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Friday, September 17, 2010

Stephen King: Homophobia? Repressed and Sublimated Homosexuality? We Report; You Decide

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Note: In this and a few subsequent posts, I summarize and comment upon essays concerning horror fiction that appear in Gender, Language, and Myth, edited by Glenwood Irons (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992). Although some of the claims in these essays seem far-fetched (to me, at least), others appear to have some validity and even some practical application. In any case, readers of Chillers and Thrillers are likely to find that these synopses offer unusual takes on the theory and practice of writing horror fiction.

“The horrors of [Stephen] King’s world,” Robin Woods writes in “Cat and Dog: Teague’s Stephen King Movies,” “are the horrors of our culture writ large, made visible and inescapable” (Gender, Language, and Myth: Essays on Popular Narrative, edited by Glenwood Irons, 310). If this insight is true (and King’s enormous popularity suggests that it may be), the implications are likely to be horrifying, indeed, for many, for Woods sees, in the horror maestro’s works, four “culturally specific disturbances” that take the forms of “ambivalence about marriage and the family,” “male aggression and masochism,” “homophobia,” and “repressed and sublimated homosexuality” (304-311), the latter two of which are the concerns of this post.

According to Woods, King’s fiction discloses the author’s homophobic attitude, both in the author’s occasional “derogatory reference” to homosexuals or homosexuality (in Firtestarter, a male character “who exactly parallels the little girl’s strange, dangerous and defiantly anti-establishment abilities” is referred to as a “faggot” [306]), but, more often, by way of “association”:

The corruptible pimply fat man in The Stand. . . has been afraid that he might be homosexual; Stillson, the monstrous future president of The Dead Zone who may bring about the end of the world, never goes out with women and has a constant male companion; one of the supreme horrors witnessed by the little boy (in Kubrick’s film by the mother) in The Shining is. . . [a] homosexual [act]; the vampire and his assistant in ‘Salem’s Lot. . . are rumored to be a gay couple (306).
Those who have read King’s novels are apt to agree with Woods’ assessment; King does seem to give vent to homophobic biases in his work, just as he champions his own causes, interests, and beliefs (CNN and liberal politics, for example, in Under the Dome and abortion and feminism in Insomnia), and he isn’t shy about damning organizations, institutions, agencies, and individuals which or whom he finds objectionable, whether they are homosexual men, lesbians, or others. If King is homophobic, as Woods (and King’s own work) suggests, Woods’ insights concerning the causes of homophobia are all the more interesting, although Woods himself is careful to indicate that he is interested, in “Cat and Dog” “in psychoanalyzing a group of texts (and through those texts the tensions and struggles within our culture), not the author as a person” (304).

Sigmund Freud, Woods believes, has conclusively demonstrated that men and women are, from birth (that is, “innately”) capable of responding to, and perhaps enjoying, sex with either their own or the opposite sex (that is, are “bisexual”). However, society demands “that the homosexual side of that bisexuality” be “repressed in order to construct the successfully ‘socialized’ adult.” However, as Freud points out, repressed tendencies are apt to resurface, and the “homosexuality” that adults repress may, meanwhile, be “experienced as a constant, if unconscious threat”--or, in horror fiction, as an inner demon or monster. Woods believes that homophobia arises from an individual’s failure to adequately repress his or her (mostly his) “own bisexuality,” which causes him to act out in violence against either other men or women: “Masculine violence in our culture. . . must be read as the result of the repression of bisexuality. Violence against women: the woman represents the threat of the man’s repressed femininity. Violence against other men: the man represents the threat of the arousal of homosexual desire” (307).

Woods’ definition (or redefinition) of homophobia and his association of it with male violence against both other men and women as representations of the homophobe’s own threatened sense of heterosexual masculinity on the one and his own threatened sense of the feminine aspects of his nature on the other hand are certainly astute; perhaps they are even true. If they are accurate, his hypotheses provide critics of literature in general, and horror fiction in particular, with useful tools of analysis. He applies these observations to King’s fiction, suggesting that “the ‘beautiful [that is “non-sexual”] friendship’ of a man and an adolescent boy” in ‘Salem’s Lot is the means by which “the vampires are finally (though ambiguously) destroyed” in “an extraordinarily precise account of the enactment of repression.” Likewise, Woods argues, “Thinner. . . Can easily be read as a paranoid fantasy about AIDS” (308).

In King’s fiction, Woods argues, “the repressed and its inexorable return” is dramatically set forth in specific, well-defined places or is embodied in particular individuals such as “the Marsten House of ‘Salem’s Lot, the Overlook Hotel of The Shining, the possessed car of Christine, the Micmac burying-ground of Pet Sematary, the gypsies of Thinner,” and, he adds, “the fascination of the novels is clearly the fascination of these potent evocations of the repressed, to which the protagonists and the reader are irresistibly drawn” (311). It is as if these locations and individuals, set off from mainstream society’s arena of affairs and participants, are profane places and impious persons, condemned places and damned people, our inner demons, or shadows (to employ the Jungian term), which we, unable to disown completely, incarcerate in places we mark as off limits or embody in persons we identify as pariahs. When we stumble across such a place or encounter such a person, we meet the inner demons whom we have banished; the repressed returns, but, even then, we recognize these repressed urges and desires as monstrous. They are to be resisted, banished anew, exiled, or destroyed, never embraced. By confining them to places or persons possessed, as it were, we both identify these tendencies and instincts as other than ourselves and as urges that are rightly to be avoided when possible and banished or destroyed when they can no longer be ignored. Had we not cast these parts of our own unconscious into the outer limits of our existence as human beings, we would become our inner demons, and our society would change, perhaps irrevocably.

Woods even offers a picture of the hell that would result should we embrace the monsters in our looking-glasses:

Centrally, it would involve the full recognition and acceptance of constitutional bisexuality, with all the implications and consequences of such an acceptance: the transformation of male and female roles and heterosexual relations, the rethinking of the family, the positive acceptance of homosexual love as natural rather than aberrant, the overthrow of socially constructed norms of masculinity and femininity, the recognition of infantile eroticism (310).

In a word, the consequence of the acceptance of the other within us, of the shadow that is both male and female without being either sex exclusively, would be the chaos of social and cultural nihilism. It is to the brink of this abyss, Woods suggests, that King’s “homophobic” fiction brings his readers, but it is an abyss from which the horror maestro himself balks, unable, at last, to give rein to his inner demons which are, likewise, “the horrors of our culture writ large”:

Yet in the novels, as in the Gothic generally, the energies that give the world its potency can only [sic] be depicted as monstrous: they threaten that normality to which the books believe themselves to be committed. The impasse of the novels is the impasse of our culture. There are roads beyond it, but they lie necessarily outside the Gothic. To travel them would require a total rethinking of the ‘return of the repressed’ in positive terms. Firestarter, the most positive of all King’s novels and the least related to the Gothic genre, suggested that he was about to engage on just such an undertaking, though the subsequent novels have conspicuously withdrawn from it (310).
There are some places too deep and dark, it seems, for even King, and, if his fears are those of “our culture,” too deep and dark for the rest of us, too, which may be just as well, since only the fools among us would be likely to rush in where King fears to tread.


Alexander Jacoby said...

May I correct an error that recurs throughout your otherwise helpful commentary on this essay? The critic who wrote it is not Robin "Woods", but Robin Wood - from the 1960s until his death last year,one of the finest, subtlest and most perceptive of all film critics in the English language.

Gary L. Pullman said...

Thanks for the correction, Alexander.

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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