Halloween Screams and Chainsaw Serenades: Variations on the Slasher in the Fiction of Stephen Graham Jones

The following short essay was slated to appear in this month’s special issue of Horror Homeroom, but unfortunately I was unable to meet the deadline for a last-minute revision of the piece. This being Friday the 13th of October, I felt it was the perfect time to post the essay here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic. The 2500-word limit for the special issue precluded coverage of all the primary texts (or extensive analysis of any of them), but as I was composing the essay I realized that it represented a first stab at a potentially much larger project. 

 

Halloween Screams and Chainsaw Serenades: Variations on the Slasher in the Fiction of Stephen Graham Jones

By Joe Nazare

 

Paying at the box office for a slasher, it isn’t about having the conventions you know and love subverted, it’s about having them each satisfied in turn, but built into the story such that you hardly recognize them, such that they feel completely organic to the story. If the slasher can manage to surprise you with the exact same development as every slasher that’s preceded it, then that slasher’s on the way to being a success. This was the magic of the first Scream. It told us what it was doing while it was doing it, and still managed not to show any genre fatigue. Or, really, it took that sense of fatigue—by 1996, Jason and Freddy and Michael were exhausted—and turned it into exuberance.
–Stephen Graham Jones, State of the Slasher Address III (445)

Over the past two decades, no writer has worked more diligently than Stephen Graham Jones to import the slasher film into the realm of fiction. The effort is coextensive with his genre career: the inciting witch-testing-ritual-gone-awry moment in Jones’s first published horror story “Raphael” (Cemetery Dance #55, 2006) anticipates the Stacey Graves storyline of the author’s opus-in-progress, The Indian Lake Trilogy. Rather than rehearse hoary formula, though, Jones consistently produces fresh versions of the slasher narrative, on both structural and thematic levels. The following essay offers an overview of Jones’s slasher oeuvre, charting the evolution of such narratives and exploring the various ends to which Jones has employed the popular cinematic subgenre.

Jones’s initial foray into slasher territory, Demon Theory (completed late-1999, published 2006), appears as much the product of his graduate-school studies as his avowed fascination with the Scream franchise. Ostentatiously postmodern, the book frames itself as “a three-part novelization of the feature film trilogy The Devil Inside, as adapted from D, the unauthorized bestseller inspired by the case notes of Dr. Neider, as recorded in a series of interviews conducted during his residency at Owl Creek Mental Facilities and originally published in the journal P/Q as ‘Narrative, Me-dia, and Allocution: Genre as Mnemonic Device’” (3). The story is presented in film-treatment format, and appended with over 400 nesting/cross-referencing endnotes (many serving up slasher factoids; imagine a VH1 Pop-Up Video episode co-scripted by Vladimir Nabokov and Kevin Williamson). Demon Theory opens in classic slasher fashion: a group of med students are summoned from their Halloween party to a creepy, remote farmhouse. There, “all the beautiful sinners” (19) are stalked and spectacularly dispatched, by a supernatural entity or just some hulking psycho in a gargoyle mask.

Jones’s characters are as genre-conscious as any 90’s-slasher cast, but most of the referentiality is conveyed via omniscient authorial voice: “And Nona left the door open behind her, it would seem. Just past it the attic stairs are lowering m.o.s.—the jeep hatch opening on Neve [Campbell, in Scream] all over again” (87). Such allusive, screenplay-jargoned intrusiveness proves jarring, impeding the reader’s immersion in the story. Indeed, Demon Theory defies accessibility (literally, given its longtime out-of-print status). Jones’s invocation of the esoteric (Swedenborgian mysticism, Cartesian metaphysics) and sprawling range of cultural reference (Euripides’s Medea, Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, The X-Files, and The Usual Suspects inform the mind-bending/reality-blurring/self-erasing narrative just as much as does Halloween or Scream) makes Thomas Pynchon seem like a minimalist by comparison. The slasher elements ultimately get lost amidst the book’s experimental form and encyclopedic excess.1

Conspicuously absent from Jones’s early slashers is the overt depiction of the Native American. Demon Theory makes only passing mention of an “albino-blond Plains Indian” (15)—a child in questionable Halloween costume.2 In Jones’s breakthrough novel, though—2020’s critically-acclaimed/award-amassing The Only Good Indians—Native American characters and culture are brought to the forefront. This time, Jones (qtd. in McRobert) decides to “take Jason up to the reservation, to see how he’d fare” (although Friday the 13th’s Pamela Voorhees arguably makes for a more accurate slasher reference). The “enabling prank or accident, misdeed or crime” (Jones, “State of the Slasher Address” 429) of slasher convention here involves four young Blackfeet men who trespass onto the elders’ section of their reservation and slaughter a herd of elk. Apprehension by the game warden is only the beginning of the hunters’ troubles; as the tenth anniversary of the ill-fated outing approaches, the then-pregnant elk who’d perished while desperately trying to save her unborn calf arises as the supernatural hybrid Elk Head Woman and proceeds to execute her “big revenge arc” (Only 78). The central section of the novel stages (in a Native variation on the victim-gathering slumber party) a “Sweat Lodge Massacre” (131). Then there’s Denorah, the thirteen-year-old daughter of one of the hunters, who has playfully dubbed her “Finals Girl, […] ever since she was his lucky charm when she was four and he was watching her in June, during the NBA finals” (173). A basketball prodigy, the final girl Denorah’s climactic showdown with Elk Head Woman (shapeshifted into human appearance) transpires on a makeshift court—an epic contest of “one-on-one, which is a game of slashing, of stopping and popping” (262). A fierce competitor (with the mindset, “you come at a reservation girl, bring a box of band-aids” [291]), Denorah eventually triumphs not due to feistiness or physical prowess, but because she chooses to break the grim cycle of violence and vengeance.3

The Only Good Indians furnishes a portrait of modern Native existence, both on the reservation and within the wider surround of a racism-tainted America. But Jones also uses this slasher narrative as a vehicle of intertextual dialogue with one of the horror genre’s most totemic figures and canonical texts: Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. Both novels thematize the process/purpose of storytelling, and, tellingly, the homosocial groups (Jones’s hunting party; Straub’s Chowder Society) haunted by vengeful female shapeshifters both include characters named Lewis and Ricky. Straub’s approach, though, smacks of cultural appropriation, a plundering of indigenous culture that props up a figure of Native American spiritualism as a manifestation (in the “real world” of the novel) of sinister myth. Inherently and unremittingly evil, Eva Galli the Manitou is always the terrible Other.4 Jones’s Elk Head Woman is also fiendish and devious in her outright assaults and psychologically-tormenting attempts to get each male adversary to “tear down his own life” (98), but her maternal instincts are admirable and undying vindictiveness understandable. Akin to Pamela Voorhees’ indiscriminate killing of camp counselors (a “disproportionate response” that evokes the final girl, “the built-in governor on the slasher’s cycle of violence” [Jones, “Let’s All”]), Elk Head Woman just gets carried away in her bloody quest for justice. Throughout the narrative, Jones interpolates passages from Elk Head Woman’s perspective (written in the second-person, further aligning character and reader), including her late, sympathy-eliciting realization that protecting a beloved calf is “the only thing you’ve ever really wanted to do this whole time, ever since you found yourself suddenly back in the world. Just—your anger, your hate, it was coursing through you so hot, and you got lost in it” (303).5

Finally, The Indian Lake Trilogy (to date, My Heart is a Chainsaw and Don’t Fear the Reaper) presents character-driven narratives that embed the unabashed slasherphilia within the protagonist’s POV. Both books illustrate Jones’s determination not just to propagate but rather to interrogate the final girl figure first codified by Carol J. Clover in her study Men, Women, and Chainsaws.6 When slasher savant Jade Daniels detects a cycle of violence revving up around her in Chainsaw, she attempts to groom newcomer Letha Mondragon—whom she identifies as the supreme embodiment of final-girl goodness—as a combatant. Jade’s instructive inclinations speak to her own inability to envision herself as a final girl; wounded self-image causes her to deem herself too impure, too immoral (the “festering poison” inside her has led her to “stay up late praying to Craven and Carpenter to send one of their savage angels down” [31] onto her Idaho hometown). The narrative reveals that slashers aren’t merely the “goggles” (50) coloring Jade’s teenage worldview but a “cloak of protective armor” (102) fortifying her against her own loneliness, her alienating community, and most of all, her drunken, abusive father Tab. Just as Jones deftly juxtaposes slasher types (the Golden Age “supernatural slasher […] with Michael and Jason and Freddy and Chucky” (109); the Scream era revenge-driven murder mystery), he dramatizes how Jade is plagued by predators both familial and uncanny. Via rousing acts of heroism, Jade ultimately assumes the final girl role, standing up to the bogeyman in her homelife as well as the slasher hellbent on creating an Indian Lake bloodbath.

As perhaps best evinced by Jade (with her wonderfully sardonic remarks and penchant for horror-honoring pranks as a highschooler), humor is a key element of Jones’s various slasher narratives. Jones is not averse to poking fun at the slasher as he obviates its conventions, but the author never entrenches himself in a position of parodic distance. He demonstrates a sincere appreciation of what the final girl, the slasher figure, and the formula overall has to offer. The bloody valentines that Jones sends out year after year (further variants—the conclusion to the Indian Lake Trilogy and the standalone I Was a Teenage Slasher—are forthcoming) represent more than just personal love letters. They testify to the positive cultural values emanating from a subgenre oft-dismissed as superficial at best, misogynistic at worst. Like Jade’s, Jones’s heart is a powerful chainsaw; the author’s slasher-film affinity has enabled him to carve out a rip-roaring body of fiction that enlightens and empowers even as it entertains.

 

NOTES

[1] Jones scales back the postmodernism in his next slasher, 2012’s The Last Final Girl (featuring the Michael-Jackson-masked killer “Billie Jean”). Cinematic formatting—calling attention to camera angles and scene transitions—persists, but the copious annotations are jettisoned, and the citation of slasher-film convention comes predominantly from character dialogue. In retrospect, protagonist Izzy Stratford—a snarky, slasher-savvy, purple-haired, combat-booted, self-described “misfit” (130) who turns in school-essay “meditations on different aspects of horror movies” (136)—represents an obvious proto type of Jade Daniels in Jones’s Indian Lake Trilogy.

[2] The Blackfeet writer Jones challenges such perceived lack in his essay “Being Indian Is Not a Superpower,” asserting that “all of my characters had always been Blackfeet all along. There was never any reason to actually say it, but they always were. Just, I wasn’t hanging dreamcatchers and braids all over them, as that would be a lot like making them wriggle into loincloths so they could fit the limited expectations of…everyone, pretty much.”

[3]  Elaborating on his deliberate revision of formula, Jones (qtd. in Miller) notes: “The final girl in the slasher, in order to win the day, it usually becomes a game of who can take the most damage and give back the most damage, so it becomes a game of muscles and toughness. That, to me, always feels like the final girl’s having to cash in her characteristics, the things that have got her along in life so far. I found myself wondering with The Only Good Indians what would happen if the final girl won the day, not by swinging a machete the hardest or finding a chainsaw or whatever, but what if she won with compassion, which is what she’s had her whole life? That way, she doesn’t have to cash in her identity and be somebody else.”

[4] One of Straub’s more reprehensible (human) characters, professor Harold Sims, dismissively references the Manitou (“Myth survival, for Chrissake”), telling Stella Hawthorne “some story about an Indian who chased a deer for days up a mountain, but when he got to the top the deer turned on him and wasn’t a deer anymore” (257).

[5] In Don’t Fear the Reaper, Jones presents a non-supernatural Native American slasher figure (non-cliched, too: this is no warpainted tomahawk-wielder). The grotesquely disfigured man-mountain Dark Mill South is a walking, stalking frightfest who develops a proclivity for skinning his victims alive. But his interstate rampage is linked to an actual case of injustice—the “Dakota 38” dubiously sentenced to hang by President Lincoln in 1862, “the largest mass execution in American history” (14). Jones also traces this slasher’s sociopathy back to a warped childhood within the Morris Industrial School for Indians, a forced-conversion operation run by the allegedly Christian “Sisters of Mercy,” who likely subjected their charge to “privation, starvation, and various forms of sexual abuse” (417).

[6] Clover’s scholarly scrutiny helped launch the final girl as a pop-cultural trope, but her overthought/overwrought psychoanalytical criticism is bound to confound the average slasher fan. Clover clearly looks down her nose at the slasher, locating it at “the bottom of the horror heap” (21) and downplaying its progressiveness: applauding “the Final Girl as a feminist development” constitutes “a particularly grotesque expression of wishful thinking. She is simply an agreed-upon fiction and the male viewer’s use of her as a vehicle for his own sadomasochistic fantasies an act of perhaps timeless dishonesty” (53). Jones (who excerpts Clover’s book in respective epigraphs for Chainsaw and Reaper) views the final girl much more positively. While disavowing the too-unrelatable “perfect warrior angel princess model” (qtd. in Seery), Jones touts the final girl as “our model for how to stand up to bullies” (qtd. in McRobert). “We should all fight so hard against injustice,” Jones asserts. “At some point in our struggles, we should all turn around, face down our bullies, and then, like Nancy [in A Nightmare on Elm Street], turn our back on them” (“Let’s All”).

 

WORKS CITED

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

Jones, Stephen Graham. “Being Indian Is Not a Superpower.” Electric Literature. May 27, 2019.

—. Demon Theory. San Francisco: MacAdam Cage, 2006.

—. Don’t Fear the Reaper. New York: Saga Press, 2023.

—. The Last Final Girl. E-book ed., Lazy Fascist Press, 2012.

—. “Let’s All Be Final Girls.” CrimeReads. August 31, 2021.

—. My Heart Is a Chainsaw. New York: Saga Press, 2021.

—. The Only Good Indians. E-book ed., Saga Press, 2020.

—. “The State of the Slasher Address.” Butcher Knives & Body Counts: Essays on the Formula, Frights, & Fun of the Slasher Film. Ed. Vince A Liaguno. New York: Dark Scribe Press, 2011. 429-34.

—. “The State of the Slasher Address III.” Butcher Knives & Body Counts: Essays on the Formula, Frights, & Fun of the Slasher Film. Ed. Vince A Liaguno. New York: Dark Scribe Press, 2011. 445-450.

McRobert, Neil. “How Stephen Graham Jones Is Reinventing the Slasher.” Esquire. February 7, 2023.

Miller, Max Asher. “On Being a Good Indian: An Interview with Stephen Graham Jones.” Columbia Journal. May 18, 2020.

Seery, Jenna. “Poured Over: Stephen Graham Jones on Don’t Fear the Reaper.” B&N Reads. February 7, 2023.

Straub, Peter. Ghost Story. New York: Pocket Books, 1979.

 

Hemingway and Horror

He has never written about ghosts or vampires or werewolves. Unlike fellow American literary heavyweight William Faulkner, he does not adopt an overt Gothic mode. Nonetheless, Ernest Hemingway in many respects can be viewed as a horror writer.

Committed to the clear examination of the human condition, Hemingway is a writer who inevitably peers into dark places. His typical thematic concerns, such as masculinity-attacking fear (“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”) and the confrontation of mortality (“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”) and his recurrent subjects (bullfighting’s spectacular tragedy; warfare’s mass cruelties and casualties) are perfectly geared toward the horrific. Macabre imagery haunts Hemingway’s work. Greek evacuees in “On the Quai at Smyrna” cling to six-days-dead babies and hobble their baggage animals before dumping them in the harbor’s shallow waters to drown. The misleadingly titled “An Alpine Idyll” paints a mordant picture worthy of Tales from the Crypt: a husband is forced to store his wife’s rigid corpse in the woodshed until the spring thaw melts the snow on the ground, and he ends up marring the woman’s features by hanging a lantern from her conveniently gaping mouth while working in the shed.

Hemingway’s work is marked by the eruption of gruesome violence. To continue to draw illustrative example from the short stories: a husband in “Indian Camp” savagely slices his own throat with a razor–either in grief over his wife’s labor pains or in shame at having been cuckolded by a white man. Self-mutilation with a razor also proves terribly central to “God Rest You Merry, Gentleman,” in which a young zealot seeking to purge himself of lustful urge botches the attempted amputation of his own genitalia. In arguably the grisliest moment in the Hemingway canon, a bar brawler in “A Man of the World” suffers a gouging and then has his dangling eye bitten off his cheek “just like it was a grape.”

The horror in Hemingway’s fiction, though, is not merely rooted in the graphic and the grotesque. A quieter, but no less frightful, type of horror also operates, as can be seen in the classic story “The Killers.” Hemingway’s fictional stand-in Nick Adams is utterly shaken by the awful sight of an ex-prizefighter’s resignation to assassination by a pair of Chicago hitmen: “Ole Andreson with all his clothes on, lying on bed looking at the wall.” A sense of existential dread riddles another Nick Adams piece, “Now I Lay Me.” Traumatized by his wartime wounding, Nick desperately tries to keep his thoughts occupied and keep himself from falling asleep in the dark, for fear that his soul will vacate his convalescing body if no nightlight is shining.

Hemingway confronts the horrors of warfare most extensively (leaving aside novels such as A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls) in “A Natural History of the Dead.” Terrestrial hellscapes that “called for a Goya to depict them” are explicitly presented, such as the grim scene left by the explosion of a munitions factory in Milan (the narrator recounts having to pick fragments of female bodies from barbed-wire fencing). Determined study of the dead strewn across battlefields leads to a catalogue of bloating and blackening corpses, of mouth holes rife with “a half-pint of maggots.” Throughout the narrative, the (uncharacteristic) archness of tone accentuates the starkness of the subject, and verges on an almost-hysterical reaction to wartime atrocity. There’s nothing natural about “A Natural History of the Dead,” which closes with an anecdote concerning a grievously wounded soldier who is hastily interred with corpses set within a mountainside cavern. Despite its repeated reporting from the Italian front, Hemingway’s narrative ends up closer to Poe (cf. “The Premature Burial,” which similarly opens as a seeming scientific essay before sequeing into dark fiction in the climax) than the Po.

As a major American writer who frequently focused on death and violence, Hemingway unsurprisingly inspired later horror writers. Genre giant Dan Simmons includes Hemingway as a central character in the roman a clef The Crook Factory (admittedly, though, the book qualifies as a spy thriller more than category horror). Mort Castle cleverly mixes Hemingway biography and bibliography with war-born zombies in “The Old Man and the Dead.” Castle’s tale prefigures one of my own–“The Last Generation” (anthologized in The Zombie Feed, Vol. 1), a post-apocalyptic riff on The Sun Also Rises in which the ostensible survivors consciously adopt the character names and desperate hedonism of Hemingway’s novelistic cast.

But no reflection upon Hemingway and horror would be complete without consideration of the career of Jack Ketchum. Ketchum (a pseudonym of Dallas Mayr) echoes Hemingway’s final residence in his chosen name, just as his story “Father and Son” recalls the Hemingway title “Fathers and Sons.” The figure of Hemingway himself is invoked in the absinthe-makes-the-brain-grow-crazier piece “Papa.” Anyone who has ever read a Ketchum story like “The Rifle” or his novel Red (whose opening chapter is especially representative) will be hard-pressed to deny Hemingway’s stylistic influence. Ketchum’s predominantly non-supernatural brand of horror (which frequently draws on real-life incident) offers an unflinching exploration, in unaffected prose, of the direst acts that humans commit all too often. Thanks to Ketchum’s impressive body of work, Hemingway’s status as a foundational figure for the horror genre is forever cemented.

***

(Note: for further discussion of Hemingway’s connection to horror, check out Jason Ray Carney’s short essay, “Hemingway, Lovecraft, and the Ubiquity of Fear.”)

Quotations for my blog article are taken from The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition.

New Book Release for the Halloween Season

I am thrilled to announce the publication of my new book, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition (available now as a Kindle eBook). This one has been years in the making, and I did massive amounts of reading and research for it, so it is a great feeling to see the project finally completed.

Amazon is still in the process of activating the “Look Inside” feature for my book, but in the meantime you can read the book’s description on the product page. You can also check out the Preface and an excerpt from the Bonus Essay (“Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture”) on the dedicated page here on my website.

Hope you all enjoy the new book. Happy Halloween Season!

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