Thursday, October 22, 2015

Ecology of the Undead

Ye gods...!  Who would invent such bogeys, such farcically loathsome things, unless ... I raised my eyes to the grey bated sky, and shivered.  No, I was not, to word it temperately, much enamoured of this devil's nook, this baleful twelfth- or thirteenth-century pocket of provincial France, where superstitions and obscene mythologies, instead of just remaining quaintly decorative, had the unpleasant trick of springing suddenly alive and driving mad all those who brooded on them overlong [57].
In this passage from John Metcalfe's novella The Feasting Dead, originally published in 1954 by Arkham House, an widowed English father shakes his fist at the sky after discovering that his adolescent son Denis has become the willing prey of a sans-nom, a nameless not-quite dead thing that feeds on the living.  Denis had been spending his school holidays in France, where he met the sans-nom, which followed him back to England before the father, Colonel Habgood, drove it away.  The boy retaliated by running away to France to find the thing.  The father vacillates between believing what he sees and rebelling against it as superstition, but his question was one I sometimes ask myself: Who would invent such bogeys, such farcically loathsome things?  For the fact is that people do invent them, and even become obsessed with them, as if they really existed.

As Walter Kendrick wrote in 1992 when Anne Rice's vampire series "seem[ed] to be careening down a steep, sad slope and The Tale of the Body Thief read "like the pilot for America's first vampire sitcom, 'I Love Lestat'":
Despite their basic absurdity, they're also quite convincing; they've apparently sent some people right around the bend into belief. In "Vampire: The Complete Guide to the World of the Undead," Manuela Dunn Mascetti treats "Interview With the Vampire" not as a novel but as an operating manual. That "exceptional book," she writes, offers the "best account of the birth of a vampire"; it "gives a good account of the process occurring in the physical body during transformation."

At times, Ms. Mascetti seems dimly aware that "the process" is fictional. But she spends several pages summarizing J. S. Le Fanu's "Carmilla" (1872), E. F. Benson's "Room in the Tower" (1912), Fritz Leiber's "Girl With the Hungry Eyes" (1949) and other anthologists' favorites, without attributions or any hint, besides the present tense, that these stories are fictional.
I've never been a fan of horror stories.  In early adolescence I watched The Twilight Zone regularly for a while, but in retrospect it seems to me that its stories were about something else.  (One that haunted me was the episode where Burgess Meredith plays a mousy clerk who loves to read but is bullied constantly about it.  Then the world ends and he's the only person left alive, free to read as much as he likes ... until he breaks his only pair of glasses, without which he's effectively blind.  It doesn't take a psychoanalyst to figure out why that struck a chord with me, even though my parents encouraged my reading and I was never actually picked on for it; but I was still the only kid I knew for whom reading mattered.)  I read one Lovecraft story, "The Colour Out of Space," which I encountered in a science fiction anthology, and though I thought I should read more of his work, I didn't.  I saw House of Wax a couple of times on late-night TV before I was out of high school.  But that's the extent of my engagement with the genre, and compared to sf and fantasy and even detective fiction, it's barely dipping my toes in the shallows.

Kendrick's Voice Literary Supplement review turned me on to Rice -- her erotica and historical fiction as well as the vampire books -- but when I read other works in the genre, I quickly found that despite her literary limitations, Rice transcended it.  (For a while: as Kendrick said, she went downhill rather quickly.) The writers and fans inspired by her example seemed to be doing something else, getting some other kind of satisfaction from the stories.  Their work seemed like porn (remember written pornography?): hot stuff if it fit your kinks, bland and boring if it didn't.  Which it didn't.  Why would they invent such bogeys, such farcically loathsome things, unless ... ?  Colonel Habgood's "unless" presumably is meant to be followed by "unless they did exist after all."  But they don't.  So why invent them?

In Barbara Ehrenreich's Blood Rites (1997) she speculated (or maybe I inferred it from her speculations) that horror films appeal to atavistic ancestral memories of the distant past before human beings became hunters, when we were prey, and the night was full of dimly seen nocturnal predators ready to snatch us away and feast (or at least snack) on us.  Whatever I think of her baseless attempt to ground this in our genes, I think she was on to something here, though I also think of Erica Jong's paraphrase (in Fear of Flying) of Georg Groddeck's Book of the It: the fear of the intruder is also the wish for the intruder.  (In roughly the same way that the wish to possess the desired love-object is also a wish to be the desired love-object, which is wanted and feared at the same time.)

The slasher subgenre didn't interest me either.  My boyfriend in the mid- to late 1980s had been into such movies to some extent, and pointed out to me that Ridley Scott's Alien was basically a slasher film in science-fiction drag.  Much later I read Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws (Princeton, 1992), and with its discussions in mind I finally saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  I then understood it, but I still didn't get it.  Joan Hawkins' Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-Garde (Minnesota, 2000) illuminated the affinities between avant-garde cinema and horror films (think of Un Chien Andalou for an obvious example), and I still want to reread it and engage it in argument, but it didn't answer Colonel Habgood's question either: Why invent such bogeys?

Another thought: I happened to read Susie Bright's Inspired by Andrea Dworkin recently.  In one of those essays she tells of reading Bedtime for Frances to her young daughter.  Little Frances Badger's father, exasperated by her "bedtime phobias ... growls in his sleep and says, 'Do you know what will happen if you don't go to sleep right now?' 'I will get a spanking?'" Frances squeaks and runs back to bed.
"I wish they would show the part where Frances gets a spanking!" [Bright's daughter] says, with sadistic glee in her eyes....

Kids love stories and pictures about terrible crimes and punishments; they are fascinated by deep sensations and strong emotions, even though they have a terrible time learning to take the flak for their own mistakes.
Of course fascination with terrible crimes and punishments is partly a way of dealing with the fear of those things.  The same is probably true of the violent fantasy games five and six-year-old children invent, as described in Jane Katch's book Under Deadman's Skin (Beacon Press, 2002).  I had that fascination as a kid myself, sissy though I was and am.  But is this why many adults also have that fascination?  I don't know; I don't get it.  I seem to have left most of it behind somewhere along the way.

The same question applies to the gods and other spiritual beings and systems some adults make up.  What is the psychological meaning of the fantasies of judgment and torture they have put into their religions?  Why do even modern seekers, contemptuous of the amorality of the organized "Western" religions they grew up with, then invent sadistic cosmologies that resemble nothing so much as children's games of "Step on a crack, break your mother's back"?  Why do they prefer, as they evidently do (they choose the cosmologies they invent, after all) to believe in a booby-trapped universe, with themselves at the miserly mercy of the gods they invented, who set the booby traps in the first place?

The reason I decided to read The Feasting Dead was that Valancourt Books, the publishers who reissued it in 2014, touted it on Facebook as follows:
John Metcalfe may not have been a gay author and THE FEASTING DEAD (1954) isn't known as a gay book, but this novella is queer in every sense of the word. It has echoes of Henry James's 'The Turn of the Screw', plus nameless horrors from beyond the grave and a rather sinister (and possibly ambulatory) scarecrow. The book has several truly bizarre and unforgettable moments, maybe the weirdest of which is when the main character, Colonel Habgood, walks in on his teenage son Denis and the handyman Raoul, a scene guaranteed to make you say 'Whoa, did I just read what I think I read? In a British novel from 1954?"
This is a slight misrepresentation of the scene, which is ambiguous to the point of incomprehensibility.  I didn't ask myself if I'd just read what I thought I read.  But I did wonder why gay readers should be excited about a horror story which might represent a gay-ish character (again, that oversimplifies and misrepresents what Raoul seems to be) sucking the life force out of a thirteen-year-old boy, so that I'm expected to see it as a metaphor for sex between a man and a boy.  Or between two men.  Granted that the censorship of the era made it difficult-to-impossible to present sex between men or between women as fulfilling rather than a doomed scrabbling after unnatural pleasure, given that homosexuality was commonly used in literature of this period as a metaphor for psychic vampirism and murky evil, why should I see an example of this homophobic regime as a literary attraction?  (Later some of these tropes were transferred to AIDS; not an improvement.)

This ties into the much older tendency to treat any kind of sexual interaction as unspeakable, even monstrous.  Marital sex could be alluded to (barely) without denigration, but any other sensual pleasure was a horror to be kept off-scene, and the participants were treated as monsters.  Which meant that when people were confronted with a real Sodomite who didn't smell of sulfur or have cloven hooves, they often couldn't recognize him as a Sodomite since he wasn't a monster.  Treating the meeting of bodies as a horror too monstrous to contemplate made it easier to avoid talking about the reality, keeping people in often-lethal ignorance.  Don't even look in that direction, it'll scare you too much, it's too horrible even to think about, you'll have nightmares forever.  Really.  Don't you trust me?  I know better than you do.  Someday you'll thank me for keeping you blindfolded.

There's something sexual, in this sense, in literature of terror and the supernatual, if only because you're not supposed to look at either sex or the monstrous.  If there really were undead predators rising from the grave, the bogeys Colonel Habgood refers to, the superstitious avoidance that the French peasants and the local curate he meets deploy against it would be even more obviously useless.  (After all, the Church is supposed to have infallible, God-given countermeasures against the demonic.)  I suspect that the real function of horror literature is not to help its users to confront their terrors, but to encourage them not to.  It's too horrible.  Be afraid, be very afraid.  The gobbl'uns'll get you if you don't watch out.  Hide under the bed... (It occurs to me that a certain craving for the adrenaline rush of fear is also a factor.  Not my drug of choice, folks.)  The light of day brings many horrors into a better perspective.  Sometimes they stop being horrors.  Sometimes they turn out to be nothing but a deck of cards.  Sometimes they vanish altogether.