Saturday, October 31, 2015

And Horror the Soul of the Plot

"Kiss it to life, tear it apart
I'm a treacherous thing to keep in your heart
Clean all your wounds, curse all your bones
I'm a treacherous thing to bring in your home"

Ego Likeness - Treacherous Thing

It's all-hallows' eve, Samhain, upon the witching hour of which the veil between our world and that of the dead shall be rent asunder and spirits both terrible and malevolent shall pour forth to wander the darkness. Beware! Beware and... be wearing weird masks to fool the ghosts? Okay, so the story-weaving kind of breaks down at that point, but the point remains! Though most harvest festivals tend to be rather upbeat they can't entirely efface the memento mori of waning daylight and the Celts at least made a good go of incorporating both sides. So, on this festival of death, I'd like to remind you of a couple of Edgar Allan Poe's somewhat less read short stories on the topic of mortality.

Morella and Ligeia often get lumped together in discussion and not without cause. The plot, by numbers, would sound almost exactly the same. The central tone, however, differs with the nature of the title characters and their perception by the narrator. These stories were already being edged out of school curricula by the time I was in high school (as we are no longer permitted to read anything portraying a woman in anything less than glorifying light) and though I'm guessing you've all read The Tell-Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado with their safely male villains, I would urge you to read at least the shorter of these two, Morella, before going on here. Though, it must be said, Ligeia is the better story and contains one of Poe's best poems as well.

To start, the two central characters are very different women. Morella is a prototypical goth, an image emulated by every teenage girl penciling ankhs below her eyes, her melodious voice a growing shadow on the narrator's soul, her influence constricting toward morbidity. She lives her death. In contrast, Ligeia is a proactive intellectual in every respect and fights for life despite her thematically-appropriate black eyes and hair. No wonder one narrator loves Ligeia while the other gradually starts to hate Morella. Morella is rot and poison, a disease upon the soul.

But what about their crimes? The plots are similar to a point. Narrator marries M / L and studies metaphysical mysteries under their tutelage then M /L falls ill and begins wasting away from nothing in particular, from loss of life in itself. Another female enters the picture and by the end of the story is revealed to be the vehicle for the second coming of the witch. Yet Morella fabricates her own vessel, the "daughter" which did not breathe until she herself had ceased to do so. She causes no harm because there is nothing to harm there. Ligeia on the other hand can pretty safely be interpreted to preternaturally murder poor hapless Rowena to orchestrate her return to the living.

Then there's the matter of what type of life would be regained by each act. While Ligeia is almost post-human in her intellect and an unparalleled will capable of elevating those around her, Morella merely uses the narrator, saprophytically feeding upon him, propagating herself upon his life, reducing him to her needs. While Ligeia is a self in itself, an undeniable personality, Morella's mitosis yields a living death in which the self cannot be acknowledged for fear the charade will fall apart. Ligeia fights and defeats the universe, reasserting her own features over Rowena's, while Morella merely tries to cheat it - and gets caught. Maybe Morella would've been content with her new life and would consume no further, and maybe Ligeia's narrator will be her next victim in her quest against the worm. Whatever we might imagine the final tally of their conflicting means, motivations and ends, they both make excellent characters, not merely as macabre ghost stories but as anti-villains taking purposeful action to escape the human condition.

Both stories drip nihilism: Ligeia quite explicitly through the poem The Conqueror Worm, Morella implicitly through her ultimate failure. I don't think it's necessary to read Ligeia's resurrection merely as the narrator's opium dream; seems like the sort of anus-extruded over-analysis which graduate students routinely produce while groping for a thesis which will fool most of their professors most of the time. However, we don't know how long her borrowed time will last, whether Rowena's corpse won't disintegrate under the weight of a single word as Morella did. Maybe the Lady Ligeia will have her victory snatched away from her - and that is a horror worthy of All Saints' eve.

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