Friday, July 03, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Secret Agent: Writing the Horror

Another week on Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent. This holiday weekend, my mind's on horror, as Conrad's obviously was throughout his career. Everybody remembers the famous last words of Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness"--"The horror! The horror!"--which, for many years now, I've been hearing in the voice of Marlon Brando playing Jabba the Hutt in Apocalypse Now. (Before that, it was the voice of my high-school English teacher, who embodied another kind of creepiness all her own.)

I read an article not too long ago--sadly, I have no idea where--that suggested horror was the closest genre to literary fiction. As I recall, that's because horror deals with the subconscious. It brings to light the forces which, in their more repressed forms, give literary writing its layers of nuance. Or maybe I'm making this up, but it makes sense to me at the moment.

I don't read a lot of horror fiction or watch horror movies.* I have, however, taught Stephen King's Misery, which I think is a fascinating book, partly because it's specifically about the conflict between genre and literary writing. But the book also has several, one feels perfunctory, eruptions of pure gore. One year I told my students they could skip these (giving them the page numbers in advance)--but then I wondered: had this been a bona fide "literary" book, would I have told them they could skip parts? No. But because I thought of this as a "genre" book, I considered the horror gratuitous; whereas in The Secret Agent, or in Tim OBrien's Vietnam stories, or any number of other works, the gore seems critically important. Yes, it's awful, but there's Lesson to be Learned from it. We must confront the monstrosity within human beings--whereas in King (say), the confrontation is a spectacle only. But how do you draw the line, really? I don't know. Especially in Misery, I sense King is winking at us throughout. Yep, this is mass-market horror, so here's your yuck sandwich--happy now? Well, are you?

All this (sorry) is leading up to the grisly scene of the blown-up body in The Secret Agent, which presents a clinic on horror writing. And yes, you can skip this if you want--but you are missing something:

A local constable in uniform cast a sidelong glance, and said, with stolid simplicity:

“He’s all there. Every bit of him. It was a job.”

He had been the first man on the spot after the explosion. He mentioned the fact again. He had seen something like a heavy flash of lightning in the fog. At that time he was standing at the door of the King William Street Lodge talking to the keeper. The concussion made him tingle all over. He ran between the trees towards the Observatory. “As fast as my legs would carry me,” he repeated twice.

Chief Inspector Heat, bending forward over the table in a gingerly and horrified manner, let him run on. The hospital porter and another man turned down the corners of the cloth, and stepped aside. The Chief Inspector’s eyes searched the gruesome detail of that heap of mixed things, which seemed to have been collected in shambles and rag shops.

“You used a shovel,” he remarked, observing a sprinkling of small gravel, tiny brown bits of bark, and particles of splintered wood as fine as needles.

“Had to in one place,” said the stolid constable. “I sent a keeper to fetch a spade. When he heard me scraping the ground with it he leaned his forehead against a tree, and was as sick as a dog.”

The Chief Inspector, stooping guardedly over the table, fought down the unpleasant sensation in his throat. The shattering violence of destruction which had made of that body a heap of nameless fragments affected his feelings with a sense of ruthless cruelty, though his reason told him the effect must have been as swift as a flash of lightning. The man, whoever he was, had died instantaneously; and yet it seemed impossible to believe that a human body could have reached that state of disintegration without passing through the pangs of inconceivable agony. No physiologist, and still less of a metaphysician, Chief Inspector Heat rose by the force of sympathy, which is a form of fear, above the vulgar conception of time. Instantaneous! He remembered all he had ever read in popular publications of long and terrifying dreams dreamed in the instant of waking; of the whole past life lived with frightful intensity by a drowning man as his doomed head bobs up, streaming, for the last time. The inexplicable mysteries of conscious existence beset Chief Inspector Heat till he evolved a horrible notion that ages of atrocious pain and mental torture could be contained between two successive winks of an eye. And meantime the Chief Inspector went on, peering at the table with a calm face and the slightly anxious attention of an indigent customer bending over what may be called the by-products of a butcher’s shop with a view to an inexpensive Sunday dinner. All the time his trained faculties of an excellent investigator, who scorns no chance of information, followed the self-satisfied, disjointed loquacity of the constable.

Further gory details are, um, scattered over the next several pages. But the central image, I think, is here. It's the sound of the scraping shovel. In a way, it's an echo of the bell in Mr. Verloc's shop--a mundane sound that, in this story, becomes a Pavlovian cue to shudder. The horror is further set off by the "self-satisfied, disjointed loquacity of the constable,"which contrasts with Heat's metaphysical reflections--fueled, interestingly, by the pulp stories of his day.

So, for those of us who want, or need, to include some horror in our writing: Effective horror seems to involve ordinary objects, sounds, etc., becoming suddenly decontextualized and perverted. This is something Stephen King knows very well. But the scene above is not gratuitous for a couple of reasons. One, it induces the otherwise stolid Inpsector to reflect on universal human questions and fears. Two, we're already starting to gather (a strange word, but somehow right, in this context) who the dead man is; our mounting fear is not just for ourselves (jeez, I hope that never happens to me) but for him and the women who care for him. Like the concentric circles Stevie draws in the beginning, the explosion radiates outward, not just physically, but thematically, psychologically, and metaphysically. The fact that ordinary objects can change their meaning becomes a metaphysical concern, not just a trick to make us jumpy.

*Except right after my dad died, when I had this weird craving to watch horror films, even slasher films. I know of at least one other person who's had this experience. The urge left pretty quickly before I managed to get Friday the 13th et al from Netflix, which is probably just as well.

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