Last Week’s Links

How Stephen King Made Pop Culture Weird

If you’ve ever been to Austin, TX, you’ve seen the bumper stickers: “Keep Austin Weird.” Even my new hometown of Tacoma, WA, likes to call itself weird, as does Portland, OR, in the photo above.

Lincoln Michel explains that these are not isolated occurrences:

If you haven’t heard, “weird” is back in style. From hit TV shows like Stranger Things and True Detective (season one only, please) to best-selling novels like Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy and George R.R. Martin’s weirder-than-the-show A Song of Ice and Fire, pop culture is getting increasingly strange. Odd beasts, dark tunnels, and writhing tentacles are cool again. And, in the wake of his 69th birthday, it seems time to celebrate the person who is the most responsible for weirding up pop culture: Stephen King.

He singles out King because “Plenty of authors write books that are equally dark, weird, and genre-bending, but few have King’s impact on pop culture.” This article caught my eye because one of my recent reads was King’s 11/22/63, a time-travel alternate-history romance (“genre-bending,” although “genre-blending” would be more accurate) that kept me spellbound.

A theory of creepiness

If you’ve been hanging out around Notes in the Margin for a while, you’ve heard me say that I don’t read books about zombies, vampires, or werewolves. Even though I know these unnatural beings can be potent metaphors for contemporary life, I just don’t like them.

But, until I came across this article, I had never examined my revulsion with these creatures until I came across this article, which made me realize I dislike zombies, vampires, and werewolves because of their creepiness:

creepiness – Unheimlichkeit, as Sigmund Freud called it – definitely stands apart from other kinds of fear. Human beings have been preoccupied with creepy beings such as monsters and demons since the beginning of recorded history, and probably long before. Even today in the developed world where science has banished the nightmarish beings that kept our ancestors awake at night, zombies, vampires and other menacing entities retain their grip on the human imagination in tales of horror, one of the most popular genres in film and TV.

In this article David Livingstone Smith, professor of philosophy at the University of New England and director of the Human Nature Project, examines psychological theories in looking to answer the question “Why the enduring fascination with creepiness?”

Bending Mind and Time: 6 of the Best Time Travel Books

11_22_63I’ve always been fascinated by the use of time travel as a literary device. Matt Staggs begins this brief article with a look at the new book Time Travel: A History by James Gleick, a scientist’s look at representations of time travel in popular culture and science. Staggs then discusses five of the best known novels featuring time travel:

  1. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)
  2. Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979)
  3. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
  4. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991)
  5. 11/22/63 by Stephen King (2011)

He concludes:

In the absence of the real thing, novels function as time machines in their own right, allowing us to look at what was, and what may yet be, at a safe distance.

RELENTLESSLY RELEVANT: The Dangerous Legacy of Henry James

I’ve long thought that, with the possible exception of “The Turn of the Screw,” the works of Henry James shouldn’t be studied until graduate school. James’s insight into the human psyche is so subtly complex that only people with a lot of life experience can understand and appreciate it.

Paula Marantz Cohen, Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University, uses the recent issuance of a stamp honoring Henry James by the U.S. Postal Service as a springboard for this article. Cohen sees James’s “dense and difficult” late writing — The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl, all written between 1902 and 1904 — as a bridge from the Victorian era into modernity (the age of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf) and then, further, into our age of postmodernism:

His superficial kinship was with European modernists like James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf. Late James is often opaque, … and opaqueness was a hallmark of the modernist rejection of facile realism.

There is an indeterminacy with respect to truth that his later work supports in such an aggressive way that it becomes a worldview. Words, normally meant to communicate, are deployed more as obstacles to communication than as facilitators to it. The fragmented nature of his dialogue leaves meaning unresolved between characters (he describes them as continually “hanging fire”).

Cohen writes that James’s characters “were always trying to make the most out of situations and see the best in people through their imaginative flexibility — to salvage meaning to some positive, creative end.” However, she laments, in academia this process became subverted into giving truth “purely provisional meaning based on what the speaker wants to relay and the listener/reader wants to hear.” The result “betrays the ideals of [James’s] moral imagination. And yet his great later writing can be seen as its precursor.”

 

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Ghosts and Other Literary Horrors

 

For weeks we’ve been building up to Halloween with lists and tales about the spookiest and scariest stories ever written. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is one of the best known ghost stories in the English language. Part of the reason this novella is so famous is that it leaves unspecified the exact nature of the horror it portrays.

critical museStudents and scholars alike continue to address the issue of what that horror is. This continued response to try to define the “portentous evil” at the center of his story is something James purposely engineered. Here’s how he described the task he faced in writing The Turn of the Screw:

What, in the last analysis, had I to give the sense of? Of their [characters Miss Jessel and Peter Quint] being, the haunting pair, capable, as the phrase is, of everything—-that is of exerting, in respect to the children, the very worst action small victims so conditioned might be conceived as subject to. What would be then, on reflexion, this utmost conceivability?—a question to which the answer all admirably came. There is for such a case no eligible absolute of the wrong; it remains relative to fifty other elements, a matter of appreciation, speculation, imagination—these things moreover quite exactly in the light of the spectator’s, the critic’s, the reader’s experience. Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough, I said to myself—and that already is a charming job—and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy (with the children) and horror (of their false friends) will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications. (p. 538)*

James knew that no evil he could specify would be as portentous as the personal notion of evil all readers harbor within their imaginations.

Kyle Fowle makes a similar point in his discussion of Why the horror of Stephen King’s words doesn’t translate well to film. Fowle says that King’s more dramatic works (e.g., Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Green Mile) make better films than do his horror novels because “Film is a visual medium, and the horror genre often demands a tangible menace”:

King’s horror fiction often focuses on internal threats, those that can’t be seen or predicted. His best novels explore very human fears and anxieties, elements that are difficult to bring to a visual medium. The novel isn’t inherently a superior storytelling medium (we’ve moved past that reductive argument long ago, especially with the second Golden Age of Television), but it does seem more suited to King’s particular take on horror, where the internal, human terrors are privileged over the external ones… . [film] demands an external, visible threat, one that can make an audience jump, shiver, or scream; such a necessity runs contrary to what makes King’s novels so poignant.

“King’s best horror books,” Fowle concludes, “… explore one of our most potent fears: the fear of ourselves.”

Yet popular culture continues to present us with all kinds of hideous creatures. In From Daleks to Zombies: What Monsters Mean to Us, Anna North talks with the authors of three recent books:

  • Justin Richards, author of Doctor Who: The Secret Lives of Monsters
  • David J. Skal, author of The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror
  • Stephen T. Asma, author of On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

According to Skal, “we can read the dominant worries of an era in its monster stories” because “monsters recast collective anxiety in fictional form.” Asma offers some examples:

Christians in medieval Europe were “worried about temptation and pleasures of the flesh” and believed that “if you’re weak morally and impure, if you give in to your carnal desires, then that opens the door for the demon to enter and take you over,” he said. “If you let your guard down at all, this evil realm is just waiting.”

Asma further believes that monsters can offer us catharsis:

Horror films, he explained, can give us a controllable way to experience “these deeper fears that we ordinarily repress.” We can “take our monsters off the chain, let him howl at the moon a little bit, and then you can put him back on the chain after the movie’s over,” he said. “I think monster culture has therapeutic aspects to it.”

Whereas Henry James and Stephen King may favor an indistinct evil, monsters such as Frankenstein, Godzilla, vampires, and zombies graphically present what society most fears. In the end, though, they serve the same function as the less directly represented:

“With all the best monsters,” [Richards] added, “you can see something of yourself in them.”


*From the Preface to The Aspern Papers; The Turn of the Screw; The Liar; The Two Faces. Reprinted in The Critical Muse: Selected Literary Criticism, ed. Roger Gard (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), pp. 537–539.

Monday Miscellany

Here’s what I’ve been reading this week:

Why the Best Mysteries Are Written in English

Otto Penzler
Otto Penzler

From the pen of Otto Penzler:

It is an inarguable fact that virtually everything of interest and significance in the history of detective fiction has been written in the English language, mainly by American and English authors.

This is not chauvinistic, racist, insular, or opinionated; it is merely reportage.

Are longer books more important?

From Laura Miller at Salon.

Possible Emily Dickinson Daguerreotype at Amherst College

Amherst College Archives and Special Collections has a copy of a 19th Century daguerreotype that could be the second photograph in existence of Emily Dickinson as an adult.

What books make the best movies?

The movies have been stealing from novels ever since movies began, and for just as long the debate has raged: What books make for the best thefts? Well, the question is tired by now and maybe wrong too, but let’s quickly answer it: easy comic books these days, along with anything scribbled by J.K. Rowling and her ilk – successful commercial writing lends itself to successful commercial pix, since both dance to the same populist beat. That’s simple to figure. Far harder is the enduring, almost touching, efforts of the cinema to adapt accomplished literary fiction, clinging to the faith that a good novel can always be wrangled, not mangled, into a good film.

Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece by Michael Gorra – review

Henry James’s great, humane masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady (1881), the story of a young, spirited American woman “affronting her destiny”, is many readers’ favourite of his books. All his critics and biographers put it at the centre of his life and work. It is his turning-point. From being a popular and promising author specialising in Americans in Europe (Daisy Miller, The Europeans, The American), he became an important, renowned figure, acknowledged as a “master” of consciousness, cultural perceptions, humour, subtlety and depth. But Portrait can also be seen as a point of no return. After that came the harsh, unpopular novels of social analysis (The Bostonians, The Princess Casamassima), the ill-fated involvement with the theatre, the awkward, darkly complex novels of the 1890s (What Maisie Knew, The Awkward Age), the epic, inward-looking subtleties of the mighty late works, and the financial catastrophe of the New York edition. Isabel Archer starts out full of hope, independence and ambition, and becomes “ground in the mill”, entrapped and disillusioned. James’s life-story could also be read as an ebullient comedy which turns to tragic sadness.

Kalamazoo writer Rachel Swearingen wins prestigious $30,000 award

 Kalamazoo’s Rachel Swearingen is one of six winners of the prestigious Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award.

This is your brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford researchers are taking notes

From Stanford University comes the latest news in literary neuroscience:

Researchers observe the brain patterns of literary PhD candidates while they’re reading a Jane Austen novel. The fMRI images suggest that literary reading provides “a truly valuable exercise of people’s brains.”