Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail: 2016 A Savage Journey Through the Heart of American Politics

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail: 2016

A Savage Journey Through the Heart of American Politics

by John Cross

Kelan and I had only been together for a few months when I was given a deadline of November 8th by my editor, Gonzo Raoul Prince. His office always reeked of cigarettes and scotch and Febreeze, like the latter was enough to cover up the former and like any of us gave two shits what he did behind closed blinds. He asked that Half Lit cover the campaign trail this vitriolic season and said I had till Election Day to get my article in. I cursed him under breath but agreed because the money was good, and went home and told Kelan who, embattled in her own crisis at work, could only offer me consolatory pats on the shoulder, seemingly oblivious to the corner in which I’d been painted.

My editor a notorious cheapskate, to meet this deadline I had to dip into my personal account to cover initial expenses – to be refunded of course – and I knew I couldn’t do the research and gather my sources and write the piece, and listening to Kelan’s own struggles, I opted for a night out with the guys to see who I might drag along on this potential life-threatening adventure. Did I mention that this had been an exceptionally contentious election season?

Same Bat Time, Same Bat Place: We met for drinks at West Mountain Brewery. Whiplash and Dr. Hunter and the guys were already well in by the time I joined. Whiplash made what had become his signature sound as I took my seat and proceeded to tell the table how I was chained up in a relationship at home. I ordered a Hurricane (I had to teach the bartender how to make it after I returned from Miami), and when I was sure Whiplash was all talked out, I told the table about the assignment.

One old boy whose name I didn’t recall started in on the speech talk, badmouthing one candidate or the other, sipping his dark malt. If this was what I had to endure, I wasn’t sure the promised salary would be enough.

            “You know,” I said. “My grandpa used to say that there are three things you should never discuss. Politics, religion, and baseball.”

            “Cubs are in the playoffs,” another at the table said.

            Whiplash laughed. “John, if that were true, then there would be nothing on Facebook.

I explained my predicament. I said Kelan couldn’t come because of work, and asked if any of them could join me as a research assistant. I was hoping Whiplash would man up. He owed me from earlier this summer when I helped him roof that singlewide after he evicted that couple.

However, it wasn’t Whiplash, but another patron who spoke up. He wore a white bucket hat and orange aviators and a Hawaiian shirt, a cigarette in a filter dangling from his lips.

            He said, “I’ll come with you, Hoss.”

            “What about your practice,” another guy at the table asked.

            “I’ll get another doctor to cover for me,” he said with a shrug, and rose himself out of the chair and stumbled toward me.

            “You ready, Hoss,” he said.

I knew his name, but I’d never realized he was a real doctor. I said as much.

            “Sure, when I got nothing better to do.”

He patted me on the back and headed toward my car, stumbling a bit on the way. We climbed in and I hesitated to start my car. I had known Dr. Hunter as a drinking buddy, but that was it.

            “You don’t have to do this,” I said.

            His laugh was infectious and echoing. “You asked, and I’m free.”

            “What kind of doctor are you?” I asked.

            He offered me a toothy smile. “What kind of journalist are you?”

            “Not a very good one.”

            “Then me and you got something in common.”

He made a couple of phone calls between West Mountain Brewery and my place, one asking a colleague to take his patients and to cover his rounds at Washington Regional. Whoever he called acquiesced the first but not the second, so it took another call to cover his rounds. I still had little clue what he practiced, and asked again as he hung up his cell and I shut off the engine.

            “I’m a psychiatrist,” he said straight-faced, and that brought me the biggest laugh of the night.

I had decided the best bet might be to find representatives of the electorate, and so over a few more beers and the last of my rum, Dr. Hunter and I scoured the Internet to see who were the targeted electorate for each campaign. Trump had pissed off Hispanics, blacks, women, and the handicapped, and Clinton apparently pissed off everyone else. Trump was backed by the disenfranchised middle-aged blue-collar white male and those loyal to the party, which – as it appeared – didn’t include a whole host of congressmen and party leaders who turned their back on the candidate. Clinton was backed by progressives and forgiving Bernie Sanders hopefuls and anyone who’d halfway listened to Trump’s rhetoric.

We spent the evening re-watching the debates and reviewing the transcripts. It was three in the morning when we finally crashed. I was awoken by Kelan shaking me and asking about the guy and the young blonde on our sofa.

            “Blonde?” I said, sitting up. When had he had company? I vaguely remembered doing shots with a blonde and Hunter asking me if I’d like a turn with her first, at her insistence.

I walked to the Keurig and made my coffee. At least Dr. Hunter and the blonde were somewhat clothed. The smell of coffee instigated early stirrings, but it wasn’t till I put on the bacon that they began to rouse. By this point Kelan had crashed and I’d closed our bedroom door to spare her the details of the day – specifics that would remind one forced into the nocturnal that they were missing out on the living.

After frying a pan full of bacon, I scrambled a half dozen eggs and fished the gilded biscuits out of the oven. An accommodating host, I fed the girl before sending her on the walk of shame – a walk as a man I’d taken a number of times. We got to work over our second pot of coffee, after breakfast.

            “We need a reliable news source. Fox? MSNBC?”

            “No and no,” I said. I wanted to stay neutral. Too much of the news was sensational. Like it was our job to entertain. I know, ironic coming from a gonzo journalist, but I never promised to be fair and balanced. I was only ever after fact and then how to see it fit in with my truth. You see, facts are boring and indisputable and are concrete like blocks or a foundation. But truth – it’s malleable. Truth is about perspective and personal experience and truth colors fact beyond the gunmetal gray of textbook history to illustrate the landscape of human growth.

He listed off a bunch of others. Most (CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, Mother Jones) affiliated with the liberal left. Others (Blaze, The New York Observer, Western Journalism) affiliated with the conservative right. Each of them spun the daily headlines to fit their party, embellishing the positives and burying the negatives.

            “NPR?” he asked.

            “Still generally affiliated with the liberal left.”

            “You listen to them?”

            “Who was that girl?”

            He shrugged and sipped his coffee, as if that was answer enough. “I got some podcasts you might want to hear. What about outside the US?”

            “Like who?” I hadn’t even considered.

            He’s fingers worked across my laptop. I made a mental note to pick up his own computer before we ventured out of the area.

            “The BBC,” he said finally. “You know, the whole world is interested in the outcome of this thing.”

            “We got to get some people together.”

            “Working on it,” he said, typing away.

Over the next few hours, he made a few phone calls, reached out to a few contacts, and by that evening we were heading to XNA prepared to fly out to a few perspective interviewees.

DISENFRANCHISED MIDDLE-AGED WHITE MAN

We met him at a local diner that didn’t serve alcohol, in a small town in middle America. The town nor the state mattered. He sat sipping his coffee and barely met our eyes when we joined him. Outside the clouds had parted but we could tell he saw everything through shades of overcast.

DM-AWM: Y’all part of the liberal media?

ME: We just want your story.

DM-AWM: You gonna spin it?

DR: No.

ME: No. We just want to hear what you have to say.

DM-AWM: (sipping his coffee) No one is listening to me. That’s all. No one. Not until Trump came along. The libtards were too worried about the blacks and the Mexicans and the gays, and they say we are the bad guys and we have to give up our jobs. And the Republicans are trying to look out for family values and smaller government and looking out for the little man.

ME: You feel threatened.

DM-AWM: Shouldn’t I? Them libtards are blaming me for everything and I ain’t done nothing. I’m just trying to feed me family. And still I’m getting it from all sides. I was never racist and I was never hateful but when you get blamed for shit for so long, you got to act. You got to stand up for yourself. I’m tired of being blamed for everything. And maybe I wouldn’t be so angry, if I had something to show for it. But I don’t, and so it don’t matter.

DR: So you think Trump is the answer?

DM-AWM: He ain’t my problem. He hears me. It’s better than the Democrats have done.

ME: Seems to me the Republicans have been about big business and playing on Christian values. Some people argue they are to blame for the Great Recession.

DM-AWM: Oh that’s Obama and his policies.

DR: But the recession began before Obama took office…

DM-AWM: You sure you ain’t no Democrat?!

ME: We aren’t. But you feel abandoned?

DM-AWM: Yeah. I don’t care about no God and I ain’t a billionaire, but I ain’t a minority either. I’m just a man trying to make his way in this world and I’m tired of being the bad guy in the media. That’s all.

We thanked him and left. I wondered not for the first time if this wasn’t the problem, that with the advent of technology we hadn’t the opportunity or the time to sit down with each other and really hear each other. That in this virtual world, with all its immediacy, we hadn’t the time to listen to each other.

YOUNG WHITE FEMALE TRUMP SUPPORTE

We met her at a local bar a few towns later. The place was dingy and a bit drafty, and Dr. Hunter ordered us each a round of drinks.

            ME: So why do you support him?

YWFTS (chuckling): He has answers.

ME: Such as?

YWFTS: He has family values.

DR: He’s been married three times. He’s had numerous affairs. He has on numerous times referred to women as sexual objects. He even said he’d date his own daughter if she were old enough.

YWFTS: That’s in the distant past.

ME: No, that’s pretty recent.

YWFTS: Well I can’t afford Obamacare. And we shouldn’t be put in this position. Just because Obama promised us lower premiums and hasn’t delivered.

ME: Fair enough. So what will Trump do?

YWFTS: Why, repeal it and replace it with something better.

ME: What, exactly?

She hem haws.

DR: This has been the problem with the Republican party. They have not been the party of alternative solutions. They have been the party of NO. They have been obstinate and obtrusive to any other idea filtering through Congress. They have solidified themselves as roadblocks to any idea that they haven’t instigated or supported.

ME: What about Russia?

(This was a stretch, but it was a topic I wanted to broach. Trump’s reluctance to disparage Vladimir Putin intrigued me. There were also rumors that Russian hackers were trying to influence the election. I wanted to know why.)

YWFTS: We can’t piss them off. We can’t go against them!

ME: We’ve gone against them the past fifty years. We have never cowered to Russia.

YWFTS: It’s always backfired on us when we’ve tried to go against Russia.

ME: No, we’ve held our own. But you said you can’t afford Obamacare?

YWFTS: Obama said our premiums would go down. They are higher than ever. It’s his fault they’ve gone up!

DR: Well he shouldn’t have promised that. As president, he had no control over what the premiums would do. That lies with the insurance companies. Believe me girl, I deal with it every day. We can blame Obama for that promise, but we can’t blame him for those premium hikes.

YWFTS: So who do we blame that on

While I took some notes, he slid to her side and flirted, and after a few more drinks we retired to our respective rooms. I heard them for a time, drifting only when it quieted into a quick lull, a muted blackness of consciousness.

FEMALE MILLENNIAL CLINTON SUPPORTER

She opted to meet us in a bar with thumping music. Her drink looked and smelled fruity and she was bubbly enough but the air was tinged with legalized weed and tobacco smoke and so the atmosphere was hazy, hung low like smog. I figured she’d be flippant to our cause, but she proved attentive enough.

ME: So someone rooting for the other candidate said he had family values.

She scoffed.

            FMCS: Married three times. I can’t get past how he talked about women. The language.

ME: So is that why you are voting for her? Because you can’t support him?

FMCS: No. They knock her. But they talk about family values and gloss over the fact that she has stuck by her husband for twenty plus years. And all the shit he’s put her through.

ME: Do you want to talk about that. Her shit?

FMCS: (shrugging) No. Before my time.

The music is calling for her. She wants to get up and leave.

ME: So what platform do you think he’s running on?

FMCS: I dunno? Business.

And then she left.

WHITE MALE GEN XER CLINTON SUPPORTER

We connected at a local pool hall over a game of billiards. He wore plaid and a pretentious beard, and was thin with bony shoulders. I ordered a pitcher, unsure that he could hold his own.

WMGXCS: They’re all hung up on the emails. There is nothing there, is all.

ME: But there has been a focus.

WMGXCS: A smokescreen. Russian hackers have fed disinformation to Julian Assange that the Trump Campaign has adopted.

ME: A conspiracy theory?

WMGXCS: That’s the rumor. Trump is in bed with Putin.

ME: What?

WMGXCS: Think about it. If Trump is in bed with Putin, then this could be the first time in history that Russia and the US could be linked as allies. And that means that Russia could control us.

3RD PARTY VOTER DISILLUSIONED BY THE SYSTEM

We met next with a voter disillusioned by the system. He was a youngish man, dipped in rhetoric by his heel, thirsty from the atrocity flowing through the nation.

            DBTS: We can’t even trust any of the media. We just need a straight story.

ME: A straight story doesn’t exist anymore.

ANGRY MINORITY VOTERS PISSED AT RHETORIC

We came across a collection of voters, all who eschewed me. For no matter the outcome, I was not in danger of being ostracized from the republic. I was a white male most vigorously represented by the dying auspices of the Trump campaign.

            The Latinos were angry that he wanted to build a wall.

            The blacks were angry that he disparaged their urban neighborhoods.

            None of the handicapped appreciated that he’d just mocked them on TV.

We returned home, on the eve of the election. We were exhausted.

In fact, Dr. Hunter didn’t even offer to go home. He drank the liquor in my cabinet and offered only to crash on my couch and in the cool and in the dark, I stared out through the blinds, wondering when Kelan would make it home.

At some point, I hit send only after reading through my story. There was so much more to tell, but I was bound by a deadline.

 

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31 Days of Halloween: All Hallow’s Eve

31 Days of Halloween: All Hallow’s Eve

We met for drinks and food at Sky Bar Gourmet Pizza on the fourth floor of the Crescent Hotel, me and my Voynich Manuscript connection. I’d known her for some time and always enjoyed her company. She was very pretty and scholarly, having studied medieval literature and getting her masters in English folktales and finally doing what ultimately amounted to a controversial dissertation on magic in the middle ages and focusing on grimoires. She ordered an Electric Therapy and I ordered a Miller Lite and stared out across the hills. It was dark but not particularly cold. We’d not hit a sufficient cold snap since summer and even now the evening temps were in the low seventies. The Ozark color change normally spectacular, the lack of cold now relegating the brilliant variegation to muted browns and reds and yellows.

Across the way I noticed the statue of the Ozarks and muttered, “Christ,” and when she asked me what was wrong, slightly alarmed, I pointed to the hilltop statue. In all his marble glory, the Son of God stood over the treetops on the opposite hill, arms stretched wide.

I smiled at the joke, hoping she’d smile too. The waiter appeared.

“Know what you want?”

“Pizza,” she said with a grin.

I specified, and ordered something with rum in it. The waiter asked if I wanted a Mojito and I said I’d never had one and didn’t want to start now, then had him bring a rum and coke.

“So this manuscript,” I said.

“It’s out there,” she shrugged, and took a sip of her drink. “I got a room here tonight. Booked up, but I got one.”

“You told me you knew how to get it. You said if we met…”

“I know where it is. I didn’t say I could get it. It’s on the internet. Why not just use that?”

“It isn’t accurate enough. Things are lost when you don’t have the print copy in hand. That’s what I’m told anyway.”

The deal with the Voynich Manuscript is that it is centuries old. But the writing in it is indecipherable and the illustrations are incongruent with known life. Countless scholars and linguists have failed to interpret the scratchings that serve as words and only guesses can be made to identify the flora and fauna and other diagrams represented on the pages.

She looked at me quizzically. She had this thing, when she was studying something, she’d tilt her head. “That’s what you were told? Why do you want it, really?”

I’d told her originally that I had a book collector who was sure he could translate it who wanted to rent it for a lot of money, and that had sustained her for a while. But now, when she was questioning me, it wasn’t from any deviation to my story, but the desperation in my voice, the need for my friend to get what I’d promised him, and the realization with her flippancy that I’d failed.

I said, “In every discoloration and minor crease in the fold, in every unobtrusive watermark and intentional scuff of each folio, there is a purpose meant to help decode the text. Such things can be hidden on the internet, or in facsimiles, or in copies. Copies and facsimiles lie because they are artificial. The internet lies, because it is artificial, and it flourishes and it grows in its artificiality.”

“Poetic,” she said. She lowered her gaze to the table for a time, as if in consideration. “I don’t have it,” she said finally, admitting that which I already knew. “But I know where it is, or I have an idea.”

“Great. Then I’ll come with. We can…”

She shook her head. “If I’m right, if it’s where I think it is, then you wouldn’t be of any help. Let me try; it’s obviously important to you. I’ll keep you informed. I promise.”

I wanted to go, and if it were anyone else, I would have insisted, but we had a history, and I trusted her.

The waiter brought out the pizza and served us each our first slices. She ordered another drink and we ate in silence, polishing off enough pizza to regain our sobriety. I sat staring at the Christ statue, the food and drink settling into every nook and cranny of my gullet, when she spoke again.

“Ever been on the ghost tour here?”

“No,” I lied.

The tour was seventy-five minutes long. It began on the fourth floor, across the hall from the pizza restaurant. We paid $23.00 bucks each and filtered into a room that had been turned into a museum of sorts. We sat in two of the two dozen folding chairs and watched the others fill up. After a brief history lesson about the hotel’s construction in 1886, we emerged from the museum room and began the tour.

On the fourth floor over by the elevator, a small child fell to her death. The railing there still stood at the original Victorian height which was too short for modern Americans. I’m just over six feet and I had to bend to rake my fingertips over the polished mahogany. Apparently the child toppled either through the railing or over it and fell all the way to her death to the basement floor below, a floor below the lobby, five floors in all.

She can be seen, at times, next to the beds of the sleeping on this floor. She can be felt trying to hold the hands of men – a daddy’s girl – or tugging waist level at the shirts of adults whose attention she craves.

That was at the south end. We were told that on the south end, when the hotel had been converted to a cancer hospital, that the sickest patients had slept here.

On the north end, a ghost believed to be either the head nurse or head bookkeeper can be seen struggling for the key to get in her room. A fastidious, cantankerous woman who didn’t always approve of the guests, she’s been known to pack bags and stow them against the door of tenants she didn’t approve.

The north end of the third floor was an annex for servant’s quarters built after the rest of the hotel. Later, during the cancer hospital days, it was where the sickest patients went to suffer and die.

The Cancer Hospital.

Dr. Norman Baker was a doctor through self-proclamation only. He was a charlatan and an opportunist, and in 1937, found the Crescent Hotel offered up for cheap, and bought it “for a song and a dance.” Promising up a cure for cancer, and promising jobs for every citizen in town, he proffered his services to all who’d come, and really, how many people died at his hand is unknown to this day.

A conspiracy theorist and one who distrusted medical professionals, Dr. Baker promised a cure from cancer in a concoction derived from nothing more than a useless mix of watermelon seed, brown corn silk, alcohol, and carbolic acid. He’d inject this concoction directly into the tumors without anesthesia, so the pain was immense. A believer in holistic medicine, he’d often tell the patients to “will” themselves to get better. His scheme was much more nefarious.

He’d determine first which of his patients had families and which didn’t. For those that didn’t, he’d have them sign a form that willed all of their property to him. For those with families, he’d have his patients sign the bottom of three letters.

He’d continue his treatment till the patient died, and then he’d send out the first of the three letters. In it, he’d ask for more money, promising the treatment was working, but saying he needed more money because the treatment was proving costly. The second letter reiterated the same notion. He’d send the second letter out a month or so after the first, and so two months or so after the patient died. The third letter would be sent after money had been received from the first two, and ideally after more time had passed.

The third letter stated that despite all his efforts, the patient had passed. It would ask for more money to ship the body back to the family, or promised as an alternative to dispose of the remains in a respectful manner free of charge. The thing is, the amounts asked for in each of these letters was tailored to the disclosed finances of the patient, so that by the time the third letter came around, the family funds were already quite sufficiently depleted. Most asked that Baker inter the body himself.

An on-site crematorium was used for this purpose, and there still exists a small room in the basement where the bodies were stored twenty-six deep, when stacked correctly.

Upon its founding in the late 1880’s, Eureka Springs had around 15,000 people camping on and around the two facing hills. Nowadays the town houses some two to three thousand people. In Baker’s day, it was probably closer to this modern census. Nowadays, one funeral home stays busy enough. But at the time of the cancer hospital, the town employed three full time funeral homes and the hotel had — on site — a crematorium. How many bodies were burned, the number cannot be known.

Eventually, the federal government indicted Norman Baker on mail fraud for identifying himself as a doctor. By the time he was released from prison, the Crescent had an owner no longer and had fallen into disrepair, and as a final bit of irony, Baker died in his seventies after a short battle with brain cancer.

After it was a luxury resort and hotel – its title when it was first built – it was turned into a girl’s college from 1908 to 1932. The second president of the college, Mr. Richard R. Thompson, MA, did everything he could to secure the purity of the college. His strictness ensured that lights out occurred at the same time, and no boys were allowed upstairs. But the girls who attended this school, studying real and serious subjects like language, the Arts, business, and nursing, were also from the wealthiest and most prominent of Arkansas families. When the boys came to visit, the girls would sneak them up to their rooms by lowering a basket attached to a pulley, hoisting only when the boys called out with an understood signal.

One night, Thompson caught a boy in the bush, and got him to hit the bricks, but not before Thompson had taken his place his place in the basket. He had been hoisted to the third floor when the girls finally realized who was in the basket, and terrified, let loose the rope and let him drop. Mr. Thompson survived the fall, but he walked with a limp after that.

Relating to Mr. Thompson, the next ghost story takes place on the north end of the second floor. Thompson’s son was but a willful four-year-old when, on his birthday, he was asked if he wanted someone else to light the candles on his cake or if he would like to do it. You never give a toddler a chance at independence. The boy asked to light his own candles, proud to accomplish some task with such advanced and dangerous technology under human control. His accomplishment was short lived; for just a few short days later, the boy was dead.

He can be heard bouncing a ball or knocking on doors asking if people will play with him. Once it is reported that a group of kids were playing ball in an attempt to entice the little spirit, and scattered when a hotel denizen came out to investigate the noise. That patron saw only a little boy about four or five, dressed in old fashioned clothes, who walked around the corner and asked where the other children had gone. When she pointed up the stairs, he thanked her very cordially, then bolted up the risers – one…two…three…four…five – and vanished.

Down the hall, room 218 is perhaps the most haunted room of the hotel, and the oldest ghost of the premises seems to frequent there. Michael was an Irish stone mason of about seventeen employed to help build the hotel. The Crescent, named for the plot of land atop this mountain in this general shape, was carved into a French Gothic style out of area limestone. Stonemasons were employed, and the story goes that Michael, quite the lady’s man, found two such coquettish beauties with whom to flirt as he worked on the construction of the roof, so long ago. Ah the impetuousness of youth, and the belief that you are immortal. He slipped and fell, two stories down, landing in what was to be this room.

He is known to be mischievous and still a flirt with the ladies, playing little pranks on anyone who stays in his room.

Our small crowd of twenty blocked entrance to this room, and two intruders stood patiently at the rear of the semi-circle, interested in getting by. They heard Michael’s tale as we all did, and produced a key to let them into 218.

“Take pictures,” they said, laughing it off. “Whoever wants to come.”

“I cannot encourage any of you to enter any of these rooms,” the tour guide said, and moved on down the hall. My contact lingered, and with the encouragement of the patrons, took a few steps in the snap a few pictures with a cell phone.”

We hurried to catch up.

We found the group in the lobby, gathered about the massive stone fireplace. Above the hearth, this poem inscribed:

Although, upon a summers day,

You’ll lightly turn from me away;

When autumn leaves are scattered wide

You’ll often linger by my side;

But when the snow the earth doth cover

Then you will be my ardent lover

 

Transfixed by the poem, I missed the group’s egress out the front doors, and by the time I caught up, I’d missed the story about the statue out front. My contact looked at me scholarly and with rebuke, a furrowed brow over her plastic spectacle frames. I arrived in time to hear the tour guide direct us to the basement, what was the hospital morgue. We entered through a small side door out the back building for the climax to the Dr. Baker story. There were no more answers and nothing more enlightening here. Just cold and stone and throwbacks to old ghost-hunting reality shows.

I remembered the episode. It was back when most of the episodes ended with these ghost-hunters reluctant to call the place they’d visited haunted. Now it seems like every place they visit is filled with ghosts. I don’t know which I believe more. At least then, when their skepticism is rebuffed, it felt more authentic, although a skeptic might more believe with the number of dead traipsing this mortal coil – if there were such a thing – then every place would be haunted as they’re finding now.

You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.

We walked back up to 406 after a bit more ghost hunting and we were quite sober by this point. I was not, because of my prodigious tolerance for alcohol, anywhere near drunk, and I’m sure neither was she.

Still, she began jumping on the raised four-poster bed, inviting me to join her, laughing as though she were on a trampoline. She was shorter than I by a foot, her head coming dangerously close to the rotating ceiling fan. She reached out a hand, inviting. Begging.

“I can’t,” I said.

She shrugged.

“Aren’t you afraid of angering the ghosts?”

She laughed and plopped to her seat.

“You don’t believe in that stuff, do you?”

I was completely bamboozled now. In the space of an instant I recalled her pedigree, and found my own head cocking at my befuddlement with her. She laughed and reached out and took my hands.

“You think I believe this crap?”

“Weren’t you raised Catholic?”

She shrugged again. Such insouciance from the learned types and the young.

“I’ve never seen anything. I guess I spent my life chasing a ghost.”

“Did you ever believe?” And wouldn’t her whole dissertation then be called into question?

“No,” she said after the briefest of contemplations.

We fucked and switched off the lights and went to bed, sleeping soundly till around three a.m.

Now, I’ve known her well enough, over the years. We have never lived together, but I’ve known her in other ways. I know for a fact that once she goes to sleep, she sleeps soundly. You can rock her and jostle her all you want, but you generally won’t even get a peep. Once early one morning in Budapest I leant in and tried to give her a kiss, and she was near waking anyway and not used to company, from what we had discussed, and near waking she must have been roused from somnolence by my presence, and rose and swung. I ducked instinctively so that her fist swirled in a wide arc.

It was my turn in somnolence. The temperature of the room rose dramatically. I am a cool sleeper, and to feel the heat roused me from the deepest of dreams. But as I registered to the dark, the room temperature bottomed out and I felt my breath scream out from my lips, and then I heard her, coiled next to me, roused from her deep sleep.

She lay on her stomach, and told me later she felt her pillow rock from side to side. She felt her upper torso raise and drop nearer to her edge of the bed. She felt herself raise and drop again. She was nearer the edge of the mattress and the four-foot drop-off to the floor might as well have been a thousand-foot cliff, because the floor below was an all-consuming black. An eternal void.

“Don’t let me fall!” she screamed.

I awoke fully in that instant.

“The face! The face!” she screamed.

I flipped over, jostling the mattress. A black mass flitted to the corner, and then we were shrouded in Victorian covers.

“It can’t see us,” she said.

“What was it?”

“Like a projection. A face. Over the blackness.”

I thought of the statue, the Christ looming on the hill over the trees, opposing this place.

I removed the covers and flicked on the light, drowning out any potential demons. I rose and she rose and we looked about the room. Artificial bulbs dulled demonic power. In such light such things felt impossible. We thought we were safe.

We walked into the hall and investigated downstairs. Unlike earlier, the hotel was silent of the wanderers and noise and talkers. The interlopers. We walked back to her room and she laid down and covered up.

“If I can sleep, I’ll tell you where the manuscript is tomorrow.”

“I trust you,” I said. “If you want to go get it.”

“I’m not sure I do, anymore,” she said.

I stayed with her, the lights on, till she drifted off, and then I walked back downstairs. I found on the front desk a three-ring binder filled with the story of the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs. I sat on the couch in front of the great stone fireplace, perusing the folder. To the rear of the lobby, one of the massive wood doors swung open at the whim of the hilltop wind. Slowly. Silently.

I asked the night clerk for coffee and studied the readings, and ventured at once back down to the morgue, which after hours I found locked. I hunted the other spirits on the various levels but came up empty, and just after dawn I returned to the still-lit room as she woke.

I brought her coffee from McDonalds but no food because I knew she was a health nut. I exercised too, but was not so strict, so I ate my sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit and my hash brown without regret in front of her. Checkout was at eleven. We turned in the keys four hours early. She kissed my cheek and handed to me a folded piece of paper.

“There are thirty-five grimoires,” she said. “I’ll get a bead on the Voynich, but here’s a list of the others. They might help your friend.”

“I thought, after last night, you…”

She smiled as much for herself as for me. “I’m fine. We’ll help him. Don’t worry.”

“And last night?”

“When I was a little girl, I was really close to my grandfather. He’d take me to ballgames and to parks and every Sunday, when the ice-cream truck came around after church, he’d make sure I was out by the curb, money in hand, ready for my popsicle.

“And then one day he was dead. My mom and dad took me over to see him and we all found him in his favorite recliner. Like a waxwork impression of him asleep.”

“I still don’t get it. You wrote about magic and the spiritual and the reality of it all. But you act like you don’t believe.”

She shrugged. We were standing now under the shadow the Crescent at the door to her VW Bug, and she leaned against the open door and the frame with one foot propped back against the door jam and we were both under the shadow of the hotel.

“I was angry for him leaving and I was desperate to know where he’d gone, if he’d gone anywhere. I wanted to believe. But wanting to believe means that I can’t believe yet, and so I was a skeptic. Till last night.”

“What did you see?”

“A face. Hovering, projecting in the darkness. It nearly tossed me out of bed.”

I went for a hug but she stepped away, forever changed by her experience at the Crescent Hotel. She offered me a consolatory smile and half-curtsied and turned to her car, and within another minute had vanished from my life.

I drove to my biographers and crashed in his bed till well after noon. When I awoke he and his wife were gone. I left without a note but with the intent that I needed to stay in the area for a time. I called him later and he met me for a beer. We perched at Apple Blossom, drinking each a Fayetteweisse.

“You got a place lined out?”

I nodded. I knew that he loved me, and I knew that if he had a five-thousand square foot home, as opposed to his little apartment, as far as his wife was concerned, and as far as he was concerned, then there still wouldn’t be enough room for me.

“Good. How’d that girl work out?”

I shrugged noncommittally and sipped my beer. I would find an apartment soon enough. I’d make my own life here in Northwest Arkansas.

31 Days of Halloween: Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker

Infusing Reality into Horror

Examining the Narrative Style of Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker

 

My last literature post this Halloween season will examine two iconic works of horror fiction, and especially what about the way they’re written allows them to qualify as literature. In fact, Frankenstein and Dracula should be the bar we strive to reach as genre writers.

MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN

The novel is framed as an extended letter from Captain Walton to his sister. Walton has embarked for queen and country on a journey to find the Northwest Passage – a supposed link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that the British believed existed and in pursuit of this, many lives were lost. A factual endeavor, it is during this trip that Walton, as his ship cuts through the ice, comes across a near frozen man seemingly adrift in the Arctic.

Ordering the man on board, Walton and crew nurse him back to health, only to learn that something more menacing is stalking them out on the ice. As the stranger recovers, he introduces himself as Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and begins his story.

As much a science fiction story as Gothic horror (before Sci-Fi was even a genre), Frankenstein is also a social commentary on the changing face of science in the early 19th Century, including all its struggles and pitfalls. Victor Frankenstein was an amalgam of real scientists at the time who, because bodies weren’t being volunteered for research (still seen as a criminal act by a large portion of the society), resorted to grave robbing and other less than legal methods to obtain viable test subjects.

While his uncle started the experiments into electricity’s effects on animals and tissue, Giovanni Aldini is one scientist whose work is most attributed as influencing the writer. His famous public experiment with electricity on the body of recently executed criminal George Forster was enough to frighten his audience into thinking that with enough electricity, he could reanimate the corpse and imbue it once more with life.

Shelley would have learned of this, and this would have informed her story, where in Dr. Frankenstein performs just such a feat on his creation. Her story, when published, proved popular, not just as a work of fiction, but also helped to further the work of serious scientists.

Now we have defibrillators – machines that deliver electrical charges meant to normalize a heartbeat – and doctors can perform skin grafts and organ transplants. Surgeons can still a beating heart for surgery, effectively “killing” a patient so as to perform various cardiac surgeries, then restart the heart and bring them back to life.

Her work has gone on to be revisited in a variety of media and has seen numerous interpretations, till Frankenstein’s monster (and especially Boris Karloff’s iconic iteration as the creature) is one of the most recognizable characters in horror to this day.

BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA

Another character based on a historical figure, the novel takes the structure introduced by Shelley and amps it up a thousand. A collection of letters, journals, phonograph recordings, newspapers, diary entries, and official logs and bureaucratic paperwork tell the story of Count Dracula in his quest to take over London, and the small group bent on stopping him.

But its more than just innovative structuring that makes this novel a great piece of literature. The reader is presented with the sexually-repressed though scientifically advanced western society versus the primitive eastern culture, still believing in magic and sexually amoral.

What we have with the plot then is a kind of moralistic tug of war between two distinct ideologies featured in two distinct cultures. Jonathan Harker represents the scientifically grounded, sexually repressed Briton who invades the “primitive” world of the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania. He is introduced immediately to superstition and wild supernatural beliefs, and the sexual frivolity of Dracula’s three brides.

Dracula then travels to London, and Harker, who is able to escape the women, is able to follow once he escapes. As the reader follows Dracula to London, we meet Jonathan Harker’s betrothed, Mina, her best friend, Lucy, and her three suitors, Dr. Seward, Sir Arthur Holmwood, and American (and cowboy) Quincey Morris. We also meet Renfield, one of many psychiatric patients being treated by Dr. Seward. The significance of Renfield is that he was Harker’s predecessor in traveling to Transylvania and was sent back by Dracula, seemingly insane, to act as his human servant in London. Finally, we meet Professor Abraham Van Helsing.

As a quick character study, we can draw a bisecting line between the two primary cultures and place most characters on either side, in either column. Lucy and her suitors, Mina, and Harker all would fall easily into representative Western culture. Harker, exposed to the veracity of the other culture, though, might be the first character to ultimately straddle the fence. Dracula and his ilk and the peasants we meet under the shadow of his castle (as well as a few British peasantry as minor characters) would fall easily into the Eastern culture column. The first character we meet who straddles the two cultures is Van Helsing. He is called in by his former student because he has knowledge of various worldly and alien diseases that Seward’s medicine can’t touch.

As has become cliché for horror stories, but a necessary one given the Western culture’s pragmatic vision of the world, before any consideration of the supernatural can be entertained, the protagonists must exhaust all scientific explanation. Only when that is done can we then address or be ready to believe, the more fantastic.

It is this delay that costs Lucy her life, and it is that losing battle that begins to move our characters from the black and white worldview to a grayer, more supernatural outlook. This is manifested in the plot, as well, as after having successfully curtailed Dracula’s efforts in London, the heroes chase him back to his home in Transylvania to finish the job once and for all. They arrive in the eastern culture, at war with Dracula’s gypsies, racing against the clock to destroy the count, not with science but by fully immersing themselves in the regions culture, superstitions, beliefs, and magics.

On a grander scale, Stoker seems to be writing a story about Western imperialism, a social commentary on sexual frigidity, a story that plays with narrative structure and explores in depth character feeling.

Together, these two novels present as more than just stories about a vampire and about a scientist’s quest to animate dead tissue. By playing with narrative form and investigating deeper themes, they elevate themselves above genre convention, and this is why the two novels have prevailed.

~

Especially for a professional blogger, the Crescent is too expensive to stay at for a long period, so I’ve been staying with my biographer and his wife for several weeks. Now that we have entered the Halloween weekend, I have returned for another night at the Crescent before finally meeting with my connection to the Voynich Manuscript (she had neglected to tell me she had been at a speaking conference for most of the month of October), an event that will provide me certain answers and raise more questions, and send me from America’s most haunted hotel to a haunted Civil War Battlefield.

 

Stay tuned for the conclusion to this month-long adventure. Half Lit: 31 Days of Halloween – The Voynich Manuscript. Coming next.

31 Days of Halloween: Henry James

 

The Governess and the Ghosts,

The Governess and the children

Studying Character Relationships

In Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw

 

Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is nothing if not a study in Character as Voice, which in this short work is an idea also deeply entwined with Character as Thought. The reader is unable to get away from the Governess’ mind, and in fact we are wrapped up in her thoughts throughout the entirety of the work.

But other than POV, James uses Character as Voice to relay dialogue that can be intentionally vague, dialogue that is meant to convey subtle emotion and interaction between characters more than push plot, which good dialogue is supposed to do. What complicates the dialogue is the interjection of Character as Thought, as the Governess continuously mentally interprets for the reader what she sees and hears, how the characters around her act, or how she believes they act. A passage that illustrates the complexity of Character as Voice and the Character as Thought follows:

He stood there smiling; then at last he put into two words—“Do you?”—more discrimination than I had ever heard two words contain. Before I had time to deal with that, however, he continued as if with the sense that this was an impertinence to be softened. “Nothing could be more charming than the way you take it, for of course if we’re alone together now it’s you that are alone most. But I hope,” he threw in, “you don’t particularly mind!” (211)

Starting with Character as Voice, we are given external dialogue between the boy and the Governess, where she has just asked him if he enjoyed the freedom he was seeing at the country estate. The dialogue shows the deep wordplay of the boy, how he toys with the Governess, and is made a more complex passage by the Governess’ thoughts throughout the passage.

The closest we can get within the story to authorial interpretation of Character comes in the introduction, where a group of friends have gathered and one—Douglas—relates the story as it was told to him by his former Governess years before. Of the Governess—not only Douglas’ charge but the heroine of the tale—he says: “She was the most agreeable woman I’ve ever known in her position; she’d have been worthy of any whatever,” (116) as part of her description. We get similar descriptions from the Governess concerning the children, consistently calling them angels and beautiful and innocent, which James uses to play against the growing dread within the Governess’ mind. At one point when she confronts Miles, the author interplays adjectives of “beautiful” and “angelic” and “innocent” with the Governess’ actions and words, which convey not love but fear.

Character as Conflict enters the novel almost instantly, as the Governess’ desire to do a good job and love these children is put at odds with the sightings of the ghosts and the apparent haunting of the children whom the Governess believes are being swayed by the spirits. If the common interpretation is to be believed (that the spirits are externalizations of the Governess’ repressed psyche) then the conflict is internalized and shows the Governess’ fractured mind. But I have another interpretation that heightens the terror: The ghosts are not manifestations of hers but of the children, and represent the darkness in the children. After all, the spirits are localized to each child, Quint to the boy, Miles, and Ms. Jessel to little Flora. And only after the Governess described the man she saw, was Mrs. Grose able to identify him as Quint. How could the Governess positively identify a man whose existence she had no previous knowledge of, if the ghosts are solely in her mind? But if the ghosts are images of the darkness within the children, then the complexity of conflict is externalized and there offers up yet another turn of the screw.

 

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw, The Aspern Papers and Two Stories. Barnes & Noble Books. New York. 2003.

Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. Penguin Academics. New York. 2003

31 Days of Halloween:What Makes Literature

What Makes Literature

*Note: This post on Half Lit has been written by John Cross’ “biographer” – author and professor, Jeremy Billingsley. While John is on his adventure in Northwest Arkansas, I thought I’d take this time to address the differences between genre fiction and actual literature.

When I talk about creative writing with my students, I introduce them to elements of the craft and to vocabulary that helps us better discuss craft. We talk about character and setting/atmosphere and dialogue and … Do you know the difference between story and plot? I do. And they do. We discuss free indirect style and village chorus and concrete images and passive v. active voice. We discuss diction and syntax and the difference between a scene and a summary. We discuss what makes interesting sentences and what makes for boring sentences. We read and we write and we workshop.

But at some point in time, I find I must discuss at some point genre fiction. I have found that incorporating Lisa Roney’s text – Serious Daring: Creative Writing in Four Genres – has helped me and my students gauge the difference between good and bad writing. Roney mentions some authors in her book, for clarification. I might repeat that here. But people need to understand what we’re ranking. We aren’t saying that some of these names aren’t bestselling authors, and even that they haven’t written an entertaining story. We are judging them only on literary merit, on the mastery of the craft itself, so please do not find yourself a detractor or think that I’m bashing your favorite author.

As Roney states in the first sentence of Chapter 15, “This chapter will make some people mad, maybe even you. Maybe even your instructor” (247). The discussion of literary quality can be as dicey as critiquing a freshman storyteller’s prose for the first time. Both sides of the literary discourse are controversial and deeply personal. I understand that (as does Roney), and neither of us are out to offend any reader’s personal taste. To better understand the layers with which writing is judged, we must establish a rubric for which literature is judged. We can then rank literature based on these agreed upon notions. It should be noted that, while I copy these bullet points from Roney’s book, the criteria for what makes for good literature isn’t hers alone, but is a universally agreed-upon standard by academics. As they hold the bar high, we should rate ourselves comparatively, for why not bother to strive for the best.

As a litmus test, most forms of high literature meet most of the following criteria—

–often associated with “realism” but that doesn’t define literature by itself

–distinguishable style

–depth of meaning and unusual insight

–often contains elements of social criticism

–usually character-driven with complex human nature on display

–ambitions beyond mere entertainment

–lasting value

–complexity, calling for rereading

–pleasure in the language, not just the plot

–non-formulaic/original

In conjunction with all of this, a writer writes for sympathy and social change. The writer respects the individual and affects the individual. The writer is a rebel.

These are indeed lofty standards to reach, and if we use this as a checklist, and do so honestly, then we can see what works live up to this standard and what works don’t. While this might exclude a lot of authors – or keep them from attaining a higher status – this checklist also doesn’t favor the academic. After all, the strict academic eschews genre writing for the TS Eliot “modernist” view: writer’s write for realism, writer’s write for language and for art and for those who appreciate reading and not for money, the characters are deep and true to life. That isn’t bad, in and of itself, but these same academics place Shakespeare (whom I love), on a rose-colored pedestal without seeing the whole picture. They marvel at his words and diction and syntax, placing art above all else, without acknowledging that he also wrote to sell tickets to make money – a modernist “cardinal sin” in writing. They turn their nose up at genre writing: ghosts (Hamlet), witches (MacBeth), magic (The Tempest), and fairies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) have no place in real literature, and speaking above and beyond Shakespeare, nor does sci-fi / monsters (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) or vampires (Bram Stoker’s Dracula).

But a closer look at these (and similar) titles finds that when academics relax their standards a bit, and consider the entire rubric, then these “genre” pieces really elevate to meet most if not all the criteria set forth as above. Hamlet’s dead father becomes the impetus for his guilt-ridden conscience in a play steeped in psychology hundreds of years before psychology was a thing. Mary Shelley’s opus was as much a commentary on the state of anatomical research of the 19th century as it was an imagining of what technology could do to extend human life (and now we have defibulators, skin-grafts, and organ transplants). Prospero is a richly defined vengeful character who happened to drive the plot by becoming a sorcerer as much as MacBeth is both protagonist and villain of his own story. Puck and Oberon as immortal beings speak as much to the human condition as their human counterparts (who themselves comment on the state of love and marriage in Shakespeare’s day), and Dracula is as much about London’s puritanical views of sexuality at the time as it is about science’s battle with old world culture.

These pieces play with characters and with story and with genre and with language and with presentation, and come up with something wholly original. There are modern versions of this kind of genre as literature. David Mitchell has written some great books, and Mark Z. Danielewski wrote a 21st century masterpiece of horror and literature. Shirley Jackson, Henry James, and Edgar Allan Poe have all contributed to the literary and genre discourse, but they aren’t the only ones. And literary writing isn’t the only level.

As it stands, there are three gradations to judge literature on. There is the high literary, of which we’ve discussed at length. There is the genre writing that attempts to elevate itself above the norm, and there is the schlock and drivel. The writing of the S&D has flat characters, standard plot and genre tropes, and is essentially the antithesis of everything that the above rubric calls for. S&D “requires little instruction to read, to understand, or to emulate – you generally appreciate that on your own” (250).

A lot of this writing is formulaic, and so negates the need for specialized instruction. Creative Writing workshops, by and large, are meant to be small classes that focus on specialized attention to aspects of the craft: character development and story and theme, imagery, voice.

It is with Roney’s third point here about devaluing genre writing that I find contention with, though this is a point most academics will agree. She writes that institutions of higher education are, by definition, “places of intellectual and higher learning, and they place value on the arts beyond their commercial appeal” (250), and I won’t contest that view (with regard to the Humanities, though we could have a long discussion on how the perception and purpose of college has shifted for the worse in recent years), but I do contest that assertion with regard to the loftiness itself, ignoring the epitome of their worship (William Shakespeare) and the motivations for his writing.

So where do your favorite authors fall? By and large, I’ll agree with Lisa Roney in her assessment that I’ll list out below, but I would encourage any intelligent debate who wants to contest the rankings. And remember, this isn’t about profitability or brand recognition alone, but it is a judgement of all the rubric criteria.

Schlock & Drivel – EL James, Stephanie Meyer, James Patterson

Elevated Genre – JK Rowling, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King

High Literary – Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Henry James

We have to think more complexly about the state of writing. With regard to Shakespeare, we must examine all his choices. We can’t simply dismiss elements of craft or motivations for the art to fit our own narrative. That must make us refine or at least adjust the accepted rubric.

We must recognize the gradations. There are probably more than just the three levels. James Patterson’s Alex Cross is probably as complex a character as any crafted in fiction, though his depth is spread out over numerous works.

We have fallen into a trap of nearly excluding writers because they are popular. Haruki Murakami should be the recipient of numerous awards, but because his writing can be classified, even slightly, as “genre,” he appears to be mostly disqualified. On the flipside, Cormac McCarthy has built a legacy of literary writing, but it is his “recent” forays into genre that have earned him the most acclaim.

As academics, we must relax our centuries-old standards and antiquated “modernist” beliefs, and as genre writers we must embrace the craft. I for one have started this process. I emphasize vocabulary and I stress craft in workshop, while I refuse to stifle the student imagination and allow them to write genre.

You write horror or thriller or romance or erotica, mystery, science fiction, or fantasy. But in my class, you are going to write it well.

31 Days of Halloween: Final Thoughts on Horror and the Evolution of the English Language

 

A Prologue to Sir Topas

In my continuing search for what wonder meant in the Middle Ages, and how Chaucer and his contemporaries regarded what we now consider mythical creatures, and why Chaucer would write about these beings, I came across a curious article regarding the tale of Sr. Thopas. In “The Moment of Sir Thopas: Towards a New Look at Chaucer’s Language,” critic Alan T. Gaylord examines the language of the story and Chaucer’s experimentation with the new “written” English even while dismissing the nature of the story—the plot and characters—as merely a device to deliver some of his most stylized and intricate writing. While I agree with most of his principals, I feel dismissing the story outright robs the reader of dual meaning. All in all, Gaylord argues that Chaucer uses the story to “show the attentive reader a great deal about [his] language” and also his ideas of language (311). I will further demonstrate how that argument is relevant to my research project through an analysis of a few passages from “Sir Thopas.”

There are five points Gaylord uses to support his thesis. The first are definitions of Chaucer’s contemporaries concerning their ideas of language. Gaylord quotes both Eustache Deschamps and Dante Alighieri. Of Deschamps he writes, “Deschamps emphasizes the recreative function of poetry as musique naturele, and provides an inventory of metrical forms; in speaking of patterns, rhyme schemes, and medicinal lyric refreshments,” and for this he mentions Sir Thopas and its lyrical speak (312). We can hear such patterns and rhyme schemes from the opening lines of the tale, where Chaucer writes, “Listeth, lords, in good entent, and I wol telle verrayment of myrthe and of solas, al of a knight was fair and gent in bataille and in tourneyment; his name was sire Thopas,” and when the lines are quoted aloud—not just read—we get the lyricism Deschamps was referring to (712-717). Dante’s exposition is similar but with a crucial difference, that “language one naturally learns to speak is to be transformed, as the poet invents—in the rhetorical sense of “discovers”—a purified and elevated version for expressing the highest matters” and it is with this crucial definition that Chaucer’s contemporary admirers praised him for throughout most of his works. This definition seems the meat of the argument that his contemporary critics argued against this tale in particular (313).

Examining the critics, Gaylord then begins to dissect the argument that linguistically and stylistically the story is bad—as the host protests. Looking at texts from English school children and critiques by George Kane, Chaucer’s style of writing shouldn’t be overstated. Of George Kitchin, Gaylord writes “Thopas is presumed to act as a kind of foolsbane, exterminating a “stupid fashion” with homeopathic magic,” (313). His biggest contention is with Laura Hibbard Loomis—his “chief offender” for chastising Chaucer’s tale, and while he concedes she makes some good points throughout her article, he rejects her inadequate argument of the failure of the text as she uses such vague and subjective terms as “long-winded” and “inconsequent” and her points are reduced to opinions with no substantive value (314).

After dissecting the critics arguments, he then moves on to show how this is a great linguistic and stylistic tale by comparing it to contemporary romances written at the time. Looking first at “The Romance of Guy of Warwick,” Gaylord’s arguments are so far focused on the technicalities of poetics. He dissects the lines for meter and rhyme and compares them to Chaucer’s Thopas. Beginning in this section he limits Chaucer’s idea of language to the creation of poetic meter. He allows with no direction this presumption that he has limited this argument of language to poetics alone is processed further as he leads the reader to a passage from Thomas Chestre’s Lybeaus Desconus. This is an Arthurian story about Gawain’s son. By this time, Gaylord should have illustrated a road map for this essay expanding his argument beyond the technical. Here would have been a great place to draw literary comparisons between Thopas as son and Gingelein as illegitimate heir. Instead, Gaylord focuses on the “Same twelve-line tail-rhyme with less formal integrity,” and “the meter is more or less in lines of three stanzas,” and he expounds on this for three more paragraphs until comparing a passage of Chaucer, more stylistically proficient, he argues, than Chestre.

The issue raised at this point should be glaring. There are—speaking as a writer of fiction/prose/story (which despite its poetic form, “Sir Thopas” is a story and so like any other narrative should adhere to the following)—three “characters” needed to make it a story. It must have technicality in the writing, which Gaylord has been addressing but it seems as though this all he is addressing, it must have diction, and it must have content. Content will include character and plot and narrative devices. It is at this point, though Gaylord’s arguments are sound with what he does address, that his argument for this story to be considered great (despite the protests of the host) is essentially weak. He should have warned us in the beginning that he would address all of these aspects. He doesn’t, and so his argument seems one-sided.

In fact Gaylord does argue next the point of diction. He is more concerned with this for Chaucer than we would be for a more modern writer because he argues effectively what I will call historical linguistics. He convincingly argues the next point toward his thesis, that Chaucer “has made something new,” and that “Before our eyes…he invents his own English, his literary idiolect,” only then to parody not the romances (which is the first sign Gaylord plans to negate the importance of the third part of the story) “but his own practices,” at writing, and so negates what he has just successfully argued—that there was earnest style in how Chaucer structured the story(320). He discusses Chaucer’s use of language in daily life, and that English was not something Chaucer invented but what he spoke, what he heard but that it was “poverty-stricken” as a literary resource because it hadn’t been written much (322). He gives the impression—and maybe it’s true—that English was a bastardization of spoken French, Latin, Italian, and German, and that “For “language” to Chaucer is virtually synonymous with “speche” and “tunge,” and what he invents is not so much a structure or a series of new books, but a voice,” and I do agree with this point (322). As Gaylord surmises, Chaucer was writing down what he heard in the street the best way he could. What he concludes is that “Thopas, then, is marked for a special set of meanings…the prosody…the only thing Harry complains of…the rhyme and its variations…the diction,” and finally “the suite of gestures displayed by the narrative,” which culminates in the interruption of the story (325).

The story, he surmises in his concluding paragraph, is not important to what Chaucer was doing for the language. He says in “Sir Thopas” that “meaning is reduced to illustrating the vanity of a style that becomes its own subject,” but it is this rejection of the narrative, of the content of the story that makes for Gaylord’s undoing.

My paper will incorporate Gaylord’s ideas by using his main points to argue against Bailly and the critics of this story, and this will be a jumping off point for the importance of a tale about a knight searching for the Fairy Queen to be his wife. If it were simply a rambling story of a man on a horse with no relevance to plot, Chaucer did this already with The Squire’s Tale. What more can we glean from the story? I will incorporate the historical research I’ve already examined and the linguistic insights of this article to further examine more of what Chaucer could have accomplished by writing this tale.

Chaucer & Sir Topas:

A World of Wonder and the Wonder of Words

            When one thinks of the Middle Ages, what one might imagine are Renaissance Fairs, those absurdly outlandish but undeniably fun escapes—sometimes well done and sometimes not so much—filled with jousting knights and Kings and Queens and Ogres as men on stilts, dragons, and oversized roasted turkey legs. We imagine the movies about the knights of the round table, and—for the layman who doesn’t understand we don’t group these periods together—Shakespeare, who set a lot of plays during this time period but lived outside of it by a couple of hundred years. Most people would also think of Chaucer, recognizing him by either forced reading in high school or college or the enjoyment of. What is most amazing is the stories of fairies and elves (not their modern Disney versions) and how Chaucer writes about them in his stories. The Wife of Bath speaks of a time when the elves ruled the island of England. The Squire tells of the strange knight that brings gifts imbued with the magic of the elves. Sir Thopas searches for a fairy-queen to make his bride. But unlike Shakespeare, whose plays include witches and fairies integral to the plot, Chaucer seems to regard them second-handedly, not completing either tale of Thopas or the Squire and the Wife of Bath’s reference was merely to set the setting, so to speak. So why mention them at all? As this paper will show, the miracle stories Chaucer uses in the Canterbury Tales—fantastic stories which were widely believed as factual accounts—serve an even deeper purpose: recording the miracle that is the formation of modern English in this time, and Chaucer’s recording this new language in posterity. Using a close reading of “Sir Thopas,” we will first examine the history of such stories in the Middle Ages. Then we will look at the writing style he chose for the story and the criticism it received. Next we will look at the futility of the story and its plot, its abrupt ending and inconsequential plot to the whole of the story, which segues into a less important tale by the author as pilgrim. Finally, we will examine Chaucer’s authorship and how he might have viewed his own writing to try and see if we can get a glimpse into his goals and intentions as a writer.

            We know that stories of wonder widely told in the Middle Ages. More than that, we know that they were widely believed as factual accounts rather than viewed as myth or fictional stories. In “Sir Thopas,” we see this belief reflected in the main character, when he prays aloud, “O Seinte Marie, benedicite! What eyleth this love at me to bynde me so soore? Me dremed al this nyght, pardee, an elf-queene shal my lemman be and slepe under my goore” (784-789); he, above just expressing his loneliness, is asking for a companion that we today would in no way believe could exist. His is asking for a fairy queen to be his mistress. But while we don’t believe in such things today, there is ample evidence that belief in the supernatural was widely held by the peasants and educated alike during this time.

            Robert Bartlett writes in his book, England under the Norman and Angevin Kings: 1075-1225, “There were, however, other beings to be met with in the wide world who did not fit into this triad of sentient beings—animal, human, or angelic/demon” (686), creatures just as sentient but not as easily classifiable. Into this category are placed the monsters, the fairy folk, the witches and strange beasts like vampires and werewolves and other such beings. Moreover, Bartlett writes that, “a learned education did not make one less likely to believe in such beings” (672). He goes on to illustrate that it was from these learned men that these stories are spread throughout Europe and England. This is enlightening to learn that these tales weren’t the ramblings of the uneducated, but that rational, educated men were engaging in this discourse.

  1. S. Lewis expounds on this idea, and names these “Other” creatures in his book, The Discarded Image, as he writes in the chapter set apart from the rest of the manuscript that he had separated out “the Longaevi or longlivers…because their place of residence is ambiguous between air and Earth,” (122). He calls them marginal, fugitive creatures that he refuses to call fairies because “that word, tarnished by pantomime and bad children’s books with worse illustrations, would have been dangerous…it might encourage us to subject some ready-made, modern concept of a Fairy and to read the old texts in the light of it” (123). Lewis is correct. This is what a modern reader would imagine in reading that Thopas was looking for an elf-queen, as though he had a fetish for Tinkerbell or something. But these concepts of fairies are not what Chaucer’s contemporaries would have imagined. Beowulf, Lewis says, ranks the armies of elves and fairies as just as dangerous as the other enemies of God. Lewis quotes Milton who refers to them as vile things from his Comus and relates them to the demons in his Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained epics. The stories of fairies kidnapping children and replacing them and tricking lost travelers ran rampant through England at this time, and like any good dark tale, would have been extremely popular. Chaucer would have known this, introducing these types of stories into his Canterbury Tales would have increased the interest of the English participant.

            But what I’m arguing, what is more important than the plot of these stories is the style of writing Chaucer chose for the individual tales. It could be argued that Bailley mirrors many critics who scoffed at Chaucer’s use of the language in “Sir Thopas.” This is nowhere more evident than when the host interrupts Chaucer, saying, “Namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee…for thou makest me so wery of thy verray lewednesse that, also wisly God my soule blesse, myne eres aken of thy drasty speche” (919-923). While it is funny, especially when the Host says of Chaucer’s “drasty rymyng is nat worth a toord!” (930), it does more; this break removes the reader from this experimental rhyme scheme found nowhere else in the Canterbury Tales and returns us to the couplet. In his article, Gaylord defends “Sir Thopas” and Chaucer, arguing that Chaucer was engaged in “language planning” and that this meant more to Chaucer, whom Gaylord believes viewed language as “a dynamic force” and “that it grew and developed chiefly through his lifelong work as a creative translator” (311). His article goes in depth into this, dissecting the lines and stanzas of “Sir Thopas” and comparing them painstakingly to contemporary Romances upon which Chaucer based his story. Arguing that Chaucer saw himself as the poet to shape this new language, an amalgam of languages as diverse as German, Latin, and French, that up until this point had not been written down in great detail.

            The position this puts Chaucer in is one writing popular fiction for an audience that would appreciate it, but also an author playing with the words and syntax of the language of the common people. Next, in looking at the abrupt ending of the plot, we will show how the story becomes inconsequential and so gives way to syntax. In fact, the story’s abrupt ending comes much quicker than, say, the Squire’s Tale, who is allowed to drone on and on. Chaucer the pilgrim isn’t given this opportunity by the Host or by Chaucer the author, when his story ends “Hymself drank water of the well, as dide the knyght sire Percyvell so worly under wede, til on a day…” (915-916). What is important to note here is that Harry Bailley doesn’t interrupt him at the end of a line or stanza, to further show that the host was tired of this rhyme, but in the middle of a line. Chaucer returns to the couplet and then leads into the next story, devoid of rhyme, but reads more like prose fiction centuries before this genre was popularized. He writes, “A yong man called Melibeus, myghty and riche, bigat upon his wyf, that called was Prudence, a doghter which that called was Sophie” (p.133). “The Tale of Melibee” seems devoid of poetics, with no stanzas or rhyme scheme evident and—like “Sir Thopas” before it—is a style not duplicated anywhere else in the Canterbury Tales. It is this obvious switch in styles that draws attention away from these minor—and in the case of Thopas, unfinished—stories, and all we are left with is the writing. In Craig Berry’s article, he reduces Chaucer’s “Sir Thopas” to a “farce meant to poke fun at the social pretensions of its central character” (136) and finding Thopas’ desire to marry a fairy queen a ridiculous plot that Chaucer was simply making fun of. The problem with this notion is two-fold. One, Berry is thinking with a modern view on the idea that fairy queen’s existed, which this paper has already shown would not have been the case in Chaucer’s time. Two, for the farce to work, as Chaucer has shown us in other areas like with the Miller’s Tale, there has to be a resolution. If the story were central, or just a farce, Chaucer would have wanted to finish the story for his reader; he would not have passed up the chance to end the story of a farce with more whimsical and comedic fare poking fun at this genre. But that he did not finish the story is evident that Chaucer had something more in mind. The story of the Romance adventure, as formulaic and common to his contemporaries as police procedurals are to us today, would have drawn the reader in, but Chaucer wanted them to stay for the language.

            So what does all this say for Chaucer’s authorship? Chaucer recognized this new language’s impact on his citizenry and country and he would have also recognized he was at the forefront of this up and coming speche. He would have centuries of tomes to comb through of Latin and Greek. He knew French, and was probably well aware of the more Germanic languages from which English had descended. Each of these would have been centuries older than the street language being spoken by the commoner in Britain. As a taxation officer and merchant, Chaucer would have seen England’s growing impact on the rest of Europe, and more than likely understood that as the crown grew, so would her language. As well, the longevity of the ancient texts and older languages from where he drew his stories and ideas would have played on his own written word, as it has done every author since. This is slyly evident in words of the Man of Law with regards to Chaucer the pilgrim: “But nathelees, certeyn, I kan right now no thrifty tale seyn that Chaucer, thogh he kan but lewedly on metres and on rymyng craftily” (45-48) and goes on to extol himself as a great writer through another character’s voice. I add that this is slyly done because it speaks to Chaucer’s authorship. He is very smartly showing his readers that he wants to be known as a great writer.

            In his book, Medieval Theory of Authorship, A.J. Minnis wraps up his chapter on Chaucer and his continual referencing to himself in Canterbury Tales and in Troilys and Cryesede as merely a translator or compiler. In a comparison to a contemporary of Chaucer’s, Minnis writes that while John Gower “was a compiler who tried to present himself as an author, Chaucer was an author who hid behind the ‘shield and defence’ of the compiler” (210). He references Chaucer’s general prologue and acknowledges that Chaucer has positioned himself as a compiler so as to not be responsible for what the other pilgrims say, even though this is a fictitious journey. Minnis illustrates this well after showing the works of actual compilers such as Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose, John Ashenden (an astrologer who takes a similar humble approach to astrology in his short treatise), and an unknown compiler of the work Liber judiciorum. He argues that Chaucer is mocking this humble, self-depreciation combined with a disavowal of responsibility. Taking a step further than mocking, however, Minnis suggests that Chaucer “treats his fictional characters with the respect that the Latin compilers had reserved for their auctores” (203).

            This suggests that Chaucer might be concerned with the popular conviction of authors as compilers, careful to limit their creations to what they may draw upon for inspiration. But I don’t believe Chaucer is doing this because he is afraid of stepping outside of literary boundaries of his time. Rather, I believe Chaucer—and many of his contemporaries would have been aware of this—is creating enough new material above and beyond what would be required by the act of compiling so that his works—in part and taken in whole—would be their own standalone works of fiction. I also don’t believe that he is acting like a compiler simply to insure the survivability of his work. Instead, as evidenced from what we’ve seen above, Chaucer was reinventing new syntax and a new (to the English language) genre of writing, one fictitious and creative and still influenced by earlier works, but not completely controlled by what came before it.

            Only when we look at all these pieces together can we get a strong indication of what Chaucer was up to. He relied on common forms and genres, on the staple of “compiling”—which he claimed he was though he clearly was more than—and of various literary genres including Romance, to entertain styles of writing and the syntax and—as close as he could muster—the speche of English for the people who spoke the language. In the end, the Romance became as inconsequential as “compiling” and as is evident throughout all of Chaucer’s work, including “Sir Thopas,” what gains in importance is the language itself. With “Sir Thopas,” as the Romance is cut off, as the supernatural creatures are lost, what we find instead is a literary form the likes of which had not preceded him in the English language.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bartlett, Robert. England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings: 1075-1225. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2000.

Berry, Craig A. “Borrowed Armor/Free Grace: The Quest For Authority In The Faerie Queene 1 And Chaucer’s Tale Of Sir Thopas.” Studies In Philology 91.2 (1994): 136-166. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 2 May 2012.

Gaylord, Alan T. “The Moment Of Sir Thopas: Towards A New Look At Chaucer’s Language.” The Chaucer Review: A Journal Of Medieval Studies And Literary Criticism 16.4 (1982): 311-329.

Lewis, C. S. The Discarded Image. New York, NY: Cambridge UP, 1964.

Minnis, A. J. Medieval Theory Of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes In The Later Middle Ages. London: Scolar, 1984. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 2 May 2012.

Gaylord, Alan T. “The Moment Of Sir Thopas: Towards A New Look At Chaucer’s Language.” The Chaucer Review: A Journal Of Medieval Studies And Literary Criticism 16.4 (1982): 311-329.

31 Days of Halloween: Horror all the way back to Beowulf

 

Grendel’s Kin: Monsters in Mythology

The following passage from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf describes Grendel:

Grendel was the name of this grim demon haunting the marches, marauding round the heath and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters, Cain’s clan…there sprang ogres and elves and evil phantoms and the giants too (102-106,111-113)

This sentiment is repeated when Grendel’s mother comes for vengeance, reaffirming their evil genealogy. It is important to understand the monsters mentioned to whom Grendel is related, the monsters that were very real to Anglo-Saxon people of the time. While there is literary evidence that early Britons and their educated leaders believed in these myths what is fascinating in reading Beowulf is seeing Grendel’s familial relationship to these monsters and the overwhelming unification of the supernatural throughout history that Beowulf affords us.

The poem does a great job of reflecting the culture and custom of the time, given that recent archaeological digs have confirmed burial customs and funeral rites and battle garb of the era, and recent excavations have found the ruins of an actual Heorot and scholars believe there existed a Danish King named Hrothgar living in this time. But what about the monsters, the beasts of the darkness?  What about Cain’s clan?

As for Grendel and his mother, they are not described but for their kin. We know they are very powerful and very old—she is described as hunting for a hundred seasons and he is described as capable of carrying off thirty bodies of men. Their details feel Lovecraftian at times (or vice versa, it feels like Lovecraft based some of his ideas on Grendel and his mother). We know they are related to ogres and fairies and giants, but these are not to be confused with Shrek or Tinkerbell. So what were these ancient demonic beings?

Ogres—Franklin describes them as stupid, large and deformed…a class of fairies. They live in caves and have white or ebony skin, prominent lower teeth and round ears. In the work by John and Caitlin Matthews, they are cannibalistic giants. Elves/Fairies—Judith Illes says the most accurate modern depiction of elves comes from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. Tall, beautiful, healers, archers. Illes also equates Fairies to the idea of fate, but the most detailed description of fairies can be found in Anna Franklin’s work. Phantoms—ghosts, but they can be demonic as well as human spirits. Phantoms are synonyms with ghosts which are discussed in the different works. Like fairies, phantoms are a broad classification with many individual creatures and species named. Giants—in the Matthews work, they are traced back to the Titans of ancient myth. Scientifically speaking, Giants could have originated with dragons when ancient people discovered prehistoric bones. Franklin cites giants as the builders of Stonehenge, and writes that the British Isles were populated by giants until being vanquished by Brutus. This could be taken from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale, who sets her story in a time when giants and fairies roamed the British Isles.

But what is important about this is the cohesiveness of myth throughout centuries. From the beginning of time with Cain and Abel and the murder, Cain’s sin, his mark the early Britons believed gave rise to the monsters, the things that go bump in the night, the things that want to hurt us and haunt us. If Adam and Eve gave us original sin with the bite of the apple, then Cain gave us original evil. Beowulf reflects this idea started in the Bible, and links all the supernatural into one family, old like Lovecraft’s Old Ones and indescribably evil, every monster and creature one can imagine, springing forth from one source.

What scholars believe about the epic poem, and this is supported by research and historical evidence, is that Beowulf was originally written in a transformative time for Britons, as they moved away from their pagan gods and embraced their Roman Occupiers’ Catholic faith. That the author would then link the monsters to Cain in Genesis seems obvious, as it is well known the Church accepted the myths of foreigners but demonized them so as to help draw people to the faith. So then from ancient Hebrew to early Briton the link is shown. Later still, Chaucer takes it a step further, suggesting a time on the British Isles that predates human domination. Is the Wife of Bath talking about Beowulf’s time or something even earlier? Just till Chaucer’s time in the 1300’s, we have Cain’s descendants walking the earth for six to ten thousand years. Then Shakespeare comes along, describes Puck and the fairies, King Oberon, the witches of MacBeth (another historical figure from around Beowulf’s time), Caliban as the bastard child (Grendel would not have been proud of his enslaved little brother in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. What we are able to do is draw a cohesive family tree of the supernatural throughout British myth with all these works, and that is the fascinating contribution of this early epic poem.

 

 

Bibliography

Franklin, Anna. The Illustrated Encylcopaedia of Fairies. Sterling Publishing Company: New

York, 2002.

Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf. W. W. Norton & Company: New York, London, 2000.

Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies,

Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses. Harper Collins: New York, 2009.

Matthews, John and Caitlin. The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures: The Ultimate A-Z

of Fantastic Beings from Myth and Magic. Sterling Publishing: New York, 2005.