Friday, October 5, 2012

Horror Fiction Confronts the Unknown and Unknowable


Gordie Lachance is the protagonist of The Body, a novella included in a 1982 Stephen King collection titled Different Seasons. In 1986, Gordie’s story became more widely known through the film, Stand By Me. Both book and film are coming-of-age tales (four posts from December 2011 explain and illustrate coming-of-age stories), and both book and film fit nicely under the sub-genre-heading, Horror Fiction because both explore the relentless “… human need to confront the unknown, the unknowable, and the emotion we experience when in its thrall” (Douglas Winter, defining horror fiction in Prime Evil).

Gordie is not quite thirteen, the only surviving son after the death of his older brother, Dennis. In the grip of grief, Gordie’s parents have little to offer each other and nothing for the awkward, bookish boy left behind, an orphan yet living with his parents. Gordie endures with the help of three school mates, each from dysfunctional families. Together, the four friends embark upon one last great adventure before school begins. They set out to see the body of a boy about their age, a quest that tests their courage and friendship and resolve.

Their journey is much more than a long walk to witness death. The boys, especially Gordie, need to confront Death, a terrible unknown--even to those who have lost someone to death because, as Hamlet observes, death is the undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns (3. 1. 87-88). We have no first-hand accounts, no eye-witness news. We have only our faith and our imaginations to guide us. Thus, we search the expressions of the dead for hints. We place death on a map to the underworld or the heavens above. We make sacrifices to death in ritualized farewells.

We even re-enact death in its most graphic, horrifying shapes, fulfilling a morbid curiosity, and we portray death as an ultimate act of courage, a noble and poignant conclusion to a purpose fulfilled. These moments on stage and screen, unfolding on the pages of great and pulp fiction, allow us to rehearse for the moment when we will be in Death’s thrall. Until then, we can try on emotions. We can rage against the dying of the light (Dylan Thomas), or we can surrender to it as lightly as a reed bends to the waters by which it grows (Emily Dickinson).

Gordie and Chris do a bit of both. They humbly and sorrowfully bear witness to the dead boy until Chris’s rotten older brother and his pals intrude. Then, Gordie and Chris put on the cloak of rage, finding the courage to declare their friendship and defy interlopers while laying claim to a dead boy they didn’t even know. Soon, however, their fierce loyalty to a dead boy fades, and they surrender him, as all of us must, to some larger mystery, that undiscovered country, the one to which we are all inexorably drawn.

The Body tells the story of a quest to know, understand, and prevail in spite of our finite existence. It recreates the journey of mere boys who reveal “… our relentless need to confront the unknown, the unknowable, and the emotion we experience when in its thrall" (Douglas Winter in Prime Evil). Their journey is the journey of horror fiction.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Body, a novella in Stephen King’s Different Seasons, a collection that also includes Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil, and Breathing Lessons. I recommend each of the novellas representing Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter.

Writing Challenge:

Reflect upon the words written for Gordie Lachance by Stephen King:

“The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are things you get ashamed of, because words make them smaller. When they were in your head they were limitless; but when they come out they seem to be no bigger than normal things. But that's not all. The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried; they are clues that could guide your enemies to a prize they would love to steal. It's hard and painful for you to talk about these things ... and then people just look at you strangely. They haven't understood what you've said at all, or why you almost cried while you were saying it.”

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Back to School Basics, Affect and Effect

Students often ask which spelling is correct for the context, affect beginning with an a or effect beginning with an e? These two words are two that many people just can’t keep straight.

One important point to remember is that affect is a verb, and it means to influence or shape. For example:

Change-agents, also known as community organizers, strive to affect community outcomes and prosperity.

Effect, on the other hand, can function as a noun or a verb in sentences. For the noun, effect, result is a synonym; as a verb, effect means to cause. For example:

The net effect (noun) of dark skies and heavy rain is an increase in depressed states of mind among vulnerable segments of the population, notably those suffering from SAD.

Consecutive days of dark clouds and rain effect the levels of sorrow in a population, especially those afflicted with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).