I don’t want to go on about my current condition, but reading horror stories while stuck at home with a broken leg (and on painkillers) is an odd experience. I’ve been working my way through Peter Straub’s new two-volume set of American Fantastic Tales, plus the old classic Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. Although the good stories are having the desired effect of safe scariness on me, I haven’t at any stage felt I shouldn’t go on reading for fear of bad dreams or similar. (That said, the one book I have wimped out of re-reading is King’s Misery; but I’m sure that’s irrational and there aren’t any Locus subscribers who would come round here and force me to retype me reviews to accord with their opinions…)

Anyhow, it occurred to me that there’s one moment that’s common to an awful lot of horror stories, and it’s the moment encapsulated in one of my favorite scenes from any movie, the bathroom scene in Kubrick’s The Shining (spoilers, obviously):

There are so many wonderful things in this scene I don’t know where to start: Grady (Philip Stone)’s supernatural stillness; the relish with which he rolls the R’s in “corrected”; Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson)’s superb delivery of the racial epithet that Grady throws out, showing both his discomfort at the word and the fact that he wants the conversation to continue; the distant ballroom music filtering through. But the structural point of the conversation is how it flips over and reveals the true shape of the story (and the horror) that’s to come.

Actually, it flips over twice. Having started with Grady being obsequious to Torrance for spilling a drink over him, Nicholson seems to be getting the upper hand in the first two minutes, when he recognises Grady as the past caretaker who killed his family. Apart from anything else, it signals clearly that we’re in fantastic territory and that Torrance accepts this. This is affirmed by Grady’s from-the-tomb delivery of “You are the caretaker; you’ve always been the caretaker.” And somehow, that’s the point where he takes control of the scene. As he reveals the “talent” of Torrance’s son, his implacable fervour gradually co-opts Torrance. (Part of the subtext, I think, is him challenging Torrance: Are you enough of a man to keep your wife and child under control, as they should be?) You can see how much Torrance wants his respect when he takes Grady’s phrase “against your will” and puns on it, with a little smirk, as “He is a very wilful boy.” And so the shape of the rest of the film, and Torrance’s rampage, is set.

The more general point is that lots of stories have this moment (though not always so meticulously executed). The forbidden book is opened and read; the ancient temple is peered into; and the reader (and maybe the protagonist) realise just how bad things are going to be. Sometimes the protagonist may not fully realise their own condition, as in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic “The Yellow Wallpaper“, and the reader has to supply an awareness of just how trapped that story’s narrator is. At the other extreme is what John Clute has called the Club Story, where a horror tale is not only told, but seen to be told to an audience of some kind. The horror is not only recognised, but can be reflected upon in the frame story: “Heart of Darkness”, for instance.

The same kind of moment, of course, occurs in plenty of other kinds of stories: in sf, they’re what Peter Nicholls has called the conceptual breakthrough moment. But the horror version has a particular kind of affect. The Straub volume includes a very short and pulpy piece by David H Keller, “The Jelly-Fish” (PDF here), in which a boastful professor on a marine expedition boasts to his colleagues that he can achieve anything he wants, including miniaturising himself. He does so, appearing on a microscope slide along with a captured jellyfish. He is ready to return to normal, but…I don’t need to tell you the rest, do I?

2 thoughts on “Tipping-point

  • November 8, 2009 at 10:01 pm

    One of the best and most disorienting frame stories is T.H. White's "The Ogre" which Jack Sullivan reprinted in his collection of classic ghost stories.

  • November 9, 2009 at 8:47 am

    Excellent analysis. That indeed is the fulcrum for the film, to me. Nicholson's talent makes it roll forward on exactly the lines you cite. Bravo!

    Gregory Benford


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