Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Rejecting the Horror of Sex: Charlotte Stein's INTRUSION

Do you like scary stories? I enjoy a creepy tale every now and then, but I have to admit that I avoid true horror, especially horror films, like the plague. I have enough trouble coping with anxieties and fears of my own; the idea that anyone might enjoy watching or reading about other people who are stalked, attacked, and violently murdered strikes me as close to incomprehensible. Especially because in American horror films, the "other people" being stalked, attacked, and killed tend to be women. In particular, women who desire, or actually engage in, sexual behavior. I can't imagine that watching women being punished for being sexual would in any way, shape, or form be a pleasure.

Perhaps that's why I so enjoyed Charlotte Stein's latest novella, Intrusion. Stein's romance fiction often dances on the edge of the creepy, but Intrusion engages more directly with horror and its tropes than any other of her works I've read. Not to endorse horror's misogynistic agenda, but instead to challenge it.

Clarice Starling: defeating horror, gun in hand
Stein's story opens with female fear, in particular, fear of a man: "I know he has my dog." The initially unnamed first-person narrator is in search of her missing pet, and neighborhood rumors about the strange recluse living down the block have her half-convinced that the man must know something about the pet's whereabouts: "Psychopaths and maniacs steal animals. And if I am honest, his house looks like the home of someone who does that sort of thing. I'm certain I saw it once on True Serial Killer Stories" (Kindle Loc 34).  She'd like to believe herself a Clarice Starling (heroine of that classic horror film Silence of the Lambs), but unlike Clarice, she has nothing close to a gun. Despite her lack of firearm, and despite a past trauma that has her convinced that "Nothing will ever make me strong again in the way I was before," (Loc 57), our narrator finds herself in her reclusive neighbor's yard, wavering between imagining the impending confrontation as "some empowering exercise, winning one over on a guy who decided to take something from me" and fearing "something very bad indeed" will confront her if she ever knocks on the door (Loc 57).

But our narrator doesn't have to knock; the strange man opens the door, just a sliver, at her approach. She makes her accusation, and he doesn't reply; he simply closes the door without saying a word. Only after she marches back across the street does she understand the significance of the chain the man kept across his door: "People put chains on their doors when they are afraid of you. Not when they want you to be afraid of them" (Loc 89). Rather than a terror like those that haunt her nightmares, might her reclusive neighbor be just as afraid as she is? Could what drove her across the street be less fear for her dog (who of course is waiting for her when she returns home), and more curiosity about a person who is in many ways acting the way she worries she might, if she ever gives in to her fears?

Sleepwalking, apologies, and thank-yous bring our narrator (whose name we find out is Beth) back in contact with her mysterious neighbor, who turns out to be just as strange, and just as wary, as Beth is herself. For Noah Gideon Grant, a former criminologist and forensic psychologist, has experienced trauma worthy of the most chilling horror flick. Unlike the audience of a horror film, though, Noah has no ability to distance himself from the terror, is able to gain no catharsis by telling himself "oh, this isn't real." Because Noah has in truth been traumatized by what horror films typically offer up as over-the-top, fake, performed entertainment: witnessing the sexual violation and murder of women.

Despite their growing friendship, and their obvious physical attraction, Noah and Beth's previous history with violent men makes any kind of romantic relationship difficult to navigate. Only when they begin to unlock each other's psychological truths, to understand what boundaries are important, what boundaries can be pushed, can they recoup the pleasure in being kind to another, in experiencing sexual desire.

Who would you rather be? Halloween's Laurie
Strode? Or Silence of the Lambs' Clarice?
I initially found myself annoyed when, at the end of Intrusion, Stein's story takes us right back to the horror film plot, with the inevitable confrontation scene with a villain from the past. But form mirrors ideology here; recovery from trauma is not a straightforward, linear process, Stein insists, but one that forces victims to confront and re-confront their trauma. Just like the villain in a horror film, the effects of trauma return, again and again. And Stein's invocation of what film scholar Donato Totaro calls "the final girl" scene, where the one (virginal) girl left standing vanquishes the serial killer, plays with gender in ways that do not simply echo, but re-imagine, the patriarchal assumptions of horror.









Avon Impulse, 2014

14 comments:

  1. As someone for whom Thomas Harris' RED DRAGON -- the book that introduced Hannibal Lecter to the world -- was a revelation (though it was more how Harris made me sympathize with Francis Dolarhyde, the serial killer the FBI was after, and wish his life had turned out differently that impressed me), who watches all manner of creepy procedurals, including Criminal Minds, and who thinks Shirley Jackson's writing, most of which falls into the horror category, is among the best there is (THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE especially), I come at this from an entirely different starting point than you do.

    Yes, much of horror, especially films and TV, which I'd argue operate under greater constraints than books due to the prevalence of male gaze in visual arts, exploits women. But how much of that is titillation and how much a reflection of real and justified fears? Certainly recent events -- the light shown on university's indifference toward sexual assault as demonstrated by the recent article in Rolling Stone and the ongoing protest by a student at Columbia University that the student she's named as her rapist hasn't been expelled, the many accusations leveled at comedian Bill Cosby -- demonstrate how well-founded women's fear of male violence is.

    I think it's a mistake to characterize the horror genre as inherently patriarchal; it, like most other genres, reflects the world it's written about. Otherwise you might as well call all fiction -- particularly realistic fiction -- patriarchal too. Besides. one of the most consciously feminist films and TV shows in recent memory -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- sprang from the horror genre but was created to turn a common trope (the pretty blonde girl who is trapped and killed early on) on its head.

    That said, you've intrigued me. I've read several books by Stein, and while she's a talented writer, I've generally felt vaguely dissatisfied and unnerved when I finish a book of hers. I don't know if it's something she's doing or not doing that bothers me. Perhaps I'll find this book, which is meant to be unnerving in the first place, more satisfying.

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    1. Hi, Lawless:

      So interesting to hear the take of someone who accounts herself a fan of horror. Thanks for chiming in.

      I've heard the argument you're making—that horror expresses justified fears women have, but can't/aren't allowed to express more directly, via more realistic genres—applied to 18th c Gothic literature, but not to horror lit. So now I'm wondering where the line is between Gothic, fantasy, and horror. Perhaps if I had specified 20th century horror movies, rather than horror in general, my point would be more valid?

      I wouldn't have placed Shirley Jackson in the horror category, more in the creepy/scary/eerie fantastic (I was in a play version of THE LOTTERY in high school, and am still rather creeped out by the story to this day). Love BUFFY, though, perhaps because it is a comedy, rather than straight horror.

      Look forward to hearing your thoughts about the Stein story...



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    2. Megan Hart is more to my liking than Stein when it comes to erotic romance. I think what Stein writes is closer to straight out erotica than erotic romance, actually.

      It's not an academic study, and as far as I remember it doesn't deal with violence against women much if at all, but you might find Stephen King's DANSE MACABRE -- about the horror genre in popular media, both visual (film and TV) and written form -- interesting. Jackson's THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and the first movie version is analyzed and praised at length, as is Anne River Siddons' THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR.

      Jackson's other full-length novel, WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE, isn't a ghost story the way HILL HOUSE is; it's somewhere between a psychological thriller and psychological horror.

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    3. Just picked up Megan Hart's latest--am looking forward to reading it!

      And thanks for the other recs. I've always shied away from Stephen King, but maybe something nonfiction than fiction would be fun...

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  2. This books sounds FANTASTIC!!! I already worship Charlotte Stein, and I'd heard she had a new book out with some kind of sleep walking motif. I must get my hands on this book right now! Thanks for another awesome post, btw. :)

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    1. You're very welcome, Madeline. I think you'll enjoy the new book immensely.

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  3. I am a huge fan of Charlotte Stein. She writes romantic erotica that is truly erotic, and furthermore, takes romantic tropes and plays around with them. I like that some of her stories make me feel uncomfortable, and take me out of the comfort zone many romance novels travel so predictably. I find Stein to be a talented writer. Her prose can sometimes wander about, but always comes back to its point of departure. Intrusion was suspenseful, romantic, and erotic in a smart way.

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    1. Yes, Stein is a writer who truly has her own voice, and insists on working outside/critiquing the boundaries of romance. I completely agree with your take on INTRUSION.

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  4. I think while the formula for horror has often been the virginal girl beats the villain, it's changing. I'm excited to see how women's roles in horror are changing. My favorite, so far, is the movie You're Next. It's gruesome but the female lead is so amazing. I can't recommend the movie enough. Maybe it's not a great movie all together but her character is wonderful. I can't wait to see more like her. I think just like romance - you have to search for the feminist characters in horror. There are a lot of women who write and create horror stories. As they gain footage, the stories change. Women are allowed to be fighters and heroes now where they weren't as accepted before.

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    1. Thanks, Sara, for the recommendation.

      The Donato Totaro article I link to above argues that European horror films are significantly different in the way they portray female sexuality. More often, sexual women are the horror, the monsters who kill men....

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    2. Is that really a feminist improvement, though? It seems to me just the other side of the same coin as women who are killed because they're sexually active.

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    3. Totaro thinks it is; I'm not so sure, myself. I was more interested by his account of Carol Clover's MEN, WOMEN, AND CHAINSAWS: GENDER IN THE MODERN HORROR FILM:

      "In psychoanalytical terms, sadism is post-Oedipal, meaning that it takes shape when identification shifts from the mother to the father. Masochism, deriving pleasure from one’s own pain or submission, is pre-Oedipal and takes place when the mother is all powerful and is the source of the child’s identification (from the womb to the breast). In the pre-Oedipal stage the child takes pleasure in this pure submission to the mother.... When turning this over to the horror film, as in the traditional slasher film, the spectator assumes a submissive position whenever they identify with the female victim, and more importantly, the female heroine (the Final Girl)."

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    4. Whenever anyone pulls out psychoanalysis, especially the Oedipus complex and penis envy, as an explanation for anything, my eyes glaze over. So many of Freud's theories that can be tested objectively have been disproven (think of his characterization of clitoral vs. vaginal orgasms when there almost certainly is no such thing as a vaginal orgasms -- the g spot, if it's not part of the internal clitoris (which is what I suspect it will turn out to be), is also not part of the vagina either) and so much of the rest is supposition of the sort that wouldn't pass muster in the social sciences today, let alone a psych lab, that I don't know why anyone, even a film critic/theorist, uses it as a starting point for analysis anymore.

      -lawless523

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  5. I thought you and your readers might find SBTB's entirely different reaction to this book of interest.

    -lawless523

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