Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Horror: Fairy Tales and Fantasy for Artists - p10

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Horror: The Sublime Through a Dark and Uncertain World

 by Ty Hulse

Horror might seem to be the polar opposite of cuteness, but they are both an exploration of helplessness, with the difference being that cuteness makes us feel protective and horror makes us feel vulnerable. This may explain why to two are so often conflated with each other, specifically why cute things such as children asking us to play with them forever and ever and cherubic dolls we swear moved when we weren’t looking are terrifying to so many people. Horrific things can also be made cute, for although it’s impossible to say for certain it seems likely that one of the original purposes of fairies was to explain horrific events such as disease and those who got lost in the woods, never to be found again. Like vampires have been turned into objects of romance, these fairies of horror were turned into objects of cute beings. 


It is the switching of emotions, the use of awe and wonder, for example, which often leads to the most interesting fantasy horror. According to Hemenover and Bowman, “the sublime corresponds to the notion of terror. Lovecraft’s work in dark fantasy and supernatural horror illustrates this point. His protagonists inevitably suspect the presence of a cosmic threat to humankind, temporarily hidden from view. As they gradually uncover that threat, madness and death pursue them until the bitter end.” Mendlesohn described Lovecraftian horror as intrusion fantasy, which accomplishes its goal by transforming wonder into fear. (Hemenover and Bowman)


Fairies and fairytales too play in this boundary between wonder and terror. In the medieval chronical the “Chronica Maiora” for example, a young man is riding happily through some fields when a little red man appears among the wheat, who grows in stature the longer the youth looks at him. This red man takes the horses bridle and takes the young man, unwillingly to a beautiful lady surrounded by beautiful girls. The lady orders the young man be dragged from his horse, his skin and flesh flayed. After he has been stripped of his skin, the woman cuts open his head, pulls out his brain and eats it, leaving his head empty, yet him somehow still alive. She then lifts him back onto his horse and sends him on his way, deprived of all his wits. Through much of the rest of his life, the little red man, while invisible to all but him, stays by his side, yet despite his madness and pain the youth resists the promptings of this man, until at last the fairy lady comes to him and returns his brain. 


The fairies in Medieval stories are very much alien and, in some ways, can be thought of as being almost Cthulhu like, in that they are never meant to be fully understood. However, they are beautiful and seductive, playing on people’s desires and perceptions to make their cruel world all the more eerie. This is part of the power of fairy. “Ultimately, the unease of this fairy realm is produced through the leaving certain things unexplained – with a very real sense that they are in fact inexplicable.” (Wade, 2011)


The fairy realm in these stories frequently “exhibits a certain interplay between torture and attraction. As both beautiful and sadistically violent.” (Wade, 2011). This is a place of paradox. Sometimes when the fairies torture someone or act they have “no overarching intention” no goal in mind, they simply seek to torture for its own sake. Elves in Scottish lore would frequently scoop a victim into the sky, and force them to help the elves spread disease and death among their neighbors. The person would then be deposited back on the ground, to be haunted by the nightmares of what they had done and witnessed. 


Part of what makes fairyland compelling in these stories is that both beauty and the threat of danger is ever present. In the medieval story of King Orfeo the protagonist finds himself in “a fairy country as bright as the sun on a summers day,” with castles covered in precious stones, so that at first it is mistaken as heaven by Orfeo. Then within the fairy king’s castle Orfeo discovered the darker side of fairy – tortured humans. Here people who suffered an injury or event that should have killed them were abducted away to live a half-life, forever on the edge of death, forever in pain as the fairies use magic to keep them alive but unhealed so that they can be tortured forever. Fairies exist in their own sovereignty, such that the rules and moralities of the human world don’t apply to them. 


The terror and pain caused by fairies does typically serve a narrative purpose. As alien and terrifying as fairies are, people are often made better for their encounters with them. Fairytales and Chivalric Romances are about a person’s journey to prove themselves, to gain something, and to learn something. It is ultimately the fairies that provide the character the means to achieve these goals. Indeed, the religion of many people shaman figures would have to suffer and even be devoured in order to obtain their powers. For example, in Inuit and Yupik lore a shaman might be eaten by a bear who would regurgitate them in a painful process that would essentially make them into a new person, a shaman, who existed between the realm of the spirits and the dead, and the realm of the living. Other shamans would go on a journey;

Then the candidate came to a desert and saw a distant mountain. After three days’ travel he reached it, entered an opening, and came upon a naked man working a bellows. On the fire was a caldron “as big as half the earth.” The naked man saw him and caught him with a huge pair of tongs. The novice had time to thing, “I am dead!” the man cut off his head, chopped his body into bits, and put everything in the caldron. There he boiled his body for three days.  


The naked man who cut apart this person and boiled him, later put him back together and taught him how to shamanize. Suffering, it seems is frequently an important part of the aesthetic experience and the mystical journey into the spirit world. Many shamans, after all, go through hellish lands on their journey in order to gain a better metaphysical understanding and their powers. 

Consider for example, the stories with Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga is a witch in Russian lore who devours people and frequently threatens to devour the protagonists of fairytales who find their way to her home. However, more often than not Baba Yaga ends up giving these fairytale characters what they need to gain their happily ever after. Sometimes she does so willingly when she is called "grandmother", other times she acts hostile at first but gives the character tasks before she gives them the magical gifts, other times she must be defeated to gain the treasure from her. Johns points out that while her role as a villain is most common; "Baba Yaga's traditional attributes are most fully represented in the donor tales, while she could have taken on the villain roles of other character as a later development, which might explain why her donor image is more unified and predictable than her various manifestations as a villain.”


In this sense fairies, while deadly aliens aren’t simply agents of chaos, they are testers of virtue who in testing people help them to grow – presuming they survive the test. They also prove the worth of someone’s suffering and the system that was put in place by god or the natural and human worlds. This role of an alien and terrifying creature who alters the individual and proves the value of the existing system is similar to the role played by the aliens in “War of the Worlds”. In this story aliens from Mars attack the earth, slaughtering with abandon and nothing the humans can do can defeat them. 


As the protagonist narrates: 


For a time I believed that mankind had been swept out of existence, and that I stood there alone, the last man left alive. Hard by the top of Putney Hill I came upon another skeleton, with the arms dislocated and removed several yards from the rest of the body. 


Later, however, the aliens die from Earths diseases, the very things humans have spent our existence bemoaning saved us, so that;


But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle... But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow. Already when I watched them they were irrevocably doomed, dying and rotting even as they went to and fro. It was inevitable. By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain. 


The moral is obviously spelled out here, that the natural world and our suffering has meaning. Fairies in stories are often used in a similar way to the disease and bacteria in “War of the Worlds”. They provide protagonists with what they need, even if it is sometimes provided through great suffering. Consider the ‘Wonderland’ that Alice journeyed through. It was a place of nonsense and dangers, where queens arbitrarily removed people’s heads. Through the nonsense and the crazy madness Alice learned and grew. Consider also the dangers of Neverland that helped Wendy to grow up, or the witch in “The Wizard of Oz” who helped the protagonist of that story learn to grow, along with the characters of that world. 


In Jim Henson’s “The Labyrinth” the Goblin King is another inexplicable ruler of the Otherworld who wants something from the protagonist, her submission to him. The challenges he sets for her in the strange Otherworld help her to learn and grow into a better and much happier person. She ends her story, at least the story we see in the film, dancing with the strange creatures of “The Labyrinth” they having forgiven her and she them for the trouble they caused each other while she was there. 


Those who enter fairyland are forever changed by it. That is the purpose of fairyland, after all, a surreal change. And although it isn’t a part of fairyland, the end of War of the Worlds sums of the odd way these encounters must feel best with the narrator talking about children playing about around the Martians now dead war machines; 


strange, too, it is to stand on Primrose Hill, as I did but a day before writing this last chapter, to see the great province of houses, dim and blue through the haze of the smoke and mist, vanishing at last into the vague lower sky, to see the people walking to and fro among the flower beds on the hill, to see the sight-seers about the Martian machine that stands there still, to hear the tumult of playing children, and to recall the time when I saw it all bright and clear-cut, hard and silent, under the dawn of that last great day. . . .


It is worth pointing out here the similarities between the madness caused by fairies and the shaman’s sickness which occurs when a person transformed by the spirits into a shaman who can entreat with them for the benefit of their society. Most new shamans in Siberia would experience this ‘madness’, such that they would run into the woods, be found in trees, act wildly and dangerously. Or else they might become weak and ill, sometimes falling to the brink of death. During this time they would have many encounters with spirits and their soul would be plucked from their body to go on spirit journeys so that they could learn. As already mentioned this journey into the spirit world that granted them their powers could be nightmarish and painful, yet they always came out better for it. 

With this in mind consider again the story already mentioned of the young man whose brain was consumed by the fairy woman. His brain was removed and he seemed mad for years, yet in the end, after suffering the pains of fairyland, he came to a true spiritual understanding. 


In “Fairy Mythology” there is a similar story of a man who was “coming home one night from Seden, passed by a hill that was standing on red pillars, and underneath there was dancing and great festivity. He hurried on past the hill as fast as he could, never venturing to cast his eyes that way. But as he went along, two fair maidens came to meet him, with beautiful hair floating over their shoulders, and one of them held a cup in her hand, which she reached out to him that he might drink of it. The other then asked him if he would come again, at which he laughed, and answered, Yes. But when he got home he became strangely affected in his mind, was never at ease in himself, and was continually saying that he had promised to go back. And when they watched him closely to prevent his doing so, he at last lost his senses, and died shortly after.”


According to Lady Wilde : 

The evil influence of the fairy glance does not kill, but it throws the object into a death-like trance, in which the real body is carried off to some fairy mansion, while a log of wood, or some ugly, deformed creature is left in its place, clothed with the shadow of the stolen form. Young women remarkable for beauty, young men, and handsome children, are the chief victims of the fairy stroke. The girls are wedded to fairy chiefs, and the young men to fairy queens and if the mortal children do not turn out well they are sent back, and others carried off in their place. It is sometimes possible, by the spells of a powerful fairy-man, to bring back a living being from Fairy-land. But they are never quite the same after. They have always a spirit-look, especially if they have listened to the fairy music. For the fairy music is soft, and low, and plaintive, with a fatal charm for mortal ears. One day a gentleman entered a cabin in the County Clare, and saw a young girl about twenty seated by the fire, chanting a melancholy song, without settled words or music. On inquiry he was told that she had once heard the fairy harp, and those who hear it lose all memory of love or hate, and forget all things, and never more have any other sound in.


It is important to remember here that fairies are folk religious figures, and in many cases their stories are altered stories about previous gods. Thus we should expect them to be transcendent and spiritual figures whose stories have religious messages that have been mostly forgotten and need to be pieced back together. Yet as religious figures, seeking them could require a lot of suffering by those who don’t fully understand their nature.