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.]


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.

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