Monday, October 31, 2016

The Horror of Ourselves, the Horror of the Unknown: Carrie by Stephen King and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Happy Halloween!

Last year I celebrated Halloween with a post on H. P. Lovecraft as science fiction and philosophy and one on horror movie reviews (including Crimson Peak and a bunch of Hellraiser movies).  This year I decided to read two classic horror novels to review here: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and Carrie by Stephen King.  The two novels are quite different, but they both touch on two kinds of horror: fear of the unknown and fear of ourselves.

Carrie by Stephen King

"Q. Was there an emotional feeling that went with this knowledge?
A. Yes. Horror."  (p. 149 - page numbers from this edition)

After not reading much Stephen King since high school, in the last few years I've decided to rekindle by relationship with Stephen King.  Carrie is the first book Stephen King published, and in my opinion it's one of his best early books, right up there with The Shining.

The plot is so much part of popular culture that it may be familiar even if you haven't read the book or seen one of the film versions (the 1976 Brian De Palma film is a bit hokey, but it's a decent adaptation; I haven't seen the 2013 film): an unpopular high school girl with a strict, fundamentalist mother gets picked on one too many times and uses her telekinetic powers to lay waste to those who harmed her.

Even if you know the basic plot, you have to read the book to understand the deeper themes of alienation and the unknown.  Themes about the dangers of religious fundamentalism, especially when it comes to women's sexuality, are obvious and have been discussed a lot already, so I will leave them be in this review while noting how central they are.

With all the attention to bullying in recent years, the story seems particularly relevant even though it was published over 40 years ago.  Although I'm pretty sure you should refrain from bullying people because it's the decent thing to do and not because a telekinetic girl will murder half your town, Carrie reminds us that bullying has effects.  Even if these effects aren't externalized, bullying can still destroy people -- bullies and bullied alike can lay waste to their inner psyches.

One of the brilliant things about this novel is how sympathetic you feel toward Carrie, even as her wrath obliterates everything in her path.  You might think that bullying is just a problem for kids, but one character says, "People don't get better, they just get smarter" (p. 60).  Do we stop being cruel to each other, or do we find more subtle ways to do it?  Is the true horror of this novel what it teaches us about ourselves?

Sue, one of the other girls who feels bad about bullying Carrie and my second favorite character, says she actually feels sorry for Carrie.  This is particularly poignant as we are told, "True sorrow is as rare as true love" (p. 97).  When Sue tries to show some compassion toward Carrie, her friends are taken aback: "She had done an ungovernable, dangerous thing -- she had broken cover and shown her face" (p. 77).  Does groupthink and petty tribalism make us nastier to each other?  Does it cause us to hide who we really are?

One of my favorite things about the novel is King's use of the Lovecraftian trope of inventing quotes from fictitious books.  These extended quotations move the story forward and contribute toward the sense of dread of what is to come with frequent references to commissions about "the incident" or "the Carrie White matter" (p. 47).

While it's obviously a horror novel, I consider Carrie to be a science fiction novel as well.  Telekinesis and psychic power are frequent staples of SF, and here telekinesis is given a scientific understanding down to the level of genetics (telekinesis results from a recessive gene that only expresses itself in female offspring).  A lot of horror is about encounters with the unknown, our attempts to bring it into the sphere of the known or, alternatively, to push it away in terror.

While I don't think the prospects for paranormal activity like telekinesis are all that great here in the real world, in the world of the novel the evidence is much clearer, which creates a bit of a scientific crisis...
"Of course one is able to understand the consternation, the raised voices, the angry letters and arguments at scientific convocations.  The idea of telekinesis itself has been a bitter pill for the scientific community to swallow, with its horror-movie trappings of ouija boards and mediums and table rapping and floating coronets; but understanding will still not excuse scientific irresponsibility" (p. 37).
This reminds me of Thomas Kuhn's notion of revolutionary science versus normal science.  Scientific revolutions, like those initiated by Galileo and Darwin, are times of upheaval when basic principles are up for grabs.  Normal science, on the other hand, is, well, normal activities of gathering data to interpret from within a particular scientific worldview or paradigm.

I don't actually think we have any good reason to suspect that telekinesis is real (thankfully!), but there remain many scientific mysteries:  How can the first-person feeling of what-it's-like arise from physical brain states, as it clearly seems to?  What is the fundamental nature of matter at the deepest level?  What was the Big Bang, and what will happen to the universe eventually?  Are there other universes?  Are these just some of the questions that will require scientific revolutions and new paradigms to answer?

Aside from these heady scientific and epistemological issues, the encounter with the unknown has existential dimensions.  Since we often take ourselves to know a lot of things about the world and about ourselves, the unknown yanks the rug out from this self-assured certainty, making us wobbly with self-doubt.  How we react to this says a lot about who we are.  Do we react with dread and push away the unknown, or do we, like ancient skeptics, try to accept that the unknown is out there, and maybe even in here, for who among us can say we really know ourselves?

So, Carrie is certainly a fun read for Halloween, but it can also initiate some deep thoughts concerning truths about ourselves and the universe and whether we really want to know them.

Rating: 94/100

See also my Goodreads review.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.  Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.  Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."  (p. 1 - page numbers from this edition).

Shirley Jackson is probably best known for her short story, "The Lottery," and second best known for her 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House, a classic of the horror genre.  Wanting to discover why this is a classic and to become a more educated horror reader, I thought I'd check it out.

Like Carrie, The Haunting of Hill House has been made into a movie twice (in 1963 and 1999) both under the title The Haunting.  I haven't seen either film, but I hope to soon.  Also like Carrie this is a horror novel that provides a lot of food for thought.

Jackson delivers a literary, poignant exploration of loneliness and a philosophical rumination on modern conceptions of our relationships with reality and each other.  There are also spooky things, of course, but like all good horror the real spookiness comes from within.  As an added bonus, there's a lot more humor than I was expecting.

The plot is, on its face, quite simple: a lonely woman, Eleanor, is invited by a paranormal researcher, Dr. Montague, to investigate an allegedly haunted house along with two others: Theodora, an eccentric psychic, and Luke, the future inheritor of the house.  It sounds like classic B-movie stuff, but it's anything but, especially because there's very little in the way of actual haunting until about halfway into the book.  The horror builds slowly rather than going for cheap scares.

As a real life skeptic about ghosts (as I discussed in my review of the 2016 Ghostbusters), I'm not a big fan of most ghost stories, which are often in my opinion not all that thoughtful when it comes to the details.  Jackson doesn't provide many details about the supernatural elements, although it seems to be the house itself rather than specific ghosts at play.

But a deeper, more interesting, issue comes to the fore as Dr. Montague explains that the harm of ghosts is not physical, but something more fundamental:
"Not one of us ... can say the word 'ghost' without an involuntary smile.  No, the menace of the supernatural is that it attacks where modern minds are weakest, where we have abandoned our protective armor of superstition and have no substitute defense.  Not one of us think rationally that what ran through the garden last night was a ghost, and yet there certainly was something going on in Hill House last night, and the mind's instinctive refuge -- self-doubt -- is eliminated.  We cannot say, 'It was my imagination,' because three other people were there too" (p. 102-3).
So what is it that we fear, exactly?  An interesting conversation happens later:
"'I think we are only afraid of ourselves,' the doctor said slowly.
'No,' Luke said.  'Of seeing ourselves clearly and without disguise.'
'Of knowing what we really want,' Theodora said."  (p. 117-8)
To press a bit deeper yet, one might say that the supernatural is here standing in for the unknown in general.  Lovecraft and others have claimed that fear of the unknown is the greatest fear of humanity.  But Jackson's brilliance is showing that the unknown turns us back on ourselves, shattering our self-assured certainties about the world and ourselves.  Perhaps the unknown is terrifying precisely insofar as it exposes the unblemished reality of ourselves.  What would you really find if you peered beneath the shrouds of your narratives about your own life and character?  Scary stuff, indeed!

One of the inner realities we might confront is the fact of our loneliness.  We might, like Eleanor and Theodora, console ourselves that our amusing banter with new friends is the erasure of loneliness (this also provides most of the unexpected humor of the book, along with the role of humorless straight woman played by the housekeeper, Mrs. Dudley).  While Eleanor's loneliness rivals that of another famous Eleanor, the subject of The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," few of us can say we never feel loneliness or isolation.  The ultimate malevolence of Hill House is not that it makes Eleanor lonely, but that erodes her self-defenses against her loneliness, forcing her to exist under a condition of absolute reality.

The horror of The Haunting of Hill House is not ghosts or even the house itself, but the existential realities we would all face if we dared to confront them.

Rating: 95/100

See also my Goodreads review.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

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