On the limitations and the possibilities of scary stories.
I don’t have any problem thinking of genre fiction and scholarly conversations about literature in the same ballpark, or even on the same base—I’m the guy who wrote one of my early entries here about Ross MacDonald’s hardboiled detective novels, and am also the guy who created an Introduction to Science Fiction and Fantasy class and has had an unabashedly good time teaching it twice now. When you get right down to it, it can be pretty difficult to parse out what qualifies as genre fiction and what doesn’t in any case—Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) owes a lot to detective fiction, Twain’s Connecticut Yankee (1889) is in many ways a Jules Verne-esque time travel sci fi novel, and, as critic David Reynolds has convincingly argued, Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter (1850) has a great deal in common with contemporary potboiler works of religion, romance, and scandal. So while I’m not averse to making judgment calls about whether a particular text is worth extended attention (in a class, in scholarly work, etc), I try not to base those calls on whether it’s been put in a particular generic box or not.
And yet, I’ll admit that I have a bit of an analytical prejudice against works whose primary purpose—or one of them at least—is to scare their audiences. I suppose it has always seemed to me that a desire to frighten, while very much a valid and complex formal and stylistic goal—and one brought to the height of perfection I’d say by Edgar Allan Poe, whose every choice and detail in a story like “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) contributes to its scariness, making it a perfect example of his theory of the unity of effect—, is nonetheless a desire that requires an audience to turn off their analytical skills, to give in entirely to primal responses that, while not insignificant, are to my mind a bit more passive than ideal. (I’d compare this for example to humor, which certainly does tap into primal responses as well but which nonetheless can still ask an audience to think as well as laugh.) This isn’t necessarily the case when it comes to weird tale kind of scares, ones that connect an audience to deeply unfamiliar worlds and force them to imagine what they might entail and affect; but the more mainstream horror, tales of vampires and zombies and ghosts and the like, does often ask an audience mainly to react in terror to the artist’s and text’s manipulations.
But like any reasonable person who recognizes his or her prejudices, I’d like to challenge and eventually undermine this perspective of mine, and a text that has very much helped me to begin doing so in this case is Mark Danielewski’s postmodern horror novel House of Leaves (2000). Postmodern is a must-use adjective in any description of Danielewski’s novel, which features, among other things, at least three distinct narrations and narrators (one of whom does much of his narrating in footnotes, and another who does the majority of his narrating in footnotes on those footnotes); pages with only a single word, located in a random location; elaborate use of colored type to signal and signify different (if vague and shifting) emphases; and a large number of invented scholarly works, fully and accurately cited both parenthetically and in the aforementioned footnotes (alongside some actual works). Yet—and I know that scariness is a very subjective thing, which is perhaps another reason why I have a hard time analyzing it, but nonetheless—the novel is also deeply, powerfully, successfully scary. And moving, for that matter—certainly to my mind the best horror (and Poe would qualify here for sure) reveals and sympathizes with humanity even as it threatens and destroys many of its human characters, and Danielewski’s novel does each of those things, to each character at each level of story and narration, very fully and impressively. Yet I believe that the book’s principal purpose, first and last, is to scare its readers, and for me, at least, it has done so, not only the first time I read it but the second and third as well (another mark of the best horror I’d say).
So what?, you might ask. Well, for starters, you should check out House of Leaves, perhaps beginning with this fun and, yes, scary companion website. But for me, I suppose the ultimate lesson here is that the more I’m open to the potential power and impressiveness of any work of literature (and art in any medium), both emotionally and analytically, the more I can find the greatest works, of our moment and every other one. Nothing scary about that! Next spoooooky post tomorrow,
PS. American scary stories to highlight for the weekend post? Don’t be scared to share!
10/29 Memory Day nominee: Henry George, the writer, economist, and political activist whose Progress and Poverty, despite some outdated theories, remains one of the most prescient and salient works on inequality published in America.
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