Tuesday, October 31, 2006

On Halloween: Shrouded Skeletons and Friendly Ghosts

The covers of classic horror titles were often far superior to the “chilling, thrilling tales of mystery and suspense” they promised inside. Take this cover from Dell’s Ghost Stories #30 (1971), for instance, which I bought recently because it struck me with the force of archaic recognition.


Everything, everything that matters, is here. The greenish night. The house on the hill. The broken shutter. The bent and useless fences. The black claw of tree that reaches for the house and in the same moment frames it in the protective curve of its trunk. The spectral bat that frames it on the other side, flying us into the pinprick at the picture’s center: that eerily lighted room. (Look closely: it is a human figure.)

It is of course this room that has the broken shutter; like the house surrounded by broken fences, it must bear the signs of supernatural breach. Even these broken fences are doubled by the merely relative (and thus deceptive) frames of tree and bat whose ability to enclose depends on your point of view, as if you can never have too many signs of rupture.

And supervening all, the grey skeleton, veiled. Or is that “bed-sheeted”? A garment of ghostly mist that blankets the house, not so much framing as enveloping. Snugly and reassuringly. The garment of a grim Casper, an ultimately friendly ghost. A quaint spectre who “tucks us in.” A “familiar.”

For this is not an image of horror. Those images are different, and I would discover them in other places. (A coffee table book filled with giant color photographs of insects that I was afraid to touch. Pages swarming with ladybugs.) This is a picture of cozy transgression. It is “spooky,” not frightening.

No doubt, we could roll out the entire psychoanalytical machinery of Oedipus and the family to understand the domesticated “secret” of this skeleton in bed sheets. But must we? For me, the intensity of this painting resides not in the promise of unveiling, but rather in the satisfactions of deferment. Its signs of transgression are a ruse. The doubling, tripling of broken frames (shutter, fences, tree/bat) do not “disclose” the painting’s “secret.” They are the secret. It is literally an open secret, displayed on the surface. Like the pallid ghost stories behind the cover, the promised secret is too banal to read. (The stories inside have nothing to do with the cover—total detachment, infinite deferral; the revelation of the secret, what “only the ghost knows,” must be sought elsewhere, perpetually. A definition of pleasure.) This is a painting of the only true “secret”: the one that cannot be known. That yellow room. A pinprick.

In the end, this cover painting attracts me because it is an image of our profound delight in secrets. And this delight is condensed in the childhood bogey of the shrouded skeleton because—with its familiar, comforting bed-sheet and its only half-disclosed grinning skull—it is our most intimate, most reassuring signifier of the pleasures of secrecy. The keeper of a “chilling, thrilling” “mystery” whose solution is perpetually “in suspense.”

A friendly ghost.

Why I love Halloween.

__________
For more friendly ghosts, visit Keith Milford’s Old Haunts.

6 comments:

plok said...

Brilliant, Jim! Although you've screwed me for a Hallowe'en post. But blooody brilliant!

I sense the micro in this...beautiful, the emotional precision of "spooky". Battered fenceposts...tattered curtains...broken headstones. Greasy moonlight. You gloss over a whole world, here.

And then tbere are fireworks. I never appreciated them so much.

As the monk said: heaven and earth are limitless!

Jim Roeg said...

Aw...shucks. Happy Halloween, plok!

Anonymous said...

Geez, Jim! I leave for a week and all of sudden, you change the layout on me and start adding daily updates! What do you think this is: the internet or something? :)

On Halloween, though, I have to say that, while I was never very keen on the holiday in the first place, I do appreciate your explanation. The notion of "open secrets" does make sort of sense to me and, while it doesn't convince me that Halloween's a great holiday, I can better understand where some other people might feel differently.

Call me a cynic, but I was always let down by a disconnect between the cover and the contents. Not just these horror stories, but all the old DC ones as well where Infantino would whip up a cool image and someone else would be forced to write a story to explain it. The explanation was never sufficient, it seemed to me, compared to the "secret" that was promised on the cover.

Nonetheless, I can still wholly appreciate a high-quality piece of commercial art like this cover. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Jim Roeg said...

Hey, sean - I know, what gives?? First I'm on some kind of weird unexplained hiatus and now...? There must be some kind of horrible deadline hanging over my head--something really, REALLY awful--to have prompted this degree of procrastination and activity.

About this:
Call me a cynic, but I was always let down by a disconnect between the cover and the contents. Not just these horror stories, but all the old DC ones as well where Infantino would whip up a cool image and someone else would be forced to write a story to explain it. The explanation was never sufficient, it seemed to me, compared to the "secret" that was promised on the cover.

Oh yeah, me too. But for me, the worst thing was the bait and switch involving not cover/content but regular artist cover/fill-in artist interior. Here's a shocker: my baseline for this was those awful weeks when I'd come home clutching the latest Perez-covered issue of The New Teen Titans fresh from 7-11 or the Comic shop, only to discover (dis/cover?) a fill-in artist. Talk about disappointment. But there's an interesting reflection to be written about the "alternate universes" of those jarring cover-disconnects you mention...

Nobody said...

Did you see Monster House, Jim? Explanations usually take the fun out of things (and there's nothing more boring than Scooby Doo's ritualistic debunking of anything mysterious) but in Monster House the revelation actually turned out to be scarier than the haunted house itself!

I found it a decent horror story in its own right that I wouldn't recommend for young kids (though it also might to be the funniest movie of 2006 outside of Over the Hedge), and it has some of the best voice-acting I've ever heard from kids.

Jim Roeg said...

I haven't seen it, nobody. But thanks for the tip. I have a kind of allegery to Pixar animation because (and here's a shocking confession) I prefer animation the old fashioned way. Still, I was really impressed with The Incredibles after being dragged to it by some more comopolitan friends. I will check out Monster House, especially if it's implicitly a Scooby Doo riff. I know what you mean about the annoyance of the debunking, but Scooby and gang were faves. (I wanted to be Shaggy when I grew up, those "scooby Snacks" sure looked mighty tasty!)