How many brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins of all degrees a little story has! And how few of the tales we listen to can lay any claim to originality! There is scarcely a story which I hear which I cannot connect with some family of myths, and whose pedigree I cannot ascertain with more or less precision.
Shakespeare drew the plots of his plays from Boccaccio or Straparola; but these Italians did not invent the tales they lent to the English dramatist. King Lear does not originate with Geofry of Monmouth, but comes from early Indian stores of fable, whence also are derived the Merchant of Venice and the pound of flesh, ay, and the very incident of the three caskets. But who would credit it, were it not proved by conclusive facts, that Johnny Sands is the inheritance of the whole Aryan family of nations, and that Peeping Tom of Coventry peeped in India and on the Tartar steppes ages before Lady Godiva was born?
If you listen to Traviata at the opera, you have set before you a tale which has lasted for centuries, and which was perhaps born in India. If you read in classic fable of Orpheus charming woods and meadows, beasts and birds, with his magic lyre, you remember to have seen the same fable related in the Kalewala of the Finnish Wainomainen, and in the Kaleopoeg of the Esthonian Kalewa. If you take up English history, and read of William the Conqueror slipping as he landed on British soil, and kissing the earth, saying he had come to greet and claim his own, you remember that the same story is told of Napoleon in Egypt, of King Olaf Harold’s son in Norway, and in classic history of Junius Brutus on his return from the oracle . . .
One of my favorite passages in Ulysses (it’s from the “Cyclops” chapter, episode 12). Hilarious–
He wore a long unsleeved garment of recently flayed oxhide reaching to the knees in a loose kilt and this was bound about his middle by a girdle of plaited straw and rushes. Beneath this he wore trews of deerskin, roughly stitched with gut. His nether extremities were encased in high Balbriggan buskins dyed in lichen purple, the feet being shod with brogues of salted cowhide laced with the windpipe of the same beast. From his girdle hung a row of seastones which dangled at every movement of his portentous frame and on these were graven with rude yet striking art the tribal images of many Irish heroes and heroines of antiquity, Cuchulin, Conn of hundred battles, Niall of nine hostages, Brian of Kincora, the Ardri Malachi, Art MacMurragh, Shane O’Neill, Father John Murphy, Owen Roe, Patrick Sarsfield, Red Hugh O’Donnell, Red Jim MacDermott, Soggarth Eoghan O’Growney, Michael Dwyer, Francy Higgins, Henry Joy M’Cracken, Goliath, Horace Wheatley, Thomas Conneff, Peg Woffington, the Village Blacksmith, Captain Moonlight, Captain Boycott, Dante Alighieri, Christopher Columbus, S. Fursa, S. Brendan, Marshal Mac-Mahon, Charlemagne, Theobald Wolfe Tone, the Mother of the Maccabees, the Last of the Mohicans, the Rose of Castille, the Man for Galway, The Man that Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, The Man in the Gap, The Woman Who Didn’t, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon Bonaparte, John L. Sullivan, Cleopatra, Savourneen Deelish, Julius Caesar, Paracelsus, sir Thomas Lipton, William Tell, Michelangelo, Hayes, Muhammad, the Bride of Lammermoor, Peter the Hermit, Peter the Packer, Dark Rosaleen, Patrick W. Shakespeare, Brian Confucius, Murtagh Gutenberg, Patricio Velasquez, Captain Nemo, Tristan and Isolde, the first Prince of Wales, Thomas Cook and Son, the Bold Soldier Boy, Arrah na Pogue, Dick Turpin, Ludwig Beethoven, the Colleen Bawn, Waddler Healy, Angus the Culdee, Dolly Mount, Sidney Parade, Ben Howth, Valentine Greatrakes, Adam and Eve, Arthur Wellesley, Boss Croker, Herodotus, Jack the Giantkiller, Gautama Buddha, Lady Godiva, The Lily of Killarney, Balor of the Evil Eye, the Queen of Sheba, Acky Nagle, Joe Nagle, Alessandro Volta, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Don Philip O’Sullivan Beare. A couched spear of acuminated granite rested by him while at his feet reposed a savage animal of the canine tribe whose stertorous gasps announced that he was sunk in uneasy slumber, a supposition confirmed by hoarse growls and spasmodic movements which his master repressed from time to time by tranquillising blows of a mighty cudgel rudely fashioned out of paleolithic stone.
We often identify genre simply by its conventions and tropes, and, when October rolls round and we want scary stories, we look for vampires and haunted houses and psycho killers and such. And while there’s plenty of great stuff that adheres to the standard conventions of horror (Lovecraft and Poe come immediately to mind) let’s not overlook novels that offer horror just as keen as any genre exercise. Hence: Seven horror stories masquerading in other genres (and see our first post for more):
Oedipus Rex – Sophocles
Sure, Aristotle tells us that tragedy, by its very nature, must involve pity and terror, two emotions fundamental to horror as well. But the Oedipus story is so fundamental to our culture and its narratives that we easily overlook the plain fact that it is a horror story. Oedipus Rex begins with the attempted infanticide of the hero, including the brutal pinning of his feet, from which his name derives. Spared, Oedipus must endure the horrific uncertainty that he is not his parents’ natural son, a problem compounded when he learns from the Delphic oracle that he is predestined to kill his father and mate with his mother. You know what unfolds: a murder on the high road, a monster with riddles, a curse of famine, a horrible revelation, a suicide, and a bloody blinding.
Julius Caesar — William Shakespeare
History is its own horror show; Julius Caesar might be about the Roman Empire or the price of a republic, but it’s also very much a tale of paranoia, murder, and ghosts. Poor wavering Brutus recapitulates the crime of Oedipus when he stabs father-figure Brutus. The conspirators bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood, hoping to signal rebirth and shared responsibility, but the marking gestures are ultimately ambiguous. Great Caesar’s ghost will return, suicides will abound (Portia swallowing hot coals is particularly gruesome), and war will ravage the Republic.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” — Flannery O’Connor
This one may be a bit of a cheat, because I’m sure plenty of folks have the good sense to see “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” as the horror story it is. Still, O’Connor’s short masterpiece too often gets pushed into the “Southern Gothic” or even “Southern Grotesque” mini-genre, one which belies the story’s intense powers of horror. The intensity of “A Good Man” comes largely from its crystalline reality; half a century after its publication, the Misfit still has the power to shock readers (notice too that the Misfit’s first crime was again Oedipal—he was jailed for patricide). Here’s O’Connor on her story:
Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them. The devil’s greatest wile, Baudelaire has said, is to convince us that he does not exist.
I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considered cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader . . .
The Kindly Ones — Jonathan Littell
Keeping our Oedipal theme alive is Littell’s enormous novel The Kindly Ones, a horror story masquerading as a historical epic. The Kindly Ones, taking its name from the Greek tragedy, is about an SS officer who carries out probably every taboo one can think of during WWII, including incest, patricide, fantasies of coprophilia and cannibalism, and child murder. Oh, and mass murder. Lots and lots of mass murder. In my review, I argued that, “This is a novel that might as well take place in the asshole,” and I stick by that.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” — Charlotte Perkins Gilman
“The Yellow Wallpaper” has become a central text in feminist criticism for good reason. The story, told in first person POV, is a sad, scary descent into madness. And while it’s easy to point toward postpartum depression as the culprit, the story deserves a much more considered analysis, one which addresses the literal and metaphorical constraints placed upon the female body—a body that literary traditions have often tried to keep lying down (consider Sleeping Beauty, for example).
Steps – Jerzy Kosinski
Steps is an odd duck even for this list, because I’m not even sure if it’s ever been identified within a genre by any large group of readers. From my review:
At a remove, Steps is probably about a Polish man’s difficulties under the harsh Soviet regime at home played against his experiences as a new immigrant to the United States and its bizarre codes of capitalism. But this summary is pale against the sinister light of Kosinski’s prose. Consider the vignette at the top of the review, which begins with an autophagous octopus and ends with a transvestite. In the world of Steps, these are not wacky or even grotesque details, trotted out for ironic bemusement; no, they’re grim bits of sadness and horror. At the outset of another vignette, a man is pinned down while his girlfriend is gang-raped. In time he begins to resent her, and then to treat her as an object–literally–forcing other objects upon her. The vignette ends at a drunken party with the girlfriend carried away by a half dozen party guests who will likely ravage her. The narrator simply leaves. Another scene illuminates the mind of an architect who designed concentration camps. “Rats have to be removed,” one speaker says to another. “Rats aren’t murdered–we get rid of them; or, to use a better word, they are eliminated; this act of elimination is empty of all meaning. There’s no ritual in it, no symbolism. That’s why in the concentration camps my friend designed, the victim never remained individuals; they became as identical as rats. They existed only to be killed.” In another vignette, a man discovers a woman locked in a metal cage inside a barn. He alerts the authorities, but only after a sinister thought — “It occurred to me that we were alone in the barn and that she was totally defenseless. . . . I thought there was something very tempting in this situation, where one could become completely oneself with another human being.” But the woman in the cage is insane; she can’t acknowledge the absolute identification that the narrator desires. These scenes of violence, control, power, and alienation repeat throughout Steps, all underpinned by the narrator’s extreme wish to connect and communicate with another. Even when he’s asphyxiating butterflies or throwing bottles at an old man, he wishes for some attainment of beauty, some conjunction of human understanding–even if its coded in fear and pain.
“The Shawl” — Cynthia Ozick
Ozick’s short story “The Shawl” is a study in desperation and fear, and while any hack can milk horror from a concentration camp setting and a sick child, Ozick’s psychological study of a mother and her children skewers any hope of a simple sympathetic reading. At its core, “The Shawl” is about the dramatic Darwinism that underpins our fragile bodies, a Darwinism that can, under the right circumstances, remove our humanity. I never want to read “The Shawl” again.