Initially I had planned to use this post to discuss the startling—because graphic—degree of misogyny in David Keller’s 1942 story “The Bridle”. Briefly, Keller uses the metaphor of taming a wild mare, the equine form of a local shapeshifting witch, to describe the taming of an ungovernable wife. In the context of the story, “bridle” is both homonymous and synonymous with “bridal”. The author, a psychiatrist by training, intends a “Freudian slip”, a seemingly random choice of words that reveals the protagonist’s true feelings. Keller was quite reactionary, even for his time, but the concept of “bridling” a wayward bride is still dismayingly active in the minds of many. But I’ll save this for another post.
This does however bring up a topic I would like to discuss today: the overall direction of The R’lyeh Tribune, now entering its fourth year. Elsewhere I have discussed my critical method, if it can be so glorified, (see Personal Note: On My “Critical Method” and Horror Theory: Preliminary Thoughts on a Blasphem... ). The gist of it is that horror entertainment in all ages is the documentation of private and collective nightmares, the psychological regurgitation of anger and anxiety regarding contemporary challenges and changes in society. The work of H.P. Lovecraft, and more recently, Thomas Ligotti seems to exemplify this notion, though there are many other examples of comparable quality and power.
With respect to David Keller, his uneasiness with the growing financial and political independence of women in early twentieth century American society is reflected in many of his stories, for example “The Psychophonic Nurse” (1928) and “A Biological Experiment” (1928)—both science fiction—and the afore mentioned “The Bridle”, which is a horror story. In Lovecraft’s stories, women are conspicuous because of their almost complete absence; given his problematic relationships with his mother and with Sonia Greene, his wife of just two years, this absence is suspicious.
On the other hand, Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories feature an evolving “damsel in distress” motif, so that by the time of “Red Nails” (1936), the female character nearly equals the hero in strength, cunning and effectiveness. These variations and developmental changes across authors and time periods are intriguing and suggestive. (For a more modern comparison take a look at Ross Smeltzer’s 2016 collection of novellas, The Mark of the Shadow Grove; see also For the Life is in the Blood.) These stories comprise just one continuum of “therapeutic” treatment for a particular and perennial source of horror and dismay, the relationships between men and women.
That dark speculative fiction can serve a cathartic or psychoanalytic function for the society in which it originates is not a new insight. And this is only one of a number of frameworks with which to study the contents of a given horror story. The R’lyeh Tribune has explored at least perfunctorily a number of schools of literary criticism that have been applied to horror: Freudian, Jungian, Marxist, Queer and Calvinist, among others over the years.
All are fruitful approaches to extracting further meaning and significance from this fascinating literature. Missing so far from this survey of literary theory are feminist and ethnic perspectives on the genre—these are future directions I intend to take as I continue my studies. As always I welcome suggestions and comments from readers.
If dark speculative fiction is essentially transmogrified dream and nightmare, then it may be possible to systematically apply some of the approaches of dream analysis and dream research to cultural products that feature elements of horror and the supernatural. Beyond obvious categories like “werewolf story”, “ghost story” and the like, are there others that delineate stories in terms of the intensity or origin of the dream content forming the germ of a tale? Can a story be evaluated in terms of the effectiveness with which it mimics the experience of a nightmare or a lucid dream? What would an oneirological approach to horror criticism look like?
(Interested readers may want to check out The Lucidity Institute, which features Stephen LaBerge’s work on the practical and theoretical applications of lucid dreaming. See http://www.lucidity.com/.)
It occurs to me that The R’lyeh Tribune is nearly a book now, at least in sheer verbiage, if not in organization or focus. Repeat visitors have probably observed recurring themes interspersed throughout what now amount to several hundred articles. What are the connections between horror, religion and nightmare? What does the changing content of horror entertainment, and our enduring interest in the genre, say about us and our society?
If we attend to our nightmares, write them into fiction, dramatize them, bring them into consciousness and the light of day, will it preserve us from a personal or collective catastrophe? In church this morning we heard that ominous quote from the book of Jeremiah, so timely: “The harvest is past, the summer has ended, and we are not saved.”
Whether these themes coalesce into some more unified form like a book remains to be seen. For now, I am nowhere near reaching the bottom of this well, and will continue diving. Horror, nightmare, and religion contain an inexhaustible abundance of what W.B. Yeats, paraphrasing the neo-Platonist philosopher Proclus, called “a fabulous and formless darkness, mastering the loveliness of the world…”