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The Muse of Horror: Traditions of Dreadful Imagining

The Muse of Horror: Traditions of Dreadful Imagining
© Photograph by Shirø Igarashi

Efforts to elucidate its typological profile can become very nuanced and have tended to cause, as Sunand Tryambak Joshi notes, “an irremediable confusion of terms such as horror, terror, the supernatural, fantasy, the fantastic, ghost story, Gothic fiction, and others”.

Chris Baldick, in his introduction to ‘The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales’, having noted that his anthology attempts to set forth “a relatively pure line of shorter Gothic fiction,” adds the following reservation: “I am aware, however, that a broader definition of Gothic is possible and have at some points slackened the line to accommodate this view” (xxii).

Noël Carroll writes that concerning the theory propounded in his book, “most of [Egdar Allan] Poe’s work does not fit into the genre of horror”. Linda Badley calls ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ a “Gothic Romance”. And so on. Of course, even the most rigorous literary taxonomies carry a kind of implied “as a rule” caveat anyway, and even so brilliant a classifier as Herman Northrop Frye notes in the introduction to his ‘Anatomy’ that an objection of the “what about so and so?” type may be made by the reader without necessarily destroying statements based on collective observations, and there are many questions of the “where would you put so and so?” type that cannot be answered by the present writer.

A broad distinction can be made, and one would think, between macabre horror and the supernatural tale or ghost story, however. The latter’s proximate source would seem to be the spiritualist enthusiasm mustered against eighteenth-century secular rationalism. The present descendants of these enthusiasms are arguably parapsychology, UFO lore, and science fiction, all of which combine with the macabre tradition in, for instance, ‘The X-Files’.

The hybrid often works well, arguably due to the grounding contributed by the visceral, somatic element involved. On its own, however, the ghost story tends to be a comparatively airy, disembodied form reflecting perhaps the Olympian skygod tradition rather than the older, chthonian spirit from which horror, arguably, and comedy, as well, stem.

Linda Badley notes the critical shift from supernatural terrorism “to horror body language,” a shift she sees as “both a symptom of the repression of Thanatos and a vehicle for its expression”. The evolution she suggests might perhaps be drawn, for example, regarding ‘The Twilight Zone’ versus the later and much more visceral, clinical, and revulsion- provocative ‘The X-Files’.

There have been writers — Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman are three American examples — who possessed the skills to construct extraordinarily disturbing ghost tales, but in general, for deep horror effect, the supernatural tale needed to be wedded to the kind of fulsome, biomorphic imagination driving works such as those of Lewis, Maturin, Stoker, and others.

In Matthew Gregory Lewis’s ‘The Monk: A Romance’, for instance, the supernatural ‘Bleeding Nun’ episode constitutes a ghost story, but one set in the larger context of a luridly physical narrative, not to mention the biological anxiety implicit in the bleeding motif itself. The ghost of Allison Greening, in Peter Francis Straub’s ‘If You Could See Me Now’, like the ‘Bleeding Nun’, is eroticized and, after many inchoate expressions of itself, manifests in a distinctly physical form: She “was no shadow, no circling pattern in the grass, no tall outline of sticks […] but a living person. […] a perfect girl of bone and shin and blood”.

Similarly, Stanley Kubrick’s film version of ‘The Shining’, while it might technically be regarded as a ghost story, draws much of its terrifying power from the physical “sex and substance” provided, for example, by the young woman in the bathtub, “who withers into a crone before one’s eyes and an elevator door that opens to release a torrent of blood”. Even in a visitation ghost story such as Edith Wharton’s ‘The Eyes,’ we can trace the attempt to imbue a disembodied apparition with an element of repulsive physicalness. Culwin refers to “the physical effect” of the eyes that appear to him at night as an effect “equivalent to a bad smell: their look left a smear like a snail’s”.

Joseph Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Mark of the Beast’ could have been one more Victorian supernatural tale in the “curse of the mummy” vein. In it, a foreigner, a British colonial in India, transgresses rudely upon a native holy place and thereby falls victim to a curse. But the story’s terror is greatly deepened by its exploitation of revulsion, its triggering of disgust responses in the reader.

The British, Fleete, becomes offensively drunk at a gathering and shortly after stumbles into the temple of the Monkey-god, where he puts out his cigar butt on the forehead of the god’s stone image. If it were left that a week later he met with an uncanny accident, we would have the standard supernatural tale. Instead, Fleete is fallen upon almost immediately by a temple leper who emerges “out of the recess behind the image,” a leper “whose disease was heavy upon him”; he has stumps for hands and feet, and his face is completely eroded. The leper, making a mewing sound, clutches Fleete to him and grinds his head into the offender’s chest. Fleete’s companions, one of whom is the story’s narrator, pull the leper off him, but Fleete is later that night overwhelmed by violent chills and fever, his nostrils filled with the stench of slaughterhouses — “Can’t you smell the blood?” he cries to his companions. By the next day, he begins to call for undercooked meat; he hungers for chops — “bloody ones with gristle”. He is eventually in convulsions, foaming at the mouth, making “beast noises in the back of his throat.”

The narrator confesses the scene made him “actually and physically sick”. The leper later appears at Fleete’s residence, where the narrator and another man tackle him and discover he is stunningly strong. The narrator puts his foot on the leper’s neck: “and even through my riding boots I could feel that his flesh was not the flesh of a clean man”. The narrator’s “affective reaction” here, to borrow phrasing from Noël Carroll, “is not merely a matter of fear, i.e., of being frightened by something that threatens danger. Rather threat is compounded with revulsion, nausea, and disgust”.

Literary horror, on the other hand, does not need the supernatural; the fevered nightmares of the virulent flu siege recalled by Katherine Ann Porter in ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’, for example, require no conventional ghostly trappings: “A pallid white fog rose […] insinuatingly and floated before Miranda’s eyes, a fog in which was concealed all terror and all weariness, all the wrung faces and twisted backs and broken feet of abused, outraged living things.” The fog might part at any moment, she writes, “and loose the horde of human torments”.

In effective horror, the supernatural is not something added to the world of nature; it is the spiritual dynamism of that world (I paraphrase Eric Walter Frederick Tomlin from another context).

Early high Gothic literature tended toward a realist or quasi-realist expression, toward the natural-supernatural. The supernatural as such was played down or, ultimately, as in Ann Radcliffe, turned out to have been only apparently extra-natural. The uncanny was likely to work up from the grassroots; Count Dracula, for instance, a demon emergent from the central European folk-mind, is living-dead, not dead and returning from a supernatural realm. The character of Satan itself suggests a chthonic derivation and lends itself readily enough to representations such as Stephen Edwin King’s Randall Flagg, in ‘The Stand’, who is a devil if not the Devil manifested as a suave, or would-be suave, redneck.

Frankenstein too is a natural phenomenon, a “creature made of clay,” as it were. The ability of horror to function in the physical without resort to the deus ex machina possibilities of the supernatural is evident as well in films such as ‘The First Deadly Sin’, ‘Psycho’, and ‘Silence of the Lambs’, with their human monsters — Daniel Blank, Norman Bates, and Hannibal Lecter.

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