Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Girl Next Door

Until this semester, I'd never read a horror novel. I was nervous about this semester, but we started out tame, with classics and short stories. Even the Stephen King movie didn't freak me out too badly. I was handling it. I was cool.

And then I read "The Girl Next Door."

Correction, then I read all but two chapters toward the end. I couldn't do it. I psychically could not force my eyes to focus on the words, I was so horrified by their meaning. I literally felt sheer, unadulterated horror.

And that's the point of a horror novel, right? All popular fiction is designed to wring an emotional reaction from the reader. And this did it. Boy, did this do it. This is what I was scared of when I signed up for this class. Correction -- this was horrifically worse than I could have ever expected.

I found it interesting that the setting seemed to add a whole new level of horror to the book that no other setting could have done. First, you have the uncanny: the bomb shelter turned cell. I'm sure that through WWII and the Cold War, many such bomb shelters were built in homes. It was safe, protective. Something familiar that we no longer needed. And then it turned into something to restraining rather than protective. The nice, familiar, suburban town with the Leave it to Beaver feel. And rather than June Cleaver tucking the Beave into bed, we have Ruth Candler torturing and raping little girls.

In his article at the end, Ketchem says, "If you lived through the 1950's, then you know its dark side. All those nice, soft comfy little buboes of secrecy and repression black and ripe and ready to burst" (pg. 338, 2008 edition). And this probably would have only worked in the 50's. In a time when abuse and suffering was hidden behind polite smiles and pearls and dresses. When Meg talked to a policeman at the fair, I sighed with relief. Here was help for her. But it wasn't until 1974 that children had legal protection from their parents. There was no social service hotline to call, no reports to fill out. Each adults excused Ruth's actions, though they surely didn't know the extent.

But it wasn't just the repression of the 50's. It was the innocence too. The quiet streets and bikes and carnivals in church parking lots and catching crawfish. And against the backdrop of these two extremes was torture and pain and suffering.

This kind of horror has happened in today's day and age, but the reactions are light years apart. I would pray that today, a neighborhood of adults wouldn't turn a blind eye, and that even children would know how to help her.

I'm still disturbed by this book, and struggling to analyze it through the haze of, well, horror clouding my thoughts.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Using Misery to illuminate conflict theory

Last residency, I was chatting with Dr. Wendlend about dong a PhD program, and I complained that I would have to choose between Conflict Resolution (in which I have an MA and teach) and Literature/Writing. And how I hated to throw away everything I'd learned/studied about conflict res in order to get a PhD in literature. His response (in a voice only Al can do): "Well duh, put them together!"

However, I don't have the slightest idea how to actually going about doing that. But what is a novel if not a written interpretation of a conflict? Characters must be in conflict, or else there is no story. As one of the prompts for our term paper is to "Discuss how psychological horror fiction illuminates or critiques a specific field of science or art," I thought I'd make a first, short attempt here, flush the ideas out for the term paper, and see if there is any possibility of me stumbling upon something that might head me toward a dissertation.

Conflicts escalate in two ways: scope and severity (there is tons of research on conflict escalation, but this is the base level of escalation theory). As a conflict escalates, it requires more people are involved (scope) and participants intensify their actions (from yelling to name-calling to punching; or from diplomacy to threats to war). The audience is important here, because the audience is always pulled in, and always forced to pick sides (in high-intensity conflicts, such as ethnic cleansing or genocide, the moderates who refuse to pick a side are always executed first. Similarly, the friend who refuses to take my side when I whine about my husband is the one I ignore :).

The point here is that it is almost impossible for the audience to stay neutral in the face of a conflict, and as the conflict escalates and becomes more polarized, neutrality becomes even more difficult (again, there is tons of theory and literature on neutrality in conflict, but I'm staying simplistic here). In the average literature, the audience is the reader. We pick sides. We choose who to root for. We want a specific outcome for the in-group (our group, the character we identify ourselves with, primarily, the protagonist(s)) and for the out-group (the "others" the "them" in us vs. them, or primarily, the antagonist(s)). This is why, in series with love triangles, the two groups can become rabid against each other (I have seen literal cat-fights erupt in book-signing lines over who Stephanie Plum should marry in the Janet Evanovich series). But in normal literature, there's not a lot of room for escalation. We as readers can't take action to influence the conflict outcome.

In Misery, King flips this on its head. He puts the audience directly in the conflict, instead only peripherally. Instead of the audience identifying with the protagonist, the audience becomes the antagonist. The protagonist (in-group) is the writer himself, and the antagonist (out-group) is the readers/Annie. Rather than the audience just demanding a particular outcome in letters and thoughts and such, Sheldon's audience has literally taken him hostage and demanded a specific outcome, complete with threats and punishment for failure.

There's all sorts of room for escalation now, and boy does it escalate fast. With escalation comes both polarization and dehumanization.

Annie's a psycho, no doubt about it. She's killed hundreds of people, seemingly without conscience. But here's the really interesting contribution conflict theory can provide. She didn't need to be a psycho. Misery is conflict at its height,
when one side (Annie/readers) have completely dehumanized the other side (Paul Sheldon/writers). Conflicts escalate through a prescribed set of steps, and as escalation and polarization increase, trust and communication diminish, enemy images set in, more and more violent tactics are used, and finally, the enemy is fully dehumanized. Once dehumanization occurs, any level of atrocities are possible.

Any society or group, given the right set of circumstances, leaders, enemies, and resource shortages, can dehumanize an enemy. In Rwanda, is wasn't psychos like Annie going around chopping up Tutsi villagers, it was every day, "normal" Hutu citizens. In Nazi Germany, it was average citizens running concentration camps.

King's fears (presented vicariously through Sheldon) were justified fears. Once the conflict (between Sheldon and his readers) had escalated enough for the enemy
(i.e. Annie and readers) to dehumanize Shelden , anything was possible. Was it scary because she was clearly a psychopath? Sure. Did she have to be a psychopath? Not really. Makes me wonder which would have been even more terrifying.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

I hate Freud

This is simply a random collection of my attempts to synthesize the material from Freud's article with the story "Seeing Double" I read from The New Uncanny.

1. Freud is insane

2. My genitals have never multiplied, in a dream or elsewhere

3. The ‘double’ could really belong to either class of the uncanny, either surmounted beliefs or infantile complexes (he says somewhere they’re only a fuzzy line between the two). However, I think it mostly belongs to the infantile complex class:

a. “The quality of uncanniness can only come from the circumstance of the ‘double’ being a creation dating back to a very early mental stage, long since left behind, and one, no doubt, in which it wore a more friendly aspect.” (pg. 389)

b. The double was friendly, known, tranquil (i.e. heimlich) in childhood

c. It disappeared (repressed) as the stages of the ego were lived

d. It then reappeared (repeated after repression) in a later stage and is no longer friendly, no longer heimlich, and therefore unheimlich (has been brought to light when it should have remained concealed – def. page 376)

i. Criticizes the narcissism of the ego

ii. Is dissociated from the ego

iii. Is discernible to the physician’s eye (midwife in this case)

iv. Not sure how the “impulse toward self-protection” applies here, or the “unfulfilled but possible futures”

4. This ‘double’ is different from other stories involving the double

a. In Jekyll/Hyde – it was clearly, purposeful move toward protecting the self while allowing the double to fulfill the ego’s phantasies

b. In the Picture of Dorian Gray – the double was the mirror, the conscious, the criticism of the narcissistic ego

c. In the Brood – the double again was self-protection, while the ‘double’ gave life to unfulfilled wishes; eps pertinent in the Brood, as the ego lacks any ability for empathy, as did the brood itself.

5. The double “has become a vision of terror” because it “dates backs to a very early mental stage, long since left behind, and one, no doubt, in which it wore a more friendly aspect.” (pg. 389)

a. Implies that there cannot be a friendly double, as the double always harks back to the ego, which is narcissistic, and therefore cannot be friendly.

b. There are only three options available for the double to fulfill:

i. Childhood development stage in which is “wears a friendly aspect” – i.e. the childhood friend

ii. The criticism of the ego (taunting)

iii. Fulfillment of phanatasy (original narcissism)

c. The appearance of the double in childhood is the concept of immortality

d. Appearance in adulthood is “the ghastly harbinger of death” (pg. 387)

i. Death of the double always leads to death of self

ii. Death of self always leads to death of the double

iii. Therefore the double is not a sign of immortality at all.

6. If the first double is the immortal soul, and an insurance against death, than the outward projection of that double (the soul), is the harbringer of death

a. Only two options for the projected soul/double:

i. Unrestrained self-love (narcissism, wish fulfillment and a lack of empathy)

ii. Self-hatred (criticism of the ego, the conscious, censorship, being watched)

b. In either case, both lead to death

i. Either death from guilt (Jekyll), or murder by those trying to protect others (the Brood)

ii. Or an attempt to destroy the conscious, to get rid of the nagging voice/image (Dorian and Uncanny book)

7. So the soul must remain integrated with the self, rather than outwardly projected, in order to live?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Brood

As I said last week, one of the things I found really interesting about Psycho was that the first real, solid info we get comes from a very reliable source: the sheriff. We believe it. It's later refuted by an unreliable narrator. We don't believe Norman's version of events, but we understand that the Sheriff is wrong. At the end, we again get clear, concise, factual information from a psychologist, related from Sam to Lila.

In "The Brood," we again have a family history which plays an important role in both the development of the characters and the current storyline. We want to know how Nola got this way, how Candy got this way, how it all comes together.

Basically, we want it to make sense. In Psycho, Bloch gives us little tiny snippets of information at a time, and anything given in clear, factual terms is then refuted (even, really, the final psychiatric info by "mother" deciding to sit perfectly still).

About The Brood, Beard writes, "The family histories of Juliana, Barton, and little Nola, and of Nola, Frank, and little Candice are suggested by fragments of testimony and evidence rather than being presented in clear, factual terms, and in this way attain an aesthetically fruitful ambiguity and complexity" (pg. 74).

It makes me wonder how different The Brood would have been, had someone, say the police psychologist, sat down and explained in clear and factual terms what was happening at Somorfree. Would that have cleared up the situation? Would the information have been refuted by Raglan or Nola and only served to confuse us further? We do have a psychiatrist in The Brood, but Raglan is clearly unreliable, as he's only in this for his own gain, rather than any empathy for his patients.

Beard also writes, "The ambiguity of the situation is entirely appropriate to the tangled emotional underbrush of the family and relationships" (pg. 74). I have to agree. The fact that the primary questions about the family are never answered (I can only assume purposely) adds to the overall horror of the story, and the tangled relationships of the family, the backdrop against which the whole story takes place.

Would Nola have been more empathic if we were told, yes, in fact, Juliana abused her and did horrible things to her? Probably not. Would it have taken away from the story to have all our questions answered and tied up in a little bow? Probably.

Unless, of course, Cronenberg did something similar to Psycho, where the clear, factual information was thrown into ambiguity just as much as the information coming from a knowingly unreliable narrator (Juliana or Nola).

In the chat last week, someone wondered why Hitchcock kept the Sheriff's role in the movie. He was barely in the movie, all this other scenes had been removed. Yet he still got the "big reveal" and someone wondered if it wouldn't have been better being saved till the end or revealed by Norman himself.

I have no idea what prompted Hitchcock's decision to keep the Sheriff, but personally, I'm glad he did. I liked the give and take between reliable and unreliable information, and how much that kept me guessing.

However, the clean-cut "explanation" at the end, by a psychiatrist, to explain Norman's behavior and history would have been out of place in a movie like The Brood, I think. Without any explanation, we get the sense, as Beard writes, that "suffering and loss are everywhere and...there is no prospect of relief -- in the past, in the present, in the future."

As primarily a romance writer/reader, I'm usually a stickler for happy endings, but this one works for me. And I think any explanation or clear facts would have ruined the effect.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

suspense building in Psycho

One of the things I loved best about Psycho was how carefully and slowly Bloch revealed key points. How we not only received little hints, all the way through, about Mrs. Bates and her role, but those hints built on each other. Each new hint or mention revealed just a smidge more information than the hint before it. And at no point did he simply re-hash information we already had.

The first hint about Mrs. Bates and Joe Considine comes on page 117. It's the first time Considine is mentioned, and Norman is thinking about appearance. He then reflects, "Oh no it wouldn't! Because Uncle Joe was dead...Funny how it had slipped his mind."

Considine's name doesn't come up again until page 161, when we find out just a touch more about his death, this time that Considine and Mrs. Bates together committed suicide. Interestingly, this revelation doesn't come from Norman, but from the Sheriff. At this point, we're pretty sure Norman is an unreliable narrator, so it's kind of an, "Oh, okay," moment for the reader. Here we have a reliable (or at least more reliable than Normal) character giving us information in a factual matter. We can believe it. We think we've caught up.

The next hint builds directly on this, on page 172, because it instantly reputes the Sheriff. The information we assumed was reliable is suddenly unreliable when we go back to Norman's POV, when Bloch writes, "Norman had fooled the Sheriff the first time, when everything had been much harder. This time it should be even easier, if he remembered to be calm." And on the next page, "How he'd fooled the the first time! And yes, he fooled them just as easily again...."

The intersting thing about that hint was that we don't yet know what the truth was. We only know that what we thought was true (the Sheriff's POV) is no longer true.

It's not until page 190-191, that Normal tells Sam that they drank the poison together and that he was, " the hospital a long time. Almost too long to do any good when I got out. But I managed."

At this point, the information once again matches up with the Sheriff's account, but Norman is so unreliable a narrator by now that we know there's something else going on, and the sentence of "almost too long to do any good" gives us a great hint of what actually happened.

And then finally, on page 208, we realize Mrs. Bates is a corpse and he killed both Considine and Mrs. Bates.

I think Bloch's style here, the way built on previous hints, and especially the way he refuted information from a reliable narrator with an unreliable narrator, really lent to the suspense of the book. Especially the psychological suspense of figuring out what was happening with Norman's mother.

Monday, August 31, 2009

decadent horror

I found the Oscar Wilde's preface for The Picture of Dorian Gray quite interesting and, as Natalie mentioned, a fun "shove-it" to his critics.

Wilde was widely criticized for writing an "immoral" novel, and in his preface, responds that art cannot be moral or immoral, it can only be well or badly written. The art itself is only art. It cannot prove anything or have any ethical sympathies, or it is no longer art.

In Wilde's day of Victorian literature, however, art was supposed to prove something. It was supposed to teach some ethical or moral lesson. The point of art should be clear and uplifting to the viewer/reader/listener.

Wilde's view was, rather, those who look for meanings and symbol do so "at their own peril." That there should be a diversity of opinion about it.

I find this so fascinating because Wilde strongly believed, from what I can tell, that art should not have a moral point or express some ethical truth. Yet the novel reads much like a cautionary tale, warning readers of the dangers or living a life without thought to the consequences, or of valuing beauty too much.

In the beginning, the painting of Dorian was exactly as Wilde thought all art should be -- beauty for the sake of beauty, with no moral point or lesson involved. Both Basil and Harry thought it his best work. It was pure art.

It's an interesting debate if Basil's obsession began with Dorian himself or the painting. But the art which was so pure, as Wilde thought it should be, is what brought about the downfall of both Dorian and Basil in Wilde's novel.

I find it ironic that the preface and the novel seemed to be almost perfect opposites. Wilde thought art should be admired only for its beauty rather than its moralistic point; yet too much admiration of beauty destroyed his characters, which is in itself a moralistic point. It makes me wonder if the whole novel was satire aimed at the Victorian aristrocacy.

Monday, August 10, 2009

how did I miss this?

So I read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I thought I "got it." Then I read Showalter's essay, and realized I had missed the entire point of the story.

For some reason, homosexuality, even in the repressed Victorian era, never occurred to me. Looking back, I'm not sure how, as the moment the light bulb went on, it seemed that the theme appeared on every page.

But the really interesting fact is that it entirely changed my impression of both Jekyll and Hyde. Hyde was described as animal, or demonic, something dark and out of our world. In modern terms, it's not how you would describe a homosexual man. Instead, I was thinking more along the lines of a sociopath. Someone violent simply for violence's sake, someone willing to injure and kill without a thought.

But after reading Showalter's article, I went back and re-read Jekyll's confessional letter. He describes himself as "the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high" (pg. 34) and "I concealed my pleasures" and "hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame." Later, he writes, I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I laboured, in the eye of day, at the furtherance of knowledge or the relief of sorrow and suffering."

In the re-reading, in understanding that the shame and urges Jekyll refers to are those of homosexuality rather than some random, mindless violent urges I previous assumed, changes entirely how I feel about both Jekyll and Hyde. It also gives a clearer image of Hyde, and more meaning to the frequently repeated concept of him appearing deformed without any obvious deformation. It makes me think less of him as monstrous, and more as someone misunderstood and feared.

That isn't to say that Hyde wasn't evil (he did, as far as I can tell, unless I'm really misunderstanding even more of the story!) murder Carew. Though now I wonder how Hyde's telling of that story might differ, and what might have been said or occurred between the two men.

I think both men, with this view in mind, are infinitely more sympathetic. The shame Jekyll refers to seems all-encompassing, something which he could hardly stand to live with. His experiments, while ultimately his downfall, seem more necessary and understandable.

At first, when reading, I felt like Jekyll was a victim of himself, mostly. That he should have never given in and let Hyde "emerge." Upon re-reading, however, it seems much more like Jekyll was a victim of society itself, of the Victorian repression and their views of homosexuality.

Friday, July 31, 2009

fear and madness

There was this creepy movie that came out years ago, One Hour Photo, with Robin Williams. Normally, I avoid horror movies like the plague. I (like most writers) have an over-active imagination and horror movies just set it off. I've literally made myself ill panicking while watching horror movies. For some reason, I didn't realize this was supposed to be a scary movie when I started watching it. Or maybe it was only scary to me. But it was this seemingly perfectly normal guy, the kind of guy you would smile at or say something nice to when you got your pictures developed, and never think of again. And then he went psycho.

But this concept of a seemingly normal human being "snapping" and turning into a monster is frightening. I mean if it can happen to a random person, can it happen to me? It's easier if you can point to something, blame something. If something caused a person to snap, then it can't happen to me. Right?

In Hoffman's The Sandman, the narrator starts off supposedly sane. At least, he sounds like a much more sane narrator than Poe's in The Telltale Heart, whose constant attempts to explain that he is not mad renders him quite mad. But for Nathanial, there is a cause, a childhood trauma. There's someone to blame for him losing his mind, for his obsession with Olympia. By the end of the story, we can guess that he was, in fact, quite insane from the jump, but Nathanial, at least, blames Coppelius, and later Coppola and his lens for his destruction.

In Barker's Dread, there's a clear villian, Quaid, who is purposely driving Steve insane. And again, there is a childhood trauma, being hit by the car and losing his hearing, which contributes. Again here, there's someone and something to blame for Steve's latter madness.

We don't have much information about Poe's narrator in The Telltale Heart. He mentions once his "disease" that has shparened his hearing and his senses. But we don't have much information about him, if he became mad through some cause or if he had simply always been mad, and only now snapped to smother the old man in his home. To me, this character is almost more frightening than either Steve or Nathaniel, because we can't explain away his maddness. We can't point to something and say "that caused it." Similarly with Quiad, we don't know much about him, beyond his terror of axe murderers and his sociopathic characteristics.

Perhaps having a cause for maddness gives the character back some of his humanity. We can empathize with trauma, with terrifying events out of their control. We can't empathize with Quiad, because we don't know why he is the way he is. We can't say, "Oh, it's not his fault, x...y...z...happened to him and made him this way." In the movie "One Hour Photo," it comes out at the end that Robin Williman's character had been forced into childhood pornography. We have somethign to empathize with -- it restores his humanity and we can no longer dismiss him as some crazy pychopath. To me, those characters we can't empathize with, for who's actions we can't come up with a reason or someone to blame, are infinately more terrifying.

haleigh's reading journal

This blog will be for reading responses to the horror genre class and my critical reads for the semester.