Fear, it is said, remains man’s most primal emotion; but how do we elicit fear? Horror as a genre is a beast with many heads, not limited to the elicitation of a single feeling. In literature, horror is a philosophy of writing with ambitions of creating feelings of repulsion including terror and disgust in the reader. These responses may be engendered through a number of writing conventions and themes.
The purpose of this essay is to examine the form and content of two poignant testaments to the written provocation of horror: Louise Gluck’s Gretel In Darkness – a dreary epilogue to the classic Grimm fable Hansel & Gretel, and Charlotte Mew’s horrific short story A White Night. Furthermore, it will establish how these texts subvert the readers generic sensibilities and how this in turn manifests in feelings of repulsion. In consideration to form, the two aforementioned texts are regarded as being narrative because they provide ‘representations of an event or series of events. (Abbott 13).
‘Narrative is way of creating order out of chaos’ (Abbott 102) and it is this logical succession of events that helps the reader to engross themselves in the story and aids them in deciphering meaning. A White Night and Gretel In Darkness both present the reader with narrative accounts given from the standpoints of fictional characters or ‘agents’ contained within the text. These individualised portraits of events allow for more emotive and involved reactions in the mind of the reader.
Consequently, it is this same interaction with the text that opens the audience to feelings of repulsion; as Joe Hill once wrote: “Horror rooted in sympathy . . . in understanding what it would be like to suffer the worst. ” (306-07). Without an emotional investment first being made by the reader, sentiments of horror cannot hope to be established. In Mew’s short story A White Night the reader’s abjection, save for the conspicuous outrage at the woman’s live burial, is sourced predominantly from the acquiescence of the story’s narrator, Cameron.
What remains more incomprehensible than having taken part in this villainy was to abide it, to act as an enabler. Cameron remains throughout the barbaric proceedings merely a “photographic presence” (Showalter xviii), “For him, the terrible fate of the woman is both a ‘spectacle’ and ‘a rather splendid crime” (Showalter xviii). Given in Cameron’s own impartial monologue: “it hadn’t once occurred to me, without her sanction, to step in, to intervene;” (150).
A White Night observes the recurrent theme of negation evident in many of Mew’s writings; Mew often portrays “… ensions of a strongly emotional nature submitting to restraints in which although there is some element of choice, the mind or conscience dictates a negative. ” (Rice 52) and it is here that the reader’s aversion is most firmly rooted. A White Night betrays the modern sensibilities of its readers by validating the oppression of women at the time it was written. The story can be seen retrospectively as “a warning of female destiny” (Showalter xvii) as the men witness but do nothing to remedy the injustices suffered by women – who in turn accept the events without protest as though to signify this is how things have and always will be.
The repercussions of Cameron’s inaction are two fold and execrable, resulting not only in the death of the young woman but in the irreconcilable trauma suffered by his sister in response to the events. At the story’s onset Ella is “daring and robust, a New Woman who can rough it with the men. ” (Showalter xviii); however by the story’s end Ella is reduced to a mere shadow of her former self, scarred as “’the horror of those hours’ continue to haunt her and to visit her dreams” (Showalter xviii).
Cameron reflects: “ hasn’t ever understood, or quite forgiven me my attitude of temporary detachment. ” (153) It is here the reader discerns further outrage. Cameron remains a “detached bachelor observer” (Showalter xviii) bereft of the protective instincts any virtuous individual would hold in regard for their own sister. He remarks unsympathetically: “it was not for at all that I was consciously concerned. ” King had attempted to put an end to the victim’s otherwise drawn out quietus, likely out of some esteem for feminine dignity peculiar to his brother in law.
Cameron voyeuristically deprives the victim of this final mercy, revelling in a form of soul bondage with her. A White Night serves as a “frightening allegory of patriarchal silencing” (Gribben 318), engendering in its readers an almost instinctual aversion to the “unethical exercise of power by men over women” (Gribben 318) presented within the text. The latter of these two texts, Louise Gluck’s Gretel In Darkness, takes the poetic form of Gretel’s lyrical address to her brother Hansel some time after the events of the Grimm fable.
Gluck presents a Gretel incapable of reconciling herself with the horrific events of her past as she remains ruled by internal delusions that cloud out the facts of the reality around her. Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the poem is the representation of Gretel’s lost innocence and realisation of the psychological repercussions such an event would seed in the fragile mind of a child. Gretel in Darkness sensibly encapsulates the “living and hallucinatory quality of a child’s fear, and the tendency of children to color a past horror with all the vividness of a present one. (Wooten 6). Gretel’s recollections are lucid and pervaded with incessant self interrogation; she laments “Why do I not forget? ” (10). Gluck challenges the reader’s dominant preconceptions of the fairy tale genre by reinterpreting it in a realised fashion. There is no ‘happily ever after’ to be found in Gluck’s telling, “Unlike the fairy tale, Gluck’s poem leads to no satisfying resolution; abandonment and psychic hunger are continuous. ” (Upton 131). In summation, the horror philosophy remains a canvas unable to be painted with broad strokes.
Like all art, horror may grow out of a limited context but achieves significance in relation to its universality. What remains so pervasive about horror is that it is entirely subjective; however, as one matures, fear becomes more complex and grounded in worldly events. In the time since the publication of A White Night and Gretel in Darkness horror has continued to evolve; and although they may not scare their audiences in the traditional sense, they do in fact work well to create other ambitions of horror through their visceral first person narratives and their subversion of the reader’s generic sensibilities.