Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Is Toni Morrison's Beloved a Horror Novel?

Every summer I make a point to read one work of "Capital-L Literature" (the kind of thing I would have read if I had taken more English classes).  This summer I had decided to read Beloved, and in one of those coincidences that probably don't mean anything, the very day I was planning to start reading it, the world got the news that Toni Morrison had died.

Morrison is a literary giant.  Her genius is obvious.  She won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and rightfully so.  As brilliant and as beautiful as Beloved is, a lot of the novel went over my head, some things because I lack a deep understanding of African American culture and history, some things because I'm not a literature professor.  But this is very much a "it's me, not you" issue.  The book is brilliant.  I am inadequate before it.

I'm not sure I'm qualified to give a proper review, but one question that I went into the novel with, and which I want to ask even more now, is: Why is Beloved not considered a great horror novel?  This question has been addressed before.  Recently horror author Tananarive Due wrote in a piece called "Black Horror Rising" in Uncanny Magazine...
Another good example is Toni Morrison’s Beloved (which, granted, the author herself does not consider horror). In her use of a ghost to embody the child murdered by her mother, Sethe, to prevent the infant from falling into slavery, Morrison created a metaphor so powerful that Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation is almost too painful to watch despite its cinematic beauty and earnest casting of Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, and the introduction of Thandie Newton. Beloved helps us feel at least a sliver of what it would have felt like to live with that guilt and trauma, which is so hard to put into everyday words. Horror’s visceral nature makes it the perfect genre for such a story.
Horror author Grady Hendrix notes in a piece on Tor.com, "Beloved: The Best Horror Novel the Horror Genre Never Claimed," that science fiction has claimed works like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake.  This is despite the (somewhat strained) protests of the author and some Capital-L Literature types, some of whom prefer the somehow hipper label "speculative fiction."

But given all this, Hendrix asks, "what the hell happened to Beloved?"
... the most obvious interpretation of Beloved is that she’s a ghost. Add that to the fact that Sethe is living in a clearly haunted house at the beginning of the book, and that the book is about that most feared and despised figure in Western Civilization, the murdering mother, and that the gory and brutal institution of slavery hangs over everything, and there’s no other way to look at it: Beloved is straight-up, flat-out horror.
Hendrix goes on to suggest that the horror genre has lately moved in a different direction.  He says the genre...
... has embraced horror movies, and its own pulpy 20th century roots, while denying its 19th century roots in women’s fiction, and pretending its mid-century writers like Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, or even William Golding don’t exist. Horror seems to have decided that it is such a reviled genre that it wants no more place in the mainstream. Beloved could not be a better standard-bearer for horror, but it seems that horror is no longer interested in what it represents.
There's a lot to unpack here, but I'll leave those boxes of meaning for you to unpack for yourselves, dear readers. I will note that recent years have seen the rise of so-called "elevated" horror films (The Witch, Get Out, Us, Hereditary, Midsommar, etc.), which may not have been as apparent even as recently as February of 2016 when Hendrix's piece was published.  So maybe horror films (at least some of them) are moving in a more nuanced direction.  And serious horror literature never completely went away (Tananarive Due is herself a good example).

Many people (including me) have also claimed that Octavia Butler's Kindred is really a horror novel in which the horror is American slavery and its legacy.  Beloved is not exactly the same kind of thing as Kindred: Butler's and Morrison's prose styles are wildly different, the only time travel in Beloved is through characters' memories, etc. Yet it doesn't seem that far off to suggest the two novels have a lot of overlapping themes.

So to me the real question becomes, why isn't Beloved widely considered a horror novel?  Is it plain old Capital-L Literature pretentiousness? Is it racism within the horror genre (going back to Lovecraft and before)? Or is there some deeper reason I'm missing?

I'm not sure. Maybe this will remain as mysterious as the character Beloved herself. But in any case, my summer Literature experiment was a great success this year.

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