August 2009 Archives

The Hair Hoarder

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I am quite surprised that I am announcing that my blog post this week will not be about Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Since enrolling in Readings in the Genre:  Horror, I've been eagerly awaiting the two weeks which were to be devoted to reading The Picture of Dorian Gray.

However, after reading the assigned companion stories for this unit, I find myself eager to discuss "The Head of Hair" by Guy de Maupassant.  The key question I want to explore in this post is, "Did the hair really become the woman?"

At the very end of "The Head of Hair," the narrator who explores the case of the madman feels "the powerful temptation of something both disgusting and mysterious" (Maupassant 307).  This, for the first time, makes the reader realize that the plait of braided hair is more than just an instrument of a madman's delusions.  There is something mystical about this hair.

The Hair Hoarder, as I will call the madman, was a bit of an odd duck from the moment we first read about him in his diary.  We notice that he has more love for antique furniture than any woman.  We also see that he's afraid of death.  He says, "I am fascinated by the past and terrified by the present, because all that the future holds in store is death.  I long for everything that has already happened, I weep over those who have already lived.  If I could, I would stop the passage of time" (Maupassant 301).  This makes us, of course, doubt his sanity when the braid seems to spring to life.

Did the Hair Hoarder will this braid to life?  Did he make his own dreams come true?  Did obsession and want create this woman who was "tall, blonde, slightly plump, with cold breasts and hips shaped like a lyre?"  If he did, would he have imagined her with cold breasts?

Yet, when we realize the power of the braid through the man who observes the Hair Hoarder in his padded room, we begin to think that the hair might actually have sprung to life.  Would a man, fully aware that he was oddly obsessed with a lock of hair, be fooled by his own imaginings of a real woman?  Would he make up this blonde, buxom woman?

I'm still not sure about this.  Did Maupassant describe a specter that haunted men through a lock of her hair?  Or was he talking about one crazy man who fell in love with hair, who also happened to meet another crazy man who felt oddly attracted to this same lock of hair?

 

Guy De Maupassant, "The Head of Hair." (1884). From The Dedalus Book of French Horror. Ed. Terry Hale. England: Dedalus Books, 1998. 299-307.

I must admit that when I read the sixth chapter of Elaine Showalter's Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle, I went from intrigued to frustrated to utterly appalled.  Showalter's exploitation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in her chapter called "Dr. Jekyll's Closet" reminded me of juvenile interpretations I could see my XXXXXXXX creating while reading a work of literature.

Are my words harsh?  Probably.  Is my opinion justified?  Most likely.

By reducing Stevenson's descriptiveness of things like "A great chocolate colored pall..." (36) to "...images suggestive of anality and anal intercourse" (Showalter 113), she is both disrespectful of Stevenson's vision and insultingly stereotypical of homosexuals.

Why did Showalter feel she needed to read into things such as, "...the more it looks like Queer Street, the less I ask" (Stevenson 17)?  She insists that "the homosexual significance of 'queer' had entered English slang by 1900" (Showalter 112).  Yet, she fails to point out that The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was printed in 1885.  Could slang have been drifting around unnoted for 25 years?  Sure.  Is it more likely that Stevenson actually meant "queer" as strange or odd?  Yes.

A more logical approach to Stevenson's use of his descriptions of the color brown and references to back doors points to his view of the hidden or darkly evil side of human nature portrayed in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Why does Showalter not address the color imagery found elsewhere in the book?  Is she afraid that pointing out "An ivory-faced and silvery-haired old woman..." (Stevenson 37) will lend more to the visual perception of good versus evil?

Showalter also points to the close association of men as grounds for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde's hidden homosexual agenda (110-111).  She takes this community of men as proof of homosexual penchants.  Yet, these kinds of social preferences are nothing more than de rigueur for the time period in which Stephenson's tale is set.  In Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, the main characters mostly associate with other females.  Does this mean that Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are lesbians?  No.  It means that other than in certain social events, it was more likely and more acceptable for women to socialize with women and men to socialize with men.

If Showalter is to take this as a memoir of repressed homosexuality, then we, as readers must take it as a treatise against homosexuality.  Nothing good comes to those associated with Hyde, Showalter's homosexual representation of Jekyll.  It must be taken, then, that Stevenson is warning others against and scolding himself about homosexuality.  He must also be asserting that gay people are murderers and child-trampers, since those are actions of Hyde.

Instead of listening to Showalter's misguided beliefs, we should continue to view Stephenson's story as a cautionary tale about the dichotomy found in human nature.  Both good and evil reside in all of us (both hetero- and homosexual).  Where there is absence of one, there is absence of sanity.

 

 

Works Cited

 

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.

In Katherine Ramsland's "Psychology of Horror and Fantasy," Ramsland asserts that people read and watch horror and fantasy because they want to get away from their own personal feelings of isolation.  She states that it also makes us "humane."

I cannot support her thesis.  My reason for this is that liking horror is in itself a social act.  Readers flock to buy the newest Stephen King novel.  Teenagers thrive on swarming, in groups, to movie theaters to watch the fifteenth installment of the Saw franchise.  If the mere pulling away from "the demanding and equivocal isolation of being individuals" (Williamson 126) were what drove us to enjoy horror, then the same could be said about The Hangover (how many of us went to the flick with five of our closest friends?), the circus (don't we go on school trips there?) and church?  All of these things make us feel like part of a community while making us see our own humanity (laughter! elephants! religion!).  Ramsland, however, implies that this feeling is limited to horror and fantasy fiction.

If Ramsland is wrong, then, why do people enjoy horror?  People enjoy horror because it shows that they have finally overcome the demons they had as children.

No time in life (assuming you live a relatively normal, horror-free existence) is as horrific as childhood.  Think back to your own childhood.  What were you afraid of?  Strangers? The dark?  Monsters under your bed?

In my own life, I can recall one very specific and terrifying event.  For about 48 hours, a local radio station broadcast one single statement, "Beware, it's coming."  This was said in a loud, rough voice with ominous music playing in the background.  As a 5 or 6 or 7 year old, I thought that this meant aliens were coming to earth and were going to kill us all.  I didn't sleep for two nights.  Then, after 48 hours of sheer terror, it was discovered that the radio station was changing over to a new talk radio/pop music format.

Looking back now, I see how silly and innocent I was.  Just think, I thought aliens were going to destroy the earth!  I'm now a far cry from that child.  I wouldn't be scared like that anymore, yet part of that fear remains.  Just like part of your fear remains.  Do you still shy away from strangers on the street?  Do you still shudder when the electricity goes off and you can't see?  Do you still cringe when you hear an unexpected noise come from your closet?

When we read horror novels, we are saying that those demons from our childhood can't affect us anymore.  Take for example, the stories, "The Sandman," "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "Dread."  Each of these stories deals with things that children fear.

How many children have been scared by tales that the Sandman is coming if they don't go to bed?  As adults, those scared children realize that the Sandman was nothing more than a tool used by parents who want their children to sleep (whether it's the scary one of ETA Hoffman's creation or The Chordettes' dream maker).  However, adults still remember that fear, and they shudder thinking about what if the Sandman were real.  In "The Sandman," that fear came true, and ended up killing the very person haunted by the Sandman.

Other children probably lived in fear of getting caught for doing something bad.  Perhaps they broke their mother's vase or kicked their sisters in the shins.  In the case of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," what is the protagonist afraid of?  He (she) is afraid of getting caught by the police for a very bad deed.

Some children are even afraid of clowns.  Many birthday parties were spent in tears because of it.  Now imagine Clive Barker's "Dread."  This time the "clown" isn't wielding flowers that squirt water, he's wielding an ax!

All these things terrified us as children.  That terror, though lessened, still lingers in the back of our minds (I'm predisposed to thinking that aliens, if they exist, are evil and want to destroy the world).  We read horror to reinforce that we don't need to be scared of those things anymore.

Laurell K. Hamilton recently gave an interview to Entertainment Weekly (issue 1059).  She was asked why vampires were appealing.  She responded "It's a way to be very scared... and still be safe.  You're sitting in your favorite chair, with hot cocoa, and when you close the book, your world is still there.  You're safe."

Much like we ran to our parents' bedroom to sleep or had our dads shine flashlights under the bed to prove there were no monsters, we use books to soothe us.  Closing that books says, "Don't worry, it was all make believe!  The world is normal and you're safe."

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