The Reality of the Feral Child
(Continued from The Feral Life #2)
The Scottish actress Pollyanna McIntosh is a statuesque elegant brunette and evidently in interviews she is also quite intelligent, even witty. The Woman she plays in Lucky McKee’s eponymous 2011 film could not be more of a contrast. One of the younger actors in the film said that it was quite odd on the set. She would one minute be jocular, pleasant company, then the moment would come when she would hit some interior switch and you wouldn’t want to stand anywhere near her. In a brilliant performance, the kind never recognized by the gatekeepers of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Pollyanna turns herself into the embodiment of the feral being.
The film itself is filled with unresolved ambiguities. The family that ‘takes her in’ is eventually revealed to be a repository of psychotic dysfunction to the extreme. The father’s desire to civilize her would be comical if the mission were not taken on with such edgy sociopathic verve by actor Sean Bridgers. There is a scene where the Woman, is being baited and restrained in a dark shed. Pollyanna’s unnerving, tearful, tortured stare at the man, her captor, and his humiliated, yet enabling, wife (another stunning performance by Angela Bettis) is laced with pure venom with slightest trace of something that looks like sympathy for the battered spouse. But commiseration it is not.
But that nightmarish glower turns out to be the central image of the film. This Woman is powerful. But she has also been detached from civilization, completely. While the film clearly states that she is still human, yet in her feral nature she has reverted to a truly brutal state. Her language reduced to snarls. Her actions nearly all based on the purest animal instincts. When she is freed by the molested daughter, she surfaces into the light of day, meanwhile a hitherto unseen daughter caged as a feral dog girl, is torturing, and eating, a woman who has tried to intervene in the molested daughter’s situation. One half expects the Woman to rescue the other damaged females. This would be the false empowerment message so prevalent in pop culture. But the resolution is far more ambiguous than that. One thing becomes clear: Once you lose the civilizing of humanity it doesn’t come back. Or as in Apocalypse Now “never get out of the boat”.
And this observation holds up under deeper scrutiny. Jack Ketchum, the screenwriter of this stark opus, Lucky McKee, our director, and Pollyanna McIntosh have all done quite a bit of homework. There have indeed been feral humans, wild children who have lost their language, lost and found derelicts of humanity. As much as I enjoyed the film Road Warrior (Mad Max 2), one flaw was the conceit that that the snarling feral child would end up as the polished narrator of the film. As we now know such a thing is impossible. We have since discovered that there is a window in childhood for learning speech and and grammar, and if something interrupts that process you may learn words later, you may be human, but you will not be delivering a valedictory speech any time before your headstone is prepared.
Perhaps the most famous feral child was that of Victor of Aveyron; a boy of around 12 years old who was discovered in the woods of southern France at the end of the 18th Century. He had obviously been abandoned at some point and had been foraging in the wild. He was taken in and attempts were made to educate him. He eventually learned to live again among humans in a manner approximating standard living. But he could never really speak grammatically, though he could communicate in a form of sign language.
Another recent case had a sadder outcome. This the story ‘Genie’ (real name Susan Wiley), a girl discovered in suburban Southern California in 1970 at the age of 12, imprisoned in an empty room by her father and mother and strapped to a potty chair for her entire life. The father, who immediately committed suicide when the mother finally brought the girl into the open, would not allow the girl to be spoken to. Hence she lived in a strange decivilized, socially isolated state. Again she was nearly mute. Yet she radiated a certain kind of empathy, and had a great effect upon those that came into contact with her, even though her sanitary habits were quite appalling. Unfortunately most of those people were researchers who realized that they had discovered a rare specimen of what scientists call the forbidden experiment. For you see you can’t really experiment on children to see what happens when…
But here was a child raised without language. And who was adopted and abandoned by the scientific community, who I’m sure told themselves they had the best of intentions yet used her to receive grants to study human language. And when the grants ran out so did the commitment. The mother, not exactly a trustworthy individual, then resurfaced and took her back. Eventually Genie was placed into a home, where she remains today. To watch the old Nova documentary on her or read a book about her is to feel both the sting of regret for her pitiful treatment and to briefly come into contact with a strange luminous creature who sadly was dropped and discarded.
(Interestingly there is a girl who recently made a set of photographs of herself as Genie. She claims to not want to offend anyone. Yet in her erotic fetishization of Genie she clearly is romanticizing the wild child once again. Trying to tap into the unearthly purity of this misused human being.)
Another feral case from the 1990’s is that the dog-girl, Oxana Malaya of Ukraine, who was the product of such an abusive, rural, impoverished, alcoholic home that she simply crawled out of her home and lived as dog in the dog pen for years, and she took on many canine characteristics. A video shows her canine behavior in what at first glimpse seems kind of cute, then really is quite disturbing.
The most recent story from 2007 is the only one that might have a good ending. It is the story of Danielle, who was found in a suburban Florida home, locked in squalor for the first seven years of her life by a really stressed out single mother. She has since been adopted by a family that really tries to give her the love she needs, though the mother has protested that she was indeed quite fit to raise her. Again the speech capacities are severely diminished, again the sanitary habits beyond human tolerance. And again there is some mysterious kind of communication that is quite unique. Yet this family has really striven to show this wild child love, the crucial ingredient. Dani has been ‘house trained’ and is slowly learning to communicate. We will have to see if that makes a difference. I suspect it will.
There is much more to each of these stories and I recommend investigating them more thoroughly. Each story highlights what happens when a human is truly left to the wild, beyond the pale of humanity. Lucky McKee’s film The Woman clearly has reference to these, and many more stories. And while The Woman is a seriously intense horror film, it makes some very subtle points about human nature and our dream of a wild life.
Since the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, there has existed a dream of completely instinctual freedom and freedom unconditioned by civilization. In a recent book of edgy eco-politics, Derrick Jensen’s Endgame, he argues for the eventual destruction of civilization. He sees this as a good. Yes it will cost something. But it is a necessity to free ourselves from all of the corporate greed and technological enslavement. The book is fully supping at Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s table. He points out that we fear the end of civilization because we have been presented false fears of total barbarism.
Well breakdowns may come. But what Jensen has done is to equate the world we now inhabit with civilization. Lucky McKee and Jack Ketchum were much more equivocal about that. Essentially the question one is left with at the end of The Woman runs something like this. Can this family, the ‘civilized’ folks, in any way really be considered civilized? And fortunately the film does not present us with a romanticized view of Pollyanna’s portrayal of the Woman. Like the pied piper she leads the damaged children off into the woods. But whatever happens… it will not be pretty. The answer isn’t in the woods either. Humanity fled the darkness of the woods for a reason. Then we created the darkness of the cities, but we hoped they would provide security. And so we created the internet to help us mollify the perils of human society, and we created another stranger darkened realm. (Although one painted with smiley faces.) :)
Is the human being staring alone at the screen a ‘civilized’ person? Maybe the real question is this: Can the alienated 21st citizen, denizen, netizen, whatever we are in this 21st Century postmodern society, still find the means to be civil in the loneliness of cyberspace? C.S. Lewis is his book A Preface to Paradise Lost thought not. In 1942 Lewis wrote that indeed already by his time we had lost the decorum and dignity of true civility. That we had instead become the barbarians outside the Wall of true civilization. “Some are outside the Wall because they are barbarians who cannot get in; but others have gone out beyond it of their own will in order to fast and pray in the wilderness. ‘Civilization’ – by which I here mean barbarism made strong and luxurious by mechanical power – hates civility from below; sanctity rebukes it from above.”
Indeed too much of our civilization is a kind of high-tech barbarism. And yet to learn to read, to cultivate a sacrificial sense of the arts, to build more than sad bleached suburban huts, to have manners and a sense of real civility; Can we afford to dream of losing these altogether to remedy our ills? There is no remedy in the feral return to the wild. And there is little wilderness to actually return to. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s dream of a return to nature is over. The anadromous answer lies in the humble recreation of real civilization, a civil world in the small cracks of disorder.
John Donne said something in the early 17th Century in Meditation XVII from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.
“Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
And it is not only the toll of death we must attend to. The bell reminds us of a past when the sound of a bell itself held a very deep meaning.
The Feral Dream
A woman, dressed in rags and furs, carelessly filthy, black stringy and presumably lousy hair, teeth unsubjected to any dentistry and poisonous as a hyena’s, her face cocked like a gun preparing to explode, enters the lair of a wolf. The animal growls. The human brute growls back even more ferociously. The camera does not show us but we hear the beating and the tearing of those human teeth. In a moment we see her running, perhaps it is a dream. But in this story the woman who runs with the wolves is no sub-Jungian New Age empowerment fantasy. This is a fearful thing.
The film is The Woman. It was released in 2011 and more recently for home digestion. Directed by Lucky McKee, who also directed the brilliant watch-at-your-own-risk May back in 2002, The Woman has been vilified as misogynist, far too gory and just plain nerve-wracking and simultaneously praised for it’s feminist undertones and unique character portrayal by Pollyanna McIntosh. It is indeed quite hard to believe that Pollyanna (Has anyone ever been more paradoxically named?) is actually a statuesque Scottish beauty. But all of this contradiction delineates clearly the manner of beast we have here.
And as I watched this grisly work of art I was struck by many details that resonated far beyond the confines of this inexpensive little indie film. The screenwriter, novelist Jack Ketchum, had continued his novel, The Offspring, with special emphasis on the Woman at the suggestion of producer Andrew van den Houten, who had directed a version of the earlier book. The film of The Offspring also starred Pollyanna McIntosh as the Woman, leader of a tribe of feral humans in the American Northeast. And it is in fact this notion of feral humanity that really jumped out at me with such force in both films.
Feral is a curious word. (By the bye it can be pronounced in two ways. One, the more standard, makes it sound like fair-al. The other less common pronunciation is more like fear-al.) It suggest not merely wild, or wildness, but of the domesticated thing returning to the wild. For instance if you showed up on the Kerguelen Islands in the Southern Indian Ocean you would find a healthy population of feral cats that had been left behind by sailors from centuries back to eradicate the rat infestation accidentally bestowed upon the islands. I am claimed by a feral cat myself here in Alaska. They can go in and out a feral state. And that is very different from the human race. This could have something to do with the fact that domestication depends entirely on an animal’s relationship to mankind. We are not tamed by our pets or cattle. Now before I tread too far into some politically incorrect screed let’s return to ferality.
So to be feral is to revert to a wild state. Now at this point we bump into a raft of cultural issues that have their primary origins back in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who theorized most famously that ‘L’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers.‘, which translated says that, ‘Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.‘ It was clear from his writings that Rousseau lamented the state of society that had enslaved us. All those compromises! All that book learning! All of that conformity! The individual must be free as an individual! Vive la Revolution!
Another related idea is that of the ‘noble savage’. Rousseau did not invent the concept nor was he as primitivist as it sometimes claimed. Yet the somehow a reduction of his idea comes down to us like this; that the most free folks on earth are those most free from civilization, those closest to nature and the earth. Rousseau praised children for their purity, primitive tribes when they had achieved the stage of the savage. Regardless of the subtleties of Rousseau’s very influential works, the concepts of the ‘noble savage’ eventually merged with the art movements of 19th Century French Bohemia.
French Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin followed a quest for this kind of wild life when he left behind everything and followed his muse to Tahiti. There was vision at the time that the Tahitians and many other tribes were more liberated than the stale old bourgeois European world that he had left behind, along with his failed marriage and children and the sense of depression that led him to attempt suicide. He wanted to find something in Tahiti. Something he was missing. Yet it could not be found. When he did eventually paint his masterpiece, D’où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous? (trans. Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?), this was not the work of a man who had found his boho dreams come true. Death and futility are writ large. Paradise, not a paradisaical as the dream. A great painting had been made but the Tahitians were pretty much stuck on the same earth as everyone else.
Nevertheless more and more souls began to empty themselves out into various jungles of the mind in search of the perfect primitive conditions of liberation. Expressionist movements like Les Fauves, the very word meaning wild beasts, followed Gauguin into the primitivist wilds. In fact so much of modern art can be seen as a various forms of rejection of the things that make up the a dull conformist society: a return to nature, a rejection of nature, the artist as prophet, the artist as shaman, the artist as outlaw, the artist as madman, the artist as barbarian, the artist as explorer at the edges and the artist as denizen of the dregs. And all the while the dream of a feral sort of existence haunts the proceedings.
The Surrealists perfected perhaps the most intellectual version of this dream… which is of course an oxymoron. Yet one has to hand it to the Surrealists, whom I have a great deal of respect for. Following Symbolist dream theory and folding into it a strong dose of early 20th Century Sigmund Freud’s reduction of human psychology to the libido, the Surrealists sought among the detritus of tainted experience in childhood, the metal institution and other outsiders for a way to connect, beyond reason, to the meaning of Art and Life. Later artists would discover Carl Jung.
But finally a movement would come along that would bubble up higher than the demimonde of the arts. The Beat Generation were by the late 1940’s pickled in Rousseau’s individualistic liberation dream. All that matters is to be true to yourself. That is the final statement. (With the proviso ‘as long as you don’t hurt anybody’ whatever that means. Actually that is the nail in the noble savage’s coffin.) But the Beats had a few nice twists in the lime of Rousseau’s gin and tonic. One, sex, and lots more of it. Two, drugs, and lot’s more of them. And finally music, or should I say Jazz, with Charlie Parker, (Oops! Sorry! Dead from primitive aid number two!) or Miles Davis in the role of the prophetic noble savage. We’ll overlook the hidden racism in considering black jazz players as noble savages with a pipeline to the primitive urges and demiurges. Did anyone ever at the time notice that being black did not equate to being more in touch with the mysteries of the savage universe? Great musicians? Yes. Fresh from the jungle? Um? Not quite. Pretty damned intellectual actually. So let’s change that addition from Jazz, just cross that out, to let’s look around a little… Oh! Wait! What’s this wild primitive stuff over here? Oh yeah! Rock ‘n’ Roll! And voila sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (!) equals another variation on the noble savagery theme.
Okay. I’m well aware that white American asses in the 1950’s had gotten damned tight and needed some musical loosening. But in plain fact, find one 1950’s rock ‘n’ roller that was truly in Rousseau’s camp. This was a case of the noble savage interpretation of what was actually fairly standard electric folk music in the traditional American vein. Had Postwar America not been quite so somnambulistically square it would not have been seen as such a radical departure from Jazz or the Blues. Nevertheless by the late 1960’s this Rousseau interpretation of Rock music was standard. (See the burgeoning field of Rock criticism.) Rock had indeed become a revolt against civilization. LSD was the psychosomatic magic which would effect the liberation of desire. Down with Christian prudery! Down with humanistic rationalism! Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go! Vive la Revolution!
And now the feral dream was out of the intellectual closet.
(Next time we continue our little survey of the wilderness from Woodstock to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the Virgin Prunes)
Also here’s another Anadromous essay on a similar theme…
American Gothic Culture
There are questions and implications that I have left dangling during this survey of various aspects of American Gothic Culture. And undoubtedly I have left a few confusions uncovered. Since this has been essentially an introduction to a subject that doesn’t really seem to have been dealt with before I’m well aware of how many other examples I could pull from a hat. There many discussions left to be had about what is and isn’t American Gothic Culture. There is also a fairly serious delineation to be made between this nascent American Gothic sensibility and what is often called Goth. I will attempt a little of that now.
One question that has been left unexplored is this: Why did American Gothic Music take so long to come into being? The short answer goes like this. Music has always been a part of that which links people together. Thus there has often been an underlying sense of confidence that often pervades the music. Music often has a joyful component to it. Or at least a simulacrum of joy as in the sterile ‘fun’ of so much pop music. Even the blues, as painful as they can be, often has an aspect of hope buried in the implications: The idea that “the sun will shine on my back door someday”. Or even the notion that by hearing the pain of these lyrics someone will change somehow.
As a result music hasn’t been the best vessel for expressing real darkness… until fairly recently. After years of exploring various musical phenomena I think I can fairly confidently state that it wasn’t until the 1960’s that a certain kind of philosophical darkness entered popular music with groups like Love and The Doors. This existential dread festered into real anomie with Iggy and the Stooges. (It is curious to note that all of these bands were on Elektra Records.) And finally the music erupted into explicit rage with the Sex Pistols in 1976. And this rage was new. I don’t just mean it was a new musical trend. I mean in all of the history of music there was absolutely no precedent for such blood curdling scabrous anguish as to be found in, say, The Birthday Party’s Fears of Gun where Nick Cave vomits out the word ‘Love’ as if being disemboweled. You can search all you want, I have, for anything that sounds remotely that angry… you will never find it, prior to that point in human history.
It takes that sort of bleak intensity to comprehend the American Gothic vision. And it is not Nick Cave’s spewing forth that is his American Gothic work. It came when he started to try to find answers for the questions he had posed about the nature of humanity. And this is one reason why American Gothic Culture is vastly different than the usual Euro-Goth scene. Goth is about the darkness. Goth is about vampires, funerary motifs, ghosts. It finds these images to be helpful as some sort of anodyne to the blandness of contemporary culture. Goth also dips into fetishes quite liberally; leather, rubber, corsets, etc. Goth Culture seems to say I am the darkness. I want to be a vampire. I want to be as spectral as a ghost. I want to be cool. Don’t dream it, be it.
American Gothic Culture seems quite Other, by comparison. Even the darkest of the dark within the American Gothic spectrum, for instance Ambrose Bierce or Joe Coleman seem to have other fish to fry. Instead of being cool, their work seems to scream, “Why is it so dark? Huh!” Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a fever pitched cry of black despair fuelled more by cosmic anger at the insanity surrounding him than by any desire to laugh at the rubes. Even the extremely sardonic and gory humor of EC Comics can be seen as a series of serious questions. The man who pulls the face off of an ugly woman with a hot body trying to get her to unmask says more about the mysteries and problems of beauty in this dark world than has ever been written in a fashion magazine.
In fact the hallmark of real American Gothic work is a recognition of the evil, the bleakness, the absurdity, the darkness of the human condition. And that’s the answer to another implication: Why don’t folks with an American Gothic perspective sell out to the commercial forces the way Hippies, Beats, Punks, Rappers, etc ad nauseum seem to do? It’s because there is no point in becoming huge. There is no progressive utopian Romantic goal to achieve. The end is already seen in the beginning. That doesn’t mean that Tom Waits, Cormac McCarthy or other successful American Gothic folks aren’t happy to be selling a few books and discs. But the truth is they aren’t driven by commercial imperatives. If they didn’t sell a thing their viewpoint wouldn’t really change.
Fascinatingly American Gothic Culture houses both Christians and Atheists quite comfortably. But by Christians I don’t mean the contemporary commercial mega-church consumers. I mean folks like Johnny Cash, Flannery O’Connor, David Eugene Edwards. Nick Cave has been seemingly close to Christian faith at times. And by atheists I don’t mean the Richard Dawkins variety of confident hucksters, I mean the bleaker, more honest souls like an Ambrose Bierce or H.P. Lovecraft. And it was Lovecraft who admired the Puritans for their darkness.
But the point is this: These aren’t the gullible folks. These folks don’t seem to have nice positive attitudes. They aren’t trying to boost anyone’s self-esteem. They aren’t Romantic in any sense of the word. (Another big difference with Goth Culture.) There is no collusion between Disney and American Goth. There is no cute version of American Gothic Culture. And most interestingly American Gothic sensibility is in no way Postmodern.
Postmodern Culture thrives on postmodern irony. It lives on the deconstruction of Marilyn Monroe into Madonna into Lady Gaga. It lives on surfaces, since surfaces are deemed to be the only reality. It takes style as substance, content as merely social conditioning. It laughs at seriousness as pretension. The old Modernism was way too serious, though in disassembling everything they paved the way for the ironic hordes. Who to say that Beverly Hills 90210 isn’t as good as James Joyce?
American Gothic trumps postmodern irony with bitter irony. And bitter irony is fairly impervious to deconstruction. Who can deconstruct the Texas Chain Saw Massacre? I don’t mean you can’t make fun of it. Sure you can. But you have to get into the dark EC Comics mode to do it. But I mean put the DVD into your machine tonight. See who wins? Leatherface or postmodern irony? There is no contest. Your most postmodern child will wither before such an onslaught. Why? Because although there is humor to be found there, ultimately this thing is too damned serious to be turned into a deconstruction of itself. Tobe Hooper really believed in the power of the chainsaw. The same goes for The Road (film or book), Winter’s Bone (ditto), Nick Cave wailing Saint Huck or Tom Waits who uses humor all the time, yet really can’t be touched be postmodern irony.
The reason that academic theoretical babble about appropriation or deconstruction don’t get to far down the American Gothic road is because instead of ironic appropriation you have junkyard salvage, instead of deconstruction, you are faced with a much older stronger concept: destruction. American Gothic Culture is entropic. It sees the limits of a culture, our own, that is based upon endless progress and positive vibes. American Gothic Culture sees the good effects of negativity: The meaning behind the word No.
This isn’t to say that every artist I’ve mentioned was consciously saying No to the mindless optimism of the larger culture. But I do believe a good many of them have. There is a sense of realism in the face of the endless facades. American Gothic Culture is not an active movement. There is no town I could recommend for you to hang out in for American Goth trappings. There is intelligence, sorrow, black humor, history and even sometimes deeper strands of questioning and faith to be found in American Gothic outlook. At it’s best the American Gothic sensibility is a lot like the character of Ree in Winter’s Bone or even Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. It is grit and integrity in the face of the American nightmare, which it projects as the growing dimming entropic reality of the American future.
We’ll leave this introduction to American Gothic Culture here. But it is obviously one form of Anadromous Life being birthed in our times, one culture going against the stream of endless propaganda and the hype, a real question mark in the face the growing fiction of the 21st Century.
Part Two: American Gothic Fiction
The first manifestation of the Gothic impulse in America was naturally felt in literature, as the Gothic Fiction of England and Europe made its way to the United States in the second half of the 18th Century. Curiously the first important work of American fiction, Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, published in 1798, was also not only a Gothic work, but upon retrospection it was also clearly the first example of the American Gothic idea. (For questions of definition please refer back to American Gothic #1.)
In Wieland we find many of the hallmarks of the American Gothic outlook. There is a sense of darkness at the edge of the frontier, of fanatical quasi-Christian religious cults leading to ritual murders and strange motifs like ventriloquism (foreshadowing the spiritualism scams commencing another fifty years down the line). In his book Ormond (1799) Brown describes the nearly post-apocalyptic scenario of a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. In Arthur Mervyn (1799) he describes Cormac McCarthy-like violent upheavals on the Pennsylvania frontier. (Or perhaps we should say that McCarthy writes in Charles Brockden Brown-like spasms of frontier violence.) In Edgar Huntley (1799) sleepwalking is a major component to the tale. In his forward to that book Brown relates his purposeful decision to abandon the castles and manner houses of the European Gothic Fiction and to fully Americanize his novels by including American themes because; “The incidents of Indian hostility, and the perils of the western wilderness, are far more suitable; and, for a native of America to overlook these, would admit of no apology. These, therefore, are, in part, the ingredients of this tale, and these he has been ambitious of depicting in vivid and faithful colours.”
And those colours, the colors of American Gothic literature are overwhelmingly autumnal. All American Gothic culture seems tinted by the dank browns of barren trees and wood planked ghost towns, the cracking white paint of old southern mansions and Texas Chainsaw white picket fences, the rotting mold green of decay, the oranges of dead leaves and collapsing pumpkins and above all the grays of thick leaden skies. It is impossible to imagine the American Gothic vision to contain the greens of spring, the yellows of summer or the blues of sky and reflective waters, unless they can be tainted. And the master of American tainting is Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe was certainly influenced by Brown, as were Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Poe’s works certainly still often hearken back to old Europe. Yet in many ways Poe lays the foundation for what will be the American Gothic tradition. The narrator is often completely unreliable and much great American Gothic Fiction has followed this path. (See Ambrose Bierce.) (See HP Lovecraft.) (See Shirley Jackson.) (See Jim Thompson.) There is more than a trace of psychological instability. (See reams of American fiction at this point.) Brown was also deeply concerned with contemporary psychological issues and fads. Poe uses hypnotism. Poe invents so many new tropes that entire genres kick into gear by the time he is done: Not only horror, but his tales of “ratiocination” or what we now know as the Detective Story or the Mystery. And that leads to questions about the relationship between the Gothic tale and the Mystery. And that also helps to understand how Hardboiled Detective literature and Film Noir seem so aligned with the American Gothic mode.
Poe is obviously a lengthy subject and we are only skimming the pond here. But as long as I am in the 19th Century I must mention Ambrose Bierce, who is as sarcastic and cynical as Mark Twain, yet darker than Poe, perhaps the blackest purely American vision ever committed to paper. His Devil’s Dictionary is a uniquely sardonic concoction. His odd and humorous short stories delineate the motifs of comic aspects of American Gothic, preparing the way eventually for the likes of Holden Caulfield and the grave puns of EC Comics. He begins An Imperfect Conflagration with a memorably mordant sentence; “Early one morning in 1872 I murdered my father – an act which made a deep impression upon me at the time.” Stories like Oil of Dog and The Hypnotist are bleak comic gems. But it was in his Civil War stories that “Bitter Bierce” turns on his full power. As the only important fiction writer to actually fight in and write about the war, his works are a crucial testament to the stark horror of those Civil War battlegrounds. Nothing so bleak has ever been penned. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is justly famous for its last moments of false hope before the snap of an executioner’s rope. And Chickamauga is told in such a way that the final revelation as seen through deaf mute child’s eyes can simply eviscerate the modern reader who is used to at least at shard of ambiguous hope. Bierce died as he lived and wrote, as if he were a wanderer from McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, disappearing somewhere in the Mexican dessert searching for death before a firing squad.
The next really important stop along the way is HP Lovecraft. His work is often Gothic after the European model, or even Science Fiction and Fantasy. But there is a core of his work that mines the putrid vegetal remains of New England for its Gothic terror. Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Dunwich Horror, Cool Air and Dreams of the Witch House, among other stories, portray a New England soaking in hidden secrets. The lineage that runs from Cotton Mather, through Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lovecraft, Tom Tryon, and even Stephen King, spells out many of the aspects of New England Gothic. The fact that these areas were settled early adds to the availability of lost and haunted imagery ripe for use.
And the same is obviously true for the South. But the American South also has one additional feature that is crucial to its Southern Gothic literature. It is its complete defeat during the Civil War. It is not merely the broken houses and burnt over lands, it is in its crushed people that the Southern Gothic writer finds so much inspiration. Boo Radley from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind. The kinds of characters who people William Faulkner’s novels or Flannery O’Connor’s short works are a very different species from even the Gothic writers from other parts of the country. They are broken or deluded, cursed and noble, visionary and confined. Again we approach a vast subject for study here. But the important point is that Southern Gothic ultimately is species of American Gothic.
And there are so many other important American Gothic works: Shirley Jackson’s horror stories are as subtle as wilted corsages. Richard Matheson has often mined the American Gothic quarry. Likewise Consider Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes. Images of the dark traveling carnival take on American Gothic hues instantly. The now forgotten works of William Lindsay Gresham infest the mind at this point, particularly his non-fiction study of carnies from the inside out called Monster Midway and his classic Nightmare Alley, which really blends Hardboiled fiction completely with the Gothic, and specializes in mentalist scams and cold reading and other aspects of carnival chicanery. (Not to mention his revelation of the sinister aspects of a being called the Geek.) And of course there is Cormac McCarthy who is the reigning master of the Southwestern branch of American Gothic, and a good bet for consideration as America’s preeminent living novelist.
And finally I will mention what might be the ultimate American Gothic novel ever written: that quest for the white whale aboard the now ghostly remains of the whaling trade – Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
Is it starting to become clear yet, the shape of this American Gothic creature? If so stick around as we examine the other American Gothic modes.
Coming up next: American Gothic in the visual arts.
Part One: What is American Gothic?
The terms Goth and Gothic have been apply to numerous phenomena: the Germanic tribe that sacked Rome, the cathedrals of Medieval Europe, horror and supernatural literature in the early Romantic age, romance novels of a certain style, the writings of American southerners William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor and more recently to the music and lifestyles of those attracted to images and particularly music of death and darkness often with a Victorian twist. And while these arts and artists appear to be only obliquely related there is indeed a stream that runs through them all. It is felt but rarely articulated.
The Goths were among the many tribes at Rome’s frontiers. Seeking sanctuary within the Empire, the Huns closing in from the hinterlands, they were allowed to settle in Dacia, present day Romania. The Goths only partially acclimatized themselves to life in the decaying pax romana. But Roman arrogance and misrule eventually led them to revolt. They sacked Rome and were given kingdoms of their own in Italy and France. Eventually the fracturing Rome of the Caesar’s became more and more of a memory. The Goth’s had envied Rome though, even as they were allowing the last dregs of its essence to slip through their feudal fingers. The new Gothic and Germanic Europe began to forget and to forget deeply. Among the things forgotten: architecture, engineering, crop rotation and ultimately the Goths themselves. But one can imagine the children of these Ostrogoths and Visigoths, these warlords, riding through the slowly crumbling ruins of temples and aqueducts and amphitheatres longing for the Rome that created them.
Eventually the ancestors of these feudal rulers did create their own art and architecture. They created cathedrals that pierced the clouds, covered in images of Christian saints and demonic gargoyles. And even later in the self-proclaimed Renaissance, the very word proudly meaning ‘new birth’, the cathedrals of this earlier era were called ‘Gothic’ as a term of derision, a term related to those barbarian hordes who thought they could rule the great Roman Empire. The post-Roman age then became known as the ‘Dark Ages’.
In mid-Eighteenth Century German and English Romantics, in their flight from the excesses of voltairian reason, rediscovered the Middle Ages. They considered Gothic cathedrals and the detritus of ancient Europa the perfect fodder for the Romantic Soul. And they began to write. Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis all wrote of old abandoned mansions, dark and stormy nights, chains rattling in the basements, unspeakable family secrets, terrible things too awful to describe and ghosts. Again the longing for something old crept into the proceedings. The word Gothic now seems to have taken on its dreadful quality.
The Gothic idea took off in several directions following the Bronte sisters into Romance, or following Edgar Allan Poe into the horror story. A good case can even be made that detective and mystery fiction are a subspecies of the Gothic. Fairy stories like those of George MacDonald bear heavy Gothic stamps upon them leading to the likes of The Lord of the Rings in the mid-Twentieth Century.
But the hallmark of the true Gothic idea had to with loss or decay and certainly with dread. And so it seemed that whenever something was already found to be lost to the society of the present the Gothic was near at hand. Thus Southern Gothic fiction was born in America below the Mason-Dixon line after the fall of the old antebellum South. William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor are two exemplars of the style. Their scenes of poverty and twisted souls seeking redemption are the reflection of the Gothic image of loss and dread. And it didn’t hurt to have a South strewn with the fading ruins of pre-war mansions.
Obviously when we mention Southern Gothic we are now already firmly inside the doorway of that larger category and the subject of this set of essays: American Gothic. But what is it really? What do we mean by saying that Wise Blood is classic example of American Gothic Fiction? Or that the music of David Eugene Edwards is crucial to an understanding of American Gothic Music? Or to say that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a sine qua non of contemporary American Gothic cinema?
Maybe it might be easiest to point to examples of what is and isn’t American Gothic. Edgar Allan Poe’s work both is and isn’t American Gothic. When it relates to the classic European Gothic, as in The Fall of the House of Usher, it isn’t. But oddly enough a story like The Gold Bug, which is not a horror story at all, bears many of the hallmarks of an American Gothic work. This has to do with the use of American settings and feeling of southern vegetative overgrowth.
In other words just because a person is a Goth in America doesn’t mean they have any traces of the American Gothic outlook. (They could indeed be seen in opposition.) Most people who would identify themselves as Goths have their eyes more firmly facing Europe. Much of the original Goth imagery from the early 80’s had a Euro-centric notion of darkness. Interestingly enough, the first rock band of any sort to have Gothic aspects came from sunny Southern California: The Doors. And yet their music references Bertolt Brecht and French symbolist poets.
Or take that great American genre: the Western. Most Westerns are not American Gothics. Stagecoach, with John Wayne, certainly isn’t. Nay, likewise, to your average Saturday matinée oater from the 40’s or 50’s. Yet Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven most certainly is. Why? Many classic Westerns look forward to a time when law and order will prevail and the West will be settled. Unforgiven does not. It looks back at the West as a dark epoch. And that darkness still consumes us. Yet a film like William S. Harts 1916 Hell’s Hinges reeks of American Gothic. Its images portray a lost and morally bankrupt world that is decaying from within. This would be considered a subspecies: Western Gothic.
This puts the bleaker Western in line with the works of Cormac McCarthy, whose fiction is often American Gothic in the deepest sense. Blood Meridian is American Gothic pure and not so simple. And even his contemporary works like No Country For Old Men bear the same stamp. And so does The Road, although set in the future; a future that looks back to the present in mournful terms.
One really sees this in the film version of The Road, which is the most American Gothic post-apocalyptic film ever made. Its vision of cannibal Americans is a dead serious descendant of the EC Comics tradition of the 1950’s. The scene of armed cannibals attired in soiled ragged work clothes and trucker’s caps emerging from a tunnel flanking the dingiest of massive flatbed trucks in a dire autumnal landscape conjures up a vision of an America possibly being birthed today.
In music we return to the Doors. While good chunks their philosophy sources from Europe nevertheless a nightmarish epic like The End taps deeply into the American Gothic with it’s weird scenes inside the goldmine and the ominous blue bus, an allusion to that most American of institutions the Greyhound bus. The 1967 song practically predicts the rise of Manson styled serial killer cult leaders, also prime American Gothic territory. And it is no surprise that Apocalypse Now featured The End as the psychic breaking point of a US soldier all the while hijacking American Gothic imagery into our foreign wars.
And so what is American Gothic? Look it up and the first thing you will probably come across is Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting, which hardly seems to be Gothic at all. Next you might find a dictionary definition based upon that painting: some wheeze about frugality, hard work, socially conservative and rural America.
And yet it is clear that American Gothic as a point of view is a markedly different creature. A sensibility which can include Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, EC Comics, Bernie Wrightson, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Night of the Hunter and Winter’s Bone cannot be reduced to a satirical painting and its comment on old time farmers.
So the elements seem to be simple. First, it is American. That seems rather obvious but in fact it is not. Baseball for instance while wholly American rarely shows up in a Gothic form. Why? It is still quite active. It still has a future. Westward expansion, the post-Civil War South, New England whalers, etc. do not. So it is an America in the minor key, without any sentimental nostalgia.
Second, it must have elements of Gothic decay. And let’s distinguish Gothic decay from other forms decay. Rotting garbage is not Gothic decay, whereas a rotting garbage dump on the Blackfeet Indian reservation puts us firmly within Gothic territory. The decay that has haunted Gothicism all along has been an autumnal specter of the once meaningful, now rendered irretrievably lost.
Third, it must have elements of dread. And this dread is not just fear, terror or horror. It is something still and heavy even when, as in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it is accompanied by a ferocious engine steaming down the tracks. What makes a horror film like TCM Gothic is not the plot, but the atmosphere.
Lastly, in the best cases, it can have an aspect of sorrow leading to the deeper questions of redemption. Unless it is of the humorous species, which is another tale altogether…
Interestingly the American Gothic arts and world view are NOT postmodern nor even modern. The references they make are filled with bitter ironies. Even in the humorous vein, they tend toward gallows humor rather than pomo media appropriation. The bone furniture in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not a deconstruction of Ikea. It is like the skull found in the tree in Poe’s The Gold Bug or the iconic buffalo carcasses in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, an emblem much darker, yet symbolically richer, within the American Dream/Nightmare.
And to get an ax handle on that we’ll have to cross the withered plains of American Gothic cinema, music, literature and art.
(Stick around. Part two in this American Gothic series is on its way.)