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.]


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 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 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).

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