06 April 2008

The Ritual in the House: Horror Tale as Initiation

I wouldn't say I was a huge fan of horror when I was growing up. I was more into science fiction, which could certainly provide some chills, as in the ending of The First Men in the Moon and the feeding scene from The War of the Worlds. I also picked up a library book by somebody (not Ray) Bradbury about super intelligent animals who gone on a killing spree. (I was in the public library looking for Ray Bradbury but did not pay significant attention to the author's first name.) And I guess I did read the winners of the Miami Herald's Halloween scary story contest and the odd ghost story here or there. But I never really sought out the stuff. I remember when all my classmates were reading Stephen King and V.C. Andrews my reaction was the 80s equivalent of "meh."

It wasn't until I had graduated from college that I found myself interested in reading horror as a genre. The catalyst for this change in taste took place while I was hanging out with my friend Steve at his house. We were discussing books, and he said to me, "You really should check out Lovecraft. He's pretty good" (or something to that effect) and handed me The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurling Tales of Horror and the Macabre with its rather lurid cover:

By this point I'd heard of Lovecraft, from my college roommate Josh (who had attempted to get a CoC campaign going with amusingly disastrous results) and from Illuminatus Trilogy. I was not quite sure what to make of the book and still a little suspicious of the genre, I decided I'd just start with the shortest story. This turned out to be "The Picture in the House" which I read while Steve puttered about on the computer. The story hit me with a certain indefinable force. It didn't have quite the visceral shock of other horror I'd read, but the thing seemed to worm its way into my head in a way that had me hooked. After that, I read pretty much everything Lovecraft had ever written and continued on to many of the pastiche works that fall under the "Cthulhu Mythos" category.

At some point, I became rather bored with the Cthulhy Mythos stuff, most of which is pretty derivative and lacks much of the power of the original works. As I tried to read more broadly in the genre, I've encountered works of a much more visceral nature (Palahniuk's Haunted) as well as those of a much more cerebral sort (Ligotti, Borges). Last year, though, I decided to re-read "The Picture in the House," thinking I might find it tame or hackneyed. I was surprised by how powerful it seemed.

Part of my surprise was because on some level the story shouldn't work. It's about a man travelling around the back country of Massacussetts. He wanders into an old house to avoid the rain and there meets up with a (New England) redneck who happens to be fond of a book with a drawing of a cannibal who is cutting up victims. It turns out that the old man is himself a cannibal and the consumption of flesh has allowed him to live far beyond his years. He is, in fact, over 150 years old. Shortly after the traveller realizes this, a bolt of lightning obliterates the house and knocks him unconscious.

So, murderous rednecks, cannibalism, deus ex machina--all elements that in another story would have me scoffing or throwing up my hands. (Yes, that's you, Haunted. Except for the rednecks.) So, what is it about the story that manages to transcend such hackneyed conventions? I've come to the conclusion that what makes the story so powerful is that it is a story about reading horror and about being affected by it.

The picture that the old man is so fond of is in a book called Regnum Congo, and the drawing is associated with an entry on the Anzique cannibals. If a picture is worth a thousand words, than this picture can be thought of as a horror story. Having "read" this horror story, the old man finds himself developing a strange fascination. As he says: "Queer haow picters kin set a body thinkin'."

Having read and been affected this horror story, he then proceeds to create his own horror story. Namely that of a murderous redneck who consumes human flesh. Though he attempts to cover up this story, he ends up relating it to the traveller nonetheless, who is now involved in his own horror story, which he relates to the reader. The reader thus finds himself reading a horror story about a man hearing a horror story about a man seeing a horror story. It is no surprise that one suddenly finds oneself wondering, however subconsciously, "Am I in a horror story?"

But what really makes this story potent is the strange speech of the old man. (It helped that at the time I had an interest in magical traditions, in Crowley and Sanskrit and the whole lot.) Not only does he say, "Queer haow picters kin set a body thinkin'." He later goes on to add, "Queer haow a cravin' gits a holt on ye." Somehow, the product of these lines echoed in my head, eventually transmuting into "Funny how an idea gets hold of you," a thought which stuck with me long after I had finished the story.

When he was writing horror, Chuck Palahniuk described how one of the features of the horror story is its cyclical nature. This is not a bad insight but seems overly schematic to me. The cyclical nature of the story suggests that it bears some kinship with the practices of pre-modern, pre-Christian life, dominated by its rituals of agriculture, of death and rebirth. I would posit in a world more and more divorced from its own cycles, both those of growth and harvest and those of birth and burial, horror keeps some of those themes alive, hovering on the edge of the culture which has spurned them.

But not all rituals nor all horror stories are or need to be cyclical. One of the oldest, best known horror stories has to be the Book of Revelations, and its reader base certainly believes that's only going to happen once. On a much smaller scale, it can be said no man will ever have more than one Bar Mitzvah. Certainly a community would see many Bar Mitzvahs, but the person for whom it means most will only experience it once. It marks something, a change which is irreversible, like the flow of time itself. It says, "Childhood is over. You can't return. The person you were is no more." In this, it points to the arrow of time, which has only one destination.

It is this aspect which so haunted me about "The Picture in the House" and which I still recognize when I go back to it. "Funny how an idea gets a hold of you." It suggests psychosis, but it also suggested to me one Thug's comment about their initiation ritual: "The Gur of the Tuponee changes you. It would change the nature of a horse." It doesn't matter what you might have thought you were. That is no more. Welcome to the new reality, where feeding on people creates monstrous new realities--where you look over your shoulder to make sure you're not living in a horror story, soon to repeat it to someone else who will be irrevocably changed by it. Then you no longer think "meh" when you see those lurid covers but find yourself fascinated by these stories you believed beneath you.

It really is funny how an idea gets a hold of you.

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