Macabre isn’t the word I’m looking for. Yet it presents itself, perhaps chiefly because of Stephen King’s book Dance Macabre.
The word, with a capital M, has its own entry in the OED as part of the phrase dance of Macabre, meaning the Dance of Death, which in turn represents the medieval allegory of Death leading the dance of souls to the grave.
Even if you refuse to read about pirouetting skeletons, you may have unwittingly enjoyed Camille Saint-Saëns’s Dance Macabre, a symphonic poem from 1874:
Returning to King’s book: even though I haven’t read it, I have seen it quoted and paraphrased for its delineation of three concepts in fiction: revulsion, horror, and terror. It’s a useful gradation, regardless of genre or topic, because it pinpoints the crease between the explicit and the implicit.
Here’s how King’s words have filtered down to me.
Revulsion or gross-out is when you’re told about the eye that burst out of its socket and splattered the doctor, or the parents who threw at each other the heart of their unborn child, or the woman who was walled in with the heads of her lovers, or the long-haired zingaro serenading a pile of severed body parts while admiring his reflection in a lake of blood (mostly images from Barbey and Lorrain). It’s all red and mushy, and anyone Halloween-minded can do it. The sufficiently exaggerated gross-out is grotesque.
Horror is the moment you take out a bunch of beautiful flowers from a precious historic vase and find a baby’s body providing compost feed (Barbey). Horror is the realisation before the gross-out.
Terror is the suspense before the horror that never quite happens: it’s the quiet laughter in the cellar that is empty when you turn on the light; it’s the attic that calls to you, but when you get there is only full of creaking boards and whistling wind; it’s the nightmare in which you’re chased with a chainsaw, but when you wake up, you see that you’re safe, except there’s a trail of blood across your living room carpet leading to the toolshed.
Terror is almost perpetual horror that prolongs the repulsive revelation, the way a romantic comedy prolongs the first kiss.
Terror can last for pages, horror for a few lines; revulsion is instantaneous. In any piece of fiction, these are the equivalents of suspense, tension1, and release or reveal. And you can’t really have the sequence implemented backwards: release, tension, suspense. Or can you?
Witness Michaux’s device2.
I also have a man-sling. You can shoot men with it far, really far. You have to know how to load them.
Yet it’s difficult to shoot them far enough. Quite frankly, they never get shot far enough. Sometimes they come back forty years later, as you’re thinking you can at least feel at ease, when they’re the ones at ease, returning with the even step of someone in no hurry, someone who could have been there five minutes ago and was to return right after.
Two aspects stand out: the cool practicality of the exposition and the literal to metaphorical switch (more explicit than in The Statue and I).
The matter-of-factness is partly due to a spare, straightforward word-choice, but also partly due to the reverse sequence. Specifically:
- The reveal is up-front in the first sentence (5 words): we’re told about the man-sling.
- The next two sentences (17 words) are filled with disbelieving tension where the reader is adjusting to the idea.
- The second paragraph (64 words) moves into the suspense stage giving facts from farther afield about how effective the shooting is.
Even the length of each stage fits the pattern: the reveal is the shortest; the suspense the longest.
To demonstrate how much the reversal matters, here is the same text with the sentences reordered last-to-first. To make it work, I’ve replaced they with the underlined the men, and would delete the three struck-through words.
Try to read it as though you’re unaware of its content.
Sometimes the men come back forty years later, as you’re thinking you can at least feel at ease, when they’re the ones at ease, returning with the even step of someone in no hurry, someone who could have been there five minutes ago and was to return right after. Quite frankly, they never get shot far enough. Yet it’s difficult to shoot them far enough.
You have to know how to load them. You can shoot men
with it far, really far. I also have a man-sling.
Now the suspense comes first: Which men? Why after forty years? Why couldn’t you feel at ease? Shot? Shot how? Shoot them far enough? Then comes the tension of the words load and shoot again, before the revealing man-sling.
As a standalone text it doesn’t quite work because man-sling isn’t a familiar concept, so the release from tension is disappointing—the reader doesn’t understand. However, as an experiment it illustrates the importance of linearity in reading:
- If we first hear an unfamiliar concept like man-sling and then a bunch of sentences, we anchor them as descriptors to the mentioned concept.
- If we first hear the bunch of sentences and then are told they are descriptors of a man-sling, the anchoring largely fails.
Unfamiliar-concept-first is the staple of scientific writing where definitions come before properties and discussion, so this too adds to the feeling of cold practicality in the original text.
Literal vs Metaphorical
This is a theme in Michaux. Last week I analysed three examples of reverse personification, where the narrator physically “became” a non-human entity—the relevant question is how to understand that “becoming“.
In The Man-Sling the flipping from literal to metaphorical can be pinpointed:
- In the first sentence, without context, man-sling sounds either as a euphemism (metaphor) or perhaps as a device like a trebuchet (literal).
- The remainder of the first paragraph asserts that a man-sling does indeed sling men (implying it’s literal).
- The first two sentence of the second paragraph talk about distance (still sounds literal).
- The last sentence philosophises about years (vivid, uncanny, hard to sell as literal, so ends up triggering metaphorical interpretations).
By the end of the text the reader has no choice but to accept the narrator is in earnest, and the sling is real for him—mark this—real, in some imaginative sense. This triggers a renewed wave of disbelief and bewilderment and we reinterpret the meaning of man-sling.
Notice that in the reversed rewrite above, the sentence philosophising about years is interpreted literally, the sentences about shooting as metaphorical, and we expect the final line to decide between the two interpretations, but instead I have a man-sling decides nothing (hence the disappointment, rather than disbelief and bewilderment of the original).
The Man-Sling is the tamest of Michaux’s imaginary protocols for disposing of unwanted others. His narrator puts impossible people in a sack and beats them (The Sack Session), he murders his enemies repeatedly (Satisfied Desire), he kneads marshals into sausages (The Sausage Cellar), he immobilises hinderers in plaster (In Plaster), he skewers old guests to make room for new guests (On the Skewer), he scythes through crowds of haters to achieve a philosophic state of mind (Philosophy through Murder).
To name a few.
Having read a sample of his work above, you can (accurately) extrapolate that none of his texts, though thoroughly disquieting, actually involve an explicit gross-out or an emotional blow-up. The repeated emphasis on the imaginary aspect is reassuring. Some people work off their stress by hitting a punching bag. Michaux’s is a mental gymnastics.
This post is part of series on the fantastic grotesque.
- Judging a Book by its Quirk Words: on Léon Bloy’s Tarantula’s Parlour and Other Unkind Tales (1893–4).
- Diabolical Framings: on Jules Barbey’s Diaboliques (1874).
- Urns as Hearts: on Jean Lorrain’s Soul-Drinker (1890s).
- Alone (With Only Your Demons for Company): on Michel de Ghelderode’s Spells (1941).
- Becoming the Sea: Fearing Fate: on reverse personification in Like the Sea from Henri Michaux’s Life in the Folds (1949).
- Becoming a Statue: Fearing Change: on the process of reverse personification in Michaux’s The Statue and I. (ibid.)
- Becoming Your Body: Fearing Pain: on the fine splitting of self in Michaux’s Circulating through My Body. (ibid.)
- The Terror-Horror-Revulsion Sequence:
- Chapter 10: The Adrenalin Pump in Stein on Writing gives good advice on tension-building. ↩
- Taken from Life in the Folds, translated from the French by Darren Jackson ↩