Academically Ugly: Geometric Horror in H.P. Lovecraft

One of the consistent motifs in the short fiction of H.P. Lovecraft is the description of creatures and spaces as non-Euclidean. Most readers are still able to identify the horror of these creations (as well as the rampant racism in the stories) but the description itself is highly academic. For many readers this isn’t enough to build a mental image on, most of us couldn’t tell you what makes geometry Euclidean or not. However, Lovecraft’s work remains an icon of the horror genre that continues to be the inspiration for all kinds of stories in a wide variety of media. His use of highly intellectualized descriptions are given enough context that they still have an impact for a lay reader while leaving a deep well of symbolism for more in depth readings.Read More »

It’s a Blind Love: Mothers in the Short Fiction of Sarah Meehan Sirk and Jamaica Kincaid

The cliché that love is blind is most often applied to romantic relationships where love is enough to mask the flaws of one person. However, in the case of the mother-daughter relationships in the short fiction of authors like Sarah Meehan Sirk and Jamaica Kincaid love is blind the sense that very particular outpourings of maternal love ignore the needs of the daughter it is directed at. The mothers in “Ozk” and “Girl”, by Sirk and Kincaid respectively, are very different and in many ways are direct contrasts of each other but the authors construct them in similar ways. Ultimately these are stories that capture mothers that love their daughters deeply, but their personal experiences render them unable to express that love in a way that is clear to their daughters.

The maternal figures in Sirk and Kincaid’s stories is a contrast between too much attention and not enough. The narrator of “Ozk” talks about the emptiness of her childhood and her feeling of obligation to care for her mother as she became more wrapped up in her work. The titular girl of Kincaid’s work is also being faced with obligation, but this time it’s the obligation to live up to the expectations that her mother is so forcefully explaining. The mother rails on her daughter about becoming a slut, a woman who is too worldly for her own good, but her advice is tinged with lessons that hint at her mother having the kind of past she is warning her daughter against as she explains how have a relationship or how to abort a pregnancy. The mother of Kincaid’s story is ultra focused on her daughter and the potential pitfalls of womanhood because she wants her daughter to become the kind of woman that the baker lets near the bread. In contrast the mother in Sirk’s “Ozk” is absent and Margaret, the daughter, feels as if she did not really know her mother and her mother did not really know her. Whereas the mother in Kincaid’s story assumes her daughter could not do anything on her own Ozk’s mother figure assumes that her daughter will be entirely independent. However, Margaret’s mother’s love does come through in the final moments of the text with the realization that Dr. Claire Gardiner’s scientific discovery that was the source of their distant relationship was ultimately named for her daughter.

Voice and narration are central to how both Sirk and Kincaid construct the mother-daughter relationships as the balance of lines between the two figures mirrors the kind of relationship that they have. In “Girl” the daughter speaks only twice, in order to quietly protest the assumptions that her mother is making – both times to little affect. The long ranting speech of the mother with only small interjections of the daughter creates the oppressive feel of their relationship while also capturing the one sidedness of their interactions. Sirk’s story is longer but in the present of the story Margaret’s mother has already descended into some sort of debilitating mental illness and is unable to speak for herself. It is a reversal of “Girl” and this time the daughter is describing her mother in her own voice. Margaret’s mother speaks in flashbacks to the child Margaret but interacts with the narrator in the present of the story only through the written caption at the very end of the story. It is a story told in the voice of the daughter but the mother ultimately gets the final word.

As a result. the use of voice is also a window into the daughter’s understanding of their mother. In “Ozk” the daughter is left to figure out everything on her own, her mother is absent, and she lives with the understanding that she was unloved, or at the very least only secondary to her mother’s work. However, she at least has the ability to expand upon that understanding, she has a kind of agency that the daughter in “Girl” lacks. That daughter is also in a situation where her mother’s love is perhaps not obvious, but her lack of understanding is shown by her silence. The lack of voice in “Girl” mirrors her lack of connection to her mother’s love where Margaret’s distant mother is shown through the absence of the mother’s speech in Margaret’s narration. These are also relationships that are not fixed through the kind of open communication that is generally considered healthy or productive. Instead the reader must look inside the relentless rant of Kincaid’s writing to see the mother’s concern for her daughter surviving in a difficult world and read into the final note from Sirk’s mother character to find her love for her daughter.

These are stories that are focused on the dysfunctional relationships between mothers and daughters, yet they are both stories with mothers who seem to truly love their daughters. “Girl” and “Ozk” are stories from the perspective of girls as they look at the women who put so much into raising them, and even though these are not the close loving relationships that are held up as the ideal these are still mothers who love their daughters. The ranting of “Girl” has a single outpouring of angry lessons learned and then forced out while “Ozk” contains a pervasive silence in the place of a mother that tries to honor her daughter through success. The perspective characters of these short stories catch glimpses of their mother’s love, but it is a blind kind of love that can’t listen to the experiences of the daughters.  Kincaid and Sirk raise questions around womanhood, success, and parenting through these dysfunctional relationships that show a mother’s love attempting to raise a daughter into a world that teaches hard lessons of its own.

Left Out of Heaven: Considerations of Mundane Horror and Susan Pevensie

C.S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are steeped in Christian theology to a degree that even to a reader not searching for it some themes come through clearly. From the publication of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1950 with its clear allusions to the crucifixion to The Last Battle’s end of days as appearing in 1956; Lewis constructs a fantasy world that is tied together by the faith of the child heroes. However, in The Last Battle a lack of faith is confronted as Susan Pevensie is the only protagonist from the earlier novels not to return to Narnia and as such is left out of the heaven that Aslan creates.  Lewis has a clear representation of the end of days and of the paradise that follows but what is not clear is the fate of Susan who is left in the ‘outer’ world to live out the rest of her life. For many readers of The Last Battle, especially the young readers it is directed at, Susan’s absence is accepted and then largely ignored but Neil Gaiman explored the absence in his short story “The Problem of Susan” with a protagonist who is usually read as Susan herself, all grown up. Examining the contrast in tone between The Last Battle and Gaiman’s story shows how the framing of a narrative can shift the line between the mundane and the horrible provoking questions about what is absent from fantastic narratives like Lewis’s.

The reason that Lewis gives for Susan’s absence is that she has become too interested in boys and lipstick and no longer believes in Narnia. In the context of Christian theology this is an attachment in worldly pleasures that turns one away from God, but Lewis also keeps Susan away from the train crash that kills the other friends to send them back to Narnia. This is perhaps what prevents Susan’s absence from seeming overly upsetting to the audience, she still has the opportunity to find her faith and gain access to heaven in Narnia. However, Gaiman’s exploration of the issue shows Susan’s survival as an event of mundane horror. There are no epic battles or great moral causes in Susan’s world, there is just the gory reality of identifying bodies from the train crash. Gaiman’s professor speaks about her younger brother Ed’s decapitation and the anxiety of not being sure that the people she is looking at are really her family. Lewis is writing for children, so his books are devoid of the kind of bloody horror that Gaiman uses, instead trying to provoke sadness or melancholy but “The Problem of Susan” puts the real-world kind of horror that Lewis covers up on display in contrast to the joy of Lewis’s Narnia.

Part of that joy of going “farther in and farther up” into the heaven of ‘real Narnia’ is the reunion with family and friends who have been lost to death and time. Each of the Friends meet the Narnians from their individual adventures from Lucy’s Mr Tumnus to the kings of the later books like Caspian or Rilian; all the beloved characters are waiting for the heroes, and the reader, at the end of the book. Once again Gaiman examines the events in Narnia from the perspective of Susan who is the one left behind. She is alone in a house in the process of aging alone on her way to dying alone while missing her deceased family. Susan doesn’t mourn the loss of Narnia, of heaven, because she doesn’t really believe in these things anymore. She mourn the death of her family because in her version of reality they are no longer accessible. Susan is not just bared from paradise, something that is not of much concern to her, she is trapped in a world where her family is dead and nothing, she can do will let her see them again. This is a separate kind of horror to the gore from time directly after the train crash, this is a suffering that is brought on simply by the nature of reality. There is no need for the false god of The Last Battle for there to be sadness and pain, because the crushing loneliness of being the sole survivor is enough.

It is possible to read Gaiman’s torment of Susan as a critique of Lewis and of Christian theology, but it could also simply be a challenge to explore the events that occur just outside the range of a story. Storytelling places a lens on the protagonist that it is concerned with which often obscures the supporting characters and world that surround the plot. No one thinks about what Stormtrooper 517 is thinking about or how life turns out for the first years who are evacuated before the Battle of Hogwarts. It would be impractical and likely boring for a creator to go down all these side routes but Gaiman points out the positive or negative aspects of a story are largely a matter of perspective.

The fantastical world of The Chronicles of Narnia leads the reader to think about the world of the books within the context of reaching the paradise of real Narnia but that is not the perspective of Susan who is left behind. The horror for Susan is a mundane horror of real-world death and loneliness rather than sadness because she is not in Narnia. Gaiman’s issue might not be with the existence of the heaven of Narnia but rather with the simplification of what life is like outside of it. Understanding the life of Susan through Gaiman’s short story exposes not only the darker side of Lewis’s creation but also forces a consideration of what The Last Battle says outside of the Christian narrative of spiritual salvation.