Saturday, September 3, 2016

Horror Theory: The Vrykolakas as Sexual Other

That repression or circumscription of one’s natural, God-given sexual orientation, whatever it may be, can produce an upwelling of horror themes, ideation and imagery elsewhere—in nightmares for example, or mental illness, or fiction—is not a new insight.  From at least the time of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, those preoccupied with the contents of the human mind and its behavioral and cultural byproducts have made this connection. 

Written in the 1980s, Elaine Showalter’s analysis* of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) showed how this iconic novel can be seen as depicting a case of “male hysteria”—in the psychoanalytic sense—driven by the lead character’s horror of his own unruly sexual desires.  Showalter observes, as many others have, the absence of women in the story, and the “double lives”—literally in the case of Dr. Jekyll—experienced by well-to-do men living nearly monastic lives among peers in late nineteenth century England. 

She draws several parallels between the fictional characters in Stevenson’s book and the author’s relationships in real life; details in the text appear to illuminate the tension between traditional patriarchal expectations about adult male behavior and what may ensue if intimacy among males subverts those expectations.  This is apparently conveyed throughout the novel in terms and expressions that serve as code for “unspeakable” acts and their consequences.

And speaking of unaussprechlichen acts (und Kulten), an echo of this male-gendered mono-culture of exclusive clubs and arcane scholarship, devoid of women or conventional heterosexual relationships, can be seen in much of H.P. Lovecraft’s work and that of several, though not all, of his colleagues several decades later.  Interpretations will vary, but in this context readers may find it interesting to revisit such Lovecraft stories as “The Tree” (1921), “Hypnos” (1923) “The Hound” (1924), “The Quest of Iranon” (1935) and “The Thing on the Doorstep” (1937).  Though varying greatly in setting and subject matter, the relationships between the male characters are not conventional.  What are these stories really about?  How is the author’s personality reflected in that of his protagonists?  What is it that cannot be said, that remains unspeakable, at least in early twentieth century America?  (See also ‘Bromantic’ Relationships in Lovecraft.)    

Showalter notes that The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published at a point in history when homosexuality was increasingly criminalized and identified as a psychological disorder.  For example, about a decade after Stevenson’s book was published, Oscar Wilde was arrested and imprisoned because of his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas.  Stevenson’s novel ends with a suicide, which Showalter notes “is the only form of narrative closure thought appropriate to the Gay Gothic, where the protagonist’s death is both martyrdom and retribution.”  (Lovecraft’s “The Quest of Iranon” also ends in a suicide, by drowning—an eerie acting out of the author’s personal fantasy of self-destruction.)  Over a century later, gays and lesbians continue to struggle for acceptance, let alone equality under the law as fellow citizens. 

In a fascinating sampling of scholarly articles called The Horror Reader (2000), editor Ken Gelder suggests that homosexuality “haunts” heterosexuality, that is, can be a source of terror and discomfort because the latter defines itself in opposition to the former, and vice-versa.  It seems that this haunting may be a special case of the “uncanny”, a recrudescence of a familiar but repressed element of an individual’s personality.  (See also Horror Theory: Sigmund Freud’s “The Uncanny” (Par...). 

Regarding queer culture, Gelder remarks that “it celebrates aberrations, relishing the spectral power of the sexually non-normative.”  If gender can be separated from the conventional binary choice between male and female, as determined by traditional, (i.e. patriarchal) expectations, greater individual freedom and creative expression can result.  But with this liberation can also come considerable anxiety, confusion, and horror, both for the individual and his, her or its society.  (The Rocky Horror Picture Show has a lot of fun with this dynamic.)

Like Marxism and Feminism, Queer Theory may be disastrous when applied unreflectively to the political or economic realm.  Yet it offers a very useful perspective on cultural products and sociological concerns, in particular, by questioning and “deconstructing” conventional understandings of sexual orientation and identity, even the notion of identity itself.  It is seen by many to be a force for liberalizing society and liberating an oppressed minority.  But if we turn the clock back to 1936, before deconstruction, and decades before the 2015 law legalizing same-sex marriage in the U.S.A., how did this particular “other” manifest itself in horror entertainment?  How does this “spectral power of the sexually non-normative” show up in the pulp fiction of the 1920s and 1930s?

One example may be an odd short story by Earl Peirce, Jr. published in the October 1936 issue of Weird Tales.  Peirce’s “Doom of the House of Duryea” appeared along with Robert Bloch’s “The Opener of the Way”, the third installment of Robert E. Howard’s magnificent “Red Nails”, and a poem by Lovecraft’s young friend Robert H. Barlow, among others.  Barlow’s poem was an homage to Robert E. Howard, who had taken his life in June of that year.  (“…His fair young flesh is marble where he fell/With broken sword that vanquished all but Night/And as of mythic kings our words must speak/Of Conan now, who roves where dreamers seek.”)

The cadence of the title “Doom of the House of Duryea” recalls that of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839).  Both stories imply an incestuous relationship between two family members.  In Poe’s work the relationship is a heterosexual one between a brother and sister, who may be two halves of the same soul.  In Peirce’s story, the relationship is even stranger and more graphic, involving exsanguination among male relatives whose familial relationships invoke a vampiric entity.  Pierce calls this entity or demon a vrykolakas.  It is the Duryea family curse.  But the blood sucking sounds suspiciously like displaced sexual behavior, which is a reasonable interpretation of vampiric activity generally.
A vrykolakas is a term—possibly derived from Greek or Slavic folklore—for an undead creature, an evil revenant who departs its grave and wanders the country, acting like a poltergeist, spreading disease, announcing immanent deaths of household members, and asphyxiating sleepers.  Individuals who in their lives committed sacrilege, incurred excommunication, or wound up buried in unconsecrated ground become vrykolakas.  Consuming the flesh of a sheep killed by a wolf or a werewolf will also transform into a person into a vrykolakas.  Though not primarily a hematophage like Dracula, the vrykolakas has similar nocturnal habits and personal health concerns.  It may be that the vrykolakas is the prototype for what we identify as the modern vampire.  It may also, in a psychological sense, serve as the stand in for a banished, “excommunicated” sexual other.

In “Doom of the House of Duryea”, father and son are reunited in America after being separated for 20 years.  The elder Duryea had been prosecuted long ago in France for the mysterious deaths of his two younger sons—two infants drained of blood one terrible night at Duryea Castle.  He and his surviving son decide to vacation in a private lodge deep in the Maine wilderness.  Before they leave, the elder Duryea relates the history of the family curse, which involves generations of Duryea men who are susceptible to an unusual form of vampirism, which is only applied to their own fathers, sons or brothers.

The father and son arrive at the lodge and settle in.  Naturally a storm begins to rage outside, and after a dinner of French stew, there is this awkward exchange:

“A storm,” Henry Duryea said, rising to his feet.  “Sometimes they have them up here, and they’re pretty bad.  The roof might leak over your bedroom.  Perhaps you’d like to sleep down here with me.”  His fingers strayed playfully over his son’s head as he went out into the kitchen to bar the swinging door.

Arthur’s room was upstairs, next to a spare room filled with extra furniture.  He’d chosen it because he liked the altitude, and because the only other bedroom was occupied…

Are the two men really father and son, or placeholders for a different kind of relationship?  It is possible that Peirce is using the unusual interaction as a way to heighten the weirdness of the situation, stoking it with “the spectral power of the sexually non-normative.”   Arthur, the son, later discovers one of his father’s forbidden books, wherein the nature of the vrykolakas is explained:

But this vrykolakas cannot act according to its demonical possession unless it is in the presence of a second member of the same family, who acts as a medium between the man and its demon.  This medium has none of the traits of the vampire, but it senses the being of this creature (when the metamorphosis is about to occur) by reason of intense pains in the head and throat.  Both the vampire and the medium undergo similar reactions, involving nausea, nocturnal visions, and physical disquietude…When these two outcasts are within a certain distance of each other, the coalescence of inherent demonism is completed, and the vampire is subject to its attacks, demanding blood for its sustenance.

There is an unexpected twist at the conclusion of “Doom of the House of Duryea”, but Arthur Duryea, like Dr. Henry Jekyll and like Iranon in Lovecraft’s story takes his life at the end, his only perceived option.

“Doom of the House of Duryea” is clearly a mythos story, with its brooding over an inherited curse, the reference to a quasi-mythological entity, and reliance on a bibliography of doom to provide scholarly substantiation of the approaching horror.  Ludwig Prinn, author of De Vermis Mysteriis, is cited as an authority.

Earl Peirce, Jr. was a pulp fiction writer who published eleven short stories between 1936 and 1941, most of them in Weird Tales.  A few appeared in such publications as Strange Stories, Terror Tales, and Strange Detective Mysteries.  Biographical detail about this author is scant.  Perhaps a few more diligent pulp fiction readers have additional information?


*The material excerpted from  a section of Showalter’s 1990 study, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle.

Earl Peirce, Jr.’s “Doom of the House of Duryea” can be found in the entertaining anthology, Acolytes of Cthulhu, Short Stories Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft (2014), edited by Robert M. Price.

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