Hill House Revisited

Unsurprisingly, Mike Flanagan’s new series The Haunting of Hill House (now streaming on Netflix) has rekindled interest in the classic Shirley Jackson source novel. Two noteworthy recent articles are Anna Green’s “11 Chilling Facts About Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Alison Flood’s “‘Textbook Terror’: How The Haunting of Hill House Rewrote Horror’s Rules.”

On this occasion, I would also like to call attention to my own essay. “Haunting Anniversary: A Half-Century of Hill House” was published by The Internet Review of Science Fiction back in February 2010. The piece attempts to correct reigning critical misinterpretations of Jackson’s novel, and works to identify the specific ghost haunting Hill House. It also traces the literary legacy of Jackson’s novel over the five decades since its first publication. To this day, the essay remains one of the pieces of my own writing of which I am the proudest. The Internet Review Of Science Fiction‘s website is no longer operating, but I have just added the full text of my essay to the Publications/Free Reads page here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic.

 

The Dark Rites of Assent: The Town Meeting Goes Gothic in Stephen King’s Storm of the Century

In my last post, I focused on Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex, a novel that is undoubtedly indebted to the work of Stephen King (not coincidentally, Hex‘s main character is named Steve). The strongest echoes are of King’s Pet Sematary, but the town-meeting scenes bring to mind Storm of the CenturyThinking back on that King-scripted miniseries has led me to re-post the following piece (from my old Macabre Republic blog). It is the text of a paper I gave years back at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts in Ft. Lauderdale. 

 

The Dark Rites of Assent: The Town Meeting Goes Gothic in Stephen King’s Storm of the Century

Meandering through four hours of melodrama and not-so-special effects, the 1999 miniseries developed from Stephen King’s teleplay Storm of the Century hardly gets off to a compelling start. The arrival of the evil Linoge as Maine’s Little Tall Island is battered by a massive winter storm seems but a tedious rehash of the Randall Flagg plotline in The Stand: a supernatural antagonist manifests just as disaster threatens the breakdown of social order. Linoge’s endlessly reiterated demand in Storm of the Century–“Give me what I want, and I’ll go away”–creates perhaps less a sense of suspense than of irritation and impatience. The faithful viewer (the telematic analogue of King’s Constant Reader) is almost tempted to hold up the TV remote like Linoge’s cane and intone, “Give me what I want, or I’ll go away.”

On its third and final night, though, the miniseries takes a gripping turn. Linoge finally reveals the motivation behind his menacing: the sinister sorcerer wants Little Tall to hand over one of the town’s children to him, a boy or a girl whom Linoge subsequently will raise in his own image. At first, King might seem to have fallen back on familiar territory once again, considering that the parental anxiety over child welfare forms a leitmotif in the author’s works. But what proves particularly striking in this case is the moral dilemma Linoge creates (he threatens to kill all the children and all the parents if Little Tall does not give him what he wants) and the sociopolitical forum Linoge has Little Tall adopt when making its torturous decision: a good old-fashioned New England town meeting.

In his introduction to the published teleplay version of Storm of the Century, King attests that the Little Tall setting does not merely offer a convenient atmosphere of claustrophobia as the island is cut off from the mainland by the snowstorm and forced to fall back on its own resources: “The final impetus was provided by the realization that if I set my story on Little Tall Island, I had a chance to say something interesting and provocative about the very nature of community…because there is no community in America as tightly knit as the island communities off the coast of Maine. The people in them are bound together by situation, tradition, common interests, common religious practices.”  King’s climactic town meeting thus might be viewed in light of Sacvan Bercovitch’s critique (in his 1993 study, The Rites of Assent) of the rhetoric and rituals of American consensus. These “strategies of symbolic cohesion” inform the American Gothicism of Storm of the Century: “Is the result of pulling together always the common good?” King wonders in the introduction. “Does the idea of ‘community’ always warm the cockles of the heart, or does it on occasion chill the blood?” When King broaches the subject of communal formation and revitalization in Storm of the Century, he affords himself the opportunity to say something interesting and provocative about the poetics and politics of the horror genre itself.

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Thirteen Ways of Looking at To Kill a Mockingbird

The passing mention of Harper Lee in yesterday’s post prompted me to import this piece first published on the old Macabre Republic blog in 2010 (in honor of To Kill a Mockingbird‘s golden jubilee). A work of multi-faceted brilliance, Lee’s novel can be viewed…

I.As a coming-of-age tale.  Over the course of the novel, narrator Scout and her older brother Jem learn various life lessons–about human nature, contemporary society, and the conflict that often develops between the two. Scout encapsulates this process of physical/intellectual maturation near the end of her narrative, when she recounts: “As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, expect possibly algebra.”

II.As an example of Southern Gothic. The Radley Place–gloomy, decayed, den of a legendary grotesque–is the epitome of a Southern Gothic domicile, a “dark house” worthy of Faulkner. The character Miss Maudie also strikes at the heart of American Gothic when she offers: “The things that happen to people we never really know. What happens in houses behind closed doors, what secrets–”

III.As a mystery. Boo Radley is a ready-made bogeyman figure for the neighborhood children, but is the infamous recluse really still holed up inside the house, and what would it be like to meet him in the flesh? Such questions have captivated not just Scout, Jem, and their friend Dill, but also legions of Lee’s readers.

IV.As a comedy. Scout’s pluckiness and innocence typically make for a hilarious combination (this girl is living proof that kids say the darnedest things). I would even go so far as to claim that Lee’s novel helped shape the revered holiday comedy A Christmas Story: both employ a formula in which an adult narrator wryly comments on his/her childhood escapades (in this light, it’s interesting to note that Scout and Jem receive air rifles as presents one Christmas–prefiguring Ralphie’s memorable gift in the Bob Clark film). 

V.As a portrait of racial prejudice and small town small-mindedness. “There’s something in our world,” Atticus tries to explain to Scout and Jem, “that makes men lose their heads–they couldn’t be fair if they tried.”  Lee critiques the irrational racism that transforms otherwise upstanding citizens into lynch mob members and blind, unjust jurists, but the author also champions those who manage to transcend a provincial/prejudicial viewpoint: “The handful of people in [sleepy Maycomb, Alabama of the 1930s], who say that fair play is not marked White Only; the handful of people who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us; the handful of people,” according to Miss Maudie, “with enough humility to think, when they look at a Negro, there but for the Lord’s kindness am I.”

VI.As a courtroom drama. These riveting scenes comprise the central chapters of the novel. The case itself is an absolute powderkeg: black fieldhand Tom Robinson has been accused of the ultimate transgression–raping a white woman. By trial’s end the distinction between right and wrong, winning and losing, grows quite muddied: the defendant is convicted, yet the plaintiffs are the ones who end up looking guilty.

VII.As a profile in courage. Atticus Finch demonstrates his fortitude throughout, and not just in physical terms (e.g. facing off against, and shooting down, a rabid dog). Disregarding public opinion, this widower resolves to raise his two children in what he believes is the right way.  Most impressively of all, Atticus defies town censure in his willingness to serve as Tom’s defense lawyer; he commits himself to a case he knows he stands little chance of winning (because of the prevailing racism). Real courage is “when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” Atticus makes this statement in reference to Mrs. Dubose’s determination to kick her morphine addiction before dying, but the words apply just as well to his own character.

VIII.As a summertime idyll. “Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the treehouse; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill.” Scout later elaborates: “summer was Dill by the fishpool smoking string, Dill’s eyes alive with complicated plans to make Boo Radley emerge; summer was the swiftness with which Dill would reach up and kiss me when Jem was not looking.” Summer is finding ways to while away the day in play (is it any wonder Scout, Jem, and Dill fixate on the Radley Place and invoke the mysterious Boo as the subject of their various games?).

IX.As an exploration of gender roles. Aunt Alexandria wages an arduous campaign to get the tomboy Scout to dress and act like a “lady.” Also, notions of Southern chivalry–the placement of the white woman on an imaginary pedestal of untouchability–are what make the incident between Tom Robinson and Mayella Ewell so scandalous. The latter broke “a rigid and time-honored code” of Southern society when she attempted to miscegenate with Tom (whom she then fashioned as a rapist to cover her own shame).

X.As an examination of social class. Maycomb doesn’t just break along lines of black and white; there is a distinct stratification to Caucasian society itself–the ostensible nobility (land-owning families of respected name), the rural riff-raff (like the Cunninghams), the white trash (such as the lowly Ewells, who, appropriately, live alongside a garbage dump). Jem attempts to explain these gradations to Scout, who replies, “Naw, Jem, I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” Jem, though, disillusioned by the outcome of Tom’s trial, counters: “That’s what I thought, too, when I was your age. If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other?” Speeches such as this illustrate that Lee’s novel broaches the subject not just of racial equality but of general human decency towards others.

XI.As a morality tale. The theme of senseless slaughter of the innocent is foregrounded by the title, and resounds in the book itself when Tom meets his sad demise. But a more redemptive note is struck at novel’s end, when Boo’s killing of Bob Ewell (who himself was attempting to murder Jem and Scout) is covered up. To thrust the reclusive Boo into the limelight by revealing his involvement in Ewell’s death would be a “sin.” Sheriff Heck Tate impresses this point upon Atticus, and Scout follows it up with: “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?”

XII.As Halloween literature. Let’s not forget that Ewell’s climactic knife attack occurs on a dark street on Halloween night, as Scout and Jem are returning home from the holiday celebration at the schoolhouse. The festivities there include apple-bobbing, taffy-pulling, a costume contest, a House of Horrors, and ghoulish games: the children are led into a darkened classroom and “made to touch several objects alleged to be components parts of a human being. ‘Here’s his eyes,’ we were told when we touched two peeled grapes on a saucer. ‘Here’s his heart,’ which felt like raw liver. ‘These are his innards,’ and are hands were thrust into plates of cold spaghetti.” Obviously, Maycomb County is also October Country.

XIII.As a seminal influence on other writers’ works. The echoes can be traced in texts such as Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Stephen King’s Cujo, Richard Laymon’s Halloween short story “Boo” (in the anthology October Dreams), and Joe R. Lansdale’s Edgar-winning novel The Bottoms. To Kill a Mockingbird, itself indebted to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, thus forms a central link in the evolutionary chain of American Gothic literature.

So What Puts the Scare in Scarecrow?

The following essay was first posted on the old Macabre Republic blog back in 2012.

There’s no doubt we have come a long way from the lovable straw-man who befriended Dorothy on the glowing road to the Emerald City. While cute scarecrows in pop culture do persist, they are outnumbered and overshadowed by their more macabre counterparts.  Why, though, is the scarecrow such a frightful guy? What is it about this constructed figure that proves so unnerving to observers?

A possible explanation begins with the anthropomorphic form of the scarecrow. The thing’s semblance of, yet discernible difference from, humanity makes it strangely disturbing to behold. Composed of natural (i.e. straw) and old-household items, the scarecrow vaguely suggests a life-size voodoo doll. Indeed, the notion of unholy creation has long been linked with the scarecrow, going back to one of its earliest appearances in American literature. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 short story “Feathertop,” Mother Rigby (“one of the most cunning and potent witches in New England”) crafts a humanoid straw-man using her own broomstick as spinal cord, and then brings the thing to life via puffs from a diabolically-stoked coal pipe.

Before the scarecrow, in its various fictional and cinematic manifestations, is brought to life, it certainly conveys a corpse-like quality. Weathered and wizened, slowly decomposing (as seen in the photo above).  The scarecrow is a figure marked by both categorical incompleteness and boundary transgression (when internal straw pokes out of its body like desiccant viscera). It straddles the borderline between the inanimate and the animate, especially when the breeze fluttering its tattered garb intimates bodily movement. Its very station as sentinel lends it a spooky aura of sentience: a person can’t help but feel watched by it, and wonder if he/she is being tracked, the same way the eyes of a portrait seemingly follow movement across a room.

When considering the dark aspects of the scarecrow, we should not overlook its traditional crucified pose. Aside from the serious religious implications–the debased reflection of Christ’s sacred image–there’s the connotation of the capitally-punished criminal. Historically, the crucifixion victim was left hanging as an ominous message to others, and the rotting body became the spoils of carrion birds all around. Likewise, when a scarecrow fails to live up to its name, it can be reduced to a perch/chew-toy for black, cacophonic scavengers.

 

The scarecrow’s location, its typically rustic habitat, is no less integral  to its fearfulness. Time and again, the figure is subjected to solitary consignment in a cornfield (that heartland labyrinth and classic American Gothic topos). Its perennially outdoor existence renders it forlorn. The constant exposure to the elements saturates it with wretchedness and gloom–an aura that John Mellencamp draws on in his haunting hit song “Rain on the Scarecrow.”

When sporting its familiar burlap mask, the scarecrow assumes additional sinisterness. The onlooker inevitably imagines that an actual human being might be hiding in rural disguise (the cult classic Dark Night of the Scarecrow builds masterful suspense from such unsettling uncertainty). A mask also raises the specter of underlying grotesquerie, a hideousness of feature or demeanor that affronts one’s basic conceptions of normalcy/civility. Part of the required uniform for the evil killer, a mask has given a quasi-scarecrow look to antagonists in sundry films, from Nightbreed and The Strangers to Batman Begins and Trick ‘R Treat. Director Wes Craven cemented the link between the murderous scarecrow and the slasher figure when he entertained the idea of a sack-colored Ghostface for Scream 4; the alteration didn’t make it to the final cut, but nonetheless has since been popularized as an officially licensed costume.

Last but not least, the scarecrow (by virtue of its association with crops and the harvesting thereof) is a quintessential autumn figure, that season when the days of the year grow short and the nights longer and colder. And once the scarecrow was fashioned (in art and life) with a jack-o’-lantern head, it instantly transformed into an icon of Halloween.  As long as Americans are wont to engage in pagan celebration each October, the scary scarecrow will remain firmly staked in our cultural and psychological soil.

Scarecrow Joe

Me and Lisa, Halloween ’17