Wednesday, June 6, 2007

H.P. Lovecraft and the Personal Apocalypse of "Young Goodman Brown"

Nathaniel Hawthorne's seminal short story "Young Goodman Brown" is in some ways horribly ham-handed and fraught with obvious metaphor.

But at deeper psychological levels, the tale is a frightening meditation. While utterly reflective of the post-Puritan period in which it was written, if subjected to further examination "Young Goodman Brown" is shockingly modern -- and even hauntingly forward-thinking.

"Goodman Brown" is groundbreaking in terms of both its place in the history of the American short story and for its still-powerful vision of a personal apocalypse, the tale of a man who finds all that he once took for granted to be false, a fore-tremor of the cosmic-level terrors of Poe, Lovecraft and those who come after.

The story concerns Brown's encounter with supernatural forces in the woodlands near witch-haunted Salem. Whether the spectral sabbat Brown attends is a phantasmagorical dream or stark, hideous reality is never firmly established. In the latter part of the tale, Brown admits the ambiguity of the event, as does Hawthorne himself as the voice of the narrator.

But the effect of the daemonic visions upon Brown and his psyche is permanent and deleterious:
"And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave...they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom."

With a wife named "Faith," Hawthorne's tale of Brown's meeting with the devil contains some fairly obvious allegory and deliberate moralizing:

"Faith kept me back a while," Brown says to the mysterious, demonic figure that resembles both his own father and certain traditional depictions of the devil. He is late. Perhaps too late because he has chosen to meet his midnight guide at all.

Later, he sees an old woman who taught him his catechism (1), heading off to the sabbat. He thrills with horror to hear this once-venerated mentor and the devil discussing things almost insensibly horrific, including the blasphemous ingredients of the witches' flying ointment.

"What if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil when I thought she was going to heaven: is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith and go after her?" he asks.

The story is full of such asides, with Brown's wife eventually swept up by the Satanic throng in perhaps his ultimate moment of terror and pain. It is never actually revealed whether Faith accepts her seeming dark destiny, but to Brown, she, and what she represents, is already lost:

"My Faith is gone!" cried he, after one stupefied moment. "There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given."

As the story progresses, Brown comes to understand that all of the "good" people he has admired, and all of the bad ones he has attempted to not be like, are all given over to the devil, from simple townsfolk to clergymen to the land's highest authorities:

"Wickedness or not," the devil says, "I have a very general acquaintance here in New England. The deacons of many a church have drunk the communion wine with me; the selectmen of divers towns make me their chairman; and a majority of the Great and General Court are firm supporters of my interest. The governor and I, too--But these are state secrets."

Whether the visit to the sabbat is real or illusory, Satan triumphs. His world utterly shattered, his hope gone, Goodman Brown descends into a life of quiet agony, becoming "stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man:"

"On the Sabbath day, when the congregation were singing a holy psalm, he could not listen because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear and drowned all the blessed strain. When the minister spoke from the pulpit with power and fervid eloquence, and, with his hand on the open Bible, of the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable, then did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer and his hearers. Often, awaking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith; and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away. And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom."

Lovecraft, in his still well-read essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature," has this to say about Hawthorne's own Saturnine nature:

"Evil, a very real force to Hawthorne, appears on every hand as a lurking and conquering adversary; and the visible world becomes in his fancy a theatre of infinite tragedy and woe, with unseen half-existent influences hovering over it and through it, battling for supremacy and moulding the destinies of the hapless mortals who form its vain and self-deluded population."

There is more than a passing debt to the tone and character of Hawthorne in some of Lovecraft's own tales, such as "Dreams in the Witch-House," and a definite nod to the author's family in the following section:

He knew his room was in the old Witch-House - that, indeed, was why he had taken it. There was much in the Essex County records about Keziah Mason's trial, and what she had admitted under pressure to the Court of Oyer and Terminer had fascinated Gilman beyond all reason. She had told Judge Hathorne of lines and curves that could be made to point out directions leading through the walls of space to other spaces beyond, and had implied that such lines and curves were frequently used at certain midnight meetings in the dark valley of the white stone beyond Meadow Hill and on the unpeopled island in the river. She had spoken also of the Black Man, of her oath, and of her new secret name of Nahab. Then she had drawn those devices on the walls of her cell and vanished.

According to the Web site, Justice John Hathorne, Hawthorne's paternal great-great-grandfather, is "best known ... as the 'witch judge' as he was a magistrate of the Court of Oyer and Terminer and the chief interrogator of the accused witches in the Salem witchcraft hysteria of 1692."

What is interesting to the readers of both men is how much "Young Goodman Brown" presages much of Lovecraftian fiction. Of particular interest is Brown's encounter with reality-shattering truth.

One can argue that his madness stems from the general hysteria against witchery that gripped Salem, and that would be a perfectly modern, psychological evaluation of the story(2). A true visitation from evil is an equally valid possibility, and Hawthorne wisely leaves the reader to decide.

As Lovecraft himself writes in "The Tomb:"

"Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal."

Whether the events are empirically true or merely a dream, Hawthorne's tale is one of a genuine personal apocalypse, an utter unhinging of Brown's personal perceptions of himself, his neighbors and his wife, much akin to the terrible price of knowledge that later becomes de rigeur in Lovecraft's own fiction and the popularized "Cthulhu Mythos"-tinged stories that follow. Goodman Brown's world is forever changed, the once-simple joy of his young life and the purity of his love for Faith -- what she symbolizes and her physical embodiment -- forever turned toward darkness and quiet misery.

(1) An interesting aside: According to, "catechumen," in the early church, "was the name applied to one who had not yet been initiated into the sacred mysteries, but was undergoing a course of preparation for that purpose."

(2) For one such example, see

Monday, June 4, 2007

Population 436 (Film Review)

Full of traditional tropes, Population 436 is a somewhat muddled, largely cliche-ridden film that manages a bit of charm despite its overall disappointing experience.

The narrative focuses on the mysterious goings-on in the little town of Rockwell Falls.

Much is cribbed from Shirley Jackson's far superior take on this sort of story, "The Lottery:" Perfect little town, sort of a timeless place, but there's a powerful price the residents pay for their bliss and idyllic lifestyle -- one paid in blood.

So, by now you've guessed the sort of tale we're spinning here. The twist is that the population has maintained a perfect number of 436 since the place was rebuilt after a fire, a fact that attracts the attention of the U.S. Census Bureau. They send their man, Steve Kady (played by Jeremy Sisto, best known for his turn as Billy Chenowith in the late and lamented Six Feet Under), to check it out.

Mysterious deaths -- and arrivals, either in the form of births or new faces -- keep the population at a constant 436, a "perfect" number determined through some sort of pseudo-kabbalistic system divined by the gent who refounded the town 100 years ago.

The residents believe that God himself punishes those who try to leave with the "fever," a malady that only the local doctor knows how to quell.

The biggest problem is that the film is its predictability, the only question being will Kady, and the little girl he soon decides to rescue, make it out or not.

There's the regular ending and an alternate ending, and I don't consider it a spoiler to say both possibilities are covered.

Overall, there's too little explanation about the whole 436 business, which is unfortunate.

There's some sort of malarkey about how if you stay overnight, then you're considered part of the town. This explains some obvious questions, such as why every UPS driver and grocery deliveryman isn't drawn into the darkness.

There's also mention of some sort of dark stranger that came to the community in the past, busted its then-perfect 436 population, and started spreading sin and wickedness. The "great fire" was the supposed punishment for such transgressions.

This potentially vital bit of history is only mentioned once and never delved into again. It feels like an utterly undeveloped, throwaway premise -- a shame because this background could have enriched the story greatly.

Other issues abound.

A woman is shown, quite pregnant. The narrative, in fact, begins with a birth.

It begs the question of how births and deaths are regulated, since they would have to be. I figured the doctor was some sort of abortionist, but they didn't go there.

All of this stems from pure logic: When every accidental pregnancy means someone in the population has to die in exchange, there has to be some way to make sure you're not killing off all the adults at a dangerous rate.

The number of children allowed to a couple, and the frequency with which they are allowed, would have to be tightly controlled if only to ensure the preservation of certain skill sets

This is partially explained by a regular festival ala "The Lottery," dependent on the population, in which one person is doomed to die when the total hits 437. Random lots are chosen to see who will get the axe.

The process answers some questions, but doesn't satisfy others.

A predictable love triangle rounds out the mix of easily-augured components. Kady, the outsider, almost immediately attracts the interest of a local pretty young thing, a favorite of a Rockwell Falls sheriff's deputy. A conflict is inevitable.

There's also a subplot with a missing family that's just too hokey for words.

All this said, I didn't hate the film. There's enough creepiness to make it fun and plenty of screamingly-silly dialogue and plot points to keep you at least giggling.

The sad thing is that there's the nascent seed of a really good movie in here, and all it would take is a bit more background and a touch more care with the plot.


Mission Statement (Of Sorts)

The vast majority of these writings will be devoted to literature, with a few good bits about various films I see from time to time thrown in for good measure.

Said writings will include:

- Reviews.
- Essays.
- Philosophical meanderings on the nature of horror and the "fun" of being scared.
- Whatever else strikes my fancy.

I encourage and appreciate feedback. Drop me a line and let me know you're reading and what you want to see more of here.


Sunday, June 3, 2007

Bunnicula (repost)

"Bunnicula" was a book I must have read a million times when I was a kid, the tale of an intrepid dog, a paranoid, conspiracy-minded cat and a strange little rabbit that drained veggies dry.

It spawned several sequels and several other books in a related series, also being featured as an ABC cartoon special one Saturday morning. I remember seeing the animated version and blissing out as some of my favorite characters come to "life." That and the ABC Saturday adaptation of "The Trouble With Miss Switch," another of my favorite for-kids spooky tales, represented a real highlight of my young existence.

Bunnicula did more to shape my early character than just about any other book I read. More than Poe, more than Lovecraft, more than M.R. James, Ambrose Bierce and Algernon Blackwood, more than Robert Bloch, Clarke Ashton Smith and dozens of dozens of other "weird fiction" writers. Heck, I'm tempted to go buy the boxed set on Amazon right now.

If you have kids, it's a great read. If you don't, it's still a great read, chock full of enough humorous asides meant just for adults to be highly entertaining no matter how old you are.

I grew up next to a curious neighbor who had a fantastic (I never knew how much so until later) collection of arcana on a variety of paranormal topics. I remember going over to his house and asking if the book on vampirism that Chester used as his primary source was in his collection. He was rather amused, but alas -- the book is fiction, as far as I know. ;) Still, if anyone would have been able to produce a copy before a young boy's wondering eyes, Marvin was probably the best candidate.

The Haunting (repost)

I have started working out, and to pass the the time I listen to audiobooks. One I have recently chosen is an unabridged audio performance of Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House."

"Hill House," adapted into a famous 1963 film version directed by Robert Wise and an utterly abysmal remake in 1999, is, I will argue, one of the greatest ghost stories ever penned. The 1963 black and white film stands as well as one of the best ghost stories ever put to film. You should watch it.

Shirley Jackson was a wonderful narrativist. You probably encountered her somewhere along the way for her short story, "The Lottery," in which a seemingly idyllic town harbors a dark secret.

But "Hill House" is a bonafide masterpiece, a tense, deeply psychological, visceral read that gets its hooks into you and refuses to let go. Some of it is dated. Doesn't matter. It is the music of Jackson's language that draws you in, lets you hear, see, touch, feel, and even taste the dark essence of Hill House, a house "born bad," a brooding pile that some think should be burned to the ground -- and the earth sown with salt.

There is great ambiguity in the story. Is Eleanor, the primary protagonist, crazy? Or is the spiral into madness and despair she experiences the plan of something hidden and sinister? What, exactly, haunts Hill House? Is the house itself in some manner alive?

We never truly know, and that makes the tale all the more frightening.

The richness of Jackson's language is extreme. Here is the famous opening from the book:

"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."

The inexorable feeling of dread persists throughout the work, building to an in some ways inevitable conclusion. It is, in a word, wondrous. The story also makes use of several of the conventions of fairy tales, and there is a dreamlike quality to the writing style throughout.

Tonight, I listened to a famous scene in which the supernatural seems to manifest in the house in such a manner that the house -- or whatever lies within -- separates the party of four paranormal investigators within. It is a breathtaking sequence, made somehow all the more real and potent by the fact that it is being spoken, the words echoing through the cathedral chambers of my skull and reverberating up and down my spine.

The scene started as I was winding down, and so I took the moment to sit and listen intently as it unfolded.

In our workout room, the windows are tinted. But for some reason, the tint was applied backward, which means that you can see in perfectly from the outside but that you can't really see out as well while you are in. It is in some ways an unnerving arrangement on a good night, and a night in Hill House ... well, let's just say I was rather careful leaving.

Still listening to the recording, I walked outside. A chill night wind blew up, rattling the springtime leaves, and a setting moon, a ruddy orange hanging among the post-midnight blue, dominated my gaze. The wind followed me home, and the dew that formed on the grass glittered like curious, cast-off jewels, a road to fairyland of much the sort Eleanor often fancies finding in her journey to Hill House.

I made it home. My cat emerged from the bedroom, intent on going outside. But he hesitated at the open door and then eventually turned away. In time, he ventured out, but even then his footsteps were measured and light.

"Hill House" is a work of unusual and affecting power. If nothing else, treat yourself to the 1963 film adaptation. But if you want a real treat, read -- or listen to -- the novel. It is well worth reading, and well worth revisiting.

Now, whatever walks here ... is going to bed.

In the night. In the dark.

This will be a home for my writings on the horror genre.