pollution and horror


Jack Morgan once offered the following explanation for the appeal horror has:

“As opposed to the comic sense of life or tragedy’s dignified sense of death, horror embodies a sense of anti-life or unlife; it takes note of the demarcation between the wholesome and the unwholesome, the healthy and the monstrous – a clarity essential to the organic life. “We love and need the concept of monstrosity,” Stephen King writes, “because it is a reaffirmation of the order we all crave as human beings”. That is the fundamental sense underlying horror’s various traditional tropes and conventions. In this genre the healthy mind reconnoiters the regions of the [-p.66] unhealthy. Noel Carroll correctly notes that horror creatures – and this would apply to the genre more broadly – provoke not just fear, but loathing.” (p.65)

The Gothic underscores the multifold miasmas, poisons, fungi, plagues, viruses, that are out there and able to destroy our individual or collective systemic order. “It is not the physical or mental aberration in itself that horrifies us,” Stephen King writes, “but rather the lack of order these aberrations seem to imply”. Horror focuses upon the terror of that which is bio-antithetical, bio-illogical, a fear as viable today as it was in the middle-ages or in the imagined middle ages of 18th century Gothic literature.” (p.70)

“The most famous of Poe’s tales concerns disintegration and decline – a single, organic dissipation taking in family line, the contemporary Ushers, the house and grounds. Life is flow, dynamic movement, constant refreshment, elasticity; thus, we are repulsed by what is stagnant, stale, desiccated, musty – we recognize all the latter as anti-life, entropic, unwholesome.” (p.72)

“…the remote vicinities within the dwellings in Gothic tale – cellars, attics, chambers long closed off, and so on. From what are they closed off? Essentially from life – air, sunlight, human presence and care. They are repulsive in that they bespeak abandonment and unlife.” (p.73)

The loss of all bearings, the absence of moral-ethical-rational compass, is an integral part of the horror illusion.” (p.76)

“But how to explain what Aiken and Barbald in 1775 noted: “the apparent delight with which we dwell upon objects of pure terror, where our moral feelings are not in the least involved, and no passion seems to be excited but the depressing one of fear…?” How is it that horror, as Emily Dickinson said of Hawthorne’s work, at once “appalls and entices?” How to account for the popularity of horror in its literary expressions – a highly unlikely popularity it would seem given the theory advanced here that the genre turns on our organic apprehensions – our fear of infirmity, pollution, and physical degradation?
It is first perhaps necessary to note the obvious fact that there is no pleasure to be gained from confronting the morbid and repulsive in real life; a ritual hunt-dance is not to be confused with the hunt per se. Ours is of course an aesthetic interrogation; it goes to the experience of the virtual morbid in the virtual space/time of literary art. The process is in part intellectual, but the experience of horror, like that of comedy, is centered in a bodily registration, a body-informed imagination. …
An hypothesis might be advanced here in keeping with the generally physiological nature of the thesis so far discussed. A small quantity of morbid material – smallpox vaccine for instance – provokes the body’s healthy energies to muster themselves, and tones them. Small doses of arsenic and like substances, according to homeopathic theory, can have the effect of invigorating the body’s immune responses, awakening listless organic functions.
Brought to a kind of analog confrontation with the horrid through the Gothic tale, readers are likewise reminded of the nature of their own participation in a biotic harmony and well-being. The virtual claustrophobic heightens our awareness of space in actuality; of good, well-oxygenate [-p.78] air in actuality; of our freedom in actuality. The demarkation between the healthy and the morbid is brought to consciousness and vivified. Our bodies take pleasure in the fact that we are not locked in some Gothic crypt nor the dismal, thirsty decks of the San Dominic, or walled-up hopelessly in the catacombs beneath an Italian city.” (pp.77-78)

“Through its negations, the macabre – canceling out its own morbidity – brings us round to a biological affirmation as comedy does, to an energized sense of our being-in-the-world. Stephen King recalls the effect 1950s horror films had on him: “There was that magic moment of reintegration and safety at the end…. I believe it’s this feeling of reintegration, arising from a field specializing in death, fear and monstrosity that makes the danse macabre so rewarding and magical”.” (p.78)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Jack Morgan (1998) ‘Toward an organic theory of the Gothic: conceptualizing Horror’ Journal of Popular Culture 32:3, pp.59-80


Gothic Spaces, Fearful Times


In his essay, ‘The Night Side of Nature: Gothic Spaces, Fearful Times’, Roderick McGillis makes a couple of statements I totally agree with – and a couple more which are ‘boldly’ thought-provoking, … McGillis writes:

“I do not think the Gothic is inappropriate [for children or adolescents]. However, it does deal with the lurid and the taboo.” (p.227) “Its two great themes, according to Patrick McGrath, are transgression and decay (1997: 154), and we might think of children’s literature as a literature that promotes positive social behaviour and growth, rather than describing transgression and decay. Fragmentation and dissolution characterize the Gothic. This is a genre that seeks to disorient us.
In the Gothic, children may die and innocence may fall, tainted by infection growing from a bad seed. The Gothic is not, at least traditionally, a cheery genre. Human failure is possible in the Gothic. The Gothic world is decidedly not a pleasant place; it is ambiguous at best.” (p.227)

“…the Gothic gave us the post-human before we ever thought of genomes and cloning and other forms of altering the human form. Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Gothic fiction gave us humans as automatons, as composite creatures, vampires, and werewolves. These various forms of ‘othered’ humanity, of post-human being, continue to fascinate. The Gothic hero-villain is, by definition, both attractive and repulsive – a monster even as he exudes charisma. Characters in the Gothic must make hasty choices that turn out, more often than not, to be unwise choices.” (p.228)

“Unwise choices may explain why the Gothic is a genre suited to stories about children and adolescents.” (p.228)

“Why are this form and this sensibility with us so insistently now? My answer is that we live in fearful times and the Gothic reflects fear and maybe even combats this fear in some strange way (see Edmundson 1997; Grunenberg 1997).” (p.229) “…we live in a scary world. …but at certain times things get just a bit scarier: at the end of centuries, in times of war, [-p.230] in times of revolution, in times of rapid change. In such times, the Gothic finds purchase. It expresses fear even as it accepts fear as inevitable.” (pp.229-230)

“The art of the Gothic haunts us in order to elicit not only the scream or the gasp – sounds that signal a closing of reflection in the instant of fear – but also to elicit the shock that prompts desire for change. Like all fantasy, the Gothic is a manifestation of desire, only it demonstrates that our desire for what Lacan designates the ‘real’ may be a desire that leads to disintegration. We need to look carefully at our fantasies; we need to consider carefully the world we want.” (p.230)

Gothic appeals to the young for the same reason it appeals to the less young: it delivers characters who transgress. The Gothic hero is most often a villain who runs roughshod over conventions of piety and civilized restraint. This character has charisma. Gothic hero-villains … display their darkness without reserve; they wear their outlandishness on their sleeves. They invite our gaze while staring unblinkingly back at us. They unsettle us with their returned gaze. They position us to see the world awry. They remind us that freakishness just may be the human norm. Gothic hero-villains are us in our most unrepressed moments. They perform the polymorphous perverse we have necessarily repressed. They either clarify the need for control or satisfy vicariously desire’s reach. Whatever other cultural service they render, Gothic fictions keep reminding us that we are haunted beings, plagued by frightening forces both inside our psyches and in the world out there where we play out our social selves. And our haunted condition need not render us helpless, running into the dark forests of the night or down dark highways. / Adolescents are, perhaps, as intensely haunted or even more haunted than the rest of us. Their bodies as well as their social milieu are in flux, changing as they – both body and social group – morph (or should I say grow? into maturity.” (p.231)

“In the Gothic we are in the territory of teratology, and today’s Gothic just may suggest that we find the real monsters in positions of influence and power. And it may also suggest that we are not helpless in the face of such influence and power. The Gothic presents its characters with choice – the choice between right and wrong.” (p.232)

“…humour is one of the ingredients of a Gothic that typifies young adult and children’s fiction.” (p.233)

McGillis considers Thirsty, by M. T. Anderson (1997) in this essay, writing: “Traditionally, or at least in the Bram Stoker brand of vampire story, the battle between vampire and human is a battle for the human soul, and usually the humans manage to stem the tide of vampires lead by an anti-Christ such as Dracula. In Thirsty, however, things are confused, because the Gothic hero-villain does not side with either the Forces of Light or the Forces of Darkness. He is a lone wolf, so to speak, out for himself. He’s a good capitalist looking to sell his services to the highest bidder. He manages to find gainful employment and to ignore the terrible goings-on in the world: ‘starvation, and fighting in the Middle East, and senators talking about the national debt’ and ‘those other stories [-p.238] about the mobs, the lynchings [of vampires in this storyworld], all over America’ (138). At the end of the book, Chris is left with nothing but his fight to remain connected to humanity.” (pp.237-238)

The protagonist, Chris, is “left at the book’s end crouching behind a door, beseeching a lower case ‘god,’ and moaning, ‘I…am…so…thirsty’ (Anderson 1997: 249). These are the final words of the novel, and they leave us with the vision of desire.” (p.238)

McGillis’s reading of Thirsty leads him to ask: “What is left once we see humans and vampires as equally rapacious?” (p.239)

McGillis also explains: “K. A. Nuzum reads Thirsty as an exercise in ‘mythic’ literature. The struggle is between a mythic time that removes one from the flux of history and places one in a liminal space that is outside history. The novel ends, Nuzum points out, with Chris ‘completely isolated from linear time, from human companionship, from human existence’ (2004: 217). True, Chris is alone, isolated, and fearful as the novel comes to a close; however, I am less certain that this condition of loneliness places Chris outside of linear time. The mythic trappings in this novel …are just that: trappings. They deflect us from seeing Chris’s real problem as a human problem, and seeing the vampires as aspects of humanity. The book performs a demythicizing of monsters.” (p.239)

The trauma this book confronts is the trauma of life without direction, only choices every second for which we have no transcendent guidance. …This vision of a world without end, and without anything but the ongoing working of desire, is not mythic. It is decidedly historic. It is the world we face every day with its mob violence and socially sanctioned killings and predatory activity and senators discussing the national debt. The only difference between humans and vampires is that vampires are perceived by humans to be outside humanity; they are akin to homo sacer, those who are exiled from community; outside the polity and dispensable. Humans can kill vampires with impunity.” (p.240)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Roderick McGillis ‘The Night Side of Nature: Gothic Spaces, Fearful Times’ pp.227-241 Eds. Anna Jackson, Karen Coats and Roderick McGillis (c2008) The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders. Routledge: New York

Reference is to: Edmundson, M. (1997) Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism and the culture of the gothic. Cambridge, MA: Londond: Harvard University Press.

Grunenberg, C. (Ed.) 1997) Gothic: Transmutations of Horror in late Twentieth-Century Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Patrick McGrath (1997) Transgression and decay. In C Grunenberg (Ed.), Gothic: Transmutations of Horror in Late Twentieth Century Art (pp.153-158). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Challenging normative masculinity and femininity in children’s horror – Heinecken


According to Dawn Heinecken:

Horror fiction for children, including stories of the gothic, the uncanny, the supernatural, and the occult, is a dominant genre within present-day children’s literature. To date, the developing scholarship around this phenomenon has focused on the works of contemporary writers (Brennan et al., 2001; Jackson et al., 2008; Gooding, 2009). Absent from existing scholarly discussion is a consideration of [-p.119] earlier novels by writers whose works of horror fiction clearly precipitated this trend. [/] Most notable among these early practitioners is John Bellairs.” (pp.118-119)

“Featuring disturbing and uncanny imagery and plots revolving around ghosts, witches, possession, and the resurrection of the dead, his novels emerged as a significant contrast to the serene tone of children’s literature in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century (MacCleod, 1985). Popularly as well as critically acclaimed, fan websites such as Compleat Bellairs and Bellairsia.com attest to his continued significance as a major writer of children’s horror (Stasio, 1991; Sutherland, 1980).
Yet despite Bellairs’ importance in the development of children’s horror fiction, there has been no serious examination of his work to date. While popular accounts of Bellairs’ success often point to the ways that the chills of his novels are mediated by humorous elements and a reassuring message of adult love and protection (Stasio, 1991), such framings overlook the ways that his books may nonetheless be experienced by readers as terrifying, if only temporarily. Indeed, more significant than the reassuring resolution of his novels is their particular construction of the monstrous and the horrifying.

As critics of adult film and literature have noted, horror is a constantly evolving genre, whose shifting forms and content express the uncertainties haunting a society at any given time; it has been particularly expressive of fears related to gender and sexuality (Magistrale and Morris, 1996, p. 4; Williams, 1995, p. 7). Horror may function in a ‘‘reactionary’’ manner, punishing transgressions of conventional gender roles and reinforcing stereotypes, or it may function to subvert existing structures of power located around race, class, gender, and sexuality (Badley, 1995, p. 102). This essay provides a close reading of Bellairs’ foundational trilogy, The House with a Clock in Its Walls (1973), The Figure in the Shadows (1975), and The Letter, the Witch and the Ring (1976), to argue that, like works of adult horror, the trilogy is usefully understood as an exploration of the period’s fears and
anxieties related to gender and sexuality.
Published in the early and mid-seventies, Bellair’s trilogy may be situated against the mainstreaming of horror for adult audiences during the Post-Vietnam period (Schweitzer, 1999, p. 1; Carroll, 1990, p. 2; Colovita, 2008, p. 7), a mainstreaming which has been tied to the upheaval of traditional gender and sexual relations brought about by the feminist, anti-war, civil rights and gay rights movements (Clemens, 1999, p. 185; Magistrale and Morris, 1996, p. 2). These movements radically transformed discourses surrounding masculinity, destabilizing Cold War notions of a (white) masculinity built around an ideology of toughness and the image of the breadwinner and suggested the need for ‘‘a range of alternative masculinities’’ to replace this ideal (Winter, 2003, p. 118).” (p.119)

Clover […] observes that the reframing of masculinity in horror films is often dependent upon particular constructions of femininity and the female body that displace women to even more marginal realms of feminine excess (p. 105).
The three occult novels forming the original trilogy of Bellair’s series reveal a similar pattern of masculine revision and feminine displacement at work in children’s literature. Echoing changing discourses about masculinity at work in the larger culture of the late sixties and seventies, the trilogy rejects hegemonic notions of masculinity and proposes a new form of manhood for young readers built around a reevaluation of the relationship between masculinity and femininity. However, the series continues to reinscribe heterosexist norms at the same time femininity remains tied to loss, lack and unspeakable desires.” (p.120)

“As Barbara Creed notes, horror is often dominated by images of the ‘‘monstrous feminine,’’ those qualities of Woman that are ‘‘shocking, terrifying, horrifying and abject’’ (p. 67).” (p.121)

“Often citing the biographical features of his novels, John Bellairs worked to challenge existing gender norms through the construction of shy, clumsy loners as his protagonists. Like other forms of children’s literature emerging in the seventies, his works of children’s horror are particularly reflective of the period’s changing discourses around masculinity (Herzog, 2009, p. 72). However successful his novels are in deconstructing hegemonic masculinity, they are less so in challenging dominant notions of femininity and sexuality. Despite the apparent gender nonconformism of his characters, women and the feminine are closely related to the monstrous in Bellairs’ trilogy, and ultimately female identity remains linked to loss and uncertainty.
After the completion of the original trilogy in 1976, Bellairs worked primarily on two other horror series featuring the adventures of Anthony Monday and Johnny Dixon. He died in 1991 before the completion of a proposed fourth novel in the series, The Ghost in the Mirror, which was substantially fleshed out and published posthumously by Brad Strickland in 1993. Using the drafts and notes left by Bellairs, Strickland authored three subsequent novels in the Lewis Barnevelt series.” (p.129)

“While children’s horror of the seventies suggested the need for a refreshed, renewed masculinity, it was left up to later works of horror to formulate power as a necessary ingredient of femininity.” (p.130)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Dawn Heinecken (2011) Haunting Masculinity and Frightening Femininity: The Novels of John Bellairs. Children’s Literature in Education (42):118–131

Abstract: “While developing scholarship around children’s horror fiction has focused on the works of contemporary writers, this essay provides a close reading of the novels of John Bellairs, a leading and early practitioner of the genre. It argues that the first three novels in his Lewis Barnevelt series may be understood as addressing some of the same anxieties related to gender and sexuality as those found in adult works of horror. Echoing changing discourses about masculinity at work in the late sixties and seventies, Bellair’s novels propose a new form of manhood for young readers at the same time they continue to tie femininity to loss, lack and unspeakable desires.” (p.118)

The meaning behind serial killers


The serial killer is the (post-)modern monster. Transgressing, subverting, finally rendering meaningless the socially constructed divide between Reality and Fiction, he (it is usually a ‘he’) is both inscrutable and overdetermined. Simultaneously fascinating and repulsive (in private life and in the public sphere), he taps into personal fears and violates cultural taboos, ultimately inviting each of us to discover our own meanings in his madness. Haunting our dreams as well as our waking lives in the news, on television, in novels, and especially (most powerfully) at the movies, the serial killer seduces us in the manner of the traditional Gothic villain while horrifying us with the threat of pure evil.

Uncanny by nature, the serial killer in film represents both rejected/projected Other and possible/potential double for each and every one of us.” (p.3)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Steven Jay Schneider (2002) ‘Introduction, Pt. II: Serial Killer Film and Television’ Post Script – Essays in Film and the Humanities 22(2), pp.3-6

Abstract: “In the introduction to ‘Post Script’s’ second special issue devoted to realist horror cinema, Schneider discusses the representation of the serial killer in motion pictures, viewing the figure as a vehicle for audiences to project their personal fears and their fascination with cultural taboos onto. He comments on films that portray the serial killer as a ‘supernatural being,’ such as ;Halloween,’ ‘Child’s Play,’ and ‘The Eyes of Laura Mars.’ Schneider also previews essays collected in the issue, which analyze particular movies, themes, conventions, and generic traits from a variety of theoretical perspectives.” (p.3)

Monstrous bodies – Judith Halberstam


Back to June Cummins for a moment…. In her analysis of Gothic gendering in Harry Potter, June Cummins refers us to Judith Halberstam‘s work, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995), explaining that Halberstam “examines the function of monsters in several famous British Gothic novels that include monstrous characters and argues that these monsters are used in order for humans to define themselves against.” (p.180) Cummins goes on to quote Halberstam a couple of times:

“Within the nineteenth-century Gothic, authors mixed and matched a wide variety of signifiers of difference to fabricate the deviant body – Dracula, Jekyll/Hyde, and even Frankenstein’s monster before them are lumpen bodies, bodies pieced together out of the fabric of race, class, gender, and sexuality” ([Halberstam] 1995: 3).

“The emergence of the monster within Gothic fictions marks a peculiarly modern emphasis upon the horror of particular kinds of bodies” ([Halberstam, p.]3)

“monsters not only reveal certain material conditions of the production of horrror, but they also make strange the categories of beauty, humanity, and identity that we still cling to” ([Halberstam, p.]6)

I wondered, reading these quotes, if Halberstam’s work might be relevant to Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series and the Strigoi (evil vampires) as they contrast with the Moroi (‘good’ or at least morally ambivalent vampires). Just a thought…

Ref: (all quotations p.180) June Cummins ‘Hermione in the Bathroom: The Gothic, Menarche, and Female Development in the Harry Potter Series’ pp.177-193 Eds. Anna Jackson, Karen Coats and Roderick McGillis (c2008) The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders. Routledge: New York

Reference is to Judith Halberstam (1995) Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham, NC; London: Duke University Press.

the indeterminacy of supernatural beings


It isn’t quite on the topic of what I’m looking at just now, but I did find Brenda Mann Hammack’s discussion of female hybridized beings (and especially the vampire in The Blood of the Vampire) interesting. It connects with other discussions around gender, mothering and monstrosity as well, of course, as those with representations of race, that I find quite thought-provoking. A couple of quotes (though perhaps too out of context to really make sense):

Describing Bertha Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre to begin with, Mann Hammack explains that “The inherent instability of Brontë’s description enables Bertha to be described in seemingly contradictory terms, as both “gaunt” and swollen (p. 297). Such indeterminacy is a notable feature in most supernatural, hybridized beings. Bertha is not merely animal-human, she is male-female, almost overpowering her husband as they wrestle in the attic. What is more, Bertha’s Creole identity allows Brontë to invest Rochester’s bride with a darkness that denies her the racial “purity” of her English counterparts, Blanche Ingram and Jane Eyre.” (p.886)

“As coiled Medusa, catty Circe, or bosomy Sphinx, she recapitulated in her feral, mythical features a history of suspect desires. Whether she was figured as victim or victimizer, as Eve in Eden or the snake with woman’s head, she was ever transgressive, regressive, and perverse. While most literary vampires exhibit bestial qualities by puncturing jugulars with elongated fangs and shapeshifting into (and communicating with) nonhuman life forms, including rats and wolves, Harriet Brandt of The Blood of the Vampire avoids such antics. According to a doctor who serves as the mouthpiece for Marryat’s vampiric theories, Harriet has supposedly inherited her batlike qualities from her mother, an evil mulatto whose own mother had been bitten by a vampire bat. Yet she is a psychic vampire whose “thirst for blood” is more metaphorical than literal.” (p.887)

“In his examination of Marryat’s Harriet, Malchow concentrates on the resemblance between archetypal monster and mixed-race person, noting that “[b]oth vampire and half-breed [pose] hidden threats—disguised presences bringing pollution of the blood. Both may be able to ‘pass’ among the unsuspecting, although both bear hidden signs of their difference, which the wary may read.” While Harriet can pass for white, the doctor and other characters in the novel claim to detect Creole characteristics in Harriet’s face and figure, ….” (p.887)

“Although Harriet’s eventual husband argues with the doctor’s theories, neither he nor any of the other characters comment on the absurdity of the vampire-bat feature of her backstory. That feature, left unexplored in Malchow’s study as well as in the only other published assessments of the novel, stems from Marryat’s ready assent to the theories of hybridity that were inherent in the pseudo-scientific concept of imaginationism, otherwise known as maternal impressions. This strain of teratology (the study of monstrosity) allowed for what Marie-Hélène Huet calls a “mixing and confounding [of] species” that “Nature [would] not allow.”” (p.888)

Because Dracula springs from a realm known for its polyracial and political conflict, he seems the ultimate threat to racial purity from the standpoint of his British and American opponents. By infecting female victims, Dracula seeks to propagate a race of vampires.” (p.891)

Ref: Brenda Mann Hammack  Florence Marryat’s Female Vampire and the Scientizing of Hybridity  SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Volume 48, Number 4, Autumn 2008, pp. 885-896