Kenneth Hite (princeofcairo) wrote,
Kenneth Hite

An Anatomy of Horror

Now this is an interesting piece of horror criticism: Nicholas Seeley's "The Dragon in the Time Machine: A Gross Anatomy of Horror."

Riffing off Stephen King's Danse Macabre, with its "Tarot hand" of Vampire, Werewolf, Thing With No Name, and Ghost, Nicholas Seeley seems to be trying to do for horror what Northrop Frye was doing for Story, or Fiction, or Poetry, or whatever term you choose to use for that thing that verbal art forms are all doing. (And I think the title shows that Seeley is definitely in on Frye.) In very basic terms, Seeley's Vampires are "horrors from outside," Werewolves are "horrors from inside," Nameless Things (archetypically, Frankenstein's Monster) are "horrors of creation" (or "of entropy"), and Ghosts are "horrors of death," or perhaps "of survival." Dracula, thus, with its concerns about sexuality and transformation (as embodied in Lucy Westenra), is midway between Vampire and Werewolf story. (He also tries, less successfully, to assign darkness to the Vampire, light to the Thing, and twilight to Werewolf and Ghost. But it's probably worth more examination than he or I give it.)

Seeley calls Alien the ideal type of the Vampire story, American Psycho the ideal type of the Werewolf story, Frankenstein (or the Pandora myth, or "The Cold Equations") the ideal type of the Thing story, and actual ghost stories (a la "Resurrection Mary") the ideal type of the Ghost story, in which the mere presence of a ghost is the horror. Seeley says most zombie stories are halfway between the Ghost (the pathetic, rotting human shell) and the Vampire (the horror from the dark that wants to eat you), and so we come full circle, just like Frye between the Ironic and the Mythic, or between Satire and Comedy.

One good, long example of Seeley's critical theory at work:
Take Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House. Many people would say this is close to the ultimate Ghost story, and I would agree—if for no other reason than the relentlessly cyclical logic of its first and last lines.

Few passages in literature so elegantly sum up the inseparable veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead, between present and past, than those few phrases. "Whatever walked there walked alone." In its themes of tragedy and downfall, Hill House has all the elements of a ghost story.

But it's not just a poignant reminiscence. Something in that house is very definitely malevolent, and when the lights go down it comes after the hapless "scientific investigators," banging on the doors, trying to get in. The fact that we never know what's out there in the dark only helps to make this a great Vampire story, as well.

But the Werewolf is here too, to be sure. Jackson is a master at creating "unreliable narrators," and we can never be sure if what seems to be going on in Hill House is a real haunting, or just a product of Eleanor's fevered imagination. Even worse: if the supernatural presence is "real," what is it? Is it the ghost of the malevolent old woman who once lived there? Is it the house itself? Or is actually caused by Eleanor, a kind of poltergeist manifesting her wild, stifled desire and sexuality?

If Eleanor is a poltergeist, or even just mad, then where does the responsibility for the terrible events in the house rest? Is it with her, or with Dr. John Montague, the "creator" whose strange (some would say irresponsible) psychological experiment opens up the Pandora's box of Eleanor's psyche? Montague goes looking for ghosts, and he finds them—or does he create them himself?

Light and darkness blend, and we are left unable to tell whether the evil comes from within or without, or even if it's what we would call "evil" at all. But finally it doesn't matter whether Eleanor is the creator or the creation, the predator or the prey. The one bright line in Hill House is the line between life and death, and in the end she crosses it. She walks alone. The circle is complete.

Seeley argues that the real greats are the stories that travel the whole wheel, or play all the cards from the Tarot. He argues that At the Mountains of Madness is in the middle between Vampire (crinoids gonna vivisect you!) and Thing (entropic shoggoth creation), and I think adding the Ghost is trivial, given that Kadath is nothing but a giant haunted house. Holding a different card back, but staying in Antarctica, one can say that John Carpenter's Thing combines the Vampire (alien gonna shloop you up!) and Werewolf (it's inside us!) with a big dollop of Lovecraftian Ghost (the alien is the sole survivor of the crash; both camps are destroyed with a horrific remnant remaining).

The Gothic classically plays all those cards as well: the "unnatural survival" at the core of the Gothic is halfway between Seeley's Thing and his Ghost, an entropic revenant; the Dark Foreign Seducer is the Vampire, and the heroine's doubts or weaknesses hint at the Werewolf story. Some Gothics play fewer cards than others: Wuthering Heights pretty much ignores the horror of creation, for example, for all that Heathcliff and Catherine make great Vampire-Werewolf hay together.

If I have more time, or you have any interest, I may come back to this and try to tie Seeley and Frye together somehow. With more Lovecraft.
Tags: horror, literary theory

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