Odds and DEAD Ends: Analysis of Casting the Runes and Ring.

M. R. James’ classic ghost story, Casting the Runes, is perhaps one of the most beloved of all time. It follows Mr. Dunning, uncovering a plot by Dr. Karswell to kill him via a series of ancient runic symbols. Similarly, for the modern age, Koji Suzuki’s novel Ring, (thanks largely to Hideo Nakata’s film adaptation), changed the face of Japanese horror films, much in the way that Scream did for the slasher genre. Examined in this article is the concept of infecting a victim with a deadline, by which, if the deadline isn’t passed on, the victim will die. This concept is, in both texts, a product of history and the past, which can infiltrate the modern day to scare the reader.

CASTING THE RUNES

James’ story is rooted in folklore of witches and magic. James himself was a noted historian of folklore and mythology, writing many papers on medieval manuscripts and other texts. It’s not surprising, therefore, that this interest seeps through in Casting the Runes, his uncovering of ancient texts mirroring the discovery of the slip of paper with the runes.

The main conflict I perceive in the text is the tension between the modernity presented by Dunning and Harrington, and the history and past presented by Karswell, fighting for power. Karswell, a man who has “…invented a new religion for himself, and practiced no one could tell what appalling rites” (p.238), has cast a hex on Dunning for shunning his new book. The past, in its runes and legends, is here the antagonistic force presented through Karswell, his book described simply as ‘an evil book’ (p.242), the mythic past’s main point of origin. Karswell’s magic lantern show presents the darker side of children’s myths and fairy tales, such as Red Riding Hood, which bleed through into the modern world:

“At last he produced a series which represented a little boy passing through his own park – Lufford, I mean – in the evening. Every child in the room could recognize the place from the pictures. And this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn into horrible pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees, and gradually it appeared more and more plainly.” (p.239)

Not only do we see the past colliding with the modern present through this passage, but after this, showing slimy creatures on the slides, “…somehow or other he made it seem as if they were climbing out of the picture and getting in amongst the audience” (p.240). Dunning and Harrington, on the other hand, are modernity’s flag-bearers. Dunning investigates the noise in the night, “…for he knew he had shut the door that evening after putting his papers away in his desk” (p.252), proving a logical, empirical mind, later reinforced here: “It was a difficult concession for a scientific man, but it could eased by the phrase “hypnotic suggestion” (p.255). Dunning even suggests that Karswell was “…mixing up classical myths, and stories out of the Golden Legend with reports of savage customs of to-day…” (p.258), showing a scholarly knowledge of the subject matter.

Therefore, the strange atmosphere about Dunning, the mysterious death of Harrington’s brother, the strange wind, “I supposed the door blew open, though I didn’t notice it: at any rate a gust – a warm gust it was – came quite suddenly between us, took the paper and blew it into the fire” (p.258), only increases our fear and trepidation, especially with the three month deadline hanging over our heads before Dunning’s eventual demise, for they can only be supernatural, against Dunning’s core beliefs. We try to decipher it rationally, following our protagonist’s example, but are unable to. Modern science cannot fight back against the curse of the runes. When Dunning and Harrington resort to deception and return the slip to Karswell, we slip into the past, so to speak, presented with the evil past that the characters have tried to deny for so long. We want to see evil banished back to where it belongs, away from Dunning’s modern day, back into the history books.

This brings us to the final moral dilemma. We are asked at the tale’s conclusion, “Had they been justified in sending a man to his death, as they believed they had? Ought they not to warn him, at least?” (p.266). They have become like Karswell, dispensing an ancient, malevolent death upon those they deem a threat. Though they justify this by claiming Karswell deserved it, and that Dunning would be dead otherwise, it is an unnerving note to end with, asking if they should have asked the darkness of history to prove itself, or descended to the old ways as they do, dispensing justice in, what is for them, a “new rite”, much like Karswell created for himself.

RING

Suzuki’s novel, Ring, adopts a similar structure in terms of its narrative. A malevolent force (the spirit of Sadako Yamamura) has given a victim (Asakawa) a time limit (seven days) to find what mysterious instructions he needs to follow in order to save his life (copying the cursed tape and passing it on). The runes have been replaced by the video tape, and it is here that we see one of the key, fundamental differences to James’ story. Sadako is built upon the myths and folklore of Japan, but her embodiment of ‘the past’ is intertwined with modern technology. The distinct opposition inherent in James’ tale is no longer as easy to see in Suzuki’s novel.

The female ghost with long hair avenging their death is a well-established trait in Japanese folklore. These stories are called kaidan; the vengeful ghost termed an onryō. Theatre Group Soaring, in the novel, would no doubt have practiced traditional Japanese kabuki theatre, itself one of the main vehicles through which kaidan tales were passed throughout the centuries. Even in the film adaptation, the strange, contorted movements of Sadako (as played by Rie Inō) is directly inspired by stereotypical movements of onryō from kabuki theatre, and Rie Inō herself was apparently trained in kabuki. The story of the spirit in the well has also been around for centuries, the story of Okiku and the plates, being a potent example.

Sadako is therefore very much rooted in Japan’s past, in more ways than just being dead. Asakawa, on the other hand, is very much the modern man, constantly carrying around a word processor, saving files to floppy disks, phoning Yoshino from the island to help his investigation. Ryuji is a professor of philosophy, a discipline which “…as a field of inquiry had drawn ever closer to science,” (p.88). These two men are built of the modern world. They even live in Tokyo, one of the largest cities in the world. When arriving at Pacific Land, Asakawa notes that “Faced with this proof that the modern power of science functioned here, too, he felt somewhat reassured, strengthened.” (p.61).

Suzuki uses technology, the statement of the future and urbanity, to steer his antagonistic force, striking at civilisation’s heart. Sadako’s wrath and anger takes over the videotape, itself situated in a cabin complete with “A hundred-watt bulb lit a spacious living room. Papered walls, carpet, four-person sofa, television, dinette set: everything was new, everything was functionally arranged.” (p.63). Asakawa, despite his hesitations and fear of what the tape might show him, ‘No matter what sort of horrific images he might be shown, he felt confident he wouldn’t regret watching” (p.73). Why would his regret watching? It wouldn’t be as if anything could happen to him, constrained as it were by the (very much Western) technology before him.

Just like Karswell’s magic lantern show, however, the images on the tape have their own weight and reality, “Startled, he pulled back his hands. He had felt something. Something warm and wet – like amniotic fluid, or blood – and the weight of flesh.” (p.77). When Asakawa answers the phone, it is described that:

“There was no reply. Something was swirling around in a dark, cramped place. There was a deep rumble, as if the earth were resounding, and the damp smell of soil. There was a chill at his ear, and the hairs on the nape of his neck stood up. The pressure on his chest increased, and bugs from the bowls of the earth were crawling on his ankles and his spine, clinging to him. Unspeakable thoughts and long-ripened hatred almost reached to him through the receiver. Asakawa slammed down the receiver.” (p.81).

That silence from the other end of a telephone gives this impression, this startlingly sensory imagery, showcases Sadako’s reach and wrath, without her saying a word.

In the finale, Asakawa, realising why he survived and Ryuji did not, agrees to wager the entirety of humanity by spreading the virus to his parents-in-law. Whereas James simply had the characters return the curse to Karswell, he the price for Dunning’s survival, here, Suzuki has entire the world be the price for saving Asakawa’s family. Whereas Casting the Runes ends with a definite confirmation of Karswell’s demise, Ring ends with the ominous passage, “Black clouds moved eerily across the skies. They slithered like serpents, hinting at the unleashing of some apocalyptic evil.” (p.284). Asakawa has become accomplice to Sadako’s malice, the past in control of modern technology and, through that, the modern man. “In order to protect my family, I am about to let loose on the world a plague which could destroy all mankind.” (p.283).

CONCLUSION

Both James’ short story and Suzuki’s novel present characters eagerly, desperately trying to beat the deadlines they are faced with, wished upon them by people that want them dead. Through their representations of an evil, malevolent past, embodied by Karswell and Sadako, both authors present us with a moral choice of who we save, and who we kill in exchange. What is different about their endings is the level of intimacy and scope we are presented with. Casting the Runes is a story of personal vengeance, where the battle is between Karswell on one side and Dunning and Harrington on the other, with the evil-doer getting their just desserts, like a boxing match. Ring’s evil is much more impersonal, and the apocalyptic ending shows the sheer magnitude of what must happen for someone to live. You don’t end the curse; you just pass the buck and hope someone else will do it for you. The ending’s bleak tone implies that there is no hope, that nobody will sacrifice themselves to stop the bleeding, and that the virus will move from one soul to another, runes forever being cast.

Written by Kieran Judge

Bibliography

James, M. R., 1994. Casting the Runes. In: Collected Ghost Stories. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, pp. 235 – 267.

Ringu. 1998. [Film] Directed by Hideo Nakata. Japan: Ringu/Rasen Production Company.

Scream. 1996. [Film] Directed by Wes Craven. United States: Dimension Films.

Suzuki, K., 2004. Ring. London: HarperCollinsPublishers.

 

 

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Kidnapped! Void: Using Absence as Fear in At the Hands of Madness

Void: Using Absence as Fear in At the Hands of Madness 

By Kevin Holton

Writing a good novel about a giant monster is tough work. You have to balance destruction against development, providing room for the characters to grow even as their world falls to pieces around them. Even the monsters need some development (I’ll save that for another article), but if you don’t walk that line well, the story falls flat. No one wants to read three hundred pages of “this got smashed, then these people died, then THAT THING got smashed!”

When I was writing At the Hands of Madness, I learned another important lesson: it’s also hard to keep readers afraid of a monster that isn’t there. So, I played that to my advantage. Medraka, the four-armed, psychic, Lovecraftian kaiju monstrosity serving as the Big Bad of my book, can teleport, even into alternate dimensions.

If your antagonist is going to spend a good chunk of time off page, don’t worry about making people afraid despite it not being there. Focus on making them afraid because it isn’t there. Sure, it’s not smashing your face in now, but what’ll happen ten minutes from now? A day? A year?

The key—at least, from my experience—is peppering the narration with details about what it’s capable of. If your monster can burrow under the ground, like in Tremors, then it’s actually a lot worse to not see the damn thing, instead feeling its burrowing rumble and shake the earth. A Xenomorph is a terrifying creature, and you don’t want to mess with it, but would you prefer to have eyes on it, or simply hear its clangs echoing through the ventilation system? Predator knew this absence-is-worse feeling well, given the eponymous Predator’s cloaking technology.

With Medraka, I couldn’t use sound and touch to my advantage. When it isn’t on the page, it simply isn’t there, gone entirely from this plane of existence, with no ability to alert the characters by knocking something over, or digging, or screeching, or what have you.

So, here are a few tips for building that sense of dread—without resorting to flashbacks.

Play with extra sensory work

Can your character mysteriously ‘sense’ when the Big Bad is coming? Does another, maybe a cop, have a foolproof gut instinct, or intuition, that might clue people in to when it’ll show up? Consider, for instance, any given thriller or Law & Order episode where the detective looks at something totally innocuous, like a half-eaten sandwich, and says, “Captain, this is the work of a serial killer.” Why? How? Who knows—what we do know is that there’s a lot more at stake now, and you can’t defend yourself from what you can’t see.

Give us something else to lose

Use those down moments to reflect on what’s important. What’s the protagonist(s) first move after escaping death? Hugging that attractive ally? Checking in with the commander? Tending to the wounded? The more a character has to lose, and the more others would be hurt if that character dies, the more we can dread that monster’s reappearance. The heroin who limps to the medical bay with a broken leg so she can administer first aid to others is going to make us care a lot more than the guy who just reloads his weapon.

Hold a funeral

As long as it makes sense for the pacing, allow your characters to mourn the dead. Aside from being a normal part of the human experience, it’ll also give the readers opportunity to see just what each loss means, and why they so thoroughly fear the next. The absence a character leaves behind will also remind us of the absence the antagonist has left, too.

Increase its power

Okay, this is a little cheating, since it’s still technically doing something, but if you want to increase the tension, have somebody report about its wild antics in another location. At one point in At the Hands of Madness, Chicago disappears. The whole city, teleported right out of existence. I won’t say more, of course, but needless to say, the main crew freaks out a bit when they hear this. Knowing that they barely survived, then hearing it can do even worse things, will crank that fear dial up to eleven.

There are, of course, other ways to make people afraid, but when there’s literally nothing to be afraid of—when all you have to work with is fear itself—creature features can risk facing a bit of derailment. So, steady on! That beast may have slipped out of sight, but don’t let it ever slip out of the readers’ minds. The more you make people fear what isn’t there, the more terrible it will be when that monster finally returns.


Kevin Holton is the author of At the Hands of Madness, as well as the forthcoming titles The Nightmare King and These Walls Don’t Talk, They Scream. He also co-wrote the short film Human Report 85616, and his short work has appeared in dozens of anthologies.

He can be found at www.KevinHolton.com, or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Patreon @TheHoltoning.

 

 

When Terror Takes Hold – Laurel Anne Hill

Nothing squeezes my gut worse than facing big-time adversity beyond any hope of my control. I’ve dangled forty feet in the air from the broken cross-bar of a rotten clothes-line pole, and sixty feet up while clinging to a busted ladder on the side of a building. On one SCUBA diving adventure, my air supply malfunctioned thirty feet beneath the ocean’s surface. And white-water rapids once sucked me under and pinned me against a boulder. Yet in all of these situations, I focused on survival and took action. Terror never had a chance to catch me and take hold.

Photo by Amanda Norman

Thus, one of my scariest experiences occurred before my “take action” survival response had yet developed. I was young, perhaps only eight or nine years old.

My childhood home was a third floor rental flat in San Francisco, one of those units with a long hallway leading to the bedrooms and bath. Railroad flats, they’re sometimes called. An enclosed service porch, containing our wringer washer, laundry tubs, a work table and a closet full of home-canned fruits and vegetables stood adjacent to the kitchen. Mother kept the back door to the flat locked, but the business end of a skeleton key often resided in the keyhole. A fire safety measure. The door led to a wooden staircase, the staircase to an alleyway between buildings. One end of the alleyway opened into the back yard. At the opposite end was a door to Fourteenth Street.

The street-side alleyway door was never locked.

Three generations lived in our two-bedroom flat. You do the math. I had no room of my own for a haven. Sometimes I liked to stand on the porch at night and feel the darkness enfold me.

Even in those days, I “wrote” stories in my head or jotted them on paper. The ambiance of a lightless or shadowy room stirred my imagination. Still, I had not yet acquired the skills to translate emotions into sentences. The best stories lived inside of my mind.

One night, my mother and older sister were reading in the living room. My father was away on a business trip. Grandma and Grandpa had retired to bed. My baby brother slept. I stood on the porch by the washing machine, doors to both kitchen and outside stairs shut. Moonlight glowed through a side window.

An inner voice told me I shouldn’t be there.

But the voice was only my conscience, wasn’t it? I should return to the living room, lie on the rug in front of our little gas heater or curl up on the overstuffed rose sofa with a book. I should share time with my family.

I heard a noise from outside. A creaking of wood.

The first feeling to stir within me was not one of alarm, but the warmth of embarrassment. I was here, successfully becoming lost in imagination, and Mother wanted my company. We had no television and took pleasure in the presence of each other at day’s end.

Another creak followed, and another. Those were footsteps. Slow, heavy footsteps.

No one ever climbed our back stairs at night.

The footsteps now reached from beyond my imagination. I’d learned to separate reality from fantasy. Whoever approached my back door was real.

If the intruder heard me, he or she might break down the door and grab me. Maybe I should remain quiet. But Mother needed to know so she could call the police. No matter. Neither my arms nor legs would have obeyed any command to move. I could barely even breathe.

The doorknob rattled.

What if Mother had forgotten to lock the door? Or if the person at the door–surely a man–knew how to probe the keyhole with wire and make the skeleton key turn? I ought to get Mother. Why couldn’t I move?

The doorknob turned.

All warmth left me. My heart thudded faster and faster. Yet the terror provided a certain perverse pleasure, something to tuck away inside of my mind for future recollection.

The door didn’t open. A wooden board creaked. Footsteps receded. Whoever had stood on the other side of the barrier had retreated down the stairs.

I remained immobile for at least five minutes. The intruder did not return. My world was safe again.

How wonderful to open the door leading into the kitchen, to see Grandma’s stove with its big, black pipe in the shadowy room. I headed to the living room and told my mother and older sister what had happened. They laughed.

Neither one believed me, that is, until I repeated my story to them many years later.

As for the terror I experienced, I keep the memory tucked inside my brain. I draw upon the details when giving characters in my stories a frightful time. The memory also spurs me to be sure I’ve locked my doors and activated the alarm system before bedtime.

With or without a skeleton key, I prefer to stay in control.

LAUREL ANNE HILL grew up in San Francisco, with more dreams of adventure than good sense or money. Her close brushes with death, love of family, respect for honor and belief in a higher power continue to influence her writing and her life. ForeWord Magazine selected Laurel�s debut parable, Heroes Arise, for a Book of the Year Award for 2007 (bronze, science fiction category). Laurel�s shorter works span the genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror and creative nonfiction. http://www.laurelannehill.com