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Friday, July 13, 2018

D. H. Lawrence's "The Snake": A Template for Chthonian Horror Fiction

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

Although it was not D. H. Lawrence's intention to provide such a paradigm in his poem “The Snake,” he offers a template for a type of horror fiction of which we have seen but little in the past few hundred years and see even less today.

The poem recounts the encounter of a man and a snake at a “water trough” at which each has come to drink. Although the “water-trough” may symbolize the source of life, since water often represents life, the speaker of the poem considers the trough to be his: “A snake came to my water-trough” (emphasis added).

Certainly, he or another human being built the trough through which the water runs, but the water itself is provided by nature; the man owns this resource no more than the snake does. Besides, the snake has no concept of personal property; the trough is to it no more than the bed of a creek through which water runs. From an objective, disinterested point of view, the notion of “my water-trough” is absurd. Seen against such a perspective, the speaker's first-person point of view is arbitrary, an attitude he imposes upon nature, rather than an aspect of reality itself.

The snake wears only its own skin, but the speaker of the poem is dressed in his “pajamas,” his clothing, like his notion of personal property (and, indeed, his first-person point of view), further distinguishing him from the snake. He is also removed from the world inhabited by the snake by the “pitcher” he carries, having brought it to transport water from the trough to his house. The snake, incapable of the technology required to fashion a pitcher and unable to plan or prepare for the future, lives in the moment, drinking only when it is thirsty and water is available. The speaker's ability to anticipate and prepare for the satisfaction of future needs shows that, unlike the snake, he is not wholly defined and limited by nature.

The trough is located “in the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob tree.” The adjectives Lawrence uses, “deep, strange-scented,” “great,” and “dark,” suggest the speaker's sense of separation from the natural world: it is strange and mysterious; it is also “great,” or vast. He is both part of, and transcendent to, the natural world, situated both in and beyond nature. The part of him that is above nature is both awed at, and amazed by, the snake, a creature fully immersed in the natural world.

Both the appearance and the movement of the snake are alien and fascinating to the speaker of the poem:

He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body, Silently.

Lawrence's description of the snake allows readers both to “see” the snake and to appreciate its otherness. It neither looks nor behaves in any way remotely human; it is altogether a creature different from human beings, strange, mysterious, sinuous, and alarming to behold.

The speaker compares the snake with cattle, but the comparison soon fails, as the snake's behavior and appearance, once again, defies the contents of everyday human experience, as is suggested by the latter half of the stanza in which the untenable comparison is offered:

He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.

The reference to Etna, a volcano that, for the time being, is dormant, but which, as its smoke suggests, could erupt at any moment, suggests that nature is an unpredictable force with which to be reckoned. The snake, which the poem associates with the volcano, is likewise unpredictable and potentially dangerous—all the more so because it is nonhuman.

The speaker, an animal that has attained consciousness and self-awareness, is part of nature, but, at the same time, transcendent to the natural world. “The voice” of his “education,” representing the beliefs and teachings of culture, tells him the snake “must be killed.” However, a change has occurred in the speaker's perception of the snake. It is not merely an animal to him now, but a fellow creature; he refers to the snake not as an “it,” but as “he”: “He must be killed.” This shift in perception shows that the speaker, for the moment, at least, recognizes the snake as an equal: like the snake, the speaker himself is a part of nature.

The line, “For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous” indicates that the speaker is educated; his culture has the knowledge, and has transmitted it to him, by which to distinguish between harmless, nonvenomous and deadly, venomous snakes. This knowledge, as relayed to the speaker by the “voice” of his “education,” sets him apart from, and puts him at odds with, the snake, despite his own inclusion among it and other animals, as a part of the natural world. Again, he is both in and beyond nature. He shares the natural world with the snake, but the snake cannot share with him his consciousness and his “education,” which separate them. This is the speaker's dilemma, and it is the poem's major source of conflict.

As “a man,” his culture states that it is his duty to “take a stick and break him [the snake] now, and finish him off.” The speaker does not deny that he has such a duty, but, at the same time, he admits that he likes the snake, finding the reptile a welcome visitor, or “guest.” The continued personification of the snake shows that the speaker continues to regard it as a fellow being, equal, in the world of nature, at least, to himself. The snake is neither a beast, nor an enemy, but a “guest.” Part of the speaker's appreciation of the snake also seems to come from the creature's “thankless” departure after having slaked its thirst. It has no sense of gratitude; it merely takes what it needs. Gratitude, like the concepts of propriety and personal property, are strictly human notions or, one might say, affectations.

The speaker's refusal to heed the “voice” of his “education” causes him to question his motive in having done so: “Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?/ Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?/ was it humility, to be so honoured” by the snake's visit? Instead of an answer, the questions end in an affirmation: “I felt so honoured.” The “voices” (plural now, for the first time, echoing not merely education, perhaps, but also human society itself) are not silenced by the speaker's admission; they persist, saying, “If you were not afraid, you would kill him!” The charge elicits a confession: “And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid.” His fear, however, is only part of the reason for his defying the demands of culture and its voice. “education,” for he remains “honoured/ That he should seek my hospitality/ from out the dark door of the secret earth.”

In ModernPainters (1843-1860), John Ruskin coins the term “pathetic fallacy,” defining it as the “poetic practice of attributing human emotion or responses to nature, inanimate objects, or animals.” Certainly, Lawrence's speaker commits this fallacy, as he projects his own sentiments onto the snake, personifying it according to how he sees it, so that it embodies and expresses his own feelings and attitudes. Although this practice is as old as poetry itself, Ruskin saw its overuse as “the mark of an inferior poet.” If so, not only Lawrence, but such celebrated poets as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, among others, are “inferior poets.” Another possibility is that such personification may be used for rhetorical purposes, creating an ironic point of view, for example, that contrasts human experience, especially as it is shaped and influenced by education, society, and culture, with the natural human condition exclusive of such influences, which seems to be Lawrence's purpose in using this approach in “The Snake.”

Unconcerned with such matters as those which concern the speaker, the snake, a creature motivated only by stimulus and response, its innate inner drive for equilibrium, and its inborn instinct for survival, takes its leave after slaking its thirst. In departing, the snake appears to the speaker as a “god.” Modern readers wonder, perhaps, in what way a snake could seem a “god” (although people in earlier times knew full well the numinous quality of the serpent). “Now his back was turned,” the speaker finds his courage, as the snake's withdrawal into the “horrid black hole” from whence it had come horrifies him. The snake's origin, like its appearance and movement, appall the man:

And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned. 

Its return to “the blackness” of the “horrid black hole” repels the speaker, the nature of the serpent's domicile emphasizing the vast difference between the reptile and the man, who exchanges one tool of civilization, his pitcher, for another, a weapon: he throws” a clumsy log . . . at the water-trough.” Its “clatter” startles the snake, hastening its departure, as it convulses “in undignified haste.” Immediately, the speaker feels “petty” for his having committed a “paltry . . . vulgar . . . mean act,” and detests himself and “the voices of [his] accursed human education.”

He thinks of the albatross in Samuel Coleridge's poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The ancient mariner, visited by an albatross during a lull of the ocean wind, shoots the bird, supposing it has portended the cessation of the wind, which leaves his ship stranded at sea. As a result, spirits pursue the ship, driving the vessel off course. The crew hang the dead bird around the ancient mariner's neck to punish him for having killed the bird. It is only when, after his crew dies and he is left alone, to live in a state of death, forced to travel the world and tell his tale, that the ancient mariner is able to pray and blesses the creatures of the deep, whereupon the albatross falls from his neck. The speaker of Lawrence's poem sees, in his own act of hurling the log at the snake, a reflection of the mean act of the ancient mariner, who shot the blameless albatross. The speaker's humanity has prompted him to behave in an inhospitable, inhumane manner. Having “missed [his] chance with one of the lords/ Of life,” he feels he has “something to expiate:/ A pettiness.”

Lawrence's poem provides a template for chthonian horror, a subgenre of which we have seen but little in the past and see even less today. The word “chthonian” refers to the underworld. In early Greek mythology, the gods of the underworld, the chthonian deities, were opposite to, and sometimes opposed, the Olympian divinities. Later, this opposition declined as the personalities of the gods were developed, and they began to exhibit qualities once associated only or primarily with their counterparts. However, the gods of the underworld retained their association with subterranean abodes and with death.

The speaker of “The Snake” refers to the reptile as a “god,” and the poem makes it clear that the snake's habitat is subterranean. In this sense, the serpent is of a chtonian nature. It is “dark” and mysterious, venomous and deadly, and at odds with the transcendent rationality and historical continuity of the speaker as a member of the human species, whose education links him to humanity's past. As such, the snake is typically regarded as a threat that is best eliminated. 

Although the term “chthonian” is often linked with H. P. Lovecraft's so-called Cthulhu Mythos, it also refers to the underworld deities of ancient Greek mythology and to the sea monsters of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, among many other earlier works, which shows that Lovecraft's fiction is not the word's only, or even its primary, referent. Likewise, the term's use to refer to the sea serpents in Coleridge's poem and to the serpent in Lawrence's poem indicates that “chthonian” need not allude only to divinities.

In further defining the term, we might suggest that its meaning includes:

  • traditional elements of the horror genre
  • a reference to a physical underworld (e. g., the Greeks' Hades, the Norse's Hel, Coleridge's ocean depths, Christianity's hell);
  • possible symbolic significance (e. g., the Freudian or Jungian unconscious, irrationality, madness, non-being, spiritual death);
  • the effects of wanton cruelty, wrongdoing, or sin;
  • the so-called fleshly, or natural, aspects of human existence, including animality, as opposed to the transcendent aspects of human existence (e. g., consciousness, intelligence, will, autonomy);
  • non-cultural influences upon human beings (e. g., genetics, instincts);
  • a potentially threatening quality or attribute; and
  • its being as the integral, vital, pervasive, and predominant core of the narrative as a whole.

By this definition, Neil Marshall's 2005 horror movie The Descent, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's 1997 horror novel Reliquary, and James Rollins's 1999 horror novel Subterranean are relatively recent chthonian works, since they depend upon an underworld setting which influences and determines every aspect and element of their respective stories. By contrast, Mitchell Lichtenstein's horror movie Teeth contains elements of the chthonian (Dawn O'Keefe's visits to the cave), as does the Gordon Douglas's 1954 Them!, a feature film that is about equal parts science fiction picture and monster movie (the concluding scene of which occurs inside a tunnel), but these sequences are only scenes,and, although the scenes may be integral and vital to the stories, they are not the pervasive and predominant cores of the entire narratives. (See my post, “A Descent into the Horros of Extreme Feminism” for an analysis of the Descent as a chthonian film. In addition, my post, “Plotting a Horror Story as a Mystery” discusses the movie Them!)

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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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