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


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

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

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

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

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

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The Literary Defense

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

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

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

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

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

Surprisingly, the answer is no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lovecraft in His Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seeing What We Want To See

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lovecraft is that rare exception.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References:

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

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

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

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

 

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Monster Love: Embracing Kaiju as a Horror Subgenre — Because How Can We Not?


For those of us constantly rummaging around the subgenres looking for inspiration and just plain fun Horror, there is a “new” discovery to be made. It is called Kaiju and it comes at us – like all good monsters – from several directions at once: graphic novels, comic books, classic science fiction, classic Horror, and black and white cinema… most obviously from scarier minds in Japan.

The really great thing is: you probably already know it and love it… because especially for Horror fans in the West, the newest thing about Kaiju is its name.

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http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/giant-monsters/images/36716011/title/godzilla-1991-wogzilla-wallpaper

Love Me, Love My Monster

We’re talking big monsters... Really big. This is Kaiju…

And while if you are a Lovecraft fan, such monsters are already part of your Horror bestiary as part of Weird Fiction, many of us have left them snugly contained within the Lovecraft mythos, and the dusty black and white and colorized Cinema Scope corners of early science fiction cinema.

Therefore, even as we of the Horror genre love them, we’ve also been conditioned to consider giant monsters “done” – as in someone already thought of that… But like all great concepts, what we need to rebel against is the editorial mindset that says exactly that…

Because while the wielding of giant, towering monsters may have been done, it hasn’t all been done… There is plenty of room in our Horror landscape for many more great monsters, for other mythos catalogs… and for ever more apocalyptic destruction of the human ego.

It has been graphic novelists and comic book folk who have led the way in this giant monster revelation. And it is them we should thank heartily; because big monsters are back. And they are awesome.

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Says Robert Hood in his introduction to The Mammoth Book of Kaiju, there is just “something cathartic about watching giant monsters trash cities.” And he could not be more correct… especially now in our world with so much human arrogance on display. At a time when so many of us are being victimized by the very things that were supposed to liberate us from poverty, ignorance, and isolation, we find ourselves feeling as helpless as teeny tiny people fleeing nuclear-mutated monsters on the beach – with about as bleak-appearing future.

Under those circumstances, it is hard to not root for the monster… who is always both us and our fears.

Never mind the Literary insinuations here, the associations with certain world leaders and their bull-dozing opinions, the metaphor of technology versus the little guy, the absolute sense of loss of control that haunts and torments our daily lives whether we live in a war zone or suburbia.

With giant monsters, our familiar problems are minimized, and our humanity is a thing to be found in common. Here we can give ourselves permission to cheer on a Russian pilot or an American capitalist, to fear for a Japanese boy or a boatload of immigrants caught between the monster-filled deep oceans (with a nod to Freud) and New York harbor or downtown Tokyo.

Yet we can also subversively love the monster… a thing we ultimately discover we created… and which has come for justice.

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And it has been coming for us in cinema since at least 1925, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and in modern Literature since at least 1870 with Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and yet again in ancient storytelling since The Epic of Gilgamesh emerged from Mesopotamia in 2100 BCE…(Hood 6-9)

Clearly humanity has had justice – if not deep psychological issues – for a long, long time. And we have learned to savor the moments when it all comes messily together.

For example, most of us have wonderfully fond memories of the first time we saw Godzilla trample Tokyo. But other than adjectives like “fabulous,” “terrifying,” and the “unstoppable titan of terror”… for a long time we didn’t have any terminology for it.

Part of this has to do with our own isolationism in the West, and part of it has to do with our level of interest. We had already half-way consigned big monsters and their outdated atomic connections to yesteryear, when suddenly everything “retro” was in – and the more vintage, the better: all of the old B-movies laced with drama and an older idea of terror was suddenly back in style.

With technology and the Nerd Boom came the resuscitation of old kitschy pleasures made more “cool” by computer imaging and more impressive by the achievements of those working with a lot less available, while simultaneously harder to finesse and more creatively achieved special effects. Suddenly we gained a more generic interest in film history and trivia. We took note of the use of lighting and hard-won effects, of actors and locations, of directors and producers.

We have to admit we love them – the monsters, their makers, the actors and the effects – so we fell in love anew.

As Science Fiction and Fantasy received the bulk of the breath of new life and new interest, we started developing a passion in becoming nerdishly authoritative in certain histories. How genres have evolved and who contributed what to the evolution has become a niche hobby.

Bit by bit, even in Horror we have all started wanting to know the histories of genre writing, and we now actually read those boring forwards, introductions, and afterward essays that we used to rip past in our rush to scare ourselves. We are no longer satisfied to hear someone just say something about a canon work or a writer: we want more – we want to be experts ourselves.

And even more significantly, for perhaps the first time in its history, Pulp fiction is no longer disposable fiction…It has a place in our momentum and our hearts. We are digging through old boxes and collections, looking for the stuff most of us threw away and a few had the love and foresight to horde in dark, forgotten places. A whole cadre of private collectors has arisen to catalog the works no one thought held any significance.

And we are finding that all work – even genre work – has significance.

The current gap in Literary Criticism and modern works has opened another unexpected door: through our passion and our own connecting of Pulp works with the evolution of genre Literature, we are legitimizing ALL of the work that has gone before.

While Critics are collecting their theories and thoughts, writers and lovers of writing are gathering their stockpiles of early works, creating more…building a legacy.

So much of this starts with giant monsters – with Kaiju. Because it was film and comics that opened that so-important door.

This almost-academic interest is a sea change in fandom. And it means that it’s not just editors who know stuff, or share stuff, or defend stuff.

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http://www.awayfromthethingsofman.com/2016/10/the-big-road-trip-part-3-g-fest-xxiii.html

Led by the example of rabid film buffs and hardcore comic and kaiju fans, more and more of us who roam the fiction genre landscape are wanting details too often referred to and seldom explained. There is a demand for genre history, an actual interest in the history of fiction writing, in the biographies of writers and the publications they appeared in.

It’s been a great time for genre fiction and genre film.

Because it is precisely this passion that is also laying the fabulous groundwork for genre folk to become part of Literary-type discussions. It is subjects like Kaiju that are teaching us that there is a lot more to genre than the Ivory Towers have both believed and inferred. And maybe – just maybe – this lays even more groundwork for the legitimizing of genre as Literature…

While Science Fiction and Fantasy have enjoyed greater academic respect than Horror fiction, in our genre we are well aware of the constant cross-pollination of SF&F into our works, and the constant muddying of the genre waters. Books and films like Alien, Jurassic Park, Jaws, and even Harry Potter are the most easily seen as being both or either genres.

So it is easier to see where Kaiju shares Horror elements, and could have been originated as Horror…large crowds screaming in terror, monsters snacking on slower humans, the insinuation that we ourselves – like Frankenstein’s monster – created the problem, all contribute to the embrace of big monsters by Horror fans.

The flames are further fanned by the reality that with less Horror finding publication, our fanbase is looking around for something else to read, to embrace. The current boom in comics and graphic novels means we – and our money O New York Publishing Machine – are drifting to these artistic offshoots. And we are liking what we are seeing.

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http://www.kpbs.org/news/2013/jul/10/midday-movies-what-kaiju/

This means that we are becoming closet Science Fiction and Fantasy fans, looking for the Horror. And we may well bring some of what we find back into the Horror genre – for good or ill.

But it also means that both traditional publishing and academics are going to have to start nailing down not only specifically what makes Horror “Horror” as a genre, but why it is important that we look individually at works to allow them into our canon, and not classify authors.

And somebody out there is going to have to admit that Horror is NOT dead, many of its fans do NOT age-out of the genre, and writers are STILL writing it despite the lack of markets and a certain amount of commercial judging.

While for writers it often feels more like American Idol than simple submission of our work, it only proves that the genre is changing faster than its editors and publications can keep up.

And that is another reason we who write Horror need to take a page from our brethren and sistren in the comics and graphic novel independent publishing industry… Just sayin’…

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http://www.kanhangadvartha.com/group/pacific-rim-wallpaper/

 Monstersize Me

So let’s take a closer look at what has caught our genre fancy. And just as in the best of Horror, we are going to Mammoth Books to learn about it… specifically to the introduction once again by Robert Hood:

Kaiju is “a Japanese term that has been little known in the West except among aficionados of a particular tradition of monster cinema” until rather recently…” The word means ‘monster” or ‘giant monster’(although more accurately it translates as ‘strange creature’) and the cinematic tradition such monsters spawned is called kaiju eiga (monster film)…”

Now whether you liked or despised films like Monster, Pacific Rim, Cloverfield, or The Happening… You have been witnessing a Second Migration of Kaiju from graphic novels and comics to the Big Screen. And as a Horror fan used to the disappointment of Hollywood’s “scariest ever” promises, you probably saw them.

But you may also have fallen under their spell. As Horror fans, we have also become conditioned to love concept… accepting without question that Horror often loses its scary both in plot and in acting. Horror fans have learned to be somewhat satisfied with the very idea as opposed to craft in the telling.

It’s why we as a genre have split into two camps – the Literary, often too-dull ones, and the Pulp ones, who are all about concept and attempted delivery of same.

This means we excuse the epic fails, and still love the monsters. Like the ones IN Monsters… an otherwise odd, schizophrenic war film with really awesome, totally wasted monsters…

It’s because we see the potential. We take the monster and let him (or her) run loose in the dark of our imaginations. It’s kind of the adult version of kid’s picture books like My Monster Mama Loves Me So, The Monster Under the Bed and Creepy Monsters, Sleepy Monsters… something graphic novel and comic book fans learned long ago. Monsters are all about concept… which Godzilla already taught most of us.

It just doesn’t matter that there is little Kaiju fiction out there…

As Jeremy Robinson says in the foreward of Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters, “Between 1999 and 2012, there wasn’t a single noteworthy Kaiju novel published…Kaiju as a genre, has been largely ignored by the publishing world. But thanks to technological advances in publishing, small presses and self-publishers now have the ability to tackle subgenres considered too risky by large publishers. Unfortunately the genre (as of writing this foreward), is still largely represented in popular fiction by [the Godzilla novels published in the 1990’s and] Project Nemesis and its sequel Project Maigo [by Robinson himself]…” (xii)

Yet the rise in independent presses and self-publishing and small presses has been exactly what has led to the “boom” in pop culture items such as graphic novels and comics. And while they may not be the Big Houses of New York, they are prospering. And bringing Kaiju right along with them.

The success of Kaiju is propelled by magnificent art, universal concepts, and the extreme flexibility in the universe of monsters. Quite simply, there are no creative limits.

Continues Hood, “Kaiju origins are as diverse as imagination allows, from traditional nuclear mutation, through outer space and interdimensional invasion” (7)… (sound familiar? ) “to the incarnation of emotional and metaphysical states via the imagination of unsuspecting humans, often children” (7)… (both major conventions utilized quite successfully by both Lovecraft and Stephen King, thank you)….

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http://www.kpbs.org/news/2013/jul/10/midday-movies-what-kaiju/

In Kaiju, imagination is valued for its extremes. And that just equates to fun, and creative challenge. Kaiju easily represents the finger-painting of Horror subgenres. It is a fabulous and seductive starting point for any number of horrors…night terrors…bumps in the night. And it opens the door to Science Fiction elements that can enhance Horror and broaden our audience.

Here we see exactly why Horror fans are often Science Fiction fans. And we see how the which-is-the-real-subgenre argument got started.

Yet Kaiju also does something else: it provides a certain intimacy with the monster that we in Horror haven’t seen much of since Mary Shelleys’ Frankenstein, or Anne Rice’s hopelessly flawed and erotic vampires. Points out Hood, “They all have names” and histories, and a collectively human nemesis which “whatever the imagination can come up with is likely to be utilized at some point, whether or not it makes scientific, physical or economic sense.” (7)

As Horror fans, we are used to the inconsistencies. And we commonly excuse them to get to the Horror…It’s a kind of sacrifice we have come to accept that Hollywood expects us to make, and it may be why novice Horror writers are pre-programmed into bad habits in writing craft… then baffled as to why craft errors matter.

As Horror fans, we don’t care…as long as the monster itself is awesome, which is how we get back to the Japanese, Godzilla, and the uniquely imaginative beasts coming out of that country’s creative think tank. When our efforts fall short, when our story lines vacate the monster’s power, we return to Kaiju.

So while “Strictly speaking then, the term Kaiju refers to monsters [in a particular] Japanese tradition,” and one that is “characterized by a high level of absurdity…[wherein] monsters are much bigger than is physically viable [and] taken literally, the creatures are indeed impossible fantasies, despite the frequent science fiction trappings given them” (6), we easily translate them to contemporary world crises, to Western cities, to our own fears…

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We have commandeered them for our own uses…Even as we continue to grow our appreciation and affection for the Japanese originals. So we keep going back to the oh-so-deep Japanese well; Kaiju is the DNA imprint for all monsters than came after Godzilla… it must be part of defining the future of all strange monsters.

“They come in all shapes and sizes” (6)… they traverse all manner of mental-emotional landscapes the way that Lovecraft’s monsters still do. The plot is only a vehicle for the monster… and we swoon as the Horror begins.

We cannot help ourselves. We come to adore our monsters the way we adore Tyrannosaurus Rex – completely checking out of the empathetic box for those who would be eaten. We see instead a reflection of ourselves… of justice come for those who have wronged us all…

That is the infrastructure that is the entire Horror genre: the contentious balance between good and evil, justice and revenge, morality and immorality. Perhaps as humans we long for that battle, for the resolution of judgment… for that parent to come home and administer the promised punishment to just get it over with. So we cheer on the monster. The monster is both us and our judge. Watching him stride across the wrecked landscape, stomping on skyscrapers is watching Dad pull into the driveway, Mom’s word’s echoing in our heads: “Just wait til your father comes home…”

It’s not like we in the Horror genre are unfamiliar…

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But there is just something about Kaiju that continues to bring us back, to reel us in, to invade our subconscious like an interdimensional being asleep under the ocean, subtly manipulating our thoughts like Cthulhu…

Maybe it is Cthulhu…

After all, Kaiju has remained on the fringes of pop culture… Not quite fully let into genre fiction… Lost in its own kind of subconsciousness.

But I think this is changing. It has to. Genre fiction has hit a wall… Editors seeking to improve Literary standing have turned a blind eye to pulp, where the best in genre is incubated. New ideas are not as welcome as publishers claim, if only because everyone is perched too precariously on the edge of print extinction…

But that has left a lot of us out in the cold… And that in turn has weeded out our ranks into those who will “do or write anything to get published” and those who have decided that prostitution of the soul is not worth a few moments of fame.

It is the second group that is bathing in Kaiju, marinating imagination, exploring the importance of good concept and toying with more Literary execution…NOT because some editor somewhere wants to see it, but because WE as writers want the challenge of DOING it…

Monsters are pure drugs that shoot through us intravenously… lodging in that primal place where the best Horror comes from.

Embrace Kaiju as a Horror subgenre? How could we not?

It’s already living there, stomping on the skyscrapers of all things standing between hope and humanity. What is not to love?

What is not to learn? Welcome to the Horror genre, Kaiju masters…

 

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ありがとうございましたArigatōgozaimashita…

For all that is yet to come!

 

References

Hood, Robert. Introduction. The Mammoth Books of Kaiju. Sean Wallace, ed. Germantown, MD: Prime Books, c2016.

Robinson, Jeremy. Foreward. Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters. Tim Marquitz and N.X. Sharps, Eds. Crestview Hills, KY: Ragnarok Publications, c2014.

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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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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


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

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

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

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

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God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Return of the Christmas Horror

“Santa Claus…

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

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

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

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

The Krampus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the greater the light, the greater the dark…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I dare you.

 

References

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

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

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

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