March 5th, 2012
Give me skeletons over zombies any time.
Zombies have no charge for me anymore. I mean, I get it. I understand completely why everyone obsesses over them, what they *mean*, but it took watching that sequence from Mean Streets again recently, where the drunk, bullet riddled barman continues to lurch towards his would be assassin even though he should’ve keeled over and died five minutes before, to make me feel horrified by the undead again. All the hallmarks of the zombie were there, the shambling flying dutchman of an un-person complete with lolling eyes and outstretched arms, persistance of movement and ‘mission’ inspite of massive structural damage…. But this time I needed a real body, something more literal, less of a symbol (and, now, not just a symbol for scary stuff we’d all rather not think about, but a portal to a whole genre of entertainment/fandoms/an industry, etc. – a tangled mess of associations, many of which I find boring/slash annoying), to make me re-experience the supernatural horror of undeath and thence the very real, physical body-horror it points to. It was an assbackwards way to get there, but it worked.
If zombies are a textbook example of the abject, balanced right between subject and object, then skeletons are the same thing tilted more precipitously towards the latter. Because they have the semblance of life, they’re *humanoid*, but they’re life reduced to a stickman, pushed even further towards abstraction. They are life as rock or porcelain, as an actual object – inert material that, even more than zombies, should definitely be dead. But somehow isn’t. And if life can be reduced this much and still magically retain a flickering, time lapsed subjecthood, then even when sliced into a hundred composite pieces by Sinbad’s sword, each element will continue to ring with the potential for reanimation. And that this osseous scaffolding is in some way conscious by implication infects the entire environment – the structure of the building itself, the struts and beams, possessed, begin to groan and creak. The spell that enlivens the skeleton is contagious. The necromancer must beware of backlash: eyes growing in the timbers, the doors splintering, dotted with calcium deposits, the lock mechanism yelping in pain when the handle is turned. And conversely there’s always the horror of that dry patch of skin behind your ear suddenly revealing itself to be plastic.
Skeletons make a nonsense of the world. They jumble everything up.
(They are also immensely, soulcrushingly limiting. If zombies are consumerism, then skeletons are the product itself. The person ossified into Omac, a kit. Every man the same, except for a few tweaks, making a mockery of individuality by boiling off the flesh and leaving us with the bare essentials: height, or skull bumps – personality via phrenology. Everything else is revealed as packaging and what lies underneath is empty, like a Barbie. Forever dead – dead all our lives. The whole human story is just a production line, substituting action figure cards for skin. We’re not people, but variants. The market value of bone fluctuates according to time and location, but in the end it’s always bone, just as Evian is always water.
Who wants to look beneath the skin and find an identikit grinning back at them?)
And that’s where we find the skeleton, hiding beneath the surfaces where we don’t (dare not?) expect to find him – grabbing at our heels on the cellar steps, rattling in the closet, a bag of unquiet bones in the busted incinerator. In the close places where the sunlight doesn’t reach.
Crouching in the funhouse; a place of secret mechanisms, working parts, somehow structurally alive….
It’s no surprise, then, that Seaguy depicted Mickey Eye’s fun house as having a dragon’s maw for an entrance (the titular hero found skeletons in there too). It seems to me that the eerie charms of the fairground stem from the same tensions contained in the skeleton. I always felt uncomfortable about the poles impaling the horses on the carousel. I expected them to break free any minute. But I was wrong. The horses are camouflage, a mockery of the galloping life-force they represent, the friendly face of a soulless mechanism that eats and shits money, for no other reason than that’s just what it does. Or maybe it’s the other way round. Perhaps the carousel is a machine that wants to run? Maybe the horses represent a dawning clockwork awareness. As I say, these tensions are everywhere in the fairground. The clown with its nodding head, batting eyelids and clacking jaw is laughing at YOU! The ghost train….. It was never simply the spookiness of the imagery that frightened me, but the alarming suspicion somewhere at the back of my mind that the groaning spectres and leering monsters festooning the ghost train’s frontage were an expression of an unquiet consciousness somehow crucified inside the painted wood, ceramic, plastic and metal. No wonder we had skeletons then and not zombies. Things that clack. That are hard. Haunted puppetry.
And when you passed into the belly of the beast, eyes closed and whimpering that you wanted to “get off” who knew what would happen? Would the ride stop, leaving you stranded in the maze, in all that cobweb strewn darkness? Were there secret rooms where they would come for you, reaching for your hair with wooden fingers, plyboard teeth nipping the air, searching for your fingers?
Just to stave off any Steve Paterson, err, moments, I think I might mention here that the concerns of this mini-essay were ably represented in my childhood by one of the supervillains I created to fight Top Hat, the star of my first forays into writing comic books when I was 7 or 8 or so. Positioned somewhere between Cloak (of Dagger fame), Alan Moore’s Morningbright and Deathtrap Dungeon, The Dragon’s Lair was without a doubt the weirdest, um, ‘villain’ I’d ever come across before cracking open a Morrison penned Doom Patrol comic; and even then….. Although very tasty in a fight, this clanking robo-dragon represented a different kind of threat. The ‘Lair could burn you to a crisp with a fireball or rend you limb from limb with it’s talons, but the real danger was that it would eat you. Once inside the beast, and with each story I concocted increasingly implausible and outlandish reasons for the superheroes, learning nothing from past mistakes, to wind up there, Top Hat and friends would find themselves trapped in a bloodthirsty megadungeon, a space not quite alive and not quite dead. And that absolutely was what I found interesting about the Dragon’s Lair, that it embodied the idea of a non-loc(at)a(b)l(e) consciousness scattered and hidden beneath bubbling rock pools, lost in the tangled briar of gears and pulleys, dispersed across the owl-men hanging from the metal stalagmites in its rafters. Was it a creature or a thing? An entity or a place? Did it have motivation, personality, or was it an empty automoton, halogen lit corridors burrowing through the compact steel block where its mind should be? A composite of empty processes impersonating an organism? I couldn’t have phrased it the way I have here, but it doesn’t mean I wasn’t exploring the same spooky territory I’m exploring in this piece. Undeath.
No wonder Seaguy passes through the dragon’s maw.
Jimmy Woo doesn’t of course, but he may as well have. The funhouse in the Nick Fury comic is composed of the same stuff as the ‘Lair, alternately mainfesting as ‘inert’ deathtraps, bubbling up with jerky insect half-life in the form of skeletons, condensing into slithering flesh in the form of the alligators down down the wooden gullet, waiting in the watery stomach cavity. The wall of mirrors decorating the outside of the place are eyes. This is how Woo looks from beyond the grave, via the half-vision of the undead, where the world is struggling to take form, not quite there yet, warped and distorted. And whatever path he takes through the place’s rickety veins, even burning a hole through a wall (an act of violence – you can just hear the dog-whistle sonics of the timber screaming), he’ll eventually wind up running in circles. The geometry is all wrong, unsettled, disorganized, constructed from paramatter formed of wriggling atoscopic Kirby-tubing (which is why the paper feels fuzzy, not because it’s old).
Marvel’s comics have long exhibited a fascination with the ghost in the machine. When the Fantastic Four went exploring inside Galactus they discovered a whole world of bug-eyed monsters and stainless steel corridors. Then there’s Ego the Living Planet. Eternity. I’m sure the Celestials look very strange from the other side of their neon-black containment fields. The Danger Room always hummed with lethal mecha-zombie life too, so much so in fact that Joss Whedon couldn’t resist the urge to personify it as the X-Man Danger. I’m sure there are other examples. And all of this sets a precedent, so that when someone like me who’s steeped in all this stuff reads a sequence like the above, all we can see is the same processes at work on a different scale. And I’d hazard that others share my unease.
This is the body made incoherent in the absence of a unifying Self. The fragmented mind falling through the cavities, the secret shafts. Suffocating beneath the floorboards. The walls closing in.
This is top secret S.H.I.E.L.D tech. A necessary rite of inititation for all super-spooks.
The real haunted house.