16 March 2008

Books Compared:Diary/Rosemary's Baby/"The Shadow Over Innsmouth"

Diary is the second of the three books put out by Chuck Palahniuk in which he sought to reinvent the horror genre. It is also written as an homage to the work of Ira Levin, particularly Rosemary's Baby. At the time I read Diary, I was not directly familiar with the work of Levin and the comparison that first came to mind was with an older, shorter story: H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." (I was indirectly familiar with the work of Levin in that Baby and The Stepford Wives, particularly in their film adaptations, are so well known as to be part of the lexicon.)

Diary is told as a series of entries in a coma diary, kept by a middle-aged woman (Misty Marie Wilmot) for her husband, a contractor who is in a coma after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. As a young woman she aspired to be an artist and live in a big, beautiful house. In art school, she met a young man whose family lived in a big, beautiful house on an the rather exclusive (and very isolated) Waytansea island. She became pregnant, and they got married and moved back to the island. Both her and the island have fallen on hard times by the time the husband attempts suicide. As the story progresses, the "island people" push Misty into painting again (which she hasn't done in years) and messages start to turn up in the houses that Peter had worked on. These messages warn hysterically about some doom that is to come upon the "summer people" who have begun to rent from the island people.

Rosemary's Baby is the story of a woman who moves into a large gothic building in New York with her husband. Shortly before she gets pregnant, strange things begin to happen around her, beginning with the suicide of a young woman she met in the basement of the building. As the story (and her pregnancy) progresses it becomes clearer that the people around her (especially the other inhabitants of the building) have some ulterior motives regarding the child growing in her womb.

"The Shadow Over Innsmouth" is the first-hand account of a young man following an antiquarian tour of New England in which he found himself taking a detour into an old dilapidated town by the name of Innsmouth. It was an old trading port which was decimated by some sort of plague and became isolated, its inhabitants developing odd deformities, perhaps as a result of inbreeding or miscegination. While there, he sought out on old drunk named Ezekiel who told him some very strange things about the history of the town. Then the bus out of town broke down, and he was forced to spend the night in the local hotel.

And from here on out There be spoilers!

Not surprisingly, things turn out to be far stranger and sinister than the hapless protagonists expected.

The young antiquarian whose name is never given soon learns that the town has been taken over by hybrid fish-men who worship a strange, ancient deity and seek to interbreed with humans. After a night of frightening close calls, he manages to escape. Not long after his escape, however, he comes to learn that he is himself descended from the strange fish-men and is slowly transforming into one. He sinks into despair, considers suicide, then finally chnages his mind and heads to the sea to start his new life as a monster.

Rosemary finally stumbles upon some clues that the friendly old people in the building are, in fact, witches. Fearing for the safety of her child, she attempts to flee. But she is turned in by the doctor she confides in and taken back to the apartment, where she gives birth. She is told that the baby is born dead, but doesn't believe it and sneaks into the apartment of the head witches. It turns out that the child is the offspring of Satan, whom the witches summoned up to rape her. Though she considers killing the child, she changes her mind and decides that even the Son of Satan deserves a mother's love.

Misty eventually learns that her painting and the diary are both part of a larger scheme. Every hundred years, a woman who was not born on the island will paint a series of pictures which render people catatonic (via Stendahl syndrome). This will allow the "island people" to enact a major tragedy on the "summer people" (and quite a few of themselves, as well) which will make them rich again. It has been done twice before, after which the island people enjoyed 90+ years of prosperity before going nearly bankrupt and having to enact another massacre. The diary is key because the two former artists also kept diaries, and it is important to reproduce the events in the life of the artist for the plot to unfold. Misty attempts to stop the tragedy but is stopped by the police, and the massacre unfolds. She ends her story by mailing a copy of her diary to Palahniuk so he can write a book to, I guess, stop the pattern a hundred years hence.

Of the three, Diary is the one that tries hardest to be readable as allegory. As par for the course for Palahniuk, it is meant to be a statement on the plight of the artist, the nature of capitalism, and gentrification and immigration (ie. Portland property values). Baby appears to have been inspired by a certain 60s era anxiety over the increased secularization of the American populace. One character mentions that the death of God is not just a line from Nietzchie but an actual event taking time at that place. (Palahniuk himself interprets Baby as presenting a strongly pro-choice argument, but I suspect he hasn't read the novel.*) Shadow reflects some of Lovecraft's phobias--of foreigners and the ocean, in particular--but ends is powerfully ambiguous note, calling into question its own assumptions about monstrosity.

Curiously enough, though Lovecraft tends to be a far more verbose writer in terms of style, Shadow probably has the strongest, most disciplined finale of all three works. After Rosemary decides she wants to nurture her Satan Spawn, she has an argument with the head satanist about whether the baby is to be named Adrian or Andrew. Meanwhile, a Japanese satanist who shouts "Hair Satan!" (difficulty with "l"s) takes pictures of everyone. I'm not sure if Levin had campiness in mind when he wrote that scene, but there sure is a lot of it and it undercuts whatever eerieness the final revelation is supposed to bring.** Misty, in her attempt to foil the final step of the plot, ends up running around in front of a crowd, yelling, "You're all going to die! I'm Leonard da Vinci! I'm Lord Byron." It's hard not to sympathise with the crowd for thinking she's nuts. By contrast, the slow realization of the narrator of Shadow that he's becoming a monster and his wrestling with what to do about it are written as a slow accumulation of details. By the time he writes "I cannot be made to kill myself," it has an almost existentialist courage to it.

One of the things that struck me about Diary was the extent to which Palahniuk's attempt at allegory conflicts with the power of the story. There's an unresolved question at the heart of the plot: who or what is really behind the plot in question. The book implies that the first time it happened was by accident, and the second was only discovered when it was already taking place. It would appear that the island people stumble onto some pattern of human sacrifice older than them. In fact, the paintings that Misty paints are photo quality reproductions of scenes of the island itself, which again reinforces the idea that it is the island itself that seeks the massacre with the island people secondary beneficiaries. This appears to take human agency largely out of the equation, which makes it less convincing as social allegory regarding the evils of gentrification. And frankly a time scale of 100 years suggests that it is not the island which sets the plot in motion but an author looking for a nice round number.***

Curiously enough, Waytansea island is fish-shaped and it is described as a place where "even the dogs are inbred" which connects it strangely to Lovecraft's Innsmouth. It's an odd parallel, but one that makes me wonder: Was Palahniuk aware of this parallel when he sought to reinvent the horror novel? And if not, has he ever considered that he might himself be a "summer person" on this particular genre/island, just another interloper whose read a few guidebooks but doesn't know the territory or understand the history?

* This may be an unfair charge, but his interpretation seems a case of wishful thinking more than anything else. Rosemary starts out wanting a baby, and once she realizes something is up ends up fearing for the life of her child against those who would see it as less than a person. It might represent a certain degree of pregnancy anxiety but is a pretty insubstantial argument for legalized abortion.

** And seriously, satanists? I know it was written 40 years ago, but does anyone really find satanists scary? Perhaps it's just me, but I find them two-dimensional and dated. In Shadow, someone says the Innsmouth people were accused of being devil worshippers but that it's a pretty silly charge. Then it turns out the "devils" they worship (and are) don't really care about Christian theology.

*** I can't help but wonder what Borges would have done with a story about an artist whose act of writing reproduces a tragedy 100 years old. Although I think a nice touch would be to rewrite Diary with Sonia Greene as the practical aspiring artist finding herself forced to work to support the family and Lovecraft himself as the creepy artist of ambiguous sexuality with the weird family.

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