Friday, November 1, 2013

That Hideous Strength in Nick Cave's Face

Seeing Nick Cave perform live in Glasgow last night strangely brought to mind a passage from C. S. Lewis's science fiction novel That Hideous Strength.  Cave sauntered onto the stage in his inimitable way, lean as a rakish rake, attired in one of his tailored pimp-gangster suits, to uproarious applause (my own voice added lustily to the throng).  But what struck me right off was how young he looked.  I mean, it was like a revenant of the youth he was in his early 80s The Birthday Party or From Her To Eternity era.  The fact that in more recent years he has sported various styles of facial hair and last night he was clean-shaven no doubt contributed to this impression.  But it felt like more than that.  I genuinely felt a jolt of the uncanny.  In only moments I could see him for the well-preserved 56 year old man he really was.  Yet the young man was still there too, hovering scarce millimetres beneath the old man's skin, sometimes coming fully to the fore in a flash, then receding again to a mere haunting.
(Image © Blast Products™. Taken at Glasgow’s Nightmoves on the Birthday Party’s farewell tour c.1982. Found HERE)

When I noticed this youth-in-age quality to Cave's appearance, I immediately thought of Jane Studdock's impression of first meeting Dr. Ransom in THS (Chapter 7, 'The Pendragon'), where she is flummoxed as to whether he is a boy or a man:

On a sofa before her, with one foot bandaged as if he had a wound, lay what appeared to be a boy, twenty years old... But all the light in the room seemed to run towards the gold hair and the gold beard of the wounded man.  Of course he was not a boy - how could she have thought so?  The fresh skin on his forehead and cheeks and, above all, on his hands, had suggested the idea.  But no boy could have so full a beard.  and no boy could be so strong  she had expected to see an invalid.  Now it was manifest that the grip of those hands would be inescapable, and imagination suggested that those arms and shoulders could support the whole house.

Cave too seemed possessed of immense strength, flailing his gangling yet graceful limbs in arcs and kicks that would surely have drawn blood and cracked bones if contact with his fawning fans had been made (which, of course, the consummate showman always carefully, if narrowly, avoided).

When I got home and looked up this reference, I realised it went on to resonate in yet another way with Cave's performance.  From the moment he stepped onto the stage Cave came across as extremely friendly and generous and, heck, downright sweet.  Yet he sang with soul and sometimes a terrifying fire, very intimidating and menacing when he inhabited one of the evil characters that populate his songs, very disturbing when inhabiting one of the mad characters.  Or, more amazing still, he came across with grave yet good-humoured benevolence when inhabiting the character of a lover, perhaps even a Divine Lover, singing assurances, 'Yeah, we real cool...'  (and I note that he added a line at the very end of that song that's not in the album version:  'from the beginning of the world to the end of time, we real cool').  And all the while the boy and the man continued to haunt each other across his face.  But I saw that the alternating emotions in Cave's countenance as he sang different songs also echoed the description of Jane's encounter with Ransom:

Pain came and went in his face:  sudden jabs of sickening and burning pain.  But as lightning goes through the darkness and the darkness closes up again and shows no trace, so the tranquillity of his countenance swallowed up each shock of torture.  How could she have thought him young? Or old either?  It came over her, with a sensation of quick fear, that this face was of no age at all. 

I mean, man!  That could literally be a description of Cave's performances.  It's something that couldn't have been so readily said of him in the heroin-addicted, spiritually dark days of his earlier career.  I think there was more burning pain than tranquillity.  He would never claim that he has now 'arrived', spiritually or otherwise.  But he is more at peace and able to pass on that shalom in equal measure with the demons he also still gives voice to.  There's as much heaven as hell in his output now.  And the darkness is not all the darkness of being lost, but is also the darkness described by Lewis above, a more holy darkness that can swallow the lightning of pain without a trace each time it strikes.

There's one more resonance with Cave's performance as Lewis's passage proceeds.  It will sound like I'm overawed by Cave, exalting him to idol status.  But that's not what I mean.  Frankly, I am in awe of Cave as an artist.  He is one of my main inspirations and I am humbled in his presence and in the presence of his work. Like all great art, its excellence and originality has the potential to reflect greater glories.  And that is humbling and shattering, which is just what Jane experienced in the presence of Dr. Ransom, a man who had undergone awful and marvellous adventures in another world and, though he was permanently wounded by them, lived on to tell the tale.  Coming into contact with such august persons has the potential to unmake you, and thereby open you to anything ('why not, why not' Cave whispers in the song 'Mermaids').

The following description of Jane's feelings in the presence of Ransom could in a way describe my (and many another's) 'fan boy' experience of my hero, Nick Cave.  But Cave, like Ransom, knows he's only invested with these terrible powers and is himself a mere mortal.  He plays the kingly priestly part and we play along, and in such ludic pageantry we may for a moment forget ourselves and find our worlds unmade and open again:

She had (or so she had believed) disliked bearded faces except for old men with white hair.  But that was because she had long since forgotten the imagined Arthur of her childhood - and the imagined Solomon too. Solomon - for the first time in many years the bright solar blend of king and lover and magician which hangs about that name stole back upon her mind.  For the first time in all those years she tasted the word King itself with all linked associations of battle, marriage, priesthood, mercy, and power.  At that moment, as her eyes first rested on his face, Jane forgot who she was, and where, and her faint grudge against Grace Ironwood, and her more obscure grudge against Mark, and her childhood and her father's house.  It was, of course, only for a flash.  Next moment she was once more the ordinary social Jane...  But her world was unmade; she knew that.  Anything might happen now.
(Nick Cave, The Barrowland Ballroom, Glasgow, 31 October 2013, ©  flannery o'kafka)

(Nick Cave, The Barrowland Ballroom, Glasgow, 31 October 2013, ©  flannery o'kafka)

Thursday, October 31, 2013

30 Days of Halloween - Day 30: The Face of Christ is Leaping from the Storm (Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds tonight!)

It's here!  Thanks so much to everyone who has read and interacted with me regarding this series.  It's something I would have done regardless, to try to organise some of my thoughts on all this.  But your participation and feedback have made it very enjoyable and rewarding.  (If you haven't commented already, I'd love to hear from you!)  Cheers.

(image found HERE)

As an early birthday present, my wife is taking me to see Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds play tonight in Glasgow.  Considering the fact that Nick Cave is often known as a Gothic prince of darkness type character (he's so much more than that lazy label really connotes), it's a fairly fitting way to spend Halloween night.

From the early 80s up to today he has created an immense output of songs.  The lyrics across the years have explored copious amounts of darkness, murder, horror, devilry, numinosity, spirituality, love, lust, mayhem, madness, sorrow, beauty, glory, wonder, and mystery (always with a strain of dark humour).  He has painted a mosaic of landscapes and characters that alternate between heavenly and diabolical, sublime and obscene, with the language of the foul-mouthed and dirty-minded gutter as well as the high modern poets (and older poetic traditions too). There are faux Southern Gothic and Wild West tales that fuse the American regionalism of Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy with Cave's own Australian psychogeography. There are open-aired nocturnes and phantasmal cityscapes as well as sordid scenes of claustrophobic squalor.  A carnival of ghosts and serial killers and outlaws and prostitutes and drug addicts and freaks and jilted lovers and even mere husbands and wives populate the songs.  His several novels and screenplays evince much the same in ever innovative and fresh iterations.

And all this has been infused from its inception with bouts and outbreaks of theology as Cave wrestles Jacob-like with his own dark theophany.  Indeed, he exhibits the quality Flannery O'Connor called that of being Christ-haunted.  Recurrent sightings of the face and person and words and miracles of Jesus have suffused his work since he ranted in The Birthday Party (whose first album bore the significant title Prayers On Fire) 'The face of Christ is leaping from the storm/ The face of Christ is leaping from the storm' ('Truck Love'), through epiphanies of Christ in glory by a man on the electric chair ('The Mercy Seat'), to Cave's claim:  'I've searched the holy books / Tried to unravel the mystery of Jesus Christ the Saviour' ('Nobody's Baby Now').
And just when he wrote the lyric 'There's a man who spoke wonders though I've never met him / He said, "He who seeks finds and who knocks will be let in"', Cave seems to have met this elusive Jesus after all.  In fact, he subsequently went and wrote an introduction to the Gospel of Mark, in which he said that 'Mark's Gospel is a clatter of bones, so raw, nervy and lean on information that the narrative aches with the melancholy of absence' and concluded:

Christ came as a liberator. Christ understood that we as humans were for ever held to the ground by the pull of gravity - our ordinariness, our mediocrity - and it was through His example that He gave our imaginations the freedom to fly. In short, to be Christ-like.

Thereafter, he felt the pain and ecstasy of the dark love songs he'd been obsessing over for so long were given theological meaning.  ‘The Love Song is the light of God, deep down, blasting up through our wounds,’ he said in his lecture 'The Secret Life of the Love Song'.  There he also spoke of the almost missional significance of his own work as a songwriter:   ‘Me, I'm a soul-catcher for God. Here I come with my butterfly-net of words. Here I catch the chrysalis. Here I blow life into bodies and hurl them fluttering to the stars and the care of God.’

After a few more albums of haunted spirituality (during which he even considered himself a 'Christian apologist'), 2004's double album Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus opened with the blasting refrain 'Get ready for love! Praise Him!' and ended with the refrain 'Hey little train, we are all jumping on / The train that goes to the Kingdom'.

All these yearnings and affirmations are qualified by tensions and doubts and misunderstandings, and there have been many spiritual twists and turns up to the present moment.  You can still hear a grotesque and numinous kerygma even on the latest album, Push the Sky Away, which continues to make a fitting soundtrack for Halloween and other nocturnal activity:

Hear a man preaching in a language that is completely new
Making the hot cots in the flophouse bleed
While the cleaning ladies sob into their mops
And a bellhop hops and bops
& a shot rings out to a spiritual groove
Everybody bleeding to that Higgs Boson Blues

& if I die tonight, bury me in my favorite yellow patent leather shoes
With a mummified cat and a cone-like hat
That the Caliphate forced on the Jews
Can you feel my heart beat?
Can you feel my heart beat?

('Higgs Boson Blues')

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

30 Days of Halloween - Day 29: The Rule That Gives Room For Good Things To Run Wild (Towards a Theology of Transmogrification)

Every one, as you ought to know, has a beast-self—and a bird-self, and a stupid fish-self, ay, and a creeping serpent-self too—which it takes a deal of crushing to kill! In truth he has also a tree-self and a crystal-self, and I don't know how many selves more—all to get into harmony. You can tell what sort a man is by his creature that comes oftenest to the front.

-George MacDonald, Lilith: A Romance (1895)

Today let's talk about the magical-monstrous animality of men and women made in the imago Dei.  George MacD. is my go-to guy on this topic.  The little soliloquy on beast-selves above is given by a Mr. Raven, who himself frequently transmogrifies from man to raven and back again in MacDonald's phantasmagorical novel (and Mr. Raven is a good character, a spiritual guide and theological interpreter to the protagonist). Indeed, that whole book is sewn with frequent transmogrifications, chiefly from two leopardesses that are also princesses.  These shape-shifters transform themselves with a strange and beautiful fluidity that MacDonald evokes with dreamlike economy.  This continuum of beast shapes that each person inwardly takes is a central theme of MacDonald's body of work.
In his 1883 children's novel The Princess and Curdie (the lesser known sequel to MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin), the boy Curdie is followed around by a band of grotesque monsters who aid him in his exploits because he has compassion and hope that they will be restored to their original forms.  Curdie takes this gracious view of the deformed creatures because he has been invested with the power to tell what kind of beast an otherwise normal-looking person is inwardly turning into when he shakes his or her hand (e.g. he might feel a bird's talon or a snake's underbelly or a dog's paw).  He is not fooled by appearances and he knows that every one of us has monsters inside, beast-selves, which are either corrupting us or ennobling us depending on whether they are harmonised and harnessed by Christ's good rule in our hearts.
Critters - The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald, 1942
He slid into the passage in safety - The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald, 1942
He took the paw in his hands - The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald, 1942
Lina - The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald, 1942
He sat the child on Lina’s back - The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald, 1942
(illustrations of The Princess and Curdie by Dorothy P. Lathrop - found HERE)

MacDonald also has several short stories that feature she-werewolves ('The Gray Wolf' and 'The History of Photogen and Nycteris') which showcase yet more of his pleasingly creepy transmogrification scenes.  The opening of the latter story has always been one of my favourite images of this theme:

Her name was Watho, and she had a wolf in her mind. She cared for nothing in itself--only for knowing it. She was not naturally cruel, but the wolf had made her cruel.

She was tall and graceful, with white skin, red hair, and black eyes, which had a red fire in them. She was straight and strong, but now and then would fall bent together, shudder, and sit for a moment with her head turned over her shoulder, as if the wolf had got out of her mind on to her back.
(includes MacDonald's 'The Gray Wolf' - image found HERE)

Tolkien and Lewis both acknowledged MacDonald's seminal influence on their own mythopoeic works and this can be seen as regards transmogrification in Beorn the Were-Bear in The Hobbit (a good and heroic, if terrifying, shape-shifter) and the Talking Animals of Narnia.  (Lewis seems mainly to have used shape-shifting itself as a symbol of curse, as in, for example, Eustace's transmogrification into a dragon and also in the fact that Narnia features only evil werewolves.  But Lewis clearly relished the wisdom of exploring the human-beast continuum as evidenced by his constant portrayal of anthropoid intelligent beasts, not least his Messiah figure, the Great Lion Aslan.)

Charles Williams too featured lycanthropy in his Arthurian cycle of poetry (at one point Merlin and Lancelot each drop into wolf form and charge each other for battle if I recall correctly) among other transmogrifications in his works.  I think every one of the other theological writers of the dark and fantastic that I've featured on this blog also at various places in their works include shapeshifters (including Flannery O'Connor by her use of bestial metaphors for characters).

Now, is this a biblical idea that George MacDonald and the rest have gotten hold of?  I think they're on to something. Just consider for a moment animals in Scripture.  The Bible's pages teem with animal life, and as often as not animals are used as metaphors for spiritual truths about both humans and God.  In the richly ecological imagination of the writers of Scripture men and women are likened to trees and other plant life, to meteorological phenomena such as clouds and mist, and to many different animals (not just sheep!), even being given by the Lord cloven hooves with which to climb on heights and wings with which to soar. (They are likened to animals in more hideous ways as well, often portrayed in their sinfulness as skulking wolves or fanged and bloody snakes and lions and the like.)  God likens even himself to gentle and ferocious beasts depending on the message his people needed to hear - lion and bear or hen or lamb.  (And of course the holy angels are portrayed in beast-human terms.)

In the New Testament we are mostly the Plant People, languishing or growing, bearing various kinds of fruit. But it's fascinating that the Son of God is birthed among farm beasts and tempted among wild beasts and he directs his followers to the habits of foxes and birds and other animals for lessons in trusting their Heavenly Father.  Jesus, of course, remains both the Lamb of God and Lion of Judah in the New Testament.

Throughout church history theologians and communities have continued to tie human spirituality closely to beast metaphor, so these theological fantasists are simply innovators in a long and rushing stream of imaginative tradition reaching back to Bible times.  Christians today neglect such resources to the detriment of their worship and witness.
(image found HERE)

Add to all of the above that a phantasmal and majestic hybridity of human-bestial imagery is present even in apocalyptic visions of heaven’s throne room (e.g. Ezekiel and Revelation) and that human-animal shalom features in prophetic visions of a New Earth (e.g. Isaiah 11:6-9).  Surely MacDonald is right that we are meant to experience an inner and outer ecology ruled by the ferocity of the Lamb of God and the tenderness of the Lion of Judah.  When we are on the road to being restored from our deformities, then the continuum of beast-forms our souls may take unto the glory of our Maker and Redeemer are myriad and magnificent. It is as Chesterton said in his book Orthodoxy (1908):

And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.

And this harmonisation of inner beast-selves is not optional – as if we need be monstrous shape-shifters only if we feel like it.  No.  The monstrous beasts are already within you and you have a responsibility to integrate them under the Maker, not to let them rule over you, nor to attempt the impossible task of extracting or exterminating them.   As R. A. Lafferty said in his novel Fourth Mansions (1969):

There is a holiness in a whole person or a whole world... The veriest monsters inside us may be sanctified. They were put there by Him who is 'Father of Monsters' also. What right have we to cut them out of us? Who are we to edit God? We cut strong things out of ourselves and suppress them, and the rocks and clouds will give birth to them again. We dry up our interior fountains and they gush out again, exteriorly and menacingly. We cannot live without monsters' blood coursing through us. Only to the whole person is life worth living and death worth dying. Here in Fourth Mansions we must be whole or we must be nothing.
(Japanese edition - image found HERE)

A regular commenter on my Lafferty blog pithily summarised it this way:  we must exercise our monsters, not exorcise our monsters.

(Obviously what I've written here are mere notes toward a theology of transmogrification.  It's a deep subject that will require much more rumination.)

Halloween is tomorrow night and it is a chance to play at shape-shifting, a time to unleash our inner monsters for their rampant and righteous exercise.  And so I say to you, on tomorrow eve:

Brothers and Sisters, Transmogrify!

(image found HERE)

(image found HERE)

(image found HERE)

Charles James Folkard - The Princess and Curdie by George Macdonald 22
(Curdie and his monster band by Charles James Folkard - image found HERE)

(image found HERE)

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

30 Days of Halloween - Day 28: Intergalactic Bestiary and Subversive Eucharist (the opulent wonders of Gene Wolfe)

I want to look at one more Roman Catholic author of the dark fantastic today.  Gene Wolfe is the only other author besides R. A. Lafferty to whose works I dedicate an entire blog.  Like Lafferty and Tim Powers, Wolfe fuses modern speculative and weird fiction influences (including Lovecraftwith ancient world mythology and folklore to create some of the most innovative and groundbreaking fiction the genre has seen. (That's not hyperbole that's limited to me - for example, see the well-respected Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Encyclopedia of Fantasy.)

Also like Lafferty and Powers, Wolfe is not an author of horror fiction per se, but infuses strong elements of horror and monstrosity into most of what he writes.   The supernatural and paranormal sit uncannily alongside the scientific (both modern and futuristic) in most of Wolfe's major works (though there are also some set in ancient times or parallel worlds of a more Medieval variety).  You can usually count on running into a good number of gods and monsters and magic and violence.

In all his work Wolfe is playing literary games with pulp fiction, investing strange and bloody adventure stories with the weighted complexities of modern literature's fixation on psychology and sociology.  This tends to slow down and deepen the adventure quality, often to a bewildering degree. You will definitely get your sense of wonder evoked and your thirst for adventure quenched when reading Wolfe, but in a way that is totally disorienting and unsettling.
It's not boring or cynical postmodernism either.  Wolfe's cleverness seems to know no bounds, but he respects you.  He loves his readers and only challenges them so thoroughly because he feels he owes them at least that much as a craftsman.  The layers and labyrinths of his fiction are there because he means to supply you with a truly quality product - something you can go back to time and again to savour and ponder and puzzle over and, yes, even - eventually - grasp (to some degree).  And he writes it all in some of the most graceful well-styled prose you'll ever encounter, muscular and mellifluous at once.  Half the time I avidly turn the pages out of sheer greed to be drunk on his words, regardless of whether I really understand the story at that time or not.

But as I say, all this literary depth is peppered with the stuff of dreams and nightmares.  There is much otherworldly beauty and terror, both noble and ignoble monstrosity, the horror of the holy as well as of the hideous.  Wolfe's is a very intergalactic ecology in which you will encounter a fecundity of monstrous alien flora and fauna, by land and air and sea and stars, of a variety that can be very hard to describe.  Wing and fang and fur and claw and horn and tendril and talon - and brute strength and gigantic size and bizarre shape and strange powers - are all present and together produce a generous current of frisson throughout the works.  In the Gene Wolfe Bestiary there are Notules (shadow-bats would be totally misleading, but that at least begins to get in the ballpark), underground Man-Apes, the fiery Salamander, the Alzabo (huge hyena-like creature that speaks with a child's voice, very skin-crawling!), which is possibly the cousin of the ghoul-bear (carnivorous grave-robbing hyena-bear-ape-man), a giant undine rising from a river, shape-shifting vampiric Inhumi (and many other shape-shifting lifeforms), as well as shark-men and talking animals and giants and dragons and werewolves and on and on.
Barlowe's interpretation of the the Alzabo. More like the Ghoul-Bear to me. I pictured Alzy a little more like this.

In addition to these, Wolfe dialogues with Lovecraftian cosmic horror by means of giant deep sea and deep space entities that threaten, like Cthulhu, to one day rise up and reign over the earth to humanity's enslavement and demise.  (He even wrote an excellent and intentionally Lovecraftian short story that was included in the anthology Cthulhu 2000).
But Wolfe's work is richly invested with his Roman Catholic theology, often explicitly, and the deep-woven themes of Messiah, Incarnation, Eucharist, Triune Monotheism, and Eschatology tend to undermine, overtake, overrule, and ultimately redeem all the cosmic horror.  Bread and wine becomes a central image and actual healings and resurrections and theophanies occur.  The characters who yield to these divine undercurrents in the stories become agents of a conspiracy of liberation in their communities (he often especially focuses on social outcasts). The narration of these theological themes often achieves aesthetic and emotional epiphanies that are strongly poignant and numinous at once. But all this is done very intricately, often slyly, and is there for the reader to consciously engage with only if she really wants to do so.

All of Wolfe's horror and adventure usually takes place in very decadent, baroque, and ornate settings.  So a Wolfean Halloween would probably involve us in sashes and circlets and laurel wreaths and robes and rings and armour and cloaks and gauntlets and swords and halberds and braziers and pavilions and canopies... as well as innovative extraterrestrial monstrosities!  Not sure if that's really my scene but I wouldn't mind witnessing it.  To each his own variation on Halloween, so long as we all share in the night's numinosity.

Monday, October 28, 2013

30 Days of Halloween - Day 27: Grotesque Grace (Flannery O'Connor's mystery & misfits)

You can no doubt tell from this series that supernatural horror is generally my favourite area of the genre.  Be that as it may, today I want to add one more entry (in addition to Day 20) on a 'literary' author in the 'realism' tradition that contributes to all this darkness and monstrosity.  Endless reams, academic and journalistic, have been written about O'Connor, and her books occasionally make their way into pop culture.
Flannery's cameo on the TV series Lost

Steve Carell recommends A Good Man is Hard to Find to Juliette Binoche in the movie Dan in Real Life

She is well known as a writer of 'Southern Gothic' (ala Faulkner), a mistress of the grotesque.  She majors in freaks and misfits from her region, describing harsh betrayals and brutal murders infused with incredible transcendent visions of supernatural grace and redemption.  Often it is the very moment of violence that is poetically invested with glory and miracle (resonating with yesterday's post on a theology of gore).  In one story a woman gored on the horns of a runaway bull becomes, in that piercing moment, enlightened.  In another a young boy intentionally drowns himself in a river and thereby enters the Kingdom of Christ.  And so on.  (It happens the other way round too - one character burns his eyes out with lye, possibly in order to remain in spiritual darkness by faith.  Her stories are full of paradoxes and tensions like these between belief and unbelief.)

The monsters in O'Connor are mostly human, person committing atrocity against person.  What's not often remarked on, however, is that the ecology of the Southern region is often a main character in the tales. Her fiction is replete with spare but powerful descriptions of landscape and animal life, especially that of woods and farms, adding a rich ecological dimension to the spiritual heart of the stories.  She dedicated her art to pursuing mystery and she found it in place every bit as much as people (which resonates with the regional writing of Lovecraft on the pulp side and Cormac McCarthy on the literary side).

Indeed, Halloween itself often has regional elements with its pumpkins and apples and scarecrows and the like.  We totally involve our ecology in the spookiness of our festivities.  We like to see our environments creeped out and made monstrous as well as our persons.  There is a holism to Halloween in this sense.

Every once in a while O'Connor even invests the human characters with monstrous imagery drawn from animals. (Mainly pigs!  Oddly reminding one of William Hope Hodgson's pig-creatures in The House on the Borderland.)  She thereby performs unsettling little transmogrifications:

Then he heard a shout and turned his head and saw something like a giant pig bounding after him, shaking a red and white club and shouting... Finally, far downstream, the old man rose like some ancient water monster and stood empty-handed (from 'The River').

The instant she was flat on her back, the image of a razor-backed hog with warts on its face and horns coming out behind its ears snorted into her head.  She moaned... "I am not... a wart hog.  From hell."  But the denial had no force (from 'Revelation').

One of my favourite explicit monster images in O'Connor's work is actually of an inanimate object, a digger tractor: He looked around desperately for someone to help him but the place was deserted except for one huge yellow monster which sat to the side, as stationary as he was, gorging itself on clay (from 'A View of the Woods').

In the future I even hope to write about zombies in her works - there's a surprising amount of zombie-like language in her descriptions, I promise!  (And now I hear echoes of the 'zombie redneck torture family' from the movie Cabin in the Woods.) At any rate, anyone writing (or writing about) theological horror has an indispensable source in the fiction and non-fiction of Flannery O'Connor.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

30 Days of Halloween - Day 26: Slasher Flick on Rewind (Towards a Theology of Gore)

Fake blood dripping from mouths and fake blades protruding from faux wounds on Halloween.  It's as much a part of the ludic pageantry as monsters and webs and gravestones and the rest.  What do we make of the gory, bloody element of this holiday?

Right when I started trying to write my own take on a zombie tale, I was immediately confronted with the need for a theology of gore.  I wondered for a moment what the Bible could possibly have to say on grotesque and gruesome material like this.  It was only for a moment.  Immediately my mind was flooded with the copious amounts of gore that splatter the pages of Scripture:  Jael and her famous tent peg assassination, Ehud and his famous surprise disembowelment of an obese king, that messed up Levite that dismembered his raped and murdered concubine and sent the pieces of her body all round the country, dogs eating up the body of wicked Queen Jezebel except for the feet and hands and skull, people in a besieged city fighting over whose baby to eat next, and just generally the beheadings and hangings and spears and swords and arrows thrusting people through, blood and guts a spilling.

All this gore makes the whole Israelite system of continuous, controlled, and holy animal sacrifice, the sacred ritual of circumcision, sanctified lamb's blood daubed on doorposts at Passover, and so on look positively clean and sane in comparison to the freakish orgy of blood that often prevailed (and often still does today). Yahweh was clearly taking the endemic bloodshed in hand and showing his people the way he was going to redeem all that bloody mess.

It's interesting that theology doesn't just disinfect all the gore and turn our eyes to more tasteful matters.  We are made to look our bloodstained world full in the face and contemplate the horror and thereby long for a redemption big enough to deal with even this.  It's no wonder the New Testament takes up the theme of blood and gore and makes it central to its salvation story and imagery.  The Lamb who was Slain becomes paramount:  the Roman cross of inhumanly torturous crucifixion, the Son of God's blood shed for the forgiveness of sin, sinners washed in his blood, the Son risen from the dead with the scars of his sacrifice retained even in his glorified state, believers promised that their bodies too will be so resurrected from the dead to eternal glory.

A perfect image for Halloween from all this biblical material comes from Ezekiel, the indisputable winner of Prophet of the Monstrous, Macabre, and Phantasmagorical.  (Well, maybe he ties with Daniel.)  The Spirit of Yahweh comes upon him and takes him in a vision to a valley, and 'it was full of bones'.  The bones are dried out and Zeke is asked:  'Son of man, can these bones live?'  He replies:  'Sovereign Lord, you alone know.'  He is then commanded to prophesy to the dried out bones that God will cover them again with tendons and guts and skin and breathe life into them again.  Zeke obeys:

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone.  I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’”  So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army. (Ezekiel 37:7-10)

It's amazing to see that Yahweh performs a sort of reverse gore here.  (Kind of like watching a slasher film on rewind!)  He takes us step by step through the reanimation of these people, a sight as equally gruesome as seeing all the flesh ripped away, but this time with an outcome that is hopeful and glorious (what Tolkien called a 'eucatastrophe', a good catastrophe).

So theologically, I think part of what we can play at with gore on Halloween is the shedding of skin, spilling of blood, and exposing of skeletons in acceptance of their frailty on the one hand, but also in hope of their resurrection and glory on the other.  After all, the very Son of God dressed up in humanity's gore too, up on top of a hill that looked like a Skull no less.  Because of that gory display of divine love we can dress up and declare our 'Amen' to the prophecy:  yes... these bones will live.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

30 Days of Halloween - Day 25: Choose-Your-Own-Monster Meta-Horror Fun

Since my approach is mostly literary, and I've dealt with films only twice in this series (Day 7 and Day 19), I think today I'll throw in one more cinematic entry.  The director of The Avengers brought the same panache, intelligence, and humour he applied to that iconic superhero tale to the iconic horror tale he took on in Cabin in the Woods.  The fact that the two films evince almost opposite worldviews (heroic redemption vs. anti-heroic nihilism respectively) is a huge credit to the existential ultimates Joss Whedon is willing to explore.

I don't always like the aesthetics in Cabin, but it's good film-making and a wonderfully fresh take on the genre.  It's at one and the same time an ode to that genre and a critique of it - a critique, that is, of its makers and audiences.

The film is, as they say, 'very meta'.  But terms like 'meta-fiction' or 'meta-horror' can sometimes summon connotations of hyper-intellectual snobbery and general douchiness.  Cabin didn't come across that way to me at all.  It was a downright good time.  Very funny and mystifying and thought-provoking in equal measure.  And it's the kind of film you want to re-watch almost immediately.  You want to go back now that you grasp what was happening.  And the director has woven in tons of little references and tributes to classics of horror that horror-nerds may enjoy freeze-framing and cataloguing.

Last night I had several friends watch it who aren't into horror like I am.  I promised them only that it would probably not be at all what they expected.  Within the first five minutes of the film each of them couldn't stop exclaiming: 'This is not at all what I expected!'  That feeling only increased for them as the film proceeded and climaxed.

It's hard to say anything at all about the plot and theme without creating various expectations or without giving away crucial aspects that are best left unanticipated.  If you haven't seen it yet, I'd rather you go into it cold.  The next paragraph contains spoilers and is only meant for those who have already seen the film.  If you haven't, I can only beg you not to read on.  For you, the review is finished.  Go and view.



All I want to do now is enthuse about some things I liked:

* The two head technicians played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford!  They stole the show for me and gave the film a slight Coen brothers injection.  In fact, every scene that took place at Control was exquisite, especially spliced so beautifully and cleverly into the goings on at the Cabin.  (The monitors showing the efforts of Japan and other countries added yet another genius - and often hilarious/terrifying - layer.)

* 'Marty' as a character and his performance by Fran Kranz.  (I cringe at the Libertarian Hemp for Victory 'sub'text, but he was so hilarious!)

* The way the control room had to manipulate the college students chemically and otherwise to fit their stereotypes for sacrifice.

* The whole Lovecraftian Ancient Ones plot machinery and the worldview meditations it heaved up.

* The 'inspirational' build up to the absolutely fantastic motorcycle jump scene!

* The giant glass cubework of nightmares-made-flesh and the chaos they wrought when loosed (and the great opening of that sequence by the simultaneous ringing of the elevator chimes!).  I resonate with the film's uncomplicated love of monsters beneath which resides the deeper complexities.

I'm sure there are many more aspects I liked, but this is off the top of my head.  The fact that such a clever and entertaining film is also so philosophical and theological, of course, crowns it for me. Maybe another time I'll write on those aspects.