African American Folklore, Magical Realism and Horror in Toni Morrison novels
By Sumiko Saulson
Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in 1931, eight-four year old Toni Morrison is one of the most prominent voices in African American literature. The bestselling author has won the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize, and earned such an enduring place in in American hearts and minds that she’s already a staple of many college English literature course curriculum in her own lifetime. Although her works often defy genre classification, the vagaries of genre politics have her firmly associated with the high-classed literary fiction genre. Literary fiction is the darling of critics and the academia alike.
Speculative fiction, and especially horror and the supernatural, are considered low-classed, tawdry genres. We sit in a dirty little niche corner, along with romance and erotica, as those genres that are just not prestigious enough for the so-called serious writers. Genre prejudice is so deeply ingrained that many do not recognize a horror story for what it is even when its nature is vastly apparent.
In essence, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a gothic horror story. It is a ghost story set against a backdrop of slavery and the post-Civil War restoration. It takes on the tone of gothic horror immediately at the outset of the story with the line “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom,” referring to 124 Bluestone Road, the address of the protagonist Sethe’s home. The use of a building, most commonly a house, is a trope commonly associated with the gothic fiction genre.
The story also utilizes many elements of the sub-genre American Gothic. English gothic horror took place in the Victorian era, the same period of time that the Civil War and the post war Restoration took place in the United States. The dark histories involving the African slave trade and the genocide of New World’s indigenous peoples were primary features of a guilt-ridden American conscience. Wronged native peoples and oppressed African slaves were some of the ghosts and bogeymen of American gothic. That is clearly the case in Beloved, which is about the petulant spirit of Sethe’s murdered two year old daughter, Beloved. Sethe killed her own child to protect her from slavery, and has been haunted ever since.
While Toni Morrison’s overall literary genre is American or African American literary fiction, Beloved is widely categorized as Magical Realism. Magical realism is a genre that involves the insertion of folklore and supernatural elements into otherwise realistic narratives. Beloved is not Toni Morrison’s only venture into magical realism. Song of Solomon, Sula, Jazz, and The Bluest Eye all use elements of the genre.
If it weren’t for the fact that Sula won a Nobel Prize for American literature, we might think of it as magical realism, as it certainly utilizes many elements of the genre. Many supernatural elements are used to illustrate the town of Bottom’s discomfort with and rejection of the unconventional protagonist Sula Peace. These magical elements are illustrations of the town’s scapegoating behavior. They clearly symbolize the tendency to demonize women for liberal and sexually unrepressed behavior. However, there is a more than superficial resemblance between Sula’s connection to the paranormal occurrences and witchcraft. Sula seems like a witch, and the town seems to be on a witch hunt.
In magical realism, these things are seen as symbolic, not necessarily to be taken literally, as in horror. There is an additional layer of psychological complexity in magical realism, as it is often unclear whether the supernatural is at play, or characters are just superstitious. That mystery is part of what keeps magical realism psychologically terrifying.
The strange appearance of a swarm of agitated birds in Sula is a great example of this. They arrive when she returns to town, and they occur in such unmanageable numbers that some townspeople are driven to sadism in an effort to get rid of them. They are so populous that the birds create a danger to themselves and others. However, the book never explains their mysterious arrival and disappearance. That is where magical realism differs from traditional horror: in horror, a cause, usually a diabolical one is assigned. In Sula, people superstitiously connect the appearance to the protagonist and her sexually loose moral behavior, which includes interracial relationships and sleeping with married men.
Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon opens up with some of the most horrifying scenes I’ve ever read. One involves the hunting of a runaway slave by a pack of dogs, and the other involves an extended analogy about leaping to suicide while attempting to fly away from enslavement. Song of Solomon uses several elements of magical realism. Many of these are directly or indirectly connected with a character named Pilate, a woman who was born without a belly button. She is guardian angel/earth mother figure in the life of the protagonist, Milkman.
Her lack of a navel suggests a supernatural origin, because bellybuttons are a sign of earthly birth. Created creatures, like angels or golem, wouldn’t need navels. Pilate shows other signs of supernatural knowledge or power, as does the ancient former slave Circe. Circe tells the protagonist Milkman of his great grandfather Solomon, who is the title character. Solomon was said to have literally flown to escape slavery. However, throughout the story, various attempts at flight are ambiguous and often seem more like suicide and less like escape.
There is the further complication of determining whether or not supernatural occurrences are real in magical realism. In Toni Morrison’s controversial debut novel The Bluest Eye, Pecola Breedlove, a sexually molested young black girl, retreats into a fantasy world where she feels beautiful because she imagines she has blue eyes. The book has been banned multiple times because it deals with tough subjects like incest and child molestation. However, at the core of it is a deeper truth: our most terrifying monsters are the ones that are real.
Horror as a genre allows its readers to confront subjects that are too hard to look at directly. Like a filter that allows us to look at the sun without going blind, horror softens the impact of unimaginable subjects by replacing horrific human monsters with supernatural creatures. They are less upsetting than the idea that the real monsters are us.
There is a close synergy between magical realism and gothic horror. They are flip sides of the same coin. Magical realism is a genre label usually ascribed to people of color talking about ourselves, and integrating our own folklore, history, legends and mythology into stories that contain both realistic and fantastic elements. Gothic horror, especially American gothic, is written from a white person’s point of view and has to do with outsider fear and suspicion of the same folklore, history, legends and myths.
A novel like Beloved might have been considered gothic horror if it had been written from a white person’s perspective by a white author. A story like Bernard Rose and Clive Barker’s Candyman might have been mystical realism if it were written by a black author and from Candyman’s point of view. Both stories are about a tragic character that died unnecessarily as a result of racism and slavery who returns as an avenging spirit. The change in the point of view character is also key to the genre categorization here: Candyman is about how slavery impacted white people. Beloved is about how it impacted African Americans.
Toni Morrison’s forays into magical realism may not be universally considered horror for the same reason that not everyone considers Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein horror: the monster is so sympathetic that from time to time, human beings seem the real monsters. The monster is the one who has been wronged here. If we feel more sympathy for the monster than it persecutors, then we lose a lot of the fear we associate with the horror genre.
Sumiko Saulson a horror, sci-fi and dark fantasy writer. Her novels include “Solitude,” “Warmth”, and “Happiness and Other Diseases.” She is the author of the Young Adult horror novella series “The Moon Cried Blood”, and short story anthology “Things That Go Bump in My Head.” Born to African-American and Russian-Jewish parents, she is a native Californian, and has spent most of her adult life in the Bay Area. She is a horror blogger and journalist.