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” ), 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.