Friday, October 20, 2006

13 Days of Halloween, 3) Letting the Skeletons Out

In his eye-opening 2003 documentary, The American Nightmare, director Adam Simon juxtaposes footage of the violence on the nightly news in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with clips from horror movies of the same era.

That famous footage of Birmingham police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor’s troops turning firehoses on black youth and beating nonviolent protestors is juxtaposed with the footage of the vigilantes hunting zombies and killing Duane Jones (the black lead actor) in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the cadences of the vigilante’s speech recall the dehumanizing manner in which General Westmoreland spoke of Asians at the time (or the patronizing way Donald Rumsfeld talks of everyone who disagrees with him today). The Mai Lai massacre, televised executions of alleged Vietcong, children running naked from napalm attack and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy are intercut with the brutality of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The filmmakers talk frankly about how their movies helped them to grapple with what was happening in the world at the time.

Horror filmmaker and make-up wizard Tom Savini is particularly notable for his frankness about his terror in Vietnam and how the lens of a camera helped him process what he was experiencing as a soldier. Since then, his make up effects have served as a form of therapy.

All of this is reminiscent of that haunting scene in the James Whale biopic Gods & Monsters where the World War I veteran recalls living in the trenches and watching his dead friend rot on the barbed wire of no man’s land. Director Bill Condon suggests this is the inspiration for Whales’ moving portrait of the Frankenstein monster. Those familiar with Whale’s work may even see this connection more strongly in the film debut of Claude Rains as a beautiful corpse at the end of The Invisible Man.

The horror genre gives us a safe distance to contemplate the things we fear, to in fact contemplate our attraction to that which most scares us. In this exchange, we not only have an opportunity to work through our fears and heal our wounds, we have some chance to tackle problems we might not otherwise. Ghosts and monsters make us want to run, yes, but if we run, the ghost or monster only gains strength. To defeat that thing we most fear, we must turn and look it dead in the eye.

“A spectre is haunting Europe -- the spectre of communism. All the powers
of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this
spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and
German police-spies.”

--Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848

Just three decades after Mary Shelley made her monster and only 5 years after Charles Dickens' most famous ghost story A Christmas Carol, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels chose to portray communism as a prophetic spirit “haunting Europe,” a sort of Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The idea, as it emerges in the opening of the Communist Manifesto, is a simple one, elemental. With old aristocracies crumbling and the industrial revolution shaking Europe’s foundations, the notion of a cooperative society must be driven (exorcised) from the public mind in order for power to remain in the hands of the few that hold the reins.

In American society a century and a half later, the exorcism has long seemed all but complete. The conventional wisdom says that the spectre of communism went to the light in 1989 with the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Block countries. In my literature classes, when I ask my students if they can define the socialist vision that inspired Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jack London, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Theodore Dreiser, Tillie Olsen, John Steinbeck and, to some extent, virtually every other writer of realist and naturalist fiction, they illustrate the success of the exorcism.

Most have no answers. A few say “socialism” means “big government.” Others say “communism” forces everyone to be the same. Still others sometimes say Karl Marx had some good ideas that just don’t work in the real world.

These sound bites don’t reveal simply a poverty of appreciation for Karl Marx’s contributions to Western thought—they add up to less than zero understanding of either the methods or the vision of universal human liberation that shook the 20th Century. They miss Marxism’s key strength--its insistence on reconciling dreams of social justice with a sober assessment of what’s real and what’s possible.

Our educational system all but ignores the rapid evolution of scientific thought which accompanied industrialization in the middle of the 19th century. In this educational vacuum, the transition from the subjective emphasis of the Romantic era in literature (in American terms, roughly the period up to the Civil War) to the objective emphasis of Realism (after the Civil War) seems merely a bipolar aesthetic swing.

We don’t teach or learn that seven years after Marx & Engel’s manifesto heralded a revolutionary theory of human history, Alexander Bain produced the first psychology textbook, The Senses and the Intellect, and Herbert Spencer published the two volume Principles of Psychology, together formalizing the study of how the human mind works. Four years after that, Charles Darwin unleashed The Origin of the Species, changing the general consensus on man’s relationship with the world around him. These few examples among many in this period reveal a dramatic shift in the way humanity was beginning to understand itself--an upheaval in human thought which both gave birth to 20th Century scientific thought and drove a wedge between conventional wisdom and scientific understanding.

But the effect of this shift in understanding on our literature was immediate. We have much to learn from the literature of that era if we can understand its real world inspiration. A century later, Marxist critic C.L.R. James would look back at Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which stands at the juncture between romanticism and realism, to help explain enigmas of the 20th Century.

To some extent, the vision of Moby Dick springs from a growing desire in 19th Century art to grapple with the specifics of the world around that art. Melville’s novel is, at once, dream-like, highly emotional and allegorical in its symbolism (all traits associated with Romanticism), but it also forecasts realism in its concern with a meticulous description of the specifics of whaling itself and the workings of the social system aboard Ahab’s boat, the Pequod.

After taking great pains to establish the microcosm of Industrial society on board the ship, James writes:

“The old heroic individualist America [Melville] knew; but he could see, as artists see, that the old individualism was breeding a new individualism--one which would destroy society. The prototype of this was Ahab. The modern dictator whose prototype he is, is best exemplified by Adolf Hitler.”

In my own state of Kansas where evolution was briefly ruled optional (and is far from out of the woods), it’s painfully obvious that these 19th Century revolutions in human thought have been, to some dangerous extent, successfully suppressed. These are enormously practical concerns. In Human Natures: Genes, Cultures and the Human Prospect, biologist Paul Ehrlich argues that understanding evolution is not only necessary to grasp modern science, but it is necessary to our continued survival.

“In my view,” Ehrlich writes, “it is highly unlikely that human beings will ever create a utopia, but I think it is a counsel of despair to assume that we can’t collectively do a lot better than we’re doing today. Cultural evolution [not our genetic development, but our subjective growth] led many past civilizations to extinction. Our global civilization had better move rapidly to modify its cultural evolution and deal with its deteriorating environmental circumstances before it runs out of time. Whether the natures of most of us can be changed to establish better connections among diverse groups and to take more systematic control of our cultural evolution remains to be seen.”

What concerns Ehrlich is long range system-wide dysfunction. Through today’s growing awareness of the causes and effects of such dysfunction, it’s not hard to see ourselves as addicts, our self image shaped by denial, and addiction’s trajectory is the destruction of the self and anyone who gets in its path. A great aid in our system-wide denial is our individually fragmentary point of view, a perspective fundamental to our current social system but not inherently fundamental to human society.

As philosophy professor Richard Tarnas explains in The Passion of the Western Mind, the sixth centuries’ earliest philosophers, “made the remarkable assumption that an underlying rational unity and order existed within the flux and variety of the world, and established for themselves the task of discovering a simple fundamental principle, or arche, that both governed nature and composed its basic substance.” From these origins, we are all familiar with the long history of systematic thought that has given us penicillin, refrigerators, TVs, automobiles, CD players, the Internet, and DNA testing. Science plays a key role in virtually everything we do, yet most of us still refuse to apply such rigorous thought to an understanding of society and its potential.

In 1997, Scientific American columnist James Burke and psychologist Robert Ornstein published The Axemaker’s Gift, which offers a history of technology and Western Society. Burke and Ornstein argue that society’s evolving tools have historically created a social control based in greater and greater distances between the specialist’s understanding and the common knowledge shared by others. Meanwhile, our society has expanded in a very short time from a hunter/gatherer society, in which we interact with a small group of others in a world of boundless resources to a globalized community with finite resources. Today, specialization has fragmented even the scientific community.

Burke and Ornstein write: “After the emergence of seventeenth-century reductionism, each major new discipline sooner or later fragmented into dozens, sometimes hundreds, of specialist subdisciplines. Botany, for instance, subdivided and linked with other disciplines to become biology, organic chemistry, histology, embryology, evolutionary biology, physiology, cytology, pathology, bacteriology, urology, ecology, population genetics, and zoology. This process has repeated in many fields, and the latest count suggests that there are now 20,000 separate scientific and technological subjects. Specialists know more and more about less and less, and non-specialists know less and less about more and more.”

Hitler’s Final Solution worked so disgustingly well thanks to such specialization—everyone was just following orders and no one felt responsible for the big picture. Hell, no one wanted to look up from their specialized tasks to contemplate the big picture. (How many of us today don’t have the exact same hesitancy?)

Burke and Ornstein are concerned with the danger that computer technologies will be “hijacked by the most powerful-ever information elite in history,” but they offer hope. The Axemaker’s Gift contends that the computer revolution demands new skills, “the ability to connect, to think imaginatively, to understand how data are related, to see patterns in machine-generated innovation, and to assess its social effect before releasing it on society.” They see the rise of the “generalist” as our main chance for human liberation. Fortunately, the disappearance of division of labor being hastened by the digital revolution is freeing us all up to become greater generalists in the ways we view the world.

Karl Marx was just such a generalist, describing the connection between humanity’s technological and economic development and the evolution of its ideas (this is the heart of the meaning of his philosophy of dialectical materialism). Marx sought to reveal the value of understanding our history. Our past shows us how we have formed (and overthrown) increasingly complex and sophisticated social organizations--from slave states, to feudal societies, to democracy--through the very real need to work together to survive.

And what he intended to show was the feasibility of communism, an idea that existed for thousands of years before capitalism took hold, the cooperative principles that bound together nomadic tribes fighting predators, harsh conditions and a scarcity of resources, perennial values and traditions that linger as the ghosts of our prehistory. If in this prehistory we had to work together to save ourselves from a hostile environment, Marx argues that post-industrialized society has to work cooperatively to save ourselves from the suicidal momentum of the profit-driven system we have created. 

In today’s world, the war between the entertainment industry and fans over Internet file-sharing illustrates how technology has evolved to place power in more and more people’s hands while a tiny fraction of society is growing more vicious to maintain control. For most of us, the anxieties we face are increasingly basic--how to pay our bills and our rent or mortgage, how to keep ourselves fed and how to receive adequate healthcare. The notion that our problems are escalating toward a breaking point is a feeling we all know. Beyond our economic crises, we are faced with social, political and environmental problems we must solve for the sake of our very survival.

The dog-eat-dog and self reliance myths that we have been sold by our culture must be examined with a clear eye focused on our deep history. We’ve never needed each other more. The dream of a just society demands that we grapple with the forces that literally threaten our survival and the survival of all that makes the world we live in a desirable place to be. That means the best of what’s in us and the best of what’s around us, including our natural environment, will only thrive if we tend to it with eyes wide open. Fortunately, much of today's apocalyptic horror focuses on the human spirit and our potential to work together, keeping up the fight even when we fail.

The American Nightmare at—

13 Days of Halloween, 2) Ghosts, Monsters and the Impulse to Do Horror

“We will each write a ghost story!”  --Lord Byron, June 1816

That challenge made by the great Romantic poet spawned three tales of the supernatural, yes, but not one story about ghosts in particular. Byron himself wrote an odd prose fragment about a mysterious companion who seemed to know the time and place of his death. His friend, Dr. John Polidori later turned it more explicitly into a vampire tale (in fact, a likely inspiration for Dracula). The most notable of the stories, Frankenstein, written by his friend Mary Godwin (eventually Shelley) helped create both the horror and science fiction genres, but it is only a ghost story in the most metaphorical sense.

What Byron called for didn’t need to have an actual ghost in it, but it did need some distinctive characteristics. When our childhood sleepover friends asked for a ghost story, that simply meant a scary story, probably one that plays on supernatural, irrational fears. Such ghost stories surely date back to the "invention" of fire, and most of us grew up hearing them and telling them one way or another. Though the ghost story, taken literally, doesn’t seem to have anything to do with monsters, the impulse does. The impulse toward horror depends on the notion of a monster, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein all but defines that idea.

So where does this horror impulse come from? The history of horror, or the gothic, in literature, tells us a lot. Along with romance novels, the gothic novel formed one of the first genres of popular fiction writing, and the influential late 18th/early 19th century gothic novels by Horatio Walpole, Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen--concerned with mysterious old castles, clanking chains and things that go bump in the night--allowed for a sort of reader-based rebellion against the era’s worship of reason. In this way, gothic tales served a distinct function as an inspiration to the Romantic writers, who would—as a group—ponder the limits of reason. The Romantics didn't reject reason, but their explorations were concerned as much with the irrational and subjective, those aspects of human experience that could not be easily quantified. The writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, in particular, dwell on the mistake of assuming reason can easily overcome these other aspects of what it means to be human. The gothic or the archetypal ghost story illustrates the danger.

Ghost stories almost always start the same way—with a new beginning. In movies, it’s that sequence of images of a family driving down a tree-lined lane, eyes searching beyond the trees up around the next curve for that house they’ve always dreamed of. Henry James’ A Turn of the Screw begins with a young governess eager to impress her new employer. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House begins with an exciting opportunity for a spinster who’s tired of being excess baggage in her sister’s family. Stephen King’s The Shining begins with an author taking the perfect winter job to overcome his writer’s block and heal his family. Whether it’s in the house on the moors with a new husband or simply a new subdivision, the characters in ghost stories have set their eyes on the future at the beginning of the story.

But the audience knows from the opening lilt of the storyteller’s voice that this dream of the future is doomed. Something is waiting for these characters, something supposedly dead, something out of the past. It may be an ex-wife who won’t stay in the ground, or the last governess, the last caretaker, or the Indian burial ground that lies under the new subdivision. Whatever it is, it’s a piece of the past that is unsettled, and it will bully our characters relentlessly until some kind of reckoning brings it satisfaction, even if the most likely results are only madness and death.

At the beginning of one of the more influential ghost stories of the past two decades, The Sixth Sense, Psychiatrist Malcolm Crowe finally receives the recognition he deserves at an awards ceremony. The suggestion is that he and his wife are turning over a new leaf, and the future looks bright for once; maybe it’s time for them to bring a child into their world.

But a piece of the past is waiting for them in the upstairs bathroom. In there, an old patient has stripped off his clothes and holds a gun to his head. And before he shoots himself, he tries to take the psychiatrist with him.

In that dynamic, we see the central fear of the gothic tale. When we finally have something to lose, when we want nothing more than to escape the bounds of the past, our ghosts rise up, and their demands can be merciless. As in the case of The Sixth Sense, or any of the tales I’ve listed before, our ghosts have the power to erase our future, and very often, they do; almost always, they forever alter it.

Ghosts alter the future because they offer a counterargument to the protagonists’ right to that future. They force the characters to confront whatever it is they are trying to deny, to gloss over, to ignore. They are that plagues us from childhood--the monster under the bed or lurking in the closet.

That sort of contradiction is always a part of the act of reaching for the gothic. Those of us who enjoy the mysterious, fantastic, weird and grotesque, those things that shake our sense of reality, do so in part because we are afraid of the unknown, sure. But there is something necessary and thrilling in confronting that fear. It makes us feel more fully alive. When we sit around the proverbial campfire and place a flashlight under our features and drop our voice to a menacing tone, we are sharing an enhanced sense of being human with others. Those who mock or condemn such behavior always ignore the healthy zeal of it.

And for our purposes here, we should never overlook the irony that motivates each of our various horrors. If the past is what scares us in a ghost story, it is essential to notice that the telling of the tale hands us ages old methods to reconnect with and stare down such fears.

One of the early definitions of the word “horror” describes it as a physical reaction to a fear, a shuddering. Sometimes we simply shiver at ghosts, but they can make us shudder, and that's the monstrous quality that truly defines the genre. We learn to fight through the shudders, so we can face our monsters down.

Pictures: Charles Ogle in Edison's 1910 Frankenstein and Mischa Barton in 1999's The Sixth Sense

Thursday, October 19, 2006

13 Days of Halloween, 1) Nana's Stories

Like most of us, I was born into a haunted house. For one thing, I was born amidst assassinations that shook my family caught up in the Civil Rights Movement. Medgar Evers was killed in his driveway four months before I was born. One month before I was born, a bomb in a Birmingham church killed four young women--Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Diane Wesley and Carole Robertson--young women symbolic of the Movement youth transforming the country at the time. When I was one month old, the President’s assassination traumatized my family of Democrats, and a bust of JFK stood sentinel in my home from my earliest memories.

My older brother’s music filled the house, and an early memory of mine is listening, with my parents, to Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John” on my brother’s stereo. By the time I was 7, the Beatles had broken up. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison died within about a year of each other. By the time I could read my first picture book, the 1960s and my Kodachrome childhood guttered away.

We would have dealt in ghosts anyway. My mother’s side of the family was from Louisiana, and ghosts quilted the fabric of their stories. By the warm end table light in the little apartment where my grandmother lived alone, she told and retold these stories. As a young girl, her mother watched the former lady of her plantation home, long dead, transparently descending the stairs at dusk. As hard nosed and salt-of-the-earth a matriarch as you can imagine, my great grandmother Julia’s life was filled with such moments.

My grandmother’s little brother, whom she had watched over as a girl, had been killed in accelerated pilot training at Waco during World War II. Some snafu at the control tower led his plane into the air as another was landing. My grandmother said he held that plane where it descended like a leaf, so that the student might jump out. Neither one did. Later, at James’s funeral, my grandmother and mother both remembered that the coffin didn’t look long enough for his body. My seven-year-old mother felt his hand on her shoulder as she had this realization. For a while after her Uncle James died, my mother wouldn’t let anyone take James’s seat at the table.

Not long after that, my grandmother’s still young husband died. He’d had rheumatic fever as a child and never had a strong heart. Perhaps that was why he lived the active way he did. He was a forensic scientist who made trips to research malaria in southern Louisiana, and he was a saxophonist in a swing band and a choir director at their church in Shreveport. He loved entertainers, and my mother’s love of movies came out of his. He was friends with Jimmy Davis, who wrote “You Are My Sunshine” as well as Emmett Kelly and the puppeteer behind Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Grandma always joked that she never knew when he might bring circus people home to supper. After the picnicking and fireworks of July 4th, 1944, my grandfather woke up with a heart attack, and he was gone.

My mother, grandmother and great-grandmother all lived together after that. During my mother’s adolescence, my great grandmother came in the house from the front yard where she’d been consulting with a tree doctor about the sick elm in the middle of the yard.

“Mary,” she told my grandmother calmly, “I need to go to the hospital because James has come for me. It’s my time.”

“Oh mother,” I can hear the disgusted tone my grandmother used when she answered, “You’re fine.”

But she insisted, and my grandmother took her to the hospital, and she died within a couple of hours. My mother said she never saw anyone die so peacefully.

Odd as it may sound, some of my warmest early memories are these--sitting by my grandmother on the couch, prompting her to tell one story after another as the goosebumps stood up on my arms, tears came to my eyes and shadows in the room began to come alive and crawl.

Looking back now, I see that Grandmother’s ghost stories served several different purposes in my childhood. They conveyed a part of my heritage. An Ecuadoran student once told me that, to her, the Latin American brand of surrealism, magic realism, seemed like a way the authors showed respect for their elders and the stories they told, the way they told them. (For what it's worth Gabriel Garcia-Marquez said the same thing.) I understood exactly what she meant because I thought of my own grandmother. That’s an important connection because the Southern gothic and magic realism both make sense when looked at that way. The two traditions share a rebelliousness in their very desire to celebrate some of the most subjective and vulnerable aspects of who we are in the face of a changing world.

This theme is repeated again and again in horror—in tales of the vampire and the werewolf, even in the demon possession of The Exorcist, the arguably definitive modern horror story for the way it romanticizes denigrated past beliefs in its war with the conventional wisdom of the present. Even the awakening of those goosebumps, teary eyes and shadowy hallucinations serves as a sort of subjective communion with a way of thinking and feeling that is certainly primeval.

But the telling of those ghost stories also served another, less mystical but very likely more important, purpose. They brought my grandmother and I (along with my mother and my brother who also shared in this tradition) closer together. If one of the themes of horror is our fear of being alone (the bottom line in Frankenstein, for instance), it is important to see that the telling of the scary story is generally a collective experience. Even if one is simply reading a book (an act Stephen King has called a sort of mental telepathy), the writer and the reader are joined in the experience of confronting that which makes us feel like we are alone, together. This too is important. All of these concepts unite people despite their sense of isolation.

My grandmother lived most of her life alone, but she never seemed terribly lonely. I would guess a part of her strength came from her communion with her ghosts—none of the many people she lost in her life ever seemed far from her heart or mind. What she definitely passed on was a sense of connection. To this day, when my brother and I talk about our grandmother, we admit we still feel like she is right here with us. When we’ve each been at our lowest, we’ve gained a sense of unconditional love and strength from this sense of our grandmother’s presence. Whatever the spirit is, it finds sustenance in this sense of the otherworldly that comes through the ghost story. Though much of the value of understanding our monsters and horror has to do with what we fear, it is essential to keep in mind that the tale of what we fear offers a balm, a sense of communion with others, at the very least, in our shared fears.

(In the picture--Nana and her brothers; (l-r) Lewis, James and Francis)

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Where the River Runs Black

Happening upon Sarah Langan’s debut novel, The Keeper, at my corner grocery store has turned out to be a happy accident I can only compare to my “discovery” of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot at a bus stop when I was 12 years old. And I feel doubly blessed right now to have read The Keeper on the heels of Bentley Little’s The Burning, two horror stories that also happen to be that most exquisite and rare find in the genre—distinctly American ghost stories.

Key to this is that this book begins with a quote from Bruce Springsteen’s “Independence Day” and manages to live up to that song’s haunted naturalism. The characters in this novel are real people living in the real America at the dawn of the 21st Century. Like so many Americans, these are characters who were born just a few decades ago into a society that promised, expected and planned for only the continued economic expansion that defined the American identity up to that point. And now those manufacturing jobs that served as the vehicle for that expansion have been automated away and become globally outsourced--leaving people who have given their lives to the company confused and betrayed and haunted by what never will be. In this case, Langan focuses on the small town of Bedford, Maine, and a paper mill, but whether we’re from my ex-oil town in Oklahoma or Whirlpool’s lame duck home in Benton Harbor, Michigan, we know the scenario all too well, and that makes this setting universal.

Even more important for satisfying fiction, particularly something as subjective as a ghost story, the focus on strong characters underscores the link between such political betrayals and our most personal secrets. Rich, vivid characters abound in this novel—each with their own heroic qualities and each with dreadful failures that they can’t ever quite shake. All of them are haunted by the Marley family, particularly Susan Marley, a beautiful, preternaturally gifted girl who tries to save her family from itself but winds up all but destroying it and taking the town along for good measure.

Though Langan shows herself to be a writer with an unflinching ability to savage her characters and fling her readers right along with them into the abyss, she has the absolutely necessary counterweight that makes King and only a handful of other writers, never mind writers of horror, so special. She knows people, and she knows them too well to sell false hope or, an even easier trap in our age, to fall into an easy cynicism. Where this book ultimately goes, no reader is likely to expect, but it’s a conclusion that comes from a knowing vision and trust in the integrity of her characters.

Ultimately, what I think I like best about great horror stories and ghost stories in particular is the way they counter our daily inoculations against reflection. The best ghost stories are, almost without exception, rooted in a reflective quiet. That’s that psychic space necessary for those things that have their reasons for not staying buried to come out and play, and Langan delivers a sprawling universe of such spaces. Even during some of the most apocalyptic horrors that threaten to run the book right off the rails in its final third, the prose has a Bradbury-like whisper to it that serves to keep the reader close.

In another song from the same album as “Independence Day,” Springsteen asks, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” The Keeper gives us a good look at the maw of that “something worse.” It has to. Some things will never rest until they are dealt with head on.

Of course none of this would matter if Langan didn’t do it so well she’s only left me wanting more.

Now if I could just get over the genius of such a title for a debut—not only accurately describing the book but the woman who wrote it.