If there is any truth or worth to the danse macabre, it is simply that novels, movies, TV and radio programs -even the comic books dealing with horror always do their work on two levels. On top is he gross out level… The gross-out can be done with varying degrees of artistic finesse, but its always there.
But on another, more potent level, the work of horror really is a dance- a moving rthymic search. And what its looking for is the place where you, the viewer or the reader, live at your most primitive level. The work of horror is not interested in the civilized furniture of our lives. Such a work dances through these rooms which we have fitted out one piece at a time, each piece expressing-we hope!- our socially acceptable and pleasantly enlightened character. It is in search of another place, a room which may sometimes resemble the secret den of a Victorian gentleman, sometimes the torture chamber of the Spanish Inquisition… but perhaps more frequently and most successfully, the simple and brutally plain hole of a Stone Age cave-dweller.
Is horror art? On this secand level, the world of horror can be nothing else; it achieves the level of art simply because it is looking beyond art, something that predates art: it is looking for what I would call phobic pressure points. The good horror tale will dance its way to the centre of your life and find the secret door to the room you believed no-one but you knew of- as both Albert Camus and Billy Joel have pointed out, The Stranger makes us nervous… but we love to try on his face in secret.
Do spiders give you the horrors? Fine. Well have spiders as in Tarantula, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and Kingdom of the Spiders. What about rats? In James Herberts novel of the same name, you can feel them crawl all over you…and eat you alive. How about snakes? That shuddering feeling? Heights? Or whatever there is.
Because books and movies are the mass media, the field of horror has been able to do better than even these personal fears over the last thirty years. During that period(and to a lesser degree, in the seventy or so years preceding), the horror genre has been able to find national phobic pressure points, and those books and films which have been the most successful almost always seem to play upon and express fears which exist across a wide sprectrum of people. Such fears, which are often political, economic,and psychological rather than supernatural give the best work of horror a pleasing allegorical feel- and its the one sort of allegory that most film-makers seem most at home with. Maybe its because they know that if the shit starts getting too thick they can always bring the monster shambling out of the darkness again … … …
… This book is intended to be an informal overview of where the horror genre has been over the last thirty years, and not the autobiography of yours truly. The autobiography of a father, writer, and ex-high school teacher would make dull reading indeed. I am a writer by trade, which means that the most interesting things that have happened to me have happened in my dreams.
But because I am a horror novelist and also a child of my times, and because I believe that horror does not horrify unless the reader or viewer has been personally touched, you will find the autobiographical element constantly creeping in. Horror in real life is an emotion that one grapples with- as I grappled with the realization that the Russians had beaten us into space-all alone. It is a combat waged in the secret recesses of the heart.
I believe that we are all ultimately alone and that any deep and lasting human contact is nothing more nor less than a necessary illusion-but at least the feelings which we think of as positive and constructive are a reaching out, an effort to make contact and establish some sort of communication. Feelings of love and kindness, the ability to care and empathize, are all we know of the light. They are efforts to link and integrate; they are the emotions which bring us together, if not in fact then at least in a comforting illusion that makes the burden of mortality a little easierto bear.
Horror, terror, fear, panic: these are the emotions which drive wedges between us, split us off from the crowd, and make us alone. It is paradoxical that feelings and emotions we associate with the mob instinct should do this, but crowds are lonely places to be, were told, a fellowship with no love in it. The melodies of the horror tale are simple and repetitive, and they are the melodies of disestablishment and disintegration… but another paradox is that the outletting of these emotions seems to bring things back to a more stable and constructive state again. Ask any psychiatrist what his patient is doing when he lies there on the couch and talks about what keeps him awake and what he sees in his dreams. What do you see when you turn out the light the Beatles asked; their answer: I cant tell you but I know that its mine.
The genre we’re talking about, whether it be in terms of books film, or TV, is really all one: make believe horrors. And one of the questions that frequently comes up, asked by people who have grasped the paradox (but perhaps not fully articulated it in their own minds) is: Why do you want to make up horrible things when there is so much real horror in the world?
The answer seems to be that we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones. With the endless inventiveness of the humankind, we grasp the very elements which are so divisive and destructive and try to turn them into tools-to dismantle themselves. The term catharsis is as old as Greek drama, and it has been used rather too glibly by some practictioners in my field to justify what they do, blut it still has its limited uses here. The dream of horror is in itself an out-letting and a lancing…and it may well be that the mass-media dream of horror can sometimes become a nationwide analysts couch.
… … …
So, for the final time before we push on, October of 1957; now, absurd as it looks on the face of it, Earth vs the Flying Saucers has become a symbolic political statement. Below its pulpy invaders-from-space storyline, it becomes a preview of the ultimate war. Those greedy, twisted old monsters piloting the saucers are really the Russians; the destruction of the Washington Monument, the Capitol dome and the Supreme Court- all rendered with graphic, eerie believability by Harryhausens stop-motion effects-becomes nothing less than the destruction one would logically expect when the A-bombs finally fly.
And then the end of the movie finally comes. The last saucer has been shot down by Hugh Marlowes secret weapon, an ultrasonic gun that interrupts the electromagnetic drive of the flying saucers, or some sort of similar disagreeable foolishness. Loudspeakers blare from every Washington street corner, seemingly: The present danger…is over. The present danger…is over. The present danger is over. The camera shows us clear skies. The evil old monsters with their frozen snarls and their twisted-root faces have been vanquished. We cut to a California beach, magically deserted except for Hugh Marlowe and his new wife ( who is , of course, the daughter of the Crusty Old Military Man Who Died For His Country); they are on their honeymoon.
Russ,she asks him, will they ever come back?
Marlowe looks sagely up at the sky, then back at his wife. Not on such a pretty day, he says comfortingly. And not to such a nice world.
They run hand in hand into the surf, and the end credits roll.
For a moment- just for a moment- the paradoxical trick has worked. We have taken horror in hand and used it to destroy itself, a trick akin to pulling oneself up by ones own bootstraps. For a little while the deeper fear- the reality of the Russian Sputnik and what it means -has been excised. It will grow back again, but that is for later. For now , the worst has been faced and it wasn’t so bad after all. There was that magic moment of reintegration and safety at the end, that same feeling that comes when the roller coaster stops at the end of its run and you get off with your best girl, both of you whole and unhurt.
I believe that this feeling of reintegration, arising from a field specializing in death , fear, and monstrosity, that makes the danse macabre so rewarding and magical… that and the boundless ability of the human imagination to create endless dreamworlds and then put them to work. ****It is a world which a fine poet such as Anne Sexton was able to use to write herself sane. From her poems expressing and delineating her descent into the maelstrom of insanity, her own ability to cope with the world eventually returned, at least for a while…and perhaps others have been able to use her poems in their turn. This is not to suggest that writing must be justified on the basis of its usefulness; to simply delight the reader is enough, isn’t it?
Now the proper good of a creature is to surrender itself to its Creator – to enact intellectually, volitionally, and emotionally, that relationship which is given in the mere fact of its being a creature. When it does so, it is good and happy. Lest we should think this a hardship, this kind of good begins on a level far above the creatures, for God Himself, as Son, from all eternity renders back to God as Father by filial obedience the being which the Father by paternal love eternally generates in the Son. This is the pattern which man was made to imitate-which Paradisal man did imitate-and wherever the will conferred by the creator is thus perfectly offered back in delighted and delighting obedience by the creature, there, most undoubtably, is Heaven, and there the Holy Ghost proceeds. In the world as we now know it, the problem is how to recover this self surrender.We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved: we are, as Newman said, rebels who must lay down our arms.The first answer, then, to the question why our cure should be painful. is that to render back the will which we have so long claimed for our own, is in itself, wherever and however it is done, a grievous pain. Even in paradise I have supposed a minimal self adherence to be overcome, though the overcoming, and the yielding, would there be rapturous. But to surrender a self-will inflamed and swollen with years of usurpation is a kind of death. We all remember this self-will as it was in childhood: the bitter, prolonged rage at every thwarting, the burst of passionate tears, the black Satanic wish to kill or die rather than give in … If now that we are grown up, we do not howl and stamp quite so much, that is partly because our elders began the process of killing our self will in the nursery, and partly because the same passions now take more subtle forms and have grown clever at avoiding death by various compensations. Hence the necessity to die daily: however often we think we have broken the rebellious self we shall still find it alive. That this process cannot be without pain is sufficiently witnessed by the very history of the word Mortification.
But this intrinsic pain, or death, in mortifying the usurped self, is not the whole story. Paradoxically, mortification, though itself a pain is made easier by the presence of pain in its context. This happens, I think, principally in three ways.
The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender self will as long as all seems to be well with it. Now error and sin both have this property, that the deeper they are the less their victim suspects their existence; they are masked evil. Pain is unmasked, unmistakable evil; every man knows that something is wrong when he is being hurt … And pain is not only immediately recognisable evil, but evil impossible to ignore. We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities; and anyone who has watched gluttons shovelling down the most exquisite foods as if they did not know what they were eating, will admit that we can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. A bad man, happy, is a man without the least inkling that his actions do not answer, that they are not in accord with the laws of the universe.
A perception of this truth lies at the back of the universal feeling that bad men ought to suffer. It is no use turning up our noses at this feeling, as if it were wholly base. On its mildest level it appeals to everyones sense of justice…
[A cool aside bit about how incarceration necessarily cannot be understood only as reform, but also must include the notion of retribution if it is to be just.]
When our ancestors referred to pains and sorrows as Gods vengeance upon sin they were not necessarily attributing evil passions to God; they may have been recognising the good element in the idea of retribution. Until the evil man finds evil unmistakably present in his existence, in the form of pain, he is enclosed in illusion. Once pain has roused him, he knows that he is in some way or other up against the real universe: he either rebels (with the possibility of a clearer issue and deeper repentance at some later stage) or else makes some attempt at an adjustment, which, if pursued, will lead him to religion. It is true that neither effect is so certain now as it was in ages when the existence of God (or even of the Gods)was more widely known, but even in our own days we see it operating. Even atheists rebel and express, like Hardy and Houseman, their rage against God although (or because) He does not, on their view exist: and other atheists, like Mr Huxley, are driven by suffering to raise the whole problem of existence and to find some way of coming to terms with it which, if not Christian, is almost infinitely superior to fatuous contentment with a profane life. No doubt Pain as Gods megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to final and unrepentant rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.
If the first and lowest operation of pain shatters the illusion that all is well, the second shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad in itself, is our own and enough for us. Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us. We have all we want is a terrible saying when all does not include God. We find God an interruption. As St Augustine says somewhere, God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full – there’s nowhere for him to put it. Or as a friend of mine said, We regard God as an airman regards his parachute; its there for emergencies but he hopes that hell never have to use it. Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can possibly be looked for. While what we call our own life remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make our own life less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible source of false happiness? It is just here, where Gods providence seems at first to be most cruel, that the Divine humility, the stooping down of the Highest, most deserves praise. We are perplexed to see misfortune falling upon decent, inoffensive, worthy people – on capable hard-working mothers of families, or diligent, thrifty, little trades-people. on those who have worked so hard, and so honestly, for their modest stock of happiness and now seem to be entering upon enjoyment of it with the fullest right. How can I say with sufficient tenderness what here needs to be said? It does not matter that I know that I must become, in the eyes of every hostile reader, as it were personally responsible for all the sufferings I try to explain – just as, to this day, everyone talks as if St Augustine wanted unbaptised infants to go to Hell. But it matters enormously if I alienate anyone from the truth. Let me implore the reader to try to believe, if only for a moment, that God, who made these deserving people, may really be right when He thinks that their modest prosperity and the happiness of their children are not enough to make them blessed: that all of this must fall from them in the end, and that if they have not learned to know Him they will be wretched. And therefore He troubles them, warning them in advance of an insufficiency that one day they will have to discover. The life to themselves and their families stands between them and the recognition of their need; He makes that life less sweet to them. I call this a Divine humility because it is a poor thing to come to Him as a last resort, to offer up our own when it is no longer worth keeping. If God were proud He would hardly have us on such terms: but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer, He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him, and come to Him because there is nothing better now to be had. The same humility is shown by all those Divine appeals to our fears which trouble high-minded readers of Scripture. It is hardly complimentary to God that we should choose Him as an alternative to Hell: yet even this He accepts. The creatures illusion of self-sufficiency must, for the creatures sake, be shattered; and by trouble or fear of trouble on earth, by crude fear of the eternal flames, God shatters it unmindful of His glorys diminution. Those who would like the God of Scripture to be more purely ethical, do not know what they ask. If God were a Kantian, who would not have us until we came to him from the purest and best motives, who could be saved? And this illusion of self sufficiency may be at its strongest in some very honest, kindly and temperate people, and on such people, therefore, misfortune must fall.
The third operation of suffering is a little harder to grasp. Everyone will admit that choice is essentially conscious; to choose involves knowing that you choose. Now Paradisal man always chose to follow Gods will. In following it he also gratified his own desire, both because all the actions demanded of him were, in fact, agreeable to his blameless inclination, and also because the service of God was in itself his keenest pleasure, without which as their razor edge all joys would have been insipid to him. … His God-ward will rode his -happiness like a well-managed horse, whereas our will, when we are happy, is carried away in the happiness as in a ship racing down a swift stream. Pleasure was then an acceptable offering to God because offering was a pleasure. But we inherit a whole system of desires which do not necessarily contradict Gods will but which, after centuries of usurped autonomy, steadfastly ignore it. If the thing we like doing is, in fact the thing God wants us to do, yet that is not our reason for doing it; it remains a happy co-incidence. * * * We cannot therefore know that we are acting at all, or primarily, for Gods sake, unless the material of our action is contrary to our inclinations, or (in other words) painful, and what we cannot know that we are choosing, we cannot choose. The full acting out of the selfs surrender to God therefore demands pain: the action, to be perfect, must be done from the pure will to obey, in the absence, or in the teeth of inclination … …
Here we tread on very difficult ground. Kant thought that no action had moral value unless it were done out of pure reverence for the moral law, that is without inclination, and he has been accused of a morbid frame of mind which measures the value of an act by its unpleasantness. All popular opinion is, indeed, on Kants side. The people never admire a man for doing domething he likes … Yet against Kant stands the obvious truth, noted by Aristotle, that the more virtuous a man becomes the more he enjoys virtuous actions. What an atheist ought to do about this conflict between the ethics of duty and the ethics of virtue, I do not know: but as a Christian I suggest the following solution.
It has sometimes been asked whether God commands certain things because they are right, or whether certain things are right because God commands them. I emphatically embrace the first alternative. The second might lead to the abominable conclusion that charity is good only because God arbitrarily commanded it – that He might equally well have commanded us to hate Him and one another and that hatred would than have been right. I believe on the contrary, that they err who think that of the will of God to do this or that there is no reason other than His will. Gods will is determined by His wisdom which always perceives, and His goodness which always embraces, the intrinsically good. But when we have said God commands things only because they are good, we must add that one of the things intrinsically good is that rational creatures should freely surrender thamselves to their Creator in obedience…
We therefore agree with Aristotle that what is intrinsically good may well be agreeable, and that the better a man is the more he will like it; but we agree with Kant so far as to say that there is one right act – that of self surrender – which cannot be willed to the height by fallen creatures unless it is unpleasant. ****And we must add that this one right act includes all other righteousness, and that the superior cancelling of Adams fall, the movement full speed astern by which we retrace our long journey from Paradise, the untying of the old hard knot, must be when the creature, with no desire to aid it, stripped naked to the bare willing of obedience, embraces what is contrary to its nature, and does that for which only one motive is possible. Such an act may be described as a test of the creatures return to God: hence our fathers said that troubles were sent to try us…
If pain sometimes shatters the creatures false self-sufficiency, yet in supreme Trial or Sacrifice it teaches him the self-sufficiency which really ought to be his – the strength, which, if Heaven gave it, may be called his own: for then, in the absence of all merely natural motives and supports, he acts in that strength, and that alone, which God confers upon him through his subjected will. Human will becomes truly creative and truly our own when it is wholly Gods, and this is one of the many senses in which he that loses his soul shall find it. In all our other acts our will is fed through nature, that is , through created things other than the self – through the desires which our physical organism and our heredity supply ti us. When we act from ourselves alone – that is, from God in ourselves – we are collaborators in, or live instruments of creation: and that is why such an act undoes with backward mutters of dissevering power the uncreative spell which Adam laid upon his species.**** Hence as suicide is the typical expression of the stoic spirit. and battle of the warrior spirit, martyrdom always remains the supreme enacting and perfection of Christianity. This great action has been initiated for us, done on our behalf, exemplified for our imitation, and inconceivably communicated to all believers, by Christ on Calvary. ****There the degree of accepted Death reaches the utmost bounds of the imaginable and perhaps goes beyond them; not only all natural supports, but the presence of the very Father to whom the sacrifice is made deserts the victim, and surrender to God does not falter though God forsakes it….
I am only trying to show that the old Christian doctrine of being made perfect through suffering is not incredible. To prove it palatable is beyond my design.
In the first place we must remember that the actual moment of present pain is only the centre of what may be called the the whole tribulational system which extends itself by fear and pity. Whatever good effects these experiences have are dependent upon the centre; so that even if pain itself were of no spiritual value, yet if fear and pity were, pain itself would have to exist in order that there should be something that would be feared and pitied. And that fear and pity help us in our return to obedience and charity is not to be doubted.**** Everyone has experienced the effect of pity in making it easier for us to love the unlovely- that is to love men not because they are naturally agreeable to us but because they are our brethren. The beneficience of fear most of us have learned during the period of crises that led up to the present war. My own experience is something like this. I am progressing along the path of life in my ordinary contentedly and godless condition, absorbed in a merry meeting with my friends for the morrow or a bit of work that tickles my vanity today, a holiday or a new book, when suddenly a stab of abdominal pain that threatens serious disease, or a headline in the newspapers that threatens us all with destruction, sends this whole pack of cards tumbling down. At first I am overwhelmed, and all my happinesses look like broken toys. Then slowly and reluctantly, bit by bit, I try to bring myself into the frame of mind that I should be in at all times. I remind myself that these toys were never intended to possess my heart , that my good is in another world and my only real treasure is Christ. And perhaps, by Gods grace, I succeed, and for a day or two become a creature consciously dependant on God and drawing my strength from the right sources. But the moment the threat is withdrawn, my whole nature leaps back to the toys: I am even anxious, God forgive me, to banish from my mind the only thing that supported me under the threat because it is now associated with the misery of those few days. Thus the terrible necessity of tribulation is only too clear. God has had me for but fourty-eight hours and then only by dint of taking everything else away from me. Let Him but sheath that sword for a moment and I behave like a puppy when the hated bath is over- I shake myself dry as I can and race off to reacquire my comfortable dirtiness, if not in the nearest manure heap, at least in the nearest flower bed. And that is why tribulations cannot cease until God either sees us remade or sees that our remaking is now hopeless.