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.]


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.

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