Thursday, June 16, 2016
Patreon Post #2: GHOST STORY and the Uncanny
I've been re-reading Peter Straub's Ghost Story and making notes about what I like to call the Haunted Mechanical Dollhouse method of horror: invent a small town full of characters with secrets like you're cobbling together some sort of spook-ride Rube Goldberg machine, lay in orbiting outliers (both threats and and potential protagonists), then make them converge to start the whole thing running. There's a clear resonance with M.R. James's "The Haunted Doll's House," obviously, because part of the machine's power comes from showing how whatever happened in the past drives what will happen in the present/future; there's a definite pattern already set, forcing characters to re-enact earlier tragedies or bring events already in motion to their full flowering.
It's a template prefaced in Stephen King's Salem's Lot, then directly mirrored between Straub's Floating Dragon vs. King's It, but going on to further replicate itself throughout subsequent horror history over and over ever since, from Michael MacDowell's Cold Moon Over Babylon to Michael Rowe's Enter, Night. I just see it as "starting" with Ghost Story, because that's my particular entry-point—my wheelhouse, if you will, particularly since I can never entirely separate my own personal experience of Ghost Story from King's own analysis of it in Danse Macabre, which essentially begins with him elevating it as a prospective cornerstone of the New Horror canon.
My love for this type of narrative set-up particularly amuses me when I realize that because I grew up in a large city, I essentially had to eventually make up a series of small towns that encapsulate every small town experience I've ever had in order to be able to do even a partial version of this story. Though what's even funnier in hindsight is that I realize I actually tried to do this set-up a long time ago, when I was fourteen and wrote an outline for a Ghost Story rip-off set in a small town in 1860s India. (There was a good portion of F. Paul Wilson's The Tomb in there, too—and as you might expect, I later boiled this outline down for parts and made it into "Ring of Fire.")
In both Salem's Lot and Ghost Story, ancient guilt and present greed combine to open the door for an incursion of outside evil into the heart of the familiar, the domestic; the same pattern repeats in It and Floating Dragon, almost to the letter, as a formerly Good Place (an innocuous place, at any rate—a normal place) is slowly converted into a Bad Place, its own troll-mirror reflection, worthy of being sown with salt. Much like a town-wide possession, all four books begin with the obsessive phase: a presentiment of fate and mortality, dreams and visions like warnings from the subconscious. This is quickly followed by a series of stalkings, accidents, suicides and murders that resonate with earlier, forgotten crimes, eventually escalating into a disaster that cuts the town off from any semblance of help before erasing it entirely. (In the case of 'Salem's Lot, Maine, this cleansing involves fire, while Ghost Story's Milburn, New York, is consumed by and entombed in snow.) Then ghosts/monsters descend, making your home theirs, primarily by revealing that invisible monsters and ghosts-to-be have in fact always inhabited it—that they have always been your neighbours, just as you have always been potentially one of them yourself.
For those who haven't read it recently, Ghost Story's basic plot goes like this: As young men, Ricky Hawthorne, Sears James, Edward Wanderly, Lewis Benedikt and John Jaffrey accidentally kill a woman—or what appears to be a woman—named Eva Galli, a minor Hollywood silent screen starlet who descends on their staid hometown like a hurricane in a flapper dress, intentionally provoking in all of them something that begins as idealized love before becoming something far more tainted, converting at the absolute last minute to disgusted sexual rage. Consumed with panic over the prospect of punishment, these “boys”—who will later grow up to be pillars of the Milburn community and form the Chowder Society, a club that meets monthly to drink and tell each other ghost stories—place Eva's body in a borrowed car that they then push into a nearby lake, only to be scarred for life by the horrifying sight of her supposedly dead face staring from the vehicle's back window as it sinks beneath the surface. Shaken, they take a vow to keep her death a secret, and go on with their lives.
Fifty years later, the group still lives in Milburn, outwardly prosperous and content, relying on the Chowder Society as their only method of diffusing the hovering fear that still clings to each of them. However, things start to change after Edward Wanderly dies—possibly of a heart attack, possibly from sheer fright—during a party he's elected to give in honour of a young actress named “Anne-Veronica Moore,” who later turns out to be another version of Eva. The remaining Chowder Society members experience a series of prophetic dreams in which they witness each other's deaths. Unable to admit to themselves that the shapeshifting entity they once knew as Eva has returned to haunt them, they send for Don Wanderley, Ed's nephew, a writer whose recent horror novel The Nightwatcher is based on his own experiences with Eva, known to him as “Alma Mobley.” With Don's arrival in Milburn, Eva's campaign of terror ramps up considerably, aided by two more phantoms who act as her minions—Gregory and Fenny Bate, earlier cited by Sears James in his most recent Chowder Society tale. Two more members die, after which the survivors band with Don and Peter Barnes, a young man whose mother is an early casualty of the struggle. Together, they locate and wound their nemesis, forcing her to flee Milburn and re-set the clock for another try; working on instinct, Don later manages to find Eva's latest incarnation, a child named “Angie Maule,” and finally destroy her.
A sidebar here: in ghost stories, it's always the liminal that trips you up, the literal Uncanny—a variety of horror created by endowing seemingly mundane, ordinary or familiar objects, locations, actions, scenes and people with a sort of intense uncanniness, unheimlich-ness, thus creating the sense that they suddenly and irreversibly rendered Other. M.R. James once wrote a tale that exemplifies this idea, far less well-known than most of his other offerings, called “The Malice of Ordinary Objects”; Robert Zemeckis also plays extremely well with this concept in his thriller What Lies Beneath, forever undermining his protagonist's sense of her own home as safe space by forcing her to intuitively connect the dots between a glass that breaks and the sliver which perforates her heel, thus drawing her attention to a grate in the floor inside which she discovers an earring that doesn't belong to her, thus retroactively sowing suspicion in her about what her husband may have been up to (and with who)...
Nowhere has this feeling been better explored cinematically, however, than in the movies of David Lynch, who talks in Lynch on Lynch about how everyone has their own very specific shock totems and dread fetishes, impossible to communicate to others. He tells an anecdote about a sound designer friend of his who had a recurring dream that he was watching a tire roll back and forth in a sort of decaying gravitational orbit but never quite settling, paralyzed by the inexplicably terrifying knowledge that it would eventually fall over, yet unable to predict when that would actually happen—“And that was bad, you know? Really bad.” It's an effect that's very difficult to create and almost impossible to sustain, especially over long periods of time; the trick is to try and defeat audience expectations, achieving a practical reach-around on every human being's innate pattern-decoding intelligence, especially those for whom storytelling is a habit. Thus Lynch's decision to not provide any scene-break tracks in the DVD version of Mulholland Drive, which clearly embodies his dislike of letting an audience know what they're in for, or allowing them any sort of easy escape from the mood he's working so hard to immerse them in.
But in most cases, the realm of the liminal has historically been assumed to be best occupied by female authors, which is why the ghost story was once thought of as an innately “feminine” genre. Shirley Jackson, who supported her horror novel-writing habit by turning out Irma Bombeck-style satirical autobiographies about family life, used her “I'm just a housewife” pose to inject alienation and existential despair into the simplest of 1950s gender-essentialist routines; her haunted houses are full of domestic ruin, casual impoliteness, poisonous food and cursed bric-a-brac, unruly (girl-)children and unreliable parents—the very antithesis of a spread in Good Housekeeping, on every conceivable level. The Uncanny permeates her work, rendering life's most familiar accoutrements as abruptly alien as though things have slipped sideways in time, or been caught in a certain slant of light that reveals them as profane copies of themselves.
How this background line of thematic descent translates to Ghost Story begins with Eva Galli's original refusal to conform to what the Chowder Society boys initially assume she is and/or want her to be: a helpmeet, a comfort, an enabler; an ideal, not an eidolon. From the very beginning, she makes it clear that she's not going to submit to being turned into the Angel of any of their houses, not going to allow herself to be caught and made into wife, mistress or whore—that she won't (can't) be limited in that way, or any other. And that's because essentially, Eva Galli isn't “just” a woman, no matter how often she may choose to present herself as one; she is something completely different, completely inhuman. Though her influence appears to be echoed in the ostensibly similarly nonconformist sexual freedom of Ricky Hawthorne's Noir film glamourous wife, Stella, who counters the menaces of a scorned lover by off-handedly threatening to stick a hatpin in his neck, it's proud monster Eva—the story's true femme fatale—who shatters the mold of societal expectation for proper female behaviour outright.
The element of meta underlying almost everything in Ghost Story is a quality that only sharpens and becomes more fundamentally obvious as the reader matures, in much the same way the Chowder Society seems to have been formed in part as a way for its founder to process not only what happened to them in the past but what continues to happen to them in the present, as well as subconsciously preparing for future attacks. The Society exists in order to give this quartet an outlet for their fears, a supposedly controllable forum and lens through which to view and subdue them. But the stories they tell each other, couched as personal anecdotes (“What was the worst thing you've ever done?” “I won't tell you that, but I'll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me...the most dreadful thing...”), are redolent and resonant with classic ghost story echoes. Sears James's tale of the Bate siblings, for example, holds clear if gender-flipped kinship with Henry James's “The Turn of the Screw,” as well as specifically New England gothic writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne or Edith Wharton, whose own ghost story “Afterward” makes it into the fabric of Don Wanderley's later Society submission, the memory of his encounter with “Alma Mobley.”
Similarly, it makes sense that the “nightwatchers” themselves, Ghost Story's main breed of monster-ghost, come to be understood best as a fascinating amalgam of every haunting the Chowder Society has ever told tales of, a sort of unified field theory stringing everything that scares us in any given ghost story together, then crediting that fear retroactively to the cyclical interactions with humanity of an offshoot species that appears to feed on pain, fear, misery...David Lynch's basic Twin Peaks garmonbozia mixture. Much like Lynch's Man From Another Place, the nightwatchers appear to exist parallel to us, intersecting our reality from some other dimension in a way that involves bending time and space—the realm of dream, but also the realm of death. They make jokes about history, popping back and forth between eras at will. They are beautiful and terrible, tainted and proud, vicious and vain, poetic and C.S. Lewis-style Satan-practical all at once. Some of them—Gregory and Fenny—appear to have once been human, but have chosen to sell or debride themselves of their own souls in order to live forever as zombie echoes, sowing chaos eternally. Others, like “Eva Galli,” appear to have never been entirely human at all, yet still share a kinship with and addiction to human evil. It's this same kinship that forms their only weakness, their rare vulnerability to mortality.
In other words, Ghost Story subtextually teaches us that because the only thing we know to be completely true about the state of being human is that we all eventually die, anything that's even slightly human can therefore eventually be killed if you're only willing to sacrifice enough, but not too much: retain love, retain laughter, retain the ability to make and maintain connections and to hope against hope, even in the face of utter nihilistic horror. All the things about us the “nightwatchers”—our bad dreams made creepily flexible flesh—both understand least and dislike most, the things they most long to poison and destroy.
(I could go into the problematic nature of the nightwatchers appearing to identify themselves as manitous, considering that none of the book's characters are Indigenous/First Nations people. But I prefer to think of the manitou as yet another metaphor the nightwatchers adopt in order to semi-explain themselves to their potential victims, ie: we're sort of like this, if that makes you a bit more comfortable...or uncomfortable, rather. It's yet another way to scare people, preparatory to either destroying them outright, making them destroy themselves, or tricking them into becoming a pale imitation of the thing that's currently ingesting them.)
Thus we return once more to Ghost Story's inherent refrain, possibly the inherent refrain of all ghost stories: "I saw a ghost," which becomes "I am a ghost," before finally becoming: "You are a ghost." "I am you, Don," as "Angie Maule" claims, among others. To which young would-be hero Peter Barnes indignantly replies, quoting Gregory Bate: "He said he was ME, I want to KILL him." But can we ever truly know ourselves, let alone anyone else? In a last twist, it's identity itself—slippery and liminal, innately Uncanny—that becomes the final horror at the bottom of Ghost Story's thematic cracker-box, the motor that keeps the Haunted Clockwork Dollhouse running. Nothing is what is seems on the surface, no person and no object, especially those people who most often get treated as objects by society at large: children, wives, women, possessions flipping unnoticed into possessors, shapeshifters destroying the structure which dares to try and hold them static.