Thursday, August 8, 2013

Don’t Look Now, But…

There are at least three stories about seeing things we are not supposed to see.  There is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic tale of dark insight, Young Goodman Brown, which serves as a model for many of its kind that have followed.  Well worth reading though less well known is Francis Steven’s Unseen, Unfeared.  Finally there is the somewhat later version of this theme in H.P. Lovecraft’s From Beyond.  All deal with the experience of seeing what should not be seen, and the consequences that follow.  However, there are interesting differences and similarities among the three stories.

In Hawthorne’s tale, a naïve young man is taken on a night time tour, possibly by the devil himself, of the evils present in the hearts of all the townspeople he knows, including even his young wife.  Various examples of human depravity are brought into view, and the story climaxes with the near conversion of young Goodman Brown and his wife Faith to the town’s principle and evil denomination.  He wakes from the awful vision with his faith literally broken.  “A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream.”  Following his “eye-opening” experience, Goodman Brown for the rest of his life can only see the evil in other people, and not much else.  Hawthorne published Young Goodman Brown in 1835, and it reflects his reaction to the Puritanism of his native New England.

Francis Stevens, also known as Gertrude Barrows Bennett, was an early 20th century writer of fantasy and science fiction, and a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft’s.  She was also one of the first well known women in this genre.  Unlike Lovecraft, she wrote fiction to help support her family.  She was a single parent who looked after her invalid mother and her young daughter.  In Unseen, Unfeared, which was published in 1919, her narrator mistakenly inhales from a poisoned cigar and has visions that include a device that allows him to view the manifestations of evil that surround people.  These take the form of verminous arachnid monstrosities that include the human face as part of their anatomy.

From Beyond is probably well known to readers of H.P. Lovecraft.  Originally published in 1934, the story was made into an entertaining movie in 1986.  The narrator is lured back to the laboratory of Crawford Tillinghast, (“my best friend”) for a demonstration of his “detestable electrical machine, glowing with a sickly, sinister violet luminosity.”  Tillinghast’s device creates waves that stimulate dormant and atrophied sense organs, especially the pineal gland, allowing people to see an invisible world of predatory life forms.  These are attracted to ordinary light and movement and can consume, or rather absorb, their victims.  “Disintegration is quite painless, I assure you”, says Tillinghast, not very convincingly.  The narrator escapes an awful fate through some quick thinking.  Tillinghast, not so much.

The form that evil takes changes across the three stories.  In Hawthorne’s tale, evil is just plain old fashioned sin, the stain of human depravity ever present in all people according to Calvinist doctrine.  Stevens sees evil as a creation of human minds—poisoned human minds.  The form it takes is unique to each person, but not necessarily inherent in all people.  She applies this insight skillfully to the immigrant situation of her time: under the influence of the poison the narrator makes all sorts of fearful, vaguely bigoted assumptions about some Italians he passes by on the way to Doc Holt’s laboratory.  When his head clears, he discovers that one of them was actually responsible for getting him help and saving his life.  (Compare this to Lovecraft’s treatment of immigrants and ethnic minorities.)

In Lovecraft’s story the evil in view is not sin, nor the creation of disordered minds, but a malevolent ecology of voracious, mindless predators.  Like many Lovecraftian monsters, these are amorphous and indistinct, “inky, jellyfish monstrosities which flabbily quivered in harmony with the vibrations from the machine.”  Our collective ignorance of their presence is what actually saves us from them.

The device by which evil is displayed is different in each of the author’s works.  In Young Goodman Brown, the evil is shown him by an older more experienced version of himself.  The older man carries a staff that is also a serpent and helps transport the two to the Satanic mass in the woods.  In Unseen, Unheard, an exotic membrane obtained from South America acts like a prism to divide the spectrum into a pale green light that illuminates the ambulating horrors. 

Lovecraft takes the technology a step further:  Tillinghast’s device works directly on parts of the human sensory system, and seems to alter them in hazardous and permanent ways.  The scientist himself has become physically changed by his use of the machine and what it reveals—more monomaniacal and less human, too.  (This aspect is emphasized in the movie, where several characters become progressively more monstrous the longer they are exposed to the machine.)  

Finally, the effects of the revelation of evil vary across the three stories.  In both Hawthorne and Lovecraft, the knowledge of a previously unknown evil leaves their characters permanently scarred. Young Goodman Brown is left with a dark cynicism and chronic depression.  Lovecraft’s character goes forward with lingering fear and a sense that he is being pursued.  But Steven’s prognosis is much more hopeful and humane.  After his ordeal, her character wants to walk about the city, get some fresh air and “…meet face to face even such stray prowlers as might be about at this hour, nearer sunrise than midnight, and rejoice in the goodness and kindliness of the human countenance…”

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