The Persistence of DarknessAcademic Guest of Honor Address
World Horror Convention
Salt Lake City UT
26-30 March 2007
Several years ago, the Humanities Division at my university sponsored an Arts Festival to commemorate the opening of the new Cultural Arts Center. Colleagues from the division-English, History, and Philosophy departments-were to present papers relating to their current research. 1
I was a bit taken aback when my division chair asked me to present one. He knew that my research centered primarily on horror-and on Stephen King in particular; and I knew that many in the division looked upon my activities as an aberration of an unsettled mind. One colleague, for example, noticed a King novel among the books one of his advisees was holding during a meeting in his office. He took the opportunity to explain to the poor benighted child that such books were not appropriate on a college campus and certainly not welcome in his office. The student-to my enormous gratification-calmly explained that the text was required reading for one of his classes (mine, to be precise) and that even if it weren't, he would be reading it anyway.
Another colleague, whose attitudes toward any sub-literary forms, including science fiction, fantasy, and horror, took great pains to explain to the rank, tenure, and promotion committee the extent to which she felt I was wasting my time and the university's money in such trivial pursuits. She even objected to the fact that my early Starmont House King studies were printed in courier font-obviously the work of amateurs among the great unwashed. She made her point. Over my thirty years at the university, her attitude cost me several promotions.
Given his constant support for my work, however, I shouldn't have been surprised when the division chair extended the invitation, but I was. And a bit trepidatious, since I knew that the audience would include not only fellow professors but faculty from across the University; administrators, include most probably the president himself; wealthy potential contributors from nearby Malibu; and members of the board of regents…not a few of whom easily fit the category of conservative little old "blue-haired" ladies.
After some soul-searching, I decided, "Well, what have I got to lose?"
So I opened my presentation with the simple statement: "William Shakespeare was the Stephen King of his day."
I swear you could hear neck-bones snap as heads jerked up. I tried not to look at those colleagues from the English program whom I knew had no senses of humor; but I did notice a mischievous twinkle in the division chair's eye.
I recall that experience because it has influenced my approach to most of my work since. I continued to write about Stephen King…and Orson Scott Card, Dean Koontz, Robert McCammon, Piers Anthony, Brian Aldiss, and pretty much anyone else who caught my interest. My subsequent division chairs, all three of them, continued steadfastly to support the directions of my research. And those persistent colleagues continued to try to block any promotions or advancement … rather successfully, I'm afraid, and that in face of the fact that I had pretty much out-published the entire division combined. And the conclusions expressed in that presentation about the role and nature of horror continued to color everything I taught and wrote, whether it related directly to science fiction, fantasy and horror, or to Edmund Spenser, John Milton, and the Renaissance epic.
For that reason, I would like to recall, restate, and expand upon a couple of those points today. And, as then, instead of trying to be theoretically cutting-edge or to 'deconstruct' the genre until it becomes clear that I really hate horror but figure I can get publication credits by writing about it, I would like to make some suggestions about the continuity of horror-both the monsters and the motifs-in literary history.
But first, a plot synopsis:
A handful of people have gathered in a building in the center of a small, isolated community. Inside, they have found safety…or at least the illusion of safety. Outside, there is only darkness, and fear, and death. Daylight is dying. With the night will come the monster. The people huddle close for warmth, for comfort. They know that by the time the sun dawns again, some, or most-or all-of them may be dead.
Is this an outline of a Horror novel? Koontz's Strangers, perhaps, or Phantoms? Or better yet, King's early novella, The Mist? Those would be good guesses. They seem logical. To a degree even probable.
But this summary doesn't actually speak to any of these. The story I had in mind was written a few years before King assumed the mantle, willingly or not, of "King of Horror," or before King, Koontz, McCammon, or the others began writing…or, for that matter, were even born. This story goes back somewhere between 1200 and 1400 years.
I'm speaking of Beowulf, the earliest and greatest of the surviving Germanic epics that helped to form our literary heritage. It is the exciting story (as long as you can read it in a good translation) of a small group of people forced to confront terror and horror. The building is the golden mead-hall, Heorot (upon which J. R. R. Tolkien modeled Edoras in The Lord of the Rings). The cluster of people are the warriors-the comitatus-of the Germanic king Hrothgar. And the monster is Grendel. The monster has visited the great mead hall before, at night, and each time he has left a trail of blood and death. The poem survives in a single manuscript from the 10th century, preserved not because it was obviously a masterpiece of early English writing, but because it was about a monster. Hastily written, it was bound with four other texts, including stories of adventures, wonders … and monsters.
It is intriguing and instructive, I think to notice how closely Beowulf and, say, The Mist, represent departures from a similar narrative point. Both focus on small groups, the core of a culture that defines characters dually as individuals and as parts of their community. Both groups are isolated by the physical darkness of the landscape and the internal darkness of their fears. Individuals in both must work together for communal strength, protection, and survival-but their gathering does not work. In spite of everything, they must emerge and confront head-on the monsters…the darkness, and the fear, and the specter of death.
There are differences, of course. In Beowulf, we quickly learn that the poet has found a hero, a single warrior with the courage and prowess to combat monsters. Grendel has devoured thirty of King Hrothgar's retainers:
Straightway he seized a sleeping warrior
The hero Beowulf, symmetrically enough, is endowed with the strength of thirty men. In the fury of single combat with Grendel, he rips the monster's arm from its body and nails the bloody trophy to the wall above the mead-hall door:
For him [Grendel] the keen-souled kinsman of Hygelac
In The Mist, events do not proceed quite as smoothly. There is no single hero, no outlander suddenly arrived to kill the beast and rescue the community. In a technologically oriented world such as ours, individual heroism is generally not encouraged; nor does King insult his reader's intelligence by importing one-not even from the distant, almost mythic shores of Geatland (Sweden). There are individual battles fought against the monsters that inhabit the mist, to be sure, but King's vision allows no simple ending. His characters are stripped of everything until all that remains is the courage of a few to face the darkness directly and to attempt to discover the extent of the mist…and the monsters.
And then the next wave of monsters strikes, in Beowulf as well as in The Mist. Even Beowulf, the impervious hero, ultimately suffers defeat in battle with the Firedrake. All that he has accomplished-the deaths of Grendel and Grendel's dam; the consolidation of his kingdom; his fifty years of faultless rule, summarized in a single phrase, "he was a good king"-all is called into doubt as his body burns and the forces of darkness gather once again. In The Mist, the time frame has been condensed from fifty years to hours and days, but the effect is the same. Humanity may raise buildings, construct moral and civil codes, and create a veneer of civility, but in the face of the darkness most of that counts for little. The implications of such stories, ancient and contemporary, are consistent with a pervasive theme in Western literature, captured by both the Beowulf-poet and modern Horror writers: 'Here there be monsters,' here in the darkness of the human soul, and here in the darkness of the worlds we imagine.
Nor did this concern with explicit horror die out with the passing of the culture that generated the Beowulf-poet. Throughout the middle ages, writers-and by implications-audiences reveled in the re-creation of horror. One enormously popular form, the "metrical tragedy," incorporated tales of the "fall of great men" in rhymed verse that reveled not only in horrific details but in a particularly graphic-and thus, presumably, more spiritually elevating-death. According to one scholar, such tales did not simply conclude with a death scene but expanded far beyond to a "general loosening of the forces of death, a repercussive slaughter led up to by earlier bloodshed." On author felt impelled to describe the ghost of Pompey, face disfigured by smoke and seawater, while
a huge slaughter was accepted casually by Chaucer's Monk as the natural end of the tragedy of Samson…. This had to be so because tragedy was meant to illustrate the essential horror of life and the reasons for a Contempt of the World morality. In its essential aspects medieval tragedy was … a Dance of Death. (Baker, Induction, p. 172)
Beyond the more-than-coincidental fact that King borrowed a variation on the phrase for his own quasi-scholarly history of horror as genre, Danse Macabre, is the more salient fact that in many ways our world is also concerned with bringing some kind of moral value out of an increasing sense of the "essential horror of life." A society struggling under the weight of such disparate collective burdens as nuclear weaponry (with their threat of devastation even when used for peaceful means), disease, the implicit horrors of technology and its wildfire proliferation, and the constant threat of terrorism, might also search for illustrations of the idea-held in common with the Beowulf-poet-that after the short and bitter struggle comes a welcome death.
But enough of the middle ages.
Let's try another story.
A frightened man confronts a midnight apparition, a specter that by all logic cannot exist, but does. He speaks to it, he demands that it speak to him, and it reveals tales of darkness and fear and death. It grants him visions of murder, blood, revenge, and-again-death.
Does this describe King's The Dark Half? Or a segment of It? Koontz's Phantom? McCammon's Stinger? Perhaps. Certainly the synopsis could apply equally to a number of contemporary horror novels. But again, none of those was the story I had in mind. Instead, I was thinking of Hamlet. There, three times in the course of what is now almost universally hailed as the greatest tragedy in English literature (some would broaden that to include Western literature), we find … a ghost. A specter. A haunted shade whispering of murders past and murders yet to come.
By all accounts, the audiences of Shakespeare's day loved the play. They flocked to the Globe Theater to watch it, standing for the full four hours of its performance (unlike modern audiences, they were not subjected to editors and rewriters who know more about dramaturgy than the Bard himself). They might have stood in the rain to see it. They might have paid the equivalent of a week's wages for the privilege.
Why? Did they come to watch a performance of the greatest play by the greatest English playwright?
F. E. Halliday begins his Shakespeare and His Critics by noting that at the time of Shakespeare's death, there were no popular newspapers to herald the tragic tidings from shore to shore; and even if there had been, "it is more than probable that the death in the provinces of a retired actor and writer of plays which could scarcely be considered as serious literature would have passed unnoticed" (1). In fact, until the middle of the eighteenth century-a century and a half after Shakespeare's death-there was remarkably little evidence of the "bardolotry" that has since colored our assessments of his works.
No, the Elizabethan playgoers went to see a drama, and not coincidentally to see blood, and fear, and death … and a ghost. Samuel Johnson, writing over a century after Shakespeare's death about another of Shakespeare's initial theatrical successes, Titus Andronicus, urged that the play not be considered part of the Master's canon: "The barbarity of the spectacles, and the general massacre, which are here exhibited, can scarcely be conceived tolerable to any audience; yet we are told by [Ben] Jonson, that they were not only borne, but praised. That Shakespeare wrote any part…I see no reason for believing" (Halliday 142). In spite of now being frequently excoriated as among Shakespeare's worst plays, to the point that many critics struggle to demonstrate that Shakespeare only contributed part-or perhaps none-of the lines, Titus Andronicus was unusually and undeniably popular in its time. G. B. Harrison notes in his edition of the plays that it remained in the stage repertory for two full decades after it first appeared. Based on tales preserved for over a thousand years in classical myth and specifically in Seneca's Latin revenge tragedies (one of the more popular genres of the Elizabethan period), the story was sensational and horrific even for the Elizabethans, full of graphic representations of blood and death. Many of the more objectionable episodes were eliminated in variants written by Shakespeare's contemporaries, but, again in Professor Harrison's words, "Shakespeare spared his audience nothing."
Shakespeare's audience-not being 'modern playgoers' and lacking the foreknowledge that they were in the presence of a work by one of the premier dramatists of Western culture-found nothing absurd in the presentation of horrors. Alexander Legatt summarizes the blood-soaked episodes that-not coincidentally-find close parallels in King's The Stand (1990 edition), with its extended passages of bloodletting in the face of global plague: Titus's initial, ritual sacrifice of a gothic prince to "appease the ghosts of his sons"; his daughter's rape and mutilation in retribution; Titus's euthanasic killing of his daughter; the trapping of his sons in a "detested, dark, blood-drinking pit" with the body of a murdered noble; the deaths of his sons; his manipulation into chopping off his own hand-and his revenge on Tamora, Queen of the Goths, for these atrocities. He kills Tamora's sons and serves them up to her baked in a pie (28-29). For Shakespeare's audience, the highlight of the play must have been the on-stage removal of Titus Andronicus' hand, after which the character puns on multiple meanings of 'giving one's hand' as a symbol of loyalty. One of my undergraduate Shakespeare professors, in fact, lectured at length on that scene, noting that the actor portraying Titus Andronicus would often wear a bladder of pig's blood beneath his arm and, at the climactic moment, spray blood onto the footlings surrounding the stage.
Many critics today argue that the play fails miserably although, in a society in which horror is an increasingly popular genre, the play is also increasingly accepted as by Shakespeare. Harrison writes, for example,
Few critics can seriously defend Titus Andronicus; but its failure is not solely due to a revolting and fantastic story. Modern playgoers may regard rape, mutilation, and severed heads and hands as unsuitable for stage presentation; yet there are scenes quite as painful in plays which are among the very greatest-the blinding of Gloucester in Lear for instance, or the conclusion of Sophocles' Oedipus the King; these are horrible but still justifiable in their contexts. The horrors in Titus Andronicus are too much; if ever presented on a modern stage they would move the audience not to shudders but to guffaws. (296)
For us, perhaps. But Shakespeare's audiences apparently loved it.
Nor did his audience's responses differ substantively from the assessments of most of Shakespeare's contemporaries. Following Shakespeare's death, two acting companions of his, John Heminges and Henry Condell, put together a volume of his plays. The act of collecting plays was itself an anomaly during the period, since plays were considered ephemeral, certainly not 'literary' in the sense that poetry might be. As was the custom, they invited commendatory verses, of which only one-Ben Jonson's-suggested the status Shakespeare today enjoys:
Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show
Marchette Chute's biography of Jonson (itself aimed at a popular rather than a scholarly audience) notes in passing that
This judgment of Jonson's is the only contemporary piece of writing on Shakespeare that assigns him the position he now holds. Several other playwrights-Drayton, Beaumont, Heywood and Webster-wrote favorably of Shakespeare and his work, but there was usually a touch of patronage in their remarks and never any indication that here was a giant who towered over them all. In general Shakespeare's contemporaries did not take him seriously as an artist or give him the praise that is now considered his due. (275)
In fact, Chute argues, Heminges and Condell were taking a calculated risk by publishing Shakespeare's works at all; he was not "one of the writers whom it was correct to admire and whom every gentleman of the period was expected to know" (271). In other words, Shakespeare had spent his career writing, not for scholars and critics, but for his audience ; he was a "common playhouse poet" writing sensational, unrealistic, often horrific, commercially successful but artistically flawed works, and would thus have been considered to some extent "academically incorrect":
…the plays of Shakespeare stood for everything that Jonson disapproved of in the theatre and everything he had fought against in his long career as a playwright….in general [Shakespeare] had produced an untidy, sprawling body of work that a true classicist could only regard with something approaching despair. (273)
Jonson's remarks-coming as they did from a Royal pensioner (the equivalent of Poet Laureate) and the generally acknowledged arbiter of English poetic taste-clearly indicate that during his own lifetime, Shakespeare's reputation paralleled that of writer like King, Koontz, McCammon, and others: immensely popular with the masses but largely ignored or slighted by the critics and scholars. And there are good reasons for this. Jonson's avowed aim was to reform the English stage by restoring the virtues, values, and structures of classical drama; Shakespeare ignored such things entirely, concentrating instead on plays that elicited his desired responses from his audience. In Jonson's words (related by William Drummond of Hawthorndon, a Scots poet Jonson visited in 1619, three years after Shakespeare's death), "Shakespeare wanted art" (Donaldson 596). Whether by dramatizing ghostly visitations that lead to revenge and bloody death, or more directly by the on-stage removal of body parts, Shakespeare shows himself acquainted with the age-old techniques of fear, terror, and horror-including what King has described in his own works as the "gross out."
Now, let's examine yet a third story:
For a paltry price, a mysterious stranger offers the things dearest to a man's heart. The man accepts. For a while-a short while-he enjoys the pleasure his desire brings…but then the reckoning falls due, and he discovers that the thing he desired will ultimately cost him something even more precious: his soul.
Again, the summary strikes a familiar tone, suggests King's Needful Things, for example, in which a mysterious stranger sets up shop in the small town of Castle Rock, where a steady stream of customers enter and leave one by one, each with a small parcel clutched under a protective arm, each with an oddly trance-like expression. As the narrative progresses, Mr. Gaunt, the proprietor of Needful Things, extracts from all of his customers fulfillment of the bargains struck. leading to an intensifying spiral of violence, viciousness, mayhem, and murder. At the end, the town itself explodes in a metaphorical eruption of the private emotions its inhabitants have been tempted to release. More than a little reminiscent of Mark Twain's "The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg," Needful Things becomes a powerful statements of horror's persistent analysis of the forces of light and dark as evil struggles to possess human souls.
Yet-perhaps no surprise at this point-King's Needful Things was not the title I had in mind when I wrote the plot summary.
Instead, I was considering another Elizabethan drama, nearly contemporaneous with Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, and written by the leading pre-Shakespearean dramatist: Christopher Marlowe' Dr. Faustus.
To return for a moment to Shakespeare and Renaissance revenge tragedy, King's Needful Things develops a close parallel. Each character is entrapped by the seduction he or she defines-Gaunt does little except provide them with an external, physical device by which they can explore and develop their own internal weaknesses, corruption, guilt, and obsessions. This pairing of action and morality echoes a similar pairing-coupled with frequent and violent death-that extends throughout the revenge play tradition:
In Antonio's Revenge [the revenge killings] are lurid and sensational, but purposeful in that the victim is punished for good reason. In Titus Andronicus, where Tamora is made to eat her sons, in Hamlet, where Claudius is killed with his own poison, and in The Revenger's Tragedy, where the Duke is made to kiss the poisoned lips of the woman he lusted after and killed, the manner of the killing is morally logical. Aesthetic design and nemesis come together. Even in the crazy last scene of Women Beware Women the individual deaths, using tricks like poisoned love-darts and showers of gold, are significant judgments on the victims. (Legatt 162)
This sense of judgment recurs throughout horror as genre. Human societies become corrupt, greedy, unfeeling, willing to pollute, destroy-and they are visited by appropriate monsters. On one of the narrowest levels, we see this in any number of horror novels and films when young people-too young to understand and consciously accept adult responsibility for their actions-engage in illicit sex … and die horribly as a result. Often during the act itself. A general social consensus (admittedly one more honored in the breach than in the keeping) has been ignored; justice is served.
Like Faustus, horror frequently anatomizes greed, avarice, vanity, lust for power, repaying a heedless humanity in coin of our own choosing. McCammon's Swan Song makes this sense concrete as character after character emerges from a mask-like growth that has covered their faces, to discover that they have altered physically. What they are truly like inside has become their external identity … and monsters are born.
Like Faustus, horror literature focuses on central fears of the society it anatomizes. Faustus' audience was concerned with matters of heaven and hell. Catholicism. Patriotism. Witchcraft. Damnation. And they took such concerns quite seriously.
In a rabid attack on the theater published in 1633, Histriomastix, William Prynne recounted a performance of Dr. Faustus at an inn-yard theater, referring to "the visible apparition of the Devill on the Stage at the Belsavage Play-house in Queene Elizabeths dayes (to the great amazement both of the Actors and Spectators) whiles they were there prophanely playing the history of Faustus" (Tucker Brooke, 45). Not only did the onlookers think they saw an extra devil capering on the stage but they also fled the inn-yard en masse and refused to re-enter it for a year and a day.
We see different concerns confronting our society: the breakdown of home and family; the beak down of educational institutions-King for one has always portrayed schools as places more dedicated to destruction than elevation; lack of ethics in politics, in government, in authorities; lack of central spiritual guidelines and a concomitant quest for spiritual truth-again, King provides a superb example of the latter in Desperation.
Marlowe's England-Shakespeare's England, the Beowulf-poet's Britain-were cultures experiencing turmoil similar to ours. They too experienced physical and spiritual threats, internal and external. They too confronted a future in which traditional standards and beliefs would be increasingly questioned, if not destroyed. They too stood on the threshold of a world in which everything they accepted would be challenged, in which their very conceptions of the universe itself would undergo radical alterations.
And they, like us, found a means of symbolizing, confronting, and adapting to that world: the images, emotions, and vicarious purgation of literary fear, terror, and horror.
Baker, Howard. Induction to Tragedy: A Study in a Development of Form in Gorboduc, The Spanish Tragedy, and Titus Andronicus. 1939. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965.
Brooke, C. F. Tucker. The Life of Marlowe, and The Tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage. 1930. New York: Gordian, 1966.
Chute, Marchette. Ben Jonson of Westminster. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1953.
Donaldson, Ian. The Oxford Authors: Ben Jonson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Gummere, Frances. Beowulf. 1910. Online at: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/beowulf.html
Halliday, F. E. Shakespeare and His Critics. 1949, 1950, 1958. New York: Schocken, 1965.
Harrison, G. B., ed. Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York: Harcourt, 1980.
Leggatt, Alexander. English Drama: Shakespeare to the Restoration, 1590-1660. London: Longmans, 1988.
Rouse, A. L. Christopher Marlowe: His Life and Work. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.
Wynne-Davis, Marion. "Titus Andronicus," in Prentice Hall Guide to English Literature. New York: Prentice Hall, 1990.
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