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Phantasmagorias of Childhood in the British Horror Stories

Phantasmagorias of Childhood in the British Horror Stories
© Photograph by Takagi yukimasa

Taking up Slavoj Žižek’s theoretical distinction between the modernist and postmodernist modes of representation this chapter examines five short stories of five prominent British twentieth-century writers: James Augustine Aloysius Joyce, Kathleen Mansfield Murry, Elizabeth Bowen, Ian Russell McEwan and Antonia Susan Duffy. It attempts to throw light on the aesthetic development of the genre by focusing on the ways they represent an “element of fear”. The common denominator of the stories chosen is the experience of childhood since the child’s gaze represents a form of discontinuous, socially discordant perception, which increases uncertainty and uncanniness.

According to Slavoj Žižek modernist aesthetics lays the focus on details and indirectly points at those elements lying at the margins, which undermine an understanding of reality as a coherent totality. That is, modernist stories often articulate two simultaneous discourses: one narrating an official story and, between lines, one which subverts the validity of this story and evidences its unstable character. Postmodernism, on the other hand, is characterized by an obsession with the “foreign body within the social texture”, the “unfathomable element” that directly undermines our appraisal of reality. In this light, the concepts modernism and postmodernism are not necessarily related to a chronological period but rather to a dominant manner of representing this element.

Slavoj Žižek’s ideas endorse Jacques Marie Émile Lacan’s tripartite scheme “Real-Imaginary-Symbolic” where the “Real” is the world previous to symbolization and therefore inaccessible to human consciousness and the “Symbolic” is the realm of conceptualizations of reality primarily realized through language. However, language and the ways of structuring the world, which derive from it, are only representations of reality and never refer directly to the world itself but successively to other representations or signifiers. As a result, the symbolic can never faithful account for the “Real”, there is always a remnant of the “Real”, which resists representation. This impenetrable core beyond symbolization sometimes irrupts into the apparent order of the “Symbolic” world disclosing its unstable, arbitrary character.

Without engaging too deeply with the psychoanalytical implications of those assumptions the aim of this chapter is to show how the different texts illustrate a variety of encounters with “the unfathomable”. Most of these encounters relate to presences or forms of behaviour which provoke either in the character or in the reader a reaction of abjection, which Julia Kristeva regards as the source of horror: “A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness”, something that “disturbs identity, system, order” and “does not respect borders, positions, rules”. Thus, Slavoj Žižek argues, modernist aesthetics locate these abject forms of behaviour in the margins of the text, and therefore, they are just hinted at or intuitively perceived. In postmodernist narrations, on the contrary, this element occupies a central position.

The short story proves particularly suited to analyse the staging of terrifying encounters since, as short story theory has pointed out, this genre deals with a single lingering impression, and the indeterminacies derived from its brevity cause an ambiguity which favours the emergence of the uncanny feeling.

‘An Encounter’, the second story of James Augustine Aloysius Joyce’s ‘Dubliner’ is the retrospective account of a childhood experience of the narrator. Although in the moment of telling the story the narrator is supposed to be an adult, he rejects to reinterpret his experience on the light of his acquired knowledge privileging the child’s fragmentary point of view. It is the story of a children’s game interrupted by the presence of a stranger. The narrative is built around a blind spot: something that the man does after walking away from what seems an innocent discussion with the narrator and his friend. When Mahoney addresses the narrator saying “I say… Look! … He is a queer old josser […]”, the latter refuses to look up and the scene is left untold. Behind the seemingly innocent chat about history, school and girls the narrator statements articulate an unofficial discourse suggestive of something ghastly. Thus, intuitively the narrator “disliked the words in his [the man’s] mouth” and the way he “shiver[ed] once or twice as if feared something or felt a sudden chill”. These remarks, reread in the light of the man’s subsequent secretive action, are evocative of some abhorrent sexual behaviour. The man’s later comments, indicative of a sadistic conduct increase the uneasiness of both reader and narrator.

Finally, the latter experiences real terror when he runs away followed by the old man: “My heart was beating quickly with fear”. Allusions to fear had been made before when in presence of the teacher a classmate was caught with a cowboy novel in his pocket, which the teacher considers an undesirable reading. This fear of authority, to the power of order, is of a radically different nature from that caused by the presence and behaviour of the man. The teacher condemnation of playful activity is only the “condition sine qua non” to make playing enjoyable. However, the suggested intrusion of the abject behaviour of the man simply finds no place in the world order of the children and as such is never explicitly named. Although the refusal of the narrator to look at what the man is doing may imply a certain degree of knowledge about what is taking place the vagueness of the account creates a void impossible to fill in by the reader but which completely destroys the make-belief world of the children’s game.

The protagonist of Kathleen Mansfield Murry’s ‘A Little Governess’ is not a child but a young girl. Nevertheless, this feminine character is endowed by all attributes ascribable to children. Still, a girl and physically small, the governess looks helpless, lacks experience and her perception is misguided by naïveté. Moreover, the story echoes the fairy tale ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ in several ways, which further infantilizes her main character. She initiates a journey to Germany all alone after being wisely advised by her supervisor to be very careful. From the beginning, a feeling of fear pervades all her reactions and the locations depicted are seen as menacing places. Despite all the precautions she cannot help an old man occupying the same compartment on the train. Initially, on guard, the governess is soon lured by the old man’s nice ways to accompany him round Frankfurt and to his apartment. The use of the well-known fairy tale structure and allusion creates an expectation on the reader, which helps to focus the threatening element before the protagonist does. The reactions of the reader contrast with those of the protagonist, and are directed by the use of free indirect discourse, charged sometimes with irony, which serves to articulate an unofficial truth. The voice of a third person narrator typical of the fairy tale is actually verbalizing the thoughts of the main character that focalizes the action. When its voice states, for example, “how kindly the old man in the corner watched her bare little hand turning over the big white pages” the reader, identifying the old man with the wolf, sees a less kindly intention in his gaze.

The story directly stages the moment of sexual harassment, in the form of enforced kissing. However, the interplay of voice and vision, together with the underlying discourse of the fairy tale displaces de locus of fear from a concrete element suggesting the menacing nature of the whole environment. Indeed, the ending of the story is left untold but implies that the governess, although she succeeds in freeing herself from the pervert, will fall into further mishaps, which remain to be imagined.

Included both in the surveys of modernist as well as postmodernist authors Elizabeth Bowen is both chronologically and aesthetically a transitional figure. Elizabeth Bowen seems to be aware of that surplus of the “Real” unaccounted in the Social order when one of her characters states: “I swear that each of us keeps battered down inside himself a sort of lunatic giant impossible socially but full scale”. The Gothic and the short story tradition provide her with a way of representing the unfathomable. “Look at all those roses”, narrates the protagonist’s incursion into a hallucinatory, nightmarish world. After their car breaks in the middle of a solitary road, Lou’s lover, Edward, leaves for the nearest town to find help. Lou, having been left alone, knocks at the door of a strange house from which a stout woman emerges and invites her in. More than the irruption of the “Real” into Lou’s world, she is the one who progressively enters a realm evocative of the “Imaginary”, of the primaeval impulses of the unconscious, populated by this woman and her crippled daughter Josephine. The child is, in this story, evocative of the demonic child, the object of the uncanny encounter residing at the very heart of the house where the protagonist is lead in the centripetal progression of the narration. Josephine’s powerful presence from which the universe around her seems to emanate is also suggestive of absent discourses of female power, which destroy Lou’s own conception of the world. Elizabeth Bowen’s work combines, thus, the elusiveness of modernism and a postmodernist focus on the abject. Here “the supernatural”, as Sinead Mooney aptly observes “is a figure for the forms of dissolution and dislocation which underlie and afflict the official fiction of coherent identity”.

A fully postmodern appraisal of the frightful encounter is found in Ian Russell McEwan’s work. His stories have been called “narratives of shock” and they have been considered to infuse new power into the British literary scene as well as challenge any expectations related to the proper subject matter of fiction. His preoccupation with violence and deviant sexuality provoke disturbing reactions on the reader, who is in an unmediated way faced with the unnameable. ‘Homemade’ is, like ‘An Encounter’, the narration of a memory of a childhood experience. The narrator makes an account of his first sexual intercourse, with his ten-year-old sister. This horrifying, incestuous fact, stated from the first lines of the story, demises suspense and increases the intensity of the reader’s response. The effect is enhanced by a detached narrative voice whose reactions in relation to his acts reveal no remorse or uneasiness. Initiated into the practices of porn enjoyment and masturbation by his older friend Raymond, the narrator, having planned to pay the services of a prostitute to get initiated into sex, chooses his sister as his first rehearsal before having proper intercourse. For this endeavour, he accedes to play mummies and daddies with her to later lure her into their parents’ bedroom by explaining that that’s what parents do every night. The scene is narrated with no concealment but with visceral detail and the sister’s compliance to the act reinforces the sense of dysfunction, which pervades the whole story.

In ‘An Encounter’ the children’s game, a symbolic staging of a reality, which echoes the symbolic status of everyday life, is suddenly interrupted by the uncanny presence of the stranger. Thus, the intrusion of the abject, of what is not contemplated by the symbolic order is shown to lie behind the “game of life”. In ‘Homemade’ it is the game itself that becomes unsettling. When the narrator engages in his morbid hunt around the house, chasing his sister and when they perpetrate their sexual act they are but imitating adults, they are mimicking life. The abject, therefore, lies no longer in the backdrop but pervades the whole everyday activity.

Finally, Antonia Susan Duffy’s ‘The Thing in the Forest’ is a clear and deliberate illustration of an explicit fictional representation of an encounter with the “Real”. Indeed, ‘The Thing’ is the term, which Jacques Marie Émile Lacan uses to refer to that remnant of the “Real”, which irrupts into the symbolical.

The first line of the story is also evocative of a fairy tale but the specificity of time and location, as well as the subsequent development of the story, show no further similarities with the genre. Set during the course of World War II, when a group of children are evacuated from London and spend some days at an old country house waiting to be assigned a family to live with, the tale narrates Penny and Primrose’s encounter with a monstrous presence in the forest. This experience is a trauma, which marks the girls’ future development as women and which has to be relieved when they coincidentally meet as mature women. Modernist stories focused on the reactions of the horror of the main characters towards an element, which is left in the shadow. Antonia Susan Duffy’s story, in contrast, offers a thoroughly detailed description of ‘the Thing’. Her mastery of language and her use of sensorial adjectives serve to elaborate a verbal image of the gruesome creature; Its head appeared to form or become first visible in the distance, between the trees. Its face — which was triangular — appeared like a rubbery or fleshy mask over a shapeless sprouting bulb of a head, like a monstrous turnip. Its colour was the colour of flayed flesh, pitted with wormholes, and its expression was neither wrath nor greed, but pure misery. Its most defining feature was a vast mouth, pulled down and down at the corners, tight with a kind of pain. Its lips were thin, and raised like welts from whip strokes. It had blind opaque white eyes, fringed with fleshy lashes and brows like the feelers of sea-anemones.

The parallels between Antonia Susan Duffy’s depiction of the ‘Thing’ and the Lacanian concept of ‘Lamella’ are evident. The description emphasizes a quality of the ‘Thing’ as something alive, organic. Indeed the ‘Lamella’ is an “uncanny excess of life” which goes beyond the natural “cycle of life and death”. Thus, the thing that the children find in the forest is therefore not just something resisting symbolization, it is what Slavoj Žižek describes as “The Real in its most terrifying dimension, as the primordial abyss which swallows everything, dissolving all identities” and “The Real as the monstrous Thing behind the veil of appearances.”

Thus, what is Ian Russell McEwan’s story had adopted the form of an abhorrent act, in this story takes the shape of a monster, but of a very different nature than other fictional monsters. “The Thing” is not aggressive, cruel or active; it is its sole presence what is destructive. It is shapeless yet self-contained, although it also seems to melt with the environment ignorant of everything around it. In both stories, moreover, the ‘Thing’ becomes an obsession permeating the characters’ existences. Slavoj Žižek considers this fascination as a defining feature of the postmodern relationship to the Thing “we abjure and disown the Thing, yet it exerts an irresistible attraction on us”.

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