The Crude Human Animal: H. P. Lovecraft and “The Descent”

thedescentvertThere are many films that can be considered Lovecraftian horror on a surface level—John Carpenter’s The Thing, what with its preponderance of tentacled limbs and its Antarctic setting, probably chief among them—but if I had to pick which movie best represents Lovecraft’s thematic concerns, artistic trappings, and general aura, it wouldn’t be one of these pseudopod-wriggling entities (admirable as I find many of them). Rather, my choice is a film that, at a superficial glance, doesn’t seem to have much to do with the aesthetic sensibilities of the Cthulhu mythos at all.

Neil Marshall’s The Descent is first and foremost about grief. Much like The Babadook, an equally excellent film that explores similar subject matter from quite a different angle, its central horror operates on multiple levels, both as an imminent physical threat and as a representation of the psychological trauma that the protagonist, Sarah, has endured and continues to endure. However, the movie’s underlying themes don’t stop with this metaphor. If they did, it would nonetheless be a fine horror film, but the reason The Descent truly resonates is because of its fascination with territory that lies deep within Lovecraft’s purview. It’s about grief, but it’s also about terrors far more abstract and communal than individual trauma—the violation of de-evolution and the perverse infinity of the universe that surrounds us.

Darwin’s monsters

It’s well known that Lovecraft was a particularly vicious racist even for his own time. His distaste for races he perceived as subhuman went beyond cruel humor (though this was often employed, as in his deplorable just-so story “On the Creation of Niggers”) and entered into a sort of paranoid loathing that remains skin-crawling to read. I’ll directly quote only one example, from a letter Lovecraft sent to Frank Belknap Long (I am indebted to Phenderson Djeli Clark’s piece “The ‘N’ Word Through the Ages: The ‘Madness’ of H. P. Lovecraft” for pointing me toward this passage):

How in Heaven’s name sensitive and self-respecting white men can continue to live in the stew of Asiatic filth which the region has become—with marks and reminders of the locust-plague on every hand—is absolutely beyond me. […] There is here a grave and mighty problem beside which the negro problem is a jest—for in this case we have to deal not with childlike half-gorillas, but with yellow, soulless enemies whose repulsive carcasses house dangerous mental machines warped culturelessly in the single direction of material gain at any cost. I hope the end will be warfare.

Throughout his body of fictional work, he continually utilizes such adjectives as “negroid” and “mongoloid” to describe races he views as subhuman brutes, fixating on their “hulking” shapes, their “ape-like” appearance, etc. etc.

I’ll spare the reader any further belaboring of this point, but it’s an important one to make because of how deeply this xenophobia is ingrained in Lovecraft’s mythos. It’s completely impossible to separate his short stories from his loathing for this idea of the subhuman, the alien, the Other whose presence violates and degrades the purity of the white race. And one concern that surfaces again and again in his writings is the idea of de-evolution—the idea that even “pure” white men are not immune to corruption by outside influences.

The most famous instance of this fear surfacing in Lovecraft’s work comes in “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”. The deplorable tale of a man who digs too far into his family’s past, it concludes with the bizarre revelation that the titular Jermyn’s mother was not, in fact, a human but a species of massive white ape. Jermyn, upon the realization that he, his siblings and his children are all only subhuman, immolates himself. The story concludes:

The reason why Arthur Jermyn’s charred fragments were not collected and buried lies in what was found afterward, principally the thing in the box. The stuffed goddess was a nauseous sight, withered and eaten away, but it was clearly a mummified white ape of some unknown species, less hairy than any recorded variety, and infinitely nearer mankind—quite shockingly so. Detailed description would be rather unpleasant, but two salient particulars must be told, for they fit in revoltingly with certain notes of Sir Wade Jermyn’s African expeditions and with the Congolese legends of the white god and the ape-princess. The two particulars in question are these: the arms on the golden locket about the creature’s neck were the Jermyn arms, and the jocose suggestion of M. Verhaeren about a certain resemblance as connected with the shrivelled face applied with vivid, ghastly, and unnatural horror to none other than the sensitive Arthur Jermyn, great-great-great-grandson of Sir Wade Jermyn and an unknown wife. Members of the Royal Anthropological Institute burned the thing and threw the locket into a well, and some of them do not admit that Arthur Jermyn ever existed.

Campy and absurd, to be sure, but there is a part of one’s mind that recoils at the thought. The idea that humanity shares a common ancestor with the great apes was a hard enough one to be accepted (and indeed still is in certain quarters)—the fearful implication that we could perhaps revert back to an animal state, dragged back into the wilderness and losing what we once were, itches at the back of our brains once it’s been planted. Of course, it couldn’t happen in any of the ways Lovecraft was terrified of—it’s impossible for humans to mate with apes, and the idea that interracial partnerships could somehow mongrelize their progeny is a piece of bigotry not worth entertaining for moral as well as scientific reasons. And yet…

It’s that “And yet” that The Descent makes so terrifyingly real in its portrayal of the crawlers that prey upon our unfortunate spelunkers. The crawlers would be terrifying enough were they purely animalistic, but the revelation that they’re actually a strain of humanity gone sour generates an existential horror that seems to be felt in one’s bones. The idea that, were we to be sunk down in the dark long enough, we too could lose our vision and with it our sense of self is both seemingly impossible and just plausible enough to fester.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film’s portrayal of de-evolution is that it manages to stay completely true to Lovecraft’s fears while completely rejecting the bigoted mindset that lies beneath them. The crawlers are not the result of interbreeding between species—humans did not enter the cave and produce a strain of bastard children with non-sentient Gollums. They began their existence completely human, and despite this “purity” found their skin growing sallow, their pupils hardening to marble, their minds turning solely to an insatiable hunger. All it took was a few thousand years of isolation and good old natural selection to do the trick. This approach is both more plausible than Lovecraft’s and more horrifying—not only has such adaptation to the dark been observed in other animals, we know that there is no scapegoat upon whom we could blame this violation were it to happen to us. We had the potential within us all along.

The Descent plays up this truth through the gradual degradation of its characters, protagonist Sarah most especially. As soon as she plunges into the literal pool of blood that sits at the center of the crawlers’ feeding place, she is reduced to the single base instinct of self-preservation. Her violence against the attacking creatures becomes more and more brutal, her eyes more and more deranged, her pale skin bathed in crusting blood. By the time she cripples Juno and leaves her to die, she has ceased to speak entirely, the only sounds she makes enraged roars and screams. In the final scene of the uncut film, as she rises from unconsciousness only to find herself still trapped deep beneath the earth, she unconsciously adopts the physicality of the creatures that have hunted her, slithering forward on all fours. Grief for her dead family began this downward spiral, and its has taken only a matter of hours in the dark to complete it.

The alternate ending of the film’s U. S. cut offers a glimmer of hope—Sarah escapes the cave, sanity worse for wear but still recognizably human—but the true ending offers no such reassurance. The cave has consumed her, body and soul, and though she doesn’t resemble the crawlers in all particulars the likeness is far too close for comfort.

Black seas of infinity

If there’s one theme more prevalent in Lovecraft’s work than that of corrupted humanity, it’s the utter indifference of a universe whose vastness would cripple our minds were we to recognize the truth of it. The opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu” remains the best microcosm of this attitude:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

This tale and others like it are so integral to the genre of cosmic horror that I won’t discuss their philosophical underpinnings further. Suffice to say that for Lovecraft, reality is indifferent at absolute best and at worst actively malicious toward the unfortunates who find themselves trapped in its workings. Depth both physical and temporal is an obsession for him and his characters; the universe is unfathomably larger and unfathomably older than we could ever hope to comprehend.

It’s perhaps paradoxical to assert that The Descent is an ideal embodiment of this fear of depth. After all, one of the inherent terrors of a cave is claustrophobia—indeed, the movie exploits this characteristic to its fullest, wedging its characters through a passage just barely big enough to progress through only for it to collapse. But just after this terrifying usage of suffocating closeness, Marshall reverses the film’s spatial dynamics, forcing his characters to string themselves from one ledge to another with a gaping chasm in between. The muted lighting of the spelunkers’ crimson flares is swallowed by the ebony void of the cavern around them, and the viewer realizes that when the only light you have extends but a few feet in front of your face, everything around you is a yawning pit.

For the rest of the film, this limited visibility is used both to hide the limitations of the cave-sets that Marshall shoots and to keep both the viewer and the characters consistently off-balance. Anything the light fails to touch could be a hole waiting for a flailing body to plunge through, a shadow concealing a crawler with its teeth bared. Being hurled from claustrophobia to agoraphobia on a shot-to-shot basis not only renders things terrifyingly unpredictable, it emphasizes the limitations of human perceptions. The cave, unknown and unmapped, does not muffle the characters’ senses so much as swallow them whole.

Along with this inherent confounding of perceptions, the cave carries an intrinsic sense of deep time. The eons required for water to tear its way through rock, miles and miles beneath the earth, may not be at the forefront of the viewer’s conscious thoughts, but unconsciously it’s understood that these tunnels have existed for lifetime upon lifetime. Add to this the length of time required for natural selection to twist Homo sapiens into the blind shrieking demons of the film, and the implicit sense of time reaching out and smothering the film’s characters is palpable.

To these subconscious symbols, Marshall adds two explicit pieces. The younger of the two is the century-old caving equipment that the characters encounter while making their way across the first chasm. More disturbing is the painting that seems to indicate a way out of the cave system, obviously thousands upon thousands of years old. Our spelunkers see this a cause for hope, but once the crawlers make their entrance we can only assume one of two things.

Either the society that spawned this painting abandoned their home, at which point the crawlers took up residence; or, more likely, this second entrance collapsed on itself just as the first one did, and the painters, trapped and helpless, themselves became the feral creatures. Regardless, this cave has been claiming lives for perhaps nearly as long as the human race has existed. As it was, so it will be.

The descent of man

Popular culture chiefly associates H. P. Lovecraft with tentacles and protoplasm, unpronounceable names and ice-cold climates. The Descent bears none of these superficial trappings of the Lovecraftian, but in its central thematic concerns it is as true to his vision as anything that has found its way to the silver screen. And where Lovecraft left an enormous black mark upon his body of work with his repulsive, festering racism, Marshall’s film places his fear of de-evolution in an entirely new and ultimately more frightening context, ridding it of that stain. In this and in its terrifying grip on the nature of infinity, The Descent remains the high-water mark for Lovecraftian film, taking the most resonant aspects of his work and making them new.

It’s far from the only successful work of cosmic horror to be put to film. But for my money, its ebon depth has yet to be bettered.

 

 

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The Shadow Over Cleveland: Donald Trump as Supernatural Horror

sI’m not necessarily of the opinion that Donald J. Trump is some eldritch entity come from out of space and time with the explicit purpose of destroying humanity in both its existence and its sanity.

I’m just saying: do you have any better explanations?

1. Welcome to Whose Vote Is It Anyway?, Where Everything Is Made Up and the Facts Don’t Matter

The most revolting thing about Donald Trump is not his contempt for minorities. It is not his contempt for women. It is not his contempt for “losers”. Rather, it’s his contempt for the truth.

Don’t make the mistake of reading my meaning here as: Donald Trump is a liar. Were he a liar, the problem would not be nearly so insidious as it is, and he would not classify as a supernatural horror. No, the problem is much worse than that: Trump is perhaps the Platonic ideal of a bullshitter.

Harry G. Frankfurt, in his remarkable essay On Bullshit, lays out the crucial difference between the liar and the bullshitter after several pages of playful, deliberately pompous semantic banter on what, exactly, the nature of the term bullshit is. In short:

“Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an efficient lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.

“On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared, so far as required, to fake the context as well.

“[. . .] What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies represent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.” (Frankfurt 51-4)

Thus, the liar still has a vested interest in knowing the truth. The truth is as essential to him as it is to the truth-teller, if not moreso; because if the liar does not know the precise truth of any given situation, he cannot effectively craft a lie to turn that situation to his advantage. The bullshitter, on the other hand, has no such stake in truths, facts, or their inversions. He simply does not care either way whether what he says is or is not the case, so long as what he says benefits his ends.

There are multiple levels to the insidious nature of this state of affairs. The first is that it is almost impossible to take anything the bullshitter says at face value. We know what a known truth-teller says is likely to be true, and we know what a known liar says is likely to be false, which means we can listen to their statements with a relative degree of confidence. In the case of the bullshitter, however, we must actively tear the true from the false again and again in order to make any sense out of his statements; and even then, we do not know if what is apparently true is in fact false as far as the bullshitter is concerned (i.e. he is making a factual statement that he believes to be incorrect).

The second is that, with a large enough preponderance of bullshit, the very nature of truth itself is called into question. In what meaningful sense can we say that something is true when to the bullshitter it may as well be false, or say that something is false when to the bullshitter it may as well be the case? It simply does not matter either to him or to his followers, who have reached a point where the only thing that matters is whether or not a given statement fits into the narrative that will best benefit them.

When I say that Donald Trump is the consummate bullshitter, you’ll perhaps realize the depth of our problem.

After the Dallas shooting that left five police officers and their killer dead, Trump claimed repeatedly—first in an interview on Fox News and then at a rally in Indiana—that “some people” had called for a moment of silence for Micah X. Johnson, the deceased shooter. When Sam Clovis, a Trump policy advisor, was asked by ABC to comment on this assertion, he replied that he had not personally witnessed any such thing—and then immediately spoke from the other side of his mouth, saying:

“I’ve seen moments where I’ve seen in some of these demonstrations, I’ve seen there’s a reverence paid to the shooter that is really startling. I think that is—when you have a person who purposefully and with intent murders five police officers, that’s terrible, and I don’t think you should celebrate that in any way shape or form.”

In one breath, he denied any personal knowledge of reverence of Johnson and followed this denial with an assertion that he had in fact seen this reverence paid. For the record, ABC was able to find exactly one instance of a man calling for a moment of silence for Johnson, on his social media account. The rest of these “some people” at “some of these demonstrations” simply don’t exist.

Then there’s the recent fiasco with Trump’s wife Melania and her plagiarized speech. The aide who apparently wrote the speech has come forward to apologize for the plagiarism, but the Trump campaign has still refused to acknowledge that said plagiarism has even taken place. Instead, if has offered six contradictory excuses for the remarkable similarity to Michelle Obama’s earlier address, including a smear campaign by Hillary Clinton, the fact that Michelle Obama did not invent the English language, the fact that 93% of the speech was original, shared values between the two women, and a conspiracy in which Michelle Obama actually plagiarized My Little Pony first. For all Trump cares, all of these examples may be true or false simultaneously. Each fits his narrative so each is vomited forth.

I highlight these specific examples due to their recency, but they’re hardly the most heinous examples of bullshittery Trump and his campaign have practiced. He claimed John McCain was not a hero due to being captured, then denied saying so, then took responsibility for the claim again in a recent interview alongside Mike Pence. He proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the United States, then reversed his position, then reversed that reversal. He has continued to insist that he saw footage of Muslims celebrating when the Twin Towers went down, despite the fact that no such footage exists. He claimed that white-on-white murder only accounts for 16% of white homicide, while black-on-white murder accounts for 81%; in fact nearly the exact inverse is true, 82% vs. 15%. And so on, and so on.

His response to being called out on these extravagant examples of bullshittery has remained constant: disregard any concern for truth or falsehood. “Hey, Bill, Bill, am I gonna check every statistic? I get millions and millions of people. . .” he said to Bill O’Reilly when asked about his spreading of the above false murder statistic. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos: “People maybe call me out, but they turn out to be wrong, also. And many of the things I’ve said—and I think just about all of them—they may have been controversial at one point, George, but they’re not controversial in the end, because people start to say, you know, Trump’s actually right.” No umbrage is taken at the suggestion that he’s a liar, no serious attempt is made to prove the truth of his assertions. Because who really gives a shit? Certainly not the people voting for him.

What we have, then, is a man who possesses absolutely no distinction between truth and falsehood within his mind. If, in the moment, it benefits him, it’s true. If, in a later moment, it does not, it becomes false.

Insist, if you must, upon Hillary Clinton’s being a cold, calculating deceiver. For the purposes of this essay, we’ll even assume you’re completely right in this analysis of her character. Her deceit is an order of magnitude less dangerous than Trump’s bullshittery, and certainly less horrifying. At least for Clinton, there remains an objective reality somewhere that bolsters up a scaffolding of lies. There’s no bottom to the reality that Trump occupies—if it can even be labeled a reality at all.

2. A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Supernatural Horror

We’ve established, then, that Donald J. Trump is a bullshitter of the highest order, a man for whom truth not only is not useful or something to be respected but might as well not exist at all. What are the horrific implications? Before we can delve into them, we need some context on the nature of horror itself.

While I don’t agree on much of anything with S. T. Joshi, the man is admirably thorough and rigorous in his analysis of the horrific. In his book Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction, Joshi attempts to present a workable definition of what, exactly, horror is as a literary genre as well as a philosophical concept.

“[I]n addition to (and perhaps above and beyond) its suggestion of a perception of fear (stemming either from personal danger or from danger to another) and a feeling of disgust and revulsion, [horror] carries with it the idea of the contemplation of something appalling and dreadful. This last component may, indeed, allow for the genre of horror to exist at all, since the sentiment goes beyond the immediate apprehension of bodily harm (which is fear) and points toward the witnessing of some phenomenon that the human mind, whether perceiving immediate danger or not, both fails to comprehend and finds somehow wrong in a moral or metaphysical sense.” (Joshi 9)

So far, so good. But what, precisely, qualifies as one of these phenomena that revolt and appall the human mind in some special, wrong way? What is it that makes a particular evil horrific in a way that others, while they may shock and upset us, are not? Joshi elaborates:

“There is an undeniable sense of fear in witnessing the depredations of a mass-murderer, or even in sensing that the murderer may come after oneself; there is also a sense of fear in witnessing extreme aberrations of the human mind [. . .] but the fear here evoked is not a metaphysical fear, because there is no sense in which our understanding of the universe is jeopardised. But if we were forced to believe in the actual existence of a vampire or a werewolf, our whole conception of the universe would seem to be fatally erroneous, and this would occur all apart from any terrors evoked by physical mayhem or even by the vagaries of a diseased mind.” (Joshi 9)

Thus it could just as well be said that the roots of supernatural horror lie in uncertainty. As Joshi goes on to point out, the supernatural and its manifestations cannot be considered horrific in a pre-Enlightenment context, when most of the systems of the universe were based in a largely supernatural understanding. Rules were rules, theology included—in fact, theological systems are just as rigorous, in many aspects, as scientific ones. It’s only after the banishment of the supernatural from scientific discourse that it becomes something horrifying; when it begins to rip its way back into a material world that has long since discarded it. These supernatural manifestations are no longer part of an ordered system that can be treated logically; they are inherently illogical and irrational, and therefore an offense to our conception of the way things work.

That is the crucial difference between our terror at the idea of being mauled by a wolf and our horror at the idea of being mauled by a werewolf. Were I to have my throat torn out by the teeth of the former, it would be a terrifying experience, but it would do nothing to violate my idea of how the universe works. This wolf was born, and is killing me to eat me, and will die afterward and be mourned by its children, just as I was born, have killed and eaten things, and am dying now to be mourned by my family. A werewolf, on the other hand, has no business existing, much less eating me. Something that should not be is offering me irrefutable proof that it is in fact very much a being.

It’s worth quoting at length here a passage from Stephen King’s horror novel It:

“There were things that were not supposed to be. They offended any sane person’s sense of order, they offended the central idea that God had given the earth a final tilt on its axis so that twilight would only last about twelve minutes at the equator and linger for an hour or more up where the Eskimos built their ice-cube houses, that He had done that and He then had said, in effect: ‘Okay, you can figure out the tilt, you can figure out any damn thing you choose. Because even light has weight, and when the note of a trainwhistle suddenly drops it’s the Doppler effect and when an airplane breaks the sound barrier that bang isn’t the applause of angels or the flatulence of demons but only air collapsing back into place. I gave you the tilt and then I sat back about halfway up the auditorium to watch the show. I got nothing else to say, except that two and two makes four, the lights in the sky are stars, if there’s blood grownups can see it as well as kids, and dead kids stay dead.’ You can live with fear, I think, Stan would have said if he could. Maybe not forever, but for a long, long time. It’s offense you maybe can’t live with, because it opens up a crack inside your thinking, and if you look down into it you see there are live things down there, and they have little yellow eyes that don’t blink, and there’s a stink down in that dark, and after awhile you think maybe there’s a whole other universe down there, a universe where a square moon rises in the sky, and the stars laugh in cold voices, and some of the triangles have four sides, and some have five, and some have five raised to the fifth power of sides. In this universe there might grow roses that sing. Everything leads to everything, he would have told them if he could.  Go to your church and listen to your stories about Jesus walking on the water, but if I saw a guy doing that I’d scream and scream and scream. Because it wouldn’t look like a miracle to me. It would look like an offense.” (King 411-2)

Horror, then, is a matter of violation, of disorder raping order. Of a universe in which regard for the facts is thrown to the wind, of monsters taking the desperate plea “It isn’t real” and hurling it back in the faces of those who recite it as a mantra. As H. P. Lovecraft wrote in a letter to Edwin Baird: “Only a cynic can create horror—for behind every masterpiece of the sort must reside a driving demonic force that despises the human race and its illusions, and longs to pull them to pieces and mock them.”

3. Horror as Bullshit, Bullshit as Horror

Thomas Ligotti, in his philosophical work The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror, writes:

“In experiencing the uncanny, there is a feeling of wrongness. A violation has transpired that alarms our internal authority regarding how something is supposed to happen or exist or behave. An offense against our world-conception or self-conception has been committed. Of course, our internal authority may itself be in the wrong, perhaps because it is a fabrication of consciousness based on a body of laws that are written only within us and not a detector of what is right or wrong in any real sense, since nothing really is right or wrong in any real sense. That we might be wrong about something being wrong would in itself be wrong according to our internal authority, which would then send out a signal of the uncanny concerning its own wrongness that would be returned to it for another round of signaling on the principle that everything it knows is wrong, which is to say that Something is always wrong. For the welfare of our functioning, however, we are insured against the adverse effects of an ever-cycling signal of uncanny wrongness by our inability to recognize it, although it might be going on all the time, thus accounting for our uneasiness about Something.” (Ligotti 85-6)

It is my contention that the reason there is such a diabolical tinge to our fear and loathing of Donald J. Trump is precisely because of our awareness, conscious or no, that he represents a profound offense against our conception of reality.

The previous archetype of the Crooked Politician was Richard Nixon, a man almost universally reviled as a liar and a crook. Nixon, too, was feared and hated with incredible zeal by those who stood against him, because he, like Trump, represented a paradigm shift in the way his constituents viewed politicians. It had always been a matter of course to lambast politicians as corrupt and dishonest, but to see such traits exhibited at such an unprecedented scale upon so high a pedestal was earth-shaking. It redefined the people’s perception of the President, and the public’s relationship to politics.

But Nixon, for all his crimes, has not become a figure of supernatural horror. Not that artists and journalists haven’t tried to paint him as such—Philip K. Dick even went so far as to portray Nixon as the Antichrist himself in his Gnostic science-fiction VALIS trilogy. But the Antichrist is not a horrific spectre for the reason given above—he remains part of a logical, ordered system, comprising the whole universe and containing truth at its base. The truth is occluded, hidden, in Gnostic theology, but that renders it even more precious—Nixon’s Antichrist in Dick’s trilogy is the Father of Lies, existing solely to obscure what is true, but that truth still exists and is worth fighting for.

Trump offers no such assurances. It is impossible to confront him on the matter of truths and falsehoods, because they simply aren’t part of his conception of existence. When he opens his mouth, what pours forth could be a speech, it could be his confession to the murder of John F. Kennedy, it could be the lyrics to “November Rain”. There is absolutely no meaningful difference. His words exist neither to bring forth nor to obscure the truth, because the truth, for him, does not exist. There is only Trump, and what Trump wants, and those who stand in Trump’s way.

In his very existence, then, Trump represents a violation of our orderly conception of the universe, the conception that says there is ground beneath our feet and there are four lights not five and two plus two is four. Trump could insist that we stand upon nothing but air tomorrow, and his followers would swallow it. He could assert that two plus two is in fact fifty-nine and be greeted with cheers. And the next day he could reverse both those positions, claiming he never took either, and this too would be accepted.

It is not enough for Trump to destroy our existence. And he will, mind you—never forget that. If he takes office he will destroy the existence of whichever country punctures his thin-skinned hide enough that he decides to bomb it into oblivion, he will destroy the existence of the minorities that he depends upon as scapegoats, he will destroy the existence of those who operate within the economy that he will shatter into unsalvageable shards. But these won’t be the worst evils he wreaks.

The worst evil he will wreak—that he has already wrought—is to forever and always eradicate truth and falsehood as meaningful ideas in the mind of the public. They were under attack long before his ascendancy—bullshit has always been with us—but Trump is the eldritch abomination that has put their heads beneath his beak and crunched down. There is no going back from this point on, no restoring our conception of the universe to its prior state. Public discourse is being reshaped into an arena from which emerge no truths or lies, only what is useful to a certain narrative and what is not. There are those who continue to fight for the value of Truth as a concept, but the sound and fury of the shrieking hordes that Trump has loosed upon the world drown this call out with ease.

And there we have it. Trump, in his monumental bullshittery and insidious disregard for the truth as meaningful, is indistinguishable from any number of other Lovecraftian entities who desire to strip humanity of its sanity, its surety, its confidence that if nothing else facts are facts and lies are lies.

The difference is—unlike those other supernatural horrors? He’s won.

I never feel guilty eating anything (A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych)

cannibalism-evolution-beginning-endKaiseki. A Japanese art form that honors the taste and aesthetic of what we eat.

In 1971, German author Oscar Kiss Maerth published a book of pseudoscience entitled The Beginning Was the End. As an attempted work of science, it’s a complete failure—there is not a single reference or footnote present in the entire text, its argument constructed upon a foundation of anecdotal evidence. It’s also an intensely racist, misogynist piece of work. And yet there’s a profoundly unsettling, resonating aspect to Maerth’s hypothesis. Like any number of other creation myths, from the Garden of Eden to Julian Jaynes’ speculations on a preconscious state in which humanity hallucinated divine commands, it feels true in the act of reading, even if there’s absolutely no reason to believe it is.

Maerth believed that human consciousness came about through cannibalism. According to his hypothesis, apes began to eat the brains of their own kind when they discovered that said depravity had powerful aphrodisiac effects, resulting in a veritable orgy of cannibalism and rape. What the apes did not realize, at least at the time, was that as they consumed the brains of their fellow creatures, their own brains grew. Eventually, consciousness sprang into being; the result has been largely misery, as the discomfort caused by our overlarge brains pressing into our skulls has led to war, death, and isolation from nature.

Preposterous. And yet it lingers in the mind, once one has heard it.

Does Hannibal Lecter’s taste in cuisine explain, at least in part, why he is the way he is? Or does he dine on human flesh because of the way he is? The good doctor, at least in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, has no interest in answering this question of whether his cannibalistic essence preceded existence. “Nothing happened to me,” he tells Bedelia du Maurier when she tries to pry into his childhood. “I happened.”

Out-of-universe, this scene is probably at least partly a rebuke to Thomas Harris’ version of Hannibal in the books following The Silence of the Lambs. The novel Hannibal and its prequel Hannibal Rising went to great lengths to provide a concrete explanation for Hannibal’s existence, in the process crafting one of the worst “origin stories” in the history of fiction—Hannibal, Harris would have us believe, was perfectly normal until he was unwittingly fed, by Nazis no less, a soup made of his sister Mischa. The good doctor as conceived in Fuller’s Hannibal would no doubt sneer at such a clumsily Freudian handwave.

However, just because the line is somewhat of a cheap shot at Harris (who to be fair was contractually obligated to write Hannibal Rising unless he wanted to see it turned over to another author) does not mean it is insignificant. As far as the show is concerned, it is entirely the truth. Mads Mikkelsen, in an interview with the Telegraph, said of the character:

He is in a league of his own, and would probably find most other serial killers banal. Others have reasons to do what they do – their childhood, something their mother did – whatever. Hannibal is not like that. He finds the beauty of life right on the threshold of death. And that is not banal, in his mind . . . He is as close as you can come to the Devil, in the sense that the Devil has no reasons.

Childhood backstory or no, it does seem clear that to Hannibal, cannibalism is not incidental. Where to Todd it’s a tool and to Bateman it’s one of many methods, it is absolutely intrinsic to Hannibal’s identity. If he did not eat people, he would not be who he is.

hannibal-gif-525And who is he? “Superhuman” would not be an inappropriate designation. Indeed, Mikkelsen is far from the only person to refer to his character as the Devil. Out-of-universe, Bryan Fuller has also done so; in-universe, both Will Graham and Abel Gideon come to the conclusion. In the concrete world of Harris’ novels, we could be content to view this as little more than a metaphor. In the world of Hannibal, a magical-realist hell, it seems that both Will and Abel mean it quite literally.

It would be overly literal to apply Maerth’s hypothesis to Dr. Lecter at face value—it is not simply through consuming human flesh that Hannibal has attained his superiority over humanity. Rather, it’s through his self-awareness, and his awareness of humanity as a whole. This is the area in which he is completely removed from Todd and Bateman, each of whom only attains brief flashes of realization about his place in the world. Hannibal, by contrast, knows exactly who he is.

Who he is is entirely represented by his aesthetic taste. This is the one aspect of himself that he is incapable of hiding, even in his most desperate hour of need. When he flees to hiding in Europe, he chooses for his locale not a tiny hamlet in an obscure country, but the art museums of Florence. His house is if anything more extravagant than the one he left behind in Maryland. He changes his culinary preferences not one iota. Alana Bloom and Mason Verger believe that this is a mistake on his part, a slip that will allow him to be caught, but Bedelia du Maruier is under no such delusion. “You are drawing them to you,” she says, and in reply Hannibal simply smiles. His inability to betray his aesthetic sensibilities is the height of self-knowledge; he cannot exist contrary the thing that represents nothing more or less than himself. “Whimsy,” Bedelia tells Jack Crawford and Alana Bloom at one point, “is how he will be caught,” but she underestimates just how clearly Hannibal understands who he is and the risks that are attendant to his existence. In Harris’ novels, he is outsmarted and captured by Will Graham; in the television show, he turns himself in, because it’s the only way he could possibly be taken. It would be impossible for anyone to catch him, because to do so would be to understand him better than he does himself.

Nor is self-knowledge the only knowledge Hannibal possesses. It is his knowledge of humanity as meat that also defines him and his cannibalism. This insight has already been repeated at length over the course of the last few entries: there is no such thing as humanity or consciousness as such, only puppets run by nerve impulses, ghosts in the machine.

Others in the series also recognize this truth to various degrees, and it is to them that Hannibal affords most of his respect. Bedelia du Maurier, a person in some ways almost as terrifying as Hannibal himself, has the privilege of serving as his “psychiatrist” primarily due to their mutual philosophical positions as regard humanity. Will Graham, his own fragmented self testament to the nature of consciousness in general, finds himself drawn to Hannibal because “I’ve never known myself as well as I know myself when I’m with him,” and Hannibal in return falls in love with Will. One of his chief aims is to take the limited awareness of these people and raise it to its fullest potential; in this he is entirely a psychiatrist despite his unorthodox methods.

His response to everyone else is based largely on aesthetic merit. If they are mannered and tasteful, they are allowed to live. If they are rude, they are butchered like the swine they are. It is not enough for Hannibal simply to degrade them in this way, however. Rather, he fully displays his superiority by, even in death, helping them to better themselves. He takes their ugly humanity and transforms it into dishes that are utterly beautiful.

This stands in marked contrast to the other cannibal of the series, whose death at the hands of Will Graham begins the latter’s descent into Hannibal’s universe.  Garrett Jacob Hobbs chooses to “honor every part” of his victims much as he does with the deer he and his daughter Abigail hunt. Their flesh is consumed, their body parts made into household items, not as a means of expressing superiority but as an apology for their deaths. Hannibal’s cannibalism, on the other hand, is powerfully degrading, displaying his utter contempt for his victims. Their transformation into something new is not for their benefit, but for that of their killer; they are made into something beautiful not for their glory but for his.

This implicit mirroring of Yahweh is not accidental—a support for Hannibal’s infernal nature comes in his frequent comparisons of himself to God. Of particular note is an early conversation between him and Will:

Hannibal: Killing must feel good to God, too. He does it all the time, and are we not created in his image?

Will: Depends on who you ask.

Hannibal: God’s terrific. He dropped a church roof on thirty-four of his worshipers last Wednesday night in Texas, while they sang a hymn.

Will: Did God feel good about that?

Hannibal: He felt powerful.

He collects these church collapses, he later tells Will. It’s notable that Hannibal passes no particular moral judgment on God when discussing this; he does not use the church collapses as the opening of an antitheistic rant. If anything, these cruelties are God’s right, if he is indeed superior to us. This is the key to Hannibal’s philosophy as regards himself: he recognizes the nature of humanity, and is thus superior to them. He expresses this superiority in a way that is characteristically elegant—as humanity is meat, he treats them as such. Malleable, disposable, dead flesh, to be crafted by its Redeemer into something new. There is no morality involved, simply a desire to bring the universe into line with his view of it.

It would be impossible for Hannibal to exist were he not a cannibal. While there is no one-to-one relationship between himself and his consumption, as Maerth would have it, it is inevitable that, once he came to realize his place among humanity, he would begin to eat them.

Nothing else would be quite as elegant, and elegance is all that matters, in the end.

(to be continued)

 

Pigs in human clothing (A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych)

american-psycho_m_jpg_627x325_crop_upscale_q85-11I tried to make meat loaf out of the girl but it becomes too frustrating a task and instead I spend the afternoon smearing her meat all over the walls, chewing on strips of skin I ripped from her body.

Where Sweeney Todd and Hannibal Lecter are defined by their cannibalism, Patrick Bateman’s ingestion of human flesh is largely ignored. No doubt this is at least partly due to the infamously flamboyant brutality of his killings—consuming human flesh is relatively minor compared to the other unspeakable tortures he wreaks upon his prey, replete with nail guns and chainsaws and acid and rats.

Another possible reason is that, while both Todd and Lecter operate outside the social structures of their universes, Bateman is completely defined by his. Todd’s cannibalism is a form of rebellion—he strikes back at the industrial labyrinth that grinds him down through a particularly gruesome metaphor (though in doing so he inadvertently allows himself to become a cog in its machine). Hannibal’s cannibalism is both aesthetic and philosophical—he in his superhumanity is completely superior to the human swine that surround him, and his method of killing perfectly embodies this.

Bateman, however, neither rebels against his surroundings nor attempts to rise above them. His killings are the ultimate expression of the mentality that drives his society. Ironically, while American Psycho is commonly labeled a work of transgressive fiction due to the uproar its publication caused, Bateman’s actions are anything but transgressive. One of the ultimate questions raised by American Psycho is not Why is Patrick Bateman a serial killer? but Why isn’t everyone in Patrick Bateman’s social circle a serial killer?

The cannibalism that Bateman does practice is nasty, brutish, and short, to coin a phrase. There is none of Hannibal’s aesthetic touch present (and even Todd, for all the ugliness of his situation, notes the little details such as the “precious rubies” dripping from the silver of his razor). Rather, as in the excerpt above, we are treated to narration as devoid of personality and beauty as any of the rest of the novel. The attempted human meat loaf is the most involved Patrick ever becomes with the act of consuming human flesh; the rest consists of one-sentence descriptions of chewing on skin and bone, or the occasional phrase such as “the meat of her brain”.

Bateman is circling a truth here—the ultimate lie that is consciousness and humanity—but it’s not until his famous confession toward the end of the novel that he can grasp it. Rather, he struggles to view himself as superior to the life around him, a sort of second-rate Hannibal in his rants on proper attire and music and food. In the midst of the meatloaf killing, as he struggles to prepare meat patties from the flesh of his latest victim he says to the reader, “[T]hough it does sporadically penetrate how unacceptable some of what I’m doing actually is, I just remind myself that this thing, this girl, this meat, is nothing, is shit”.  However, this attempt at superiority through cannibalism falls apart, the stripped flesh failing to cohere into a dish. It’s emblematic of Bateman’s ultimate problem: he is no better than anyone around him, and where Hannibal expresses his superhumanity through his consumption and Todd undermines the system through his, Bateman merely furthers the prison he’s trapped in by committing acts of violence. The people he kills are indeed no more than meat, but neither is he, and his corporate sadism continuously fails to hide from the reader the fact that Bateman’s person suit is nothing more than a bundle of rags. Where Hannibal is made whole through his killing, Bateman is simply further fragmented.

Eventually, Patrick realizes his status as a noncontingent human being, but misdiagnoses why this is.

I had all the characteristics of a human being – flesh, blood, skin, hair – but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning.

he says at one point. His error, here, lies in the humanization of his victims via his assumption that he has become dehumanized. Closer to the truth would be a hybrid of this admission of non-personhood with his earlier dismissal of his victims as nothing more than meat.

And indeed, in his final confession we get close to such a synthesis:

I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed. Yet I am blameless. Each model of human behavior must be assumed to have some validity. Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do?

Here, Patrick grasps at the truth that Hannibal Lecter has fully realized: he is not, in any ultimate sense, “evil”, any more than his victims are “good”.  He simply is: a puppet made of meat, a ghost in the machine.

And still, this truth does not set him free:

But even after admitting this—and I have countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed—and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing . . .

Where Todd is a tragic figure and Hannibal a dark Messiah, Bateman is ultimately a pathetic creature. He recognizes the essential truth at the heart of consciousness, but in his weaker moments fobs it off as something unique to him and his echelon due to their societal brainwashing. Even in his more honest moments, when he realizes that society only aids and abets his inhuman nature rather than causing it, there is absolutely nothing he can do. Patrick lacks the drive necessary to rail against his inhuman nature, and lacks the capability to rise above it. His is a self-perpetuating existence, a perpetual motion machine of slaughter; he can’t get out of it because he can’t get out of it because he can’t get out of it. In that sense, all of us are Patrick Bateman.

This is why, ultimately, none of his attempts at cannibalism succeed in any meaningful sense. Unlike Todd, he isn’t delusional enough to utilize it as a tool against oppression. And unlike Hannibal, he isn’t superior enough to deserve it.

(to be continued)

Those crunching noises pervading the air (A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych)

mrs-lovett-s-meat-pies-sweeney-todd-27715526-457-700Meat. There’s something off-putting about the word, even in isolation. Even for those of us whose diet consists largely of that fibrous, succulent substance, the monosyllable carries with it a faint connotation of revulsion. It bears a host of sensory associations: the dull thud of a freshly-cut hunk of flesh connecting with the butcher’s table. The smell of burning fat. The unyielding, spongy texture, the feeling of resistance to being ground apart by our teeth.

What’s even worse is when the word is juxtaposed with connotations of consciousness. Human meat. Meat-puppets. The meat of the brain. And so on and so forth. Shivers.

The realization that all we ultimately are is thinking meat, a mass of living tissue that just happened to stumble upon consciousness or the illusion of consciousness, is an intensely disquieting one. (Indeed, horror author Thomas Ligotti went so far as to base a book upon the subject; those of you who see the phrase “thinking meat” and feel the urge to read on, I encourage you to buy The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror.) So disquieting, in fact, that only one of our resident killers really addresses it in his myth. Sweeney Todd uses the political as a way of shifting the horror of cannibalism up a level—in its universe, the horrific thing is that humans have made other humans into meat due to the nature of the society in which they find themselves trapped. American Psycho is more willing to address the fact that humanity is nothing but a bundle of reactions and routines rather than a unified self, but again passes this off on a societal cause. In the world of Hannibal, however, the horror is philosophical—we are all thinking meat, and we are all on the menu.

* * * * *

For what’s the sound of the world out there? Those crunching noises pervading the air? It’s man devouring man, my dear, and who are we to deny it in here?

spring_gala_sweeney_invite-9-25x5-75-v51The cannibalistic orgy that forms the second act of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street begins as a nihilst’s alternative to Marxism. Todd, in his initial attempt to murder Judge Turpin, is a one-man proletariat rising up against a microcosm of the bourgeoisie, wreaking just revenge for the indignities and injustices wrought upon him. Even once the mark has escaped and the barber’s “Epiphany” has begun, he phrases his outpourings in Marxist language:

They all deserve to die,

Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why?

Because in all of the whole human race, Mrs. Lovett,

There are two kinds of men and only two—

There’s the one staying put in his proper place

And the one with his foot in the other one’s face,

Look at me, Mrs. Lovett, look at you!

At this moment, the framing of Burton’s film adaptation is particularly interesting. Todd, as the final lines of this verse are sung, stares at himself in a shattered mirror, smiles, and then turns on his heel, catching Mrs. Lovett’s eye. He has seen something in his own image, and it’s sparked a change in his thinking:

No, we all deserve to die,

Even you, Mrs. Lovett, even I!

Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief,

For the rest of us death will be a relief,

We all deserve to die!

The third-person “they” has become the first-person “we”, and in a rhetorical flourish not present in the 1979 cast recording—Sondheim, who originally simply repeated “Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why,” had altered the lyric by the time of the 2005 Broadway revival, and the change remains in the film—Todd numbers himself and his companion among the damned. In the film, he goes so far as to seize her throat, thrust her into his barber’s chair, and bring his razor to her neck.

Looking into his own reflection has given Todd his true epiphany, though it’s one that his Benjamin Barker person-suit tries to shove down throughout the rest of Act II: he is beyond repair, the jagged fragments of his glass-face reflecting the irredeemable pieces of his soul. In a world where so much damage has been inflicted upon the lower classes by the upper class, there is no such thing as a chance at redemption, a rising of the proletariat and an abolition of injustice. All he can hope to achieve is to drag his oppressors screaming into hell along with him, putting his fellow sufferers out of their misery on the way.

It’s immediately after this that the central metaphor of Sondheim’s incarnation of Todd makes its appearance: hide the evidence of Todd’s various revenges and mercy killings by grinding them into Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies. Notably, it’s not Todd who has the idea, but Lovett herself. She’s the businessperson of the two, the practical mind that brings Todd’s grand schemes down to earth; she’s also, despite her suffering condition, a cog in the vast mechanical beast that is Industry, a victim who is unable to escape turning to her oppressors’ methods in order to survive. Thus it’s an avatar of capitalism, lower class notwithstanding, who spawns the notion of a very literal symbol for society’s horror: humans ground from thinking beings into meat, providing sustenance for the humans who will themselves undergo the same process. Only this time, it will be the poor rather than the privileged who dictate who gets eaten when.

Magnanimously, Todd and Lovett conclude the jewel of black comedy that is “A Little Priest”, a grocery list of sorts that covers the various professions the pie shop will prepare, with these lines:

Todd: Have charity toward the world, my pet!

Lovett: Yes, yes, I know, my love!

Todd: We’ll take the customers that we can get!

Lovett: Highborn and low, my love!

Todd: We’ll not discriminate great from small,

No, we’ll serve anyone, meaning anyone,

And to anyone at all!

Equal-opportunity cannibalism. Rich and poor alike will be butchered, rich and poor alike will eat.

However, Mrs. Lovett isn’t on board with Todd’s nihilistic vision. In many ways, she’s the ultimate villain of the play. Rather than bringing down the upper class, she dreams of joining it, regaling the barber with her visions of the two of them living well-to-do in a cottage by the sea and having rich friends over for dinner. Chopping up the rich and poor alike is not a way for her to prove some ideological point; it’s a means of advancement, a way for her to rise from the ranks of the lower classes and replace the members of the upper class with whom she and Todd dispose. She’s representative of the self-perpetuating lie of what we would call the American Dream were the play to take place on Yankee soil; there are no poor, merely temporarily embarrassed millionaires, as the quote attributed to Steinbeck goes. Mrs. Lovett sees all the oppression and suffering wrought upon the poor by an unjust system, and rather than bringing the system down by any means necessary merely wishes to advance far enough up its ladder that she can’t be hurt by it anymore. Fittingly, she suffers perhaps the ultimate poetic death of the musical—burned to death, a shrieking pile of raw sinew and bone, by her own oven.

As horrific as Sondheim’s vision of industrial hell is, it doesn’t descend to the posthumanist depths that Hannibal takes us to. Nowhere does it attempt to grapple with the philosophical question of whether human beings are actually thinking meat, fit for the grinder even in our most idyllic state. Rather, it presents us with a universe in which the reduction of humanity to stuffing for a greasy crust is exactly what it seems like: conscious intelligences being ground into flesh and sinew by the injustices of an industrial, class-based society. The horror is that selves are becoming nothing but the flesh they inhabit, not that there never were any selves to begin with. American Psycho takes us one step further: we have become soulless bags of meat, but societal causes are still to blame.

(to be continued)

Person suits (A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych)

5278ee98-a27a-4cd1-83a0-9118c7521324One of the more striking book covers of the last twenty-five years is the original Vintage paperback of American Psycho. It depicts a Patrick Bateman who’s a nightmarish fusion of man and object, his suit-clad body and pointed chin fused with a skull-socketed mask that brings to mind Jason and Leatherface and a thousand other bad dreams. One wonders, reading the novel, if Bateman in fact looks like this demon, but has his appearance ignored just as his frequent confessions of his depravity go unnoticed.

Bedelia du Maurier, in season two of Hannibal, tells the good doctor: “I’ve had to draw a conclusion based on what I glimpse through the stitching of the person-suit that you wear, and the conclusion that I’ve drawn is that you are dangerous.” Whether an intentional reference to the above cover art or not, the phrase encapsulates a concept in much the same way: like the Thing or the Body Snatchers, the serial killer may be able to perfectly imitate us, but he is alien.

In keeping with their different drives and social climates, each of our killers wears a very different kind of person suit. Sweeney Todd’s is woven largely for his own benefit rather than outsiders’, and is little concerned with appearances. Patrick Bateman’s is a poorly constructed patchwork of trends, all surface and possessed of only the barest hints of humanity. Hannibal Lecter’s is ultimately not so different from his true self, a tightly stitched melding of aesthetic, moral, and philosophical concerns that is an echo of the Platonic ideal of the good doctor.

sweeney-todd-broadway-poster-1979“Not Barker. That man is dead.”

The one great mistake of Tim Burton’s film adaptation of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd was the prettification of its characters. In the musical’s original stage production, the only beautiful people in sight are the doomed lovers Anthony and Johanna, whose purity both outer and inner is brutally shown for the joke it is as events run their course. Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, by contrast, are depicted on the play’s promotional art as shrieking messes of skull and gristle. In the show itself, Len Cariou and George Hearn’s Sweeney is rendered a death’s head by liberal application of white foundation to his cheeks and dark raccoon’s bruises around his eyes. Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett bears a similar, almost repulsive mottling of black and white, along with smeared red lipstick and a bizarre hairstyle. Lansbury can be said to appear pretty outside of this makeup, but Cariou and Hearn, if not ugly, are neither handsome. These incarnations of Todd and Lovett are faithful to the world that has twisted their souls and spurred their misdeeds; they’re the product of the filth and squalor that infested industrial London, and if Mrs. Lovett at least dreams of one day living beautifully, Todd has given up any similar wish.

There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit,

And it’s filled with people who are filled with shit,

And the vermin of the world inhabit it

he sings on more than one occasion, and he does not separate himself from the vermin that populate this London. He does not hope to rise above them, only to become their avenging angel.

sweeney-todd-and-mrs-lovett-sweeney-todd-28458970-1916-1080Burton’s film, while otherwise highly successful in its depiction of the industrial hell that plays host to Sondheim’s melodrama, is hamstrung from the start by the fact that the film’s chief players, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, are extraordinarily beautiful people. With the right application of makeup, this beauty could be hidden—witness Depp’s transformation into the fishbelly-tinged Whitey Bulger in last year’s Black Mass—but instead, Burton chooses to simply dress them in the Gothic chic trappings that are the hallmark of his visual style. Thus, while his Todd and Lovett bear the same high-contrast light and dark makeup as their stage counterparts, accentuated by the desaturation applied to the film’s image via digital intermediate, it is not makeup designed to render faces squalid but to accentuate eyes and cheekbones. Their clothing, as opposed to the spartan, frayed dress of the stage Todd and Lovett, seems far too, well, cool to be attached to a pair of miserable citydwellers. Depp’s Todd bears a streak of white through his hair, presumably due to the hardship of his time in prison, but the streak is so sharp-edged, so pure white rather than yellowed and greasy, that it looks more like a fashion statement than an affliction.

Thus Burton’s Todd, like Bateman and Lecter, wears an aesthetic person suit in addition to a moral one, while the Todd of 1979 has no such outer concerns. It is this moral person suit that is the core of Todd, and it is the thing that does the most to render him separate from his counterparts. Bateman and Lecter have spun person suits out of whole cloth; there is never to our knowledge a time when they were not wholly other from the rest of humanity. Todd, in sharp contrast, was a person while he bore the name Benjamin Barker, and while he has already cast that name aside by the time the play begins, he has kept its motivations.

Todd does not, to start with, kill for its own sake, at least to his own mind; his Barker-self provides a rational justification for each of his initially planned murders. He plans to murder Judge Turpin to exact justice for Barker’s false imprisonment, his wife’s rape and suicide, and his child’s abduction. He slits the throat of Adolfo Pirelli because the barber knows of Barker’s identity. Mrs. Lovett urges him to kill Anthony in order that Barker may be reunited with his daughter Johanna after all these years, with no other men around to interfere. Thus we see that, again unlike Bateman and Lecter, Todd does not wear his person suit primarily to keep up appearances. He wears it in order to lie to himself, to convince himself that he is still a human being operating in a moral or at least pragmatic fashion.

Even after he snaps in the midst of “Epiphany”, beginning an indiscriminate crusade of slaughter against the wicked and the downtrodden alike, Todd continues to retreat to his person suit. “The lives of the wicked should be made brief/for the rest of us death will be a relief” he tells Mrs. Lovett, attempting to lend his increasing bloodlust a moral framework, but even as he insists on this his Barker-self unravels. As he slits the throats of customers and sings to Johanna, he realizes his burning desire to free her has slipped away:

And though I’ll think of you, I guess, until the day I die,

I think I miss you less and less as every day goes by, Johanna.

And you’d be beautiful and pale and look too much like her [. . .]

Wake up, Johanna, another bright red day!

We learn, Johanna, to say good-bye.

And when Mrs. Lovett asks him what his wife Lucy looked like, he can remember nothing more than her yellow hair.

By the time that Turpin arrives at the Tonsorial Parlour for the final time, Todd’s self-justifying person suit has been completely dropped. He shrieks the name of Benjamin Barker as he rips open the judge’s throat, but this comes after he has deliberately put Johanna in harm’s way in order to lure Turpin to his door. By the time the final sequence comes to its close, Todd has accidentally murdered Lucy and nearly done the same to Johanna, his words to the latter symbolic of the final destruction of Benjamin Barker: “Forget my face.”

One is tempted to place Todd in a separate category altogether from his counterparts due to the nature of his person suit. One of the defining characteristics that Patrick Bateman and Hannibal Lecter have in common is their self-awareness; Bateman knows and despises exactly what he is, while Hannibal knows it and revels in it. Their person suits are purely for the benefit of the world, a means of convincing the lesser beings who surround them that they share a common humanity. Todd, on the other hand, bears a profound lack of self-awareness. Over and over throughout the musical, speaking to himself or to Mrs. Lovett, he puts on his Barker-self in order to convince himself that he is still human, though what that humanity entails besides revenge isn’t something that seems to have occurred to him. His person suit is stitched in order to hide himself from himself, not from the suspicious masses. In this, while he ultimately does lose his humanity to the “precious rubies” of blood upon his razor, he can nevertheless be labeled the most human of this triptych.

a-complete-guide-to-the-mens-fashion-in-american-psychoA noncontingent human being

Where Sweeney Todd, Burton’s beautification of the character notwithstanding, can be seen as wearing a purely moral person suit, Patrick Bateman’s is an almost purely aesthetic one. Aesthetic, in this case, is perhaps not the right word. Where Hannibal does nearly everything he does out of a commitment to beauty for beauty’s sake, Bateman follows trends, weaving into his person suit not what he considers beautiful but what he knows his colleagues will consider stylish. Indeed, it’s questionable if Bateman even has a sense of aesthetics—this is a topic that will be discussed in depth later on in this series, but it’s worth noting even now that the only points in American Psycho at which he ever gives his considered opinion about a work of art are the three post-murder interludes in which he reviews the careers of Genesis, Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis and the News. And even there, were Bateman’s opinions on each of these musical acts not so wildly wrongheaded I would wonder if Ellis simply stripped sections from music publications’ reviews and pasted them together into a collage to write these sections.

This slavish adherence to trends and brands as a substitute for aesthetic taste is most clearly seen in the endless deadening monologues that Bateman devotes to narrating the clothing choices of himself and his colleagues. The fashion-casual reader won’t be able to visualize in his or her head what, exactly, any of the numerous brands looks like, but informed readers tell us, and I will defer to their knowledge, that Ellis’ slavishly detailed ensembles are deliberately conceived to look as ridiculous as possible. There is no better representation of how Bateman forms his outer self—not through a coherent philosophy or taste, but simply by popular demand. Were he to have been born to a member of the lower classes, his person suit would probably have been forced to depend less on possessions, but the results of whatever he turned to instead would be largely the same fragmented jumble.

There appears to be no moral aspect to Bateman’s camouflage. His secretary, Jean, bewilders him toward the novel’s close by commenting on his kindness and gentleness, but she’s so infatuated with her boss that it’s very likely that she’s completely imagined any displays of these characteristics; we certainly never see Bateman demonstrate them toward her in the text. Indeed, it’s part of the horror of American Psycho that Bateman doesn’t need a moral person suit—in their own way, his colleagues and contemporaries are all just as empty and soulless as he is, his confessions to murders and executions misheard as “mergers and acquisitions” and his public misdeeds hailed as riotous jokes. Bateman’s own recognition of this utter lack of inner or outer moral coherence is worth quoting at length:

There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are comparable: I simply am not there. It is hard for me to make sense on any given level. Myself is fabricated, an aberration. I am a noncontingent human being. My personality is sketchy, and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent. My consciousness, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever existed. There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused, and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed.

Much like his literal suits, Bateman’s person suit is a patchwork, incoherent and paper-thin. The true nightmare of his world is that he isn’t special in this regard—everyone is dressed in precisely the same fashion.

giphyIn his image

There is a unity of self to Hannibal Lecter that stands at complete odds with the fragmented, illusory nature of Patrick Bateman’s identity (though there’s room for both of them in the world of Hannibal—Lecter strongly considers himself to be a unified being, but then he also considers himself superhuman; were he aware of American Psycho he would say Bateman can’t grasp his self because, being merely human, he really doesn’t have one). This applies even to the false self he wears to fool the world. His person suit is not so much a secret identity as a lesser identity; Hannibal is his person suit, only moreso.

It is worth noting that Hannibal almost never passes moral judgment on anyone while in the guise of his person suit, even the killers whom he and Will help the FBI to catch. It would be easy to do so—a few comments here and there about the brutality and evil of the minds that could wreak such depravities on the world—but Hannibal is too honest about himself and his worldview, even in a time of hiding, to allow himself such an easy way into the FBI’s good graces. Rather, he actively risks exposing his lack of humanity almost constantly, commenting on his fellow killers and their victims in ways that are morally disinterested to the point of callousness. “I’m your friend, Will,” he says at one point. “I don’t care about the lives you save; I care about your life.”

This line brings up another way in which Hannibal’s person suit is a reflection of his true self: he does not lie when he says he cares. Hannibal is a psychiatrist. As Phil Sandifer has pointed out in the past, this detail is of no major import in Thomas Harris’ original novels—the author simply needed a convincing excuse to give Hannibal an uncanny sense for human behavior in order for him to assist Will and Clarice in their manhunts. In Hannibal, however, it’s one of the absolute defining traits of his character. There are those humans who are too beneath the good doctor to warrant attention; they are pigs, and they will end up at his table. But then there are those like Will, or Francis Dolarhyde, or Margot Verger, people whom Hannibal genuinely wants to see become their best selves. He cannot openly admit, whilst wearing his person suit, what he considers these best selves to be, but his compassion for certain friends and patients is not simply manufactured. It is part of who he is.

Aesthetics are the chief concern of both Hannibal the man and Hannibal the person suit. It could not be any other way. There is no way for him to hide this aspect of his personality; his taste for human flesh is simply part of his devotion to beauty, but his devotion to beauty makes up the whole of his life. However, this near-sameness between Hannibal’s outward self and the self of the Chesapeake Ripper does not mean that he becomes easier to identify. Indeed, if anything his being so blatantly obsessed with beauty in clothing, in art, in food, in decor, is a stroke of genius; it is the ultimate obfuscation. It does not occur to the majority of human minds that consuming human flesh, making sculptures and paintings out of the leftover meat, could be anything but ugly. Hannibal is so cultured within the “normal” portion of his aesthetic taste that, to most minds, it would be unimaginable to extend that taste to something that appears to be the antithesis of beauty. Of course, the closer one gets to Hannibal, the more likely one is to begin to appreciate the aesthetics of the perverse, but once one’s fallen under the good doctor’s influence it really won’t matter if his person suit is seen through, as evidenced so chillingly in the case of Bedelia du Maurier.

Hannibal does change once he’s forced to strip his person suit from his body. The captured Hannibal of the Great Red Dragon arc is more obviously contemptuous of those he considers beneath him, openly gleeful about other killers’ atrocities rather than bearing a guise of professional curiosity. But while these changes are noticeable, nothing about his essential being has been transformed by the revelation of his true self. Where Sweeney Todd finds his self slowly disintegrating, and Patrick Bateman has never truly had one behind his person suit, Hannibal has always been himself, merely to greater or lesser degrees.

(to be continued)

Once you get into cosmological shit like this, you got to throw away the instruction manual (“It” postmortem: cosmogony)

tripping-in-the-deadlights_440One of the poorer artistic decisions in the history of genre fiction was August Derleth’s retconning of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos (a term which Derleth himself coined) from cosmic horror to cosmic religion, taking Lovecraft’s posthumanist universe of human insignificance and transforming it into the stage for a titanic battle between Good—the Elder Gods of Derleth’s invention—and Evil—the Great Old Ones such as Yog-Sothoth and Nyarlathotep. The most resonant and influential aspect of Lovecraft’s stories is the fact that the Great Old Ones are not evil, but completely amoral—they commit horrible deeds against humanity not out of malice but out of a complete lack of recognition of human sentience. In fact, it’s rather tiresome of me to even type the former sentence, the philosophical core of Lovecraft’s tales is so widely known. It’s fortunate that Derleth’s attempt to trample on this posthumanism have been largely forgotten, but the fact that he made it remains an artistic blunder of baffling proportions.

The mythology of It takes a similar baffling swerve deep into its length. It’s not nearly as disastrous as Derleth’s meddlings—the point of King’s novel is not that the universe is a horrifyingly uncaring place—but it’s a bizarre choice, and in addition to weakening Pennywise it firmly shifts the novel’s genre out of the horrific and into the fantastic as discussed in the introduction to this series.

I have to wonder if the decision to introduce the influence of the Turtle came as the result of planning for the Dark Tower series, or if King conceived of it separately and only later decided to weld it onto the behemoth retcon that is that series’ continuity. The former explanation would make the sudden shift into cosmicism a lot more understandable, but I don’t necessarily think it’s feasible; The Waste Lands, the book that introduced the concept of the Turtle and Shardik and numerous other massive animals as guardians of the Beams, wasn’t published until 1991, five years after It. Couple this with King’s notorious antipathy for preplanning, especially within the Dark Tower series itself, and it seems more likely that he came up with the Turtle without some grander plan, only later deciding to make it a part of the Dark Tower universe. At any rate, getting into the cosmogony of It as part of the larger whole that is the Dark Tower could probably be a series on its own, and would also require me to sit down and re-read all seven of those novels, so henceforth I’ll be treating It as a self-contained novel, not part of King’s larger universe (macroverse, if you will).

There’s a sort of twisted Gnosticism at work in King’s conception of It and the Turtle. Throughout the book there’s a disgust and horror that pervades the physical, along with all the damage it can wreak and that can be wrought upon it. The primal fear of a monster eating its victims, which Pennywise plays heavily upon, is a deeply physical one, though there’s also the metaphysical horror of one’s essence being absorbed by another entity. The chief horror of the Derry sewers, besides their darkness, is the stifling mess of shit and waste that runs through them; the most horrific part of Beverly’s encounter with Pennywise in the form of an old woman is the fact that she unknowingly (at first) drinks liquid shit in the form of tea served to her by It. Patrick Hockstetter, a solipsist who believes himself to be the only real person in existence, has only one fear—that of leeches draining his blood, which of course happens to him in short order. And so on and so forth. The physical can be redeemed, as happens in the Losers’ final bonding in the sewers, but on the whole is depicted as vile and horrific throughout the novel.

If this flesh is a prison, Pennywise is the demiurge who rules over it. Its flesh is not like that of the children who It terrorizes; It is fluid, capable of becoming anything it wishes rather than remaining trapped in one form. And even this malleable physical container is not Its final form. The Deadlights, the metaphysical terror hovering in the outer macroverse, are the closest it has to a true self. All this, of course, smacks of a Gnostic conception of the universe—the true reality lies beyond the physical, our own universe only an illusion preventing us from seeing what truly is.

Things are complicated, however, by the fact that It is not the only demiurge; It exploits the physical, but It didn’t trap us there to begin with. That blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the Turtle, who vomited up our reality in the midst of a bout of nausea. This event is, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, widely viewed as a bad move; the Turtle himself pleads with Bill for forgiveness, telling him

I made the universe, but please don’t blame me for it; I had a belly-ache.

Thus there are two demiurges existent in It‘s cosmogony, one that is actively malevolent toward the physical creation and one who is responsible for the creation itself. The Turtle is not a binary opposite of Pennywise, however; it is not quite indifferent, but if it’s benevolent it’s a weak sort of benevolence, one that can stand by and throw away a platitude or two but can’t offer much in the way of actual assistance.

did you enjoy meeting my friend the Turtle? I thought that stupid old fuck died years ago, and for all the good he could do you, he might as well have, did you think he could help you?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInexplicably, the Turtle vanishes in the midst of the novel’s second climax—It crows to the remaining adult Losers that he died choking on a galaxy. One gets the sense that King realized he couldn’t have any sort of useful deity present to upset his horrific universe, but it feels sloppy; just as soon as the Turtle abruptly enters, he’s gone again.

And indeed, the horrific nature of the novel is lost regardless due to a passing remark the narrator makes shortly after the final demise of It, one that has radical implications for his novel’s cosmogony:

And clearly, [Bill] heard the Voice of the Other; the Turtle might be dead, but whatever invested it was not.

Son, you did real good.

If we were to bring in the heap of canon welding that is the Dark Tower continuity, this Other could be called Gan, that series’ vague equivalent to God. Considered alone, it comes to about the same thing; some mysterious uber-deity that lies beyond even the macroverse. It’s apparently the driving force at work behind the strange coincidences that bring the Losers together, as well as the force that ensures they (mostly) remain childless and prosperous before their final showdown with Pennywise. It is, it could be said, the God to the twin demiurges of the Turtle and Pennywise, trying to undo the physical and metaphysical damage wrought by them.

Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as neat as all that. To begin with, there’s the question of why this Other invests the Turtle with power if it is, in fact, the Turtle’s fault that the universe exists in the first place. There’s also, as ever, the problem of a benevolent deity existing in the world of a horror novel and yet failing to directly save its children. In the context of a Gnostic universe this is more acceptable, as the God of a Gnostic cosmogony is remote and doesn’t directly intervene; however, this is also muddled, as the Other doesn’t act through savior figures in It but apparently wields a direct influence on the Losers, never enough to actually substantially alter events but just enough to shift probability.

There’s also the question of knowledge as the source of salvation. Gnosticism is obviously deeply concerned with this issue, and believes that divine knowledge of the reality that lies beyond our fleshly, material prison is the only way to achieve salvation. In It, however, the reward the Other grants the Losers for performing their duty is to erase their knowledge that such things ever happened. They forget their friends, their loved ones, their childhoods; more importantly, in a theological sense, they forget the metaphysical realities that have been revealed to them in the course of their quest to defeat Pennywise. If the Other is indeed benevolent, blinding the Losers to reality can’t mean their damnation. It also results, however, in a total inability to directly map King’s cosmogony onto a Gnostic one. What we’re left with is a rather muddled conception of the universe.

I’m probably giving this issue more thought than it deserves in the context of the novel. If there’s one thing that It isn’t concerned with thematically, it’s a classically Gnostic view of salvation. There’s also the out-of-universe reality that King was mired deepest in his cocaine addiction and alcoholism at this point, and it’s probably overly charitable to assume that he was thinking deeply about a workable theological framework for his novel (though then again, Philip K. Dick’s addictions never stood in his way. . .). However, the enormity of the cosmic fantasy the novel’s final quarter indulges in means it can’t simply be brushed over, especially if one does indeed try to tie it to the larger cosmogony of the Dark Tower universe. It would be fascinating for King to write a metaphysical treatise of sorts on the nature of his fictional universe; perhaps he has answers that he simply hasn’t told us, or, more likely, perhaps he really was simply making it up as he went along.

The implications of all this theological rigmarole for It‘s genre have been touched on at length in the introduction to this series. The presence of the Turtle and the Other muddy the conceptual waters enough that I don’t think It can be labeled a horror novel in its entirety, but a fantasy with strong horrific overtones. The categorical purist in me is frustrated by this, especially because it completely overturns what is otherwise a rather perfect encapsulation of what horror means in a philosophical sense, courtesy of Stan Uris:

There were things that were not supposed to be. They offended any sane person’s sense of order, they offended the central idea that God had given the earth a final tilt on its axis so that twilight would only last about twelve minutes at the equator and linger for an hour or more up where the Eskimos built their ice-cube houses, that He had done that and He then had said, in effect: “Okay, you can figure out the tilt, you can figure out any damn thing you choose. Because even light has weight, and when the note of a trainwhistle suddenly drops it’s the Doppler effect and when an airplane breaks the sound barrier that bang isn’t the applause of angels or the flatulence of demons but only air collapsing back into place. I gave you the tilt and then I sat back about halfway up the auditorium to watch the show. I got nothing else to say, except that two and two makes four, the lights in the sky are stars, if there’s blood grownups can see it as well as kids, and dead kids stay dead.” You can live with fear, I think, Stan would have said if he could. Maybe not forever, but for a long, long time. It’s  offense you maybe can’t live with, because it opens up a crack inside your thinking, and if you look down into it you see there are live things down there, and they have little yellow eyes that don’t blink, and there’s a stink down in that dark, and after awhile you think maybe there’s a whole other universe down there, a universe where a square moon rises in the sky, and the stars laugh in cold voices, and some of the triangles have four sides, and some have five, and some have five raised to the fifth power of sides. In this universe there might grow roses that sing. Everything leads to everything, he would have told them if he could.  Go to your church and listen to your stories about Jesus walking on the water, but if I saw a guy doing that I’d scream and scream and scream. Because it wouldn’t look like a miracle to me. It would look like an offense.

The power of this passage is blunted by the fact that Its existence is not, in fact, a hole in the order of the universe after all, but part of a fantastic framework. It’s still chilling, but how much more chilling it would be if Stan’s universe were indeed an otherwise completely rational one.

What matters more than abstract questions of genre are the implications for Pennywise’s character. Unfortunately, Pennywise completely collapses once Its backstory is explained in detail. The appeal of the monster lurking underneath the bridge or inside the closet is that it is inexplicable; its motives, its origins, its nature, are all unknowns, making it impossible to fight. Learning exactly what It is, and worse, seeing inside Its head and reading its thoughts, undermines nearly all of the horror built by Its mystique; It is reduced from a seemingly omniscient, dastardly cunning monster to a whinging, cringing tyrant bloated by its own pompous self-importance (using the phrase I demand, no, I command it! is cringe-inducing from just about anyone; from a malevolent clown it’s even worse).

One could make the case that this is precisely the point—knowledge is all that’s required to drive away monsters in the closet, and while growing up renders us more susceptible to horror at things that shouldn’t exist, it also renders us more able to explain them away. And so, it would seem, knowledge is indeed a sort of salvation within King’s cosmogony.

Except for when it isn’t.

(to be continued)

Now she won’t be able to tell us apart: “Goodnight Mommy” review

goodnight-mommy ✦  of five

What a mess.

The trailer for Goodnight Mommy had me fairly excited. Here is a situation that, while not the most original horror setup in the book, could very easily deliver a genuinely unnerving experience, a mix of the family tensions of The Babadook or The Shining, the child-driven horror of Let the Right One In, and the in-broad-daylight isolation of The Witch. It’s calculated to hit those primal fears any child has experienced: being all alone and chased by a monster without a parent to help, or worse yet being chased by a parent who has become monstrous. And for the first act, the movie looks like it’s going to hit all those notes. And then, things begin to degenerate at a fairly incredible rate.

Spoilers ahead.

In terms of initial setup, the trailer is fairly accurate. Two boys, living in an isolated house in the middle of Austrian farmland, are greeted by a woman whose face is covered in bandages. She’s apparently their mother, returned from a cosmetic surgery of unknown purpose. But her behavior is different—where their mother was warm and loving, this woman is cold and harsh, and often mentally and physically abusive. As time goes by, the paranoia of isolation sets in more and more, and the boys are increasingly convinced that whoever this masked creature is, it’s not their mother.

The movie is completely unsubtle in its hints as to the mother-creature’s nature right off the bat. There’s a crucifix affixed to the boys’ wall that’s conveniently framed in numerous shots, and in a moment about halfway through the film, when the boys flee to town in an attempt to find help, they visit the local priest, the Catholic imagery growing even more obvious. The clumsy nature of this setup has two possible outcomes: either the movie thinks it is being clever in its foreshadowing rather than blindingly straightforward, or it doth protest too much. It turns out to be the latter—the horror at the heart of Goodnight Mommy is gradually turned on its head, the viewer’s fear for the twins Lukas and Elias slowly morphing into a fear of them and empathy for their antagonist/victim. The first of the movie’s two twists to be revealed—Mommy is indeed who she says she is, the torture the boys have inflicted on her in an attempt to get their real mother back all for nothing—while it takes the wind out of the horror sails, is built to with a fairly effective amount of viewer dread. One scene in particular, in which the twins strap the mother down to her bed and torment her in increasingly shocking ways, is masterfully played, our fear that the mother will reach out and seize the boys bit by bit supplanted by a stunned sort of revulsion at what they’re doing to her.

Unfortunately, the movie can’t support this well-drawn scene, nor can it support the entire twist that it’s built around. The reason for this could have been completely avoided, and it’s almost mind-boggling to me that writer/directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala left it in the film. But they did—it even shows up in the trailer. And because of these thirty seconds or so of footage, Goodnight Mommy completely collapses.

It’s near nightfall. The mother, having recently thrown a tantrum in front of her children, wanders into the woods outside the house, shedding her clothes and walking naked through the trees. Odd, but not inexplicable—until her head begins to vibrate, whipping itself back and forth at a CGI-assisted speed clearly impossible for a mundane human being to achieve. This, coupled with the crucifix imagery, would seem to suggest that, if not a demon, something supernatural must be at work here.

Except…there isn’t. And the movie doesn’t even attempt to offer an explanation as to what the hell the forest scene is supposed to mean as a result.

One of the things that pleases (and frightens) me the most about The Witch, which has a similar and far more disturbing scene of a naked woman wandering alone through the woods, is that it doesn’t even think of pulling the all-too-easy trick so many horror movies do of trying to have their cake and eat it too in regards to the supernatural. The early sequence of the titular witch carrying baby Samuel back to her den, startling in its flouting of the generally accepted tenet that showing one’s monster should be reserved for the third act, firmly shuts down the internet-popular mode of interpretation that relegates every horror movie to the protagonist’s delusions whether that approach is warranted by the film or not. By contrast, The Babadook is an excellent example of taking that tired critical approach and making it work thematically. The monster can be either real or the product of the grief-driven psychosis of the film’s characters; the film’s central metaphor remains the same regardless of which approach is taken, and neither reading diminishes the horror at its core.

Goodnight Mommy tries to make use of both these approaches, which results in a completely incoherent piece of work. Even if it had committed to The Witch‘s brand of horror and rendered the mother an actual supernatural entity, the scene in the woods doesn’t particularly add anything to the film; indeed, it rather scuppers the dread of not knowing, of questioning what exactly this thing that wears a human shape is before it finally reveals itself—the boys’ mother somehow changed? a human impostor? something altogether more unnatural? As it is, a scene that in that scenario would have been tension-draining is utterly crippling. The film wishes us to believe that the boys’ mother always was just that, no alterations whatsoever. However, in having us do so it has to hope we’ve forgotten entirely about her supernatural jaunt. If the directors had rendered it as a dream sequence, something that the boys in their paranoia experience as a nightmare, it could have worked. No such trappings are wrapped around it, however. The movie is broken, and no attempt is made to fix it.

The supremely frustrating thing about all this is that the sixty seconds of screentime that the movie-breaking scene consists of could have been cut entirely without affecting anything. No information of any importance is conveyed, and the film would arguably be scarier without it, the ambiguity of the mother walking off into the dark woods alone far more unsettling than our seeing what she does there. Plenty of Christian imagery is littered throughout the next forty minutes, meaning the demonic red herring is viable without firsthand “proof.” And if the scene was shot for a misleading trailer, which is entirely possible—well, that’s exactly the sort of thing one leaves on the cutting room floor, isn’t it?

And so, the movie collapses in on itself. And while this complete lack of sense-making is its biggest flaw, it’s far from the only one. The third act increasingly relies on silliness in order to move the plot along. A pair of bumbling Red Cross workers take it upon themselves to enter into the family’s seemingly abandoned house and venture upstairs to look for inhabitants simply because the door was unlocked, resulting in a three-minute scene that accomplishes nothing and whose nonsense takes the viewer out of the film. More egregious is the film’s second twist—one of the twins has actually died, and the other in his madness has been hallucinating his presence. A comparison to Fight Club isn’t flattering—that film’s twist is integral to the plot, and the viewer is given a solid twenty minutes to acclimate to the Durden/narrator connection as part of the story they’re being told. Goodnight Mommy, on the other hand, shoves the twist in at almost the last possible moment, its rushed reveal a testament to the fact that the movie really doesn’t need it there. The viewer’s reaction at this point is not one of wonder or appreciation but of tired contempt.

Paradoxically, this flaw of silliness is balanced by a flaw of grimness. The film’s third act largely descends into torture porn, as the boys perform a series of indecencies on the intruder-mother to try to break her spirit. There are some shocking bits and pieces here—one moment in particular, in which the boys crazy-glue the mother’s lips shut and proceed to slice them open again, had me looking through my fingers—but beyond that shock their intent is unclear. Seeing such acts committed by little boys inspires visceral discomfort, to be sure, but to what purpose? The film begins to feel like nothing more than exploitation, and as the credits finally roll the viewer’s primary emotion is deep disappointment mingled with frustration and disgust.

Oddly enough, The Descent, which as of this writing I’ve just watched for the third time (for my family it was the first, and their reactions will certainly feature into my planned analysis of the film), contains far more violence per minute of screentime than Goodnight Mommy, violence far more extravagant in terms of blood spilled and lives ended. And yet it doesn’t feel nearly as exploitative. Perhaps it’s because that film is so perfectly constructed, whereas the flaws in this one are so egregious they encourage the viewer to poke and prod for more. Perhaps it’s because that movie has a lot to say (in a comparatively subtle way) about grief and the titular descent into despair that follows, where this one could say a lot about the mutual fears of parent-child relationships but chooses instead to descend into melodrama and ridiculousness. Either way, a comparison between the two proves that an over-the-top level of gore is not inherently in bad taste; it’s all in how you use it, and Goodnight Mommy doesn’t seem to be interested in using it as much more than a way to keep the audience involved with a shoddily constructed descent into not madness but absurdity.

There are glimmers of greatness in Goodnight Mommy, which makes it worse than if it were simply a consistent display of hackdom. It’s tastefully shot, and its three-person cast of Susanne Wuest and Elias and Lukas Schwarz does an admirable job, the boys in particular easily joining the ranks of excellently-rendered creepy children in the annals of horror film history. And individual moments—Elias’ nightmare of slicing his mother open only for cockroaches to pour out, the aforementioned transferring of sympathies from children to adult—are incredibly effective. It’s all the more a shame, then, that the film’s writer/directors couldn’t elevate the rest of its length to meet these moments in quality. Goodnight Mommy has gotten a fair amount of critical praise, with some going so far as to place it among fellow candidates The Babadook, It Follows and The Witch as one of the best horror films of recent memory. I’ve a feeling that, while those latter three will endure, this one’s reputation will fade away ere long. Not only is it not really horror, inexplicable moment of supernatural antics notwithstanding, it simply isn’t built to last in terms of meaning, story, or sense-making.

Houses in your heart: part three (“It” postmortem: the Losers’ Club [Richie, Ben, and Stan])

Greetings, all! This entry in the ongoing It postmortem is going to be a little shorter than usual, for a few reasons. Chief among these is that I (largely) saved the flattest characters for last in this three-part chapter on the Losers’ Club; not that this means I dislike these last few guys (as I said before, Richie ranks with Bev and Mike as my favorite character in the book), just that there’s less to pick at in their characters. Secondary reasons include the dread god Midterms and some fiction writing that’s been taking up a good deal of my time. Your regularly scheduled two entries per week will hopefully return after this weekend with an analysis of The Descent and another chapter in the It series. Until then, the final Losers!

the_losers_club_by_amandapainter87-d83t17hRichie Tozier: the trashmouth

Richie Tozier fits comfortably into one of King’s tried and true character archetypes, the Wise Guy. One thing that often gets overlooked in discussions of King’s literary merits is his sense of humor, which tends to be best displayed in this kind of character—Richie, Eddie Dean from the Dark Tower series, to an extent Larry Underwood from The Stand, etc. Eddie is without doubt the most complex of the lot, and probably the best—spending time with a man for six books will inevitably reveal more about him than one book will, even if that book is a 1,000-page behemoth. Richie is a close second, however, as far as sheer likability is concerned.

He’s not a particularly complex character, Richie. There’s more to him than just comic relief—his compulsive trashmouth is a defense mechanism against fear rather than a duty shoved upon him by his author—but he’s never explored to the same extent that most of his companions are. Only Stan receives fewer viewpoint chapters (namely: almost none). And so, while Richie gets more text devoted to him than either Mike or Eddie, we don’t get nearly as deep a glimpse into his psyche. That said, he is rather funny, walking an uneasy line between humor and obnoxiousness that he never quite runs afoul of. His adult wit is genuine, and his attempts at jokes as a child, while wince-inducing, are precisely what’s needed to keep the book’s tension from building too high, releasing steam at regular intervals. It’s horribly unfortunate that the 1990s television adaptation wasn’t pitched as a serious feature film series with more prestige attached, because the Robin Williams of that time period would have been an almost eerily perfect casting choice, what with the two’s shared interest for manic Voices.

Upon re-reading, Richie’s introduction in “Six Phone Calls” is one of the most effective of the lot. The creeping dread that almost overpowers him in this section, so much at odds with his almost hysterically manic personality, is near-tangible, especially coming off of Stan’s suicide—this is true even on a first read, but 1,000 further pages of acquaintance with the Trashmouth provide a wealth of context that emphasizes his horrible fear even further. Lesser instances of terror that strike him throughout the novel have a similar effect.

His sheer absurdity also wields, with all the finesse of a spiked mace, a powerful emotional force. As hokey a device as his being able to drive an eldritch abomination back with an Irish Cop impersonation is, in the moment the reader buys it completely and joyfully. It’s a memorable if on-the-nose microcosm of one of the novel’s chief themes, that of laughter driving out fear, and if King expressed it more subtly elsewhere he never did it as powerfully.

Ben Hanscom: the haystack

In terms of memorability, Ben is perhaps the biggest victim of the Losers’ Club’s transition to adulthood. There’s not much at all to say about his grown-up self; like all of his compatriots, his introduction in “Six Phone Calls” is soaked in dread, but once this passage passes, we’re left with a man who isn’t easily describable because there’s simply not much to describe. Like Bill, he’s not unpleasant, but neither is he interesting—he does his part and fights the good fight, and if we’re happy for him and Bev at the end it’s largely due to our memories of his childhood self.

That child is broadly drawn—he and Eddie are two sides of the same coin, one rendered horribly unhealthy due to a smothering mother and one rendered horribly paranoid due to the same. He’s a sweet kid, though, earnest and brave and gentle. His attraction to Beverly is the most openly sexual of any of the Losers’, but written as King writes him Ben could never act on that attraction in an unsavory manner. He’s not a “nice guy” who wears that label solely to seduce Beverly Marsh; she matters to him as a person and as a friend, and if he’d die for her, well, he’d die for any of his companions. This doesn’t remedy the troublesome aspects of every single one of Beverly’s male friends bearing a sexual attraction for her, but Ben’s is at least balanced by his loyalty and friendship. And as is shown several times throughout the text—especially in their decision to leave Derry together at the book’s conclusion—the attraction, in this particular case, is mutual.

Stanley Uris: the one who got away

Stan Uris is never given the chance to tell his own story. Not a single viewpoint chapter is entirely devoted to him, an artistic choice that is foreshadowed when his introduction, the first of the “Six Phone Calls”, is seen through the eyes of his wife.

The choice to write his suicide in this manner was the necessary one. There is the practical note that if we view Stan’s death from his perspective, there’s no way to capture the image of his exsanguinated body floating in bathwater, a massive IT scrawled in blood on the side of the tub. More important, it is essential that his thought process leading up to the act remain obscured. The questions that his death prompts—what could have made him do this? What could fill a grown man with that much fear? What in God’s name is this It?—are far more haunting and disturbing when they lack even the opportunity for answers, when the reader experiences them as Stan’s wife does. Her mounting dread as she summons the courage to open the bathroom door and see what’s happened sits in the pit of one’s stomach far more than her husband’s, relatively devoid of context at this point, ever could.

One of our brief flits into Stan’s head is also one of the most important thematic passages in the entire novel, and is as elegant an example as any of a compact definition of supernatural horror. It deserves to be quoted at length, and will be, but not here—it’s too relevant to a future chapter on the cosmogony (and indeed theology) of It to be placed at the end of this section. Suffice to say that, if Eddie takes the most adult actions of the group in his hospital conversation with his mother, Stan has the most adult worldview of them all, even if he cannot formulate it verbally. It’s what proves to be his undoing, in the end. The other Losers struggle to return to their childhood belief in the power of magic—Stan never really had it at all.

(to be continued)

 

 

What went we out into this wilderness to find?: “The Witch” review

the-witch-poster ✦ ½ of five

When I was still a Christian, I had a severe demon problem. They’d come to me at night, looming in the dark corners of my bedroom, waiting just behind my curtains if only I’d open them. They’d whisper things to me, and I couldn’t make it stop.

I could call to my parents when things got particularly upsetting, when I was younger—I once, at the age of seven, wailed for them because Satan’s voice was in my head. He was telling me to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, which Jesus decries as the only unforgivable sin: “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:28-29). I don’t remember, looking back, which was worse; that I could hear his voice in my head, or that if I so much as slipped, so much as had the thought of blasphemy—which, thoughts being what they are, was sure to happen—I would in a stroke be condemned to eternal damnation. At any rate, my parents stayed up with me, and prayed, and all was temporarily well.

As I grew older, however, I no longer had that recourse. We had moved houses, and in our new home my parents’ bedroom was on the opposite end of the house from mine. Running from one end of a vast black expanse to the other, with the stairwell to the basement plunging downward on the left side, was not my idea of a relief from horror. And more importantly, I was eleven, twelve, thirteen, and so on. Parents could not be a source of nighttime comfort any longer.

And so, I endured. I lay there in the dark, and strove to block the voices out, and opened and closed my eyes over. And over. And over again. I prayed a mantra, a litany, in between telling the demons to go away in the name of Jesus, but they never did and I never fell asleep easily.

This was one of the most immediate reliefs of my leaving the faith at age sixteen. Almost immediately, the demons stopped talking. Nearly three years later, and I haven’t heard them since. There are other night fears, to be certain—I didn’t sleep well for months after seeing The Babadook, my toddler nightmares of monsters in the closet raging back to life—but once you’ve failed to believe in God, the demonic largely loses its teeth (as I wrote about in detail in my analysis of demon possession in the horror genre).

When I first saw a trailer for The VVitch, several months ago, I was intrigued. First, because it looked to be a genuinely good horror picture with an excellent premise and a good deal of critical praise. Second, because I was hoping it might be able to provide an exception to the rule of a Christian framework failing to work within an atheistic/maltheistic genre. Third, because I was, on some level, curious. I wanted to see if it would be able to reawaken that deeply ingrained childhood religious terror, my three years of secularism notwithstanding.

Having seen it a few hours prior to the writing of this review, I can say that points one and three were fulfilled admirably. I’m not convinced of point two, but I think The VVitch comes the closest of any piece of religious horror I’ve encountered to justifying itself. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a deeply admirable one and a deeply disturbing one, and I suspect it will grow even better upon rewatching.

The New England folk tale of the subtitle begins with isolation. William (Ralph Ineson), a devout Puritan who takes issue with the way his church chooses to express its faith, is banished from the congregation. Outcast, he makes for the outskirts of the massive nearby woods, taking with him his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), his prepubescent son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), his maturing daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the young twins Mercy and Jonas, and the infant Samuel. Before long, there are unsettling signs that the family is not alone—Samuel vanishes into the forest, and Mercy begins telling tales of a child-devouring witch who lives there in covenant with Satan. Grief turns into paranoia, and as the nights drag on the family begins to unravel, unsure if even their faith in God will be enough to protect them from the evil in the wood.

There be spoilers from here on out!

witch02The film upsets viewer expectations almost immediately by displaying the witch herself—rather than leaving it up to the viewers to wonder what has happened to Samuel, director Robert Eggers presents the woman’s naked back as she cradles the baby in her arms, before proceeding to do to him exactly what it is we’re told witches do to children. Giving us this glimpse of the titular horror is a massive risk, one that I almost certainly would not have taken, and it pays off immensely. The prominence of the witch’s nakedness reveals one of the film’s underlying themes—the gnawing transgression of sexuality—and its proximity to a deed that almost caused me to gasp aloud (nothing of the actual slaying of the baby is shown, but what remains onscreen is shocking enough) tells the viewer exactly what they’re in for: this movie is going to be about children, and it’s gong to hurt them badly.

From there, what we’re given is a slow-burn descent into madness highly reminiscent of The Thing, but even more disturbing in the context of a family turning on itself rather than a group of men falling apart. This is one area in which the film’s trailer is misleading—it depicts the family as a cold and unloving one, whereas in the film itself Ineson’s patriarch is a warm, devoted father who has a deep love for his eldest son and daughter, which makes his gradual disintegration even more affecting. His performance is matched by those of newcomers Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw, who manage more nuance and feeling in their roles than many adults could. Combine the audience’s sympathy for their characters with the horrors that are inflicted upon them, and the result is some of the most deeply upsetting moments of horror art in recent memory. To be quite honest, I’m stunned the film got away with some of them at merely an R rating.

Caleb is on the cusp of sexual awakening. The film makes a point to let the camera linger on Thomasin’s chest a few different times when the two of them are together, emphasizing the perversity that the religion of the day assigned to lust; the hints of incestuous flutters are required to make us feel the revulsion that was part and parcel of sexual attraction in the film’s 1630 setting. When the witch is shown for the second time, it’s in the guise of a provocative young woman who lures Caleb to her as he wanders, lost, through the woods. What follows was shocking to me as an adolescent male—I can’t imagine a parent’s reaction to the image.

Subsequently, a naked Caleb returns home, seemingly possessed of an evil spirit. As he begins going through the requisite contortions and yowls, his family gathers around him and prays frantically, and he himself begins to shriek the name of Jesus until it appears that his faith has won the battle. However, in an astonishingly acted shot that goes on and on, his tearful confession of love for his savior morphs into a twisted parody that is barely subtext, his voice rising to a woman’s high moan as he begs for the Son of God to kiss him on the mouth and embrace him again and again. When he dies shortly thereafter, it’s a mercy.

This scene, along with an earlier moment in which Caleb, alone and desperate in the woods, repeats a prayer over and over again, is the one that struck the closest to the bone for me. It made me remember all too well the nights of lying in bed, alternately too scared to open my eyes and too scared to close them (if I may paraphrase another famous film of witchery) praying over and over again and failing to dispel the fear. For the religious person, this may be the worst fear of all: the fear that belief alone is not enough, that prayer will do nothing to ward away an enemy who seems far more potent and seductive in its terror than a far-away benevolent God ever could.

It’s only the midpoint of the film, however, and Thomasin comes to the fore as matters fall apart at an even faster rate. The amount of violence the film is willing to show rises as the tension does likewise, with a few particularly well-chosen images leaving impressions on the brain that are hard to scrub away. By the time things draw to a close, Thomasin is alone, stranded with the ebony goat Black Philip, whose ominous appearance has been a constant throughout the film. She enters the barn with him, chills run up the viewer’s spine. . .and then, for a moment, horror evaporates.

Alas, just as The Exorcist chose to spell out to its viewers that the same Pazuzu whose statue appeared in the opening scene is what holds possession of Regan, The VVitch chooses to bring the devil himself into the narrative. We never see him directly, but it’s clear who he is, and it just. Doesn’t. Work. The sense of mystery collapses, the horror of the unknown becomes the horror of an identifiable quantity, and the same question that always arises in such circumstances does so here: if God so clearly isn’t present here, why is his Adversary?

What follows this, however, is an ending that is perfectly shot and skin-crawling in the literal sense of the word. And while it’s unfortunate that His Infernal Majesty had to show up, rather than the titular witch being the one to fill the role, the movie’s 1630s setting makes even this almost work. Eggers makes a point to have a troubled Caleb question his father following the disappearance of Samuel: if we are all born in sin, and he was not yet baptized, isn’t he in hell? William has no answer for him. The God of the Puritans was a wildly capricious, terrifyingly distant deity, one whose salvation one could never be assured of and whose hellfire was a constant threat. If He is the God of The VVitch, the whole movie can be seen as a particularly perverse test of faith (and indeed William namechecks Abraham and Isaac later on in its running time). The family has been exiled from their congregation to test their loyalty to their heavenly father, and each and every one is found wanting.

There are two readings of the film’s final scene, each as valid as the other. A graphically naked Thomasin, her covenant with Satan made, stumbles into the wood and watches as a circle of equally naked women chants a praise to their father below, before ascending to the tops of the trees. Firelight dancing across her face, Thomasin slowly begins to rise as well, and we cannot tell if the laughter on her face is that of madness or that of freedom. The Satanic Temple certainly believes it to be the latter—they infamously partnered with A24 to promote the film before its release—and they have a fair amount of evidence to support their case, with the entire film’s nightmare treatment of pent-up sexuality serving as prelude to Thomasin’s glorious sexual release and rejection of Puritan paranoia. The various evils that lead to this moment might seem too heavy to justify this interpretation, but the film does ask the question: if the God of this world could allow such terrible things to happen to those who want nothing more than to serve him, is Satan truly more evil in comparison?

Ultimately, the other reading of the film’s ending—that the witches are indeed abhorrent and Thomasin’s embrace of her sexuality is the final step on her path to damnation—while it would seem to better fit the worldview of the film’s religious players, is the more disturbing of the two. It was rightly pointed out to me before I saw the film that witches are one of the only cultural groups that are still widely considered fair game to demonize, with most people drawing no distinction between Wiccans and neopagans and the Satanic monsters of old campfire stories—and not bothering to do the five minutes’ research it would take to reveal that the two are completely different (not to mention the fact that the latter never existed). Not only could The VVitch lead to a renewed Satanic panic in religious viewers and encourage them to dehumanize modern witches, it paints a revisionist view of history in which Satanic witches did indeed exist and thus justified the presence of witch hunts and burnings. It’s a troubling moral issue, and while the subtitle A New England Folk Tale encourages the viewer to remember that it’s really “just a story”, such things tend to get thrown by the wayside when religious paranoia comes along.

The ramblings above haven’t even begun to touch on the film’s cinematography, which is stark and haunting, its score, which takes cues from The Shining‘s use of Penderecki’s Utrenja and is incredibly effective, or its screenplay, which according to a mid-credits interlude takes much of its dialogue from period accounts and is archaic without sacrificing intelligibility. I’ve also hardly done justice to the issue of sexual repression vs. sexual liberation within the film, which could easily form its own essay. That said, at 2,300 words consisting largely of spoilers, this writeup has gone on longer than it deserves. And so, I end on this note:

The VVitch is not a perfect movie. It has not, as of this writing, affected me as viscerally as other recent horror films (The Babadook) or impressed me with its utter lack of problems (as does The Descent). However, I’ve the feeling I’ll have trouble sleeping tonight. Partly because I’ll be dwelling on numerous of its images, unable to get them out of my head. And partly because, for ninety minutes, it put religious fear back into my brain in a way I haven’t experienced since I deconverted. It’s an enormously impressive effort, will launch its director and actors onto equally impressive careers, and has indeed earned its place as one of the finest, most deeply unsettling pieces of horror art in the last decade. If that means I’ll be regressing to my seven-year-old self under the covers tonight, the movie has damn well earned it.