if you really want to scare your audience or be scared with the audience, you have to be willing to surrender your talismans and amulets. You have to turn out the lights. You have to go naked into the forest, to wonder if you would have the courage to accept a terrifying death and be lost to the world, or whether you would be just curious enough – just innocent enough – to stray into the darkness and expect to outsmart what lies coiled there.

In the film, the protagonist is asked if she would like “to see the world, to live life deliciously”… What is most telling is how the audience wants her to say yes…even having glimpsed the hellish truth of the misery that drives the witch of the wood just to keep young and potent. Is the protagonist Eve, or ourselves?

We are never told what conditions await the signatory of such a contract with the devil. We are too busy imagining what the offer means, too busy justifying the needs and subsequent choices being made. And in the end we are left to wonder about our own roles and choices in the world.

We are left to wonder what this creature is, this Witch.

Is she us – bargaining away the lives and fortunes of others so that we might live the way we believe we are entitled to?

Have we mistaken desire for need for so long that we don’t want to know what happened to the baby, and we don’t see the tears behind the laughter as our protagonist is lifted in flight?

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Do we not care about the coworker we volunteered for lay-off, or the civilians caught in the crossfire of our wars? And isn’t that the Horror?

A lot has been said about The Witch as one of the genre’s best offerings in decades. A lot of Horror fans apparently don’t agree.

What I find unfortunate, is that this could mean we are not-seeing exactly what makes the Horror genre great: its ability to take the mundane, the everyday, the culture of contemporary society, and make it monstrous.

It could mean a percentage of Horror fans don’t want to think about why they might be afraid of something: they just want a good time.

Those are the Horror fans who will probably age out of the genre.

Because what stays with you in Horror is the stuff you can’t get out of your head…. And I’m not talking about old lady butts (of which I have one and it does indeed get scarier every day, but it is not Horror Mr. Shyamalan).

I am talking about the contracts we make every day with the devil… about that darker unknown that lurks in the woods of our minds, that fails us when we should have been better, and that eats our flesh and bargains our souls for a few more seconds of youth.

Horror is about the real world and the many things that crouch within it. It is about the long, patient stalk of a predator, and sometimes, about dying well. It is about what makes itself known when we are at our most vulnerable.

When it combines well with an audience educated in all of its nuances, such a story – whether on film or between two covers – is received like Hitchcock or Poe. But the catch is this: if we lose and continue to lose our connection to real life, then we are losing our Horror vocabularythe most valuable tool in our storytelling arsenal.

As writers we are unable to convey what raises the goosebumps on our own skins, to name the Horror – to conjure it behind the eyes of our audience. Nothing resonates because nothing is there. This is exactly how we have come to this place in Horror where nothing – and I mean nothing – is scary enough.

Without a shared vocabulary that includes an understanding of humanity and a willingness to be led virtually anywhere in our torrid and shameful human history, film goers and book readers will simply not get it… and Horror will continue to descend into less-scary, less meaningful works that currently mirror the two dimensions of what we have come to see as “normal” – and worseto consider as acceptable work in our genre.

If you want to write effective Horror, this means you will have to get your hands dirty. You need to crawl into that cave and summon spirits. You need accuracy and detail and the ability to overwhelm the needs of your audience. That means you need to understand where we come from – that very primal place where so many unlikeable things are possible, and happy endings do not come from stories with witches in them.

You need to story-tell. And that means first, you have to listen.

So pull up a bearskin. Study folklore and fairy tales. Tell ghost stories. Ponder those warnings in the Scriptures and other Holy Books. And watch The Witch… Let your mind slowly take in all in… And then watch it again.

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In Search of the Interdimensional Beings of Horror: Where Are Our Writers of Color?


Most of the time, when we read Horror, we are simply looking to be spooked – to be creeped out, to be disturbed. That superficial-ism is largely the damage done by the 1970’s Horror Boom, when we rediscovered how very fun it was to turn out the lights and scare ourselves. I was there, reading and keeping myself awake nights by suspiciously regarding shadows that seemed to move when they should not.

It never occurred to me to look beyond the pages of the books I was reading to the race of the author, or to wonder why minorities – if they appeared at all – appeared primarily as characters in cameos, as early-plot monster-fodder, as the sinister representatives of secret, exotic societies of monster worshippers – but hardly ever as writers.

It simply never occurred to me to wonder why

Waking Up the Sleeping Princesses

It is like minority voices and/or those of people of color belong to some Lovecraftian interdimensional place in undefined space, beings who we cannot see, do not engage with, and cannot relate to except when they reach through that thin veil of our reality to hurt or insult us.

But it also like we have fallen asleep in our own fairy tale.

Hmm…. Perhaps WE are the problem?

No, of course that couldn’t be it; after all, the Publishing Industry has long been telling us why things are inevitably the way things are – because the voices of color “simply aren’t telling stories The Market will bear…”

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“In terms of my own justifications, I find marketing interesting—that’s in Apex Hides the Hurt and John Henry Days. The marketing of culture—how we relate to it, how it finds us—is something that preoccupies me.” Colson Whitehead https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/10/colson-whitehead-on-zombies-zone-one-and-his-love-of-the-vcr/246855/

Oddly, when minority writers turn up writing Horror stories, they are inevitably consigned to the general fiction section, pitted against the whole of Literary Writing as though it has already been decided that minority writers don’t write Horror; therefore minority writers must be Literary instead. So minority-written Horror becomes all about “slumming it” in the genres.

Way to insult the both of us – genre writers and Literary writers. Are we supposed to be jealous or critical of these “outsiders” come to create in our genre? And why is anyone making it matter?

Rest assured, ‘Publishing has its reasons,’ we are informed; most of them dollar-informed reasons.

And indeed, in Publishing there are many arguments made and offered up for why minority writers are not as prominent. For example, we are often told not as many of them are writing. But isn’t that in defiance of where so many of our stories came from?

What are the odds, I wonder… that so many minorities do not produce published writers because the seed of storytelling is not in their genes…

Talk about your fairy tales.

And to brand all minority writers as Literary because they can’t help but write about minority experience which includes any number of fine Literary Theories, is – well – awfully racist sounding.

Are we revising minority voices out of our fiction?

Every culture in the world has stories. Every culture in the world has had them ripped off in some manner or other by modern-day published writers… From The One Thousand and One Nights, to the Aboriginal Dreamtime to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, we have been ripping off campfire stories since Homo Erectus rubbed sticks together.

No, I cannot believe that there are not people of color telling stories meant to be heard, inspired as every writer is by older, traditional tales. Right now, as they always have been.

We are also told that minority writers tend to tell stories that are not-inclusive of the bulk of The Market… But isn’t that in itself the purpose of good writing – to write to and for an audience that is known? To educate the rest?

I mean it seems racist yet again to assume that I as The Market’s pristine representative want to be catered to, and see no merit in “Other” or “Ethnic” writing.

Aren’t writers supposed to speak to an audience they know firsthand and cherish? To provide them with a warm blanket of prose and poetry with which to endure and navigate the world? Pardon you for speaking for me… someone smart enough to recognize that the work in question was not written specifically for me, and here I am the Other, open to giving a story its own space to inhabit…

Furthermore, are Publishers really going to suggest that there aren’t enough minorities to support (at the very least) a healthy niche Market of publishing if They are not as The Market seeks to define Them?

And why is anything in today’s business environment a failure if it at least breaks even or makes a modest profit? And what about all of those sermons to writers about the quality of the work for the good of humanity if Publishers won’t stand behind it, loss accepted?

Then we are told that (just like with our own rejected writing) only the Best find publication – as though we should overlook but subordinate the implication that minority writers tend (like all of us currently rejected) to not be good writers.

But how many really good writers do you commonly encounter who cannot or will not fit the whimsical parameters of a fickle, one-trick-pony Market? Does artistic choice make a writer truly “bad” or “unmarketable”? Or just make The Market and its machinery lazy and unimaginative?

No More Excuses: Now We’re Talking Kids, Futures, and Dreams

We are too often told that their children do not read, and so they do not read as teens and then as adults… therefore, there is no real Market for any of their fiction which may surface, or it is too negligible to finance.

Now this really ticks me off.

And which summons the paradox: do minority children read less, or read less when they discover they are not being invited to participate as readers? And then would they read more if we gave them more relevant stories to read? Would that in turn lead to more adult readers? And fan the already hot teen market?

Clarifies Jonathan Gottschall in his book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, “Children the world over delight in stories and start shaping their own pretend worlds as toddlers. Story is so central to the lives of young children that it comes close to defining their existence. What do little kids do? They do story.” (7) And eventually, they do us. So why are we processing writing through a filter of white culture that ignores all others?

And exactly why the heck do we always expect minority children to identify with white characters, and believe it either doesn’t happen or shouldn’t happen the other way around?

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Debbie Weldon/AP http://www.phillyvoice.com/boy-trying-trick-teacher-haircut-goes-viral

“In this Feb. 28, 2017, photo, 5-year-olds Jax, left, and Reddy smile after Jax got a haircut similar to his friend’s at the Great Clips in Louisville, Ky. The story about the two boys and their racial harmony went viral online after Jax told his mother that he wanted to get his haircut like Reddy so that their teacher wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. “

Ah, don’t tell me children don’t get the real story…

But the rumors don’t stop there. They go on to sprout the theory that even if more minorities did write stories, the Market wouldn’t be able to interpret them – laced as they would be with cultural jargon and slang, and life-situations that The Rest of Us simply could not relate to… like Straight Outta Compton, the message would be lost on The Market, with no chance of Recognition or award; that the characters would not be identified with.

But at what point does something become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Wouldn’t it be truly amazing if we could learn something about each other through our art?

And that quickly, we are right back where we started…campfire myths.

Only this time, the Neanderthals are us.

Wake up, Sleeping Beauty.

The Publishing Industry is first an industry: it aims to protect itself by serving a market it perceives to want certain things.

It self-censors…

Maybe it even believes its own manufactured trends…

But it endlessly quotes what it refers to as “Market Demand” or “Public Interest.” Now, part of this is fairly and rightly rooted in a publisher’s need to make money, because making money allows for the payment of authors, artists, printers, editors, warehouse folk, transportation folk, bookstore folk, library folk, etc. But it is also rooted in a very dated idea of just who “The Public” and “The Market” really is….

For example, we hear how “people don’t read print books anymore” and that “people want certain types of books with certain types of heroes – read: stories about white heroes in white cultural situations…

My life has been so full of white people, I never noticed…Worse, I never noticed that people of color had little choice but to read the same…I’d like to think I was too busy reading, but the unavoidable truth is that somewhere in my own egocentrism, I chose to not-see.

And it is past time we started to realize that there is a whole universe of beings out there that we have been relegating to the fringes of our publishing dimension.

And some of them just might be…gods… Perhaps, crusty, cranky ones like Lovecraft’s versions…but perhaps ones whose voices we need to make us tremble in awe…

I look with the eyes of a white child raised in the 1960’s and 1970’s, whose father fought in Vietnam, and who accidentally encountered a Vietnamese-American writer like Violet Kupersmith, only because someone left her book at the desk to be re-shelved… It was Horror – told the old-fashioned way, cloaked in traditional myth and storytelling.

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Her bio: “Her mother’s family fled the country by boat following the communist takeover of Saigon in 1975. Her parents met in Houston, Texas, where her father was a librarian and her mother was living in a convent… Violet attended Mount Holyoke College, where she injured herself many times playing rugby and began writing the ghost stories that would eventually become The Frangipani Hotel.”) http://www.violetkupersmith.com/violet/

I wonder what I am supposed to not-get as a representative of The Market. What was I supposed to resent? Why wasn’t she in my genre? We need voices like hers.

I get it.

I got it.

I loved it.

Like it or not, our world is changing. We are homogenizing, we are beginning to see enough value in each other that color is beginning to fill our families with rich, new cultural diversity. You can rejoice, or move to another planet.

The question becomes:

Are “people” not reading anymore because less people are exclusively living the white experience? Do today’s potential readers want to see themselves in books that are NOT being published?

One has to wonder. Even I wonder… And working in a bookstore, I can testify that yes, it appears that Publishers are right, and our customer base is largely white…

But then who wants to come into a 50,000 square foot bookstore and be directed to one tiny little section devoted to history, or sociology/cultural affairs, or psychicly deduce which writers of the rows of stacks are of a given color, and which of those were “allowed” to depict true characters and real experiences?

Listening to the Flutes and the Chanting

What is blatantly clear to me, nested all comfortable in my Horror genre, is that writers of color – especially in Horror – are excruciatingly hard to find.

From educational disparities, to vacuums of encouragement and mentoring, to “pressure” from the Ivory Tower (pun intended) to congratulate the self on “rising above and never looking back to save the drowning people who will surely overturn the boat,” people of color face unique challenges – additional challenges to being published that those of us in preferred shades of color do not.

And we don’t want to admit it because doing so makes us feel like that much more of a failure for having the advantage and still not getting the job done…

This is a tool our own race uses against us constantly to exploit our own sense of inadequacy, and to keep our heads turned, our noses to the altar stone. We are teased by an implied if not implicit wink and a nod… even as we are rejected. Always it is the fault of …The Market, the one god in this dimension whose whims select but a few for Eternal Fame.

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Daniel José Older photographed by Ashley Ford.

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/daniel-jose-older/

Says Daniel Jose Older in a wonderful essay on the matter titled, “Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing”:

“The publishing industry looks a lot like one of those bestselling teenage dystopias: white, and full of people destroying one another to survive.” (238-239)

It’s true: look at how the acolytes of The Market, the would-be priests to the beast, rip apart and publicly dissect even the successes in our industry. Look at the sour grapes and the bitter envy.

Meanwhile, locked outside are writers and readers of color – a whole ‘nother Market…

I don’t tend to think that this is insidiously planned, although I could be wrong. I think we have become insidiously institutionalized to believe that this is the Way Things Are and that Nothing Has Changed. We have been asleep at the wheel , waiting for the kiss of the prince– even if not especially – at the wheel of the Horror Van.

Horror has long been a Literary tool for expressing dissent with the norm, with exposing the horrors of real life by the manufacture and exploitation of monsters. It has been the venue for feminism and civil rights, for truth-telling and condemnation of unacceptable social behaviors. So why have the most powerful voices of those issues been largely silenced or minimalized to the point of pulps and limited interest publications? Why do we label authors and not works? Why do we not trust readers to find the works designed to speak to them?

I can’t help but think this is a self-perpetuated problem inherent to the Publishing industry.

Older continues, “The publishing industry, people often say as if it’s a gigantic revelation, needs to make money and as such, it responds to The Market, and people don’t buy books about characters of color. This is updated marketing code for ‘you people don’t read,’ and its used to justify any number of inexcusable problems in literature…” up to and including commentary such as “The Market, I am told, just doesn’t demand this kind of book…because white kids won’t buy a book with a black kid on the cover – or so The Market says, despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way…” (237)

Older further states that when agents and editors are typically asked what they might do to mend the lack of diversity in publishing, the conversation degrades into a blame-the-victim mentality, deftly managed with comments such as, “the change is going to have to come from within those who are affected” which as Older clarifies, “is the language of privilege – the audacity of standing at the top of the mountain you made on the backs of others and then yelling at people for being on the bottom.” (237-238)

Where publishing argues that people of color do not read, perhaps the substantiating argument is backward. Perhaps people of color would read if there was something out there that they could relate to.

More importantly, why isn’t it important to publishing to inspire people of color to read, to improve reading scores because reading stories that matter to them naturally leads to reading more, more often and better.

We must admit, there is nothing – and I mean nothing – more frightening to white privilege than an articulate, well-read person of color who can aim their vocabulary with laser precision at issues of social concern. But it seems sad to think that this is why “of 3,200 children’s books published in2013, just 93 were about black people according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Books Center at the University of Wisconsin.” (236)

And yet if the question is occurring to me, I have to wonder what people of color are thinking…

So how do we fix this…really fix this?

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http://www.azquotes.com/author/44523-Judith_Ortiz_Cofer

Dimensions Are Right Next Door

Unfortunately, the editors and agents may be mostly right. Change will have to start with writers of color, and the motivations of their intended audience. But they are wrong to think it stops there.

It stops with US. It stops when we don’t see the potential rising right in front of us and give it a chance.

In an essay by Laura Tohe titled “The Stories From Which I Come,” we see how what we start in the classroom is framed by Publishing choices. Tohe states:

“In the early 1960’s I didn’t read indigenous writers; I didn’t know any existed. Every day at reading time, out came the further monotony of Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot…Hearing and reading stories in English regularly, I thought only non-Indians were writers or could be, even though when I was twelve, I secretly longed to be a writer. What stories could I tell? Who would be interested in my stories? How does one become a writer? Instead I told my parents I wanted to be a pediatrician when I grew up.

I didn’t realize until much later that my writing life really began with my mother’s stories and the stories my relatives told as I was growing up. Not until I graduated from university with a degree in psychology did I stop writing ‘in secret.’“ (176)

Imagine how she might have soared being seen and nurtured as a young writer. And how many others just like her are in classrooms right now, or lost to other “professions” by hopeless default because their writing doesn’t “fit” a myopic, colorblind Market?

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http://www.sonorannews.com/archives/2015/151104/comm-laura-tohe.html

I love Horror. I don’t care who writes it, as long as it scares me. I love it when I learn something in addition. I cannot imagine that I am alone, and if even a percentage of The Market as currently defined agrees with me, then why aren’t we all worth courting?

Perhaps publishers are thinking that now is just not the time to take that kind of a chance… But I can’t help thinking maybe it is precisely the time. Here we are in the bonanza of all marginalist times since the 1800’s, with antagonism and horror being done to so many people of color and differing religions and cultures… when coincidentally and suddenly The Market isn’t buying much of anything at all…

Why not give the new majority something to read, to talk about, to inspire and educate the rest of us? And why not market to this Market?

So where are our writers of color? Right beside us… Where they have always been – pushed into an alternate dimension by our own desperate jostling for recognition. The question is more accurately not about where they are, but why isn’t their own voice, their own way of storytelling valued for what it can teach the rest of us?

Pucker up. I don’t know about you, but I feel horrified. And maybe even a little cheated.

References

Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Boston: Mariner Books, c2012.

Older, Daniel Jose. “Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing.” Manjula Martin, ed. Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, c2017.

Tohe, Laura. “The Stories From Which I Come.” Janet Burroway, Ed. A Story Larger Than My Own: Women Writers Look Back on Their Lives and Careers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, c2014.

Brandy Maxie, Bone Woman: What Non-Indians Just Learned About the Power of Voice


As writers, it is a grail second only to the holy one of publication… finding and using your Voice…

And here in the last days of Women in Horror Month, comes Brandy Maxie – at once a beautiful, striking young woman and a single, solitary figure standing in tears and alone at the DAPL protest campground, being vacated under threat of arrest.

Some would say the reporter covered her because of that: a vulnerable and pretty woman is always good press. But I say the reason is otherwise. Brandy Maxie is a Bone Woman, a keeper of sacred Voice.

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http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/single-first-nations-mother-brandy-maxie-never-gives-up-on-dreams-1.3019612

Voice is about Knowledge, and Power, and Heart.

So clearly distressed, so clearly heartbroken, her words rattle the houses of denial where we all choose to live, a Powerful wind born of the earth itself. Her tears are transformative, even as she does not seem to know it yet – there in that news clip, there under threat of an arrest she doesn’t want.

Warrior woman. It’s on your shirt, my dear. Just read. And accept it. This is you.

She is the inner Wild Woman, the Mad Woman of creativity and true self once again made famous by Jungian psychoanalyst Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D.

This is the same Mad Woman we witness locked in Literary Attics, the same Wild Woman who dares to wear pants or cut her hair, the same Wolf Woman who devours that wildness raw because she knows and recognizes that essential part of her biological heritage which the Bone Woman summons back from the dead. The Bone Woman is the one who takes back the Power robbed from women. She is an archetype and a role model. Her existence is an ethnic proof of historic marginalism.

And we all need to see her, to feel her presence with our skins because she will not be easily forgotten in a willy nilly world.

How do we process this?

A woman standing on a battlefield of words and principles. Her tears cut like knives the flesh from our arms. Are we mourning?

How far back do we have to go to remember?

How do we sort out our misdirected, and self-aggrandizing vision of Native People from the very real one of people who share the exact same concerns as the rest of us?

We listen.

We listen to the Voice.

“Earth. Mother. Goddess. In every culture the voice of the Feminine emerges from the land itself. We clothe her as Eve or Isis or Demeter. In the desert she appears as Changing Woman. She can shift shapes like the wind and cut through stone with her voice like water. And when she approaches us with her open hands carrying offerings of white shells in arid country she reminds us that there was a time before drought when ancient seas covered the desert. She cannot be classified… I wish someone had told me when I was young that it was not happiness I could count on, but change.” Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds, p.92

Why is it so hard?

Why can’t we look Native Americans in the eye and just say it:

We. Were. Wrong.

We were blinded by our own needs, mice in the grasses, seeing only what is right in front of our noses – and still seeing only that – those endless lands of milk and honey that promised what seemed like endless bounty. What we need to be endless bounty.

A blessing. Proof of our rightness.

We are still blinded.

We placed you at the edges of our world so we wouldn’t have to see you… to think about what we did in our hurry to define ourselves, in our rush to build our own world where you happened to be standing.

We welcome blindness… the excuse that it is winter on the plains, that the land is Federally owned, that Native People need “tending” for their own good. We gaze adoringly at our giant SUVs and dread the price at the pump, so we rationalize how the actual danger of a leak into the water supply for Native Peoples is so miniscule, it is worth the risk….

We pretend we know better. Like we did 100 and 200 years ago.

For far too many of us, Native Americans are tourist curios… quaint remembrances of a time when pioneers were being elevated to Hero Status and our Great Country was being formed on the backs of slaves and tenant farmers, in garment factories and tenements, in mines and railroad camps. They were brave, but misinformed, simple, and superstitious.

We mutilate what we cannot understand, what threatens our sense of self.

It wasn’t us. But it is.

(“Those who do not assimilate deserve what they get.”)

No other minority in this country today is repeatedly told what to think and how to think it.

(“To be named after a sports team is an honor…they should be grateful we remember them at all.”)

No other minority is disallowed a voice at the table.

And then there is Brandy.

Power comes when it is called.

First American. Native American. (that’s right, the whole continent is America…always has been…the name is not exclusively the U.S. right to claim…)

Of all the horrendous images we saw come from the protests, of all of the rationalizations of how those darn Natives just don’t get it… It is her Voice that connected the angry fist of protest to the stomachs of the rest of us…

“We know the quality of another’s heart through her voice. Not the sound, although it is a cue. Not through words, although they present an idea. I most often feel the tenor of another’s heart through tone and the feeling that enters my body when they speak.” Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds, p. 186.

Brandy shook the World. Did you hear it? Did you feel it?

Her Voice spoke loudly in that moment. The shudder of fear and sadness, at the loss of something she had given her all for in peaceful protest, hoping against hope that at last someone would just listen… That someone would hear.

Her.

As a Mother.

As a Woman.

As a Voice.

Why is it so hard?

The question drove tears from her eyes without her saying so.

Why?

http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/north-dakota-officials-plead-protesters-leave-45678680

Why was it okay to move the DAPL from its course numerous times because its latent threat would not be tolerated by nonNative interests, when it is more than okay to dismiss Native People’s all-too-valid concerns?

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“140 Route Deviations….17 Route Adjustments….”

We cannot see you….

“The Dakota Access Pipeline is NOT on Standing Rock Sioux land,” crows a headline on the Pipeline Facts page….But that is not the point: it impacts the Sioux by being UPSTREAM. Sh*t runs downhill and so does oil. How many times were we promised that leaks and spills are not really a big problem? Exxon Valdez, BP Gulf Spill, and most recently the Denbury spill in Southwest South Dakota http://oilprice.com/Latest-Energy-News/World-News/North-Dakota-Spill-Leaks-120000-Gallons-of-Oil-Wastewater.html … At what point are will willing to risk the lives of and health of People?

We cannot hear you….

Are Native American concerns less than those of the people of Flint, Michigan? Apparently.

There is a difference between what is needed and what is desired. The difference is in holding the power to disregard the needs of others to satiate the childish desire of self… it is called “social currency.”

And that is what made Brandy Maxie’s Voice the single loudest of the entire protest. It was soft, and simple, and honest… feminine. It came from a primal place that resonates with all hearts of the marginalized, and sometimes penetrates the man-made numbness of other senses. Perhaps it is because she is a mother, which is the first thing she said to define herself to an audience unseen and unseeing.

“Your voice is the wildest thing you own…” Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds, p. 188

The words Became… behold a Woman running with Wolves…

There on the muddy fields in the aftermath of a valiant protest effort, stood the very heart of what it is to be Native American today: dismissed, a mild point of interest, an entertainment that tritely represents the very real shame of what we’ve done to these people….

Yet.

Brandy shook the World.

Did you hear it? Did you feel it? The Bone Woman cometh… the voice of All Women…

According to Dr. Estes,

“Ideally an old woman symbolizes dignity, mentoring, wisdom, self-knowledge, tradition-bearing, well-defined boundaries, and experience…with a good dose of crabby, long-toothed, straight-talking, flirtatious sass thrown in for good measure” (Estes 243).

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Bone WomanWoman SisterhoodtmWild WomanSimply FeminineSacred FeminineDivine FeminineShaman ArtShaman WomanPuppet Lc

“La Loba (She wolf) “The gatherer of bones” – the 2 million year-old woman who sings bones to life again”

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/18999629656190673/

Did you hear the wind gathering its sacred Voices to itself?

Did you feel the shudder of Power as it drew a ragged breath and held up its daughter as a sign of change, its hands bloody from the birth?

Because change is indeed coming…thundering across the lands we see as empty and Native People see as Home.

Some of us have heard the rattling of bones; we have begun to awaken, to see for the first time our sisters, if not our brothers.

We see a real person standing there, frustrated, afraid for her people but also for her children, for the lives yet to be, unable to imagine what comes next in a world gone intentionally deaf and blind to her basic fears.

We are learning the lesson of the Power of Voice. Can you feel its tremolo echo through your own body?

What comes next is fearsome.

Awesome.

It is the awakening of Power and another kind of change. The change that comes with the resonance of Voice in a people marginalized for far too long. It comes when we at last begin to hear them. It comes when justice is summoned on a muddy battlefield the morning After the day Before…

“In Mormon Culture there is a saying, ‘I would walk across the plains with you.’

The translation is simple: you are tough. You are reliable. You can carry your own weight.” Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds, p. 131.

It is important to know, Brandy, that your Voice made itself heard, all in that simple moment of exasperation and surrender, broadcast in a news clip. You couldn’t have planned it. Power takes its own form.

You are a Bone Woman.

And the world quakes at your tears, the Power of not what was said – but what was meant – it is carried by a thousand ancient rivers all born of Women in this world…Changing Woman….

You are awesome. And I would walk across the plains with you… always wondering if I was worthy of your presence…

Brandy Maxie. Bone Woman, extraordinaire.

Shirley Jackson: Of Mothers, Daughters & Horror (a Women in Horror Month Perspective)


Mothers. They, as part of the parental power couple, are the villains in everything from psychoanalysis to career choices and marital partners. And while there may be many unjustly accused, all prejudices germinate from the same seed of truth – that all of us grow in the direction of our sun – and either flourish or wither beneath its gaze… Mothers can make us or break us.

“The first book is the book you have to write to get back at your parents… Once you get that out of your way, you can start writing books.” Shirley Jackson (Franklin 30)

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For those of us who write, there is perhaps no truer statement – especially if our youth was riddled by the constant misfire of incompatibility, of conflicting dreams and expectations for ourselves. But this is a good news/bad news proposition: it is bad news if the emotional worm bores into our souls and cripples our ability to write what needs to be written; it is good news if we can learn to tap into the honesty of the subsequently generated emotions and – through our writing – (instead of degenerating into psychic messes) work competently through the layers of universal truths.

It has been done before. And one of the best examples is that of Shirley Jackson, whose own relationship with her mother sadly tainted both her self-image and her self-confidence, but led to some totally awesome Literary Horror.

History and the Other Inconvenient Truths

Of all the women writers of American Horror, Shirley Jackson is queen. She set the stage and the bar for the writing of modern Literary Horror, influencing generations of writers in ways we never suspected, leaving us examples that are more easily digested when Critics attempt to explain how they look at our genre. While a lot of what she wrote might today be considered Young Adult fiction and is still taught at the high school level, the subject matter is pure adult – tapping into psycho-social behaviors that still shock and disturb, yet also resonate with our adult memories of our younger selves.

She didn’t set out to write Horror – her influences were typically Literary ones, her husband a Literary Critic. But her work held the roots of Horror in its curled fingers – and all because of her complicated relationship with her mother.

Horror has long been the Literary vehicle for expressing the conditions and humanity of the oppressed. It’s something women commandeered in their writing during the late 1800’s, following along the path that writers like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters had blazed. And like it or not, it was because of the second-class status of women and minorities that provided the impetus. When one group of people (then as often now largely legally and politically empowered white men) have absolute command over “Others” – be they women or immigrants or minorities – in which lives are lived subject to incarceration, psychiatric experimentation, homelessness, poverty, untreated illness, wretched working conditions, physical and or verbal abuse – terror is the result. Post-Traumatic Stress is the result. Mental illness is the result. Violent pushback is the result.

Women writers were often the privileged prisoner-witnesses when not victim to these events, bearing testimony from their own strata of society, often identifying with those they witnessed being mistreated when not suffering their own class-tinted versions. Sometimes these women were so moved that they attempted to represent the classes they saw suffering – such as Harriet Beecher Stowe with Uncle Tom’s Cabin (https://www.saylor.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/SAYLOR-ENGL405-7.3-UNCLETOM.pdf ) – the first successful attempt to bring due attention to the inhumanity of slavery, Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2802 ) – highlighting the brutal consequences of mixed race life in Mexican Colonial California, or Ann Sophia Stephens’ Malaeska: the Indian Wife of the White Hunter (http://www.ulib.niu.edu/badndp/dn01.html )– one of the first attempts to bring the plight of eastern Native Americans to light.

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Of course these stories were meant for other women’s eyes, written in overly sentimental and “emotional” tones that decried them women’s reading material instead of Literature, and they were at times every bit as ignorant and romanticized as “imagining” how others live can be. But they were also meant to unite and more importantly, to enlighten and then incite. Literature they became. And being embraced by generations, they also became transformative works that changed many early American minds about the plight of all “second-class” citizens.

Jackson serves this purpose in American Horror. In Jackson’s case, her stories reveal the “normal” lives of women of her generation (1916-1965) – a time and place close enough to our own that we seldom remember the constriction of society against women and girls even then. We tend to gloss it over, to misremember it with Donna Reed-like complacency. Says Jackson biographer Ruth Franklin:

“…tension animates all of Jackson’s writing. And it makes her perfectly representative of her time…The themes of Jackson’s work were so central to the preoccupations of American women during the postwar period that Plath biographer Linda Wagner-Martin has called the 1950’s ‘the decade of Jackson.’ Her body of work constitutes nothing less that the secret history of the American women of her era. And the stories she tells form a powerful counternarrative to the ‘feminine mystique’ revealing the unhappiness and instability beneath the housewife’s sleek veneer of competence.” (Franklin 5-6)

I remember the cracks that showed in the early sixties when I was a child, my own mother born in the 1930’s, discussing things across the backyard fence with other wives, the way in which there was still a tiptoeing around the man of the house, routine sacrifices demanded of wives for their husband’s public face and personal careers, the arguments and lectures about compromising the “appearance” of things, the dispensing with a mother’s complete life and career because the new one was the children she was expected to have for the good of the husband’s career advancement. My own mother did not learn to drive until her thirties… a demand she made after she suffered a miscarriage while unable to get herself to the base hospital in time.

We could argue that it is natural for people to forget the discomfort and unpleasantries we have survived – whether as a group, a gender, or an individual; so it is that today we tend to have conveniently forgotten what recent generations of women have endured, preferring to remind ourselves that once upon a time, things were much, much worse for our gender. It is as though distance makes it easier to look at. And it makes us wont to repress any criticisms of where we are now, lest we seem ungrateful for the advances we have achieved…or worse, rabble-rousing and unfeminine.

When we consider writing as a reflection of our own times – of writing modern Horror and revealing the truths of today’s social issues, we go wooden. We recognize that it is that very oppression which makes us decide whether we want to “come across” as militant and angry women, or “reasonable” and “compassionate” as we are taught to believe “normal” women are. It scares us as women and as writers back into complacency. Worse, it puts phantom voices in our heads, whispering what some people might think of us if we really said that…

We think about how our parents will respond, what our own mothers will think of us. We remain unsure of the consequences if we tell our secrets. We let this affect storylines and word choice, character development and how we evolve them. We think we can tell stories with half-truths and are surprised when editors say they are lackluster. We begin to belittle the very things that eat at our souls and take so long to work their way out of our bodies like splinters — sometimes leaving Literature in their wake, sometimes leaving orchards of trees bearing too little or shriveled fruit. We hear the criticisms of society and our parents… and we let them silence or mutilate our voices.

We may be survivors of something, but we don’t want to be called warriors…we don’t want to draw hurtful criticism, or worse – enemy fire – especially from our own intimate camp. We women, it seems, can be our own worst enemies…

There is even now a separation between protesting our circumstances as righteous anger, and behaving in a socially acceptable manner; today as before our patriotism might be challenged or our sexual preferences. It’s driven many a writer to Literature and genre fiction… Because it is there that the awful truth of damage and ruin can be revealed with less criticism, hidden in plain sight because it is a societal normal. It is there that any oppressors can “overlook” the rebellion, not seeing it in fiction because they don’t see it in real life where it is also hidden in subtext – coded as the way things are, or because they can belittle it as “women’s writing” as… pulp… inferior, toothless ranting.

But particularly in its preservation, an analysis of Literature in retrospective remains also the fact that we do see it – the oppression of times, the flaws of relationships, the vulnerabilities of self.

The work of Shirley Jackson is as much a loud confession and a work of rebellion as it is a recognized body of Literature – Horror Literature.

From her poisonous relationship with her mother, her constant reconciliation with the fact of a constantly unfaithful husband who she loved passionately and her mother opposed, the minimizing of her writing by everyone including herself, the professional ostracism of the Academic community, the struggle to raise children in the midst of so much and so constant criticism – it all led to private battles with her own self-worth and subsequent brushes with mental illness…all of which color her fiction with immaculately concealed screams.

Because of its honesty, the work becomes elevated.

Says Horror Critic S.T. Joshi of Jackson: “…I wish to place Jackson within the realm of weird fiction not only for the nebulous reason that the whole of her work has a pervasive atmosphere of the odd about it, but, more importantly, because her entire work is unified to such a degree that distinctions about genre and classification become arbitrary and meaningless. Like Arthur Machen, Shirley Jackson developed a view of the world that informed all her writing, whether supernatural or not; but that world view is more akin to the cheerless and nihilistic misanthropy of Bierce than to Machen’s harried antimaterialism. It is because Shirley Jackson so keenly detected horror in the everyday world, and wrote of it with rapier-sharp prose, that she ranks as a twentieth-century Bierce.” (Joshi 13)

This is high praise indeed, and praise overdue. But it is also a call to arms for women writers of Horror…horror in the everyday world….Do you not know horrors that like Stepford Wives we pretend not to notice lest they notice us? These are Literary links…world shakers….Inconvenient truths.

States biographer Ruth Franklin: “Critics have tended to underestimate Jackson’s work: both because of its central interest in women’s lives and because some of it is written in genres regarded as either ‘faintly disreputable’ (in the words of one scholar) or simple uncategorizable. Hill House is often dismissed as an especially well written ghost story, Castle as a whodunit.  The headline of Jackson’s New York Times obituary identified her as ‘Author of Horror Classic” – that is, “The Lottery.” But such lazy pigeonholing does an injustice to the masterly way in which Jackson used the classic tropes of suspense to plumb the depths of the human condition.” (Franklin 6-7)

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“Dismissed” and “overlooked” is indeed the best way to describe Jackson’s body of work in its own time. Like other “greats” before her, her subjects found their way under her readers’ skins and held out to Critics an ornamentation of honesty so many of us are not comfortable with when expressed in plain English – the adolescent awakening of honesty, of not-liking one’s own parents and the societal implications of being not-liked back. It did not help that like many women who feel made powerless, she publicly embraced witchcraft – describing herself as a “practicing witch” although exhibiting more of an intellectual interest than that of more serious dabbling in the occult. (Lethem vii-viii)

This could only serve to push Critics further away from her, raising the ire of a more conservative public who cancelled subscriptions and declared themselves incompatible with such disturbing writing as found in “The Lottery,” denouncing it as “nauseating” “perverted” and “vicious”… (Lethem viii)

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Yet she and her fans endured. It was, perhaps, because Literature has a way of seeking out the subtext – of stripping away the witchcraft of character and plot and seeing world view – the truths of historic period revealed by the people who live them. This leads to a dedicated fan base – one that simply does not go away and signals to the Critic that there is something more in the writing. But this seldom happens during the writer’s lifetime…

Jonathan Lethem explains in his introduction to We Have Always Lived in the Castle (New York: Penguin, 2006, c1962): “Jackson is one of American fiction’s impossible presences, too material to be called a phantom in literature’s house, too in-print to be ‘rediscovered,’ yet hidden in plain sight. She’s both perpetually underrated and persistently mischaracterized as a writer of upscale horror, when in truth a slim minority of her works had any element of the supernatural…While celebrated by reviewers throughout her career, she wasn’t welcomed into any canon or school; she’s been no major critic’s fetish…” (xii)

And according to Franklin, even Jackson’s husband was distressed and perplexed at the professional ostracism:

“[Stanley Edgar] Hyman[an important intellectual and author of several major works of literary criticism] was a consistently insightful interpreter of his wife’s work. He bitterly regretted the critical neglect and misreading she suffered through her lifetime.” (Franklin 9) According to her husband, “she received no awards or prizes, grants or fellowships; her name was often omitted from lists on which it clearly belonged…” (9)

Yet her impact is undeniable – palpable, connecting to women and young women even today. Like many of her gender, Jackson’s writing has been left adrift – largely as consequence of an inability to reconcile real issues within the rigid interpretations of a Literature still evolving its theories and conjecture on how writing happens. But the public noticed – her public, often filled with young women who could identify… Because her writing captured the most important of Literary elements – resonance with generations of readers.

Indeed, we all have mothers who criticize to guide, we all have various infidelities that interrupt and scar our lives, children who complicate our decisions, Professional ceilings to crack our heads against when they do not collapse outright upon us. Jackson’s audience knows her vulnerabilities and feels her angst and subversive anger.

Joshi continues that the importance of her domestic fiction (which he describes as domestic horror) lies in the fact that Jackson “systematically attempts to present what may in reality have been highly traumatic events as the sources of harmless jests…it rests in its employment of very basic familial or personal scenarios that she would reuse in her weird stories in perverted and twisted ways; things like riding a bus, employing a maid, taking children shopping, going on vacation, putting up guests, and, in general, adhering – or seeming to adhere – to the ‘proper conduct’ expected of her as a middle-class housewife.” (Joshi 17).

Jackson’s fiction survives because not only is it truthful, but we can still see the truths as being in our lives today in various degrees. And, we are glad somebody has the brass to speak it.

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Mommy Dearest

So with all of these social battles, why is it that it is the one we have with our mothers that tops them all?

Perhaps because our relationship as women is most intimate with our mothers; here, all pretense is stripped away. They know our secrets. They know precisely our vulnerabilities. They know how to hurt us and have immediate access to do so. All of our future ability to trust others is attached to our parents – but most deeply to our mothers… So much so that they can scar us permanently, whether they are even present at all.

Mothers can’t win. But if they are or choose to be their daughter’s worst enemy, the damage is devastatingly deep. Where bad maternal and absent maternal relationships with daughters have been the subjects utilized in many great Literary plots, few have gone where Shirley Jackson went.

Classic Literature had long been where domestic abuse and the manipulation of inheritance laws became the source of many a ghost story, with mad women in attics, and the ghosts of dead babies and drowned young women facing pregnancy and ruined reputations littering the mythology of many a fine family, each generation – each era – having its own denigrations and disappointments, its own secrets. In that Classic venue most of the resentments and tragedies were handled by heroines who were vulnerable and ultimately, unfailingly “good.” Evil stepmothers, greedy mothers, absent mothers… it was the daughter who through her own inherent goodness would triumph at last.

So everything that came before set the stage for a shift in truth: that sometimes such mothering does not produce “goodness” but savagery.

The final spotlight wrought by Shirley Jackson came to shine upon the biggest resentments of all – the resentment of daughters against mothers who fail to protect them in their own attempts to protect themselves and their mutual reputations, and the resentment of mothers against daughters who impulsively disregard their hard-won advice or blatantly sabotage the best laid plans. Jackson’s writings seem to drag us into the world where best intentions and robotic obeisance lead to isolation and the celebrated road to Hell.

It was honest. Painfully so. And every parent and child has been there to some degree. We live our lives in constant push-back, testing the boundaries of our respective worlds, craving acceptance and praise, risking it all on impulse and frustration. We tend to live our lives specifically to spite each other.

So when we are not blessed with that Carrie Fisher/Debbie Reynolds mother/daughter power relationship, the rough edges wound and eviscerate instead of nurture and heal.

Many a woman has grown up feeling that she was quite accidental, if not being told so. She becomes a burden, an inconvenience that constantly threatens the happiness of her family. She is a point from which it all potentially comes unglued and reputations can be slighted, she is all of the dreaded and unsightly mistakes of her parents. The pressure to get it right is often overwhelming.

Even when we say we don’t care, we do. After all, if our own parents don’t love us unconditionally, what possible life can we have in a world full of cruelties and misadventure?

It took Shirley Jackson to open that door. And she went as far as matricide in her writing. Imagine that in a Classic Literary heroine…

Says biographer Ruth Franklin in her new book, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life:

“This does not mean that Jackson actually wished to kill her mother any more than the frequent appearance of sexual molestation in her fiction means that she was literally molested. But it is clear that even from California, [her mother] Geraldine managed to insert herself into her daughter’s life in a way that Jackson resented, criticizing her appearance and offering unsolicited advice on household help, clothing, furniture, and other domestic matters.” (Franklin 350)

It simply means that the relationship between mothers and daughters is every bit as potent and potentially toxic as that often attributed to fathers and sons… Women are simply more societally pressured to suppress our rebellions.

And sometimes that suppression, the reluctance to consciously acknowledge the personal evisceration, leads to great Horror.

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Franklin continues: “On one level, the ‘explosive’ material clearly touched on her own feelings about her mother. All of Jackson’s heroines are essentially motherless, or at least victims of mothers who are not good enough…” And the character – Elizabeth – “ would be the first of Jackson’s characters to commit matricide; the act also takes place in her last two completed novels…”(350)

As writers, sometimes our characters have to say what we mean, to do symbolically what can’t be done in real life.

Still, the constant bullying by her own mother took its toll, both in Jackson’s mental health and in determining the direction of her fiction. And sadly, many writers know all too well this type of unsettling relationship with kin.

Continues Franklin,“Her [mother’s] letters to Jackson are masterpieces of passive-aggression, disguising harsh critiques beneath a veneer of sweetness. She needled Jackson constantly about her weight: ‘How about you and your extra pounds?…You will look and feel so much better without them’” (this written less than six months after her daughter’s birth), and then a year later stating in another letter in response to the successful publication of The Lottery: “‘We’re so proud of your achievements – we want to be proud of the way you look too, And really dear – you don’t do a thing to make yourself attractive.’”

Such is the relationship many of us share with our own mothers. Is it any wonder that this kind of private narrative leads to public art and writing that leans toward the Gothic, the dark, toward Horror and women’s issues? Toward Literature?

We Are All Shirley Jackson

It should come as no surprise then that during her lifetime she developed emotional struggles amid various degrees of mental illness spurred on by the stress of those fueled insecurities handed her by those she needed to trust. The result was the creation of dark-themed stories and novels with characters who could do what she could not.

In so many ways then we are all Shirley Jackson. Often we are like her: self-loathed, too tall, too awkward, and burdened with insecurities… We might be likely to assume that this was because she was at heart a writer – a creative person which is a title we stereotype into shyness and social dysfunction. But it had more to do with her upbringing, and a difficult relationship with a mother who seemed unwilling or unable to like her.

Says biographer Franklin, “As a writer and mother myself, I am struck by how contemporary Jackson’s dilemmas feel: her devotion to their children coexists uneasily with her fear of losing herself in domesticity. Several generations later, the intersection of life and work continues to be one of the points of most profound anxiety in our society – an anxiety that affects not only women but also their husbands and children.” (9)

Hers is the story of how the irritants of life and circumstance become the grit of sand upon which the pearl of Literature is made. It is a lesson in how one uses the honesty of one’s own life to shape a fiction that masks the truth of one’s times by the telling of one’s most intimate secrets. This is how Literary Horror is done – not by the overt caricature of shock and gore – but by the constant drip of the faucet everyone has and no one notices or chooses to ignore.

But the lesson is that we should never make excuses for those who have laid traps for us, never attempt to bury those hurts with substance abuse or spiraling illness and behavioral addictions. Instead we should let those wounds fester. Let the wood work its way out of our flesh, or let it lie there if it be resistant to our preferences… let it be the grit in the oyster.

Honesty and mining our most private emotions in writing is the lesson we take from Shirley Jackson. If it is big enough in our psyche to suppress our writing, to tempt us into self-destructive behaviors, to make us fearful of actually saying it, it needs to be said.  And until we find a way to do so, writing will remain a struggle – clouded by emotions that block our words because left to fester unacknowledged in the dark they are cancerous.

We may have to – as Shirley said – write a lot of bad fiction to please our parents, to please who we anticipate will be judging our fiction. But in the end we have to stop caring. We have to tell the truth.

Because the truth will set you free.

 

 References

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

Franklin, Ruth. Shirley Jackson: a Rather Haunted Life. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, c 2016.

Lethem, Jonathan. Introduction. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. New York: Penguin, 2006, c1962.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Getting” Weird: When a Subgenre is a Subgenre and its Shadow is Over More Than Innsmouth (Part Two)


The shortest, most succinct definition of Weird I ever read was: “Stories about things that cannot possibly happen.”

To this day, that is the most helpful of all definitions I have read – the least complicated with the most meat. That simple statement reminds the reader and the writer to think about the ultimate destination of plot, and the conditions by which we get there. For example, this particular definition of Weird includes all of the traditional monsters of Horror – although the ghost waivers on the fringe at times. But it also encompasses what is referred to as “Cosmic Horror” – which is to Science Fiction what Dark Fantasy is to Fantasy.

However, nothing in defining Weird Fiction is completely simple because as a reader or Critic accumulates examples of stories, there is just enough “spin” on the different plots, characters and atmosphere that Critics need more specifics.

So let the digging and defining begin…

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Defining Weird Fiction

When anyone attempts to succinctly define Weird Fiction, they inevitably resort to discussing H.P. Lovecraft. It isn’t that Lovecraft invented the Weird (he did not) but it was under his study and practice of it that the form coalesced. Part of the reason was Lovecraft’s inability to market much of his fiction, and part of it was his own obsession to clarify its differences from Supernatural and Gothic fiction forms of the day. Either way, Lovecraft spent a lot of time writing — including essays and  letters to other writers exploring the Weird. Because of his skill as a paid editor and his love of both literature and pulp forms, he better expressed the differences he was seeing – a talent that in turn makes him a favorite among fans as well as modern Critics when looking at the Weird.

But as the Weird caught on with other writers and the body of Weird literature (small “L”) began to grow, scholars of such things as definitions had new decisions to make. Was Weird writing in decline after Lovecraft, or undergoing expansion and change?

This has led to dabbling in terms such as the New Weird, the Modern Weird, and the British Weird to include all of the writings that came after Lovecraft. But does this help or hurt the definition? And isn’t all Weird just Weird?

First, one needs to acknowledge that there are as many definitions as there are readers, writers, and Critics of the Weird. Critics are obsessed with nailing down the defining conventions of Weird fiction as Lovecraft wrote it simply because to understand revision one must know the purist original form.

While everyone is entitled to their opinions, I admit to being persuaded by better argued opinions, not so much those offered by the merely passionate. To help get us pointed in the same direction, I have chosen to highlight those definitions which show an interrelated set of themes – specifically those presented by Lovecraft himself, by rising Horror Critic S.T. Joshi, British writer and Critic China Mieville, and editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (primarly because of their recent effort to compile an almost encyclopedic collection of Weird tales).

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H.P. Lovecraft

Here’s the problem: Weird fiction was in the process of defining itself when Lovecraft died in 1937. While a number of writers were quite vocal about the subject, until Lovecraft adopted the form exclusively, “Weird” was pretty much a misunderstood and often generally applied adjective. With Lovecraft, the idea of genre began to coalesce and conventions began to emerge. This is what makes Lovecraft — a prolific writer of letters and essays on the subject – a dominating force and constant reference for Critics in the attempt to define the whole of Weird Fiction.

Lovecraft was a dedicated student of such Weird tales as its early days presented. Specifically he gravitated toward Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Robert W. Chambers, and Greek mythology (Montague-Lovecraft 30) – all of which have recognizable influence on his encapsulation of the Weird. Yet he also read and had “affection for the dime novels of the day, ironically, given his like for the more highbrow end of literature. He voraciously devoured westerns, detective and espionage stories….” (16).

All of this congealed in his style until the one discovery that would set the Weird in motion – astronomy. In his essay, “Confession of Unfaith,” Lovecraft states: “The most poignant sensations of my existence are those of 1896, when I discovered the Hellenic world, and of 1902 when I discovered the myriad suns and worlds of infinite space…The futility of all existence began to impress and oppress me; and my references to human progress, formerly hopeful, began to decline in enthusiasm.” (Montague-Lovecraft 28).

This changed everything. For one thing, the bulk of Lovecraft’s earlier works were largely in imitation of other writers as he searched for his own voice. It was the unique marriage of his study of astronomy, mythology and the writings of those at the forefront of Weird writing that gave him focus and his own style, launching the Weird into its own cosmos. This is where the Weird was born, assembled from the many parts that had already begun to burst from the egg sac of the Supernatural and Gothic forms.

The first thing that Weird writers changed was how characterization was revealed in Weird tales. This is a significant difference from the rest of the fiction of the day – and a change that alienated Lovecraft from the Critics of the time. But the change had in a sense already happened in the pulps – it simply hadn’t been completely unified into a type of fiction with its own name and criteria. Gone were the deeply developed, likeable Literary characters. Instead the characterizations seemed cold and almost shallowly drawn – there but for the purpose of advancing the plot toward what would become a Literary-induced end, fraught with world view.

So while we assume that by reading Lovecraft, we might be influenced enough to be writing Weird… that by osmosis we become schooled in the Weird… something has indeed gone a bit awry. As it is, we get into trouble when we as writers (and that means any of us from novice to professional ranks) read someone like Lovecraft, and attempt to mimic him without understanding Lovecraft’s own interpretation of how weird fiction functions.

For example, Joshi explains, “….the increasing concern of weird writers to depict the minute details of the mundane lives of mundane people, both in an attempt to win the reader’s sympathy… and to lay the ground for the intrusion of the weird into a familiar realm…is not so different in the approach from Lovecraft’s brand of realism, although he emphasized topographical over psychological realism.” However the “dwelling on issues that are of concern to most normal people – relationships between husband, wife and children; difficulties on the job; problems of modern urban life – is a very large reason for the popular success of writers like King and Straub, it does not seem to me as if this should be the primary focus of weird fiction” (7).

China Mieville agrees, clearly stating: “Lovecraft’s protagonists are so unheroic: there is no muscular intervention that can save the day.” (Mieville xiii).

Yet before we in displaced loyalty to King or Straub attack Mieville or Joshi, we must first realize that the reason Joshi (and Mieville) arrived at this conclusion is because Lovecraft himself declared, “I could not write about ‘ordinary people” because I am not in the least interested in them. Without interest there can be no art. Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man’s relation to the cosmos—to the unknown – which alone arouses in me the spark of imagination….”(7)

Says Joshi, “Weird fiction should not be about ordinary people. Even if one does not adopt the ‘cosmic” attitude of Lovecraft, even if one wishes to depict the insidious incursion of the weird into the ordinary, the emphasis should be on the weird and not the ordinary” (Joshi-Modern Weird 7). He further clarifies that in his opinion the heavy emphasis on the latter makes a weird work “thin and poorly conceived” where not enough attention is paid to the reason for the work itself – the weird phenomenon. (7)

In addition to the change in character, there was something else…the Weird had embraced a new otherworldliness…one that was definitely not the familiar supernatural. It was called cosmic horror.

Lovecraft began to actively follow in the footsteps of Blackwood, Machen and Chambers, whose protagonists “were often doomed men for whom reality had become blurred. Often, they were scientists or explorers who were forced to undergo horrific physical transmutations or witness hideous rituals, the natural and scientific laws shattered in the process.” (30).

This marks a sea change in the writing of the day, unifying writers that were sharing new conventions and more “modern” world views that distinguished them from the Gothic tradition (which itself seemed to face backward); a new lineage was being spawned, and a strong focus on – if not preoccupation with – discovery and the sciences was the impetus. It also meant that there was a desire to define what is natural law and therefore what is supernatural. Because for writers of the Weird, it was the breaking of natural laws and the birth of the irrational  that offered more tangible Horror than the mere supernatural.

The preoccupation with the cosmic influence on the minimization of humanity became the impetus of Weird fiction that lifted the Weird tale from the earlier, more constraining conventions of the nineteenth century Gothic tale and ghost story and “imbued the reader with a sense of creeping unease” (30) – which we now recognize as one of the Weird’s main structural conventions.

It was Lovecraft who seemed most preoccupied with defining what he was writing – of giving the Weird structure.  Other writers seemed to drift in and out of the form – but it was Lovecraft who dedicated himself to it – who sculpted out the very idea of a genre space. And with his passing, coincidentally came a new blow to the Weird.

 

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S.T. Joshi

By 1940, explains Joshi, “the demise of the pulps led to the birth of paperback book publishing and some of the genres – particularly mystery and science fiction – flourished in this new medium. Weird fiction, for whatever reason, did not.” (Joshi-Modern Weird 4) This means that the window for gathering definitive works used to model conventions upon and cement formula is particularly narrow. Continues Joshi, “Until recent times, of course, weird fiction was never written in any great quantity; before the establishment of the pulp magazine Weird Tales, no periodical was ever devoted exclusively to the weird” and since then, most modern writers of the weird also have an affinity for other genres – such as Robert Bloch, Fritz Lieber, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, and Charles Beaumont (4).

For this reason, Joshi is wont to study Lovecraft for useful definitions, drawn directly from the most complete skeleton of the early Weird ever excavated – Lovecraft.

And what seems to strike Joshi most about the early Weird and Lovecraft’s use of it is the one thing most likely to grab at a Critic’s heart – philosophyand in this case, world view.

Says Joshi: “The weird tale offers unique opportunities for philosophical speculation – it could be said that the weird tale is an inherently philosophical mode in that it frequently compels us to address directly such fundamental issues as the nature of the universe and our place in it… certain authors develop certain types of world views that compel them to write fiction that causes readers to question, revise, or refashion their views of the universe; the result is what we (in retrospect) call weird fiction.” (Joshi-The Weird Tale 11)

While this may seem like the kind of boring, beside-the-point stuff only a Literary Critic could love, it is important to the definition of what we call Weird fiction. Most of us already sense an “elevation” in Weird writing that sets it apart from the rest of pulp, and we are proud when we see Critics appreciate what it was we sensed. But what we need to acknowledge is that this “elevation” is due to the incursion of Literary elements – in this case that intrusion of philosophy. And that means that if we write Weird fiction, according to the developing definition, our writing must include some form of it. Fortunately, when writing true Weird fiction, such is almost unavoidable – another reason Critics have embraced this one ingredient as part of the official definition of Weird.

A second qualifier for the Weird is form. Notes Joshi, “Lovecraft makes clear in ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ the vital shift in weird writing affected by Poe – principally in making the short story rather than the novel the vehicle for the weird and in his insistence on psychological realism…” (Joshi-The Weird Tale 3)

Ironically, modern times have seen a spike in the short story format – perhaps an event fanned by the flames of self-immolating publishing houses – driving most writers to magazine and anthology markets. And this has helped in souring a revisitation of writers to our pulpish roots, as well as spawning innumerable Lovecraft-themed anthologies which can’t help but create a new wave of New Weird writing…

But it has also caused us to revisit the issue of why – with few exceptions – our writers have difficulty achieving success with novels in our genre. It has long been argued by Critics that the Horror story itself is not suited to novel-length development – that it cannot sustain the necessary tension throughout to deliver the required shock-ending. And the greater success of short story anthologies in our genre would seem to support the argument. However then one has to look at a writer/Critic like China Mieville and his success in the novel form of Weird writing to wonder if this is true, or if we have been making excuses…

Joshi clearly thinks that this smaller group of successes indicates that the Weird tale itself suggests a conventional preference for short story. Here he aligns himself with Lovecraft, who long promoted message over money – another  Critical preference. So while there may be exceptions, Joshi seems to believe like Lovecraft that the standard medium for the Weird tale is the short story…even if we must starve to write it.

The third qualifier – as mentioned by Lovecraft in the quote above – is the use of psychological realism… or as Joshi explains, “any tales founded upon science” and most often utilizing a “subset of nonsupernatural horror.”  An example would be the psychological ghost story where the realism is delivered as based chiefly on the findings of modern psychiatry and psychoanalysis – which is not science fiction “because of their manifest intent to incite horror” (Joshi-The Weird Tale 7-8). This use of the ghost story to delineate and illustrate how the Weird acts differently upon traditional genre is an important concept to grasp. If you don’t see it, you will miss the important boundary line between the Weird and the rest of Horror.

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China Mieville

For China Mieville, one of the greatest “tells” of Weird fiction – especially in lieu of Lovecraft – are the monsters. Because as Mieville points out, these are not “the modernizing of the familiar vampire or werewolf (or garuda or rusalka or any other such traditional bugbear). Lovecraft’s pantheon and bestiary are sui generis. There have never been any fireside stories of these creatures; we have neither heard of nor seen anything like them before. This astonishing novelty is one of the most intriguing and important things that can be noted about Lovecraft, and about the tradition of Weird fiction in general.” (Mieville xiv)

The shift to new and imaginary fauna in fiction was concept shattering…and it led directly to the development of modern Fantastic fiction. But it was the effect of World War I which carried the greatest influence on these embryonic forms of new fiction – the horrors of which “smashed apart the complacencies of rationality and uncovered the irrationality at the heart of the modern world… certainly (the) stock of werewolves and effete vampires were utterly inadequate to the task” (xv) of enlivening our collective nightmares.

Yet, according to Mieville, early fantasy writers tried anyway. Says Mieville, “At the low end of culture in the pulp magazines (such as Weird Tales) Weird fiction shared with Surrealism a conception of modern, orderly, scientific rationality that was in fact saturated with the uncanny.” (xv) Hence, the Scientific Uncanny infused and informed the Weird, and writers like Lovecraft began to insinuate what were then cutting-edge scientific theories into their fiction  and wind them back to description and color of myth and folklore (xv). The result is a horrendous and unholy marriage between what we fear our technologically driven discoveries will reveal about us, and what we already know about our primal origins.

These two features of Weird fiction then – the often indescribable, never before seen monster and its irrational/impossible intrusion into our rational world – provide a binary set of conventions that inform the definition of the Weird. And for Lovecraft, “the exposition of a monstrous cosmic history, of hateful cults, of the misbehavior of matter and geometry, is all the stronger for being gradually, seemingly randomly, uncovered.” (xii)

But there is a third characteristic of the Weird that Mieville and Joshi both note a characteristic presence of: setting.

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The VanderMeers

For most of us in the genre, we are most aware of atmosphere as a required convention. We are used to and long for the eerie, mist-covered moors, the dread-covered darkness that seeps into every cell and serves as the vehicle for the deliverance of Horror. Horror takes the familiar and builds unease. The Weird, however does something slightly different – and to the Critic’s liking – more Literary with setting: it temporarily abolishes the rational – suspending the story in time and place instead of merely coloring its temperament. In the Weird the setting –not the circumstances – isolate and transform.

According to the VanderMeers, “Usually the characters in weird fiction have either entered into a place unfamiliar to most of us, or have received such hints of the usual that they have become obsessed with the weird. Whether It exists or not, they have fallen into dialogue with It; they may pull back from the abyss they may decide to unsee what they saw, but they still saw it.” (VanderMeer xv).

This indulgence in atmosphere is more pervasive than in generic Horror… We as readers are not connected to the character as much as we are connected to the feeling the character is meant to experience and which he or she typically is unable to fully describe. Add the VanderMeers, “Because The Weird is as much a sensation as it is a mode of writing, the most keenly attuned amongst us will say “I know it when I see it’ by which they mean ‘I know it when I feel it….” (xvi)

This feeling is often drawn directly out of the setting of the story – the best example of which is likely Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Lovecraft’s use of the stark, almost-lunar landscape of the Arctic serves to isolate and perform that refashioning of reality that allows for the revelation of monsters and the truths about us which they may represent. It is a characteristic then of Weird fiction that setting takes on an active role – almost as a separate character itself, wherein “The most unique examples of the Weird …largely chose paths less trodden and went to places less visited, bringing back reports that still seem fresh and innovative today.” (xvi)

It is a Critical “plus” that such landscape in Weird fiction Literarily represents both the writer’s psychic landscape while being a symbolic statement of our collective psyche and culture (Mieville  xvii) As such, it offers that road to world view and philosophy so highly valued by Critics, including evidence of a writer’s personal evolution over time and works. But it also causes that equally interesting and Literary change in the reader – that transformation or reanalysis of the reader’s world view… “A reverie or epiphany,” say the VanderMeers, “But a dark reverie or epiphany…” in which it is easy to be emotionally overcome and our explorations become personally transformative (VanderMeer xv).

This does not mean that to write Weird Fiction we should birth contrived creations designed to bury our beliefs for Critical excavation – those Critical elements are subliminal at best, and artistically placed when professionally handled. The best Weird fiction is still honest fiction. Nor should this be taken to mean that Weird fiction always has exotic locations, but that the sense of the exotic, the unknown and unknowable lurk heavily within any chosen Weird setting. But it also means that when we sit down to read or write Weird fiction, there should be some things that are universally fixed in that writing.

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The Conclusion

So where does all of this leave us – the writers and readers of the Weird?

The general consensus seems to be summed up by leading Horror editor Paula Guran in her introduction to The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2016, “The Dark Dangerous Forest” in which she addresses definitions in general:

“We’ve already established that neither dark fantasy nor horror is really definable. Any definition you might apply is apt to be debated anyway. Perhaps more importantly, both terms are – by the very nature of what they describe – always evolving, changing, mutating, transforming.” (Guran 7)

Not that I make a habit of disagreeing with leading editors, but I seriously do disagree…with respect to the totally awesome Ms. Guran…

I believe there are definitions – there have to be, or there is no such thing as genre…and rejections are worthless, psychic endeavors – not about controlling skilled writing and craft. The very complicated and difficult task of cementing any such definitions belongs to the Literary Critic in particular, and variance on the theme is in the hands of writers and editorial preferences. However, to attempt to escape the responsibility of defining genres and subgenre conventions because it is difficult (which is why Literary Critics are educated in Literature and Linguistics to the Ph.D. level) or ever changing (which is the state of all Literature – even genre), is a cop-out.

Language and Literature are living things. Of course they are always changing. That’s why there is Lovecraftian Weird, New Weird, Modern Weird, British Weird, feminist Weird…need I go on? But this doesn’t change the truth that something makes Weird, WEIRD. That “thing” must be definable or how are writers to be expected to write it? Critics to analyze it? Editors to select it? Readers to find it?

This is not to say that the task is easy. When even our best Critics are feeling the frustration, it makes our task all the harder.

Between his study of Lovecraft and his Critical exploration of Weird fiction, Joshi has fashioned a “working” (Critical) definition, although he admits at best it is still a study in progress:

“As I see it, the weird tale must include the following broad definitions: fantasy, supernatural horror, nonsupernatural horror, and quasi-science fiction. All of these categories should be regarded as loose and nonexclusive, and there are some other subtypes that are probably amalgams or offshoots of those just mentioned…” (Joshi-The Weird Tale 6-7).

But by Joshi’s own words, it is far too early to establish a more accessible definition – such things happen through the course of the application of Critical Theory to a broad selection of works – an enormous task awaiting the new Literary Critic of the future. But it does not mean that there are not rules orchestrating plot behind the scenes.

It does mean that as writers, we need to study what we have called subgenres, to place our own personal catalogs within the structure of genre. We need to be careful with the terms we use, to insist others are, and to demand clarification when someone declares a work unconventional.

Like the Literary Critic, we need to decide on the meaning of terms and their definitions in order to communicate what we want, what we need, and what we are doing. This is best achieved when we work with Literary Critics – not against them.

Joshi states, “I am not, as a result, prepared to define the weird tale, and venture to assert that any definition of it may be impossible. Recent work in this field has caused an irremediable confusion of terms such as horror, terror, the supernatural, fantasy, the fantastic, ghost story, Gothic fiction, and others. It does not appear that any single critic’s usage even approximates that of any other, and no definition of the weird tale embraces all types of works that can be plausibly assumed to enter into the scope of the term. This difficulty is direct result of the conception of the weird take as some well-defined genre to which some works ‘belong” and others do not.”

And yet, this is exactly the impression Critics and editors alike leave for the writer: that we should know and be able to replicate it at will... It’s what set me on the mission to root out a working writer’s definition.

And I did…Using everything I gave you supported above by our two best Critics, one canon writer, and a pair of editors.

So here it is, a makeshift list of already accepted Weird Conventions:

  • extraordinary characters
  • pervasive cosmic influence
  • identifiable philosophy/world view
  • typically presented in short story form
  • utilizing psychological realism over the supernatural
  • populated by unfamiliar/indescribable monsters
  • all roaming an intense and exotically tinged setting

Or, you can just put in your mind the definition I started with: “stories about things which cannot possibly happen….” Yet that which somehow, to our Horror…do.

Is Weird fiction a subgenre of Horror or is Horror a subgenre of Weird fiction?

I am probably not fully qualified to say, but I have my own opinion – that as powerful and inspiring as it is, Weird is a Literary subgenre in the same way Ghost Story and the Gothic are. I say it because like those two subgenres, there is a similar sense of creative constriction in the Horror invented – a kind of vanishing point the further away from Innsmouth we write (reflected in the frustration of Critics with the lack of Weird starch in the newer stories), and I like to think a genre generally frees the imagination, broadening at both ends.

While the best-written Weird spins marvelous offshoot tales draped over “indescribable and unnamed horrors,” it also acutely severs the trajectory from folk and fairy tales in favor of science and technology, leading me to believe it is as much a dead end in Horror because of the supremacy of Lovecraft in the same way that Joshi (and many others) claim M.R. James created a dead end to and for the Ghost Story: it isn’t that newer contributions cannot be entertaining or well-written, but it is increasingly hard to be “original” and stay within the invisible Weird confines.

And surprisingly, it is the Literary Critic who is making these same points. This is why I read S.T. Joshi. And Mieville. And any Literary Critical essay I can find on our genre. This is why I heavily recommend studying such essays and specifically Joshi’s – not because I agree with him (many times I do not) – but because he (almost exclusively and certainly most ravenously) is struggling to set the perimeters of genre and subgenre, to establish the conventions and definitions that will allow the serious work of Literary Criticism to begin.

I am (sadly) still awaiting a major work from China Mieville on the subject…(hint, hint, Mr. Mieville…)

To be part of that discussion you will have to do some homework, because clearly no one is going to just hand the information to you. But one thing is true: understanding more about what you are writing will make you a better writer. And maybe – just maybe, your opinion will come to matter.

Wouldn’t that be weird?

 

References

Guran, Paula. “Introduction: The Dark and Dangerous Forest.” The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2016. Germantown, MD: Prime Books, c2016.

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

Joshi, S.T. Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction (the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries. New York: Hippocampus Press, c2012, 2014.

Joshi, S.T. Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction (From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century. New York, Hippocampus Press, c2012.

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

Mieville, China. “Introduction.” At The Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft. New York: the Modern Library, c2005.

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

Montague, Charlotte. Edgar Allan Poe: he Strange Man Standing Deep in the Shadows. New York: Chartwell Books, c2015.

VanderMeer, Ann and Jeff, eds. The Weird: a Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, c2011.

 

“Getting” Weird: When a Subgenre is a Subgenre and its Shadow is Over More Than Innsmouth (Part One)


Here’s the question in debate: Is Horror a subgenre of Weird Fiction, or is Weird Fiction a subgenre of Horror?

When I returned to college and began to comprehend the organizational structure of Literature as established by Literary Criticism, I thought it would be fun to apply the substance of what I was learning to Horror. Why? Because I was convinced there was structure in Horror.

There had to be. Right?

But what I found not only surprised me; turned out it was interesting, too…Because Horror – having long been the splinter in the flesh to Literary purists – had only the structure and spurts of structure authors and Critics had sporadically given it. And once we left English soil, American Horror’s plan to re-invent itself instead resulted in a kind of Literary disorientation rife with distracting rumors and its own mythology.

To my surprise I discovered that there was no canon; there was historically no established Criticism by Critics other than essays and articles created to roundly condemn the genre as genre (and its writers by association); and that the very genre name was something even its authors historically argued over.

Horror – as the red-headed-stepchild of speculative fiction – continues to emerge from the darkness in this country, shedding forms as it grows, morphing from one interpretation to the next as it blindly seeks to discover and define itself.

No wonder the Critics are frustrated and our writers seem to wander and careen about the genre…

How then do we have a discussion, let alone a debate? Answer: we listen to the words of our best writers and the constructive comments of new Critics…. Then we all need to participate in the careful examination of points presented.

When Horror Was Horror, or Was It Ever?

Perhaps the first and most surprising thing for this child of the sixties to trip over was the discovery that Horror was not always Horror. In fact, the name “Horror” for the genre was a relatively “recent” attachment. Horror – as we know it – began with names we no longer call it.

Those earlier names made it clear that stories told under the genre umbrella were largely sensational short works designed for quick chills and thrills with their folk roots showing: Ghost Stories, Spectral Fiction, Supernatural Fiction, Thrillers, Tales of Terror, Gothic Fiction… Critics were quick to point out their campfire glow, their dependence on both superstition and the naiveté and/or rural links associated with the illiterate and uneducated masses.

In other words, the genre was considered childish and unsophisticated; it was most certainly not for a mature audience tuned to the marvels of modern scientific thought, and it was not a genre that represented our best profile. And as the genre blossomed at the precise time of the industrial revolution and the birth of technology, it was an unwelcome reminder of times ruled by emotions instead of analytical thought.

So emotion became both the hallmark of and the motivation behind the choice of genre name. The choice seemed likely: Horror was what you were promised in those early publications…. terror…fear…creepy… scary….eerie…frightening….amazing…astounding…unbelievable… indescribable… tales.

The parade of adjectives led directly to the name “Horror.” And it did so because it managed to encompass and corral all of the many subgenres that were developing their own rules and authors. This is not to say that all of those subgenres are subgenres of Horror… but that “Horror” was hung as a name over all of the writings in the genre – whatever its proper name should have been…

We cannot know what would have happened in the vacuum of a printing press-less world. Writers were already sharing and bending terms to their purposes, and perhaps it was Critical derision that resulted in the spotty criteria writers used to define and clarify subgenres. But despite the best efforts of some editors and some writers, terms and definitions began to swim and swirl in the creative currents until many became inseparable from each other.

Meanwhile even as the first publishing boom was happening and pulp dotted the writing landscape, a small detachment of writers began writing something “new”… and they were calling it “Weird.”

Lovecraft3

It was the emergence of the Weird tale – a proliferation of the strange, the supernatural, the cosmic dominated by unique group of writers who knew their fiction was “different” than the norm, and who did not consider themselves so much “horror” writers that sparked the venom anew of earlier Critics and now hold the academic interest of contemporary Critics.

But something weird happened to the Weird: while it began before Lovecraft, it seemed to culminate with his efforts, thereafter sliding into a combination of hackneyed Literary efforts and Critical disinterest. For Critics today, there is a noticeable pair of bookends surrounding this period, and to at least one modern Critic, the thread that made the Weird so fascinating a kind of story has been all but lost.

Joshi1

Says S.T. Joshi –the most prominent of Literary Critics now laying the Critical groundwork necessary for Literary Criticism in our genre – “It is my impression that what has frequently been termed the ‘ghettoization’ of weird fiction – especially in America – occurred as a direct result of the pulp magazines. All of the standard ‘genres’ we now recognize — mystery, horror, science fiction, western, romance – either grew out of the pulp magazines of the 1920’s (even though the pulps as originally conceived at the turn of the century were by no means specialized in terms of content) or received considerable impetus from them…” And here Joshi asserts “As a result, weird material in particular disappeared almost entirely from mainstream magazines, since there seemed to develop a notion that such material now had a market of its own.” (Joshi-Modern Weird 4)

One has only to look at the assortment of magazines to see the coalescence of our genre into semi-firm molds of subgenre. Early writers had already began to weigh in, discussing in essays exchanged in letters and Amateur Press Associations the nature of what was being written – all as part of the argument that the genre had a glimmer of Literary offerings. But just as things might have been becoming clearer, the paperback was born…and back to the primal mud our genre crawled… and it may have taken the Weird with it.

The official market “tagging” of the genre by publishers as “Horror” sometime in the 1970’s all but obliterated the earlier discussions. Weird fiction – which had its own audience and writers – became an alternative adjective instead of the noun it was intended to be. Publishers – not being Critics – saw a sales-driven mission of lumping everything together into a broad category – whereas Critics and writers are wont to separate and define. Editors were somewhere in the middle, and have been trying to argue their way out for some time.

But perhaps the most damaging and consequential result was what happened to the rest of us… because the publishing boom did something else – instead of enlightening us all to the history and progression of the genre, it simply ceased to clearly define subgenres and instead vomited up a plethora of terms for which none of us had immediate association. No wonder we lost the ability to build on the Weird tradition in this country; we lost our vision of tradition altogether.

Those of us “coming of age” in the genre of the 1970’s and 80’s were awed by the tossing about of terms, certain that those who were using them knew what they meant. We never dreamed that they did not. And it has been the genre nerds who woke us up – the Lovecraft fans, the passionate heirs and curators of the Weird.

While the rest of us were luxuriating in the massive deluge of scary and strange stuff, even pretending we understood the term “Gothic,” we were losing everything we had gained in genre awareness. In this country, it was the Weird fan who kept us grounded by adhering to a bold and determined declaration of ‘genre.’ Those of us not disciples of the Weird were ignorantly adrift in a flotsam of alleged subgenres that shared and cross-pollinated names and distorted conventions.

While Horror was exploding onto the popular fiction scene, it seemed that American writers became disoriented instead of inspired. It did not matter that writers referred to what we now consider classic works; we did not feel the connection to recreate it. If you read American 1980’s Horror, what started out as inspired eventually becomes circular and redundant. Today’s American Horror is still stuck in that rut, prompting many of us as writers and fans to return to Lovecraft and Poe to try to figure out where we lost that thread of continuity while others try to hide behind the concerted effort to force the genre into a more Literary straitjacket.

I don’t know how it feels for European writers, for British writers of the genre… But here in the U.S. it is confusion resulting from our lost or disordered history that seems to dominate and dog our fiction. It prompts both editors and Critics to say we don’t comprehend what has already been done or done to death in the genre.

That in turn has caused a resurgence of interest in the Weird – and in Lovecraft specifically. We may not understand what we feel, but we know we feel it in Lovecraft’s shadow. So we sit there in it… enveloped in tentacles, begging Cthulhu to tuck some Horror in our minds. Editors feel it, too: we are awash in Lovecraftian-themed anthologies, struggling to recapture the elements that make Weird fiction so effective a storytelling device. But then we ran into a complication. Whether it is subgenre or genre, where are the rules?

Suddenly those of us who thought we could write it find no guidance and empty references to unnamed conventions and undefined formulas.

What is Weird Fiction? And if so many people can reference it, why can’t anyone define it?

We thought it was us.

Yet the more we set out to understand what was “wanted by the genre” (itself a paradox because we have abdicated who the authority of the genre is and publishers are never the genre even as this is who we continue to look to even now), the more the structure of genre evaporated. Our conventions are convoluted and polluted. Our fiction is substandard and hybridized and we feel it but cannot name it. The epiphany will come from Innsmouth…of that we all seem certain.

What we have to realize is that the train came off the rails with the hand-over-fist American publishing boom of the 1980’s. We buried the essays and drowned the voices of the early genre writers with a flood of new writers seeking careers in storytelling. Certainly a peek at all of the financial reasons is self-explanatory, but only a handful of thoughtful editors who placed important Critical writings and author commentary in the front matter and endpapers of classic collections of the genre kept our history from completely going dark. When we began to follow the Pied Piper and call the genre Horror, we ceased to see what else it might have been.

Weird Heroes: the Literary Critic

Now we are scraping all of these commentaries together, and our first Literary Critics are having the task of sorting out exactly where the genre was heading before the boom of reading, writing, and publishing that inflated the 1980’s into a wanton writer’s market. As already stated, prior to that time Horror had been addressed by many other names, and had already established a long and tumultuous history of impoverished writers condemned for their artistic choices.

When the emergence of the mass market paperback created the explosion of affordable fiction which seeded the Horror boom, it also created a generation of readers who knew the genre by one name only: Horror. For most of us, “Weird” as a term has no traction in our memories, and there is no clear understanding in our composition of contemporary writing. We are Horror writers, we say… and isn’t “Weird” just a synonym for “strange?”

Mieville 2

This is where newer writers need the Literary Critic – or at least those with Critical analytic capabilities such as writer and Critic China Mieville – who can help put our socks on straight. Mieville not only helps us greatly by reminding us that the “invention” of the tentacle heavily influences the texture of what should be considered Weird, but that “Weird fiction [shares] with Surrealism a conception of modern, orderly, scientific rationality that [is] in fact saturated with the uncanny.”(Mieville  xiii)

Our hackneyed understanding of the Weird has now spilled into our own interpretations of what we are trying to write, or think we are writing. It is presenting a problem for some Critics, who themselves are trying to unravel a clear understanding of what the effective Weird was and now find themselves awash in what some writers are calling Weird fiction that appears to be not. And sometimes it is when something is diluted that the pure solution becomes more obvious.

The more Critics look at the original writings and writers of the Weird, the bigger, more viable its legitimate core seems to get…So much so, that some are starting to propose that Weird fiction encapsulates Horror, and not the other way around.

Asserts S.T. Joshi, “Strictly speaking I regard ‘horror’ as a subset of the weird, since fantasy of the Dunsany or Tolkien type is just as much a branch of weird fiction as any other, and ‘horror’ itself must be subdivided into supernatural and nonsupernatural horror” (Joshi-Modern Weird 3). For Joshi, the impervious structure needed to provide a broad foundation for subgenres is already fractured when attempting to apply the name “Horror” to the whole genre – a Critical sign that it cannot be the parent of Weird offspring and is therefore not the correct name to use.

Mieville proposes that “Traditionally, genre horror is concerned with the irruption of dreadful forces into a comforting status quo—one which the protagonists frantically scrabble to preserve. By contrast, Lovecraft’s horror [Lovecraft being the towering genius among those writers of fantastic fiction for whom plot is simply not the point] is not one of intrusion but realization.” (Mieville xii-xiii)

While Mieville’s description of the Weird simply seems to differentiate between what we perceive as Horror and what we experience as the Weird, he actually has something in common with Joshi. It is important to note that like Joshi’s interpretation, in Mieville’s look at the two in the context of a Horror versus Weird as genre argument, it is again the Weird that provides greater Literary foundation which seems more potent and Literarily promising than any singular assemblage of the moving parts of Horror.

This is not to say that sometimes the argument for Weird as a more likely independent and Literary genre doesn’t get – well – weird…

Another – and I find odd – part of this dissatisfaction with the term “Horror” is encapsulated by Joshi’s exasperated question, “What other mode of writing is designated by an emotion?” As Joshi interprets it, “horror” is a term rendered even more inadequate for him as a Critic because “The term ‘horror’ also suggests” – and he emphasizes – “(falsely, to my mind) that the arousal of fear is somehow the prime concern of weird writing” instead of the more Literary depiction of world view. (Joshi-The Modern Weird 3)

Never mind that Lovecraft himself went down this path…

I find that this part of the argument against the term “Horror” implies that the word “Horror” as applied to genre involves only the emotion of fear and not its cousins – dread, discomfort, disturbance, disgust. I find that both Horror AND Weird fiction has some of those elements on a regular basis (as apparently does Mieville (“Lovecraft’s stories …move tightly and precisely, evoking growing foreboding…aggregating a sense of dread and awe” (xii)) – and those adjectives are especially evident in the descriptions used to define cosmic horrors and human failures. So while I empathize with Joshi on this point, I do not agree with him. I do agree with Joshi, however, that the intrusion of “world view” in Weird fiction is of Literary blood, and is an important point in establishing the criteria that would define Weird fiction as a genre/subgenre.

For Literary Critics, this relevance to bigger things – to the real issues that shape and affect humanity – is what defines Literature. And as such, it is the bread crumb trail that helps identify when something in genre writing is bigger than genre. It is most certainly there in the Weird. But is Literature always the biological parent? Or might the parent be a gangly, disproportioned and lovingly awkward mutt?

With so much confusion and overlap of genre and subgenre, the muddle of terms, Joshi admits with considerable exasperation: “I do not know what one is to do about this whole issue.” However just because a matter is entangled by centuries of amateur theories does not mean it should not be UN-entangled….clarified….and committed to. And Joshi himself cannot seem to let it go, because the question and argument of which came first haunts all of his work on Criticism in our genre.

So while I do not agree that “Horror” being an emotion disqualifies it from being a genre name, I do agree with Mr. Joshi that study and discussion of this messy subject is necessary to sort it all out. And I agree that if Literary Critics can do so with legitimate theoretical reasons for creating a better terminology for the genre, then it should be done. We may all have our preferences, but the truth of the matter is that until we settle on terms and definitions, we cannot present arguments or press works through Critical Theories.

And Critical Theory is how we get canon.

Deciding what we call ourselves may seem a moot point, but for Critics, the name of the structural tree from which we hang our Literature does matter. And it should matter to us as writers, so we can be certain we are delivering the goods to our readers, and making conscious choices about the quality and creative direction of our fiction.

Like the new Literary Critic, we need to revisit the discussion that was in play during the time of Lovecraft… Because if we are to argue the Literary merits of the genre, we have to start thinking more like the Literary Critic and that means we must be looking at what we write and where it falls on the scale of genre definitions. And that means we must not be adverse to the reordering of terms and conventions.

It’s time to go there… and due to the length of the discussion, we will in the succeeding post.

 

References

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

Joshi, S.T. Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction (the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries. New York: Hippocampus Press, c2012, 2014.

Joshi, S.T. Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction (From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century. New York, Hippocampus Press, c2012.

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

Mieville, China. “Introduction.” At The Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft. New York: the Modern Library, c2005.

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

Montague, Charlotte. Edgar Allan Poe: he Strange Man Standing Deep in the Shadows. New York: Chartwell Books, c2015.

VanderMeer, Ann and Jeff, eds. The Weird: a Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, c2011.