"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Candy and Poison

My Victorian Lace House Ghost: Constance Chauncey

Halloween Haiku
Such little steps
In love of candy
Knocking at my door!

by student,
Patrick McDonough
Community College
of Philadelphia
Fall 1997

Sam's Post - Trick - or - Treat Inventory, 2002


[Okay, forgive me. Here's some literary criticism.]

In the Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, French critic Julia Kristeva says that apocalyptic laughter is neither jovial nor joyful: " . . . laughter bursts out, facing abjection, and always originating at the same source, of which Freud had caught a glimpse: the gushing forth of the unconscious the repressed, suppressed pleasure, be it sex or death" (Kristeva 205-06).

This is the kind of laughter in Margaret Atwood's collection of very short stories, Murder in the Dark. One of the opening sketches, "Horror Comics," describes the darkly humorous after-school activities of two twelve-year-old girls. For instance, they like taking comic books from drugstores and reading them on the way home, "dramatizing the different parts, in radio voices with sound effects to show we were above it." Or on winter nights they enjoy throwing snowballs at unsuspecting grownups, "being careful to miss, doubling up with laughter because they didn't even know they were being aimed at" (Atwood 13).*

When they accidentally hit a woman, they experience not the contrived horror of the lurid comic books but the true horror of abjection. Though they do not have the vocabulary to express what they have witnessed, the threatening glare of their angry victim does not escape them: "We ran away, shrieking with guilty laughter, and threw ourselves backwards into a snowbank around the corner, holding our stomachs. . . . But we were terrified. It was the look on her face, pure hatred, real after all" (Atwood 13). Theirs is the laughter of fear and abjection, neither "trustful, nor sublime, nor enraptured by preexisting harmony. It is bare, anguished, and as fascinated as it is frightened" (Kristeva 206).

Likewise, the hilarity in these unsettling stories is bare, anguished, fascinating. It turns out that life is not all Tom, Betty, and Susan after all. I wonder if Dick and Jane would ever make poison, like the brother and sister in Atwood's story about "Making Poison"? Even Atwood wonders:

"Why did we make the poison in the first place? I can remember the glee with which we stirred and added, the sense of magic and accomplishment. Making poison is as much fun as making a cake. People like to make poison. If you don't understand this you will never understand anything" (Atwood 10).

[Now, was that so bad?]

*A similar passage appears in Julie Myerson's book Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House (see my post "Our Island Home"). Myerson recalls "The Ghost Club":

"We used to creep up on suspicious - looking people,
anyone we didn't like the look of."

"And then?"

"And then report back. We had meetings -- with biscuits.
We made badges." (148)

Myerson doesn't mention making any poison . . . but . . . same idea!

Next post will be on Saturday, November 14th
Between now and then, be sure to read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts on

(more Margaret Atwood, Bill Bryson, Halloween, etc.)



  1. Ah the lace ghost. Oh Kitti, you are such a traditionalist! I think you should start a book on the anthropology of those who keep traditions!

  2. Vickie said . . . It's good to see Constance Chauncey flying the flag of fear. The Atwood collection sounds interesting too, and as for horror, that's all French feminist critics to me.