Saturday, September 13, 2014

1. A Dish Best Served Cold*

“Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay’, says the Lord.”—Romans 12:19

Yet relatively few on earth would agree, or be willing to wait indefinitely for justice, righteous or otherwise, to be delivered.  It is no surprise that some version of the stricture “thou shalt not kill” appears in nearly all the holy scriptures of the world, for humans are likely to slay each other for even paltry reasons.  We are far and away the most murderous species on the planet, an aspect of what John Calvin described as the “total depravity” of our race.  So it is fitting that vengeance is a frequent source of horror and suspense in weird fiction.  Three short stories offering different perspectives on this all too human trait are discussed below, and are interesting studies of violence and retribution.

Robert E. Howard was a master at stories that depict the nature of revenge and the psychology—familiar to us all at some level—that leads some people to seek spectacular retribution against transgressors. The Man on the Ground (1933) describes the final bloody altercation between Cal Reynolds and Esau Brill, two men who have hated and fought each other since boyhood.  Their Biblical names recall famous fraternal duos with troubled relationships:  Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, and others.  Reynolds and Brill are cowpunchers who work for rival ranchers, and have been rustling each other’s cattle.  Until now, circumstances have prevented each from murdering the other.

The story is an effective and suspenseful vignette, a chilling observation of prolonged and unfolding violence. As he often does, Howard creates an interesting combination of genres.  The Man on the Ground is essentially a Western gunfight, graphically violent, but with a supernatural flourish.  Even the desert landscape reflects the emotional tone of the story—hard ground, sharp rocks, blazing heat, “instinct with death as rattlesnakes coiled among the rocks soaking up poison from the sun’s rays…”

Reynolds and Brill are devoid of any awareness of the stupidity and meaninglessness of their violence.  It being a Howard story, even a slim hope of redemption is unlikely.  Both men achieve vengeance of a sort—the moral, if there is one, is a vivid statement of “he who lives by the sword dies by it”.  (In Howard’s stories there appears to a be a preoccupation with head injuries of various kinds, a disturbing and recurring image made more so by the author’s eventual death by self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.)

Killology is a term coined by Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman in his 1995 book On Killing:  The
Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society
.  Grossman’s book addresses the psychological and emotional impact of military combat, but his insights are applicable to revenge killings.  Because there is—surprisingly—some reluctance on the part of human beings to murder each other without good reason, individuals as well as military organizations must psychologically reframe combat situations to reduce cognitive dissonance and guilt over killing.

There are a number of ways to do this:  train soldiers with targets that look like fellow human beings instead of more abstract “bull’s-eyes”, displace the responsibility for killing onto the combat group or its leader, and desensitize future killers to extreme violence through prolonged exposure to various media depictions of it. 

Intuitively we know that humanity’s supposed natural reluctance to kill members of its own species can also be circumvented by manipulation of a sense of physical and emotional distance from the victim.  For example, it helps if the enemy is an immediate physical threat to one’s life, which justifies an extreme act of self-preservation.  It is also useful to believe that the victim is culturally or racially inferior, is inherently evil or unjust, or occupies a different social class, (hence, “class warfare”).  Finally—and especially relevant these days of surgical drone strikes against enemy leaders—a mechanical or technological interface that shields the avenger from direct experience of the avengee’s demise helps reduce the stress of implementation.

Robert E. Howard’s states his more visceral killology in this way:

They had fought to a bloody gasping deadlock, and neither had felt any desire to “shake hands and make up.”  That is a hypocrisy developed in civilization, where men have no stomach for fighting to the death.  After a man has felt his adversary’s knife grate against his bones, his adversary’s thumb gouging at his eyes, his adversary’s boot-heels stamped into his mouth, he is scarcely inclined to forgive and forget, regardless of the original merits of the argument.

In subsequent posts the theme of revenge will be examined in the work of two other authors, that of H.H. Munro, (also known as “Saki”), and H.P. Lovecraft.

*The quote “Revenge is a dish best served cold” has been in the English language since 1846, and is possibly derived from French literature.  It has since appeared in various versions, most notably as a Klingon proverb in the 1982 film Star Trek II, The Wrath of Kahn.

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