Friday, September 23, 2022

Nothing Like a Little Death

"Ay, but to die, and go we know not where."

 -- Measure for Measure, Act III, Scene 1, by William Shakespeare

Halloween is coming and I am not indifferent. No, I won't be dressing up. Yeah, wigs and masks are hot, but not now in a good way. At my age, even in costume, were I to actually attempt trick-or-treating, most people would assume either A) my car broke down on the way to a sad party or B) that I am in fact a somewhat laughable serial killer. I am also disappointed to say kids don't come to our door anymore for candy. This may just be another sign of an aging middleclass neighborhood where no one young enough to have kids is old enough to own a single family home. Also? It is my unhappy understanding that instead of being set loose into the cool and greedy dark, many American children now spend Halloween penned at well lit, properly supervised parties which sounds just awful, like church Christmas morning or new Easter clothes in which one may not eat chocolate. (Adults can be such assholes.) I still very much like the idea of Halloween though, even if I am no longer taking part. 

When I was little I loved monsters best. Reviled outsiders forced by circumstances not of their creation to periodically slaughter village gossips, mean drunks, and demanding little girls with daisies? I get that. Even at seven or eight I was pretty sure that sooner or later the angry peasants with pitchforks and torches would be heading my way. (Later I realized these would actually be townie jocks, redneck dopers, Elks, church ladies, gym teachers, and cops; what the Republicans now call "the base.") Well before I was grown I learned that the real monsters in life don't bite or wear capes or rise from the dead, they vote in midterm elections and ban books and always want to know who you happen to be fucking. Real monsters invade sovereign nations and bomb countries like Laos and Ukraine. Real monsters talk a lot about God and patriotism and make it easier for kids to get guns. Don't have to watch a lot of horror movies to learn that the most dangerous brute is usually the one leading the mob.

Real monsters are cruel. That's all. Easiest definition. The only thing really other-worldly about most real monsters is their uniform insistence when caught or cornered or called out that they are "the real victims." In the end bullies are always the injured parties, at least in their own stories. Luckily, real monsters die eventually, just like the rest of us. It is their tax-exemptions that can't be killed and their sources of funding that never seem to die. It is the persistence of selfishness* that survives every dawn, every fire, every sacrifice. 

So, no, I don't believe in ghosts anymore, or vampires, or werewolves, or zombies -- though January 6th shook me a little bit on that score. But I still love Halloween. I love lots of stuff that isn't real: chocolate Yoo-hoo, Mole from The Wind in the Willows, love songs. Watching scary movies I still like jump-scares, and John Carpenter scores, and practical effects. Doesn't mean I worry much at night about Michael Myers. Not to spoil anyone's fun, but so far as I am at all concerned, dead is dead. After-life? Well, that would be death, wouldn't it? I've seen death, more than once. Death is not scary. Pain is scary. Disease is scary. Despair is scary, and hatred. When we are dead we are done, all of us and everything. The next isn't up to us anymore. Yes, there is and ought to be more to the story of the body's decay -- "this sensible warm motion to become / A kneaded clod" in Claudio's shivery phrase -- but up again we do not get. Sorry. No faith in nor any hope of the resurrection. Just the one go 'round. I mention this not to discourage any of my many Pagan friends for example, who have very kindly offered me "readings" of various kinds including my "past lives," or the followers of newer religions like my Christian friends who still offer to pray for me. (Thanks for the good vibes, dear ones.) I've tried to make this point before, usually around Christmas, my other favorite decorating opportunity, but I think it's important to establish that one need not believe in ghosts, Holy or coarsely common, to enjoy a bit o' seasonal fun. 

I love a great ghost story. (RIP, Peter Straub.) Keeping in mind that none of these are mutually exclusive, there are more great ghost stories than there are romances in English literature, more great stories of horror and disquiet than of Christmas, kings, dragons, dinner parties, or anything other than perhaps clever detectives and beloved dogs. Great writers as different as Edith Wharton and Kelly Lynch, Joyce Carol Oates and Elizabeth Bowen have all done it. Henry James, and Charles Dickens, and Elizabeth Gaskell, and Guy de Maupassant have all written great ghost stories. There are rafts of writers whose only surviving reputation comes from their ghost stories, some with wonderful names like Oliver Onions, and Clara Venn, and F. Tennyson Jesse (see the excellent British Library Tales of the Weird series.)

If I really want a fright, I read about the climate crisis, politics, and true crime, where again, there is often overlap these days. Almost any journalist providing new details of the workings of the last administration or the present Supreme Court can keep a body from a good night's rest. Read the true story of DDT, or the history of the Camp Fire in Paradise, California. Nightmares. You know what will keep you up reading all night? The history of the Bender family's disappearance from Labette County, Kansas in 1873 and what was found in their yard (Please see Susan Jonusas' new book.) Likewise the murder of women and children on a narrow highway in Mexico in 2019, and the LeBaron Mormon cult from which they came (see Sally Denton.) Try Beverly Lowry writing about the murder of a Mississippi matron in 1948, and the familiar failure of the American justice system to do it's job because race and sex. Horrifying.

That can all be a bit too real for what ought to be a fairly light-hearted occasion, I know. Years ago I did a fun display table at the bookstore where I still work. The premise was Scary Books for Grown Ups. The signage featured a drawing of dead honey bees. The books were all new nonfiction of the day, forecasting our onrushing doom. You can imagine. Turns out I could do that table every year since, sad to say. It's not like any of these subjects have really been addressed anywhere since, save in yet more new books. So yeah, still doomed and reading about it.

Which leads me to a fictional sub-genre I just can't. Putting together the Halloween display table this year, I asked for input from a couple of younger coworkers, as I am not up on newer straight-up horror. My personal taste tends to literary types writing weird stories rather than genre writers of whatever merit. So for me it's Karen Russell short stories, or indie-rock musician and novelist John Darnielle writing about a house haunted by what sounds like a very real murderer. That's my shiver. I ended up with a couple of great lists of new titles from my fellow booksellers and ordered in what we didn't have. All good. (Best way to cover the gaps in a bookstore is always more booksellers with more lists.) The place I can't personally go isn't to do with squeamishness, or violence. Bring on the body-horror! Stack the victims like cordwood! But if you are heading into the post-apocalypse you are on your own. What would I do if the world was ending tomorrow? I'd die, that's what I'd do. So would you, darling. We neither of us have been missing a lot o' meals, have we? You ready to run? I'm not. Simple as that. Dead. And who wants to live in a dead world?! Fact is I'm never going to cook on an open fire again, or sharpen sticks, or go camping, let alone go camping until I die. My idea of surviving an atom blast or a plague that wipes out three fourths of humanity is don't. Who really wants to stay alive but basically on fire? Stay home for two years and wear a mask?  Turns out I was up for the challenge. But a world without bookstores and pho and television and the people I love? I'll be checking out. So however great the reviews for a novel set in Kansas after electricity isn't a thing ever anymore, or the last fresh vegetable is a memory, and I'm sorry, I think surviving in such a world is a stupid choice. I can't sympathize. I can't be made to care about people willing to go on with nothing but survivalists for company and only rats and seaweed on the menu. Maybe if I had kids (maybe) but I don't so no.

It is such a lazy metaphor now, life after the end of history, like preachers still carrying on about the fires of Hell like we're all still illiterate peasants staring at pictures in a cathedral, or reality tv contestants "thinking outside the box." (The last person with anything interesting to say about life in a void was Beckett.) Now the Post-Apocalyptic is often a given. I suppose it's the easiest way to not have one's characters texting each other, or catching an Uber out of danger, while still being recognizably us. That nearly the whole of human history can be told without resort to modern electronics seems to require too much work. Research you say? Why write Gothic --or a Gothic cathedral -- when you can just go all Goth and gloomy some time "in the near future"? Also? Poor people. If the only way you can imagine poverty as a possibility is to end the world, either your parents are still paying your rent and you still think eating instant ramen is a healthy option, or you decided to write a novel without ever reading good ones. Shame on you. (And shame on me for telling you people how to write. Go on. Write your ragged survivors reciting Shakespeare or whatever. None of my business what you like.)

The unknown is only frightening when the rest feels convincing. That would be one of my rules. I make a lot of rules. You may have your own, and mine may change and do, but this is one of mine for scary stories. Put it another way: you needn't name your monster, but you'd better name the street. Know what I mean? I hate any story set in an unnamed city. One thing the Book of Genesis gets right is you make a man and the first thing he'll do is name things. First thing we did as a species when we invented languages? Names. We all need a name. And probably not but a day later somebody named a dog, and then a village. I defy you to name an unnamed city. That's not fair, but neither is trying to generate atmosphere with just indefinite pronouns and nameless climes and unnumbered houses. Untethered adjectives don't carry much weight, no matter how many one adds to vague objects and places. Unless your protagonist is actually a small child or the last man on earth, somebody or something will eventually tell the sorry soul that this is or used to be Cleveland, or the Forest of Dean or the Gobi, and that creepy gas station attendant? Did you not see the name stitched on his filthy coveralls? That was Phil. Of course it was.

Every good witch needs a familiar. That may be an actual rule, I'm not sure. (I'll ask.) Every haunt needs a house, or a moor, or a grave. No point to Jack the Ripper without a chase. That's just my Halloween way of saying every scary story needs more than a monster. Even crazy needs a frame. True, mad narrators can be particularly scary -- see The Yellow Wallpaper and de Maupassant's The Diary of a Madman -- but in the first example we know the name of that woman's imperfect husband, it's in the first sentence and it's John, and in the latter story a lawyer finds the diary and he tells us who wrote it, if never his name. Context, yes? Detail. Specificity. Pyewacket. (Too obscure? See: Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart, bell not bell-tower is the one I mean.) Deciding what not to name, or show, or tell, is maybe more important in a scary story than anywhere else other than poetry, but monsters need scenes and settings to menace properly; places and dates and other people with names.

Very clever people have studied why we ride roller-coasters. (I miss roller-coasters!) Scholarly papers have been written about horror movies, and ghost stories, and video game zombies. While I am not so smart or devoted as all that, I have thought about this. Can't grow up with a poster of Frankenstein at the foot of the bunkbed and not. It may not be a specially deep thought, but I do think that what does not kill us can be great fun, so long as it lets us feel like it might and we know that it won't. It's the campfire makes the ghost story, the lamp that keeps the monsters on the page. Gide said, "I do not love men. I love what devours them." Maybe that's the answer, and as with so many of life's answers it probably sounds even better in French. We are fascinated by our own mortality even as we deny or ignore it, mostly. Also, it's no easy thing to feel for humanity as a whole. More a philosophical position than an actual emotion. See someone in peril though, witness whole populations endangered by circumstances over which their control is questionable, and there is a familiar tug at the heart. (The absence of that tug is psychopathy, no?) Could be me, might be us, how terrifying. Fiction is the manageable version of this confrontation with danger and death, that is its chiefest charm. We may not know how it will end but we know that it will, a book. We trust that unlike life in the actual universe, in the space of a story, someone is telling. Need a narrator now and again. Might go so far as to say authors are our last gods. Stories  make sense of us. Still, stories end. Books are designed eventually to close. (We are in charge of this if little else.) We read to live and death is part of life so why not read to die a little? It's fortifying. Up again we get, if only from the armchair.

Halloween happens whether we like it or not. I know people who can't so much as read a murder, people who've never loved a monster. Blood, like candy corn is not to everyone's taste. My beloved husband hasn't any issue with mayhem, but very little patience with the supernatural. (Likes candy corn though.) The minute the monsters aren't mortal he's done. He was in his day though very much a rollercoaster kind of guy, back before we both learned what it feels like to fall from not even a middling height. It's okay. Still likes a thrill, if now more often at second hand. It's important to remember that not everyone need take the same ride. Might outgrow the rollercoaster just as one once did the teacups. Guess I never outgrew monsters. I have much admired friends whose abhorrence of violence extends to even slapstick. Who doesn't smile when Chaplin kicks a cop in the ass? Well, my friend for one. Imagine then trying to explain why vampires are still kinda cool. Likewise pointless to try and convince anyone to read Shirley Jackson's great American horror novels if said reader doesn't jump at a bump in the night and maybe like it a little now and then. All I would suggest is that there is still great good fun to be had from the haunted corners of literature and it isn't exclusively for little persons.

Can't begrudge kids much. Poor little bastards are told when to go to bed, what to eat, what to wear, just like inmates. They're constantly being told to stop doing fun things like jumping off of things and to get out of other things that obviously invite getting into, and to not break still other things just as obviously designed to make noise when dropped on a stone floor, etc. And the worst part of childhood as I remember it, being told to "go play outside" as if that requires no more planning than stepping through the door. (My advice is bring a book. Outside is overrated.) Halloween proper really is theirs. They ought to be allowed to run a little riot in the dark once a year, and eat sugar, and scare the bejeezus out of themselves. Let 'em have it, folks. 

Meanwhile I don't have to justify buying a bag of miniature Milky Way Bars just for me, or rereading Arthur Machen, or reading a grand new novel about Spanish witches by Brenda Lozano, or re-watching that very good Dracula miniseries with the Van Helsing nun. (I love Mark Gatiss because he is me but better at it.) I can see to my own treats. Of tricks I've rather had my fill long since. (They seldom wait for one to finish too, as I remember, do they? Selfish I call that.)

*See: market capitalism

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