Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Al's Favourites of Southern Gothic and Southern Gothic Horror

I don't really understand much about the Southern Gothic mode, but I find it oddly fascinating.

Flannery O'Connor, for example, writes stories that get deep under your skin, unsettling in that they appear to argue in favour of innocence and faith, but from a deeply perverse point of view; they endorse "wholesome" virtues in a way that make you want to take a shower. Take "Everything That Rises Must Converge," for example: a liberal intellectual chides his old fashioned, somewhat racist, but sweet and sincere southern mother for her condescending and antiquated ways. This takes place - as I recall - on a bus ride through the rural south in the 1960's, a heated time for inter-generational conflict and race relations, both.You're obviously MEANT to identify with him, to find yourself in his attitudes, since his is the point of view that commands the narrative, and even O'Connor would probably concede that most of what he says is RIGHT - but right or not, as she lays bare his motivations, he's a funhouse mirror of everything grotesque in your psyche, everything shameful; your vain desire to win arguments, your self-congratulation at having the "right" views, your self-righteous, smug superiority over that which is less refined, less cultured, less advanced than yourself, your arrogant love of lecturing and correcting others, your complete lack of spiritual innocence or humility (maybe I should sub out the "your" with "my" in all these instances, but I don't believe I'm the only person O'Connor is chiding or who will find themselves in the piece). Then at the peak of the story, an altercation ensues, and his mother dies of a sudden heart attack, which our obnoxious protagonist is pretty much to blame for. He's left mired in guilt, which we are told will haunt him the rest of his life, and that is where the story leaves us.

I enjoy a pervese short story with the best of them - I'm a big Patricia Highsmith fan, after all, with her killer snails, vengeful pets, homosexual murderers and female-penned tales of misogyny - but O'Connor, in stories like this, just leaves you feeling unclean, compromised, confused about yourself. They're not horror stories per se - sometimes she comes close - but there's a kind of moral horror in her best work that is more troubling than any gore or overt monstrosity you could be confronted with. I don't know other writers who shine as deep a light into human ugliness, based on the stories of hers I've read. ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find" would be another example - as I recall it, it praises a doddering, confused, but indubitably innocent old woman who wins the affection of a vicious serial killer, as he murders the rest of her family). Maybe it's just personal to me, but I find her writing really troubling, so much so that I've mostly stopped reading it. 

She's not the only southern US writer who mines the perverse to the point of making me uncomfortable, either. Harry Crews also has imagery so unsettling he scares me away - I have picked up his novels on several occasions but never been able to finish one. For example, his All We Need of Hell begins with a man having sex with a woman while visualizing genocide and concentration camps. Ecch! Flesh Eaters' vocalist, film historian, and novelist Chris D.  has recommended A Feast of Snakes, and I've owned it on a couple of occasions, because I'm fascinated by snakes, but I have only ever gotten a few pages into it. I gather it deals in depravity and murder during a snake hunt in the south. It comes complete with castrations -which also crop up in The Scar Lover, of which I read about half - and people being beaten until they shit themselves. His protagonist is an illiterate former football player distraught over his loss of control of his life as he gets older, who goes on a rampage of sorts as a kind of last stand for his compromised manhood (or something like that; like I say, I haven't read it). Sounds unpleasant, but periodically I am drawn to Crews. He has a striking appearance in the film Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, too, which also exudes Southern depravity, but I only ever get a few pages into his books before I run away, scared.  

Even the books that I have managed to finish from Southern writers are troublingly creepy and weird. I haven't attempted Faulkner - I gather from Claire Denis' Bastards that one of his novels involves a father raping his daughter with a corncob - but Cormac McCarthy I've read nearly to completion. While his somewhat florid, baroque prose gets likened to Faulkner's, he shares themes with Flannery O'Connor, shares some of her sensibility, I think. She surely would have admired Outer Dark, in particular, or - God help me, Child of God, which tries to understand a dispossessed, mentally challenged hillbilly who becomes - when he stumbles across a pretty, female suicide victim in the backseat of a car - an opportunistic necrophiliac. This "child of God" - an innocent, according to McCarthy, who clearly strives to find things to like about the character - lives, after he loses his home, in a cave, and eventually takes to murder as a way of getting new "girlfriends" for himself, whom he stores in said cave. This is all he ever knows of human intimacy; at the end of the novel, he is debased to a subhuman state, practically gone feral.

Considering that everything about McCarthy suggests he's a fairly stern conservative, maybe even a Christian one, he has an immense talent for depicting the depraved, particularly in this book (which, incidentally, is also very, very funny; for instance, one of his secondary characters, also poor and uneducated, names his daughters from a discarded medical dictionary he happens across, so you get a female character named "Urethra"). You might also think here of No Country for Old Men or The Road, if you've seen the films, which, as with O'Connor, praise simple virtues, "carrying the torch," protecting your family, being virtuous - while depicting subhuman levels of depravity and evil (Anton Chigurh in the first and the whole cannibalism thing in the second. Let's not even get started on The Counsellor). As with O'Connor, we feel a stern rebuke to that which is corrupted in our nature, which ends up amply punished, but also as with O'Connor, there seems more than a passing familiarity with and fascination for human viciousness. What is it with the south that breeds such extremity?

...Or check out Dennis Covington's Salvation on Sand Mountain for something really bizarre: an insider's account of snake handling churches in the American south, which climaxes with the author becoming what he beholds and engaging in the practice himself. I wrote a paper on snake handling once, and based on my research, I know that the founder of the movement, George Went Hensley, was inspired by Bible verses that state that being able to drink poison and take up serpents, with no ill effects, are signs that follow those who believe. Misguided or not, I admire his purity of belief, that he read that passage and decided right off the bat that he should try it out, put it to the test (Apologies to Gerry Hannah for putting him in this grotesque context, but it's a similar thing I admire, as when punks turn radicals and try to really and truly smash the state... or for that matter, when "Satanic" headbangers burn churches; such actions may be deeply misguided and wrong - you kind of have to judge them on a case-by-case basis - but the principle, of walking your talk, of living out your beliefs in your life, is kind of admirable: "They shall take up serpents?" Okay, now where can I find me a snake? ...Of course, Hensley appears to have missed the Bible's other admonitions about not tempting the Lord). Then he started bringing snakes into churches, a practice that persists to this day and has caused no shortage of controversy (among, say, the in-laws of handlers, who want to keep their grandchildren from being raised in the faith). The followers enter a sort of ecstatic state, speaking in tongues, testifying, and handing around rattlers and cottonmouths and such, all often to guitar driven rock (because you can't drink strychnine and pass around snakes without someone playing an electric guitar: I mean, I guess you could, but what fun is it? I'd love to get some recordings of music from snake handling services, actually). It sounds absolutely unhinged and deeply unsafe - and Hensley died vomiting blood, after being bitten during a service, all the while refusing medical attention, so I don't think you can cry fakery, here - but it also sounds way more compelling than any Catholic church service I've ever attended. ("Is your church boring? Bring a rattler!") Once you see people doing this, and believing in it as an expression of their faith, there's very little in human behaviour that can come as a surprise.

The Southern gothic mode makes for good cinema, too, especially when it comes to horror movies. I can't really do justice to Fulci's nightmarish The Beyond here - one of the most surreal horror films I'm aware of, with some striking gore (he apparently likes puncturing human eyes) and at least one utter special effects failure where the filmmakers opt to augment a handful of real tarantulas (which, as you might expect, look just like real tarantulas) with several mechanical ones (which, go figure, do not). Because it is an Italian approximation of the Southern Gothic mode, it almost doesn't feel like it belongs on the list (it is not authentically "of" the south, is kind of faking it), but it's a must-see no less (and suffers least from the ESL-level of English that you find in some of his films, like City of the Living Dead; maybe he consulted a native speaker on The Beyond?). There's a real, if excessive, poetry that the film achieves, but it feels almost accidental when you look at some of Fulci's other films. 

More authentic - though it's a Hollywood approximation, also not exactly "of" the south - is Walter Hill's Southern Comfort, which provides a metaphor for Vietnam in a story about inept national guardsmen, led by a never-better Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe, who find themselves in a shooting war with swamp-dwelling cajun trappers. The film has plenty of hanging moss, plenty of masculine sturm und drang (including great small roles for Fred Ward, Peter Coyote, Brion James, and The Onion Field's Franklyn Seales) and looks like it might have been a muddy, Herzogian ordeal to film. It also boasts what surely is the most memorable pig disembowellment in cinema history, and my own personal favourite death by quicksand.

I didn't care for it initally, but I've also come to be quite fond of an oddball Kate Hudson/ Gena Rowlands/ Peter Sarsgaard/ John Hurt movie called The Skeleton Key. On first viewing, theatrically in 2005, maybe as part of a backlash against overblown Shyamalan-esque cinematic twists, I found the ending so improbable that I rejected the film as garbage, but I've liked it more every time I've seen it (twice, now), and agree with Manohla Dargis' summation of the film as "enjoyably inane." I still don't really buy Ms. Rowlands as a Southerner, but the film has some very effective imagery and a wholly unique structure. Plus, you know, there's voodoo or hoodoo or such in it; the whole plot hinges on how one needs to believe in such things for them to have power, which, of course, ultimately, they do. Questions of belief seem essential to the Southern Gothic horror mode.  

And speaking of belief, Bill Paxton's Frailty is a must-see. One of a small handful of things Paxton has done directorially, besides the Barnes and Barnes "Fish Heads" video and a golf movie (?), it's a film about the extremes of religious faith, dealing with a father, played by Paxton himself, who is either a delusional axe murderer or a visionary messenger of God, on a mission to slay demons, who appear to the rest of us like normal humans. His story is told somewhat sneakily from the point of view of his two sons, who come to share differing views about their father. Powers Boothe pops up in this, too, as a cop to whom one of the now adult children (Matthew McConaughey) is relating the story, years later. Along the way, lots of people are dispatched with an ax in a barn, just like in that Tom Waits song...

What's maybe most interesting about the film is that readings of it can differ wildly, especially when it arrives at its own twist ending, which spurred a fairly strenuous argument with a friend of mine, since it appears to validate one of the two readings of its story. (Spoilers ensue, so you might want to skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven't seen the film). It suggests that in fact, the father was right, he was killing demons all along, and that demons are real, and that we should all be very careful, because God is watching us (!). My friend - not particularly given to thinking deeply about films - was disappointed by this conclusion, seeing it as patly affirming something positively Christian, conservative, and worthy of scorn ("demons are real? Give me a break!"). He had never read O'Connor or McCarthy or any other writers who truck in southern perversity, obviously. Though indeed the film takes sides at the end, the answer it arrives at is so deranged that no one in their right mind would take comfort in it, which is precisely why the film is great; my friend - former friend, really - failed to appreciate that the upset he was feeling with the film was deliberately induced. Frailty lures you into complicity, invites you to make a smug judgement ("this guy is nuts"), then slaps you with the opposite truth, so you're left asking yourself what the fuck you've just been party to - much more troubling and memorable than just affirming your prejudices. Fascinating, disturbing, utterly unique film (not particularly Gothic in flavour, alas, and not that much swampiness, but in terms of perverse psychology and extremities of faith, it wins big prizes).

Which brings us to the film that I'm watching right now, that I put on pause to write this: We Are What We Are, a 2013 horror film that flew below my radar until I stumbled across a compelling preview on another disc (the trailer isn't entirely convincing, mind you, that the film will be good one, but from what I've seen, it is). I'm guessing the authors were well acquainted with Frailty; it clearly raises similar questions, this time focusing on two daughters whose father is raising them in an unusual faith, which also requires extreme and troubling behaviour of them. Full of swampy Gothic imagery (and featuring the ever-delightful Michael Parks, as a town doctor who tries to help the girls), it manages to get quite far in before revealing the particular twist on their father's belief system, so I'll spare mentioning it and recommend it, if you can find it; just don't look at the DVD box art, because - I hate it when they do shit like this - the box art ITSELF provides a huge spoiler for the reveal of the film. Because of the too-obvious, too-literal box art, you're forced to watch the movie in a state of waiting for them to get around to showing you what you already know to be the case. Which I guess is not REALLY a problem - I mean, we've all watched vampire films knowing they were vampire films, where they keep you in "suspense" that the main character is a vampire for half their length, right? Or werewolf films where the main character doesn't turn into a werewolf until half the film has passed, where knowing he's going to become a werewolf doesn't detract from your enjoyment. So knowing from the outset what the family's secret is doesn't exactly ruin the film, but if you have a shot of seeing it without that information, you should. It's kind of assholish for the people who designed the box to give so much away that the filmmakers take pains to reveal gradually. If you're of a mind to trust me - and like Southern Gothic horror - check it out without knowing more about it. (It can be found at HMV's as part of their closeout sale, note).

There's lots else I like in the Southern Gothic mode - and lots else I find fascinating from the south, from the cannibalism-themed Civil War movie Ravenous to the urban-rural supernatural revenge thriller Pumpkinhead. Neither are exactly Gothic, I guess, but both delight me in different ways; I'm also a big fan of Tennessee novelist Walter Tevis, though his books - The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth are the best known, and both made into great films - are neither "Gothic" nor "horror" per se). I don't really understand WHY the American south has produced such disturbing and unique art, but at the moment I'm craving it (hell, I may even re-visit Angel Heart, or Interview with the Vampire). Is there a swamp in the movie? Does moss hang from the trees? Is there a decrepit mansion with rotten wood and a secret in the basement or attic? Do you hear voodoo drums even in passing? Is there demented religious faith of any sort run amuck? Are there Cajuns? Are there rattlers? (Check out Stanley, if that resonates, but note that it does seem that real snakes are harmed in the making of the film, as with Ssssssss).

I have no brilliant ending for this piece - the point is just that I'm enjoying some Southern Gothic horror at the moment - but feel free to recommend films if you have any favourites; I'm eager to catch up on ones I've missed. I wonder if the Powers Boothe TV movie where he plays Jim Jones ever came out on DVD? ...or if there's a decent presentation of The Creature From Black Lake out there...?

Now that film has some serious moss in it!

No comments: