Sunday, September 24, 2006

American Gothic

Ghost stories abound in our culture—good ones, too—though they rarely work in long form. I can’t stomach the cheese of The Ghost Whisperer, but I do overlook the convoluted and silly plots of The Medium for the show’s guaranteed chill-per-episode and its greatest asset, a family that doesn’t look like it knows it’s on TV. And while the charm of those ridiculous Brits on Most Haunted wears thin pretty quick, I do love that earnest Roto-Rooter gang on Ghost Hunters. Then there’s the countless ghost story anthologies rivaled only by true crime biographies and cold case investigations (both arguably forms of ghost stories) filling up basic cable stations like A&E, TLC, Discovery, the Travel Channel and Biography.

I’m sure many find this distressing evidence of how the horrors of real life are driving contemporary America into fantasyland. And while I can’t deny the truth in that, I think that’s superficial. I personally love it because I’m a fan of the ghost story aesthetically. But more importantly, I think it’s a trend worthy of, if not celebrating, at least understanding.

I think it’s as fundamental a core human impulse as writing a love song (psalm, sonnet, whatever), one of the expected responses to gathering around a fire at night, because it fills important needs—to find community in our needs, to face our fears and, at its best, to reckon with our past.

But—surprisingly enough—though what I think of as a certain ghost story template, the gothic plot, shapes much of our best fiction, very few ghost stories manage to work well over the course of either a full-length movie or a book. For that matter, very little gothic horror sustains itself that long. Go ahead, count up the horror books or movies that satisfy from beginning to end, and I would guess, unless you’re a Stephen King (who seems to have read and seen every one in existence), you’ll run out of titles before you run out of fingers.

Which is reason enough for me to want to celebrate Bentley Little’s new book, The Burning, probably available on your grocery store racks as I type. Since King talked him up in a recent Entertainment Weekly column, I’ve read two other Little books, and--while I appreciated their sure-footed prose, largely convincing characters, and most important, their genuinely chilling moments—this was the first where the surrealism did not gallop over some hill that made me sigh and contemplate (briefly) giving up and going home. It’s a tough job—weaving a believable universe out of nightmares and having it achieve the lift necessary for a satisfying novel—but I think it’s an important one in a society as hobbled by denial as ours, and Little does us a great service in the most modest way here.

Consider this novel’s scope, which it manages beautifully in less than 400 pages. It starts as a number of separate ghost stories, each intriguing in its own way—

A border patrol agent haunted by the migrants she thwarts on a daily basis, and the bodies of one such family she discovers who died in hiding, takes her son and flees the job and the bad marriage that goes with it only to find herself confronted by the ghosts of another mother and child in her new home.

A young Latina just starting her college career finds herself, first, bonding with her fellow classmates as they listen to disembodied voices coming out of closets and stoves in the middle of the night before the racial injustice behind the ghost story roars to life and turns against her.

Then there is the park ranger whose lonesome nights gradually fill up with fantasies of succubi that turn into the most unsettling kind of waking nightmares. For the longest time, he writes off his imaginative flights to his slim acquaintance with his Native American roots, but his dreams and reality become indistinguishable and he gets swept up in a tide approaching epic proportions.

Not so incidentally, all of these phantoms are Chinese, and The Burning works as well as it does because of the magic realism that weaves an American Indian sensibility, including hints of the Aztlan, with that of the Asian into a fabric that rounds out the more familiar tapestries of the American West.

What makes it all work is a magic to the pacing, something that reminds me of a series of personal experiences. Years ago, I was honored to spend a considerable amount of time working with several American Indian organizations, including AIM, on some local human rights issues. I distinctly remember the way our meetings would take shape. Indians of all ages and both genders would begin gathering at some prearranged start time, and people would talk and discuss what was going on in their lives and the children would play, sometimes for what seemed like hours. But at some particular point, when the light and the mood and the feel of the room was just right, the Elders would simply move to form a prayer circle, and the formal proceedings would begin. At that point, in the light of dusk or dawn, the air was undeniably charged with magic (whatever it is that magic may be).

Little’s The Burning has that sort of intuitive sense of pacing, and its final reckoning—focused around the forgotten persecution of the Chinese after the completion of the transcontinental railroad—is undeniably charged with magic in much the same way. And what the story (like almost all horror stories) lacks in real world solutions to the undead issues it raises, it finds a way to imply by insisting we can’t look forward without looking back, we can’t solve anything through vengeance alone and something even more important. The Burning, most importantly, asks us to free our imaginations to look past defeatism. It asks us to confront a familiar reality that’s nothing more than a systematic conspiracy of silence, consent and nurtured ignorance and see the possibilities of human will unfettered by such restraints.

It’s hard to ask much more of a tale of make believe; it’s also hard to imagine any more important reason for such tales to exist.


Speaking of people who deserve to have themselves shaken awake by things that go bump in the night, see the great SoundExchange article by Fred Wilhelms in the current Counterpunch. Chances are, you can even help with this reckoning--