Creepy Houses

Definitions, I’m learning, are often a matter of one’s experience and taste.  I’ve read a lot of gothic novels and have tried to pinpoint what it is that creates a gothic feel for me.  I say “for me” because other people sometimes suggest works that I would put into a different category.  In any case, it’s clear that The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters, is a gothic novel by any measure.  A large, isolated house.  A tainted family slowly fading away.  A remorseless, 400-page winter.  Inevitable decay.  The story is ambiguous and moody as Dr. Faraday, the narrator, falls in love with Caroline Ayres, the only daughter of an aristocratic family in decline.  The house may be haunted.  Or the family may be breaking down mentally.  Like The Turn of the Screw, it’s up to the reader to decide.

My preferred gothic has elements of the supernatural in it.  Melancholy without existential threat isn’t really enough to tip the scale for me.  The Little Stranger has enough of both to keep the reader guessing right up to the end.  Reader-response theory—the underlying basis for what’s being called “reception history”—posits that the reader assigns meaning.  The author has her idea of what happened in mind, but the reader contributes their own understanding.  This idea has influenced my own writing.  Once a piece is published the readers will make of it what they will.  In this way I can read Little Stranger as a haunted house story.  Although it was made into a movie I have to confess that I only heard of the novel recently while searching for gothic novels I might’ve missed.

The ambiguity fits the ambiguity of life.  The same circumstances can be interpreted by one person as entirely natural while another will add a super prefix.  No one person has all the answers and reality can be a matter of interpretation.  In that way Sarah Waters’ art follows life.  Interestingly, religion plays very little role in the story.  Church, when it appears, is perfunctory.  The source of tension here is on a rational, medical interpretation of events versus the gloomy lived experience of the Ayres family.  They believe themselves haunted and the scientific answers have difficulty convincing readers that there’s nothing more going on.  This is a gothic novel with a capital G.  Nevertheless, the debased cleric would have been welcome, but you can’t have everything.


How Many, Now?

One thing you can say for the Bible—it’s been interpreted six ways to Sunday.  This point was brought home to me in reading Michael Willett Newheart’s “My Name Is Legion”: The Story and Soul of the Gerasene Demoniac.  Part of the Interfaces series, now apparently defunct, it takes an unusual biblical character and explores it.  Them, in this case.  The story of the Gerasene or Gadarene demoniac is one of the more famous episodes in the Synoptic Gospels.  Jesus and the disciples cross the Sea of Galilee and the possessed man runs out at them.  He has superhuman strength, and he lives among the tombs.  Jesus asks the man, or the demon, its name only to receive the reply “Legion.”  He then casts the demons into a herd of swine that drown themselves in the lake.

Newheart approaches the story creatively, first by considering the Gospel of Mark as a book, and then treating his version of the story via narrative criticism.  This was pretty good, and I learned quite a bit from his analysis.  The book then moves on to psychological criticism.  I have to admit that this approach is one I haven’t ever used and, like many reader-response methods, it can seem somewhat arbitrary.  That’s not to suggest it shouldn’t be utilized, but rather to note that results could be uneven.  Your psyche’s not my psyche, savvy?  Subjective approaches may be all that we really have when considering an ancient text, but I always tend to look at things historically.

This book caught my attention because I’m researching demons.  You can’t really ignore a book with this title if you’re trying to figure out how the New Testament looks at them.  In any case, the historical method seems to me the only way we can really engage the question of what the ancients thought demons were.  I don’t want to say too much or you won’t have any reason to buy my next book.  (That’s a joke, by the way, before anyone suggests I’m exploiting my readers.)  Newheart doesn’t really raise the question of what demons are.  He does briefly mention The Exorcist, but it isn’t his main interest.  The character of Legion, however, is difficult to place if we can’t really say what demons are.  I did find the allusion to the Roman occupancy to be worthy of consideration.  The demoniac, however, may have begged to differ.  It couldn’t have been easy being an unnamed character in the Good Book.  And demons are often not what they seem.


Music Alone

Thinking back to our days in Edinburgh, I had a song come to mind. I could remember only a word or two, but the tune and the cadence were still there. Not a singer, nor even a hummer, the best I could do was ask my wife if she remembered the song based on the two words I could recall. Amazingly, she did. When I went to download it on iTunes, I learned that it isn’t available in the US. Probably copyright laws—these can be quite bizarre. Music has a way of staying with you and one of the songs unforgettable to those of us growing up in the ‘60s is Don McLean’s “American Pie.” In a recent Bloomberg View piece, Stephen L. Carter, a professor at Yale, laments the fact that McLean’s original notes for the song are going up for bids and, after five decades of guessing, we may finally learn what the cryptic lyrics mean. Or will we?

AmericanPie

A colleague of mine used to say, “words don’t have meanings, they have usages.” In the literary technique known as reader-response criticism, it is the reader who has the final say in what a passage “means.” An author may intend one thing, but who is the author to control the meme once it’s out? (You can see why some biblical students get upset by such things since the same thing applies, even if the author is God.) While I’m not po-mo enough to accept this completely, it has introduced an edge of caution to my reading. After all, if an author is dead (ahem) we can’t question him or her to find out what they meant. Even if they remember. “American Pie” is notable for its lyrics with religious imagery which, fairly clearly, are not really religious. Or are they?

Carter laments the coming unveiling. The mystery will be gone. Don McLean, the ultimate one-hit wonder, will walk away with the goods yet again. I have no doubt that there will be analyses and hermeneutical disquisitions. The learned will claim that we finally have the answers. I’m not so sure. What if the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” turn out to be Buddy Holly, Big Bopper, and Richie Valens? What does that mean? Perhaps Don McLean, like any old prophet, was merely a vehicle for a message received from elsewhere. The questions go back in an endless regression, and no answer will ever be final. We all know the song is about “the day the music died.” As the old camp song says, “music alone shall live, never to die.” And as I sit here trying to remember how a song I last heard two decades ago goes, I’m pretty sure that the camp song is right, whatever it means.