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Saturday, November 19, 2016

November 19-23, 2016: Jeff Renye on Stranger Things: The New Weird Made Old?

[I’ve written about my colleague and friend Jeff Renye a few times in this space, but haven’t had the chance to share a Guest Post of his until now. The timing couldn’t be better, as Jeff is one of our premiere scholars of Weird Tales and the supernatural in literature and culture, contexts that as he demonstrates here add many more layers to our understandings of Stranger Things!]

This short piece sketches some common points between the legacy of a narrative mode known as the weird tale, whose modern origins can be found in the literary and visual arts of the late-nineteenth century, and that mode’s inflection in the television drama Stranger Things.  No influence in the arts that crosses parts of three centuries will find direct replication or have precise resonance in its latest iteration.  What the prepared eye and ear do find are odd echoes of the weird legacy that Stranger Things is able to strike with a deft mix of form and content.  These elements provide evidence of the show’s debt to an earlier period of anxiety and crisis and speculation from which the weird tale emerges. 

The first major reference to the weird tale is from 1927 in a long essay authored by American pulp horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature.  This work is Lovecraft’s sustained reflection on what he identifies as and asserts is a specific type of story that exists within the larger field of horror—a tale type that he otherwise comments upon in a fragmented and scattered manner in letters to fellow writers and admirers like Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth.  Lovecraft’s fiction is often faulted for its wordiness, a fact accounted for in part by a paid-by-the-word arrangement with the pulp magazines that published him, such as Weird Tales; however, his essay has an economy of thought and concision that has proved its enduring value for how we can consider a show like Stranger Things.  Lovecraft’s first sentence wastes no time to state a kernel of truth that has been a constant in modern horror fiction, for here is the essence of what underlies the weird tale: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”  That final phrase, “the unknown,” is the key term that Lovecraft then applies to a Trans-Atlantic group of authors from Britain and America.  He then makes an important amplification of this idea of the unknown, and the attendant human fear of it, with emphasis on the cosmic terror that some authors and their stories invoke.  It is these stories that earn the approved label of weird tale.  Lovecraft is careful to make a distinction about why these tales are in some way apart from the bulk of horror, much of which derives from the penny dreadful popular fiction of the previous century:

            “The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted    form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and   unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint…of a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which   are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

Some clarification is needed here.  That “unplumbed space” of the weird tale often has meant something other than place in a strict sense of standard physical measurement, let alone a space that can be found out there, above and beyond the earth’s atmosphere.  Lovecraft himself wrote an entire mythos of tales that include references to realities and creatures from beyond the stars, where no aeronaut will ever reach.  A prime example of this creative vision is “The Call of Cthulhu” (drafted by Lovecraft in the summer of 1926 and first published in Weird Tales magazine in 1928, the year after the completion of Supernatural Horror in Literature). 

Other-dimensionality as a serious topic for study appears in the late-Victorian period parallel to the fiction included by Lovecraft as the first entries to deserve notice as the modern weird tale.  Charles Howard Hinton’s 1884 pamphlet What Is the Fourth Dimension? is among the first non-fiction works to discuss the question posed by his title.  Within a few years, Hinton will coin the term tesseract as an image meant to visualize a dimension beyond the three that humans most-readily perceive and experience (Hinton’s book The Fourth Dimension appears in 1904, and its earlier 1880s form exerts significant influence in a much later work of fiction, the neo-Victorian novel From Hell, where time and space undergo displacement in some weird ways while at the same time characters contend with grim realities and the investigation a mystery).  

For context, the pamphlet from Hinton is published within a few years of Arthur Machen’s draft of the supernatural horror tale The Great God Pan (published 1894, but part one, “The Experiment,” completed by 1889).  Machen is named by Lovecraft in Supernatural Horror’s final section as a “modern master,” a writer who is one of the “living creators of cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch” and “few if any can hope to equal the versatile Arthur Machen…in which the elements of hidden horror and brooding fright attain an almost incomparable substance and realistic acuteness.”  Set aside the praise for a moment because for our purposes here the skill of Machen is best considered for its depiction of borderlands, geographical and symbolic, psychological and immaterial.  This visionary plane on which Machen’s late-Victorian fiction plays out will then carry into the efforts of Lovecraft, which will then develop (with accumulations of other influences along the way, like the working-class realism of Stephen King) into the popular horror of the 1980s, and then arrive at the inventive pastiche of the Duffer brothers in Stranger Things.

The Midwestern America of small town Hawkins in Stranger Things is an instance of the pleasant place made dangerous in a manner familiar to the weird tale.  Yet, such a depiction has ancient origins, like the rugged beauty of Arcadia in ancient Greek tales where the dualistic goat-god Pan resides in light and shadow.  This beneficent protector, but also sinister threat, appears in a manner that humanity cannot predict.  As to which manifestation Pan will show depends upon a prerogative of preternatural decision making, not in accordance with the “fixed laws of Nature” or with whatever interest is held by the mortal audience who make seek contact with this force.  Consider for a moment in Stranger Things how Matthew Modine’s character insists for Eleven in the sensory tank experiment to make contact with the creature of the Upside Down, in spite of her terror and disregard to consequences.  Pan signifies the significant power of the edge places, where settled humanity and wild life and the unknown meet, and where, when met, upheaval and violent death can and do occur.  And, as in Stranger Things, Machen’s The Great God Pan opens with a section titled “The Experiment” where a scientist subjects a young girl to contact with an otherworldly being. The disastrous results allow the entrance of a being that wreaks havoc in the common reality of the story before a kind of dissolution of the body as seen at the end of Stranger Things. 

Border places and liminal spaces have long held special associations for humanity.  They have been host to a variety of prescribed actions from sacred rites to secular ceremonies.  Such locales feature prominently in many popular twentieth-century media from which the Duffer brothers borrow.  The folklore of the crossroads is found in an alternate way in Stranger Things with Eleven’s mediumistic ability to psychically reach into other planes of existence, the so-called Upside Down. 

In this sketch of a tale-telling device, it is time to move now from Lovecraft and Machen, from the Victorians and the ancients, to more recent influences on the weird content of the show.  Stranger Things borrows liberally from the storyscape of the late-1970s and 1980s (images that cite Alien to E.T. abound).  The show is one of the finer examples of a narrative told in the time of a source like TV Tropes, the website that catalogues and cross references the stock elements out of which many contemporary (and older) television shows and movies are made.  The show’s allusiveness to 1980s pop culture generally, and the decade’s horror genre specifically, lends itself to the era of trope lists—or, to consider another popular story development in TV land, the anthology show (American Horror Story plays with many familiar horror tropes as the title implies, but then so does True Detective in its first season with the citation to the Yellow King, the invention of American writer Robert W. Chambers from his collection The King in Yellow from 1895).

Much about the sensory information out of which the Duffer brothers make Stranger Things has a counterpart in older stories.  The neon-marquee font of their show’s title sequence appears with a score whose design is more subtle and minimal than shows from which this one builds.  (Also, see the first edition cover of Steven King’s 1980 novel Firestarter, which resembles the Stranger Things aesthetic). The sound design manages to blend the familiar electronica of the eighties with the odd menace that is struck by the credit scene in the 1990s series the X-Files.  However, another show deserves attention in this discussion.  Set to the notes of a high-pitched synthesizer, the opener of mid-1980s American horror television anthology Tales from the Darkside (1983 – 1988, and produced by zombie tale maestro George Romero) is a forerunner in tone and theme of Stranger Things, even if there are few specifics shared by either show in storyline, acting, set design, or quality of cinematography.  As a product of the pre-digital age of film effects and editing, the campy title sequence of Darkside takes the viewer through a series of pastoral Americana scenes (wind-blown reeds on a sunny, blue sky day, a covered bridge, a weathered barn, a babbling brook in a clearing, etc.) that then flip into a color-drained obverse reality.  As the images pass, a gruff voice with an alarmist-tinge explains: “Man lives in the sunlit world of what he believes to be reality, but there is unseen by most an underworld—a place that is just as real but not as brightly lit, a darkside.”  While the effect is more rudimentary than what can be found in the sophisticated sound design of a show like Hannibal, Darkside deals in the realms of the weird that would not be unfamiliar to the basic definition provided by Lovecraft.  Now, Stranger Things has found its own place on the chronology of the weird tale, where alternate realities are explored—recklessly by the scientists of the Hawkins Lab, terrifyingly by Eleven, and hopefully by Joyce and Hopper—that exist beside our own and that are probably better left unopened and untouched to begin with.

The weird tale is cross-cultural and adaptable to multiple media.  Its emergence from the twilight of late-nineteenth Victorian culture is when the British empire’s London capital was a place of pathological class and gender divisions, of sensationalized crimes and new forms of the literary supernatural.  From that specific there and when, Arthur Machen emerged as a foremost voice who mused upon the borderlands and the so-called thin places.  Here, in the modern weird tale, the tentative nature of consensus reality of our common humanity makes contact with other dimensions.  In one of the last works of fiction that Machen wrote, a short story with the enigmatic title “N” (from 1935), the late-Victorian crisis of faith and anxiety over the old ways lost and a new world arrived resonate in the words of three friends who meet regularly at a pub to reminisce about the past.  Each would have reached adulthood in the 1880s – 1890s, and, like the weird tale of which they are a part, the tradition that they keep alive through their storytelling carries on post-Great War.  The final lines of “N” convey well the atmospheric effect of the weird tale:
“I believe that there is a perichoresis, an interpenetration.  It is possible, indeed, that we three
are now sitting among desolate rocks, by bitter streams.
“. . . And with what companions?”

There is a terrifying wonder of the unknown that Stranger Things creates: Yes, there is the monster from the Upside Down whose existence is fearful, and there is there is a countervailing force of Eleven with her marvelous power.

Stranger Things synthesizes characteristics of the cosmic fear implied by Lovecraft’s early scholarship, plays with features found in the late-Victorian fiction of writers such as Arthur Machen, and cites the 1980s horror that will find a frame of conspiratorial paranoia from Chris Carter’s X-Files in the 1990s.  Stranger Things is a new entry in the field of the weird tale made from many familiar parts, combining them with a technique that places the show as a fine example of the survival of an old fascination with fear of the unknown and the entertainment to be experience from its depiction. 

The show’s first season aired in the Summer of 2016 amidst a contentious and bitter election season where many social issues long-ignored and ineptly-handled by the mainstream have gained greater exposure, while contested narratives of a vision of what America is and can be are played out in public in private life. This current season’s South Park introduces the member berries as commentary on the longing for the past when things seemed better, safer, more ordered.  Stranger Things immerses itself in nostalgia for a bygone time, but in doing reveals itself to be another instance of old concerns and modes of storytelling re-appearing in the midst of a new crisis.  In such times, the arts serve not only as reflection, but as respite, and, quite possibly, resistance to our own period’s needs.
[I’m very Thankful for Jeff and for this post, so will leave it up for part of Thanksgiving week. One more Thanksgiving special post coming,
PS. What do you think?]

1 comment:

  1. The parallels that the author draws between the television series Stranger Things, and the famous weird literature texts we have been discussing is astonishing. I find it incredibly interesting how the themes we discussed in weird literature are rudimentary in constructing the satisfying terror that Stranger Things does so well. One can clearly see that much of the success this show has garnered is thanks to the much older tales of early 19th century writers, and the shoulders that it could perch its narrative on.

    The author of the blog talks about the Great God Pan, and how Machen was “living creators of cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch... few if any can hope to equal the versatile Arthur Machen…in which the elements of hidden horror and brooding fright attain an almost incomparable substance and realistic acuteness.” One of the many things that Stranger Things does so well is its strong ties to cosmic horror and the unfathomable powers that the genre entails. It pulls from Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan by begin with an experiment gone wrong, and imbuing a test subject with other worldly information. Mary is very similar to the protagonist Eleven, in the ways that they were both products of an experiment that changed them from regular human beings to the supernatural at certain costs. Mary’s brain was overloading with the divine powers of pan, while Eleven was given her abilities from a similar experiment but at the cost of ostracization and proceeding danger. As someone who hasn’t even seen the show, it is still very easy to discern the influences from the old in the modern day show.

    The blog also touches upon the comfortable nostalgia that Stranger Things pulls from its 80’s predecessors. I believe one of the main reasons that Stranger Things is so successful is not through its originality, but through its clever recycling of old and esoteric techniques of terror. Through its pull of 19th century influences and ideas, Stranger Things reconstructs an engaging, truly scary, narrative that its both familiar and refreshing. As it builds off of the works of Lovecraft and other weird literature poets, it gets its sense of terror right in ways that other contemporary works of horror simply do not. Stranger Things doesn’t look at the fear of the modern day produced by cheap jump scares and thrills, but rather learns from Lovecraftian and Machan styles, bringing its audience back to what true fear really is.