Saturday, November 14, 2015

Industrial Strength Conte Cruel

Ever since Villiers de L’Isle coined the term in 1883, and probably long before it had a name, the conte cruel has been a mainstay of horror entertainment.  The form is defined as a horror or thriller tale that contains very little if any supernatural material, its effect dependent on graphic detail and gruesome realism.  A typical conte cruel story includes several familiar elements.  A victim arrives at an isolated setting after a series of seemingly preordained events.  He or she is “in the wrong place at the wrong time”, though there is the sense that this grim fate was unavoidable.  What follows is pain, torment and death, often at the hands of an aggrieved, monomaniacal villain.

The conte cruel is an example of hyperconstrictive horror, a concept developed in Kirk J. Schneider’s Horror and the Holy (1993).  These stories emphasize entrapment and confinement, with themes of domination, paralysis, reduction of the life force, surrender and eventually, obliteration.  In early twentieth century pulp fiction, which is the focus here, the presence of an invented contraption or device that aids the villain in his depredations—sometimes it is a highly trained animal—suggests an overlap with proto-science fiction.  In my view at least, these stories often give the impression of an elaborate practical joke, one that is over the top in terms of precision and cruelty, but still animated by the same desire to pull off a prank at someone’s grave expense.

The villain, typically male, is an interesting figure.  Superhumanly powerful and controlling, he may be a metaphor for an omnipotent and wrathful god.  There is certainly an echo of Jonathon Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741) in conte cruel stories.  For the emotional benefit of readers or viewers, there may be a surprise twist at the end of the story, in which the victim through a desperate use of their wits turns the table on his or her tormentor, at least for a short while.  There is still hope after all!  Conte cruel stories may allow traditional morality and justice to prevail in the end, if a bit grotesquely, but this is obviously wishful thinking for the author and reader.  Stories that do not end in this way, that finish more “realistically”, are much less comforting and may be more effective.

Despite the realism that distinguishes this form of horror, the dire situation imagined by the author will seem preposterous if the reader examines it too closely.  Yet a well written conte cruel can be an oddly satisfying read, a kind of psycho-emotional calisthenic.  The form works well as a thoroughly documented nightmare of incarceration and claustrophobia.  To the extent that the reader identifies with the protagonist, he or she can be thinking of escape routes well in advance of the demise or rescue of the fictional victim.

However, no such commiseration between reader and victim is possible in David H. Keller’s The Doorbell (1935).  The author maintains a cold distance between the reader and the victims—there are just four of them—who succumb to a ghastly Rube Goldberg*-type contraption, an engine of vengeance.  The demise of the last victim is witnessed through the eyes of one Jacob Hubler, a writer who at the beginning of the story is looking for a new subject to write about.  Wealthy industrialist Henry Cecil obliges him.  “I owe you something,” says the rich man, “and I think I ought to pay you with a story.  How about spending the week end with me up at my shack in Canada?”

Sure, let’s!  It is never clear just what Cecil owes the writer, but he does pay him back in full and then some.  Hubler is not the victim of Cecil’s plans, but this is cold comfort.  He is a mere observer, a reporter.  He occupies a space that we all do sometimes in nightmares, where we witness but do not interact with an unfolding horror.  In The Doorbell Keller skillfully parcels out seemingly normal details and recurrent images, gradually turning up the electric current.   

Cecil, the owner of a steel mill, is inordinately fascinated by an industrial common place:  the story opens with a description of a crane using a large electro-magnet to load scrap iron into a freight car.  The back story, provided in bits and pieces, alludes to a Hatfield-McCoy type dispute over land that led to the murder of Cecil’s mother, a trauma he witnessed as a child.  Keller, who was a psychiatrist by day, adroitly shows how this trauma has changed Cecil—his mannerisms and the arrangement of his creepy vacation house amplify his single-minded obsession.  The incongruousness of Cecil’s light hearted “here’s how I did it” approach also adds to the nightmarish quality.  Ultimately it is the doorbell at Cecil’s wilderness abode that links all of these disparate elements, and by ringing it, the writer unknowingly becomes a part of Cecil’s elaborate plan, his personal nightmare, and that of his victim.  

Conte cruel imagery in literature and film continues to be popular, particularly among young people.  The form seems to be an expression of collective anxiety over the increasing number of unpredictable and shocking acts of cruelty and violence reported in the news.  Many of these real perpetrators are committed to delivering vengeance, cruelty and death to victims in confined spaces—churches, schools, movie theatres, shopping malls.  Perhaps the fictional conte cruel provides catharsis for the fear of sudden, violent, meaningless death.  Or in some way steels us for these ever more frequent traumatic events—if that is even possible.  Is conte cruel simply a kind of a microcosmic terrorism?

*Rube Goldberg was a popular cartoonist of the first half of the twentieth century, known for his fanciful, complicated devices that accomplished simple, every day tasks.  See

A number of early twentieth century stories that are examples of conte cruel have been discussed previously.  Interested readers may want to look at

Lovecraft as Shudder Pulp Writer:The Diary of "M... (H.P. Lovecraft and Hazel Heald) 
Mathematic Conte-Cruel (Stanley G. Weinbaum)
Plague as Engine of Justice (Clark Ashton Smith)

[Many in America are hearing this morning about the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, which took the lives of over a hundred citizens.  Our hearts and prayers go out to the people of France.] 

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