Staff Post, Annah Browning: The Coelacanths We Want to Believe

The Coelacanths We Want to Believe: Monster Lore and the Uncanny


Confession: I am obsessed with cryptid lore. What are cryptids, you ask? They are animals (or “beings,” depending on how mystical you want to get) whose existence has “yet to be proven” by science. More simply put, cryptids are creatures that do not exist: think Bigfoot, the Mothman, the Loch Ness Monster, etc.[1]

CoelacanthsThat is, they are creatures that don’t exist until someone drags a carcass in, or pulls them up from the bottom of the ocean—at least, that’s what a cryptozoologist (someone who studies cryptids) would have you believe. Their favorite example is the coelacanth, a fish from the Early Devonian period, around 400 million years ago. Long thought (extremely) extinct, the fish was found alive off the coast of Africa in 1937.

The coelacanth (pardon me, those who are devoted to it) is not a particularly impressive animal. It can grow up to 6.5 feet long and weight up to 200 pounds, but so can a tuna. (The ocean is full of mundane horrors, friends.) The coelacanth is about the shape and general coloring, I am sorry to say, of a muddy log. It is not a majestic creature. Yet, this is the animal that cryptid believers everywhere hang their hopes on. If this fish can survive unnoticed from the Devonian, then surely (here a believer’s eyes widen in the telling) it is possible that other animals—giant humanoid animals, plesiosaurs, etc.—could also live alongside us: unproven as of yet, but very much real.

There are many very good reasons why this is not so, including habitat sustainability, but I’m not going to go into them here. What I’m interested in as a writer is the why— why do people, in 2016, want so desperately to believe that fantastic creatures are real—that, just out of the corner of your eye, there is a giant hairy ape, an upright-walking wolf[2], or even a ghost, going about its business? What does consuming media of all kinds about these creatures get us, even when (I have to believe) most of us know in our heart of hearts that they don’t actually exist?

My point of view is that cryptids and their paranormal kindred are manifestations of our contemporary folklore, often to put a name and a poorly drawn police sketch on some faceless fear, you might say.[3] Cryptids and other paranormal entities—ghosts, demons, aliens, etc.—are our modern-day monsters, our metaphors and un-deciphered dreams, channeling not just our fears, but dearest wishes. There’s an element of not just revulsion, but desire,[4] in our quest for unseen monsters. This is why you have people filming themselves traipsing off into the underbrush in night vision goggles looking for Sasquatch or a ghost, eager to “make a discovery,” in their words—only to come bolting out terrified and laughing an hour later at the first snapped branch or white light in the bushes.

Sociologist Margee Kerr writes in Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, that many people have an innate desire to experience fear—thus the perennial popularity of haunted houses and horror entertainment of all kinds—and that these experiences can have a therapeutic value when we enter into them of our own free will. There’s a reason that people often leave haunted trails shrieking with laughter, or feeling a closer bond with the friends they attended the haunt with, Kerr argues. Maybe something similar happens to true paranormal and cryptid enthusiasts when they wander the woods or scour the internet for evidence of the existence of their monster of choice—they get to come close, to dance right up to the edge of a terrifying and exhilarating possibility, from the safe position of everyday reality.

These ideas surrounding belief, fear, and the weird pleasure of the unknown are fascinating to me as a poet interested in the Gothic and the uncanny.[5] Maybe an intimacy with the uncanny, with a feeling of discomfort as well as surprise and delight, is what I’m after in my own poems these days—and sometimes in life.

Fog at Browning HouseI was recently visiting my family in rural upstate South Carolina, where I grew up. It is very quiet out there. I was sitting on the porch late one evening, looking out at the fields lit by an unusually bright moon[6], fog settling around the barn and in the ditches, fireflies going off like tiny flashbulbs ever so often.

Then I hear a barking. It sounded off, or wrong somehow—hoarse, half-panicked, not quite dog, but not high and eerie like a coyote. It sounded close. I grabbed and flashlight and walked toward the barn, slowly, light off. I stood as still as I could in the deeper shadow of the building, out of the moonlight.  The barking stopped. I shone my light into the field, through the fog. There was nothing there but fog, rolling around me like cotton in a jewelry case, stalks of tall grass and apples trees poking out of it. Literal crickets. There was nothing out there, of course—well, something was. I was smiling. My smile was there now.

[1] Cryptids also include lesser-known creatures, such as Batsquatch, Sheepsquatch (which are exactly what they sound like), Ogo Pogo (a lake monster), and Momo, the “Missouri Monster.” Americans and Canadians seem to particularly enjoy vowel-heavy and rhyming monster names, apparently.

[2] Yes, this is a thing. See Linda Godfrey’s book Real Wolfmen: True Encounters in Modern America, for all about what she describes as the “upright canid ” phenomenon. Contrary to what you might think, she does not think that these creatures are necessarily werewolves. Some of them are possibly trans-dimensional Anubis-like figures that enjoy watching people while they sleep, she argues. Yes, really. You can’t make these things up.

[3] See historian W. Scott Poole’s study Monsters in America, outlining how monster literature and lore has channeled, reflected, and obfuscated America’s nuclear anxieties, racial injustices, and other societal issues.

[4] See Freud’s essay “The Uncanny.”

[5] I’ve been writing a lot of poems recently from the perspective of monstrous and marginal entities, trying to inhabit the minds of ghosts, witches, and monsters of all kinds. The speakers of the poems hover between worlds, as women have long been asked to do—the worlds of the visible and the invisible, the domestic and the supernatural, life and death, desire and pain.

[6] The moon was not full. Real life, apparently, will only get so close to clichés.

Guest Post, Annah Browning: A Blackwood Room of One’s Own

Madwomen are everywhere in literature. Yeats had his truth-telling Crazy Jane. Dickens had his embalmed and vindictive Miss Havisham. Charlotte Bronte famously locked her madwoman Bertha in the attic. Emily Dickinson, if you want to believe some scholars, was one herself, her lyric poems the singular product of a broken mind, her life’s work evidence of a helpless agoraphobia. But more on her later.

I want to talk to you about Constance and Mary Katherine Blackwood. They are main characters of Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle: sisters, young women, the youngest surviving members of an aristocratic clan. Mary Katherine, our narrator, puts it this way, in one of the best opening passages I’ve ever read: 

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.

Mad WomenAs we soon learn, all of the other Blackwood family members are dead because one of the surviving sisters—much later in the novel we find which— poisoned them at one fatal dinner by putting arsenic in the sugar bowl. Mary Katherine (called Merrikat) and Constance now live alone in their grand family home with an elderly invalid uncle. Merrikat is the only Blackwood who ever ventures into public, and does so only to gather necessary household goods. The Blackwood sisters have been shunned and mistreated by the society of their village for Constance’s suspected role in the family deaths, and the sisters are only too happy to return the townspeople’s disdain and live a life of almost complete isolation. However, Charles, a loathsome cousin, soon comes sniffing around for the family money, throwing the delicate balance of their cloistered life into chaos.

Never are so-called madwomen portrayed so sensitively, with so much sympathy and humor, as Jackson renders the Blackwood sisters in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Merrikat is half-feral, child-like, bitingly observant and intelligent. She is a practitioner of her own self-invented protective magic, full of violent hatred for the townspeople. Constance is her inverse: fearful, soft-willed and quietly practical housekeeper and cook, endlessly indulgent and nonjudgmental of her sister’s strangeness. They can be read as a reconfiguration of two female character types in gothic fiction. On one hand, you have the malevolent, half-human, “unnatural” woman leading other characters into evil, like Coleridge’s Geraldine in his gothic poem Christabel, Le Fanu’s titular vampire in his novella Carmilla, and Matthew Lewis’ demonic Matilda in The Monk. On the other hand you have the gothic heroine, the model of proper womanhood— inquisitive, gentle, in danger of seduction and excessive fainting spells, a role inhabited to varying degrees by characters such as Ann Radcliffe’s Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho, Coleridge’s titular Christabel, and Bram Stoker’s Mina Harker in Dracula.

However, in Jackson’s novel these two character types, as represented by Merrikat and Constance respectively, are not arrayed in opposition to one another. They are, despite their differences, and some conflict with each other over Charles, in harmony. They are deeply unsettling and deeply human, and together they are allied against the patriarchal norms of their society. They do not want to perform the role of dutiful daughter, nor marry or have children; they do not want to enact the role expected of an upper class woman, conducting polite drawing room conversation. One might even say that they’re taking what has for quite some time been a comfortable masculine prerogative: “living deliberately,” as Thoreau put it, going into his own self-imposed solitude, or the macho leaving behind of traditional attachments Kerouac portrays in On the Road. (When a man chooses a life of solitude, it’s painted in an almost a spiritual light—see also, the tale of The North Pond Hermit —but when a woman does it, of course, she must be crazy.)

Merrikat and Constance want to be left alone in the company they choose and like best, creating a world all their own—what Merrikat calls “the moon.” She says she’ll someday reach the moon on a “winged horse” (the reader can’t help but see Pegasus, the spirit of poetry). The horse “would be comfortable there,” since, as she says, “Everything’s safe on the moon”—there are no outside forces to crush its imaginative flight. The Blackwood home itself is a poem made by women:

There were jars of jam made by great-grandmothers, with labels in pale writing, almost unreadable by now…[…] All Blackwood women had taken the food that came from the ground and preserved it, and the deeply colored rows of jellies and pickles and bottled vegetables and fruit, maroon and amber and dark rich green stood side by side in our cellar and would stand there forever, a poem by the Blackwood women.

One can’t help but be reminded of Plath’s poem “Wintering,” in which she writes “I have whirled the midwife’s extractor, / I have my honey, / Six jars of it,/ Six cat’s eyes in the wine cellar,” and then, fantastically—

The bees are all women,

Maids and the long royal lady.

They have got rid of the men,

The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors.

Winter is for women —-

So, Merrikat Blackwood murders her whole family with poisoned sugar—sugar being very thing Plath feeds her cellar bees in “Wintering” so that they will survive until spring—and then the Blackwood sisters lock themselves away from the world. Criminally insane? Definitely. A healthy, not-all-at-creepily-codependent relationship? Hardly. But because of the tender and witty way the novel is written, you are on their side—and that means something.

You are with Merrikat in her desire to rid the Blackwood home of the Charles, a “blunt, clumsy stumbler” if there ever was one. You rejoice when, after the townspeople have ransacked and burned the Blackwood home, Constance and Merrikat return to find three livable rooms in the rubble—the kitchen and the rooms off of it, the places where women have always reigned—and begin their life anew, building barricades to keep the world away from their property. You want to cheer when the villagers leave food at the unanswered Blackwood door as an apology for their crimes against the sisters, and you laugh when the town’s children make up legends about the sister’s bloodthirstiness. And then there is this chilling, funny, victorious end:

I wonder if I could eat a child if I had the chance.”

I doubt I could cook it,” Constance said.

Poor strangers,” I said. “They have so much to be afraid of.”

Well,” Constance said, “I am afraid of spiders.”

Jonas [the cat] and I will see to it that no spider ever comes near you. Oh, Constance,” I said, “we are so happy.”

What makes the ending so uncanny is that they are right. The Blackwood sisters are happy in their encapsulated female society. They are finally “on the moon,” a place where they “wear feathers in [their] hair, and rubies on [their] hands.” And Merrikat is right, too, that other people “have so much to be afraid of.”

In the novel, as in other works of Jackson’s, such as her short story “The Lottery,” the “normal” people, the ones committed to the way things have always been, are the ones to fear and mistrust. By the end of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, however, the sisters are something to fear, too, and it’s in this reversal that the novel’s really subversive content lies. The sisters end the novel in a place of power, having made a separate, creative, all-female space where they get to live by their own rules. And to a hegemonic society, that really is something to be afraid of.

Jackson biographer Judy Oppenheimer calls We Have Always Lived in the Castle Jackson’s “paean to agoraphobia,” and many critics have connected the increasing isolation of its characters to Jackson’s own descent later in life into agoraphobia and paranoia. But a biographical reading of the novel as evidence of Jackson’s own status as a “madwoman” of sorts isn’t enough— just as it isn’t enough to read Dickinson’s startling, incendiary poems through the lens of whatever illnesses, physical or mental, she may or may not have had, simultaneously interpreting her supposed personal isolation as merely evidence of a pathology. Such assessment of We Have Always Lived in the Castle is reductive of the achievement the novel really is— a wry, dark feminist fantasy of personal and creative freedom, a gothic novel reworking the traditional roles of the evil enchantress and the ingénue heroine into something quite new: madwomen who get to win.

Staff Post, Annah Browning: Hair and the Long-Dead Acquaintance: Some Metaphors and Vulnerability

Annah BrowningSome writers love to talk about their “writing process.” I am not one of those people. I could say it’s because “process” reminds me of something you do to meat, or because “processing” is what people say they’re doing after something horrible happens. The truth is that I’m a private person— a genteel way of saying that I frequently feel simultaneously embarrassed and protective of myself, especially the way my mind works (or doesn’t) in my off-hours from academia. And yet, whenever I sat down to think of some account I could give to this fine website, this set of very personal metaphors occurred, and no matter how much I tried nothing more clever or articulate arrived.

The truth is that often I am surprised to find that I have a poem, the same way one sometimes has an erect nipple—maybe the room is cold, maybe that picture is crooked, maybe someone died—years ago—and you just remembered. Sometimes I have a poem, and sometimes I can’t remember that Allison Horschel* is dead.

She ran cross-country with me in high school. I always liked her in the way, when you’re thirteen, you like everyone who seems braver than you are. She’d hock and spit to show people the way to pronounce her Germanic last name. HOR-schel. We weren’t friends. She was older and loud and funny and crass, and the last time anybody I knew saw her alive she was being stuffed into the back of a cop car in the mill hill—a tiny neighborhood of almost identical houses built by the textile mill that had once dominated the town. At the time of this supposed arrest (“supposed” because, as is the rule in small towns, the truth can get quite bent in successive tellings), she had already graduated; I was still cutting through the mill hill to train for meets.

A few years later, after I moved away to college, my best friend C. had to tell me three times that Allison Horschel was dead—on separate occasions, months apart, because I kept asking after her. C. looked at me in disbelief each time—don’t you remember she’s dead. She died. A horrible car accident. 

But I never remembered right away. To say that I felt like a heel each time would be putting it mildly. It was as if my mind just rejected the information—it felt wrong, so it couldn’t be true. At that age I still thought of home as a stage set I had momentarily walked away from, where I could return whenever I wanted, pick up the props and the people as if nothing had changed. She had died on C.’s birthday. Neither of us had spoken to her in years.

Another way of saying it: sometimes a poem is a small expectation breaking—like a knot of hair you can’t untangle. You pull it hard and you let it snap, rip out of your head. It always surprises me—how tough hair is, and how odd it is to see it disconnected from the body. An acquaintance, out of context. Uncanny.

Several friends have told me—as a gesture of what I would like to believe was affection— that after not seeing me for months, years even, they’ll find a long red hair in the pages of a book, or sealed up in a bag of sweaters, or they’re sweeping up getting ready to move house, and they think they could make a wig, really, out of what’s there. I want to believe that love is just such a contaminant— that when separated what we leave behind can be something so personal, so irritating, with the same gestures towards permanence and intimacy.

In the Song of Songs 6:6, the beloved’s teeth are compared to a flock of wet sheep emerging from the water. This analogy is disgusting and therefore permanent to my memory. When I was younger, I never understood describing the parts of a lover in terms of dirty farm animals. Now it makes some sense to me. Real closeness to anybody is never antiseptic or invulnerable. Teeth are wet because they live in the mouth. We are never as clean in our interactions, or in our metaphors, as we mean to be. Every comparison is a stretch.

One of the things I miss about the cows that used to live next to my parents’ property is their smell, the heaviness of it, the steam rising off their urine in the winter. I loved the way their eyes followed you as you walked. According to animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, if you lie down in a pasture and are still for long enough, the cows will circle around to look at you. Maybe lick you. I never thought to try that. I think at the time I would have been too afraid, too squeamish. They lived in their country; I lived in mine, for the most part. Good fences, etc. But that didn’t mean I never put my hand out for their snouts. They sometimes gave them, and let me pet their blazes— the weird imperfect stars of hair that grow between the eyes.

All of this to say, I guess, that I’m still here, holding up a hand. I have not yet lain down in green pastures, so to speak. But I do the work, and wait. Sometimes another hand happens to my hand, sometimes not. Sometimes there are poems. I am told, but do not remember, that many winters of my early childhood, my father would choose a cow, go with the neighbor to the abattoir, and then there’d be a freezer full of bloody meat for us to eat. What I do remember is that I liked drawing on butcher paper on occasion—even though it isn’t the best at taking pigment—because one side had a pearly feel, like skin. Impermanence, intimacy, death. There you are.

I visit home now and eat the soups and cornbreads that have contained many lives. I remind myself of Allison. I fill my cup back up with ice. It is summer in South Carolina— hot and damp. I remember the ratty ties we all wore in our hair in high school, tangled tight to our heads, and how we had to rip them out after running miles on throbbing shins and bloody blisters. When I am finished with my drink I dump my remnants in the sink, ice melted down to half-moons. I make another metaphor.

*not her real name