Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Servante of Darkness #8: Magic Realism in Horror

by Lori R. Lopez

Reviewed by Anthony Servante

Welcome back, dear readers for my 8th venture into the literary workings of Horror today. This month, we will discuss the tradition of Magic Realism, from art to literature, and examine the anthology of horror stories by Lori R. Lopez in terms of the magically real approach, as compared to the supernatural and fantastic works of the South American writers who solidified the literary movement in the 80s. We want to see how Horror has been affected by the use of the hyper-realistic. The German art critic Franz Roh first used the phrase in 1925 to refer to an artistic style also known as The New Objectivity, a form of surrealism. Early in the art movement, surreal paintings dealt with fantastic aspects and landscapes, (think Salvador Dali’s melting clocks); later they focused on psychological subjects such as the realistic depiction of bureaucratic anxieties, as in the works of George Tooker.

This shift from unreal to real led to exaggerations in the mundane, a long line of people waiting for a bank teller, pedestrians crowding a crosswalk, or a mother smothering a child with her enormous arms. Literature of the magical realist began to utilize elements of the surreal and the ordinary to make further comments on social and government bureaucracies. Jorge Leal Amado de Faria (August 10, 1912 — August 6, 2001), a Brazilian author, was one of the first Latino writers to use this combination of artistic forms in his novel, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos) in 1978. In the novel, Dona Flor marries a philanderer of a man who satisfies her sexually, but he soon passes away, and later she marries an honest man of good social standing who cannot satisfy her in bed. In the second half of the book, the ghost of her former lover begins to seduce her, thus fulfilling her needs both physically and socially. “There is no justification for enlisting magic realism unless there is a larger truth which cannot be reached but for distortion of ordinary social realism,” says Joan Mellen, a modern literary critic. “Magic realism at its best relies not upon flights of fantasy but on particular fusion of fact and fantasy in the service of a quest for meaning” (Mellen, J. 2000). By this, she wants us to understand that literature of this genre exaggerates the real in order to provoke a response on the thematic target. So, per Mellen, Tooker’s surreal bureaucracies are comments on the ineffectiveness of government services (think the clichéd long lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles). Therefore, Dona Flor by Amado is a criticism on marriage. Some marry for social status, some for sexual pleasure, but the perfect marriage includes both. Since this perfection is not attainable in real life, Amado incorporates the supernatural element of lust to the natural marriage of Dona Flor to realize a perfect union.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his work, One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien Años de Soledad, 1967) also utilizes the supernatural in the form of ghosts to tell the history of a town and its founders cursed to repeat the same mistakes generation after generation that lead to the destruction of their home. José Arcadio Buendía founds "Macondo", a city of mirrors that reflected the world in and about it, after dreaming of a utopic village. But by building a real city based on an unreal dream, he dooms his future families. “At the end of the story, a Buendía man deciphers an encrypted cipher that generations of Buendía family men had failed to decipher. The secret message informed the recipient of every fortune and misfortune lived by the Buendía Family generations” (Wiki). Throughout the novel the characters are visited by ghosts. "The ghosts are symbols of the past and the haunting nature it has over Macondo. The ghosts and the displaced repetition that they evoke are, in fact, firmly grounded in the particular development of Latin American history" (Wiki). This supernatural element reminds the reader that the town is an illusion, or a false hope that when one builds on dreams, failure is inevitable, just as death is inevitable when we build on life. Our children inherit the illusion and thereby sustain its appearance of success. It is a real history based on the fantastic, life and death living side by side, generation after generation. “The author employing magic realism searches out hidden potential in the natural world or in human actions, and often describes the commonplace as mysterious. Reality seems to be deformed, but the reader perceives essential truths as a result of this distortion” (Mellen, J. 2000).

(Note in the cover to the Marquez novel that the city rests partly on a solid rock and partly on its cliff, seemingly about to fall, symbolizing the painting’s comment on the nature of the town.) In CHOCOLATE COVERED EYES (2011) Lori R. Lopez combines the real and the fantastic to create her own blend of magic realism. First off, this book is a collection of one poem and six stories, a confectionaire’s sampling of candied horrors. We saw in the Latino novels the blending of ghosts and the living to create a statement on social mores and government inefficiencies. Here we see Lopez comment on social conventions with her incorporation of horror and normal life. In the first story, HEARTBEAT, the realism of a fifties era family is set against a zombie infestation, where the government is under the illusion that they are in charge while the zombies have become just another facet of the neighborhood where the kids establish the rules for zombie/human interaction (a comment on gangs, perhaps?). As Lori puts it, “Always too much red tape and rights to consider. [The government] still think[s] they’re in charge, and they don’t want to risk provoking riots on top of everything else, as the so-called civilized world clings by a thread to an illusion of Normal.” This seems to be a social comment on single parenting set against the hardships of growing up in an impoverished neighborhood. Its poignant ending shows the government’s inadequacy to protect the single parent.

In a language usually reserved for poetry, our second candy of horror, NUANCE, places the “Normal” within the freaks and fiends of a carnival, the ever reliable symbol for the life of a gypsy, or transitory existence. The governing of a sideshow life is established by the carnies, and thus we have a microcosm of a city. Even the dreams of one boy reflect the hopes of such a morose existence: “The only chance of salvation was to believe in a boy who could fly, traverse walls, render magical feats.” Within the existence of the noncorformist life, dreams are your only salvation and the carrot on the stick that death proudly holds up for you. The fantastic in normalcy is that we all share the same fate. In UNLEASHED: TAIL ONE, Lori blends the normal with the fantastic by use of perspectives. The reader switches from the point of view of a detective, a dog, and a cat. Our world is askew—but only because we can perceive of other ways of seeing things, “real” things, depending on your point of view. We have seen some combination of these narratives in others works, such as James Herbert’s FLUKE, but without the magic realism. The use of such a narrative style comments on a cold government, one-sided in its decisions, versus the empathetic view that incorporates even opposing visions. BEYOND THE STUMP also combines various perspectives in a magic realism approach. The narrator describes it as, “Most people I’ve observed while walking on two limbs exist in a fantasy realm composed of past and future. They view little of the world around them, always focused somewhere else, ignoring what is there though scarcely noticed. The ordinary details. I cling to those details, endeavoring to not look back or ahead, for the present is all I have. All I can endure.” We think back to the ghosts of Marquez in the city of Macondo where past and present and future are trapped in the family curse. The narrator of Stump hangs in a similar time trap, between madness and reality, striding social strata. We forget how we saw the world from the height of our childhood. Lopez reminds us of this point of view with horrific results. BEDEVILED strides two worlds as well—that of the cats and that of the humans, at once ordinary pets and owners, and witch and familiar. In the author’s words, “’You cannot forget the sun that departs but is always there.’ Lonely and sad, the boy repeated this often to wring some droplet of wisdom which could heal his sorrow. The words tattered, dulled, lost all significance. He remembered darkness—shared only insects and spiders. A friend taught him to look between the shadows.” The time trap of magic realism here lies in the exaggeration of time as represented by the sunrise and sunset, and all time in between. The horror comes from the “ear goblin” that resides in dark madness. It is real in a surreal narrative. Where does the dark begin and the light begin?

In MACABRE, ghosts and the living reside together. The Murther Mill and the neighboring house are specters of a bygone time, “they endured as shabby blights on the sterile landscape, a flat expanse of scantily inhabited terrain—unremarkable; unmemorable; contradicted solely by fenceposts and telephone poles, an occasional tree.” These were grim reminders of the “curse”; even the shadows meant bad luck if they touched you. The supernatural clings to the ordinary old fixtures by way of rumors and gossip by those who fear these ancient presences. In the dust of the modern buildings that sit atop the land that held these antique structures are the spirits of the past, spirits that someday will return to dust. Lori R. Lopez uses magic realism in a modernistic approach, blending elements of poetry and horror to mead out narratives that both amaze and attract readers. As Marquez and Amado combined the real with the unreal, the natural with the supernatural, and the ordinary with the odd, in order to take the reader to a moral plateau of didactic proportions, so too does Lopez traverse a merger of extremes in her stories, not only to teach but to terrorize the reader. If the writing seems a bit heavy-handed at times, it is intentional in order for you to get inside the narrator’s frame of mind and view his surroundings through his ordinary madness. Worth a second and third reading, these stories by Lori R. Lopez demand at least a single read. Thank you, dear readers for joining us on this Cinco de Mayo literary festival for a discussion of magic realism in the horror of Chocolate-Covered Eyes: A Sampler of Horror. For more from Ms. Lopez, see also her guest blog in this issue. We shall see you again next month, faithful horrorheads. Until then, let the candle flame burn away the darkness, and ignore the scratching of the shadows against the walls.

--Anthony Servante