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On Enigma

For the last few days, I’ve been taking medicine for an ear infection I suddenly developed. It’s not completely clear what caused the infection: contamination of the water in the pool where I swim is possible, but it’s just as likely that it’s a side effect of a particular asthma medication I’ve been taking. In any case, it’s not completely resolved, but it is a lot better than it was… yesterday, I was worried my eardrum might burst from the pressure, but today it’s almost normal again. (On the one side, at least.)

Anyway, as a result, I’ve been unable to practice saxophone or swim since last Thursday. I’ve gotten a fair bit of writing done, but like anyone who suddenly finds themselves ill, I did a fair bit of lying there, doing by best to try ignore the terrifyingly mounting pain in my middle ear, and relying on movies for distraction.

Which movies? Well, I’ve started tracking films I’ve watched over on LetterBoxD, for now, with short reviews. I like the interface and like the challenge of trying to write up little capsule reviews of what I thought about each film. If I find myself simply logging films watched I may not continue, but it’s the film-tracking social site I like best at the moment; my only wish is that poster images for the films would embed in the RSS feed that I’m mirroring in the sidebar here. (Way down near the bottom of the sidebar.)

But I’ve focused on horror movies, since Mrs. Jiwaku doesn’t like watching those too often, and–driven by recently reading some of Thomas Ligotti’s work–because I’m kind of trying to solidify (and answer) some questions in my own mind… about enigma.


Anyway, the film I found most interesting to think about was the 2011 Australian project titled The Tunnel.

The movie is labeled as “Viral” because it was originally marketed as a free-to-download release, which turned out to be a pretty smart move given the results they seem to have gotten.

I’ve been looking at RPG resources online. Among all the stuff I read today, before watching the Tunnel, was this fascinating post, which reminds me of what I used to try to do, back when I was DMing as a teenager:

The fays of Legend are not the elves and dwarves of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or of Dungeons & Dragons. For one thing, they are rare. The people of Legend believe in elves and dwarves, but they don’t expect ever to meet one. They hope never to meet one, put it that way. Because they are rare, there is misinformation about them; conflicting stories. And because this is Legend, those conflicting stories may all be true. Logic sits in the corner without a dance partner, disapproving and ignored.

But what are fays, or faerie folk? They are the degenerate remnants of pagan nature spirits whose power has sapped away with the coming of the True Faith. As nature spirits, they take their form and their nature from the living landscape. In forests they are shadowy, agile, willowy. In mountains they are squat and strong as barrels. Out on the moors they are gnarled, spiteful and dank-breathed. You can call those elves and dwarves and goblins, but to the creatures themselves the terms would seem irrelevant. No doubt they do see themselves as distinct from each other, but the urge to fit things into categories is not part of a fay’s outlook. Referring to them as species like that means even less than the concept of race among humans.

As you travel about Legend, you’ll encounter local beliefs in the faeries just as you might have done in Cornwall or the Scottish Highlands not so very long ago. When a Cornumbrian tells you of mischievous pookas and an Erewornian tells you of murderous redcaps, the nature of the creature they are describing may simply be the vernacular penchant of the fays, shaped by countryside and weather and the attitudes of mortals.

More often, though, the talk in taverns is of a specific local fay: Long Lankin or Old Ned or Jack Hollyshoes. No two are exactly alike. A hobgoblin is just a goblin that nearly did for you. There’s no such thing as a genome we can use to pin down their faerie lineage. If you want to GM them properly, you can put that rulebook away for a start.

The point being that players, who may have flipped through your !MonsterManual, know the skills and stats for the average kobold, or goblin, or wood elf, or  whatever. But in reality, what would it be like to run across, say, a Jenny Greenteeth?

My first encounter with Jenny Greenteeth was in this image, in a certain Time Life book.

Well, watching The Tunnel, I got the sense that the way the film played out is exactly what it would be like if modern people were to encounter a Jenny Greenteeth, or some other predatory fae river hag. They don’t know what to call it, they don’t know how to deal with it or protect themselves from it.

The thing they meet, down in the abandoned, flooded subway tunnel isn’t a Jenny Greenteeth, it isn’t a river hag: it’s just an unspeakable enigma, a terrifying thing in the dark, a primordial, feral force embodied with its own full complement of rage, territorial instinct, a set of claws, and a pair of eyes that don’t glow in the dark, but show up on the camera’s night-vision view.

Which is far more terrifying than running into “a river hag” with a certain number of hit dice, or even just a creature with a name and a folk-history. I think this might be part of why horror films are so ineffective now: we all know how ghosts work, so we end up with screenwriters and authors either trying to particularize individuals’ encounters with supernatural beings (as in use characterization of the humans involved to inject drama into the story, as in The Innkeepers), or to try a new take on them (as in The Pact). Neither approach seems to me particularly effective.

They seem to me to be less effective specifically because they seem to constitute attempted workarounds on that loss of mystery, when the real answer to that problem is to (as Ezra Pound would put it) “make it new”–to take the ancient thing and revivify it in some way. Jeremy Harte’s 1998 essay “Dark Green – Some Disturbing Thoughts about Faeries” does some interesting work in tracing the lineage of takes on horror, gods, and supernatural beings–from Machen to Lovecraft–back to folkloric (and fae) roots. A long, but pertinent, excerpt:

… the occult search itself often feels as if it were an image of something else–particularly in Machen, whose narratives are charged with a fearful yet enticing mystery, a vile degrading secret, that is somehow a very physical secret. In short–and after all, this is the 1890s–he is playing with ideas of sexuality. Not that this explains everything. The descent into the fairy’s hole is more than an oblique reference to sex, and in any case our great-grandparents can hardly have been as mixed up over the whole business as this suggests, or we wouldn’t be here today. But there are certainly key emotions associated with sexuality which for Machen lie at the heart of the mystery, and his Little People are, among other things, the demon partners of the Sabbath. This becomes yet more disturbing, especially for the modern reader, when the story centres on a child. The girl in The White People is being coached in odd, slightly repellent games by a trusted adult, who takes advantage of her innocence. In this way she is initiated – into magic, as it happens; but it could easily be an initiation of the other sort.

Revulsion can take many forms. John Buchan – who wouldn’t have recognised a sexual sub-text if it rose up and hit him – speaks repeatedly of the horrors of being close to his Folk, of being touched by them. They are an ancient, degenerate race, and it is this that both panics and excites the hero, in a way that adds emotional stimulus to an otherwise naturalistic narrative. It is clear that the beauty of the clean Scots moors is being violated by the presence, hidden underground, of deformed natives. If there is imagery of sex and the body here, it is mediated at second hand through the much more powerful language of nationalism and racial purity. The nation is a body whose recesses are being contaminated by the presence of unclean things, things that ought to have stayed in the remote past or, failing that, the Colonies. For many years archaeologists had been thrilling their readers with the idea that here – in Hampstead, Hove and other unlikely places – primitive man had once capered and shrieked in his cannibal orgies. That was all safely long ago. But what if it were not? When Grant Allen’s hero sees what lies in the old barrow his first thought is that ‘they were savages, yet they were ghosts. The two most terrible and dreaded foes of civilised experience seemed combined at once in them’.

This is the deep horror behind the many horrors of H.P. Lovecraft. He writes of archaic, monstrous inhabitants of wild places, found in caverns beneath the hills and among the stone circles which crown the hills of New England – Lovecraft’s New England, at any rate. Something can be gleaned of their nature from local folklore, and they are eager celebrants at the rites held on those hills around the bonfires of May Eve – a night when people disappear, and are not seen again. So far we are on familiar ground: Lovecraft, like Grant Allen, has obligingly left a paper trail of references to earlier works, and The Great God Pan and The Witch-Cult in Western Europe are among them.

But it is racial decay which forms the mainspring of his tales. The villagers in The Dunwich Horror have sunk into a sordid stew of imbecility, perversity and disgrace: even so, they are a cut above the witch Whateleys, whose intercourse with strange things on the hills has bred a half-human youngster with an unhealthy interest in the Necronomicon . In The Shadow Over Innsmouth , the townsfolk have degenerated so far that they are intermediate between man and fish. The voodoo worshippers in The Call of Cthulhu are a low type of mongrels, mentally aberrant, and easily captured as they cavort naked between a blazing bonfore and the corpses of their victims. There is a peculiarly American spin to all this. Lovecraft cannot decide which he dreads more, cross-breeding with the blacks, or inbreeding among the whites who, left behind in the westward march of progress, have got themselves mixed up with old Indian traditions.

There is a great deal in The Call of Cthulhu which simply follows the anthropological ideas of the time. Sir James Frazer would have seen nothing odd in collating traditions from the West Greenland coast, a ritual practised in the swamps of Louisiana, and carvings on a Pacific island to make some point about primitive man. The results, admittedly, would have surprised him: but the idea of interpreting the early history of the race through archaic survivals was not new.

I’d add to that the observation that we see some of this in SF, too: Aliens is a great example of an SF adaptation of the fae “child in peril” narrative–and, for that matter, the Giger monstrosity seems to me to trigger memories of that Jenny Greenteeth image above, at least for me. Kim Stanley Robinson’s (clearly SFnal) A Short, Sharp Shock likewise felt to me a bit akin to this: the absolutely enigmatic nature of all the various semi-human creatures encountered, the voyaging through an alien landscape: with a little jiggering and poking, this is a desperate voyage through the land of faerie.

(And I should note: a lot of people seem convinced the book isn’t SF, whereas I believe it has enough little hints at an SFnal frame and background–they’re just not foregrounded, and the impressionistic, dreamlike mode of storytelling seems to have convinced people the book isn’t SF, I suppose because they have a meat’n’potatoes conception about how SF can be done: realistic immersive narrative, or not at all. But I will happily argue it is SF, and good SF… and it maintains the same mystery and enigmatic sense I’m talking about.)

In some senses, I feel like the explicitly spelled-out magic of D&D–handy as it is for game-play–demystified magic, in the same way that assigning stats to monsters or even gods demystified them in the course of play. Wild, feral-looking beasts in the wilderness, decked in furs and strange plumes, armed with primitive weapons, are a hell of a lot more alarming that “orcs” with one hit die each.

The ambiguity is the thing, I suppose. That’s what Machen injected into the tales that fascinated him–the fae and the pagan alike, as reconceptualized in “The Great God Pan” and “The White People”–and that is what Lovecraft brought to his take on the weird tradition: a more modern, scientific, and atheistic kind of ambiguity, but ambiguity nonetheless. Its absence in horror–where the house either is or is not haunted, and inevitably any haunting is either demonic or ghostly–seems to be what has rendered so many examples of the genre, in its cinematic form anyway, so toothless.

The trick that’s called for here is a remystification of the unknown, a kind of conscious forgetting of the taxonomies established, whether in the service of simply presenting the thing we think we know, but which we do not (as in The Tunnel) or, even better, in the service of reinventing it in some new, fascinating form just familiar enough to provoke those shadowy, primordial memories that haunt us all.

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