Archive for January, 2012

Nothing Is Scary

Ira Levin’s masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby, was published in 1967 and has aged remarkably well.  The references within the story are all very specifically located in time (the fall of 1965 until the summer of 1966), but that, perhaps counterintuitively, helps make the thing work so well today.  The minutiae of daily life that Levin presents are all clearly 1960s things(or are wearing 1960s fashions), but they still feel real and true, not like things that were added as stage setting to make the time period feel authentic.  The very ordinariness of the world he creates comforts and distracts the reader, allowing the frights to nudge their way inside quietly and almost unobserved where they can do the most damage.

I recently taught Stephen King’s novel The Shining, and the class spent quite a bit of time talking about how little happens that should really terrify the readers but they were still terrified.  As I pointed out, nothing overtly supernatural or horrific happens until around page 241 (of 447 pages).  Levin’s book has the same effect (and it is probably something that King learned from Levin), with a lot of largely normal conversations between husbands and wives and friends and neighbors, cocktails, dinners, work, house decorating, and other domestic duties filling the pages.  Nothing happens.  And nothing is scary.

Perhaps the tension derives partly from the expectations of the readers: we know this is a scary book, so we keep looking for the monster in the background to make its way to the foreground.  When it doesn’t, we get even more tense and worried, knowing that the big reveal will be terrifying.  There is more to it than that, though.  Saying, “This is a scary book,” and then giving us a lot of nothing is a cheap trick, and Levin is not playing cheap tricks on his readers.  Instead, he manages to invest each small, insignificant conversation, each throw-away gesture with that slightest whiff of the uncanny.  The uncanny, as Freud pointed out so astutely, gains most of its power from the way homelike things (the German term Freud uses is “unheimlich,” which means “not homely”–more on this in future posts) are rendered strange or unhomelike.  So, when Rosemary and her glib, shallow husband, Guy, have a conversation about whether or not to invite their nosy neighbors over for a party, there are tiny, almost imperceptible signs of stress.  We as readers become engineers of the human soul, looking at the tiny fractures revealed not with some high tech scanning device but through little human (or inhuman) touches.

The big fright at the end of the novel is the charming line, “He has his father’s eyes!”  The woman who notes this says it with such motherly warmth that we first fall for the cliché and think, “Well, isn’t that nice,” until the real meaning hits.  The cliché and the real meaning of the phrase occur nearly simultaneously, and this conflict–the comfort of friendly domestic inanities colliding with the horror of satanic rape–echoes and intensifies the unheimlich horror we have felt throughout the novel.

I mentioned King earlier, and his novel shares some important features with Levin’s.  In both, the authors create scenes of “ordinary” domestic terror.  In one, the worries and insecurities of a young married couple who may not exactly agree on the relative importance of career and family gradually darkens into a horrific allegory: the quasi-desired baby is, in fact, the spawn of the devil.  In the other, the young family faces the prospect of complete economic ruin brought on by the father’s alcoholism.  The Torrance family’s fears are made tangible in the Overlook hotel: it both welcomes them into its warm, homely embrace, but also threatens to smother them.

In many ways, real horror does not come from ghosts, zombies, vampires, or any other frightening freak our imaginations can conjure up.  If anything, these creatures might be a welcome relief from the uncertainties and insecurities that truly frighten us (should I leave my husband? is my child really ill?) because they are, paradoxically, something real that can be met with whatever talismans or apotropaic charms ward off their particular evil.  Not knowing is terrifying.  Nothing is scary.

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Domestic Vampires

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930) is best known for her short stories in A New England Nun, and her attention to the local color of New England culture and language puts her in the same category as other northeastern writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett and, yes, Stephen King.  I add King’s name here because he must be a fan of Freeman’s works, treading as they do the ground that King has found so amenable to his own dark stories: the insular New England towns filled with eccentric, borderline grotesque characters who are nevertheless palpably real and human.  Like some King’s vernacular stories (his novel Dolores Claiborne comes to mind), “Luella Miller,” first published in 1903, is told largely in the voice of one old woman in the town, who has seen everything with a sharp and unsentimental eye.

Lydia Anderson is another of Freeman’s nuns, and old woman who never married but has the history of the town–including (or esepcially) its scandals–right at her fingertips.  The story opens with a third person narrator speaking about the terror the townspeople feel for the abondoned house that once belonged to Luella Miller.  No on, not even cold and shivering vagrants, will enter the house if they know what’s good for them.  The house stands unmolested and solitary, and the children of the town are so afraid of it that they will not dare to break its windows or scrawl grafitti on its walls.  Once the house’s haunted bona fides are established, the narrator relinquishes the story to Lydia.

Lydia knew Luella Miller when she first arrived in town with the name Luella Hill.  She was a pretty, graceful, and dreamy girl who managed to land a job teaching school despite her inability to do any kind of work at all.  Instead, she has the oldest and brightest pupils take over the real teaching duties.  This continues for a time until Luella snags Erastus Miller shortly before she runs into the danger of losing her job; the couple moves in across the street from Lydia, who keeps her ye on them.

Soon a sort of scandal begins to color the perception of Luella.  She is apparently completely incapable of doing any work at all, including the basic domestic duties expected of all married women.  Although the town gossips about this development, it fails to generate any real feeling of ill-will.  Erastus takes on all of the house work in addition to his own work, and it is not long before he begins to fade away.  Soon he dies.

One after another, people from the town and neighboring communities come to help Luella take care fo herself, and one after another, the helpers fade and fall sick.  Each victim seems to be worked to death.  Despite the excessive mortality of her domestic help, Luella manages to hold a strong attraction for nearly everyone: people seem to be literally dying to help her out.

Finally the town catches on after Luella manages to kill off the handsome, dashing young doctor who was preparing to marry her.  No one will help her, and Luella begins to fall into the same sort of sickness that claimed the others.  Once, when she say how difficult it was for Luella to carry some items home from the store in her weakened state, Lydia gives her some help. Although it was only a small effort, it made Lydia desperately ill for weeks.

After Luella finally succumbs to her illness, the house stands, a monument to her life-sucking power.  Once a traveler who knew no better broke into the abandoned house to escape the weather, but he did not survive the night.  Later, after Lydia herself dies as an old woman, someone burns the house to the ground.

One interesting point about Luella’s predatory behavior is that she seems to be completely unaware of it.  Instead, she is portrayed as an innocent, childlike figure with her lovely blond hair and guileless blue eyes.  Nearly every description of her could instead be the description of a small child, incapable of fending for herself.  As such, she is a freakish woman who does not fit any models for femininity of the times: she is not the angel of the house nor is she the independent new woman.  She inhabits a space outside any recognized role.  Yet her insistence on maintaining some facade of domesticity places her in a dangerous spot.  She wants to take advantage of the life afforded by feminine domesticity but she is incapable of producing that.  Instead of nurturing life she instead seems to suck life out of anyone who attempts to help her.  Those who help her are only enabling her vampiric half-life.

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When I last wrote, I was about to get caught up in a storm of annoyances, mostly work-related: my department chair was leaning heavily on me to do her work for her, new committees were trying to seduce me into joining, and too many student essays awaited grading.  As a result, the blog took a hit.  Then intertia set in.  Then–most damming (not damning)–was the thought that if I returned to writing after a hiatus I’d have to explain it, and I hate that; it just seemed easier not to write.  So here I am, years later, explaining why I stopped.

I have a good reason now to resume writing, though, and it is a pretty good reason.  On December 21st, I turned in my grades for the fall semester, signaling the beginning of nine months off.  My sabbatical–delayed a year because of other commitments–officially starts with the new semester in the middle of January, but it really starts now.  During the sabbatical I hope to put in a lot of miles on my bike, but, more importantly, there is a book that is more or less patiently waiting to get written.  I know that it helps lubricate the writing machine to post some things on here, where the stakes are much lower and book editors are not casting a jaded, critical eye on my words.  I will talk more about the project in future posts, and maybe, if you’re all very good, I’ll even tell you the proposed title.

However, I want to start with a story that I just read and want to include in my analysis later.  The story perplexes me in some ways, and I want to try to play with some ideas and see how they do.  Throw things at the wall and see what sticks.

Madelene Yale Wynne (1847-1918) is hardly remembered today except for those of us who look into the dusty corners of nineteenth-century literature, and even I, a veteran dusty corner looker, had never encountered her before I picked up Alfred Bendixen’s anthology, Haunted Women.  Wynne is the daughter of the man who invented the Yale lock, and her largest accomplishment and source of recognition during her life was her talent for arts and crafts, especially metal working; she apparently wished to get other women invested in artistic production.  She seems to be a sort of female version of William Morris.

Wynne’s short story “The Little Room” was the most popular thing she wrote and first appeared in Harper’s Magazine.  Later stories did not satisfy her audience as much as this eerie little gem did.  Bendixen calls it “one of the most effective ‘puzzle stories’ ever written.”

The story is told entirely in dialogue and opens with a young woman talking to her new husband, Roger.  The young Mrs. Grant tells, with a mixture of fondness and the slightest foreboding, of her Aunt Hannah, who is “New England…boiled down.”  Mrs. Grant’s mother had recalled a small room in Aunt Hannah’s house, a perfect little room with a comfortable couch and small bookcase.  However, when she visted Aunt Hannah again, the room wasn’t there; in its place was a china closet filled with gilt-edged china.  Moreover, Aunt Hannah claimed there never had been a little room her niece had described–the china closet had been a part of the house for as long as the house had stood.

The little room and the china closet take turns appearing in the house.  Whatever room is currently in existence is the one that Aunt Hannah insists is the eternal room, and she vehemently disavows any knowledge of any contrary room.  When young Mrs. Grant appears with her husband, the little room she remembered as a child was gone, replaced by the china closet.  A few years later she enlists the help of a pair of friends, Rita and Nan, to find out the truth.  The two friends visit at different times and each sees a different room.  When the two discover their experiences with the rooms differ, they immediately set out to settle things once and for all.  Upon arriving at the town where Aunt Hannah lives, however, they learn that the house has burned down.

It is an odd, haunting little story that lodges itself in your brain much the way the memory of the little room takes up housekeeping in Mrs. Grant’s mind.  It did not occur to me until writing down the synopsis that the reason the house had to burn down is because the two women who had had opposite experiences of the room were going to arrive at the same time: the room would have to have two opposite appearances at the same time, and that would never work.  Solution?  Fire.

More to the point, though, the rooms’ characters appear different to women who are at different stages of their lives.  Mrs. Grant fondly remembers the little room from her childhood, but that memory is overlayed by the altered reality after her marriage.  When she is no longer a little girl, the young niece, but is a grown, married woman, the room becomes a china closet, an emblem of domesticity.  Furthermore, the china occupying the closet is gilt, indicating the false, glittering promise of adulthood that, when scratched, is only a thin veneer that looks much richer than it really is.  The little room, on the other hand, shows the allure of imagination (through the books) and travel (a piece of cloth with exotic provenance, a large sea shell), neither of which are the “proper” concern of a married woman.

This short analysis scarcely shows the depth of the story.  There are many other elements that I will have to consider more closely in my more formal study: the books, for example, all have brown leather bindings save for one bright red volume.  If you are interested, the story can be found in Bendixen’s anthology, mentioned above, or you can find it online here.

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