To mark the 200th anniversary of Herman Melville’s birth (1st August 1819), the Guardian online carried an article by Philip Hoare about the author’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick. Hoare described it as “the Mount Everest” of literature, as many people apparently start but fail to finish the book. Having done this myself many years ago, Hoare’s article spurred me to revisit Moby-Dick with a refreshed determination to read it through to the end. It took me about three weeks to finish and I enjoyed it hugely. It is a very unusual book that raises many questions, not the least of which is ‘What is it all about?’ Presumably this is why the book was not successful during Melville’s lifetime. As with so many great works of art, though, the ambiguities, oddities and uncertainties are what give it its longevity, as people keep returning to unpick its mysteries. In this blog post, I give my own reflections on Moby-Dick (which are those of an enthusiastic reader, not of an academic expert in English literature).

I’ll begin with a couple of short, simple observations that might be of interest to people who have never so much as glanced at Moby-Dick. First, although it is a long book most of the chapters are very short, some less than a page. This makes it easy to read over a series of short intervals, such as on a rail commute or during your lunch breaks at work, without having to abandon the text in the middle of a long section. Second, if you are expecting a thrilling adventure story you are likely to be disappointed. Perhaps this is why readers often don’t make it through to the end; they may be expecting a different kind of tale. There is action, but mostly towards the end of the book. The notion of the whale-hunt really just seems to be a device – the “MacGuffin”, as Hitchcock called it – to motivate the characters, and thereby allow certain themes to be explored.

The first third of the book consists largely of an introduction to characters and locations, with the first chapter and its famous opening sentence – “Call me Ishmael” – being about our narrator himself. Ishmael’s motivation for going to sea appears to be boredom: “It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation”. He rocks up at the Spouter Inn, at New Bedford, where lack of spare accommodation means he has little alternative but to share a bed with Queequeg, a South Sea chieftan who has left his home to explore the world. Queequeg is an experienced harpooneer for whaling ships. Initially rather afraid of “The Pagan”, Ishmael begins to grow close to him in what seems a quite romantic fashion:

“I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it […] Wild he was; a very sight of sights to see; yet I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him”.

Ishmael, a Presbyterian, is invited to join Queequeg in his religious rituals, which he does. Eventually, the two of them depart New Bedford for Nantucket, where they join a whaling ship, the Pequod. Across several chapters we then get introductions to the crew of the ship, notably Captain Ahab; the mates Starbuck (chief mate), Stubb (second mate) and Flask (third mate); and the other harpooneers Tashtego and Dagoo. There is also Pip, the young black cabin boy, who is part prophet and part court jester, especially after he later begins to lose his mind following a period of time alone in the sea.

Chapter 32 is titled ‘Cetology’ and concerns the different types of whales and their classification. Many subsequent chapters are devoted to the physiology of the sperm whale (its head, brain, tale, spout, and so on) and there are even chapters devoted to pictures of whales.

As the Pequod‘s journey progresses, they meet a series of other whaling ships, each of which has had an encounter with Moby-Dick, successively more serious, but without killing the creature. The critical thing to know about Captain Ahab is that he lost a leg, on a previous voyage, to Moby-Dick. He is now obsessed with killing the whale, no matter what the dangers, and is not at all deterred by the reports from the other ships’ captains he meets. Ahab himself does not appear before the crew until several days into the ship’s voyage, thus adding to the air of mystery that surrounds him. This is compounded, on the first occasion that a whale is sighted, by the appearance of previously unseen shipmates: “five dusky phantoms that seemed fresh formed out of air”. Four of these men are of a “tiger-yellow complexion peculiar to some of the aboriginal natives of the Manillas”, while their leader – Fedallah, also referred to as “the Parsee” (a Zoroastrian) – is a dark-skinned man in a white turban. This latter figure is the source of many rumours and is regarded by the crew with deep suspicion, not least because he is the source of some darkly prophetic comments.

What really struck me about the book is the contrast between Ishmael’s wish to understand others, whether they be people or whales, and Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of the whale which precludes any attempt to understand the creature beyond predicting its movements. A good example of Ishmael’s open-mindedness comes when his new friend Queequeg – a “wild idolator” – invites him to join his worship:

“But what is worship? – to do the will of God? – that is worship. And what is the will of God? – to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me – that is the will of God. Now Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator”.

Ishmael talks of whaling as a noble activity. Indeed, if he did not believe in whaling it would make no sense for him to be on board the Pequod. However, the numerous chapters that are devoted to understanding all aspects of the sperm whale, and other whales, creatures of no little intelligence, inevitably create an empathy for these extraordinary animals that sits uneasily with the vivid descriptions of them being hunted and harpooned until they expire, exhausted, in waters red with their own blood. In contrast to Ishmael’s empathy, Ahab puts the lives of his own men increasingly at risk, pushing them to the limit even when lives have already been lost, the dangers appear overwhelming, and Starbuck is urging him to give up the pursuit.

The narration of the story is unusual. Ishmael’s own presence as a character in the story is perhaps strongest in the first third of the book, especially where he describes the growing bond between himself and Queequeg. Ishmael himself is an actor within the story in these early chapters, which includes getting tossed into the water at one point during a whale hunt. Elsewhere, though, the narration shifts. When Starbuck is introduced, Ishmael’s narration becomes God-like, telling us about Starbuck’s thoughts. Chapter 37 is entirely Ahab’s thoughts, whilst alone in his cabin. Chapter 38 relates Starbuck’s thoughts, as he leans against the mainmast at night. Chapter 39 is Stubbs’ thoughts, as he performs his duty as first night-watch. Chapter 40 is written in the form of a script, giving us the voices of numerous crew members who are on the forecastle at midnight. After this deviation in narrative voice, Chapter 41 returns us to the main narrator, with the opening sentence “I Ishmael, was one of that crew…”. A little later, at the start of Chapter 45, Ishmael seems to highlight that his is not a conventionally told tale: “So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book…”.

In the last third of the book, although Ishmael continues to narrate, he himself mostly seems to disappear as a character who participates in events. One exception to this is Chapter 94, ‘A Squeeze of the Hand’, in which Ishmael describes his feelings as he bathes his hands in the sperm of the whale. To modern ears much of this chapter seems quite comical, and I wonder if this was how it was meant to read. Philip Hoare’s Guardian article referred to the “queerness” of Moby-Dick, and reference to online dictionaries indicates that the term ‘sperm’ in reference to spermatozoa, as distinct from spermaceti (the waxy substance from the sperm whale), has been in currency since the fourteen century. What then do we make of the lyrical way in which Ishmael rhapsodizes about the act of washing his hands in sperm? –

“I felt divinely free from all ill-will… Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it… I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-labourers’ hands in it… that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally… let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of human kindness”.

Strangely, though, given the emotionality of the early chapters involving Queequeg, when his friend becomes seriously ill, Ishmael does not give any indication that he is especially troubled by this turn of events, beyond stating that all the crew were concerned. This seems a little odd, but then the main motivation of this chapter appears to be to set up certain events that happen later on. Thereafter, as the hunt for Moby-Dick begins to dominate the story and develops into outright action, the focus is on the other characters; although Ishmael is there, we do not know what he is doing. In fact, he largely disappears as an actor until, perhaps, the final page.

For me, one of the great pleasures of Moby-Dick is the quality of the writing, the beauty of the description, whether Melville is describing the anatomy of whales, the layout of the ship, or the characteristics of people. Turning at random to almost any page reveals such penmanship, as in this example:

“The starred and stately nights seemed haughty dames in jewelled velvets, nursing at home in lonely pride, the memory of their absent conquering Earls, the golden helmeted suns! For sleeping man, ’twas hard to choose between such winsome days and such seducing nights” (Chapter 29).

Melville must have been on a creative roll by the time he wrote Moby-Dick and surely had great confidence in what he was doing. It is a shame that, like many of the great artists, his best work was not appreciated in his own lifetime. This is a book that, once finished, really sticks in the mind. Like stepping ashore after a long period at sea and feeling as though the ground beneath you is swaying, so there seems to be a period of mental turbulence upon reaching the end of Moby-Dick, as the thoughts continue to splash around inside your head. It is a memorable literary voyage.

Book review: This Dreaming Isle

In recent years I have become something of an afficionado of short stories, partly thanks to those published in Interzone and Black Static magazines, the former devoted to science fiction and the latter to horror. Anthologies abound, but you would be hard pressed to find a more satisfying horror collection than the seventeen stories published in This Dreaming Isle, edited by Dan Coxon and published by Unsung Stories.

To be specific, the cover blurb describes these as “horror stories and weird fictions” that draw upon “the landscape and history of the British Isles”. Actually, as the singular term of the title suggests, all of the stories are set on the mainland rather than the surrounding isles, but such quibbling aside it is true that these tales have a very British feel to them. In fact, the stories are grouped into three sections: Country, City and Coast. Within these we have a range of familiar physical environments, including angry skies, roiling clouds, rolling hills, a treacherous reservoir, turbulent seas, traffic jams, a lethal industrial development, a smart Kensington apartment, beaches, fossils, cliffs, seagulls and old country houses. The supernatural or strange entities include a legendary nuisance ghost dog, a pre-Christian tribe in the hills near the Kent coast, a kind of human caterpillar, a mysterious Twitter account, a mythical hill-walker, a dead artist who may or may not live within his paintings, and a siren.

Frequently, these landscapes and phenomena (real or imagined) are the backdrop to ordinary human concerns (e.g. a woman escaping a difficult background maneuvres herself into marriage with a financially successful man; a mother and daughter try to repair a difficult relationship by holidaying together; a son finds himself manipulated by a difficult, but sick, father; a right-wing internet troll rages against the world; an aging actor is made to feel young again by a beautiful woman). In the way that a walker in unfamiliar country might start out happily in the sunshine, but then misread their map whilst ignoring or overlooking the signs of the weather turning, eventually realising they have no idea where they are just as the storm breaks, so the sense of unease in many of these stories builds up gradually until the protagonists are literally or metaphorically out of their depth.

I was impressed by the consistently excellent quality of the contributions. Also, there are no “long” short stories, which I assume was due to editorial guidance (the longest, I think, was in the region of twenty pages). For myself, as someone who often likes to read a story before going to sleep, these were of an ideal length: I never once found sleep creeping over me before I reached the end of a story.

The book comes with an interesting introduction by editor, Dan Coxon, who notes that the book was conceived before the referendum on EU membership and with no expectation that the vote would go the way it did. He is at pains to point out that none of the stories in this collection create a nationalistic fantasy of some past golden age of Britain. Rather: “The past is a dangerous, cutthroat place, filled with violence, injustice and inequality”. Quite so.

Highly recommended.

Fear is the key: A review of ‘Why Horror Seduces’ (by Mathias Clasen)

Screenshot 2019-03-30 at 4.05.46 PMLooking back, I think the first horror movie I saw at the cinema must have been The Omega Man, the 1971 version of I Am Legend, Richard Matheson’s tale of modern-day vampires. I was only nine at the time, which was probably below the age certification for that film, though I think back then the ticket sellers at my local cinema weren’t always too bothered about checking and enforcing such matters. For a long time, The Omega Man remained my favourite film. I still love the scene where Charleton Heston sits alone in a cinema watching the documentary film of the 1969 Woodstock festival, listening to hippies talking about a world of peace and love, a wonderful juxtaposition with the world we know Heston is now living in – bereft of human beings during the daytime and besieged by malevolent vampires at night.

A little later I saw Jaws (1975). This was still a time when your ticket enabled you to enter at any point during the film and then stay for the next showing (hence the saying “This is where we came in”). Thus, my introduction to the film was seeing Quint disappearing into the mouth of the shark, without any of the dramatic build-up to this point, which is arguably more fear-inducing than the final scenes.

Both I Am Legend (the book) and Jaws (the film) are among the works included in a selective review of American horror fiction discussed in the 2017 book Why Horror Seduces, by Mathias Clasen, Associate Professor of Literature and Media at Aarhus University. Before we get to this review, though, Clasen addresses the wider questions of what horror is, how it works, and how it has been and should be studied. Horror is notoriously hard to define other than in terms of the reactions that a work of fiction elicits from the viewer or reader. Whilst some theorists date the origins of horror to the advent of Gothic fiction in the nineteenth century, Clasen agrees with one of the genre’s most celebrated practitioners, Lovecraft, who wrote that “the horror tale is as old as human thought and speech themselves”.

Survey research shows that most people enjoy horror but, like Goldilocks’ porridge, it needs to be just right – it doesn’t work if it fails to provoke unease or a fear reaction, and likewise most people don’t want horror to be too frightening. But why do we want to be frightened at all by a work of fiction? Enter a plethora of theorists who want to tell us that the stories we love are actually about something other than an entity or situation that is scaring the crap out of us. There are Freudian, feminist, queer, Lacanian, Marxist, race studies, post-colonial and post-structuralist readings of horror fiction. Sometimes, a critical interpretation is simultaneously based on several of these approaches.

Whilst acknowledging that works of fiction may include multiple themes, and also expressing pleasure that the horror genre is taken seriously by these writers, Clasen believes that their various theoretical approaches invariably miss what is at the core of horror fiction. He is especially scathing, albeit in a polite fashion, about the psychoanalytic approaches to horror, which are so divorced from empirical evidence that they enable the shark in Jaws to be interpreted as both “a greatly enlarged, marauding penis” (Peter Biskind) and a “vagina dentata” (Jane Caputi), a giant vagina with teeth.

Critical interpretations are sometimes at odds with the explicitly expressed intentions of writers or directors. Thus, one Lacanian reading of The Shining insists that the novel is really about repressed homoerotic and Oedipal desires, despite author Stephen King’s insistence that the story is based on his own battle with alcohol. The early slasher movies provoked a range of critical reactions. One critic insisted that these films were a means for young people to assuage their guilt about their own hedonistic lifestyles, a claim that had no evidential basis whatsoever. Others claimed that slasher movies were inherently misogynistic, depicting their female victims as being punished for their sexually active lifestyles. Yet, content analysis of slasher films has shown that men are just as likely as women to be victims. In Halloween, the character of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is supposedly spared death because she adheres to socially conservative norms, overlooking the fact that Michael Myers is actually trying to kill her and thereby causing her to be terrified. Furthermore, writer/director John Carpenter explicitly rejects the moralistic interpretation: Laurie Strode survives because she is the only character to detect and adequately respond to the danger.

Carpenter’s explanation is aligned with Clasen’s own interpretation of how horror works and why we are drawn to it. The human capacity for emotion, he points out, is a product of evolution. Fear and anxiety are the most primal of emotions, as these help shape our responses to immediate and anticipated threats, respectively (more on the topic of evolution and emotions can be found in Randolph Nesse’s new book Good Reasons for Bad Feelings). Potentially threatening stimuli, such as strange noises in the house at night, tend to grab our attention, even if in fact there is no danger. It is better to be anxious about something that turns out to be harmless than to be unconcerned about something truly dangerous. Organisms that do not respond to potential threats are fairly quickly removed from the gene pool. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, those threats included environmental hazards, non-human predators, other people (in the form of physical danger, loss of status, and potentially lethal social ostracization), and diseases in the form of invisible pathogens, bacteria and viruses (hence certain stimuli, such as excrement and rotting meat, universally lead to feelings of disgust).

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors faced regular challenges to their survival on a scale that most of us will never experience. Even contemporary hunter-gatherers mostly live shorter lives than the rest of us. Horror fiction enables us to experience emotional reactions to potentially threatening stimuli within a safe environment. As Clasen puts it (p.147):

The best works of horror have the capacity to change us for life – to sensitize us to danger, to let us develop crucial coping skills, to enhance our capacity for empathy, to qualify our understanding of evil, to enrich our emotional repertoire, to calibrate our moral sense, and to expand our imaginations into realms of the dark and disturbing.

In his review of several works of American horror fiction, Clasen not only skewers the inadequacy of many previous critical approaches to horror, but spells out precisely the behavioural challenges that are posed to the characters in these works. For example, a staple ingredient of many zombie films is the tension between acting self-interestedly versus cooperating with others to fight the encroaching threat (zombies themselves arouse feelings of disgust associated with contagion). Often goodness and selfishness are embodied in different characters, yet in some works of fiction they may represent a conflict within a single character. One such example is Jack Torrance in The Shining. His failing literary career represents a loss of status, which he hopes to address by focusing on his writing whilst at the Overlook Hotel. When it becomes clear that there is some kind of threat to his son, Danny, feelings of parental concern are aroused. However, the hotel itself – once the home to various gangsters and corrupt politicians – exerts an evil influence on Jack, a recovering alcoholic, poisoning him against his own son.

Elsewhere, in Rosemary’s Baby author Ira Levin “successfully targeted evolved fears of intimate betrayal, contamination of the body, and persecution by metaphysical forces of evil” (p.91), whilst The Blair Witch Project plays upon our tendency to attribute negative value to a place where something bad has happened, a tendency which is adaptive because it makes people avoid dangerous places. As Clasen notes (p.143):

The same psychological phenomenon is at work when people shun houses in which murders or other particularly violent or grisly forms of crime have taken place.

Although Clasen himself says that there is far more we don’t know about how horror fiction works than what we do know, the evolutionary psychology approach would appear to offer a far more promising prospect for our understanding than any other approach that has so far been proposed. It is also an approach which should be far more satisfying to those of us who enjoy horror fiction, because it is in line with our intuitive understanding that we like horror because we simply enjoy the thrill of being scared whilst knowing that we are not really in danger.