Sunday, December 30, 2012

Vote for the Macabre Novel of the Year



2012 delivered some amazing (and incredibly dark) novels.  But which book deserves the accolade of Macabre Novel of the Year?  Here's your chance to weigh in (by casting your vote in the Comments section of this post).  The list of nominees:

1.Dare Me by Megan Abbott (reviewed on September 26th)

2.The Croning by Laird Barron (reviewed on June 23rd)

3.The Twelve (Book Two of The Passage Trilogy) by Justin Cronin

4.Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (reviewed on August 6th)

5.Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale (reviewed on April 5th)

6.Other

Note: If voting for Other, please specify the novel you have in mind.  Also, when voting for any of the selections (1-6), you can just give the book title, but feel free to elaborate on the reason for your choice.

Voting will remain open through Friday, January 4th.

Cast your vote by leaving a Comment below...

Friday, December 28, 2012

Short Story Spotlight: "More Dark"



"More Dark" by Laird Barron (The Revelator 137.1)

When publishing a special Lovecraft-themed issue, a periodical can solicit the work of no better fiction writer than Laird Barron.  "More Dark" shines a sinister light on a long-lauded but notoriously reclusive weird-tale scribe from Michigan dubbed Tom L (an allusion that dedicated readers of the horror genre should easily catch).  When the enigmatic writer--who is known for spouting "antinatalist propaganda"--finally decides to give a public reading of his work, he reveals himself to be a cult figure in the worst sense of the term.  The man has an eldritch agenda, and (decked out in "a heavy robe of crimson silk") he makes the most ominous entrance onto a scene since the Red Death crashed Prince Prospero's private party.

Barron's familiar skills as a storyteller are on full display here, starting with a sardonic (if suicidal) protagonist whose narration is littered with pearls of acerbic wit.  The author also shows his knack for turning everyday reality suddenly uncanny:
The train rattled into a tunnel of darkness.  By the faint plastic glow of the interior lights I had a rush of vertigo that tricked my body into believing the passenger car no longer moved laterally, but had shifted to the vertical plane and was descending at tremendous velocity, an express elevator to the pits.  Streaks of red flickered against the windows.  The kid with the earphones [a stranger sitting across from the narrator] glanced at me.  His earphones resembled the curved horns of a ram.  His eyes reflected the void.  He smiled.  His smile was the void.
"More Dark" is a satirical tour de force, and a large part of the fun here comes from Barron's various thinly-veiled allusions (e.g., HOCUS magazine; a "British hack" named Mark S. whose book The White Paws "moved thirty-six copies at the British Fantasy Convention when everybody got drunk and thought they were signing up for a charity drive").  But ultimately one does not need to be hip to the in-jokes in order to be entertained.  Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the story is Barron's ability to balance comedy and cosmic terror.  By the time the tale climaxes, the scoffing narrator is forced to consider that Tom L. is not a deluded fool in weird drag but possibly an "evil messiah sent by the dark gods to spread a message of disharmony and dread."  And when the tale finishes with a succinct yet resounding clincher, the reader has no choice but to recognize that weird fiction doesn't get any darker than this.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Dark Articles: "The Horror! The Horror?" (Part 5 of 5)


[For Part 4 of the essay "The Horror! The Horror?  The Appropriation, and Reclamation, of Native American Mythology," click here.]


[continued]

The Moon Dance, which is posited as a healing alternative to "war, destruction, death, and apocalypse" (423), suggests a more hopeful outcome than the "apocalyptic prophecy" (Alexie 185) and vicious cycle of violence threatened by the Ghost Dance in Indian Killer.  Somtow's novel--the most complete model of emergent horror--can also be offset against a second-wave narrative by a writer who makes the most egregious use of comparative racism.  Jack Cady's By Reason of Darkness (a novella equal parts Heart of Darkness and Pet Sematary) reworks Stephen King's plot of two adjacent cemeteries in the woods, offering not an animal graveyard and an ancient burial ground, but a seemingly tranquil Indian cemetery leading onto a haunting ground of malevolent Chinese spirits [see Note 17 below].  Cady's rhetorical strategies, however, achieve a varidirectional denigration of both minorities.  The narrator relates that the "Orientals arrived [in the Pacific Northwest] as bond slaves.  They were excellent workers.  Enslaved Indians were not" (263).  The Negro character dubbed the Blackbird meanwhile inverts the ratio of valorization: "There's two graveyards up there.  Indian and Chinese.  I don't care for either one of 'em.  But the Indian one is special" (266).  At the same time, the Blackbird claims that the voracious ghosts from the Chinese cemetery are not all that is to be feared, and warns that one should not be fooled by the apparent serenity of the Indian cemetery: "I know Indians and their ways.  They control ravens and crows, and they get fancy on revenge....They control owls and rats and anything that bites" (278-9).

Even as the two cemeteries are pitted against one another in Cady's narrative, they are also dreaded for their interconnection.  The Blackbird's cohort, Bjorn North, conflates the spaces of the respective burial grounds when he frets: "'People experimented....
Back in the old days.  These Indians have got cousins laid out here and up above.  There's Chinese Indians, but no Indian Chinese, because'--and he breathed in sobbing snorts, fear-ridden, and finally yelling--'because there wasn't no Chinese women'" (279).  Similarly, even as the Blackbird speaks ominously about the cemeteries, a symbolic movement can be noted in the background of the hotel-restaurant setting: "An Indian waitress and a Chinese waiter made silent crossing patterns around the tables" (266).  The manifest uneasiness with cultural interweaving thus betrays the hypocrisy of Cady's novella, which itself performs cross-breeding on a rhetorical level through its employment of comparative racism.  It is important to recognize here the cunning transferal of blame, as the Native American and the Chinese immigrant are grouped as culprits rather than as victims of cultural transgression, in a narrative ostensibly dealing with America's own disregard for territorial boundaries and disruption of non-white cultures [see Note 18 below].

By Reason of Darkness forms the most forceful second-wave narrative in its deviating (and ultimately devious) use of horror's hoary burial-ground trope.  At first Cady seems to uphold the paradigm: the violation of the sacrosanct space--the disruption of property rites--yokes onto larger issues of challenged property rights (with the veterans' violent foray into the two cemeteries reflecting the "state of war" [280] in Southeast Asia).  There's even the suggestion that the contested soil of America itself represents a mass grave site: when the spirit fences have been torn down and the boundaries of the Chinese cemetery have been erased, the narrator nonetheless wonders, "was I standing on a grave?" (281).  But Cady's horror narrative is not symptomatic of a national guilt over genocidal acts against native peoples; nor is it really concerned (as Carol Clover claimed of the horror genre) with the dispossessed
dead.  What ultimately haunts By Reason of Darkness is not the disgruntled ghosts of natives uprooted by American manifest destiny but the realization that the opposition has been insufficiently oppressed (buried?) and has instead taken root in the cultural landscape.  The very first line of Cady's novella places the emphasis on a dreaded (from the hegemonic perspective) vitality and sustenance: "Now the corpses are decayed, not into dust, but have become one with the fertile and well-watered soil of the valleys" (254) [see Note 19 below].

The narrator's commentary as he passes by San Francisco's Chinatown on his way to Seattle and the haunted cemeteries also hints that the real concern here is with being devoured by an unvanquished Asian culture rather than by spiteful Chinese spirits: "Opium.  Sweatshops.  Money.  Smuggling of every commodity, especially illegal immigrant Chinese.  We fight war after war in the Orient.  The Orient always wins.  It absorbs, takes us over, we disappear into its enormous yawn" (248).  The Chinese ghosts at the cemetery sound a lot like the narrator's description of Chinatown: "The voices were like the babel of a public market, or like the disjointed buzz of a crowded street" (282).  For all its supernatural trappings, its concern with ghostly possession, Cady's narrative displays a preoccupation with real-world cultural contamination: from the American soldiers who "become Asiatic" (255) as a result of their wartime experiences, to the Negro character Albert Bird, who despite all his talk about Indian-controlled crows and ravens affects the nickname "Blackbird," wears black feathers in his hair, and is seen "[d]isplaying Indian tricks" (288) of equestrian skill.  Yet ultimately it's Cady's novella that performs the greatest trick.  Bjorn North's statement that he's "afraid there's no safe place to die" (246) is duplicitous not just because North is attempting to lure his two friends to the cemeteries so he can murder them and offer them as appeasing/
atoning sacrifices to the spirits of the place.  Contra North, the true fear expressed by By Reason of Darkness is that the white man in America now has no safe place to live.

Starkly contrast with Cady's approach, Louise Erdrich has asserted that Native American writers, "in the light of enormous loss, must tell the stories of contemporary survivors, while protecting and celebrating the cores of cultures left in the wake of enormous catastrophe" (qtd. in Smith 72) [see Note 20 below].  It proves worthwhile to return one last time here to Erdrich's novel Tracks, to observe the alternate relationship formed with one of Cady's main source texts.  From title and plot to (arboreal) setting and the narrator's Orientalist attitudes toward the so-called primtive, Cady's By Reason of Darkness makes ample allusion to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness [see Note 21 below].  Erdrich likewise invokes Conrad, but she chooses to seize not upon the darkness but on his postcolonial perspective.  Both Erdrich's and Conrad's narratives include rapacious yet anonymous "Agents" trading in Chippewa property and African ivory, respectively.  The Company in Heart of Darkness houses a "large, shining map, marked with all the colors of the rainbow" (13), and in Tracks one also finds a multi-colored map (detailing the precarious status of Chippewa allotments following the divide-and-conquer policy of the Dawes Act).  Finally, while the Belgian despoiling of the Congo that Conrad traces was a historical enterprise overseen by King Leopold II, Erdrich has the nun Pauline adopt an appropriate name when becoming an active suppressor of Chippewa culture: Leopolda.

Erdrich's recourse to Conrad is an integral part of the emergent qualities of Tracks, but it can also point towards a model for the continued emergence of Native American Gothic.  The contra-dictions of Conrad's Kurtz, who presents himself to Marlowe's imagination "as a voice" (48) yet presides over "unspeakable rites" (50) in Africa, perhaps anticipate the modern horror genre that has gone native in its appropriation of tribal mythology and bespeaks a desire to simultaneously silence and demonize (recall Kurtz's own conclusion in his report on the Suppression of Savage Customs:
"Exterminate all the brutes!" [51]).  Refusing, though, to let Native American myths and customs be darkened into unspeakable rites, a writer such as Erdrich reclaims the right to narrate their cultural significance.  Like Conrad's colonial Africa (and hopefully, as the intertextual matrix constructed by this essay has helped demonstrate), the meaning and value of such Native American
"property"--and the propriety of its usage--is still up for grabs.  By recognizing horror as a potentially subversive rhetoric to be employed in the dialogue with dominant culture, Native American writers might follow Erdrich's Tracks, staking a claim against continued dispossession and driving a stake through the heart of darkness generically attributed to tribal mythology.  By seeking to expose the ideologies of appropriation and abjection, such writers might take the vague yet frantic Kurtzian cries of "The horror!" and respond with the critical interrogation, "The horror?"


Notes to Part 5

17.King himself displays a penchant for comparative racism in Pet Sematary, suddenly likening the demonic Wendigo's eyes to those in a "classical Chinese painting" (327).  Notice, also, how the analogue with Pet Sematary formed in By Reason of Darkness surreptitiously links an Indian cemetery with King's site of animal burial (perhaps appropriately, in this light, a critically-wounded horse is buried in the Indian cemetery at the end of Cady's novella).

18.Some plot summary seems in order here: By Reason of Darkness involves a trio of veterans--the Blackbird, Bjorn North, and an anonymous narrator--haunted by the atrocities they helped perpetrate as part of an invading American military in a war (unspecified by Cady) in Southeast Asia.  This includes not only the typical murderous mayhem (cf. Francis Ford Coppola's update of Heart of Darkness in the Vietnam war film Apocalypse Now) but a rocketing of a sacred Asian graveyard and the destruction of its "spirit fences": "The small fences contained the spirits of the dead and kept away the other hungry spirits that flew across the world howling and weeping in their relentless and hopelessly eternal quests" (257-8).  North comments on the eerie similarity when a Satanic cult later pillages the Chinese cemetery in Washington state.  As this second set of spirit fences are destroyed, and as the angered Chinese ghosts awaken, North fears that they will seek retribution for his own wartime misdeeds (which include the cold-blooded murder of a pacifist monk).

19.Teresa Goddu surveys the rhetoric (from both cultural and imperial spheres--from Philip Freneau's 1788 poem "The Indian Burial Ground" to Andrew Johnson's 1830 Second Address to Congress) that has constructed a myth of the vanishing American "to naturalize the Indian's disappearance from the American landscape" (56).  Cady, though, mutates such
"naturalization," such association of the Indian with the grave/the buried past, into an unsettling outgrowth.

20.When Fleur is displaced from her sacred ancestral lands by the lumber company at the conclusion of Tracks, she carries her family's grave markers with her on her wagon and sets off toward white civilization.  Fleur, though, represents neither the vengeful (despite her "Pillager" surname) nor the vanishing Native American (e.g. she resurfaces in the Erdrich novel Love Medicine as a midwife).  Stressing notions of survival and rebirth, critic Jeanne Rosier Smith also notes that "Fleur is indeed the 'funnel' of tribal history; the one daughter [Lulu] she produces goes on in Love Medicine to repopulate the tribe and take her place as a community matriarch" (96).

21.The phrase "heart of darkness" itself is ubiquitous in horror circles, signalling the revered-precursor-text status of Conrad's short novel.  In a headnote to By Reason of Darkness, editor Douglas E. Winter invokes Conrad as "Cady's spiritual ancestor" (244).


Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman.  Indian Killer.  New York: Warner Books, 1996.

Allen, Paula Gunn.  "Special Problems in Teaching Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony."  American Indian Quarterly 14 (1990): 379-86.

Blackwood, Algernon.  The Wendigo.  1910.  The Best Short Stories of Algernon Blackwood.  Ed. E.F. Bleiler.  New York: Dover Publications, 1973.  158-207.

Bradford, William.  Of Plymouth PlantationThe Norton Anthology of American Literature.  Ed. Nina Baym.  5th ed.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.  165-204.

Brown, Charles Brockden.  Edgar Huntly.  1799.  New York: Penguin, 1988.

Cady, Jack.  By Reason of DarknessPrime Evil: New stories by Masters of Modern Horror.  Ed. Douglas E. Winter.  New York: NAL Books, 1988.  245-95.

Carroll, Noel.  The Philosophy of Horror.  New York: Routledge, 1990.

Clover, Carol J.  Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.  New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Conrad, Joseph.  Heart of Darkness.  1902.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1988.

Erdrich, Louise.  "Potchikoo's Life After Death."  Baptism of Desire.  New York: HarperPerrenial, 1989.  5-17.

---.  Tracks.  New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Goddu, Teresa A.  Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Goingback, Owl.  Crota.  New York: Signet, 1996.

Grabo ,Norman S.  Introduction.  Edgar Huntley.  By Charles Brockden Brown.  New York: Penguin, 1988.  vii-xxiii.

Gray, Muriel.  The Trickster.  New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel.  "Endicott and the Red Cross."  Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987.  113-18.

---. "Young Goodman Brown."  Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales.  New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1987.  67-75.

King, Stephen.  Danse Macabre.  New York: Everett House, 1981.

---.  Pet Sematary.  New York: Doubleday, 1983.

Kolmar, Wendy K.  "Dialectics of Connectedness: Supernatural Elements in Novels by Bambara, Cisneros, Grahn, and Erdrich."  Haunting the House of Fiction: Feminist Perspectives on Ghost Stories by Women.  Ed. Lynette Carpenter and Wendy K. Kolmar.  Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1991.  236-49.

Lawrence, D.H.  Studies in Classic American Literature.  1923.  New York: Penguin, 1977.

Magistrale, Anthony.  The Moral Voyages of Stephen King.  Washington: Starmount House, 1989.

Michaels, Walter Benn.  "Romance and Real Estate."  The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.  85-112.

Montrose, Catherine.  The Wendigo Border.  New York: Tor Books, 1995.

Peterson, Nancy J.  "History, Postmodernism, and Louise Erdrich's Tracks." PMLA 109 (1994): 982-94.

Poltergeist.  Dir. Tobe Hooper.  Warner Studios, 1982.

Rogin, Michael Paul.  "Liberal Society and the Indian Question." Politics and Society 1 (1973): 269-312.

Rowlandson, Mary.  The Sovereignty and Goodness of God.  Ed. Neal Salisbury.  Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.

Ruppert, James.  "Indians in Anglo-American Literature, 1492-1990."  Dictionary of Native American Literature.  Ed. Andrew Wiget.  New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.  382-94.

Said, Edward W.  Culture and Imperialism.  New York: Vintage, 1993.

Silko, Leslie Marmon.  Ceremony.  New York, Penguin, 1977.

Smith, Jeanne Rosier.  Writing Tricksters: Mythic Gambols in American Ethnic Literature.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Somtow, S.P.  Moon Dance.  New York: Tor Books, 1989.

Standiford, Lester A.  "Worlds Made of Dawn: Characteristic Image and Incident in Native American Imaginative Literature."  Three American Literatures.  Ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr.  New York: Modern Language Association, 1982.  168-96.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Dark Articles: "The Horror! The Horror?" (Part 4 of 5)


[For Part 3 of the essay "The Horror! The Horror?  The Appropriation, and Reclamation, of Native American Mythology," click here.]


[continued]

Still, one has to consider whether the self-defeating prophecy of Crota proves much different from the "apocalyptic prophesy" made at the end of Alexie's Indian Killer, when Marie Polatkin warns her white inquisitors: "Indians are [Ghost] dancing now, and I don't think they are going to stop" (418).  While Alexie's aforementioned open-ended narrative avoids a subversion-and-containment paradigm by never revealing the identity/ethnicity of the Indian Killer, the novel nonetheless forebodes a vicious cycle of violent retribution, a bloody future that matches American history (an oppressed Native American culture driven to revolt; a conceivable militant response by the dominant culture to the latest Ghost Dance).  As these third-wave novels by Alexie and Goingback come dangerously close to repeating history rather than growing and learning from it, their sense of emergence is perhaps qualified.  Ironically, one might have to turn to an Asian-American writer to find the strongest example of the emergent Native American horror novel.  S.P. Somtow's Moon Dance not only reclaims tribal mythology and culture from a misappropriating and misrepre-senting tradition of American Gothic literature but also offers a historiography that gives off a spark of hope amidst the ashes of apocalyptic destruction.

In Moon Dance Somtow cleverly intertwines the supernatural (in the form of lycanthropy) with the historical nightmare of America's mistreatment of its minority peoples.  The novel's central "plot" involves a group of Eastern European aristocrats/werewolves (led by Count von Bachl-Wolfing) who seek to establish a "lycanthropic utopia" (159) on the 1880's American frontier: "A new land.  Unspoiled by civilization.  Freedom at last.  We shall roam where we will....And natives to feed on, natives unacquainted with the folklore and superstition that causes the peasants of Europe to hide behind their silver and their wolfsbane" (157-8).  Somtow yokes this scheme of European colonization onto the narrative of the American expansion into the West (an expansion facilitated by the development of the railroad).  The Count carries out his devious plan by investing heavily in the Frement, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad, which he aims to divert from populated gold-rush areas into remote woodlands where the werewolves can den.  As the plot unfolds, and the wolf town of Winter Eyes is established, the werewolves' hunting is linked (from a Native American perspective) with the running of the railroad: "And from the distance came a new kind of howling--cold, anguished, almost like the screech of the iron horse as it clattered across the dead buffalo plains" (243).  The Native American counterpoint to colonialist schemes is a crucial aspect of Somtow's narrative, as the Count's wolfpack is forced to recognize that America is no mere blank text.  The "land is taken" (164): a secret tribe of Lakota Sioux--the Shungmanitu or werewolf tribe--are already lodged in the Black Hills where the European wolves seek to hunt, and thus represent a powerful cultural entity and not just some primitive food source for the Count's contingent.  "Can you make a land virgin by killing off its aborigines?" (40), a sarcastic D.H. Lawrence once asked in Studies in Classic American Literature, and to secure their utopia in the New World, the Count and his wolves will have to do just that: "We are just going to have to dispose of the others.  We will have to mark the territory ourselves" (164).

The Count's desire to "mark the territory" suggests not only an abject aggression (demarcation via urination) but a mapping that erases the Native American.  In almost any other modern horror novel, a tribe of cannibalistic werewolf-Indians would no doubt be ideal candidates for demonization, but Moon Dance casts a positive light on the Shungmanitu by contrasting them with the Count's more savage pack.  Of anything, the actions of the novel's shape-shifting Indians are more holistic than horrific:
Among the Indiens peaux-rouges...these werewolves are not considered creatures of Satan, but have their own part to play in the great cycle of being. Some of the Sioux believe there is an entire tribe of Sioux to the north of us, and that they prey on slain warriors and old people who have outlived their usefulness, absorbing their essence unto themselves.  (148)
Such Shungmanitu efforts to promote tribal continuity also contrast with the more ruthless predations of the American military, as Somtow sets the violent territory dispute between the Shungmanitu and the Count's wolves against the backdrop of the U.S. Government's Indian Wars.  White America's position in Moon Dance is fiendishly embodied by the Indian-hating Major James Sanderson, who is given the perfect excuse to go on the offensive when the frozen corpse of a gold prospector is found early in the novel: "Murdered by those rapacious savages....Just as I feared, I'm afraid! Well, we're going to have to retaliate" (56).  Echoing Pauline in Erdrich's Tracks, Sanderson becomes a maniacal mouthpiece for colonialist dogma as he razes a Sioux village and its sacred burial grounds: "What simpletons these savages are!  To think their heathen beliefs can shield themselves from our righteous wrath....Look at this squaw, I have nothing against her.  But she can't stop the march of history, can she?  Kill her.  That's an order" (70).  Akin to Erdrich's discrediting of Pauline, though, Somtow does not fail to defend Native American culture, at one point writing: "The Indians' ritual was solemn and dignified; nothing could be further from the bacchanalian screechings and cavortings that were, according to such as Major Sanderson, the only religion of which the Sioux were capable" (26).  Somtow also hints at Sanderson's moral deformity by turning him into a physical grotesque: the Major survives a scalping during one of his Indian raids and goes through the rest of the novel with his gnarled head exposed (just as his ugly, racist mentality is exposed).

Moon Dance also works to reclaim native materials and redirect them to more productive ends within a horror narrative by utilizing the half-human, half-animal werewolves in a discourse on hybrid identity and the struggle of the ethnic minority in America
"trying to walk the path between two worlds" (248).  Teddy Grumiaux, the offspring of a French trainman and an Indian woman, explains the situation of being a "breed": "It means decent civilized folks treat you like a buffler turd, boy.  It means you spend your whole life not knowin' who you really is" (179).  Teddy's definition resonates for the young werewolf Johnny Kindred, who responds: "I'm one, too....I understand you perfectly."  Still, in Somtow's novel hybridity does not simply signal categorical impurity; it's a condition to be embraced as much as endured.  Johnny Kindred is not only a werewolf but also suffers from a multiple personality disorder, having been traumatized by an event involving his parents that he witnessed as a child (shades of Freud's case study of "The Wolf Man").  While a major plotline in the novel deals with Johnny's efforts to piece together his fragmented psyche, the goal is not to eliminate his werewolf nature.  Instead, Johnny needs to accept his role as messiah for the Shungmanitu and perform the sacred Moon Dance.  Like Tayo in Silko's Ceremony, Johnny must heal himself before the world can be rescued from witchery and disaster: "The wolf-boy will lead the way," another character prophesies about Johnny.  "Doors will be opened.  The world can yet be redeemed.  We can live with the beast within....Or else there will be war, destruction, death, apocalypse" (423).

Finally, one senses Somtow's emergent themes and perhaps metafictional commentary on the horror genre's appropriations when the white character Cordwainer Claggart perverts Johnny's Shungmanitu heritage and commodifies it as popular enter-tainment (hardly a sacred Moon Dance).  A pederast and prostitute-killer who pairs with Major Sanderson as "monsters in their own right" (51), the con man Claggart deviously exploits the Shungmanitu for personal financial gain.  He ritually slaughters Johnny's Shungmanitu mentor in order to lure and trap the wolf-messiah and place him as the star attraction in a traveling Wild West show.  Somtow thus offers a critique of the white fascination with the Indian as "curious artifact" (Allen 386), as opposed to the way a horror novel like Gray's The Trickster feeds into such fascination.  One Somtow character who emigrates to America is forced to abandon her prejudices and recognize "the Indians as something other than an abstraction.  Oh, the Indians along the way had been picturesque enough, but she had always had the feeling that they existed merely to lend their journey a festive note" (238).  Even the once-great Sioux chief Sitting Bull makes an appearance in the novel, lamenting that he has been forced to become a blanket Indian in Buffalo Bill's sideshow, "a creature in a circus, an entertainment" (346).  Claggart himself has seized upon Buffalo Bill's ideas and methods, positing handbills advertising "CLAGGART'S AMAZING CIRCUS OF TRANSFORMATIONS!" and heralding a boy who will"TRANSFORM HIMSELF INTO A WOLF!" (426).

To express his incredulity toward such a transformation, a jaded denizen of Rock Springs defaces Claggart's handbill with the bloody scrawl "And watch a Chinaman turn Christian!"  This is no insig-nificant moment of rhetorical violence; Somtow critiques not only the extermination of the Native American but the concomitant discrimination against Chinese railroad laborers [see Note 16 below].  As one Native American reminds another white character in the novel: "Yellow, red, black, brown, you people oppressed the lot of us" (307).  Somtow exposes the strategies of comparative racism, which lump minorities together under the category of Other while simultaneously pitting them against one another in ratios of debasement.  For instance, a Rock Springs saloon in Moon Dance sports the sign, "No dogs, Indian or Chinamen" (140), and patrons who mouth sentiments like "Even them niggers ain't heathens" (428).  When the hostilities in Rock Springs break out into a mass lynching of Chinese, Claggart's circus not only forms the perfect entertainment for the bloodthirsty crowd but also compounds the dehumanizing comparisons.  Claggart says of the defiled corpse of a hanged Chinese male (whose "queue had been
hacked off and stuffed in his mouth....An opium pipe protruded from his anus") used as bait for Johnny's primal transformation:
"Usually I uses a wild animal....But when the most wildest animal of all the world is readily available, I reckon I couldn't help but avail myself of it!" (446).  Somtow's most compelling use of the Asian theme, though, is found at the end of the novel when he forges a link with Native Americans (even as he extends the sociopolitical focus to Southeast Asia). After Johnny Kindred dies having finally performed the Moon Dance on November 22, 1963, the narrator of the novel's frame story notes the parallel to "another J.K." (533) and wonders if the Moon Dance entails the same deterrent to white culture as a Ghost Dance:
Was Johnny's dance successful?  Did his sacrifice bring about what his vision prophesied?  Was the world changed?  Kennedy died.  We lost the war.  Does that count as driving the white man into the sea?  Certainly we didn't do to the Vietnamese what we did to the Indians.  (534)
 

Notes to Part 4

16.Again, my intent is not blur Gothic figurations of various minority peoples.  Historically, horror's treatment of the Asian has tended toward an Orientalist gaze, one compounded of desire and dread and projected onto an Eastern landscape conceived as at once illustrious and illicit, splendid and squalid (e.g., Dan Simmons's "Dying in Bangkok," Peter Straub's Koko).  I introduce the Asian theme here only to broach the subject of comparative racism and its contrasting manifestations in third- and second-wave horror narratives.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Dark Articles: "The Horror! The Horror?" (Part 3 of 5)


[For Part 2 of the essay "The Horror! The Horror?  The Appropriation, and Reclamation, of Native American Mythology," click here.]


[continued]

In The Philosophy of Horror, Noel Carroll notes that "[j]ust as Karl Marx called capitalists vampires and werewolves, utilizing horror iconography for progressive purposes, so the creators of horror fiction can apply the imagery of fear and disgust against the forces of political or social repression" (198) [see Note 14 below].  But while writers like Erdrich and Silko do just this in their employment of Gothic imagery and rhetoric, they can hardly be classified as "creators of horror fiction."  The attempt to locate the emergent horror novel leads one to consider two potential third-wave narratives by Native Americans: Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer and Owl Goingback's CrotaIndian Killer might be categorized on bookstore shelves as mainstream fiction, but Alexie situates his novel firmly with the slasher/serial killer subgenre of horror: white men are being scalped and mutilated in modern-day Seattle.  There's a striking open-endedness, though, to Alexie's narrative; by never truly revealing the identity of the murderer (seemingly a disgruntled Native American), Alexie avoids the conservative paradigm in which a monstrous Other is punished for his transgressions.  A deliberate ambiguity is ingrained in the very title of the novel.  As one Alexie character grouses (offsetting the grisly killings against the historical horrors perpetrated against Native Americans), "calling him the Indian Killer doesn't make any sense, does it?  If it was an Indian doing the killing, then wouldn't he be called the Killer Indian?  I mean, Custer was an Indian Killer, not  a Killer Indian" (247).  Alexie also achieves a Todorovian hesitation between natural and supernatural explanations for the murders: the killer might not be an unbalanced Native American adopted and raised by a white family (and ironically burdened with the colonialist name  "John Smith") but a mythic figure fulfilling an
"apocalyptic prophecy" (185) by leading a new Ghost Dance.  One white character scoffs at the terror that has seized Seattle--"In the third act, they'll find some white guy in eagle feathers is doing the killing.  White guys are always the serial killers" (339)--but Alexie leaves open the possibility that Native Americans are at last exacting retribution for white misdeeds.

Alexie's novel also proves emergent in its systematic correction of Native American stereotypes.  When the scalping of the white victims leads many to the presumption that the killer must be an Indian, protagonist Marie Polatkin points out that "the French were the first to scalp people in this country.  Indians just copied them" (57).  A Limbaugh-like radio personality feeds Seattle's frenzy over the Indian Killer by ranting that tribal casinos are turning Washington state "into a nest of sin and debauchery" (17), but a visit to an actual casino by one character exposes such propaganda:
"David had expected to find something more illicit and foreign inside....David had assumed the casino would be filled with drunken Indian men, half-naked Indian women, and Italian mobsters" (106).  Suspected killer John Smith likewise has his eyes opened when his odyssey lands him amongst Seattle's homeless: "Before he'd met them, John had shared the common assumption that all homeless Indians were drunks.  But he soon discovered that many of them didn't drink....He was saddened that so many Indians were homeless and had no simple reason to offer for their condition" (144).  Finally, Marie Polatkin (who insists that the killer is not an "Indian man" [248] and emerges as a suspect herself) also challenges stock conceptions of race/gender through her activism:
"I'm not some demure little Indian woman healer talking spider this, spider that, am I?  I'm not babbling about the four directions.  Or the two-legged, four-legged, and winged.  I'm talking like a twentieth-century Indian woman" (247).

Marie finds her forum in a university class on Native American literature; she feels it is her duty "to let the other students know the real story" (329).  Her professor, Dr. Clarence Mather (whose surname connects him with colonialist history), is challenged for gathering a syllabus of Native American texts (e.g. Black Elk Speaks) either co-written or edited by whites.  Marie takes particular offense at the inclusion of Jack Wilson (an author-character created by Alexie) on the syllabus.  Wilson, a white man with spurious claims to Indian bloodlines, is an ex-cop turned writer of murder mysteries featuring a Native American protagonist: "Aristotle Little Hawk, the very last Shilshomish Indian, who was a practicing medicine man and private detective in Seattle" (162).  Marie claims that Wilson's books "are killing Indian books" (68) and that "books like Wilson's actually commit violence against Indians" (264).  Here Alexie's novel takes a metafictional turn: when the Indian Killer makes headline sin Seattle, Wilson promptly plans a book based on the events--a novel entitled Indian Killer.  Wilson's agent spurs him on with sugar-plum visions of bestsellerdom: "Indians are big right now....Publishing are looking for the shaman thing, you know?...And you've got all that, plus a murder mystery.  That's perfect" (162-3).  The agent tells Wilson that the Indian Killer story "belongs to you" (339), but Alexie's novel naturally calls such a claim into question.  Dr. Mather, meanwhile, enacts his own appropriation of Native American narrative when he aims to publish a discovered box of recordings of traditional Indian stories.  Marie's brother Reggie rebukes the professor, informing him, "That's a family story.  It belongs to the family.  Not on some tape.  It's not supposed to be told this way" (137).  Alexie is well-aware of the tradition he's working in--he includes a subplot concerning a property dispute between a white family and a Spokane tribe--but he is careful to show that
"ownership" is a literary as well as a geographical issue.  One should not reduce Marie Polatkin to a mere mouthpiece for Alexie, but her picket signs at a Jack Wilson book-signing speak volumes: "ONLY INDIANS SHOULD TELL INDIAN STORIES" (263).

Choctaw-Cherokee Indian Owl Goingback is one such native story-teller, but his Stoker Award-winning first novel Crota, regrettably, is not the exemplum of the emergent Native American horror novel it might at first appear to be.  Crota's sociopolitical subtext conveys a conservatism that renders the novel practically a polar opposite to Alexie's Indian Killer.  On the surface, Goingback's book performs all the appropriate maneuvers.  The author displays a genuine command of his native material (e.g. the Yuwipi ceremony [200]), and his characters correct misconceptions that the Native American had no written language or form of government (286-7) prior to the arrival of the white man.  The dual protagonists Jay Little Hawk and Skip Harding also point toward a communal moral (cf. Silko) by bonding together via a native ritual: "Their blood mingled--blood of a red man, blood of a white man--and joined together, became one.  Brothers.  The way it should be.  The way it should always have been" (295).  Skip also learns to accept his own Native American blood (passed on to him from his grandmother) and to embrace tribal spirituality in order to kill the Crota, a bloodthirsty beast surviving from the age of dinosaurs.  Finally, the novel's happy ending--the medicine man Strong Eagle shows his gratitude towards the Crota-killing Skip by curing his son's deafness/muteness--validates native healing practices (which succeed where WEstern medicine has hitherto failed).

It is in the very vanquishing of the Crota, however, that the
"victory" of the Native American becomes problematical.  Actually, the Crota is defeated twice in the novel, and the first Pyrrhic victory parallels and elucidates the second.  Goingback blends American history with native myth (but with different results than Alexie), as Jay Little Hawk recounts the story of Tecumseh's brother Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee prophet who encouraged his people to renounce the white man's culture and "to return to traditional ways" (153).  When the Creek Indian tribe refuses to join the resistance movement, Tenskwatawa moves to destroy the Creek's villages via earthquake, but his supernatural machinations
simultaneously awaken the Crota from its subterranean hibernation.  Still, Goingback's "Godzilla" motif of the accidental release of an ancient monster is less significant than the way the author transforms the Crota into the symbolic double and agent of white America.  Only moments after Little Hawk recalls how white expansionism displaced the Native American and forced him westward, the Creek villagers are said to have been chased continually westward by the relentless Crota: "angered at being awakened from its sleep, [the Crota] followed and found them again" (155).  Also, just as the white man's land grab is figured by Little Hawk as having pushed Indians' "backs up against the Mississippi River" (153), the persecuted creeks are subsequently shown with their backs literally up against a wall.  After the brave, self-sacrificing Creek warriors lure the Crota into an ancient underground labyrinth ("No sooner had the first warrior fallen than a second appeared to challenge the monster"), medicine men and elder tribal elders wall up and magically seal the exit by committing suicide on that spot: "They died so their tribe would live" (156).

Despite the heroism underlining such a tale, the dispossession and decimation of the Creek tribe cannot be overlooked.  Nor can one fail to note how the Crota has brought the promise of Tenskwatawa's activism--"the complete recovery of all Indian land" (154) to a dark, ironic fruition.  A similar dynamic can be traced in the respective fates of Little Hawk and Harding after the pair of protagonists succeed in finally killing the Crota (which had been released from its Creek-created prison by another, modern-day earthquake).  In the wake of the terrible beast's defeat, Little Hawk renounces both his property and his position as game warden of Hobbs County, Missouri, in order to withdraw to an Oklahoma reservation--a curious send-off into the sunset by Goingback, considering the history of migration/segregation forced upon Native Americans by the U.S. Government.  Sheriff Harding also feels a need to abandon his hometown now that Logan, Missouri, promises to turn into a tourist trap: "With the discovery of the lost city [an ancient civilization located in the underground labyrinth], [Logan] would probably boom into a first-rate city--a city packed with cheap hotels, bargain stores, tourists, and crime" (318).  Not only is there no suggestion of Native American property rights in regards to the discovered city; the decadence about to be visited upon Logan hearkens back to the cultural contamination that the prophet Tenskwatawa had sought to prevent in the first place.  Crota thus inscribes a subtle futility, whereby Native American resistance proves a self-defeating prophecy (shades of Tippecanoe, and Wounded Knee).  The arousal of the titular predator that results from Tenskwatawa's misguided efforts signals the punishment the unruly Indian brings crashing down on his own head.  While one of the review blurbs featured in the front matter of the novel proclaims that Goingback "turns an Indian myth into a monster of a tale," what the author really turns out here is a disconcertingly conservative narrative [see Note 15 below].


Notes to Part 3

14.Not surprisingly, Stephen King has assumed the reverse perspective.  In Danse Macabre, his analytical study of the horror genre, King espouses the politics of subversion and containment:
"Monstrosity fascinates us because it appeals to the conservative Republican in the three-piece suit which reside sin all of us.  We love and need the concept of monstrosity because it is a reaffirmation of the order we all crave as human beings....After all, when we discuss monstrosity, we are expressing our faith and belief in the norm and watching for the mutant.  The writer of horror fiction is nothing more nor less than an agent of the status quo" (50-1).

15.Rather than laureled as a third-wave horror novel, Crota perhaps should be lamented for its unrealized potential.  The name of Goingback's fictional Missouri town, Logan, echoes the title of an early American Gothic novel whose plot involves scenes of Indian removal and massacre--John Neal's Logan: A Family History (1822).  Accordingly, Crota has a chance to make an intertextual allusion and offer a critical response to Neal's work, but Goingback fails to seize this opportunity.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Dark Articles: "The Horror! The Horror?" (Part 2 of 5)


[For Part 1 of the essay "The Horror! The Horror?  The Appropriation, and Reclamation, of Native American Mythology," click here.]


[continued]

Despite its particular echoes of It, Gray's The Trickster could have found a model of second-wave appropriation of tribal myth in another King novel, Pet Sematary.  As was the case with Gray's book, a consideration of King's own source texts is quite revealing.  Pet Sematary, which deals with a father's desperate, tragic attempt to resurrect his infant son by placing him in an ancient Indian burial ground, can be tracked along three lines of influence.  King helpfully cites the first as an epigraph: W.W. Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw."  The classic story, like King's novel, features a be-careful-what-you-wish-for motif, as a grieving parent's effort to call a child back from the dead leads to some unholy consequences.  The second line of influence extends from Nathaniel Hawthorne's tales set in the dark forests of New England.  In linking Hawthorne's moral allegories to Pet Sematary, King scholar Anthony Magistrale writes: "The woods of Hawthorne and King are a reflection of the self's essential darkness and the human affinity to sin" (59) [see Note 8 below].  Yet even as he cites these woods as representational arenas for the unconscious self (60), Magistrale fails to elaborate on the space occupied in such arenas by Native Americans.  Repeatedly Hawthorne's characters map their own hysteria onto the Native American, attributing a sinister presence to figures that are generally absent from the stories.  For instance, the eponymous Young Goodman Brown frets that "there might be a devilish Indian behind every tree" (Hawthorne 66), while the title character of "Endicott and the Red Cross" warns his brethren that "the savage lieth in wait for us in the dismal shadow of the woods" (116).  King appears to follow Hawthorne's lead in Pet Sematary: there is not a single Native American character in the novel, yet the white characters fear that their woods are haunted by a mythic Wendigo whose touch will turn them into cannibalistic savages.

This brings us to the third influence on King's narrative, the 1910 supernatural novella The Wendigo by the Englishman Algernon Blackwood.  Blackwood's tale of an ill-fated moose-hunting trip in the eerie Canadian backwoods arguably informs the sylvan setting of Pet Sematary and provides King with the details of Wendigo lore.  In the context of this essay's discussion, though, Blackwood's characterization of the hunting party's Indian cook proves particularly noteworthy.  First off, the very harshness of the cook's name--Punk--suggests where he ranks in relation to his white masters.  Even more telling is the way Blackwood's rhetoric slyly equates Punk with the fiendish Wendigo.  The latter is distinguished by its stench, "pungent and acrid like the odour of lions" (190), just as Blackwood is careful to point out the "odourous" nature of the cook's sleeping blankets.  Similarly, the Wendigo is called a "shadow of unknown horror" (172), but only after Punk himself has been seen slipping about camp "like a shadow" (164).  The Wendigo is associated with the cold wind and the ability to cover great distances in a short amount of time, and at the end of the tale, Blackwood writes of Punk's long journey home: "He covered the entire journey of three days as only Indian blood could have covered it.  The terror of a whole race drove him" (207).  The terror of a whole race, however, seems to belong more to Blackwood, whose subtly-demonizing rhetoric transforms the Wendigo from a native myth into a descriptive template for the Indian savage.

The Wendigo/Windigo also figures into the opening pages of Erdrich's Tracks.  As Nanapush and Edgar Pukwan attend to the corpses of a consumption plague, Pukwan worries that  "the unburied Pillager spirits might seize him by the throat and turn him windigo" (3).  Nanapush, for his part, refuses to be spooked: "They say the unrest and curse of trouble that struck our people in the years that followed was the work of dissatisfied spirits.  I know what's fact, and have never been afraid of talking.  Our trouble came from living, from liquor and the dollar bill" (4).  Soon thereafter, Nanapush refers to the conditions of sickness, freezing, and starvation that form the likely root of the Wendigo myth: "Days passed, weeks, and we didn't leave the house for fear we'd crack our cold and fragile bodies.  We had gone half windigo.  I learned later that this was common, that there were many people who died in this manner, of the invisible sickness" (6).  All of this is not to suggest that Nanapush is a staunch rationalist whose narrative discounts the supernatural (after all, even as he downplays the windigo, Nanapush recounts the miracle of the Pillager shack that impossibly refused to catch fire).  Rather the emphasis is on the way the supernatural is taken in stride by characters such as Nanapush, as opposed to how a novel like Pet Sematary magnifies the Wendigo into the ultimate horror.  Critic Wendy K. Kolmar has furnished perhaps the most lucid explanation of Erdrich's handling of her material in Tracks: "The supernatural elements exist undifferentiated from the 'present,' the 'real,' the 'natural.'  Characters and readers do not confront them as other; they are simply part of the experience and life of the text" (238).

King and Erdrich's contrasting stances on the supernatural thus prove quite instructive.  For the protagonist of Pet Sematary, who happens to be a doctor, the Wendigo represents not just a physical threat but a threat to his rationality: "And it isn't just grief [the Wendigo] feeds on.  Sanity. It's eaten your sanity" (358).  In contrast to emergent novels like Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me Ultima and Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, in which native healers are shown to succeed where Western medicine fails, Pet Sematary's white doctor opines that "the medicine available at the Micmac burying ground was perhaps not such good medicine" (139).  King's Wendigo seems to pose a challenge not only to rationality but to the Christian faith as well.  There's a definite Hawthornian flair to the allegorical names King christens his characters with, such as the family cat "Church" (which returns Wendigo-haunted after being interred not in the pet cemetery but in the Micmac burying ground) and protagonist Louis "Creed."  Yes, Dr. Creed proclaims that he's merely a lapsed Methodist who has had no deep religious training, but his very surname evokes Christianity's "Apostle's Creed" (a prayer that dictates the faithful believe in one God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth).

Unsurprisingly, Erdrich assumes the inverse position in Tracks, offering Chippewa myth and spirituality as a positive alternative to Western conceptions of reality and religion.  The alternating narratives of Nanapush and Pauline are structured to call Pauline's reliability into question, as the reader is more willing to side with Nanapush's worldview (and not merely because of his parodying of Pauline's piety).  In Erdrich's novel, the efficacy of native "magic" is borne out by the fact that various characters witness its tangible results.  Bernadette Morrisey sees her daughter Sophie's torn and bloody dress after Moses Pillager's love medicine has triggered Sophie's deflowering by Eli.  Also, a whole host of characters witness Sophie's hypnotic trance outside Fleur's door when the latter seeks a jealous lover's vengeance.  During the same scene, however, Pauline is the sole witness of the alleged Christian miracle of the Virgin Mary's statue crying quartz tears, which leads the reader to suspect that Pauline is deluded.  Erdrich's subsequent detailing of Pauline's martyr complex (exhibit A: the scene where Pauline thrusts her arms into a pot of boiling water) in turn renders Christian fanaticism much more terrifying than any Chippewa element in the novel.  Erdrich can also be seen to turn the tables on Christianity via the subtle demonization of Father Damien, whose name echoes that of the satanic child in the 1976 horror film The Omen.  Finally, in contradistinction to Pet Sematary, the only potential deicide involves the nun Pauline's attack on the lake spirit Misshepeshu, a crusade that Pauline believes opens the door for white lumber interests to level the Matchimanito woods.

Discussion thus far has situated Pet Sematary and Tracks as polar opposites, but certain commonalities should not be overlooked.  Lurking beneath the supernatural machinery of both novels is a protracted battle over property rights.  As critic Nancy J. Peterson points out (986-7, 992), the historical backdrop to Erdrich's novel is furnished by the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887 and the forced transition to a system of private property that actually served to strip Native Americans of their land (e.g., when they could not afford the property taxes or were conned into selling out to white settlers).  In Tracks, Erdrich recounts the unscrupulous yet
"wholesale purchase of [Chippewa] allotment land by whites" (98), and dramatizes how the claim of the natives' religious primitivism was used to justify the encroachment of white civilization.  When Pauline adopts her colonialist mentality, she becomes a perfect representative for the dominant culture's efforts to clear a space for itself in the (Native) American wilderness: "I should not turn my back on the Indians.  I should go out among them, be still, and listen.  There was a devil in the land, a shadow in the water [Misshepeshu], an apparition that filled their sight.  There was no room for [God] to dwell in so much as a crevice of their minds" (137).

Early in Pet Sematary, the reader learns that the remnants of the Micmac tribe are engaged in a legal battle with the U.S. Government concerning rightful ownership of the woods in Ludlow, Maine (where Louis Creed has just purchased a house).  Comparable to the situation in Tracks (but, significantly, lacking Erdrich's critical perspective), King's novel offers a white program of demonization that can serve to nullify Native American land claims.  Creed's neighbor Jud "had talked about how the Micmac Indians had staved off a British landing at Machias two hundred years ago.  In those days the Micmacs had been pretty fearless, he said, and then added that he guessed there were a few state and federal lawyers who thought they still were" (100).  Again, one sees how Native Americans are rendered a present absence, lurking menacingly offstage.  King gives voice to only one pseudo-Indian in the novel, Dr. Creed's dead white patient Victor Pascow.  When Pascow posthumously visits Creed and warns him that any attempt to cross the boundary into Micmac territory will lead to dire consequences, the ghost exudes a particular threat: "The blood," King writes, "had dried on [Pascow's] face in maroon stripes like Indian warpaint" (67) [see Note 9 below].  King leaves the land dispute unresolved in the novel, but a victory for the dominant culture is hardly unfathomable.  One can envision the government usurping the Micmac land not under the pretense of a Christian uplifting but with the old justification that it is merely retaliating to Native American
transgression--a spirit of hostility reflected in the novel's main plot by the Wendigo's destruction of the respectable Creed family [see Note 10 below].  From this perspective, King's novel aligns with a centuries-old tradition of American popular literature; as Neal Salisbury, editor of the 1987 edition of Mary Rowlandson's The Sovereignty and Goodness of God notes: "The genre of the captivity narrative...juxtaposes Euro-American suffering to Native American aggression, subtly inverting the process of dispossession of natives by colonists that was in effect the context for most narratives" (55) in the first place.

In his essay "Romance and Real Estate," scholar Walter Benn Michaels traces how one of the central novels in the tradition of American Gothic literature, Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, finds its inciting moment in a scheme of alleged demonic possession and geographic dispossession: Mathew Maule is executed for witchcraft (cf. the real-life trial of Rebecca Nurse, who was denounced as a Salem witch and then hung ultimately because the old time villagers desired her family's plot of land) by the covetous Colonel Pyncheon, "who asserted plausible claims to the proprietorship of this...land on the strength of a land grant from the legislature" (qtd. in Michaels 91).  Michaels proceeds to link such a plot dynamic to the modern horror genre when he notes that the film Poltergeist "centers on what is in effect a title dispute between a real estate development company and the corpses who inhabit the bull-dozed cemetery the developers build on" (90).  Carol J. Clover takes the argument one step further, remarking that the ghouls who surface at the end of Poltergeist look very much like Indians, and thus declaring that "even haunted house horror devolves finally, on the Indian question" (134) [see Note 11 below].  Indeed, in her book-length study of horror cinema, Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Clover identifies modern horror with the settler-versus-Indian stories of 1930's and 40's westerns.  There, too, one finds "the traditional story of an Indian atrocity repaid with genocide and a land grab" (163), an attempt to justify American history by attributing "to the Indians characteristics so vile and deeds so heinous that the white man's crimes pale in comparison" (134) [see Note 12 below].  So while Native Americans have long since been dispossessed of their tribal lands, and the effects of demonization have been realized, these recurring pop cultural narratives continue to perform an important function.  The struggle of present, living owners to fend off dead, former ones is not only a leitmotif of the horror genre but, according to Clover, a chance for white America to wrestle with it sown demons of guilt: "We fall back on the terms of the older, originary story that haunts our national consciousness" (163).

The horror genre's capacity to perpetuate cultural damage--seizing upon and redeveloping the narrative property of native mythology in order to rationalize the great American "land grab"--leads one to expect the genre to be challenged as part of the project of emergent literatures.  A writer like Erdrich appears to do precisely that, reclaiming Native American myths while herself appropriating horror conceits for her own purposes.  Her poem "The windigo" (from the collection Jacklight) compares with the narrative strategies of Tracks.  Erdrich allows the titular demon to articulate his own story in his own quiet tone, whereas the Wendigo of Algernon Blackwood and Stephen King are little more than gibbering, howling fiends [see Note 13 below].  Moreover, Erdrich's poem empowers rather than demonizes Native Americans, showing them quite capable of dealing with the wintry creature.  Another instructive (prose-)poem by Erdrich is "Potchikoo's Life After Death," which reworks the hoary conceit of the evil doppelganger.  Potchikoo has a "mean twin," but the ghoul's actions facilitate a sardonic social commentary rather than merely serving to terrify: Potchikoo's mean twin "got drunk and tossed a pool cue out of the window of the Stumble Inn.  The pool cue hit the tribal chairman on the shoulder and caused a bruise....And then [the twin] knocked down the one road sign the government had seen fit to place on the reservation" (56).

Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony (1977) is another seminal text of Native American emergent literature, and pairs with Erdrich's Tracks in making strategic use of the supernatural to deliver its message.  Commenting on the truly horrific nature of World War II--"the dismembered copses and the atomic heat-flash outlines, where human bodies had evaporated"--Silko reminds readers that "not even oldtime witches killed like that" (37).  Silko also taps into a Dantean underworld iconography when her protagonist Tayo journeys to the blighted town of Gallup, which is located between a polluted river and a garbage dump and littered with the passed-out bodies of drunken Native Americans.  Silko most important riff on the supernatural, though, occurs when the medicine man Betonie teaches Tayo that "it was Indian witchery that made white people in the first place" (132).  In the mythic poem that forms the central section of the novel, Betonie describes a witches' conference that went out of control and "set in motion" (135) the destructive actions of the white man.  Here Silko's goal is not to demonize white culture or to blame the Native American for his own oppression; instead, she labors to show that both the white man and the Indian have been manipulated by this ancient witchery, which has deceptively pitted the races against one another.  Combating horror becomes a matter not of beating down and casting out the racial Other, but of adopting an integrated, communal perspective.  The process of overcoming witchery in Ceremony forms a handy blueprint for the project of emergence: "The liars had fooled everyone, white people and Indians alike; as long as people believed the lies, they would never be able to see what had been done to them or what they were doing to each other" (191).


Notes to Part 2

8.Magistrale is on the mark when he links the protagonist of Pet Sematary to Hawthorne's host of unpardonable sinners, from Aylmer ot Rapaccini to Chillingworth.  I would add that the ominous refrain running throughout King's novel--"the soil of a man's heart is tonier" (59)--calls to mind Hawthorne's "Ethan Brand," whose dark heart transmutes to marble at tale's end.

9.Pet Sematary does present a minor character who is a native of India, but like most things "Indian" in the novel, he is degraded but white culture.  Dr. Surrendra ["surrender"?] Hardu's role consists of brunting his co-workers' racist jokes and of being vomited on by a patient.

10.Recall Edgar Huntly and Brown's professed desire to depict
"incidents of Indian hostility."  The horrors of that novel are chalked up to vengeful Indians making "groundless and absurd [property] claims" (270).  Brown's title character ties up loose ends by noting how the old Indian woman who resisted the white usurpation of tribal land is brought to justice by white authority:
"Queen Mab, three days after my adventure, was seize din her hut on suspicion of having aided and counselled her countrymen, in their late depredations" (270).

11.Clover might be guilty here of some wishful-viewing, as the climactic corpses of Poltergeist seem generic ghouls rather than conspicuously Native American.  Perhaps what is most interesting about Poltergeist (as in King's Pet Sematary) is its reluctance to fully acknowledge the bloody history it reflects.  Consider the disavowal made in Poltergeist by the real-estate mogul regarding the displaced cemetery: "It's not ancient tribal burial grounds; it's just people."

12.A prime example can be found in Catherine Montrose's 1995 horror novel The Wendigo Border, where "the madness of Wounded Knee" (180) is blamed not on white militancy but on a Native American character who has allowed a group of demonic wendigo to run amok.  Here the appropriation of native mythology by a second-wave horror narrative seems but another belated justification of American aggression and atrocity.

13.In his psychoanalytical interpretation of the American conquest of the Indian, historian Michael Paul Rogan asserts: "Whites perceived Indians...as children in a sustaining, oral relationship to nature.  Since that relationship was a projection of hidden white longings, it could not be permitted to remain a cultural alternative" (292).  In this light, one can understand the horror genre's recasting of such orality in a negative one.  Not only does King's Wendigo connote heathen cannibalism; it is characterized by its hellish "rictus": "The lower lip was turned inside out, revealing teeth stained blackish-brown and worn down almost to nubs" (King 327).

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dark Articles: "The Horror! The Horror?" (Part 1 of 5)



Over the next 7-10 days here at Macabre Republic I will be serializing an essay first published in the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts back in the year 2000.  "The Horror! The Horror?  The Appropriation, and Reclamation, of Native American Mythology" stems from my days as a grad student and fledgling literary critic at NYU.  In preparing the essay for posting here on the blog, I have made some grammatical edits, but have otherwise tried to leave the structure of the original text intact. 


The Horror! The Horror?  The Appropriation, and
Reclamation, of Native American Mythology
 
By Joe Nazare
 
 
 
"In any culture, myth, legend and folklore serve to explain the unexplainable, to promote cultural continuity and survival, and also to entertain."  Lester A. Standiford (168) sketches this blueprint in the opening of his essay "Worlds Made of Dawn: Characteristic Image and Incident in Native American Imaginative Literature."  Certainly Standiford points out the key functions of a mythology within its own culture, but what happens when such mythology is appropriated by another culture?  Increasingly over the past two decades, the horror genre, whose literary and cinematic narratives are scripted primarily by whites, has found its subject matter in the darker elements of Native American mythology.   Various explanations might be offered for this repeated turn to native elements.  Philosophically, the "natural supernaturalism" of Native American spiritualism seems to accord well with the Romanticism of the horror genre, which allows for the infusion/intrusion of the unworldly into the realm of everyday existence.  Less positively, the Native American can be seen as just another variable to be plugged into horror's xenophobic formula: establishing a monstrous Other that must be vanquished to preserve cultural order [see Note 1 below].  The modern horror genre might simply follow the pattern of American popular literature, culminating a history of demonization of the "Indian" extending back through the sensationalist dime novels of the late 19th Century that "fed the public taste with increasingly violent images of the Indian as thoughtless savage killer and destroyer of civilized institutions" (Ruppert 389), all the way back to Puritan captivity narratives that fashioned Indian captors as "ravenous beasts," a "company of hell-hounds, roaring, singing, ranting, insulting" (Rowlandson 70).
 
With its functional dependency on notions of monstrosity, villainy, and violence, the horror genre can hardly be expected to conform to the strictures of political correctness; still, the cultural work of horror's treatment of the Native American should not be glossed over.  Historically the rise of the horror narrative in America intertwines with the narrative of Native American dispossession.  In a founding text of American Gothic, Charles Brockden Brown's 1799 novel Edgar Huntly, blame--and punishment--for the various transgressions within the book is ultimately heaped on war-mongering Indian "savages."  Brown himself in his preface "To the Public" argues for a distinctly American brand of horror that casts aside European hallmarks--"Puerile superstition and exploded manners, Gothic castles and chimeras"--in favor of more indigenous subject matter: "The incidents of Indian hostility, and the perils of the western wilderness, are far more suitable, and for a native of America to overlook these, would admit of no apology" (3).   Here Brown performs an initial appropriation of the very concept of "native American," and perhaps not coincidentally, the author proceeds to deny his Indian characters in the novel any linguistic ability.  As critic Leslie Fiedler notes of Brown's rhetorical strategies: "For the corrupt Inquisitor and lustful nobleman [of European Gothic], he has substituted the Indian, who broods over the perils of Brown's fictional world in an absolute dumbness that intensifies his terror.  Brown's aboriginal shadows do not even speak.  They merely threaten by their very presence" (159-60) [see Note 2 below].
 
In retrospect, the disavowal of Native American language and literary tradition, the positing of the Indian as brooding bogeyman and howling, inarticulate fiend of the wilderness, clearly served as a pretext for cultural domination.  My interest here, though, does not lie with the colonial project (and rhetorical rationalization) of Indian oppression/removal that informs the long first wave of American (Gothic) literature.  I invoke first-wave writers such as Brown, Bradford, and Hawthorne only to establish the tradition, the touchstone against which subsequent horror narratives are to be rubbed.  Rather the focus is on what I would like to call the more modern second and third waves, on the complexities of the manipulation of tribal materials in late 20th Century Gothic narratives by white and Native American writers alike [see Note 3 below].
 
By "second wave," I refer to the aforementioned proliferation of Native American subject matter within popular horror narratives of the past two decades.  Such a phenomenon might at first seem to reflect the development of America's own attitudes at the close of 20th Century: a movement away from historical silencing, and a belated acknowledgement that Native Americans possess their own language, literature, and culture, their own cosmology and mythology.  It is soon quite apparent, though, that the presence of Native American mythology within modern horror narratives often speaks to something more nefarious than an enlightened regard for another culture.  The appropriation of the darker elements of Native American mythology for horrific effect suggests a hearkening back to the first wave, as these second wave (re: white) writers retroactively associate the Native American with an untenable state of savage primitivism [see Note 4 below].  Still, the dubious cultural work performed by such narratives has not gone unchallenged.  Indeed, a third wave can be traced to those Native American writers who themselves choose to script Gothic narratives from their own unique perspective.  This third wave attempts a reclamation of Native American mythology from its often disparaging use by the second wave (here "reclamation" implies not only the seizing back of native materials but also their restoration towards more productive ends).  By juxtaposing horror's handling of the mythology with native writers' employment of tribal myths, the following essay hopes to chart both the cultural repercussions of such cooptation by the horror genre and the effect on the Native American literary project of emergence [see Note 5 below].
 
What follows, then, is a series of comparative readings.  First, I counterpose Louise Erdrich's 1988 novel Tracks (which I will be upholding throughout this essay as a paradigmatic emergent text of Native American literature) to two second-wave horror narratives, Muriel Gray's The Trickster (1995) and Stephen King's Pet Sematary (1983).  Such juxtaposition helps to delineate the appropriation and reclamation of leading native myths of the trickster and the wendigo, but deeper issues are also unearthed (like the issue of cultural property--the museum-like display of Native American materials reflexively performed by both Gray's characters and The Trickster itself).  The linking of Gothic rhetoric with land disputes in both Tracks and Pet Sematary also demonstrates that the struggle for narrative control of Native American mythology maps onto issues of geographic dispossession [see Note 6 below].
 
Yet even as the adopting/adapting of a Gothic rhetoric by a Native American writer like Louise Erdrich (or Leslie Marmon Silko) proves quite instructive, one must admit that such emergent writers can be located only on the farthest fringe of the horror genre proper.  Thus my second act of comparative readings involves two Native American texts more deeply immersed in the third wave: Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer (1996) and Owl Goingback's Crota (1996).  Again, though, matters are not so simple as a growth from silence to speech: these third wave writers do not merely offset the ventriloquism of white horror writers (in the latter's mythological appropriations) by lending an authentic Native American voice to the horror genre.  Closer scrutiny forces one to consider whether such third wave novels ultimately cut against the grain of emergence; Goingback's Crota in particular--despite being laureled with a Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel--hardly proves the crowning achievement of Native American Gothic.
 
Next I turn to a text whose strategic use of Native American mythology helps render it an exemplum of the emergent horror novel: S.P. Somtow's Moon Dance (the fact that the novel is written by an Asian American signals the work left to be done by Native American writers of horror).  Somtow's addition of Asian-American subject matter to his Native American material as part of a critique of comparative racism counterbalances the strategies of second-wave writer Jack Cady in his novella By Reason of Darkness.  My point, though, is not to lose the particularity of my Native American theme by eliding it with an Asian-American one: I focus on how Cady returns with a crucial difference to the theme of the native burial ground and the issue of territorial encroachment/ displacement previously raised in King's Pet Sematary.  Finally, by returning once more to Erdrich's Tracks and contrasting it with Cady's novella, I point towards future possibilities for the Native American/third wave horror novel.
 
 
Over the past two decades, various traditions of ethnic literature have made strategic use of the trickster figure: Asian-American (Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey [1989]); African-American (Toni Morrison's Tar Baby [1981]); Chicano (Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza [1987]).  Louise Erdrich's Tracks is a Native American novel similarly infused with a "trickster aesthetic" (Smith 11) [see Note 7 below].  Nanapush, co-narrator of Tracks, embodies characteristics of the trickster figure; he's a "smooth-tongued artificer" (Erdrich 196) who can "wound with pointed jokes" (17).  With his ability to "comically unite opposites and upend categories and conventions" (Smith 8), Nanapush cunningly undermines the Christian rhetoric of his rival Pauline.  Asked if she has given up "the fruit without price," Pauline preaches: "You mean Christ.  He dwells within us.  He is the fruit of the virgin's womb" (Erdrich 144).  To which Nanapush lewdly responds: "Not that fruit.  the cherry."  Likewise, when Pauline proudly recites that she will not live "by bread alone," Nanapush answers her metaphoric language with reductive literalism: "There's meat...good stew!" (199).  Nanapush also displays an ability to put the sacred instruments of the church to profane use, stealing the wire form the church piano to maker snares.  Akin to the Chippewa trickster Naanabozho, "Nanapush adopts the techniques of the oppressor to even the score and to balance the distribution of power" (Peterson 990).  In Tracks, Nanapush's mastery of the white man's language enables him to slyly negotiate cross-cultural boundaries, as when he seizes upon his position as a government interpreter to warn Rift-In-A-Cloud not to sign the Beauchamp Treaty.  Well aware of the deceptive yet authoritative quality of government documents, Nanapush also utilizes the technology of writing to forge his granddaughter Lulu's birth certificate and rescue her from boarding school.  No doubt Nanapush's relationship with Lulu is central to Tracks, as Nanapush uses his storytelling ability as a trickster to narrate to Lulu her familial and cultural history and to point out a communitarian moral: "We must live close together, as one people, share what we have in common, take what we're owed" (180).  Ultimately, then, Erdrich's trickster aesthetic proves integral to the emergent aspect of the novel.  While the book dramatizes cultural damage, "reconstructing the evil blows" inflicted by dominant white culture, Tracks does not reduce itself to a bitter lament.  Erdrich instead demonstrates through Nanapush that humor and craftiness can be vital skills for "the personal and cultural survival of the Chippewa people" (Smith 72).
 
Erdrich's narrative project of revisionist mythmaking and pointed use of the trickster in Tracks, though, face sits own stunning transformation when this mythological figure is appropriated by the horror genre.  In her novel The Trickster, Scottish writer Muriel Gray is careful to note the contradictory elements of the trickster myth:
Creator or destroyer.  It could be both.  There were many Tricksters, apparently.  Some were figures of fun, who could be deceived in hilarious fashion as well as deceive, providing endless stories of great ribaldry, almost always involving sex and defecation.  Others were figures of the deepest terror, demons who destroyed and murdered as naturally as a mortal breathes in and out, clever, shapeshifting, vengeful, evil beyond imagination. (87)
The protocol of the horror novel naturally leads Gray to focus on the second type of trickster, but the darkening of the trickster aesthetic evident in Erdrich's novel is nonetheless remarkable.  Gray turns the trickster back against native culture as an agent of genocide: her eponymous monster is not a positive model for cultural survival like Nanapush but rather an "Indian-hating killer" (99) that preys on the Canadian descendants of the Kinchuinick tribe that had defeated and imprisoned it.  Whereas Nanapush's profanations were marked by a clever wit, Gray's trickster wallows in mere vulgarity, manifesting itself "in so many foul guises, so many obscene tableaux" (262).  Nanapush's carnivalesque inversions devolve into physical mutilation in The Trickster: each victim has his "heart stuffed up his anus, the penis in the mouth" (98).  By situating her trickster as menacing Other, Gray also strips the figure of any verbal acuity or storytelling ability: generally its dialogue consists of the mundane command to have its four demonic names spoken.  Overall, then, Gray's novel might be seen to enact its own trickster-like deception on its audience.  Gray's characters are certainly politically correct in their challenge of racist stereotypes of the Indian as drunk, wife-beater, and superstitious fool.  The novel's protagonist also learns to take pride in his hitherto-repressed Indian heritage: finally recognizing that "he was no savage among civilized white folks" (428), Sam Hunting Wolf accepts his shaman powers and vanquishes the trickster.  these seemingly positive messages, though, mask the fact that Gray has taken a mythological figure used constructively by countless ethnic writers (and who now even has its own unit--"Native American Trickster Tales"--in the Norton Anthology of American Literature) and served it up to the popular imagination as a vile fiend to be removed from the cultural order.

Another aspect of Gray's The Trickster proves equally discon-certing.  The review blurbs prefacing the novel tout Gray's work as reminiscent of Stephen King, and one of the character sin the novel actually invokes King's name (90) when describing a grisly murder scene.  By novel's end, however, the extent of King's influence becomes quite apparent.  When Sam confronts the Trickster in its subterranean lair, finding its truest incarnation to be a giant, insect-like monster, the scene unfolds as a virtual rewrite of the finale of King's 1986 opus It.  That Gray's Trickster trace sits heritage to King's shape-shifting It is also evident in the way both antagonists draw their evil power from the malice lurking in the hearts of the respective townspeople.  All this leads one to question the importance of native mythology to Gray's text and to wonder if the author has merely cloaked a familiar horror plot with Indian exotica.  The Trickster is well-stocked with medicine men, sweat lodges, sacred charms, ancient curses, and dream visions, supporting the claim of Native American writer and critic Paula Gunn Allen that white culture seeks "to be titillated by Indian lore, seeing--however unconsciously--native spiritual life as a curious artifact" (385-6).  Appropriately enough, Sam's white wife in The Trickster works in a museum, and her endeavors seem to mirror Gray's own catalogue and display of tribal materials: "Kate knew the whole floor should have been [devoted to] railroad history, but she had all these great Indian domestic tools and artifacts to do with tribal worship and mythology to show and nowhere else to show them" (67).


Notes to Part 1

1.To acknowledge such a formula is not to equate or homogenize the abjection of various minority peoples.  For instance, when Leslie Fiedler in Love and Death in the American Novel suggests that "the proper subject for American Gothic is the black man" (397) and traces out a tradition extending from Poe's Narrative of A. Gordon Pym of Nantucket to Melville's Benito Cereno to Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, he links such Gothicism to a particular set of anxieties expressed by the dominant culture (slave rebellion, miscegenation).  Such anxieties do not necessarily (or fully) translate to the depiction of the Native American, whose recurring role in horror narratives bespeaks other white fears and prejudices.

2.In his introduction to Edgar Huntly, Norman S. Grabo notes the significance of Brown's setting his novel outside Philadelphia in the year 1787: the symbolic founding of a new nation via the Constitutional Convention coincides with the attempted eradi-cation of Native American society within the novel (what Grabo [xiv] calls the "national nightmare of dispossession").  Cf. the Gothic rhetoric of another foundational American document, William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation, which attributes to "the savage people" various "cruelties horrible to be related" (169) and situates the Indian as a barbarous obstacle blocking the march of civilization.

3.Just as I want to be careful not to tendentiously indict an entire genre on charges of inherent racism, I also hope to avoid (through close textual scrutiny) the naive championing of those narratives that offer more positive depictions of Native Americans.  Even
works of horror (by white and Native American writers alike) that on the surface seem to make all the correct statements can be seen to be fractured by deeper ideological faults.

It should also be noted that I deliberately choose the term "wave" for its sense of a fluid, overlapping dynamic, as opposed to the rigid chronological sequencing suggested by a historical "period."  Rather than attempt a sweeping survey of the evolution of the Native American in the horror narrative, I hope to dialogize these second and third waves that form a roughly contemporaneous moment in American literary history.

4.The paternalistic rhetoric of William Gilmore Simms' 1846 Views and Reviews--his call for white American writers to civilize their Indian materials--foreshadows the opportunistic (and perhaps hypocritical) appropriations of the modern horror genre.  Simms writes: "Their [i.e. Native Americans'] dark and gloomy mythologies...will receive some softening lights, some subduing touches, from all the endowing spells of [white literary] genius" (qtd. in Goddu 72).

5.The concept of "emergent ethnic literature" is itself rooted in Raymond Williams' notion of emergence in Marxism and Literature: "By emergent, I mean, first, that new meanings and values, new practices, new relationships and kinds of relationship are continually being created" (123).  Williams' understanding of hegemonic authority as a cultural process, a constant tug-of-war between dominant and emergent culture, also forms a useful paradigm for the struggle over Native American mythology that I am attempting to trace here.

6.Edward W. Said acutely interconnects issues of narrative property with those of land ownership: "The main battle in imperialism is over land, of course; but when it came to who owned the land, who had the right to settle and work on it, who kept it going, who won it back, and who now plans its future--these issues were reflected, contested, and even for a time decided in narrative.  As one critic has suggested, nations themselves are narrations.  The power to narrate, or to block other narrations from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them" (xii-xiii).

7.In Writing Tricksters: Mythic Gambols in American Ethnic Literature, Jeanne Rosier Smith finds writers like Kingston, Erdrich, and Morrison engaged in a project of "revisionist myth-making" that doe snot just attempt to retell traditional myths but to reinvent and recombine them: "As they draw on Chinese legend, Chippewa myth, and African American folktale, they not only question gender roles but also revise traditional myths both of their own ancestral backgrounds and of the dominant culture, to suit the needs of life in modern America" (5).

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Just Chilling

Those brilliantly demented folk over at Mad Lab Productions are at again, having just released their latest piece of sardonic stop-motion animation, "Winter Time Zombie."  I've embedded the short below, along with the clip from the classic holiday film to which it seemingly pays zombie homage.