Monday, October 28, 2013

30 Days of Halloween - Day 27: Grotesque Grace (Flannery O'Connor's mystery & misfits)

You can no doubt tell from this series that supernatural horror is generally my favourite area of the genre.  Be that as it may, today I want to add one more entry (in addition to Day 20) on a 'literary' author in the 'realism' tradition that contributes to all this darkness and monstrosity.  Endless reams, academic and journalistic, have been written about O'Connor, and her books occasionally make their way into pop culture.
Flannery's cameo on the TV series Lost

Steve Carell recommends A Good Man is Hard to Find to Juliette Binoche in the movie Dan in Real Life

She is well known as a writer of 'Southern Gothic' (ala Faulkner), a mistress of the grotesque.  She majors in freaks and misfits from her region, describing harsh betrayals and brutal murders infused with incredible transcendent visions of supernatural grace and redemption.  Often it is the very moment of violence that is poetically invested with glory and miracle (resonating with yesterday's post on a theology of gore).  In one story a woman gored on the horns of a runaway bull becomes, in that piercing moment, enlightened.  In another a young boy intentionally drowns himself in a river and thereby enters the Kingdom of Christ.  And so on.  (It happens the other way round too - one character burns his eyes out with lye, possibly in order to remain in spiritual darkness by faith.  Her stories are full of paradoxes and tensions like these between belief and unbelief.)

The monsters in O'Connor are mostly human, person committing atrocity against person.  What's not often remarked on, however, is that the ecology of the Southern region is often a main character in the tales. Her fiction is replete with spare but powerful descriptions of landscape and animal life, especially that of woods and farms, adding a rich ecological dimension to the spiritual heart of the stories.  She dedicated her art to pursuing mystery and she found it in place every bit as much as people (which resonates with the regional writing of Lovecraft on the pulp side and Cormac McCarthy on the literary side).

Indeed, Halloween itself often has regional elements with its pumpkins and apples and scarecrows and the like.  We totally involve our ecology in the spookiness of our festivities.  We like to see our environments creeped out and made monstrous as well as our persons.  There is a holism to Halloween in this sense.

Every once in a while O'Connor even invests the human characters with monstrous imagery drawn from animals. (Mainly pigs!  Oddly reminding one of William Hope Hodgson's pig-creatures in The House on the Borderland.)  She thereby performs unsettling little transmogrifications:

Then he heard a shout and turned his head and saw something like a giant pig bounding after him, shaking a red and white club and shouting... Finally, far downstream, the old man rose like some ancient water monster and stood empty-handed (from 'The River').

The instant she was flat on her back, the image of a razor-backed hog with warts on its face and horns coming out behind its ears snorted into her head.  She moaned... "I am not... a wart hog.  From hell."  But the denial had no force (from 'Revelation').

One of my favourite explicit monster images in O'Connor's work is actually of an inanimate object, a digger tractor: He looked around desperately for someone to help him but the place was deserted except for one huge yellow monster which sat to the side, as stationary as he was, gorging itself on clay (from 'A View of the Woods').

In the future I even hope to write about zombies in her works - there's a surprising amount of zombie-like language in her descriptions, I promise!  (And now I hear echoes of the 'zombie redneck torture family' from the movie Cabin in the Woods.) At any rate, anyone writing (or writing about) theological horror has an indispensable source in the fiction and non-fiction of Flannery O'Connor.