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Borders, Barbarians, Morality, and Horror: Vol. II

Borders, Barbarians, Morality, and Horror: Vol. II

George A. Romero and Stephen King are central to the modern horror canon, their finger-prints indelible. They engage with the horrific in a frequently literal, visceral sense, but beyond that, the horrific also takes the form of the psychological or the intangible. Both men often embed social critiques or at least awareness in their work. Tony Williams suggests:

King’s fiction is a fundamental part of an American cultural tradition that also influences Romero’s films. As a chronicler of historical influences on American literature and cinema, King has frequently expressed acknowledgement of his country’s neglected naturalistic tradition, aspects of which appear in his writing…King’s horrific dimensions actually parallel the dark realms depicted within EC Comics which allegorically depict the deadly nature of a material everyday existence responsible for acts of paranoia and violence. Many of King’s works complement consumerist critiques in Romero’s films.[1]

Williams sees Salem’s Lot as an ironic take on Our Town, and The Mist, a novella, as a work that has strong ties to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). Williams disagrees with the previous commonly-held perceptions of these two men’s output as that of “hacks,” and it is crucial to relate his interpretation to notions of individuality in the reader and the impossibility of separating one’s experiences and knowledge from their interpretations of a text.[2] Where one viewer might regard the dollar bills blowing down an abandoned and decimated South Florida street in Day of the Dead (1985) as merely a visual detail within a generic set-up to the zombie horde homing in on the living humans’ position, another might see this as stark capitalist critique, and yet still another may view the zombies as the shambling Other, the faceless barbarian horde descending on the last bastions of civilization. Of course, not everything within the confines of civilization is free from barbarism, either.

Using Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) as an example, again borrowing from Tony Williams, “the film is inextricably related to its historical context” (Vietnam, Democratic National Convention), consequently situating not only the “reader” or viewer squarely in history, but evoking their associations with historical material, no matter how unsettling.[3] For example, Williams describes the stills at the end of the film as being strongly reminiscent of World War II concentration camp photographs. The viewer may opt to view the film as “merely cheap exploitation or a formalist ‘splatter’ rollercoaster,” but “the audience member has the choice of understanding its relevance to a particular social and historical situation…the choice is up to the individual.”[4]

Horror comes in many forms: the horrors of war, phantasmal horror, and the horror of modernity’s Sisyphean condition, which for poet Philip Larkin pales in comparison to the absurd meaninglessness of life in the face of death. For Czeslaw Milosz “Aubade,” which finds the poet torn between two worlds, of expectation and reality, of horror and superficiality, of form and free verse, of raging emotion and numbness, is “a desperate poem about the lack of any reason—about the complete absurdity of human life—and of our moving, all of us, toward an absurd acceptance of death.”[5] In the poem, Larkin is wrestling with the cosmic issues of existence that threaten to paralyze him. In the first line, when he says, “I work all day, and get half-drunk at night” we are led to believe that for Larkin work in all its mind-numbing banality, is merely a prelude the cosmic dread that works him into a terror at night.

He has no use for religion—sees it as a means to hide the great fear of humanity, that of oblivion, of death meaning a true erasure of existence with no sensation. Life after death appeals to us, but for Larkin it is an illusion. Larkin sees routine and work to be outlets that direct peoples’ attention from this true fear, so it “stays just on the edge of vision / a small unfocused blur.” Alcohol is also portrayed as a means of escape, but here it is that which enables the poet to sleep and to attain a resting oblivion, though when he wakes up, both literally and metaphorically, he sees that “unresting death” that is lurking around in the pre-dawn darkness. Though for Stephen Akey Larkin “unashamedly distilled his worst qualities for literary effect,” he still, “persona or no persona, [made clear] in ‘If, My Darling’ that he was no model of mental health.”[6]

If fear and anxiety have always functioned as the lynch-pin for moralizing, damnation being a major motivator for adhering to the tenets of the Bible in the Christian tradition, its bedfellow has been fear of the unknown; this profound disquiet has long remained embedded in the Western unconscious. In John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980), the fog serves as a shroud that envelops the town of Antonio Bay during the “witching hour”—12 to 1 am—and forces the town to atone for the sins committed by their ancestors. Night is the realm of the dream world; anything we neglect in waking life comes back to us while we are asleep. This contrasts sharply with Larkin’s sleep-as-oblivion, and yet in “Aubade” the night remains the exclusive domain of untold horrors—his “unresting death” is a dream world in its own right.

Christianity supplanted or, in many cases, subsumed, the polytheist mythology of early- to mid-classical antiquity, and through this displacement of particularized exaltation, the singular, the cult of the self, has evolved (or at least transmuted) antiquity’s values. Horror, dreams, and the modern superego are inextricably intertwined in both the light of day and the dark recesses of night. In Hillman’s words:

Today, cut off from this (sacrificial practices either for the gods or heroes) psychic background, the heroic becomes the psychopathic: an exaltation of activity for its own sake. The locus of its cult is not the burial mound on which the city and its deeds are founded, but in the human body itself, in the humanistic ego.[7]

The cult of the self may be argued to have hit critical mass in a literary context with Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho; the novel’s central character Patrick Bateman espouses the virtues of self-exaltation and consumerism in a series of dramatic monologues that I would argue are essentially prose poems. The inwardly-focused Bateman states: “It’s impossible in this world we live in to empathize with others, we can always empathize with ourselves. It’s an important message, crucial really.”[8] Bateman is the humanistic ego personified; his monstrousness is centered on the banal minutiae of his routine which, by extension, defines his existence. “Activity for its own sake,” the performing of social rights-as-commitments, ultimately yields to Bateman’s psychopathic impulses (real or imagined).

For Leigh Claire La Barge:

American Psycho pushes the lifeless world of the brat-pack commodity-aesthetic to its limit with rambling descriptions of branded commodities newly rendered in deadening prose and broken by the representation of lethal violence. The novel is structured through short, interchangeable chapters that detail the habits and banalities of upper-middle class, urban consumerism, the contents of which are reflected in the titles, such as “Shopping,” “Lunch,” and “At Another New Restaurant.” American Psycho is chronologically the last of the brat-pack releases; it contains a chapter entitled “End of the 1980s” and, indeed, the novel seeks to exhaust the period and one of its most contested literary aesthetics.[9]

Ellis was considered by critics to be a part of the “Brat Pack” of fiction in terms of the sheer number of pop-culture references and specific brand-naming; by attempting to saturate the text and combine “the labyrinthine, encyclopedic postmodern fictions of William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon or, more recently, David Foster Wallace,” the Brat-Packers were actually affecting a style, to quote La Barge, that “underwhelms rather than overwhelms, reading more like advertising copy.”[10] La Barge continues:

First reporting in 1982 on a new category of businessmen, the corporate raiders, the New York Times noted that “they have even developed their own language laced with images of aggression and sexual conquest.” Soon after, periodicals quit analyzing this language and began employing it. Time’s description of venture capitalist Arthur Rock, the man who arranged the initial financing for Apple, as one of “the men who make the killings,” is one of many examples… Ellis’s text uses financial, journalistic language to synthesize… different texts, all unified by the representation of the masculine financier and his violence.[11]

These kinds of conflations are still utilized today, and modern critical theory deals in no small part with its “concerns” regarding wealth creation, power, oppression, exploitation, and the impact of “toxic masculinity.” Specific texts use this jargon and portray “patrician excess” framed through a lens of exploitative practice—gain as a measure of a man. The picture doesn’t end there.

It has become en vogue for many critics to compare the modern American nation-state, and perhaps by extension the West in general, to the late Western Roman Empire (which I will henceforth simply call the Roman Empire for ease). There are, in any case, precise reasons why the fall of the Roman Empire is conflated with the 1980s to the present as a frame within which to explore empire and imperialism. In many ways, Western history is post-Roman history. We should be skeptical of foisting today’s values on the ancient world, but there are key parallels to be drawn. Explains Nicholas J. Cull:

The 1980s brought a revival of interest in Rome. The extremes of the classical period seemed appropriate for the polarized politics of the era. While Ronald Reagan spoke of an “evil empire,” witty opponents of Margaret Thatcher dubbed her “Attila the Hen” and a “bargain basement-Boadicea.” In 1980, the National Theatre drew explicit parallels between the 1980s and 54 B.C.E. in Howard Brenton’s controversial allegory of British imperialism and policy in Northern Ireland, The Romans in Britain.[12]

The ever-widening economic gap in the bacchanalian 1980s and the reckless abandon with which the financial sector engaged in conspicuous spending and consumption was characterized as a “last days of Rome” scenario by commentators at the time: “A Time magazine reporter…glibly summarized the 1980s with five words: ‘Get rich, borrow, spend, enjoy.’”[13] States Richard B. McKenzie:

Dubbed the “Decade of Greed,” the 1980s were seen by many as one long consumption binge, fostered by the Reagan Administration and characterized by what political pundit Kevin Phillips called “conspicuous opulence.” The evidence offered in support of this contention includes casual references to the jump in the sales of luxury automobiles, the number of MBAs (most of whom, presumably, set their sights on making money on Wall Street), the number of get-rich and self-help books, and the number of Wall Street brokers who went to prison.[14]

In some ways the political ramifications of that era remain with us today, born out of what Frank Partnoy terms Wall Street’s “lost decade.”[15] For Lewis Lapham:

Sallust’s description of Rome in 80 B.C.[16]—a government controlled by wealth, a ruling-class numb to the repetitions of political scandal, a public diverted by chariot races and gladiatorial shows—stands as a fair summary of some of our own circumstances.[17]

There is a strong argument for seeing the 1980s as marking the beginning of our current historical epoch, not only through the re-trenchment of the military-industrial complex, which powers an ugly arm of American geo-politics, but also in the establishment of certain cultural norms, the formation of the character of mass media and communication, and in the attendant expansion of Hollywood and celebrity culture, all of which occurred against a back-drop of what J.K. Galbraith claims was “the death of liberal economics.”[18] The Donald Trump brand is very much a product of the 1980s.

Darlene M. Juschka believes:

The similarities between Rome and U.S. hegemony are marked and the current enrapture with the Roman Empire is explicable. Roman hegemony in the ancient Mediterranean world operated as a process of civilising (civilisation in the form of taxes, roads and armies—the pax Romana) while the civilising of the postmodern world under the deft hand of Eurowestern capitalism (led by the United States) has taken the form of gross national debt, satellite systems, and automated arsenals—the pax Americana.[19]

As evidenced, in one form or another, these latter related practices can trace their roots to the late-imperial Roman period (or perhaps even earlier).

The 1980s also began to see wide recognition and application of New Historicist critical tenets in academic debate, with Raymond Williams’ Cultural Materialism in the United Kingdom and Stephen Greenblatt’s iteration of New Historicism in the United States gaining significant mainstream traction. The emphasis on critiquing the totality of cultural practice, including entertainment culture and trash TV (Williams), [20] and tracing the circulations of social, historical, and economic energy (Greenblatt), speak to us again as we try to calibrate our understanding of expressions of power, post-9/11.[21]

The American/Eurowestern-Roman parallels require much more investigation, and they will be given proper space in the upcoming “Civis Romanus Sum” pieces that build off the initial comparisons here.



[1] Tony Williams, The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead (London: Wallflower, 2003), p. 19.

[2] See also: Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT), 1991.

[3] Williams, Knight, p. 31.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Czeslow Milosz and Cynthia L. Haven, Czeslow Milosz: Conversations (Oxford: University of Mississippi Press, 2006), p. 64.

[6] Stephen Akey, “The Poetry of Mental Unhealth: Philip Larkin”, The Millions (May 3, 2012).

[7] James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 111.

[8] Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho: A Novel (New York: Vintage, 1991), p. 264.

[9] Leigh Claire La Barge, “The Men Who Make the Killings: American Psycho, Financial Masculinity, and 1980s Financial Print Culture”, Studies in American Fiction 37.2 (2010), pp. 273-96, at p. 273-74.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Nicholas J. Cull, “Infamy! Infamy!” from Sandra R. Joshel, Margaret Malamud, and Donald T. McGuire (eds.), Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), p. 184.

[13] Richard B. McKenzie, “Was It a Decade of Greed?”, National Review (August 31, 1992).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Frank Partnoy, Infectious Greed: How Deceit and Risk Corrupted the Financial Markets (New York, NY: Times Books, 2003).

[16] Strikingly pre-dating the demise of the Republic and the rise of the Empire.

[17] Lewis Lapham, Waiting for the Barbarians (London: Verso, 1997), p. 228.

[18] J.K. Galbraith, “The Economic Hangover from a Binge of Greed”, Business and Society Review 81 (1992), pp. 6-7.

[19] Darlene M. Juschka, Political Bodies/Body Politic: The Semiotics of Gender (Sheffield, UK: Equinox Publishing, 2009), p. 135.

[20] Raymond Williams, Culture and Materialism: Selected Essays (London: Verso, 2005).

[21] Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, Practicing New Historicism (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2000).

Thinly Veiled Threats

Thinly Veiled Threats

Borders, Barbarians, Morality, and Horror: Vol. I

Borders, Barbarians, Morality, and Horror: Vol. I