Once upon a time clowns were an un-ironic take on the jester archetype. Storytellers could make use of clowns to lighten a mood. Shakespeare did it.
BRINGING IN THE CLOWNS
When Shakespeare figured the audience had had enough of the heavy stuff, he’d let up a little, bring in a clown or a foolish innkeeper or something like that, before he’d become serious again. And trips to other planets, science fiction of an obviously kidding sort, is equivalent to bringing in the clowns every so often to lighten things up.
THE TRICKSTER CLOWN
The clown in a story is often a trickster. The lucky thing about villain tricksters: they can be outwitted. They are frequently single-mindedly focused on wreaking havoc and can be therefore be taken by surprise.
THE SCARY CLOWN
Take a look at children’s stories, toys and merchandise from the 20th century and clown archetypes are everywhere. The Jack-in-the-box below wears a jester’s hat, but also wears the red nose of a clown.
Perhaps children of the first and second Golden Ages didn’t find clowns so scary. Would this chalk packaging fly today? The concept is funny, end result terrifying.
Were clowns always a bit terrifying, though? I don’t think we can blame Stephen King for ruining clowns. An alternative theory: Early children’s stories expected to both scare AND entertain (as well as teach). There was perhaps less expectation that books would be soothing.
Part of their scariness, I believe, comes from their maquillage — make up so thick and exaggerated that it functions as a mask. The smile only makes it worse. Why? Why is the smile worse?
When describing the ogre from Greek myth, Baubo, Diane Purkiss has this to say about the associations between terror and smiling:
Fear provokes laughter as easily as screams. Children often laugh when they are frightened. Both fear and laughter depend on surprise, the rupture of expectations. Many demons found their way into the repertoire of comic masks. Aristophanes uses the word for hobgoblin to mean both demon and a comic mask. In an exactly similar way, the Romans hung masks called oscilla (literally, ‘little faces’) in trees to frighten away ghosts, yet the masks could be called by the same naes as the demons they were supposed to frighten. … Play (meaning both theatre and games) is central to demons. Terror, when acted out, is displaced, managed, controlled.
Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A history of fairies and fairy stories
Comedians are supposed to have sad lives, though this isn’t a cliche I entirely endorse, the sad clown not a type I’ve ever come across whereas the mean clown, the selfish clown and the downright unpleasant clown are commonplace.
Alan Bennett, Radio and TV, Untold Stories
When illustrating a smile, it’s easy to depict a scary grimace. The line is pretty fine. I can’t say what the artist was going for in the dog illustration below, but if they were going for scary, they managed it. I’m reminded of Stephen King’s I.T.
Why can an illustrated smile so easily turn evil? It’s probably an evolutionary thing. When apes and monkeys ‘grin’ at each other they are showing their teeth to convey how they could rip you to pieces if they sunk their incisors into you. Our pet dogs still use their teeth in that way despite thousands of years of domestication. So do people. We are highly attuned to the fake smile. There’s nothing more fake than a painted on smile. This fakeness explains the scariness of the clown’s smile.
Many children’s book villains have clownish features without conforming fully to the clown archetype. Mean Old Mister Minky of the Raggedy Ann and Andy stories shares in common with clowns those big, wide eyes and the face in rictus, rendered only slightly comical by the concentrating tongue. Mister Minky is a clown-goblin-jester mixture of dastardness.
Gargamel of the Smurfs came later but is a similar archetype to Mister Minky, with his big wide eyes and long nose. The long nose denotes old age but the tufts of hair around the ears with nothing on top now look clownish… We might expect this hair to denote unmarked old age. The receding hairline presents in many men, but this hairstyle (non style?) has been used so frequently in recent clown archetypes one simply cannot get away with it in real life.
Noteworthy is what the Japanese call ‘wakahage‘ (youth balding), which is a less judgemental word than ‘premature balding’ (who’s to say what’s ‘premature’?). All actors who play both Pennywise and Gargamel in the ‘live action’ film adaptations are young men with full heads of hair who need to have their pate covered. The red hair of Pennywise suggests youth, though the balding does not. Again, the juxtaposition is important when it comes to clowns. Juxtaposition creates unease.
THE LONELY CLOWN
Loneliness takes many forms. If clowns are surrounded by people and they take it upon themselves to cheer everybody else up, they fall into the category of the Appreciated Outsider. The lonely person who does not appear to be lonely is wearing a metaphorical mask, which turns into a literal mask in the case of a clown, whose face is so altered by make-up that the real person is no longer visible underneath. There’s nothing more lonely than being ignored when surrounded by people. A rule of the narrative mask: The character who wears a mask will never find happiness until the mask comes off. Clowns must become known before they find friends.
The Lonely Clown archetype doesn’t always look like a clown, and the clownishness of a character doesn’t always endure throughout a story. An example of a temporary Lonely Clown can be seen in American Beauty (1999), in which Lester’s wife Carolyn sings “Don’t Rain On My Parade” in the car. The story is not about Carolyn, and she is not a sympathetic character, but we can deduce that if Lester is isolated within their marriage then Carolyn is suffering equally. We get a few brief glimpses.
In the scene below, the juxtaposition between Carolyn’s inner loneliness contrasts with the upbeat, carnivalesque nature of the song and her rendition of it, which together evoke the classic Lonely Clown idea. Carolyn’s loneliness is only magnified by the happy song, because the audience can see she is wearing a mask.
(Also relevant, we associated clowns with parades.)
An outstanding picture book example of a lonely clown is The Farmer And The Clown by Marla Frazee. In line with picture book ‘rules’, the story ends with a clown character who is no longer lonely, reunited with family in this case. But the Lonely Clown archetype is at play. For a depiction of a lonely landscape conveyed entirely via art work, check out this book as a mentor text.
CLOWN AS LIMINAL CREATURE
The clown is an outsider, lonely because he is alone on his stage, never truly known. He exists on the fringe of our culture, and therefore makes the perfect liminal creature. In Ingpen’s illustration above the clown exists in a graveyard, another liminal space, where the living go to greet the dead, forced to contemplate their own mortality.
I’ve been thinking about ways in which a storyteller creates a sense of unease for the audience, but spatially. We might call this spatial horror. I’m talking about disorientation, dizziness, light-headedness, fear of falling, and various senses outlined in the graphic below.
A visual representation of disorientation can be seen in an M.C. Escher painting. These are fascinating, but uncomfortable to look at:
Below is the BookRiot clip which got me thinking about spatial horror as a concept. Perhaps certain genres employ these techniques more than others, for instance horror, action and thriller plots. Likewise, science fiction often sends a character flying through time, perhaps through a portal.
But disorientation is a trick not limited to the horror genre, and applies to many types of stories, and across all types of children’s books. I have even noticed spatial horror utilised in picture books by Beatrix Potter. (I maintain that Potter’s stories are a genre blend including large dashes of unmitigated horror.)
On screen, camera work can do a great job of invoking certain unpleasant feelings, especially vertigo. I find the video below unpleasant to watch. That’s because I experience a common form of synaesthesia in which a jolt rushes through me. All the while, I know I’m only watching a stranger risk their own life.
This ‘jolt’ is more difficult to reproduce on the page (not that I would seek it out as a reader). But writers do employ various tricks to create various spatial discomfort for readers, usually to emulate the discomfort experienced by their sympathetic main characters.
Disorientation is generally a very unpleasant feeling. Why do that to an audience? Do it mindfully, with a reason in mind:
In secret societies, an old rule of initiation is: Disorientation leads to susceptibility. That’s why initiates are often blindfolded and led around in the dark, so they will be more psychologically open to suggestion from the rituals staged by the group. In storytelling, getting the audience a little off-base and upsetting their normal perceptions can put them into a receptive mood. They begin to suspend their disbelief and enter more readily into a Special World of fantasy.
Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey
A stand-out short story example of general disorientation is “Trespasses” by Alice Munro. I’ve analysed it myself here. If you don’t mind some heavy reading, Nancy Easterlin has written a paper (freely available online) which goes into the exact ways in which Munro creates a sense of discomfort. Much of the discomfort derives from not knowing who the main character is, or who we’re meant to be following.
Alice Munro is a world class magician with words and in “Trespasses” she walks the high wire. Below I have collected some slightly less complicated writerly tricks.
Throw your character around
The original title of Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Samuel Whiskers” was “The Roly-Poly Pudding”. This older title better suggests the spatial horror of a story in which our sympathetic main character is thrown around in various different ways. The victim of this story finds himself in tight spaces and eventually rolled up in dough.
The Looney Tunes cartoons are basically all about throwing their characters around. Children’s stories which emulate this kind of cartoonish slapstick might be playing around with this type of spatial horror, but often when we watch these scenarios play out, they’re not actually having an effect on us. We view them in one dimensional perspective, as long shots. It’s only when the (metaphorical) camera shifts that we might start to feel discombobulated. Spatial horror depends on high and low angles, and multiple perspectives.
Three point perspective is far better at achieving a disorienting effect in the viewer, as shown in this three point perspective city, which almost seems to turn in on itself, creating its own miniature world.
Play around with differential sizes
I’ve already written about this extensively in my post on Making Use Of The Miniature In Storytelling. Many of these tricks are utilised frequently by children’s storytellers — most often a character shrinks, or is small to begin with.
Morphing in size is not limited to children’s fantasy. For a wonderful example of a lyrical short story in which the very setting seems to shrink as two characters explore their environs in a state of limerant love, see “Something Childish but Very Natural” by Katherine Mansfield. These two main characters are so caught up in themselves that their own lust for each other (in short, egocentricity) makes them feel so much more important than the rest of the world, which will surely bend to their will (until they realise it won’t).
In general, Mansfield loved playing around with spatial effects. This is connected to her recurring theme of retaining one’s individuality. Characters seem terrified of losing themselves, of being subsumed by the roles expected of them. Added to that, for Mansfield the self is porous, caught between a virtual past and a virtual future.
Create a whirlpool effect
Ilinx is a Greek word meaning ‘whirlpool’. This word is sometimes used to describe computer games that induce a sense of disorientation or vertigo. The term (as used in this context) was proposed by Roger Caillois as one of four game categories. In case you’re wondering, the other game categories are agon (competition), alea (chance) and mimicry (simulation).
Computer games, like movies, are great at creating a range of spatial horrors for users. How do writers create that feeling of being swept into a whirlpool?
One of the most chilling sequences from a book/movie is in The Beach, when the main character swims through cave tunnels and almost runs out of breath before he manages to find a place to resurface. Tunnels in general deny us an escape route, and are therefore excellent for inducing fear, especially claustrophobia. The scene written by Alex Garland also features an excellent and dire ticking clock: The main character can only hold his breath underwater for a limited period of time.
Get your character lost
The Beach underground tunnel example scares me on multiple levels, and another layer of fear derives from being lost, perhaps forever.
The mythic journey is especially useful in this regard because the main character leaves home and explores unknown territory. Bear in mind though, your characters can still get lost in their own suburbs, their own schools, inside unfamiliar buildings.
Technically speaking, frequent switching your point of view can help create a disorientated feeling in your audience. Even genuine cases of ‘head hopping‘ may have their uses, when done mindfully by the writer.
AN EXAMPLE OF SUBVERSION
The Hilda stories by Luke Pearson (also a TV series) are cosy by intent, so even getting lost becomes an adventure, in a world where fantasy creatures are harmless, even the massive ones. The Hilda setting is also interesting because depending on the scene, Hilda the human girl is sometimes massive, sometimes tiny.
Put your characters in tight places
As if old houses aren’t creepy in their own right, the creepier thing about them is that you can get lost in them — not just in the rooms themselves, but in the spaces between.
The Rats In The Walls, as well as Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves In The Walls encapsulate this particular fear. A Lovecraftian fear of passages, corridors and spaces in between may be more common than I realise. Jeff Kinney even makes a gag out of it in Wrecking Ball (2019). Greg can’t stand the thought of creatures poking about in the walls, so his future dream house will be made entirely of glass. The illustration shows Greg sitting downstairs, looking straight through the floors into an upstairs toilet.
In Potter’s “The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse“, Timmie Willie He’s becomes horribly disorientated inside his wicker cage. Characters are especially prone to this type of spatial horror if they are tiny. Children, fairies and mice are so small they can get bundled up inside things and thrown around from movement, against their will, outside their control.
The music video below makes use of all sorts of spatial effects, and one of them is the mise-en-abyme effect — that feeling you get when standing between two mirrors facing each other. Your images stretch on forever and ever.
Why does it feel so strange to look into two mirrors facing each other? I believe it’s because we rarely get an insight into the feeling of true infinity. We are each bound to our single planet, to our single body, and our experience of all things is singular.
The Poorly Drawn Lines comic strip below combines two spatial tricks: the mise-en-abyme effect and the miniature effect. (Something gets smaller and smaller even as it goes on forever.)
I have experienced the magnitude of infinity most acutely when reading popular astronomy. As you might predict from the title, Marcus Chown’s The Never-ending Days of Being Dead is a mind-blowing book in that regard. Sean Carroll also has a book about multiple worlds theory.
Writers have several ways of inducing this feeling in an audience. One way is to link ‘childhood’ to ‘the elderly’, giving the impression that life is seen from above, and that it is cyclical. Annie Proulx regularly does this as well, by opening stories which go back three generations (which happens to correspond to the length of time the human brain can cope with when it comes to caring about relatives). For a literary short story example of The Overview Effect see see “Prelude” by Katherine Mansfield. The symbolism around the aloe (the story’s original name) also emphasises this.
In her short story “Deep Holes“, Alice Munro creates an Overview Effect by Alice Munro turning Sally into a tiny figure within a vast landscape. We are seeing her from above, almost as if from the stratosphere. We are no longer involved in her life. This is how we leave her.
That’s why you’ll quite often find The Overview Effect as a story ending. Moving now to the realm of picture books, this is how Jon Klassen wraps up “We Found A Hat“. But this time the viewer stays on the ground, looking up at the characters rather than looking down. These tortoises have both acted morally after making a very tough moral decision (to share a single hat between them), and with this view from the ground, they now seem almost angelic. However, the small size of them against the backdrop of a huge sky nonetheless works to create an Overview Effect.
Apart from the very end, Overview Effects are often utilised at the Anagnorisis phase of a story (the part which comes after the Battle, in which the character learns something about themselves). This makes complete sense because when you learn something about yourself you are temporarily seeing yourself as if from afar, as if you are new to yourself.
For an excellent example of Overview Effect used at the Anagnorisis phase of a story see When You Reach Me, a middle grade novel by Rebecca Stead.
Margaret Wise Brown also uses The Overview Effect at the Climax of Goodnight Moon.
Strand your character in the middle of nowhere
The film Gravity opened by creating an Overview Effect. But as the action unfolded I felt more and more isolated. I don’t imagine I’d enjoy being off my own planet, not knowing which direction it was in. I think I might even flip out.
Space functions metaphorically in the same way as an ocean. So any story set underwater is good at messing around with our sense of direction. If we’re panicking underwater, we may not even know which way is up, which way is down.
Island stories, desert stories and journey at sea stories all induce spatial horror by encouraging the audience to see ourselves (via the characters) as tiny in the vastness of space and time.
“Singing My Sister Down” is a horror short story by Australian author Margo Lanagan. Find it in Lanagan’s collection Black Juice, published by Allen and Unwin. Black Juice was published in 2004, but “Singing My Sister Down” has proven especially resonant with readers, anthologised numerous times since. “Singing My Sister Down” is now a modern Australian short story classic.
Reading it again today, I stop halfway through and watch a Cookie Monster skit which has blessedly come through my Twitter feed. It’s just too much. I can’t think of many short stories this intense, though “Brokeback Mountain” is another (more so than the film).
OTHER creepy short stories TO COMPARE AND CONTRAST
The collection Black Juice is sold as young adult fiction, but I suspect that’s a decision especially relevant to small book markets like Australia, in which publishers convince high school English teachers all over the country to buy class sets. Another Australian author marketed as young adult is Sonya Hartnett, but I can’t pinpoint what, in the stories themselves, makes Hartnett’s work YA.
Anyhow, the marketing strategy works, because Black Juice has since become a set text for many Australian high school students.
I went to school in New Zealand. Our resonant horror short story in senior English class was “King Bait” by Keri Hulme — a similarly pessimistic commentary on what can happen when a small community comes together for an event.
But this is the most harrowing of them all. What makes “Singing My Sister Down” so damn memorable and scary? (And what makes it attractive to English teachers?)
THE HORRIFIC PLOT OF “SINGING MY SISTER DOWN”
The story is narrated from the point of view of a brother, who is charged with the task of playing music at his sister’s murder. We don’t know how much time has elapsed between the event and his retelling of it. He could be recounting the story many years into the future, or it might have just happened. He appears to be retelling the story as a way of understanding it. This is generally the case for storyteller narrators. All through the ‘ceremony’ he knew something was off, but was powerless to stop any of it.
This is where “Singing My Sister Down” stands out over many other types of horror stories, some of which I don’t find scary at all.
There is no Desire to rescue this girl from the tar pit. (Not from the characters within the setting, that is.)
This defies our expectation of narrative in general. The vast majority of stories with a similar setting would take a different path. The twentieth century taught us to expect men rushing in to save a girl from sinking into quicksand.
But here, that hero trope is subverted. NO ONE is coming to rescue this girl. As reader, I feel this really frustrating glass wall between myself and the setting. There’s no way I can dive into the book and do something. Please, won’t somebody do something?
The desire of the family is to see Ikky accept her punishment of slow and sadistic death, and to make this murder (coded by the characters as fair and just punishment) follow the community’s customs around death, because they only get one chance to say goodbye.
The Opposition that exists in “Singing My Sister Down” is not so much between the characters themselves. Technically, there is an opposition between Ikky and the rest of her community, because presumably she’d rather not be killed in this fashion. She has spent the recent days ‘sulking’ — understatement of the story.
Yet Ikky is grimly accepting of her punishment, indoctrinated by a culture which says this is the way things go. There is some mild opposition between Ikky and the aunt, who cannot face the tar-pit ceremony, but because the aunt remains off the page, this is a soft oppositional web.
There has been a big Battle which took place off the page — the axe fight in which Ikky killed someone. Off-the-page opponents can be scary too.
Regarding the hints about how Ikky got here: She was a newlywed. She killed someone with an axe. I extrapolate that she killed her new husband with an axe. Based on statistics around women who murder men, there was very likely a self-defence element at the base of Ikky’s crime.
In the 20 per cent of murders committed by women, over two-thirds were women killing men who had been abusing them.
This is a horrifically soft Opposition in this story, given the life-and-death situation. This in itself is a subversion. We expect people (and characters) to fight tooth and nail to save their own lives.
I’ve watched enough true crime shows to know that people usually do fight to the death, and will injure themselves severely in the hope of saving their own lives. Survival instinct kicks in. Another thing I’ve learned from a true crime show: Prisoners on death row don’t eat their last meals. Prison guards ask what they’d like and do an excellent job of preparing the meals. They know the prisoners won’t touch it, then they’ll eat it themselves. This was mentioned in a documentary about a serial killer — presumed psychopathic. This guy stood out from all the other (probably psychopathic) prisoners facing imminent execution in America because he indeed ate his last meal, and seemed to enjoy it. Evidence of his lack of humanity. (I figure this is why baddies so often eat apples and sandwiches after committing horrific crimes in stories. Normal people couldn’t eat a thing at a time like that. In fact we’d do the opposite of eat — we’d throw up.)
Ikky in “Singing My Sister Down” eats her last meal of crab meat as she sinks into the tar pit. I don’t believe this is realistic, but it is horrific. And mimesis is over-rated — I believe there is a symbolic reason for the crab meat, and also for her eating it.
THE SYMBOLISM OF CRUSTACEANS
What’s with the crabs, I wonder? I just read another short story with crabs by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings“, in which the magical realist setting opens with an invasion of crabs coming in from the sea to inhabit the human habitat. In that story, land meets the sea as earth meets heaven (an angel falls to earth and is not as ‘angelic’ as everyone expected).
But in “Singing My Sister Down”, is there any symbolic significance regarding the crab meat? I personally find crabs creepy. They’re like the huntsman spiders of the sea. They have too many legs. They walk sideways. Their eyes are entirely black and stick up on stalks. There is nothing cute about a crab. Worst of all are the pinchers. Even a cooked crab gives me the willies.
Actually there is one thing worse than crabs on the beach. And that’s live crabs dropped alive into boiling water. I have no empathy for a crab walking along the beach, but as soon as a chef throws a crustacean into water, suddenly I’m horrified.
Time and again, throughout history, the same pattern happens: Studies eventually show that animals apart from humans feel far more than we thought they did. Same with crabs.
Normally this discussion is around lobsters.
Robert Elwood once boiled a lobster alive – lobsters being one of the few creatures we eat that we are allowed to slaughter at home. It is the usual way to kill, and cook, them. “Would I boil a lobster now?” asks Elwood, emeritus professor at the school of biological sciences at Queen’s University Belfast, referring to the work he has done for more than a decade on crustaceans and pain. “I wouldn’t. I would kill it before boiling.” […]
The argument is: we know the areas involved in pain experienced in humans; if you don’t have those areas, you can’t feel pain. But it’s quite clear that, in evolution, completely different structures have arisen to have exactly the same function – crustaceans don’t have a visual cortex anything like that of a human, but they can see. Given the evolutionary advantage of experiencing pain, there is no reason to assume they should not have this protection against tissue damage.”
Why should this even be surprising to us at this point?
It’s illegal to boil crustaceans alive in my home country of New Zealand; Australia is progressing more slowly, state by state. When “Singing My Sister Down” was published, this worldwide trend had yet to begin.
Do I think that’s the main message of “Singing My Sister Down?” That we shouldn’t cook crustaceans alive because we wouldn’t cook a human alive in a tar-pit? Nope. Don’t think that. But that’s where the crab thing took me.
Crustaceans aside, the most disturbing opposition in “Singing My Sister Down” exists not between the characters themselves, but between the story and the audience. We desperately want someone to step in and stop this from happening. Nobody does.
We might say the opposition = the setting. There is a freaky robo-fate to how this ceremony plays out, akin to the ‘mechanical behaviour’ trope found so often in horror.
Weirdly, the ‘mechanical behaviour’ trope is found also in comedy. A comedy example is Roy asking “Have you turned it off and on again?” on The I.T. Crowd. At one point the ‘mechanical-ness’ of this act is exploited in full, when Roy hooks up an actual tape recorder to do his entire job. Most commonly, the character with mechanical behaviour has an element of the fussbudget about them.
In horror the mechanical behaviour of the villain exposes his lack of humanity. You can’t reason with such a character. Worst of all, you can’t kill something mechanical — horror monsters keep coming back and back and back.
But here, the setting itself — the culture of this messed up little community — is the force which propels this girl’s family to go ahead with her murder. This, in my view, is the most horrific form of mechanical behaviour there is.
There is no plan to rescue Ikky. The Plan is to carry out the tar-pit sinking in customary fashion. The bulk of the detail in “Singing My Sister Down” is around the rituals, and a blow-by-blow description of the sinking.
The narrator might easily be describing a wedding, which also involves music and flower wreaths. Indeed, there has recently been a wedding.
‘Well, this party’s going to be almost as good, ’cause it’s got children. And look what else!’ And she reached for the next ice-basket.
This juxtaposition lends a feeling of unease in the reader. Births, deaths, marriages… all completely different things… all involve similar ritual.
We know what the climax is going to be, which is why it’s so horrible. It’s one thing to be almost ‘cuddled’ warmly by the tar. It’s another thing to suffocate in the damn stuff.
It is nightfall before this happens. Because the story is narrated by the brother onlooker, his memory of the exact moment is clouded. ‘… and they tell me I made an awful noise…’ The setting seems to come alive — setting becomes a character in its own right with the flowers ‘nodding in the lamplight’. The setting itself has already been established as the main opposition (the cultural milieu rather than, say, weather elements a la a disaster story). So an ‘aliveness’ is entirely appropriate at this point.
If we were expecting an ending with a sense of hope, this story lets us down. No one steps in to save this young woman.
The narrator says finally that he ‘will never understand’. He experiences no Anagnorisis, at least not the kind we hope he will have — that this was a terrible thing that happened. What if he did realise that? What if he realised the injustice of it? It’s not in his best interests to think too hard about this ritual, otherwise he might spend the rest of his life berating himself for failing to step in and save Ikky.
By dashing our expectations, the reader may instead experience the revelation — that when communities come together, humans are capable of the most heinous acts. But we know that already, perhaps.
There is nothing in this story that hasn’t happened somewhere at some point in human history. The details may be different, but during the European witch craze, women (and across Europe, plenty of men) were burned alive with the consent of entire communities. We have far more recent examples, most notably from WW2, but into the present.
Characters in stories die frequently. Sometimes it’s no more than a plot feature. In other stories, death becomes thematically significant. This is one of those stories.
The sinking itself takes place over a day, thereabouts. Symbolically, stories which take place over 24 hours tend to be a compressed insight into a single human lifespan. This is how Ikky can eat. We all eat to stay alive, all the while knowing we’re still going to die.
More on that, then. At the beginning of this story, Ikky, her family and her entire community knows she is going to die. Slowly. Horrifyingly slowly. But isn’t that the case for all of us? We all know that we ourselves are going to die. Not today, probably, but someday. Life itself is a horrifyingly slow death.
We don’t know this as children. Even after learning everybody dies, children have difficulty with the concept that they themselves will one day be dead. We can’t imagine not existing. We have equal difficulty imagining not being born. If you have kids, they’ve probably asked you: “Where was I when I wasn’t born?”
Then we hit the teen years, or perhaps the 20s, and the concept of death really sinks in. (Heh.) Heidegger called this part of human development Being-toward-death: The ‘moment’ (more likely an extended period) in which we come to understand that we ourselves will die — that from the point of conception we’ve all begun the journey towards death.
Marketing reasons aside, this aspect, even more than the age of the characters, is perhaps what makes “Singing My Sister Down” a genuinely young adult story.
Since the narrator has learned nothing, this tradition of tar-pit murders will continue inside the setting.
But I believe this narrator is wilfully avoiding his Anagnorisis — that he could’ve done something to stop it.
Wilful ignorance is another fascinating aspect of being human, and “Singing My Sister Down” could be used as a deep-dive into that.
Instead, let’s go nitty-gritty.
THE CREEPY NARRATIVE VOICE OF “SINGING MY SISTER DOWN”
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson shocked and angered many American readers when first published because the opening seemed to promise a cosy depiction of a bucolic community coming together for an annual event, then did the old switcheroo and turned into a horror. Part of this was to do with the narrative voice — conversational and cosy.
I doubt the reader would be fooled by Lanagan’s story, which is creepy from the get-go. I suspect the diction feels creepy partly because of the uncanny valley effect — English, but not quite English. The voice feels almost translated from an unknown language, and because we don’t know where this is set, or which language is spoken, it could be anywhere.
It could happen where you are, right now.
How does Lanagan create this creepy narrative voice?
LEAVING OUT WORDS – JUST LEAVING THEM OUT
‘Yes, Bard Jo.’ Dot sat himself to listen.
I would most naturally say ‘Dot sat himself DOWN to listen.’ But this is an idiomatic expression and we don’t really need the ‘down’ of ‘sit down’, do we? I wonder if she crossed it out during a revision or if she never wrote the word in the first place.
We don’t know how she fits all that into her days, but she does, and all the time she’s humming and thrumming.
The onomatopoeic word ‘thrumming’ creates a nice rhyme, and lends the voice a poetic feel. The word seems to vibrate right through you, in a mimetic way.
Also: ‘tea-tent’, ‘a mystery child’, ‘his house’s smoke hole’ (obviously in lieu of a chimney), middlehood (instead of ‘middle age’), and so on and so forth, right the way through the story.
INSERTING PREPOSITIONS AND ARTICLES IN UNEXPECTED PLACES
he wears the comfortable robes
Note use of ‘the’. I might have written ‘he wears comfortable robes’, but by making use of ‘the’, it is taken for granted that there is a division of robes – some are comfortable and others are probably worn on formal occasions. ‘The’ adds to the verisimilitude of the story by suggesting everyone is already in possession of this fact.
OLD WORDS IN NEW COMBINATIONS
Dot saw the women bent to the vegetable fields.
In my dialect of English, I have never used the phrase ‘bent to’. I would probably make use of some phrase more wordy, like ‘Dot saw the women bending down to tend the vegetable fields.’ But I like Lanagan’s phrase much better. Not only does she manage to convey an idea succinctly, she creates a new ‘idiomatic expression’ – one that’s not idiomatic in OUR world, but one which the reader can easily take as idiomatic in this fantasy world of the story. Since the phrase is slightly out of whack in English, it’s like this story has been translated from another language. This adds to the fantastic mood.
Also: ‘talking wisdom with the Bard’, ‘made a bitter laugh in his throat’ (not ‘laughed bitterly in his throat’, which would be hackneyed), ‘weaves song stuff’, ‘grilled bean pats’ for breakfast.
And when that’s quieted, we can hear Anneh and Robbreh again, steady in their song.
Sure, ‘quiet’ is both an adjective and a verb in English, but when it’s a verb it’s usually used as a transitive verb (i.e. it takes an object) as in, ‘The teacher quieted the students’. When ‘quiet’ is used as an intransitive verb (i.e. without an object), as it is here, it’s usually used in the phrase ‘quiet down‘, e.g. ‘The students quieted down.’ So Lanagan has used a transitive verb as an intransitive verb and dropped the bit which makes it a phrasal verb.
A Quiet Place is a suspenseful 2018 film directed by John Krasinski, also starring John Krasinski. John Kransinski shares a writing credit with two other guys.
A Quiet Place is one of those films where if you see the trailer, you’ve seen the whole film. So don’t watch the trailer if you intend to see the film. Don’t read this blog post, either.
But here’s a teaser which does a good job of conveying the soundscape.
Stephen King thinks it’s pretty ace. He thinks the soundscape is especially ace, and so did the people dishing out Academy Awards.
I agree — I was waiting for the film-makers to scare me with a loud sound, as a cheap trick after lulling me into a false sense of security with the silence, but I am happy to report they did not do that at all.
A QUIET PLACE log line
In a post-apocalyptic world, a family is forced to live in silence while hiding from monsters with ultra-sensitive hearing.
Beautiful alliteration. It’s almost like they started with the tag line and built a movie around that…
I chuckled at what Owen Glieberman had to say about the premise:
A Quiet Place is a tautly original genre-bending exercise, technically sleek and accomplished, with some vivid, scary moments, though it’s a little too in love with the stoned logic of its own premise.
WHY DON’T THEY JUST…?
This is definitely one of those films which requires its audience to sit back uncritically and enjoy the tone. As soon as credits started rolling, my husband said, “Humans are pretty damn good at making noise.” When drawn on his point, he explained how it’s hugely unlikely that a few farm-dwelling types would be left alone to deal with this issue without authorities — surely any but the most incompetent of authorities have the means to create massive amounts of industrial noise, pairing that with explosives to attract the monsters (who behave like moths to a flame) and kill them all at once. Doesn’t America spend a lot of money on its military for this exact scenario?
I personally don’t possess the ability to turn it off. My fridge logic started much earlier, when each member of the family is shown walking home along the railway line, each isolated rather than huddled in a group.
The youngest is plucked off, of course. In a setting like this, wouldn’t they huddle together? This weird spacing between family members was cinematic but unrealistic. The situation is lampshaded later when the wife regrets not carrying the son, especially since her hands were free. Regret doesn’t explain why they were walking home with that weird spacing between them. That small thing was actually my biggest issue, if we don’t count the ridiculous speed at which the basement filled with water. If you’ve ever filled a pool you’ll know it takes a lot longer than that. Or perhaps we’re meant to fudge the timing of events, in the same way we’re meant to fudge the timing of events in Thelma & Louise.
There’s also this, with meme made by College Humour:
You never want the audience to go, “Why don’t they just…”
I didn’t think they should live next to the water fall — the family needs to grow its own food. The family needs to live on a farm, now more than ever. But I did wonder why they didn’t more time there, just talking. It’s only a walk away.
“But there are supernatural monsters!” you might say (correctly), and if you can believe monsters instantly appear at the slightest noise to gobble people up, can’t you suspend your disbelief for the rest of it, too?
Unfortunately that’s not how suspension of disbelief tends to work. Quite the reverse — the more unbelievable the premise, the more believable everything else must be, to compensate. I call it the One Big Lie of Storytelling — that an audience will believe the really ridiculous fictions (lies) of storytelling, but will expect verisimilitude in every other respect, to keep that Big Lie solid. I’m sure it’s related to one of the cognitive biases, as we’re contradictory people in our mundane lives, also.
This brings me to a feminist point, because in a story with One Big Lie, storytellers rely on The Every Man to carry the narrative.
THE EVERY MAN MAIN CHARACTER
I love how the White Guy presidential campaign strategy is to play up being a “regular guy.” An Everyman.
Meanwhile, every single female candidate has to prove she’s cured cancer but also to not take any credit for it.
I read a lot of tweets — only a few stick in my memory. A Black woman I follow once posted a tweet which said “I’m sick of seeing faces like this whenever I watch anything on the screen” and she attached a picture of John Krasinski as he appeared in The Office. The guy who looked conspiratorially at the camera just had to be a white man, right? We all get white men.
It’s true, Krasinski has the perfect ‘Every Man’ look, along with Steve Carell, Tom Hanks and [insert white male actor who isn’t too good looking but still really good looking if he was your neighbour].
And as well as using those quote marks around ‘every man’, it’s about time I clarified what I mean by the term, because there is nothing Every Man about the White Man. Even in overwhelmingly white USA, white men comprise only 31% of the population.
In contrast to the Alpha Man (Brad Pitt, Cary Grant et al) the Every Man has a specific function in story. This is the ‘uninflected’ character, with whom anyone of any gender is expected to identify. He is a lower mimetic hero than the Alpha Man (to use the terminology of Northrop Frye). The hope is that we can put ourselves in his position very easily, men and women. In children’s literature we have the ‘Every Boy’, who functions in exactly the same way. Hence, that old chestnut: Girls will read stories about boys but boys won’t read stories about girls. (Not true but also quite true, because of social conditioning.)
This Every Man archetypes works in storytelling (and in favour of white men) because we live in a world with white and male as default. (The cognitive bias affecting storytellers here is The Default Effect.)
This is not an argument in favour of the status quo. Until we see many more stories about non white, non men, the Every Man archetype will never die. No one else will be allowed to inhabit that wonderful spot known as ‘normal’ and ‘familiar’. But the Every Man John Krasinskis are the only ones achieving significant funding to make films starring themselves, and that right there is the problem.
I love how the White Guy presidential campaign strategy is to play up being a “regular guy.” An Everyman. Meanwhile, every single female candidate has to prove she’s cured cancer but also to not take any credit for it.
THE EVERY WOMAN
In some ways, A Quiet Place is an ensemble movie. Emily Blunt is the Every Woman. She’s white, in a heterosexual relationship, has children, wants children, cares for children, does the domestic work for her family. The Every Woman, I emphasise, is ‘Every’ only in relation to her husband, and because she doesn’t challenge the rules of patriarchy.
A note on the ending. After the Every Man husband is killed off, only then is the Every Woman wife permitted to bear arms and step in to save her family, in the masculine coded activity of bearing arms and shooting to kill. The character arc of the wife mirrors the character arc of a child in a coming-of-age story. Only by getting rid of the adults (her husband, in this case), is the vulnerable woman permitted to step up. With her husband there, and made vulnerable due to being (quite literally) barefoot and pregnant, she remains in the role of the protected. In one scene she makes her husband promise that he will protect them all.
For storytellers, parts of A Quiet Place feel ridiculously on the nose. I acknowledge this won’t be a typical response, but every time I look closely at a story on this blog I look at the storytelling concept of character shortcoming. So when the main character in A Quiet Place to writes ‘WEAKNESS’ on a piece of paper, sticks it to the wall look at looks at this word as a reminder of mission — to find and exploit the shortcoming in the enemy — this is exasperating, head shaking stuff.
But is that just because I’ve done so much analytical thinking on this point? I’m reminded that by studying story we do ruin story for ourselves, in some ways. (And enjoy it better in other ways.)
John Krasinski has a writing credit on this film, though the spec script was written by two other guys. I suspect as Nice Guy Every Man, Krasinski had far too much trouble giving himself (okay, his character) some way in which the main character treats others badly. Characters with a moral shortcoming are far more interesting than those with only a psychological shortcoming.
The father has ostensibly treated his deaf daughter badly. She blames herself for the death of her youngest brother, and this is because of something the father has done, or not done. This is an underdeveloped part of the story. We never really get a sense of why she’d be so angry with her father. Instead, I believe the audience is left to rely on the trope of the stroppy teenaged girl, whose father can’t do anything right, even if he is trying his hardest. (Which he is — he’s trying very hard to make her a hearing aid which works.)
A moral shortcoming is at odds with the Nice Guy Everyman Trope. An actor such as Leonardo Di Caprio can pull off moral shortcomings brilliantly. Di Caprio started out as an Alpha Man, but moved quite smoothly into the role of the Every Man, as we see him in films such as Revolutionary Road. He wrinkles his face into pained, vengeful contortions and is not afraid to play characters at their worst. Di Caprio therefore belongs to a different category of white guy actors, in the same league as Bryan Cranston (who played Walter White) and James Gandolfini (who played Tony Soprano), equally unafraid to explore the moral shortcoming of the characters they inhabit.
THRILLER OR HORROR? OR MYSTERY??
Why did Owen Glieberman call this movie ‘genre bending’? What exactly is this?
Last month I looked into the writerly definition of thriller, and how a thriller differs from a horror. I clarified for myself that many stories marketed as thrillers are in fact horrors. A Quiet Place is one of those horrors which has been described as a thriller. Interestingly, IMDb lists A Quiet Place as a drama, horror, mystery.
First, is A Quiet Place structurally a thriller or is it a horror?
Like a thriller, A Quiet Place focuses on the fear, doubt and dread of the main character. However, the main character is more ‘main family’, turning it into an ensemble cast drama — we see the dynamic between members of the family.
Like a thriller, monsters, terror and peril prevail. We know this is a really dangerous world.
The romantic subplot in A Quiet Place is between husband and wife, and is really only one scene, which makes this a little unusual — in a thriller the romance is most often a budding romance, in which the (heteronormative) man and woman are thrown together by circumstance and tested by external forces, impressing each other with their problem solving ability and falling in love after shared trauma.
(I did think Emily Blunt and John Krasinski made a convincing couple, completely forgetting that they are a couple in real life.)
The monsters in A Quiet Place do not run on logic. They are drawn to noise as if by instinct. They do not run on their own understandable (to us) logic. This makes them more like typical horror monsters — undefeatable. But these monsters do have a shortcoming, which makes them ultimately defeatable. This makes them more like thriller opponents than supernatural ones.
Why is this film listed on IMDb as a mystery? A Quiet Place does not outsmart the audience. In this way, it is far more thriller than mystery. I’m sure we all work out before the characters do that the monsters can be defeated by the high-pitched feedback that comes out of the daughter’s hearing aids. We sit back and hope the family works it out before they are killed off, one by one. In writing terminology, the viewer is in audience superior position.
What is the big question? The question is to do with the shortcoming, as mentioned above. If the viewers can work out the mystery of the monsters’ shortcoming, they can defeat the monsters.
A Quiet Place is most clearly a horror, specifically what has been called Isolation Horror.
A QUIET PLACE AS ALLEGORY?
A Quiet Place emphasises the vulnerability of the average person, and goes one step further by saying something — or trying to — about what it’s like to be deaf. This is a part of the theme I don’t understand. This is either because I’m not deaf, or because it really didn’t say anything profound at all. The monsters could be considered an allegory for the increased vulnerability of people who are missing one of the five senses. Even the hearing characters in this story are living like deaf people, unable to hear because they’re unable to make sound. They make use of American sign language. In this way, we are all encouraged to consider what it might feel like to be deaf.
It seems clear this film didn’t start out as an allegory about being deaf:
The kernel of the idea came to us when we were in college. We were making microbudget films and studying film history,” recalls Woods, who has been best friends with Beck since sixth grade. “We fell in love with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and all the things that can be accomplished without sound. We wanted to do a modern-day silent film that lived in the suspense genre.
It was Krasinski who pushed for a deaf actress, which is absolutely the right decision when writing a deaf character. But that fact alone doesn’t make this a story about the deaf experience. That would have to be written by, ya know, deaf writers, not least because people who use hearing devices saw plot holesthat the rest of us did not. Egregiously, the movie is captioned for a hearing audience.
Cast diversity is an important first step for Hollywood. Let’s not stop there. Others in the deaf community have been less grateful to simply see deafness on screen, and rightly so. This article starts off by describing the concept of ‘Deaf-Gain’ (a good thing) then goes on to critique the tired message that loss of speech is tragic.
In the end, to my dismay, I found “A Quiet Place” is actually yet another purveyor of the trope of disability being inextricably yoked to and dependent on technology, part of what disabilities scholars call “the medical model.” It instantiates the belief that technology providing a scientific and/or medical means of “curing” or normalizing people who are not “species-typical” is to be lauded.
“Sure,” the film seems to say, “ASL provides a good short-term ‘fix’ ― it can give you a way to communicate, and you can get by. But like the father’s ham radio signals, its reach is sadly limited; signing will only get you so far. You still remain silenced, imprisoned, forced into the margins. The only thing that will truly banish the ‘monster’ ― the only thing that will get things back to ‘normal’ ― is that screech of technological feedback.” Being deaf and signing is not enough. Regan needs her implant to restore the world to normalcy.
This is not a truly deaf-centric world. In this film, silence is scary ― at least it is for hearing people. The deaf people I talked to don’t seem to find this film all that frightening, because for them it’s not an unknown, it’s not a loss, it’s business as usual.
Others have saidA Quiet Place is a metaphor for the terror of parenthood, similar to Emma Donoghue’s Room. Possibly because this is Krasinski’s line, too.
Possible, undercooked allegory aside, the message of A Quiet Place is extremely conservative and non-controversial — in line with the suspense genres in general.
If we can’t protect our children, who are we? Emily Blunt’s character asks John Krasinski’s character after beseeching him to protect them all.
I challenge a single member of the audience to disagree with the idea that protecting children is a bad thing.
There’s more to that, though. The idea that ‘family is everything’ is possibly becoming a little controversial as more and more human pressure is heaped upon our fragile planet. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ideology of A Quiet Place seems outdated in 20 years’ time, as a new generation of viewers grow up under the threat of climate change. Many may choose not to procreate, in deliberate favour of returning the planet to its former equilibrium, last seen before humans left Africa.
BIRTH ON FILM
I’m sure anyone who’s had a baby gasped at the family’s decision to have another baby. Because babies cry. BABIES CRY A LOT.
The characters do have a plan — they keep the baby in a box (like a little Moses — the basement filling with water is basically a Moses scene). They also have some kind of ventilator on his face and I suppose they were drugging him to keep him quiet. If there’s anything morally controversial about this film it’s, should humans procreate in times of great stress? Is it ethical to bring new life into a dangerous world? Looking at human across cultures and across history, it seems to me that humans are especially keen to procreate in trying circumstances — the more trying the circumstances, the more we feel the procreation instinct.
But first comes the birth itself, of course. I know it’s possible to give birth silently because a friend’s mother has always boasted that she didn’t make a sound. This sounds like a special kind of torture to me, but ladies be ladylike.
People who have given birth know that, the vast majority of the time, water doesn’t break like that, as an early sign of labour. Quite often the water has to be broken for you, in fact. This is an old Hollywood trick and hopefully most viewers know by now that just because it happens like that sometimes, it happens quite seldom.
There’s one birthing trope that irritates me far more, because I feel it is understood far less, and probably has an impact on real birthing pain.
I’m talking about the shots of labouring women flat on their backs. Unless hooked up to machines, in which case other poses are impossible, women in labour naturally tend to choose a very primal, unattractive, animalistic pose — on all fours, weight forward at least. Unless medicated, lying flat on your back while giving birth is next level torture. Emily Blunt in the bath, basically on her back, already in pain from her foot, also in pain from contractions, is a heavily unrealistic scene for me. But Emily Blunt has herself given birth and presumably had some say in the direction. I can only conclude that Hollywood storytellers don’t care about this sort of realism, preferring the ‘pretty pain’ shots. I only hope that people in actual labour throw out Hollywood ideas of what birthing looks like going in.
Mind you, I don’t think audiences really want to know what real labour looks like. I’ve never seen a Hollywood actress poo during labour. Midwives actually tell you to shit the bed — if you’re shitting the bed, you’re pushing correctly. And the amount of blood and blood-like fluid that comes out of a person during labour is more intensely horrifying than any horror film will ever manage.
Do women ourselves want the world to see us at our most base? I actually doubt it. So we all go on pretending that birth looks more like Emily Blunt in the bath. The particular labour of womb-owners remains largely invisible.
This is a setting reminiscent of fairytales, with humans living next to the ominous forest. Dark beasts come out of the forest. When humans enter the forest, they are facing their darkest fears. Forest equals the subconscious.
With the corn silo, the film-makers are also making much use of The Symbolism of Altitude. Characters in films go to high places in order to gain insight.
The house itself is a Symbolic House. It falls into the ‘warm house’ category, with its candles and a whole lot of clutter I’d be getting rid of, since if something falls over they’re all dead.
A Quiet Place feels like a very specific wish fulfilment fantasy — the wish to be self-reliant. I am vulnerable to this particular fantasy myself, ever since I read Little House In The Big Woods at the age of six. I loved that the Ingalls family had no dolls and made them out of rags. Even now, I occasionally watch Doomsday Preppers, part baffled by the display of conspiracy thinking, but also partly because I’m one step away from digging my own crazy hole and stockpiling cans of tuna.
The farm of this family is straight out of a picture book utopia, let’s face it. See also: Storybook Farms. There’s that big, red all-American barn, the fairy lights (which aren’t fairy lights, but look like that from a distance, in line with Stars Hollow of Gilmore girls.) Living self-sustainably is not pretty. Even on a highly successful self-sustaining farm, there are times of the year with slim pickings. I know this from my career in watching self-sustaining documentaries. But this family is depicted in a time of plenty, lifting smoked fish from under the floorboards like they’re dining at a fancy restaurant.
There’s an idea trending in America that moving from the city back to ‘your roots’ (the country) is a virtuous thing to do, and that this is how to fix the huge city-rural political divide. Lyz Lenz wrote a rebuttal of that ideology at Vox: Move back to your dying hometown. Unless you can’t. I mention this here because films such as A Quiet Place depict rural life as a utopia, or rather an snail under the leaf setting, and it definitely ends with the characters about to return to a utopian rural life. America does tend to glamorise this life.
I cop to sharing the self-sustaining fantasy as depicted in this film, but I’m not such a fan of the return to a patriarchal order which dystopian stories so often revert to, without question. We see mother and daughter back in the kitchen. We see father training son to look after his mother. Men as protectors, women inside the house.
This is the fantasy of dominant, patriarchal culture.
And I don’t want audiences to just swallow that one whole, either, just because the outtake image is Emily Blunt holding a big gun. That’s where we’re at with feminism in Hollywood. This is fake feminism. This is a version of gender equality when the creators lack imagination, when they can’t fathom what society would look like without a patriarchy. The best they can do is women as patriarchal men.
I want to see stories — dystopian or not — in which people of all genders use their various skills to work together, without expecting masculine types to hold the guns until they’re killed off and cannot hold them anymore.
I don’t want storytellers to allow female characters their arcs only after killing off the men. It’s kind of sick and I’m kind of sick of it. How do we move forward as a society when we hold this ideology as the unquestioned ideal? If this is the fictional story we’re happy to swallow, will we question sending our sons to the slaughter next time war breaks out?