Reflections on the Grotesque
Joyce Carol Oates, © April 1993
What is the “grotesque” — and what is “horror” — in art? And why do these seemingly repellent states of mind possess, for some, an abiding attraction?
I take as the most profound mystery of our human experience the fact that, though we each exist subjectively, and know the world only through the prism of self, this “subjectivity” is inaccessible, thus unreal, and mysterious, to others. And the obverse — all others are, in the deepest sense, strangers.
The arts of the grotesque are so various as to resist definition. Here we have the plenitude of the imagination itself. From the Anglo-Saxon saga of Grendel’s monster-mother, in Beowulf, to impish-ugly gargoyles carved on cathedral walls; from terrifyingly matter-of-fact scenes of carnage in the Iliad, to the hallucinatory vividness of the “remarkable piece of apparatus” of Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”; from the comic-nightmare images of Hieronymous Bosch to the strategic artfulness of twentieth-century film — Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of the 1922 classic of the German silent screen, F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror, to give but one example. The “grotesque” is a sensibility that accommodates the genius of Goya and the kitsch - Surrealism of Dali; the crude visceral power of H. P. Lovecraft and the baroque elegance of Isak Dinesen; the fatalistic simplicity of Grimm’s fairy tales and the complexity of vision of which, for instance, William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is a supreme example — the grotesque image as historical commentary.
The protracted onstage torture of Shakespeare’s Gloucester in King Lear is the very height of the theatrical grotesque, but so is, in less graphic terms, the fate of Samuel Beckett’s hapless heroes and heroines — the female mouth of Mouth, for instance. From Nikolay Gogol’s “The Nose” to Paul Bowles’s “A Distant Episode”, from images of demonic flesh of Max Klinger, Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele to Francis Bacon, Eric Fischl, Robert Gober; from Jeremias Gotthelf (“The Black Spider”, 1842) to postmodern fantasists Angela Carter, Thomas Ligotti, Clive Barker, Lisa Tuttle, and mainstream best-sellers Stephen King, Peter Straub, Anne Rice — we recognize the bold strokes of the grotesque, however widely styles vary. (Is a ghost story inevitably of the genre of the grotesque? — no. Victorian ghost stories, on the whole, are too “nice” — too ladylike, whatever the sex of the writer. Much of Henry James’s ghostly fiction, like that of his contemporaries Edith Wharton and Gertrude Atherton, though elegantly written, is too genteel to qualify.) The grotesque is the hideous animal-men of H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, or the taboo - images of the most inspired filmmaker of the grotesque of our time, David Cronenberg (The Fly, The Brood, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch) — that is, the grotesque always possesses a blunt physicality that no amount of epistemological exegesis can exorcise. One might define it, in fact, as the very antithesis of “nice”.
It was in 1840 that Edgar Allan Poe, our greatest, and most beleaguered, artist of the grotesque published Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, containing works that would become classics — “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, “The Mask of the Red Death”, “The Cask of Amontillado”. At this time there existed a rich, diverse literature to which the architectural term “Gothic” had been applied. Poe was well aware of this literature: Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Tale (1764), Richard Cumberland’s The Poisoner of Montremos (1791), Ann Radcliffe’s masterpiece Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), M. G. Lewis’s The Monk (1796), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), C. R. Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820); the uncanny fables of E.T.A. Hoffmann, of which “The Sand-Man” (1817) is most Poe-like; and the tales of Poe’s fellow Americans Washington Irving (whose affable prose style masks the grotesqueries of “Rip Van Winkle”, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) and Nathaniel Hawthorne. And there was Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798), our premier American-Gothic novel. In turn, Poe’s influence upon the literature of the grotesque — and the mystery-detective genre — has been so universal as to be incalculable. Who has not been influenced by Poe? — however obliquely, indirectly; however the influence, absorbed in adolescence or even in childhood, would seem to be far behind us.
This predilection for art that promises we will be frightened by it, shaken by it, at times repulsed by it seemed to be as deeply imprinted in the human psyche as the counter - impulse toward daylight, rationality, scientific scepticism, truth and the “real”. (Leaving aside for the moment whether rationality is in fact in contact with the “real”.) Are Aubrey Beardsley’s sly-sinister hermaphrodite figures less “real” than the commissioned portraits of James McNeill Whistler? A sensibility that would find intolerable the lurid excess of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s "Carmilla" (1871) or Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) might respond with much feeling to vampire tales cast in a more “literary” mode, like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, and such Symbolist - “realist” works by Thomas Mann as Death in Venice, “Mario the Magician”, “Tristan” (“ . . . while the child Anton Kloterjahn, a magnificent specimen of a baby, seized on his place in life with prodigious energy and ruthlessness, a low, unobservable fever seemed to waste the young mother daily.”) Of all monstrous creatures it has been the vampire that by tradition both attracts and repels, for vampires have nearly always been portrayed as aesthetically (that is, erotically) appealing. (Peter Quint is the hinge, red-haired, wearing no hat, “very erect”, upon which James’s The Turn of the Screw turns — unless he is the screw itself.) And this is the forbidden truth, the unspeakable taboo — that evil is not always repellent but frequently attractive; that it has the power to make of us not simply victims, as nature and accident do, but active accomplices.
Children are particularly susceptible to images of the grotesque, for children are learning to monitor what is “real” and what is “not real”; what is benign, and what not. The mental experiences of very young children, afterward layered over by time and forgotten, must be a kaleidoscope of sensations, impressions, events, “images” linked with “meanings” — how to make sense of this blooming, buzzing universe? The earliest and most horrific image of my childhood, as deeply embedded in my consciousness as any “real” event (and I lived on a small farm, where the slaughtering of chickens must have been frequent) sprang at me out of a seemingly benign children’s book, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking-Glass. In the concluding chapter of this generally disturbing book Alice is being crowned Queen at a banquet that begins with promise then rapidly degenerates into anarchy:
“Take care of yourself!” screamed the White Queen, seizing Alice’s hair with both hands. “Something’s going to happen!”Alice escapes the nightmare prospect of being eaten by waking from her dream as, in her Wonderland adventure, she woke from that dream. But what solace, if the memory retains the unspeakable, and the unspeakable can’t be reduced to a dream?
Mankind’s place in the food chain — is this the unspeakable knowledge, the ultimate taboo, that generates the art of the grotesque? — or all art, culture, civilization?
In a more technical sense, art that presents “horror” in aesthetic terms is related to Expressionism and Surrealism in its elevation of interior (and perhaps repressed) states of the soul to exterior status. Even if we were not now, in this Age of Deconstruction, psychologically and anthropologically capable of deciphering seemingly opaque documents, whether fairy tales, legends, works of art or putatively objective histories and scientific reports, we should sense immediately, in the presence of the grotesque, that it is both “real” and “unreal” simultaneously, as states of mind are real enough — emotion, moods, shifting obsessions, beliefs — though immeasurable. The subjectivity that is the essence of the human is also the mystery that divides us irrevocably from one another.
One criterion for horror fiction is that we are compelled to read it swiftly, with a rising sense of dread, and so total a suspension of ordinary scepticism, we inhabit the material without question and virtually as its protagonist; we can see no way out except to go forward. Like fairy tales, the art of the grotesque and horror renders us children again, evoking something primal in the soul. The outward aspects of horror are variable, multiple, infinite — the inner, inaccessible. What the vision is we might guess, but, inhabiting a brightly populated, sociable, intensely engaging outer world, in which we are defined to one another as social beings with names, professions, roles, public identities, and in which, most of the time, we believe ourselves at home — isn’t it wise not to?
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Joyce Carol Oates is the author of a number of collections of tales of the “uncanny” and “macabre”. These include Night-Gaunts, Dis mem ber, The Doll-Master, and the novellas Jack of Spades and A Fair Maiden. Her work has been included in the Best Fantasy and Horror and the Best American Mysteries anthologies. She is the recipient of the Bram Stoker Award for Horror Fiction as well as the National Book Award (US) and the National Medal for the Humanities. She lives and teaches in Princeton, New Jersey.
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