Expanding the Definition of Horror: Shirley Jackson’s “Biography of a Story,” Aldous Huxley’s “Ape and Essence,” & Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”

Are “Ape and Essence” and “Crime and Punishment” horror novels?

The truth is I do not read horror. I do not read Stephen King, who used to be appraised as a popular writer of horror, but is now considered a great American novelist. Years ago I made it through half of King’s The Shining, but was so terrified I threw it in the trash. It made me ill – I was-disturbed by the brutality of the antihero, Jack Torrance, a violent, alcoholic writer who is possessed by ghosts and terrorizes his family in the hotel where he is caretaker. Even after throwing out the book, I kept checking and rechecking the locks.

Mind you, I am a fan of several cross-genre novels which, in recent years, have been re-labeled horror in a kind of academic democratization. I have long admired Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, but her true horror writing is to be found in an essay, “Biography of a Story,” which is published in the appendix of the Library of America volume of Jackson’s work. In the essay, she documents the public response to “The Lottery,” her underwheming short story about an annual stoning ritual at an American village. The New Yorker was surprised by the volume of phone calls and letters. Some canceled their subscription to the magazine, while others wanted to know where the stoning ritual was.

Jackson shares excerpts from the letters.

(Kansas) Will you please tell me the locale and the year of the custom?

(New York) Do such tribunal rituals still exist and if so where?

This year I am expanding my definition of horror to include dystopian and psychological novels. I am stretching a metaphorical rubber band – or perhaps a piece of bubble gum – with which to contain my new canon.

I have rifled through piles of near-classics and even junk in my expansion of the horror canon. Yes, I love Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and I am loving some traditional ghost stories.

But I doubt that Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel, Ape and Essence, or Dostoevsky’s psychological novel, Crime and Punishment, have ever been categorized as horror.

The literati seem not to have discovered or parsed Huxley’s dystopian novel Ape and Essence (1948), written in Hollywood after the disillusioned Huxley’s stint as a screenwriter. Hollywood seems to spoil all its writers, and Ape and Essence, part satire of Hollywood, part post-apocalyptic novel, is a deliberate attempt by Huxley to satirize the crudeness of Hollywood films. Written in the form of a film script rescued from an incinerator by two desperate screenwriters, it is mostly set in a post-apocalyptic California which was destroyed in the Third World War. The society has reverted to a Puritanical form of devil worship, and the average men and women are kept ignorant and obedient. Their culture is simian and crude, almost as if they have reverted to cave men and women.. The whole world – except New Zealand, which was forgotten because it was so tiny – was destroyed during the Third World War. The remaining population in the U.S. is tiny and deformed from radiation.

Are you ready to be disgusted? Not only is Apes and Essence deliberately crude, but it portrays a terrifying society which, without the surveillance technology of the 20th and 21st centuries, still seeks to control all its citizens. The women are especially oppressed, forced to wear patches that say NO on their breasts and buttocks, and to give up their deformed babies to be killed. Four nipples is acceptable, six are not. And there are only a few weeks every year when they are allowed to ‘mate’, and then it is a frenzied orgy.

Enter Dr. Alfred Poole, a botanist from New Zealand on a “rediscovery” mission 100 years after the destruction. The first L.A. residents he meets are gravediggers who dig up corpses for clothing, because the society has no means of making new cloth. Poole is astonished to learn that Belial (the devil) is believed to be the force that caused man to despoil the earth with technology and end the world with military weapons. Everyone disconcertingly makes the sign of the horns.

“Yes, He got control,” the Chief explains. “He won the battle and took possession of everybody.That was when they did all this.”

And the anti-woman philosophy is horrifyingly repellent.

“What is the nature of women? Answer: Woman is the vessel of the Unholy Spirit, the source of all deformity, the enemy of the race, theā€¦”

Huxley’s brilliance shines through, even when he is sabotaging his own talent in this broad satire. Huxley is so intellectual and far ahead of the curve that he has the Arch-Vicar of Belial criticize man’s history of pollution and destructive technology

“Conquerors of Nature, indeed! In actual fact, of course, they had merely upset the equilibrium of Nature and were about to suffer the consequences, Just consider what they were up to the century and a half before the Thing. Fouling the rivers, killing off the wild animals, destroying the forests, washing the topsoil into the sea, burning up an ocean of petroleum, squandering the minerals it had taken a whole geological time to deposit. An orgy of criminal imbecility.”

Can the world be saved? Well, there is romance, as there is in all Hollywood films. Poole hooks up with a voluptuous gravedigger, Loola, and the two fall in love and share knowledge that helps them survive. And so the horror ends in hope, at least for Poole and Loola. And looking at their names together – double o’s – oo – is that sexual? Huxley is so clever. Honestly, this novel is fun to “deconstruct.”

Huxley is a brilliant writer, best known for his dystopian novel, Brave New World, but his real talent lay in his witty, satiric, realistic 1920s novels, Antic Hay and Point Counter Point.

I am currently rereading Dostoevsky’s classic, Crime and Punishment, as a work of psychological horror. The raging 23-year-old hero, Raskolnikov, a former student, deliberately commits murder for philosophical reasons – and is so depressed and terrified by the consequences that we get into his head and are horrified. Not my favorite Dostoevsky – that would be The Devils, sometimes translated as The Possessed – but Crime and Punishment is by far his most popular book. I don’t find it “relatable,” and yet it is impossible not to understand every thought, every feeling, of the doomed Raskolnikov. This is one of the bleakest, most horrifying of Russian novels.

Tune in soon for my thoughts on Gothics and ghost stories.

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