Saturday, October 25, 2014

J. Michael Straczynski, Demon Night


Opening Passage: The novel opens with a dream about a traumatic childhood event:

It began as it always did. As it always would.

Back when his last name was Langren, not Matthews.

Summary: In "Hamlet and His Problems", T. S. Eliot famously gave us the phrase, "objective correlative", as part of his account of how art expresses his emotion. The objective correlative is "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked." How far this explains anything varies, I suspect, depending on what the author is trying to do, but if there is a genre that depends crucially on something like it, horror is that genre. Excellent horror writing consists of combining a good sense of physical situation and symbol with a clear grasp of the emotional situation -- I say 'emotional situation' to avoid talking about 'feelings', which no author can guarantee, as the best an author can do is issue appropriate invitations to feel rather than force people to feel. In horror, the outer world, the physical happenings, need to correlate with the emotional situation of fear, or dread, or creepiness, or whatever else may be in view. Horror therefore depends crucially on using narrative and verbal art (and in television and cinema, visual art) to suggest that there is more to the physical situation than the mere physical happenings. There is also the mood, the atmosphere, the hint of something looming. The events must not merely happen; they must happen as the objective correlatives of the appropriate emotions.

This is the reason, I think, why so much horror writing is weak -- the task one sets before oneself in writing horror is very difficult, and the tools one has with which to achieve it are very limited -- and also why horror tropes tend to get repeated until they are practically stereotypes. People need to be able to recognize the emotional situation you are invoking by describing the physical situation, the physical situation has to remain congruent with that emotional situation, and people need to know how to put themselves into the emotional situation by way of the physical situation. Thus horror writers often have to work with very low common denominators: the ickiness of slime, the feeling of helplessness in a nightmare, the creepiness of bugs and worms, the scariness of snakes, the somehow-wrong feeling of being in the presence of corpse, the way in which we can frighten ourselves in the dark, the fear of pain, violence, and illness. Over time, however, the objective correlatives lose their effectiveness. We see this in the movie zombie. The whole point of the zombie originally that it was a shuffling corpse: it played on the wrongness of the undead. Now, movie zombies are insanely fast. Perhaps due to overexposure, perhaps due to how sheltered most of us are from actual corpses, the shuffling zombie lost its ability to convey the slow inevitability of corpse-wrongness overtaking you, no matter how far or fast you run. We've literalized the zombie, becoming less and less able to recognize, or perhaps less and less able to put ourselves in, the emotional situation they represent. (Of course, it could be that horror writers bungle these things through a failure to grasp what they are doing. We see this in the Final Destination movies, with their increasingly elaborate and implausible Rube-Goldberg deaths. But the appropriate emotion situation is bound up in the inevitability of death, and the most effective moments in every single movie are when the characters walk into a perfectly ordinary situation and it becomes chillingly clear that in this ordinary situation there are dozens of ways to die.)

And this is also, I think, the reason why most of the great classics of the horror genre draw on religious tropes, since religious traditions give pictures, ones that people can recognize, for a much wider range of things, giving us a pictorial way of imagining moral evil. Perhaps also this is why the horror genre is in decline -- the religious tropes don't grab the way they used to, so horror writers are stuck with the problem of having to work with more blood, more violence, more slime. Vampires and zombies arising from viruses do have some purchase for horrific emotional situation -- but, unless they are taken to extremes, they are mundane and manageable and limited in symbolic meaning in a way that the vampires as unfathomable demons and zombies as voodoo curses are not. The religious tropes of horror are what usually give horror its ability to go beyond the lowest, crudest emotional situations.

All of this is just a long way into saying why I think Straczynski's Demon Night is fairly successful at what it is doing. The horror tropes are the old tried-and-true tropes -- darkness, demons, the undead, blood, skeletons, ghosts -- in an almost endless procession. But, like Stephen King, whom Straczynski is imitating here, Straczysnki has a knack for constructing the story in such a way that one can get the old power of the tropes in a relatively fresh way.

Eric Matthews, born Eric Langren, was orphaned in a terrible car accident in his hometown of Dredmouth Point, and has not been back since. All his life, however, he has been followed by uncanny events that, every place he goes, end in destruction. When he feels himself called back to the Point, he goes, then, to find out who and what he is. There he meets a wide variety of people:

Sam Crawford, the anthropologist excavating the local Indian Caves, which had once been an important site for a long-extinct tribe of reclusive Algonquin Indians, who will discover the find of all time, and barely survive it;

Father Duncan Kerr, the local Catholic priest, and a friend to the atheistic Crawford, who will discover that the church building has a terrible secret hidden within it;

Liz Chasen, a novelist doing research into a non-fiction work on small-town lore, called Hidden Places: An Oral History of Maine Villages;

Tom Crandall, the no-nonsense constable of the normally quiet town, who finds himself suddenly dealing with crime after crime;

and the powers of the Night.

We also get a good slice of other townfolk, with their petty sins and occasional virtues. This, I think, is structurally much of the strength of the work; Straczynski does very well at showing us how the events of the novel affect the entire town, in specific and personal ways, and not just a small handful of people. And we get a good sense of how very ordinary people -- such as Liz or Tom or Father Kerr -- can rise to the heroic if they are only given the right chance. And by means of this very aspect of the story, Straczynski is able to avoid making the horror tropes, especially the religious horror tropes, cheap props and special effects -- he's not afraid to use them here and there as just prop and special effect, but the major tropes are always used in such a way that the emotional and moral situation is reflected in the trope itself.

Favorite Passage:
Kerr headed back upstairs, to the sacristy. He donned the vestments of his office, dressing as for Mass. The symbolism of his garments came home to him as never before, heightened by the awareness that this was as much the uniform of a soldier as military greens.

And now, like a weekend soldier pressed into regular duty, he was going to war. (p. 303)

Recommendation: Fast-paced and with some excellent snapshot-characterization, it holds one's attention. Not great literature -- it doesn't pretend to be -- but certainly a story with strengths. Recommended.


Quotations are from J. Michael Straczynski, Demon Night, ibooks (New York: 2003).

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