August 2009 Archives

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is universally considered a literary masterpiece, although at the time of its publication it received mixed reviews--editor John Drew notes that "its reception by critics anticipated the exaggerated hostility with which Dorian Gray would later be greeted" (Drew viii).  Today, many readers still debate the true meaning of the book, and question whether it should be included in the horror genre.  Indeed, the book's literary success may contribute to these questions of genre, fueling the debate concerning popular versus literary fiction.  Do an online search for Dorian Gray's genre and you will find it described as Gothic, philosophical, romantic, comedic, and even a treatise about aestheticism.  In terms of themes and tone, though, the novel definitely falls into the category of horror.

 

On its website, the Horror Writers Association states that "horror fiction has a rightful place in our educational system...classics like The Picture of Dorian Gray...can be labeled as horror" ("What is Horror Fiction?" par 9).  Of course, this claim does not prove that the book is horror, and even states that it "can be" labeled as horror--not that it "must be."

 

So perhaps the first question that should really be answered is: what is horror fiction?  The dictionary definition of horror is "inspiring or creating horror" or "an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting; a shuddering fear."  At the time of its publication, Dorian Gray was definitely shocking, and possibly revolting to the Victorian morals of the time.  The underlying homoeroticism and blatant hedonism was an affront on the values of society.  However, even today we can see that the tone of the novel is to shock its reader.  Indeed, while there is humor in the book, the underlying tone is one of menace, terror, and despair.

 

For example, in the story of Dorian's parentage we have "a beautiful woman risking everything for a mad passion...a child born in pain...the mother snatched away by death" (Wilde 38).  The fear of death and aging, a recurring theme in the book, is one of humanity's most universal fears.  Wilde often uses the language of horror throughout the book.  Upon seeing the effects his cruelty to Sybil have had on the painting, Dorian "drew a large screen right in front of the portrait, shuddering as he glanced at it.  'How horrible!'" (Wilde 81).  At the end of the book, when Dorian stabs the painting, the servants hear a "cry so horrible in its agony" that they are afraid to leave their rooms (Wilde 188).

 

Besides the language and emotion of horror, Dorian Gray also tackles themes common in horror fiction.  Noel Carroll asserts that "most suspense in horror fiction...has two logically opposed outcomes such that...one is morally correct but unlikely and the other is evil and likely" (138).  Gina Wisker discusses what she calls object horror, which "deeply destabilises (sic) our sense of security in terms of what is real, what matters, and what we can trust about ourselves and others" (186).  Dorian Gray deals with what is real versus what is unreal--is Dorian really immune to aging, with the portrait bearing the scars that should be marking his face and soul?  Is the damage physical, metaphysical, or both?  Dorian himself struggles with reality, falling in love with Sybil only to realize he was in love with the characters she portrayed on stage, not with her as a person.  The morally correct thing for Dorian to do is destroy the painting, but even at the end that outcome seems unlikely--Dorian's motivation is not to absolve himself of sin, but rather to "kill the past...kill this monstrous soul-life, and without its hideous warnings he would be at peace" (Wilde 188).

 

In its language and themes, Dorian Gray presents the best of what horror fiction can achieve--a work of art that still generates comment and debate today, more than a hundred years after its publication.

 

Works Cited

 

Carroll, Noel.  The Philosophies of Horror, or, Paradoxes of the Heart.  New York: Routledge, 1990.

Drew, John M. L. (editor).  The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.  Wordsworth Classics Edition.  Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1997.

"What is Horror Fiction?." Horror Writers Association. N. D.. Horror Writers Association. 24 Aug 2009 http://www.horror.org/horror-is.htm.

Wilde, Oscar.  The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Lisa M. Miller and Joan Langham, editors.  Clayton, DE: Prestwick House Literary Touchstone Press, 2005.

Wisker, Gina.  Horror Fiction: An Introduction.  New York: Continuum, 2005.

I See Homosexual People

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In her book Sexual Anarchy, Elaine Showalter contends that Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde is actually describing "the nearly hysterical terror of revealing forbidden emotions between men....a case study of male hysteria" (107).  She goes on to further state her case, citing the use of the word "queer" (112) and the way the "male homosexual body is also represented in the narrative in a series of images suggestive of anality and anal intercourse" (113).

Showalter's assertions are interesting, and should remind us as writers that while we may think we are just spinning a simple tale of multiple personality disorder, our readers will bring their own ideas to the story.  They may end up reading things we did not write, or may sense a subconscious subtext that, real or imagined, we did not intend to include.  However, in this case it seems that Showalter may be over-reaching in her analysis of the story.

First, Showalter begins by suggesting that the author may have been gay.  She writes that "Stevenson himself was the object of extraordinary passion on the part of other men" (107).  While she does go on to say that "Stevenson's real sexuality is much less the issue in Jekyll and Hyde" (107), she implies that the book is a way for him to explore his own conflicted personality and most secret desires.

Using this logic, however, Stephen King is (or at least wants to be) a mass-murderer, Jennifer Cruisie has had sex with legions of men (doubtful), and Mark Twain was a racist.  Likewise, even if the book is a discourse on homosexuality, it doesn't automatically follow that Stevenson was gay.

Showalter cites examples of the personification of homosexuality in Jekyll and Hyde--"Hyde travels in the 'chocolate-brown fog' that beats about the 'back-end of the evening'; while the streets he traverses are invariably 'muddy' and 'dark,' Jekyll's house, with its two entrances" (113) is, to Showalter, the most explicit example of a man's body.

Interestingly, I had never noticed these things before, but after the Showalter article I started seeing homosexual references everywhere.  Stevenson writes "the stick with which the deed had been done...was...rare...wood" (34).  When Utterson and Enfield encounter Dr. Jekyll at one point, they have a conversation where Utterson tells Jekyll "'You should be out whipping up the circulation like Mr. Enfield and me'" and Jekyll replies "'I should like to very much; but no, no, no, it is quite impossible; I dare not'" (Stevenson 52).  Near the end, "where Jekyll perhaps might have succumbed, Hyde rose to the importance of the moment" (Stevenson 95).

It is interesting how a work of fiction may have many interpretations, and how, once exposed to a certain point of view, the reader may begin to see evidence supporting that particular interpretation.  For example, some reviewers feel "the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde is also characterized as almost a father and son relationship, and reflects further ambivalence on Stevenson's part towards living in a house purchased for him by his father" (Danahay 129).  At the time of its publication, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was "quoted widely in sermons...as an example of the dangers of sin and vice" (Danahay 134).

So, is Stevenson's book rife with homosexual imagery?  In an effort to study reader expectations, I picked a sampling of books from my own shelf and inspected them for passages that could be construed as relating to homosexuality or the human body.  Here is what I found.  Charlotte Bronte swings both ways in Jane Eyre.  Early on the narrator says "to-night I was to be Miss Miller's bedfellow; she helped me to undress" (Bronte 42).  Later, though, Jane's attention turns to "Mr. Brocklehurst, buttoned up in a surtout, and looking loner, narrower, and more rigid than ever" (Bronte 59).

Despite Dumbledore's predilections, J K Rowling mostly focuses on hetero (if somewhat underaged) desires.  In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, "Hermione grimly" tells Harry to "'Watch your frog, it's escaping'" (Rowling 374).  Harry realizes too late that "he was indeed squeezing his bullfrog so tightly that its eyes were popping" (Rowling 375).  However, there are a few homosexual images, as Hermione has "suspected this ever since Filch accused you of ordering Dungbombs" (Rowling 374).

Even Elmore Leonard can not resist including homosexual images in his writing.  In Leonard's The Hot Kid we find this very revealing passage: "'Yeah, picking nuts. But he's always let me have my head'" (171).

Obviously, these examples are very contrived and almost (or extremely) silly.  However, they do prove that we as readers can inject almost any context we wish into a book, and then find the evidence to support our claims.  It is important to look at ourselves and our own prejudices when we are examining writing.  The danger of reading too much into a work is that we will be unable to convince others when we have valid points.  For example, while Showalter probably has many good and interesting ideas, I will view any literary criticism of hers with suspicion in the future.

Works Cited


Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Dover Thrift Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc., 2002. Print.

Danahay, Martin A. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. 2nd edition. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2005. Print.

Leonard, Elmore. The Hot Kid. Paperback. New York: Harper Collins, 2005. Print.

Rowling, J. K.. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Hardcover. New York: Scholastic Press, 2003. Print.

Showalter, Elaine. Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle. New York: Viking, 1990. Print.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Travels with a Donkey. Art-Type Edition. New York: Books, Inc., Unknown. Print.

The New Normal

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At the root of most psychological horror is the underlying premise of abnormality, and an exploration of how that abnormality comes to be.  While we read these stories and watch these movies to see an exploration of the depraved mind of "the other," are we hoping to discover what drives someone to commit such horrific acts?  This week, we read Ramsland's article "The Psychology of Horror and Fantasy."  She contends that horror allows us to escape our isolation, categorize our own thoughts and emotions, and provide a cathartic release for both author and reader.  These are interesting theories, and certainly worth considering.  But might psychological horror also be appealing because it explores one of our own deepest fears, the fear of being different?  Perhaps this style of horror fulfills our need to reassure ourselves that, even with all of our flaws, we aren't that crazy.

 

This week we read Edgar Allan Poe's classic horror story, "The Tell-Tale Heart."  It starts with this statement by the narrator: "...very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am, but why will you say that I am mad?"  It's interesting that Poe's storyteller is willing to admit to murder, but not to have the reader think that he (she?) is abnormal.

 

In America, we have a desire to be rugged individualists, while at the same time we spend much of our time (especially during the teen and early adult years) struggling to achieve conformity.  Psychologists have identified a disorder called "gelotophobia," which is fear of being laughed at.  At its worst, the disease can lead to "breaking out in a sweat, heart palpitations, trembling or simply freezing up" (Woolls).  In popular magazines like Cosmo Girl, Men's Fitness, and more there are advice columns dedicated to reassuring readers that they are not different--that they are, in fact, normal.

 

In "The Sandman" by Hoffmann, we find that the protagonist is "quite indignant that Clara did not admit the demon's existence outside his own mind."  Again, the character is most concerned with being labeled crazy.  In "Dread," Barker makes the villain Quaid's first foray into psychological mind games an effort to prove to Cheryl that she is normal, and like other normal people experiences dread and fear.

 

It's interesting that in all of the fiction we read this week, we have unreliable narrators who are revealed to be different or abnormal, either to us as the reader or to the other characters in the story.  This allows us to reassure ourselves that our definition of normality holds true, while also identifying the abnormality of such perpetrators of violence.  In our horror fiction, we want to be reassured that despicable actions are the result of some flaw in the system, and be reassured that we are not different, that we are normal.  Sometimes, though, being normal isn't such a good thing.

 

WORKS CITED

Woolls, Daniel. "Gelotophobia, No Laughing Matter." CBSNews.com. 09 July 2008. CBS Interactive Inc. 2 Aug 2009 <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/07/09/entertainment/main4245633.shtml>.

 

 

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