Birthday Poetry

For Sonia


I

A pale dawn breaks upon the day,
Wisps following behind, not yet led astray
Cascading down the brae
And off to seize tomorrow.

The pallid sheen of an achromatic dress
Will it lead to an egress
In the affection I feel from one’s caress?
Will it bring me sorrow?

I feel the mist upon my face,
Here in this forgotten place
While I sit, silently, and retrace
That which seems so apropos.

What is the answer? I cannot say.
Hearing these thoughts ricochet,
Trying to figure out how not to betray
My truth, in flight, aglow.

 

II

I attended a party last night.

A dull affair, by most means. Watered down spirits, and I don’t just mean the drinks. I had not planned on staying for long. A couple of glasses, a conversation or two, and then off to bed. But then she approached me.

Was it my aura? Was it the stain on the left side of my torso? Whatever it was, something consociated us, linking us together. Two indelible, intoxicated compatriots.

Slurring her words together, she began to talk of homophones. Words that sounded the same but were not. The contrast between what is and what could easily be. At least, that’s what I assumed she was talking about. It became difficult to discern any specific words from one another. Her diatribe went on, as she pointed out the difference between “pique” and “peak”, between “raise” and “raze.” I was losing patience and was ready to retire.

“And what about censor, censer, and sensor? Who is to say what anything means after all?” She mumbled into incoherence, drifting off into the crowd.

And so I thought. What about them?

Does a censer censor from the senses? That which isn’t seen can still be present. When does a sensor betray a censor? How am I to keep track of my cents? No, my sense. Do the censors have any sense? No, scents. Camphor fills my nose, a sensation of scents, of cense.

I mused on this, inhaling my scotch. Flat stones fitting into palms, skidding across the stream of my thoughts.

She was right, of course.

Who is to say what anything means after all?

 

III

Effervescent ephemera, drifting
From inexperience to something
Satisfactory. Observations can only bring
One so close to reality, before even
Reality begins to whisper
Saccharine vows. Honeysuckle, a most
Bitter tincture, acerbic like wit, caustic like
A lover’s nuzzle. The truth lies somewhere in
Between, within that canyon of
Apprehension and anticipation. Doubt
Creeps across one’s sulci, malachite
Tendrils massaging anxieties. To kill is
No small task, but to execute that which remains
Within? There, does it all flourish. Adequately,
Charms flutter across the skin, stroking and
Instilling vellichor. Or is it petrichor?

 

IV

Falling
Within
Without
Form
A cacophony of
Endless
Carbons
Chained together
Bonded
Fettered
Who is to say
What is up?
What is
Forward?
Who
Is?
Lethe
Leading to nirvana
An end
Or a new beginning

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Player-Response: On the Nature of Interactive Narratives as Literature

After what was probably the most academically rigorous year of my life, I can officially call myself a Master. And that’s pretty cool.

From start to finish, the focus of my time in graduate school was my thesis, a culmination of all my years of research, composition, passion, and abilities as both a writer and a gamer. It was obvious to me what the topic of my thesis would ultimately be, having spent much time defending the merits of video games to my friends and family. This thesis, where I explore how game narratives, specifically Mass Effect, are the pinnacle of modern storytelling and justify their utilization of active participation and hypertextuality, was both a joy to work on and an immense pressure off my shoulders. I am glad that I can now share it with you all today.

Read Player-Response – On the Nature of Interactive Narratives as Literature

Special thanks to Morgan Read-Davidson, my thesis advisor, and Jana Remy and David Winnick, readers on my thesis committee.

What Mighty Contests Rise From Trivial Things: The Rape of the Lock and the Mock Epic

A primary characteristic that underscores much of Alexander Pope’s work is humor. Rather than acting as just satirical asides, Pope’s utilization of farce allows him to focus “attention on the discrepancy between the ideal and the actual” (Parkin 1953, 197). By making a comparison between what is and what ought to be (or ought not to be), along with being entertaining, Pope is able to reach his audience and communicate his ideas in a clear and precise way, trivializing what is important and underscoring what is frivolous. Rather than making a scene less serious, humor is used as a device to enhance the content of his work, allowing him to discuss topics in a refreshing way. His narrative poem, The Rape of the Lock, operates along these similar lines. However, rather than solely making the content humorous, Pope’s control of mock-dramatic elements allow him to move beyond creating a sardonic text. His parody of the epic acts as an early model of the deconstruction of the typical narrative format.

The structure of the five-act epic can be found as a basis for the dramatic form of Pope’s narrative poem. Whether he was consciously attempting to do so or otherwise, “The simple actions of the epic fall with surprising accuracy into [his story]. Dramatic theory offered him a handy, tested pattern” from which he could outwardly build his poem (Jackson 1287). Influenced by the work of Elizabethan dramatists, who utilized the classical five-act structure throughout their plays and were, in turn, inspired by Virgil, Horace, Homer, and others, Pope’s The Rape of the Lock follows a similar organizational pattern. The exposition is laid out within Canto I, the initial drive to action begins in Canto II, the epitasis of action occurs in Canto III, the situation is intensified in Canto IV, and reconciliation is made through some divine force outside of the narrative’s events in Canto V. Pope desired to evoke this return-to-form of the classical age, for he “felt the classics as an essential part of the continuity of European culture, and it is this which to a large extent offsets the frequently topical nature of some of his poetic subjects” (Sullivan 235). It is additionally important to note that the original version of The Rape, published in 1712, was only two cantos in length and contained the majority of the narrative’s action. The second version, however, published in 1714, “has been made by spacing out the main actions over five cantos and by the addition of the much admired but unessential machinery … [indicating] a strong parallel with the five-part dramatic structure” (Jackson 1285). Moments like Belinda’s dressing scene and the Cave of the Spleen do not appear in the first draft of the text. While these scenes do not have direct impact on the action, their inclusion is vital to ascertain a complete understanding of the text and its characters. The first Canto establishes Belinda as a physical, artificial beauty, protected by her guardians, the Sylphs, while the fourth Canto presents character reactions to the climactic action of the severing of the lock in the previous act, as well as spurning the supernatural guardians to inspire Belinda to action. These episodes help to build the importance (or lack thereof) of the principle action. These scenes, along with the primary plot of the poem, follow the dramatic arc of the epic.

The poem opens with the invocation: “What dire offence from am’rous causes springs,/What mighty contests rise from trivial things,/I sing—This verse to Caryll, Muse! Is due” (Pope I.1-3). This first couplet and the line following act as the epic proposition, an appeal to the classical Muses of the arts, which occurs in epic poetry. However, even within the opening lines, Pope’s ability to play with diction and syntax comes alive. If an ironic, inquisitive stress is placed upon these lines, “The implication would be, ‘Who says that real offence was (or should have been) taken over this silly quarrel about nothing?’ In other words, the seriousness of the whole affair is undercut at the opening announcement” (Rogers 18). From the outset, Pope recognizes the ridiculousness of the situation about which he writes, observing how the characters will blow something trivial out of proportion. Inversion, especially the inversion of expectations of the epic format, becomes a key motif throughout the poem. Pope’s writing takes on a “chameleon quality which has seldom been matched,” blurring the lines between “the epic, the moral, the pastoral, the satiric, and so on” (Dyson and Lovelock 198). This inversion can be seen in the characters’ embracement of artificial beauty in lieu of the natural. Following the convocation, the chief sylph Ariel, guardian of the female sex, instructs Belinda that she and the other Sylphs will protect her. They go on to deify her and inundate her with “special treatment … such as the head Sylph’s assistance, together with the superhuman value placed on everything connected with her” (Parkin 1954, 31). They become her protectors, obsessed with maintaining her physical state. Belinda becomes their paragon, and as shown later in Canto IV, the consequences for failing her are indeed dire. Belinda, the so-called protagonist, rises from sleep at midday and goes to her dressing toilet. Joined by her custodians, she prepares her appearance for the day:

A heav’nly image in the glass appears,
To that she bends, to that her eyes she rears.
Th’ inferior priestess [her maid], at her altar’s side,
Trembling begins the sacred rite of prides. (Pope I.125-128)

This is comparable to the arming scene of epic poetry. Belinda is “the epic hero, preparing for battle…; she is Aphrodite rising from the sea” (Dyson and Lovelock 199). Her guile takes full form as her servants, both corporeal and ethereal, adorn her. Importance is placed on the artificial, instead of the real, and this self-absorption only leads to her downfall. The young baron, the poem’s antagonist, who is infatuated with Belinda’s locks of hair, vows to add to his altar of love, “Of twelve vast French Romances, neatly gilt./There lay three garters, half a pair of gloves,/And all the trophies of his former loves” (Pope II.38-40). Having erected a monument to memorialize physical representations of his conquests, he prepares himself to seize the grandest prize yet. Belinda herself is an idol to beauty, a physical depiction of divinity and passion. Spurred on by his lust, the Baron prepares himself for the epic battle that is yet to come.

Belinda herself partakes in this grand clash, which beings by taking the form of a game of cards. Having traveled up to Hampton Court to spend the day in pleasure, she “Burns to encounter two adventurous knights/At ombre, singly to decide their doom,/And swells her breast with conquests yet to come” (III.26-28). Throughout the poem, incidents like the card game or Belinda dressing at the toilet are magnified into grand scenes. This game, described over the next seventy-or-so lines, takes the shape of an epic combat, revealing an “ambivalence central to the poem—the attempt at the same time to build up and tear down the importance of the feminine concerns with which the poem deals” (Parkin 1953, 199). Although otherwise an unimportant affair, the card game is turned into an action scene of strategy and battle. These junctures are less about the narrative itself, and more concerned with parodying the narrative format of the epic. Moments like this occur within the Aeneid or Iliad, taking the form of impressive struggles which challenge the hero and help them to grow. “The Rape of the Lock,” however, “proceeds in a series of tableaus, but without the surging energy that informs the epic,” with characters instead subsisting in a “languid world” (Damrosch 197). Beaten and humiliated, the Baron strikes, seizing a pair of scissors handed to him by Clarissa, and rends the prized lock of hair from Belinda, sending her into a state of melancholy and prompting the sylphs to flee and the gnome Umbriel to journey deep into the Cave of the Spleen.

Although on an initial reading it may appear to come from nowhere, Umbriel’s catabasis into the Cave of the Spleen parallels a recurring theme within epic poetry. Like Odysseus and Aeneas before him, Umbriel’s trek “has always been hailed as a brilliant parody of the epic voyage into the underworld … [and] a mock-epic device dramatizing Belinda’s sullen psychosomatic condition resulting from her tonsorial rape” (Delasanta 69). A footnote in the Broadview Anthology notes that “The spleen was thought to be the seat of melancholy or morose feelings, and ‘spleen’ became a term used to cover any number of complaints including headaches, depression, irritability, hallucinations, or hypochondria” (564). The previous canto ends with Belinda thrown into a state of deep despondency, mortified over the loss of her lock of hair. Now, Umbriel must journey into the source of her depression in order to find the strength for Belinda to overcome her gloominess. Before he earns his boon, Umbriel notices the Sylphs imprisoned within the Spleen as punishment for being careless in attending Belinda, “all of [their punishments] within Belinda’s Rhadamanthine power” (Parkin 1954, 32). As a representation of a mythic goddess, Belinda has the power to inflict retribution upon the guardians who fail her. Those Sylphs who hinder her beauty and mar it with prudishness are subjugated with reckoning appropriate to a paragon of elegance. They are stuck with pins, stuffed into vials, and drowned in bitter waters. In other words, they are forced to undergo rituals as though they are preparing to go and make an appearance in public; having their skin poked and prodded at in order to make it presentable, being stopped in jars of fragrant perfumes, or having their bodies forcibly washed and cleaned. As the physical depiction of artificial allure, Belinda is able to inflict her “‘Cosmetic Powers’” upon her subjects, underscoring the importance both she and the Sylphs place on physical beauty (Pope qtd. in Parkin 1954, 32). Passing the castigated Sylphs safely, Umbriel finds her way to the unnamed Goddess of the Spleen. Typically, the descent is utilized within the epic as a challenge for the epic hero to undergo and, from the underworld, the protagonist returns with a gift or knowledge of some kind. This epic is no different, and the Goddess provides Umbriel with:

A wondrous bag with both her hands she binds,
Like that where once Ulysses held the winds;
There she collects the force of female lungs:
Sigh, sobs, and passions, and the war of tongues.
A vial next she fills with fainting fears,
Soft sorrows, melting griefs, and flowing tears. (Pope IV.81-86)

The Goddess grants Umbriel an Aeolian gift, with which he can animate Belinda. Unlike Odysseus’s bag, which was to guide him back home to Ithaca, this bag is meant to stimulate Belinda to action so that she may fight back against the shearing of her hair. Along with melancholy, splenetic disorders can also refer to the abrupt discharge of anger. What the Goddess grants Umbriel “was not merely some vague inspiration to epic battle but, more fitting to her own splenetic divinity, the literal means by which Belinda’s own spleen might be vented from a state of melancholic inertia to one of heroic temper” (Delasanta 70). Finding Belinda cradled in the arms of the Amazon Queen Thalestris, a worthy female guardian for an upcoming battle, Umbriel opens the mythic containers and unleashes Belinda’s inner acrimony, motivating her to attack the Baron who tarnished her.

Lines are drawn and teams are chosen. Suspense thickens as the great battle between Belinda and the Baron is about to begin, but before the first strike can be thrown, the poem’s only voice of rationality speaks up. Clarissa speaks over the crowd, commenting, “‘How vain are all these glories, all our pains,/Unless good sense preserve what beauty gains” (Pope V.15-16). Although she first gave the Baron the shears he would need to obtain the lock of hair, she becomes the figure of common sense toward the play’s conclusion. Beauty fades with time, she argues, while prudence and sound judgment should be more coveted. Perhaps this was why Clarissa first gave the scissors to the Baron, for she recognized the temporary nature of physical attractiveness, pleading for the congregation to instead examine “the compelling perspective of life’s brevity” (Dyson and Lovelock 207). Her appeal ends and falls on deaf ears and Thalestris calls for the fight to commence: “‘To arms, to arms!’ the fierce virago cries” (Pope V.37). In Homeric verse, it is common for a speech to end with its audience applauding the orator, but in this mock epic, only silence fills the room before Belinda’s champion calls for battle. Belinda herself immediately charges at the Baron, accosting him for the return of the lock, but it is nowhere to be found. It disappears from the world, and a Muse spies it ascending to the heavens where it becomes “A sudden star …/[that] drew behind it a trail of radiant hair” (V.127-128). It is not the Muse of Satire who watches the lock rise, “pleased though she must have been—but the Muse of transformations [who is] now clearly evoked. The apotheosis of the Lock, which in mock-heroic terms is the poem’s supreme extravagance, is artistically its moment of truth” (Dyson and Lovelock 209). It is this lock of hair, not Belinda, the Baron, Thalestris, or any of the other characters who undergo any meaningful metamorphosis. The lock evolves from beyond the symbol of Belinda’s beauty into something sublime and beyond the bounds of the physical realm. In this final moment of the poem, “Belinda’s beauty is lost and won forever” (209). Lost to the mortals who appreciated it only for how it accentuated Belinda, and won by the celestial sphere and consecrated for eternity.

The effectiveness of The Rape of the Lock stems from its parodic nature. Like modern narrative deconstruction, parody “does not aspire in a straightforward way to be a discourse of truth. It is interested in questions of truth, but does not pursue them in direct, serious, and analytic fashion” (Phiddian 673). The mock epic acts as a form of satire, attempting to display the difference between what is and what should/should not be. Deconstruction “nests in the structure of the texts and ideas it criticizes … It operates from inside the arguments of metaphysical texts and systems such as structuralism and phenomenology, showing how they cannot totalize the visions they proclaim, and precisely where they double over and collapse” (681). By outlining the ridiculous dispositions of his characters, who place high value on qualities linked to physicality and temporality, Pope is able to depict absurdity while also advocating for his readers to place more importance on true, natural beauty, rather than artificial. The moments within, and the very structure of, the poem assists in the message Pope is attempting to tell. The Rape, apart from being a fantastic representation of the epic, dismantles the structures of its genre and reinterprets them, allowing the author to tell a more effective message than purely stating his opinions.


Works Consulted

Damrosch, Leo. “Pope’s Epics: What Happened to Narrative?” The Eighteenth Century, vol. 29, no. 2, 1988, pp. 189–207. JSTOR.

Delasanta, Rodney. “Spleen and Wind in The Rape of the Lock.” College Literature, vol. 10, no. 1, 1983, pp. 69–70. JSTOR.

Dyson, A.E., and Julian Lovelock. “In Spite of All Her Art: Pope’s The Rape of the Lock.” Critical Survey, vol. 5, no. 3, 1971, pp. 197–210. JSTOR.

Jackson, James L. “Pope’s The Rape of the Lock Considered as a Five-Act Epic.” PMLA, vol. 65, no. 6, 1950, pp. 1283–1287. JSTOR.

Parkin, Rebecca Price. “Mythopoeic Activity in The Rape of the Lock.” ELH, vol. 21, no. 1, 1954, pp. 30–38. JSTOR.

Parkin, Rebecca Price. “The Quality of Alexander Pope’s Humor.” College English, vol. 14, no. 4, 1953, pp. 197–202. JSTOR.

Phiddian, Robert. “Are Parody and Deconstruction Secretly the Same Thing?” New Literary History, vol. 28, no. 4, 1997, pp. 673–696. JSTOR.

Pope, Alexander. “The Rape of the Lock: A Heroi-Comical Poem in Five Cantos.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature, edited by Joseph Laurence Black, second ed., vol. 3, Broadview Press, 2013, pp. 555–568. Print.

Rogers, Pat. “Wit and Grammar in The Rape of the Lock.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 72, no. 1, 1973, pp. 17–31. JSTOR.

Sullivan, J.P. “Alexander Pope on Classics and Classicists.” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, vol. 5, no. 2, 1966, pp. 235–253. JSTOR.

The Ashskin and the Sea

Read this story, and more, in the upcoming collection Terminus.


He could not tell whether the salt on his tongue came from his fervent perspiration or the frigid sea spray. It filled his mouth, drying his cheeks and cracking his throat. He burned, ached for the relief of even a droplet of fresh water. Nonetheless, he persisted, pulling the length of frayed rope down, releasing the mainsail of his vessel. Raindrops spattered on his head like needles and soaked through his linen shirt and breeches, which stuck themselves against his sore flesh. It was enough to bring down a lesser man, but the image he created of her, etched forever between the sulci of his brain, drove him forward. She had ignited the fire in his chest, a furious blaze that charred his lungs and spilled ash throughout his capillaries, an inferno which the raging sea could not quench. The sail was free at last, and as the roaring winds blew into the rugged cloth and bore his ship forward, he knew victory was almost at hand. He let go of the ropes and, his hands chewed and blistered, grasped onto the splintering mast at the center of the deck. He squinted his eyes and fixed his firm gaze on the pallid horizon, and the vision of his prize filled his head once more. The island cannot be much further, he told himself. Soon, his bow would breach the craggy shores and she, the Ashskin, would be his.

The tips of her slender fingers could just barely stroke the surface of the rock, but it was otherwise out of her reach. The chain clasped around her ankle, pulled taut, would give no more. She attempted to extend her arm further, feeling the lithe muscles and sinew stretch, as if some invisible force was trying to yank it from her shoulder. Nevertheless, the stone danced at her touch but came no closer. In a huff, she retracted her limb, wiped the strands of limp, flaxen hair from in front of her eyes, and lied back on the slab. She had grown tired of the rain. It was miserable, at first, to be soaked through every layer of garment and integument, but now, it was merely an annoyance, albeit a major one. She returned her thoughts to the same question she had been asking herself since first arriving on her waterlogged island: why? Why was she cursed with beauty? It was not her fault that regents, fueled by lust, led their nations to war in order to win her hand in matrimony. She was not some fragile doll, to be placed on a shelf and admired from a distance, only played with in order to entertain her owner. She had told all that to the barnacled crone, that it was not her intent to bewitch       men into a carnal rage. The hag simply raised a single, mottled finger and pressed it against her rose-petal lips. Hush, this is what is best for you, child. That was what sea-witch told her, and it had irked her ever since. She may be young, but she was not callow. Battles were fought and the lives of thousands were extinguished before her very eyes. She turned over and reached for the rock once more, her soft brow sharpened in animalistic anger, her stained glass eyes burning, her teeth like millstones grinding into each other. She grazed the flint with her fingers and, as if a primordial growth being uprooted, it slid into her palm.

The rolling, ebon clouds and leaden waves seemed to stretch on beyond the length of possibility. It had been days since he had seen any visual landmarks to break the monotony of his voyage. Or had it been weeks? Time became even more intangible to him, as the hours bled into one another, embracing like a newlywed couple consummating their love for the first time. He knew he was close, though. The legend often spoke of the eternal maelstrom that surrounded the Ashskin’s lithic prison, a meager atoll which held a woman of mythic beauty unparalleled in another mortal. He would succeed where others, obviously unworthy adventurers, had failed. His trials would soon be complete. He had conquered the great labyrinth, a warren with infinitely diverging pathways and unremarkable surfaces, which ground down the will of many heroes and turned them into shambling lunatics. He had slayed the revenant knight, whose torment and pain was tempered by his skills with a blade. He had acquired the decaying remnants of the star chart meant to guide one lucky soul to the island. Just one more task, he reminded himself. Just one final struggle and she would be his. He imagined her lying on the slick stone slab, her pale skin fading into the equally ivory clothing that just barely clung to her youthful curves. He bit his tongue, the sharp taste of his sanguine fluid mixing with the brine already between his lips.

Clang clang! She bashed the rock against the blackened chains, each strike resounding with a solid thud. With each pound, the links leapt into the air, as if performing a mating dance for the maiden. This only served to anger her further. Clang clang! Sparks exploded outward with each of her attempts to break her manacles, pricking her smooth legs and hands, marring her pale complexion, but the pain didn’t bother her. Between the fetter chaffing her ankle raw and being forced to rest upon a stone dais, she was used to physical discomfort. Clang clang! The ringing awakened something dormant within her, a memory long-forgotten by time and sunk under the rain. With each clang, she drifted closer and closer to that first ship, the one that the crone used to steal her away from home at her father’s behest and bring her here. Though the canoe only contained the two of them, it flowed down the colorless waters, propelled forward by the will of that barnacled fiend. She did not ever turn her eyes towards the girl, whose tears streamed down milky cheeks, whose cries were filled with confusion and fear. Clang clunk! A fracture running through one of the chain links split open, as if it had spread its legs, and slithered down the side of the dais, conforming to a lifeless metallic pile. Without a moment’s hesitation, she pushed herself off the raised black slab and began to sprint down the roughly-carved path leading to the shore, her feet clapping against the drenched steps. She did not hear it at first, the pounding in her ears muting out all else around her, but as it grew louder and louder, her scamper slowed down to a halt and it became all she could hear. It was the sound of some beast, growling a trilled, glottal roar that filled her bones with dread.

He readied the slender harpoon, its jagged edge rusted by sea spray and gore. In precise steps, he surveyed the waters, feverish intent in his eyes. The crests were too rough. It was impossible for him to detect movement beneath the surface. Just then, he heard another roar, this one as fierce and guttural as before, only louder. Whatever it was, it was getting closer. He spun in circles around the rain-slicked deck, his eyes nearly bursting out of his skull, open wide and now filled with the same fear and rage as before battle. The lactic acid began to build up in his arm, stinging his muscles, draining his energy. He merely readjusted the grip on his weapon’s rod, trying his best to ignore the building pain. He continued to scan the seemingly limitless sea, but there was nothing. Nothing but the endless, crashing waves and gloom overcast. As he concentrated on the image of the Ashskin, a streak of doubt flashed before her pearl face. Was he to fail here, to come so close to his goal only for his efforts to be forgotten on the pelagic floor? No. He had succeeded before, even when his chances at survival seemed dire. He must—he will reach that island! The unholy growls started once more, clamoring inside his skull. It was here. He had enough time to readjust his footing before a massive shadow rocketed out from the water’s surface. It coiled and writhed as it came into focus, its malachite scales glistening in the downpour, venom trickling down its forked fangs, its ruby eyes fixed upon him.

She left petite footprints in the sodden sand as she stepped onto the shore from the last black step. She had not been on the beach since that clammy hag brought her onto the island, but she hoped it would be more pleasant than her rostrum. It was not. The shoreline led out to the featureless, turbulent waters, broken only by the equally featureless veil of mist taunting her from the horizon. Her vision darted across the sand, looking for…yes! The kelp-eyed witch may have destroyed their canoe long ago, but the petrified bow still sat on the coast’s edge, the hull coated in a thick layer of sea foam. She may not know much about seacraft, or, rather, anything, but even she could tell that if she tried just to ride the timber skeleton, she would soon find herself among the fish. Scrutinizing her surroundings, the only thing she turned up among the weeds and sand were the same smooth rocks surrounding her carven bed. What other option did she have? Should she resign herself to never be the master of her own fate? Inhaling deeply, letting the salt coat her lungs and her resolve, she gathered the stones one by one and lined the bottom of the fragmented boat. When she was satisfied, she snapped off a plank and dragged the hull into the water. Half surprised and half hopeful as she saw the vessel promisingly bob up and down in the turbulent waters, she took a timid step inside and, pushing off the sand with her plank paddle, she soon found herself surrounded by the sea. It was almost fortuitous that the waters were choppy, as it helped to keep the rain out of the boat. How she wished the rains would cease.

The serpent reeled back, hissing a high pitched whistle reminiscent of steam rushing out of a kettle. Its clarion ring reverberated throughout his body. His bones seemed to vibrate in sync with the hiss, echoing inside him as though to paralyze his actions. What kept him moving, he did not know. He tugged at the lines and spun around the mainsail without having to even think about it, his instinct guiding him, all the while keeping his vision focused on the ophidian nightmare. The creature lurched its head. It was about to strike. As it rushed toward him, its jaws snapping shut as a hunter’s trap would, he jerked the rudder to opposite direction, shifting just out of the deadly strike. It regained its composure, shrieking its same unearthly scream before blitzing once more. The ship merely changed course yet again, dodging its attacks, swerving in a serpentine pattern in irreverence to the oncoming hellion. Once more, it gnashed at the vessel, this time snagging the very top of the sail with one of its barbed fangs. Its lashes were becoming more accurate. He knew he would not be able to avoid the beast forever. He closed his eyes imagined the Ashskin, her delicate, welcoming smile beckoning him to join with her, the windfall of his dreams. Opening his eyes just as quick, he spun the ship around once more to face the monstrosity. Whether it was divine assistance or some demon spurring him towards death, the winds seemed to shift, and at once, the sloop charged toward oblivion. Its crimson eyes flickered as the ship approached, salivating venom. Extending its head back once more, it struck. Still on impulse, he leapt backward, just barely avoiding its serrated teeth. As it rent the mast and deck, the vessel’s bowsprit impaled the basilisk’s soft underbelly. It roared, but this time, its cry echoed with frothing anguish, blood spilling into its throat. As soon the spar pierced its scales, the torrential downpour ceased. He had just enough time to gaze up at the creature’s silhouette, a black mass against the clearing heavens, before its skull crashed down upon the ship.

As if passing through a curtain, the waves fell asleep and the skies opened up. She held her hand before her face, light streaming from between her fingers. How long had it been since she last saw the sun? Her eyelids flitted rapidly, adjusting to the marvelous brightness. The spots in her eyes dissipated, and at last, she saw colors other than black and grey. The cerulean sky, the opalescent orb reflecting off turquoise waters, the thousands of muted shades of sea life just below the surface. The warmth on her skin permeated throughout her body, reigniting her smothered core. She was frightened, but also felt something different, something unfamiliar to her. Was this what hope felt like? Whatever it was, whatever was out there, she knew it had to be better than the resignation she left behind on that drenched cay in the middle of a long forgotten nowhere. On the edge of the horizon, where the sea met limitless possibilities, she saw the faintest hint of a blur, some shape that broke the tedium of the seascape. She squinted her eyes and crinkled her brow as it flew across the water, coming closer until she could recognize its shape: a ship! A massive galleon, flying the flag of some unknown nation. She instinctually began to raise her arms, but hesitated. She could not know if they would treat her like all the rest.

He awoke with a start, gasping for air, lying splayed in delicate sand, with gentle waves lapping at his heels. His vision blurred, he wiped a coarse hand across his face, brushing away the saltwater. Rising, the haze before his vision began to part and he could now see his surroundings. Splintered planks of resin-painted wood, all that remained of his humble ship, dotted the embankment. The shore he stood on extended a small distance before fading into charcoaled rock, which loomed above him like a mesa. His eyes followed a single winding path, carved into the stone, leading up the plateau. This must be it, he thought. This is the island, and at the top… Without hesitating, he sprinted up the trail, the rough-hewn stone digging into his feet, but he did not care, for at the top would be the sweetest panacea, the Ashskin. As he made his way up the spiraling passage, he considered what he would tell the object of his desire. Would he regale her with the exploits he underwent upon her behalf? Would he devote himself entirely to her sheer magnificence? His pace slowed as he suddenly remembered that his ship, his only method of transportation and escape, was obliterated. But it did not matter! He would be united with his goddess, and that was the important part. He gained speed and hurried to the top of the promontory, his heart bursting with infatuated joy. It took him a few moments to realize his opalescent dream was not there. There was no fair maiden clasped to the chain hanging broken from the onyx dais, no sign of his devotion. He stood there, frozen in confusion, dismay, disbelief, as dusky clouds gathered above and rain began to fall.

Laughing in the Face of Fear: The Multi-Genre Form of “The Canterville Ghost”

Abstract

The ghost story genre, though historically well-received, reached a new level of popularity in the Victorian era. Much of the appeal of the genre stemmed from finding some escape from the malaise of the fin de siècle. Oscar Wilde, a critic of and commentator for his time, would take this much beloved genre and adapt it into a unique style consistent with many of his other works. This essay consists of a close reading of Wilde’s 1887 novella, “The Canterville Ghost,” in order to examine his attempts to invert the conventions of the typical horror story. Though the primary focus will be on the comedic elements prevalent within the text, there is a deeper complexity that belies the surface humor. Much like other Wildean works, the story will be shown to be a reconciliation with the genre, not a rejection of it. In the end, “The Canterville Ghost” will be shown to operate as a hybrid, borrowing aspects from comedy, horror, religion, and even romance, creating a completely unique story that has remained influential even until the present.


The genre of the ghost story seemed to reach a sort of revival during the Victorian period. Though the popularity of the genre existed long before the reign of Victoria, historian Jack Sullivan notes that critics consider the period between the decline of the Gothic novel and the start of the First World War to be the “Golden Age of the Ghost Story”. Works like “The Old Nurse’s Story” and “The Open Door” in England, or “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “The Masque of the Red Death” in America, became foundational texts in the canon of the horrific. A possibility is that the typical Victorian was fascinated with the macabre as a sort of escape from their mundane world, a decadent fantasy existing in direct opposition to the ennui they faced in their reality. It is no wonder, then, that Oscar Wilde would take this staple of the era in which he lived and mutate it into something that is both a criticism and reflection of the time. Wilde’s 1887 novella, “The Canterville Ghost,” is his attempt to invert the typical horror story, but, much like other Wildean works, it is not entirely what it seems. Instead, this story operates as a hybrid, borrowing aspects from comedy, horror, religion, and beyond, creating a completely unique kind of tale.

As the story opens, the audience is, like the American Otis family, introduced to the English manor of Canterville Chase, a house that “there was no doubt at all that [it] was haunted” (Wilde 184). All of the surrounding townsfolk, and even descendants of the Cantervilles, are frightened of the old mansion. There is a sense of fascination within the locals that surrounds the legend of the cruel Sir Simon de Canterville. This kind of awe, whether reverential or frightened, is completely lost upon the Otis family. According to patriarch Hiram, it would be chiefly anti-American to believe in ghosts. “’I reckon that if there were such a thing as a ghost in Europe, we’d have it in a very short time in one of our public museums, or on the road as a show,’” he tells Lord Canterville as the two finalize the sale of the property (184). Not only does this quote raise the role capitalism plays in this story, it also highlights Hiram’s credo that believing in ghosts is absurd. This is ironic, considering that he is a minister; faith, like superstition, requires belief. Once the Otises purchase the manor, the stage is set for a terrifying tale, but, knowing Wilde, it’s most likely not going to remain that way for long. When touring the manner, the Otises notice a stain on the floor of the library, a stain described by the housekeeper, Mrs. Umney, as “the blood of Lady Elanore de Canterville, who was murdered […] by her very own husband, Sir Simon de Canterville. [… It] has been much admired by tourists and others, and cannot be removed’” (186). Eldest son Washington is then prompted to procure a bottle of “’Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent’ [… and] In a few moments no trace of the blood-stain could be seen” (186). Like Hiram, the other members of the Otis family have no time for the nonsense of ghosts. Washington’s act once again inspires the capitalistic spirit suggested by his father. While the bloodstain will return, its initial scouring demonstrates the mythic power of the American materialistic economy, an attitude that anything can be fixed for the right price, additionally rooting “The Canterville Ghost” within the genre of social satire. The superstitious nature of ghosts is extremely weakened if they can be defeated with money. This instance, however, is only a foreshadowing of the effect the Americans have over the ghost.

These scenes have the added benefit of highlighting what is suspenseful in order to make the humor even sharper. When Lord Canterville or Mrs. Umney invoke Simon, they often refer to the cruel and gruesome acts he performed on others, like attacking Lady Stutfield or startling the family butler so badly that he ended up shooting himself. As “the moments of suspense are only a few with respect to the comic elements and the humoristic devices used by the author in the book, […] they are profoundly effective and respond to what can be expected from the most traditional Gothic novel”, creating a juxtaposition that underscores the comedic (Balakrishnan 205). The fear experienced by others does not translate to the Otis family and, almost in mockery, they debase the frightening power of Simon. Their irreverence to the legacy of the Cantervilles eventually inspires the ire of the aforementioned phantasm.

As the expatriates settle into their new home, Hiram eventually comes face to face with the specter himself, Sir Simon de Canterville. He is described as having “eyes […] as red as burning coals; long grey hair [falling] over his shoulders in matted coils; his garments, which were of antique cut, were soiled and ragged, and from his wrists and ankles hung heavy manacles and rusty gyres”; a most petrifying sight, indeed (Wilde 187). One would expect Hiram Otis to flee in fear, but the American minister simply tells the ghost, “’I really must insist in you oiling those chains, and have brought you for that purpose a small bottle of the Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator’”, offering Simon the bottle and leaving him in stunned silence (187). Hiram’s attempted good act not only reveals, yet again, that American ingenuity can outwit superstition, it makes the once-abhorrent ghost impotent. The Otis family have no reason to fear Simon because they can directly influence him.

This brings into play the subtitle of the novella, as the full title reads “The Canterville Ghost: A Hylo-Idealistic Romance.” Considering “Hylo-idealism is the philosophical position that reality exists by virtue of our belief in it”, it is entirely possible that “the Cantervilles all must have believed the ghost could hurt them, thereby allowing him to do so” (Dierkes-Thrun). Because the Otises doubt the power of the ghost, they are able to undermine it without fear of repercussion. Simon, taken aback by this lapse of weakness, returns to his hidden chamber and reflects upon the terrors he inflicted on the Canterville family, reinforcing how after all his effort, a meager family of Americans got the best of him.

It is here Wilde yet again inverts one’s expectations, as the narrative’s point-of-view shifts to focus on Simon, solidifying that “This ghost story is told not from the point of view of the castle occupants, as in traditional tales, but from the perspective of the ghost” (Balakrishnan 209). The story becomes less about how the Otis family deals with the ghost in their house and more about how Simon deals with the Americans in his home. What would normally be frightening in a ghost story becomes amusing because of this inversion: “Picture to yourself certain characters in a certain situation: if you reverse the situation and invert the roles, you obtain a comic scene” (Bergson). This simple inversion turns the story into one where the ghost must find a way to regain his terrible power. Simon resolves to increase his assault tenfold, and what started as the basis for a classic ghost story has been entirely vitiated.

Simon is ultimately humiliated by this futility because he is so very proud of himself. He spends many nights gleefully recalling many of the innumerable, horrible deeds he inflicted on others during his afterlife, thinking “of the Dowager Duchess, whom he had frightened into a fit as she stood before the glass in her lace and diamonds; of the four housemaids, who had gone into hysterics when he merely grinned at them through the curtains on one of the spare bedroom” and many others over the centuries (Wilde 188). With nothing but time and disdain, he settles into his ghastly role. Something about the sadist archetype allows the reader a sort of cathartic release; seeing someone who takes such joy in committing these atrocities is both unsettling and amusing. One of his recurring attempts to scare the Otises comes in the form of the bloodstain. Though the spot would be cleaned and cleaned again, it kept on reappearing, sometimes “a dull (almost Indian) red, then it would be vermillion, then a rich purple, and once […] they found it a bright emerald-green.” (189). Simon is a bit of a cliché, all things considered. Even though the Otis family may not appreciate the lengths to which he goes to in order to keep up his appearance as a frightening ghoul, he nonetheless resorts to his basic tricks. After hundreds of years of haunting, all he knows are the routines he has become familiar with. Along with his acts, Simon takes great delight in the many wardrobes he uses. In order to not become bored of the same routine over and over again, he invents many characters he assumes the mantles of during his fright-runs, such as “’Black Isaac, or the Huntsman of Hogley Woods’” or “’Reckless Rupert, or the Headless Earl’” (193). His many costumes are extremely elaborate, some requiring hours of preparation. Simon’s obsession with appearances is a pervasive motif across his hauntings. He does not solely desire to be a vengeful specter; rather, he wants to appear as one, too. This attention to detail makes Simon somewhat of a dandy, as his “stress on the clothes […] gives the Ghost an element of puerility which augments the contrast and reinforces the parody” (Balakrishnan 207). Much like his aesthete author, Simon desires to make a strong visual impact so that he may be remembered. His legacy has been preserved among the Canterville family for generations and desires to continue his eternal torment. He is a sucker for “the classics” and his use of the many spectral banalites over the years has been successful. Until the arrival of the Otis family.

Not only are the Otises completely unafraid of Simon, the ghost is, in actuality, haunted by the living. As Simon attempts to intimidate the family, the Stars and Stripes, the young Otis twins, set themselves upon him. At every turn, they toss their pillows at him, drop buckets upon him, or set up a butter-slide for him to fall down. Their biggest prank, however, comes one night when, as Simon traverses the hallways in search of someone to haunt, he comes face to face with a terrible sight:

“Right in front of him was standing a horrible spectre, motionless as a carven image, and monstrous as a madman’s dream! Its head was bald and burnished; its face round, and fat, and white; and hideous laughter seemed to have writhed its features into an eternal grin. From the eyes streamed rays of scarlet light, the mouth was a wide well of fire, and a hideous garment, like to his own, swathed with its silent snows the Titan form” (Wilde 191).

In fear, Simon flees, returning later only to find that he had been outwitted and scared by Ye Otis Ghoste. It is ironic that the thing which would most scare a ghost is another ghost, but after all, Simon has never seen another ghost before now. Whether there are even other spirits, or if Simon is the only the ghost in existence, is never mentioned in the novella. This scene introduces the fact that that Simon is unique and ultimately alone, estranged from the humans and ghosts alike, while also demonstrating how the Otises are able to torment Simon to no end. After enough of these kinds of incidents, “The terrible excitement […] was beginning to have its effect. His nerves were completely shattered, and he started at the slightest noise”, and eventually ceased his attacks on the Otis family (193). It is amusing to imagine a ghost undergoing an anxiety attack, considering that it is usually them who could cause anxiety in humans. This is yet another inversion which serves to make the text a parody of its genre.

It is important to keep in mind that “The Canterville Ghost” is not a pure comedy, though so far it may seem to be the case. This novella is based on the foundations of the horror genre and, although it parodies many of the conventions of horror, it also embraces them: “the Gothic recurs as its own doppelganger, a double whose uncanny likeness satire attempts to disavow, but the spectre proves resistant to parody” (O’Connor 330). Through his many bumbling failures, it’s easy to forget the kind of monster Simon de Canterville is. As mentioned earlier, Simon takes delight in the deeds he has committed upon the descendants of his family, but some of them are particularly horrid, like choking “the wicked Lord Canterville […] in his dressing-room with the knave of diamonds half-way down his throat” or forcing “Lady Barbara Modish [… to break] off her engagement with the present Lord Canterville’s grandfather, and [run] away to Gretna Green with handsome Jack Castleton,” ending with Lady Barbara dying of a broken heart after Jack is killed in a duel (Wilde 188-193). Simon’s most terrible act, however, took form in the death of his wife, Lady Elanore, presumably his first victim, who he admits to killing for “’being very plain, never [having his] ruffs properly starched, and [knowing] nothing about cookery’” (196). Between his love of outfits and his petty reasoning for his wife’s murder, it’s apparent that Simon’s hubris and fascination with dandyism is also what drove him to his gruesome nature. His ire for the living ultimately culminates in his own death: being chained to a wall by his late wife’s brothers and starving, “trying to grasp […] an old-fashioned trencher and ewer, that were placed just out of [his] reach” (201). It is equally easy to paint Simon as an inept ghost as it is to paint him as some frightful revenant, but the truth that Wilde conceivably could have attempted to convey is far more complex. Simon is both amusing and horrifying, and he is also a man tormented by his past, unable to escape the hell that he has created for himself. At first glance, this novella seems to hide its comedic presence behind horror undertones, but the genre of fear is not entirely concealed.

This dichotomy between humor and horror becomes most prevalent at the start of the fifth chapter, when the tone of the story yet again shifts as a background character comes to prominence. Virginia Otis, once relegated to be an observer of the events at Canterville Chase, comes face to face with Simon one day, after his retirement from haunting. Entering the Tapestry Chamber, she finds Simon in a deep melancholy and beseeches him to behave himself if he does not want to be tormented, to which the spirit replies, “’I must rattle my chains, and groan through keyholes, and walk about at night, if that is what you mean. It is my only reason for existing’” (196). It is rather peculiar to muse on the existential intent of ghosts. Death could have been potentially liberating for the cruel-natured Simon. Whereas in life he may not have been sure of his reason to live, in death he has found a morbid purpose to justify his continued existence. It may not be the most pleasant task nor is it one he necessarily enjoys, but he has nevertheless come to identify himself with his role. He calls the Otis family a group of “’horrid, rude, vulgar, dishonest’” people and Virginia contests this, bringing up the fact that Simon “’stole the paints out of [her] box to try and furbish up that ridiculous blood-stain in the library’”(196). The truth of the reappearing blood-stain has been revealed, and rather than coming from some supernatural realm, the multicolored spot ‘s nature is far more mundane. What was once terrifying has become commonplace. Simon’s many acts have been “deprived from their awe and reduced to the daily level”, performing his functions in order to continue his centuries-long traditions (Balakrishnan 211). This quote is made additionally humorous by the fact that Virginia is angry at Simon for using up all of her colors and leaving her with “’indigo and Chinese white, and [now she] could only do moonlight scenes, which are always depressing to look at, and not at all easy to paint’” (Wilde 197). It is completely absurd to imagine a scene where a young lady yells at a ghost for not being able to paint, but that is exactly the scene Wilde has constructed for his readers. By highlighting Simon’s need to keep up the appearances of a haunting spirit, Wilde yet again shows the weakness that underscores his performances. Simon has been utterly defeated by prankster children, by American capitalism, and finally by the wrath of a young woman.

Succumbing to his own misery, Simon reveals the true nature of his sorrow to Virginia, the one member of the Otis family to actually show some level of concern for him. He acknowledges his loneliness, unhappiness, and restlessness to her, admitting that “’for three hundred years [he has] not slept and [he is] so tired’” (197). Though he has long pretended to enjoy the schadenfreude he has inflicted upon others, in actuality he is tormented by his crimes. The pain he has caused weighs heavily on his soul and now, more than anything, he desires some respite from his role. He tells Virginia of the Garden of Death, the one place where he will be able to sleep:

‘Far away beyond the pine-woods,’ he answered, in a low dreamy voice, “there is a little garden. There the grass grows long and deep, there are the great white stars of the hemlock flower, there the nightingale sings all night long. All night long he sings, and the cold, crystal moon looks down, and the yew-tree spreads out its giant arms over the sleepers” (197).

Images of the poisonous hemlock plant and the yew tree, often aligned as symbols of death, depict the immense beauty and solemnity of the Garden. The landscape Wilde describes, no matter how beautiful, is also chilling, as the land is permeated by the presence of other “sleepers”, the vast and countless dead. Not only will Simon be able to finally rest there, he will also no longer be alone, joined by an infinite number of those like him. It is this desire, “’To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grass waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forget life, to be at peace,” which he confides in Virginia, exposing the terrors of the universe to the unspoiled maiden (198).

From the novella’s opening, Virginia is portrayed as a symbol of naivety and innocence. Her introduction in the first chapter describes her as “a little girl of fifteen, lithe and lovely as a fawn, and with a fine freedom in her large blue eyes” (185). Though this description initially implies a delicate nature, the independence reflected in her eyes is underscored by her rejection of the Duke of Cheshire’s marriage proposal, who was “sent back to Eton that very night by his guardians, in a flood of tears” (185). Her repudiation of the Duke keeps her chaste, untouched, and, above all, pure. She is not bound to another and, in many respects, is able to take care of herself. It is very much like Wilde to write a capable, independent female character. The Duke’s proposal, however, additionally complicate matters for Virginia. It is never explicitly stated in the text, but what “would have been understood by its contemporary audience, is the reason the Otises have relocated to England in the first place: to marry Virginia into the aristocracy” (O’Connor 335). It was commonplace in Wilde’s time for rich American families to marry into British royalty, trading wealth for title. Yet another instance of the power commerce holds in Wilde’s world. Even her name, which honors the commonwealth located in America, reflects her immaculate nature and underlines the story’s subtextual conflict between America and England. Virginia, among the oldest colonial territories and a birthplace of the United States, was named “in honor of ‘The Virgin Queen,’” Elizabeth I (State Symbols USA). The innocence in Virginia Otis’ name is reflected her actions; for instance, in the moment she first encounters Simon in the Tapestry Chamber.

Facing this supernatural phenomenon for the first time, although she is nearly overcome with fear, she “was filled with pity, and determined to try to comfort him” (Wilde 196). There is no maliciousness in her intent, unlike her younger brothers. Instead, her instinct is to reach out and attempt to comfort him, emphasizing the benevolence within her. Simon, at first surprised by this kindness, engages in conversation with her. Although this is a rare reaction for Simon, it is equally as rare for a human to approach him without repulsion. He informs her of his ghastly existential purpose, admits his motivation for murdering his wife, reveals his death by starvation, and confides in her his longing for eternal rest. These sorts of macabre revelations would be a lot for anyone to handle, especially an unexposed, fifteen year old young woman. Virginia’s response is both humorous and depicts her kind, albeit naive, nature. She offers Simon the “’sandwich in [her] case” if he is hungry and tells him that if he wants to go to sleep, “’You have merely to go to bed and blow out the candles. […] Why, even babies know how to do that, and they are not very clever’” (197). It’s ridiculous to imagine a teenager instructing a ghost on how to sleep, but the audience has so-far accepted a ghost that is scared of the humans he intended to haunt. Wilde has constructed an environment where the ludicrous becomes logical. Yet, there is a kind of innocence that belies her reactions. She does not know how she can help Simon but offers herself anyways. Realizing the purity in her heart, he recalls to Virginia the old prophecy written in the library and informs her of its meaning:

“’They mean,’ he said sadly, ‘that you must weep for me for my sins, because I have no tears, and pray for me for my soul, because I have no faith, and then, if you have always been good, and gentle, and sweet, the Angel of Death will have mercy. You will see fearful shapes in darkness, and wicked voices will whisper in your ear, but they will not harm you, for against the purity of a little child the powers of Hell cannot prevail’” (198).

He sees her sympathy and pristine love as the source of his salvation, and the steadfast Virginia, the strong-willed young lady that she is, agrees to enter harm’s way in order to help him. Risking her virginal purity and her very existence, she follows Simon to the land of the dead, spurred on by the strength of her ardor. This self-sacrifice augments the complexity of the story, adding to the comedic and horrific elements already presented, and continues into the novella’s conclusion.

Virginia’s acceptance of Simon’s request and her traversal to the Garden of Death introduces yet another genre into the already bursting story, that of the religious text. Christianity and his many opposing views on it are a key function of Wilde’s works. Like most everything dealing with Wilde, his relationship with religion is paradoxical: “He and his brother were baptised as infants into the Church of Ireland. […] Lady Wilde, however, […] just to be sure of their salvation […] may have had her boys baptised [sic] as Catholics when Wilde was about four” (Cavill 337). From a young age, he was torn between the two sects, grappling with determining his own thoughts and feelings on religion. This additional facet of his personality with which he struggled is reflected in many of his stories’ characters, who often act in contradiction to traditional Christian doctrines. It is far more rare for Wilde to express his unadulterated philosophy in a character, but it is possible to see a reflection of Wilde in Virginia Otis. Wilde did not consider Christianity in a traditional sense, but instead “he viewed Christ and Christianity as capable of transforming human beings into sentient people who demonstrate sympathy as well as self-reliance” (Quintus 515). Virginia, spurred on by her purity and her faith, follows Simon into potential self-obliteration in order to give him a chance at salvation. She does not fear for herself, caring more about helping the specter achieve peace. Her religion gives her the strength to pursue this arduous task, a shining example of Wilde’s credo. She takes Simon by his ephemeral hand, enters the realm of the dead, and disappears from Canterville Chase without a trace; for all intents and purposes, she is now lost to the living. Her family, joined by the Duke of Cheshire, police officers, and a band of gypsies, scour the land, but “Not the slightest trace of Virginia had been discovered” (Wilde 200). She remains missing for the rest of the day, leaving her family nearly in mourning, until, at midnight, from “out on the landing, looking very pale and white, with a little casket in her hand, stepped Virginia” (200). The parallel created between Virginia and Jesus in this scene is almost too perfect. Technically, while Virginia never died, she finds herself amidst death, separated from her reality, and, after a period of time, returns to the land of the living. Wilde’s fascination with the theology becomes extremely overt in this scene. Virginia’s holiness and resurrection, shown when she prays to Simon and “a beautiful light seemed to illumine her face”, is a testament to the strength and fidelity of her character, as augmented by the purity of her faith (201). However, she does not return from the realm beyond unscathed.

While her family is delighted at her return, Virginia was obviously affected in her attempt to save Simon. Mrs. Otis, upon finding her daughter, “kissed the trembling child, and smoothed the tangled gold of her hair” (201). This description is the barest indication of the horrors she conceivably could have experienced, but Virginia does not otherwise appear to be visually distressed. The greatest signal of her internal disquiet comes as she leads her family through the house and reveals to them Simon’s skeleton, chained to the wall. She kneels down beside him, praying, and after a moment, rises and speaks: “’God has forgiven him,’ Virginia said gravely” (201). Years later, when her husband asks what happened to her when she confronted the ghost, Virginia merely replies, “’I have never told anyone, Cecil,’ said Virginia gravely” (204). Though her life continues on and she and her family achieve status and happiness, the adverb “gravely” is used whenever she mentions the topic of Simon and the Garden of Death. Something terrible and unspeakable, something befitting a horror story, must have happened to her while she was praying for Simon’s soul, and her refusal to acknowledge the specifics indicates how horrific it must have been. It does not seem like such a sacrifice would ultimately be worthwhile, but the ghost of Simon, the Otis family, and Virginia each manage to benefit from the episode.

The subtitle of “The Canterville Ghost” emphasizes that the story is not just a comedy or horror tale. Above all, Wilde determined this text to be a romance and, the romantic that he is, ensures a merry ending and that the characters are justly rewarded for their trials. After three hundred years, Simon’s remains are finally laid to rest, lowered into a grave “in the corner of the churchyard, just under the old yew-tree […] And […] the moon came out from behind a cloud, and flooded with its silent silver light the little churchyard, and from a distant copse a nightingale began to sing” (202). This description immediately evokes the imagery of the Garden of Death; the cemetery was the land he long yearned to enter. Though he pretended to take pride in his ghastly role, the guilt of centuries’ worth of horrors weighed heavily on him, and thanks to Virginia’s sacrifice, the Canterville ghost is at peace. On Virginia’s return from rescuing Simon’s spirit, she is gifted with a box of “perfectly magnificent [jewels], especially a certain ruby necklace with old Venetian setting, which was really a superb specimen, and their value was so great that Mr. Otis felt considerable scruples about allowing his daughter to accept them” (202). This is an unexpected change in personality for Hiram Otis, who, like many others in his family, reveled in the strength of capitalism and commerce. However, as reminded by Lord Canterville, when Mr. Otis “’took the furniture and the ghost at a valuation [… he] acquired [Simon’s] property by purchase” (203). Even attempting to reject capitalism’s brute strength as an economic force is futile. The system that the Otises so readily accepted ensure the family’s continued prosperity. As for Virginia, she marries the Duke of Cheshire:

“in the spring of 1890, the young Duchess of Cheshire was presented at the Queen’s first drawing-room on the occasion of her marriage, [and] her jewels were the universal theme of admiration. For Virginia received the coronet, which is the reward of all good little American girls, and was married to her boy-lover as soon as he came of age” (203).

For her virtue and her kindness, Virginia is granted the greatest reward of all. She fulfilled her family’s wishes and is wed into aristocracy, she is gifted with a wondrous array of gemstones, and perhaps most importantly, she is taught an important sentiment by Simon de Canterville. When the Duke asks her to explain what happened the night she disappeared, Virginia confides in him, “’He made me see what Life is, and what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than both’” (204). Simon committed a rare act of kindness for Virginia, granting her vital knowledge and perspective on existence. She incorporates that lesson into her life, cherishing her marriage to the Duke of Cheshire and burying the scars of the past with Simon’s bones in Canterville Chase.

The influence “The Canterville Ghost” has had on modern texts and media is almost too vast to describe. Horror-comedy hybrid stories are a much beloved form of entertainment in today’s society. The lasting popularity of films like Ghostbusters, Young Frankenstein, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, all comedies with their roots firmly entrenched in horror, will be impossible to track. They have become major cultural icons integrated into our daily lives. In general, hybrid genre fiction has the ability to touch a wider range of audiences and point out the strengths and weaknesses of its individual genre components. Though not the first, “The Canterville Ghost,” Wilde’s “attack [on] a literary form, usually considered of low quality, which was quite popular among readers” elevates the genre to a new form, making it among the best examples of hybrid genre fiction (Balakrishnan 212). Not only does it blend comedic, satirical, horrific, religious, and romantic elements, Wilde develops a new kind of genre unique to his own style. Part decadent revelation, part cultural rejection, and part paradox, Wilde’s stories contain this quality of hitting just close enough to the truth to be meta-reflective, sharp, and poignant, giving them a universal appeal.


Works Consulted

Balakrishnan, Manjula. “Humor and Fear: A Study of the Humoristic Resources in Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost.” EPOS, no. 27, 2011, pp. 203–212. Institutional Repository of the National University of Distance Education.

Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Translated by Cloudseley Brereton and Fred Rothwell. Project Gutenberg, 2009.

Cavill, Paul, and Heather Ward. “Oscar Wilde.” The Christian Tradition in English Literature: Poetry, Plays, and Shorter Prose. First ed., Zondervan, 2007. 337-340. Print.

Dierkes-Thrun, Petra. “Pragmatism & Hylo-Idealism.” Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents, Stanford University, 3 Oct. 2012.

“Horror on the Wilde Side.” iClassics, iClassics Productions, 6 Apr. 2017. Malcom, David.

“Oscar Wilde, ‘The Canterville Ghost: A Hylo-Idealistic Romance’ (1887).” The British and Irish Short Story Handbook. John Wiley and Sons, 2012.

O’Connor, Maureen. “The Spectre of Genre in ‘The Canterville Ghost’.” Irish Studies, vol. 12, no. 3, 2004, pp. 329–338. ResearchGate.

“Origin of ‘Virginia’.” State Symbols USA.

Quintus, John Allen. “Christ, Christianity, and Oscar Wilde.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 33, no. 4, 1991, pp. 514–527. JSTOR.

Sullivan, Jack. “Golden Age of the Ghost Story.” The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, edited by Jack Sullivan, Viking Press, 1986.

Wilde, Oscar. “The Canterville Ghost: A Hylo-Idealistic Romance.” The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, edited by Merlin Holland, Fifth ed., HarperCollins, 2003, pp. 184–204. Print.

Composition Processes of First-Year Students

As part of my graduate studies, I was tasked with overseeing and completing a research project on a topic related to the field of composition. I knew I wanted to look at how writers write, how the changes one will make from a first draft to a second affect the reading of the final product, how a piece of writing evolves from a concept to a publication. Starting only with a basic proposal, I received approval from my university’s Institutional Review Board, acquired writing samples from the test subjects, and began my investigation into how first-year writing students modify and adapt their compositions, in order to create an improvement.

If that wasn’t enough, this project was also presented at the 2018 College English Association Conference in St. Petersburg, Florida, as part of the Attitude, Access, Advocacy: Overcoming Obstacles in First-Year Writing panel. This was my first time presenting at an academic conference and, as nervous as I was, I hope to return one day with more pertinent research.

Read Composition Processes of First-Year Students

Please keep in mind this was a project meant to be small in scale and completed within a period of three months. As such, this research project is limited to a case study of three individuals.

Special thanks to Ian Barnard, the professor and principal investigator overseeing the project, and Meghan Kemp-Gee, the professor who lent me her students as subjects.

Rhakaa Story Document

Another project I worked on for a short time was called Astrae, a puzzle platformer set deep in an alien installation. The player is a young explorer who gets embroiled in a conflict between the last two avatars of the Rhakaa, a long-dead civilization of avian warriors. My first task was to write about what Rhakaa life was like during the reign of their empire.

Unfortunately, my graduate school studies cut into my ability to work on this delightful game and I had to step away from the project. Please give the development team some of your time and check out the progress they made on their unique property.

Biology

The Rhakaa (Ere’kh for ‘the Risen’) were a bipedal humanoid species. They were believed to have stood upwards of seven feet tall, with long claw-like appendages and fringes of feathers attached to their arms and legs. Rather lean and muscular, they had the ability to leap to high locations with ease and even glide for short distances.

History

The Rhakaa civilization, from the few records available, spanned nearly 10,000 years of history, originating from the planet Aramkesh (‘Land of Ancients’). Early information shows they lived in various disorganized clans, until many of the clans united under the leadership of the Rhakaa who would become the first Emperor, Corthayx I. Instituting a harsh, militaristic caste system, he conquered much of the territory on Aramkesh during the Unification and ruled over a warrior culture that culled any weaknesses or imperfections. He founded the empire’s capital, Teryx, which became a major trade hub over the course of centuries.

It is not known how or when the Rhakaa achieved spaceflight, but at some point in their empire, a technological renaissance occurred and soon after, their empire exponentially expanded, claiming planets with ease and even expanding outward to new star systems. It was also around this point that the Rhakaa began to experiment with cybernetics and genetic engineering, fine-tuning their biology to push their bodies beyond what was considered possible. Over the course of millennia, as their DNA became more and more modified, it became aware that their genetic code was rapidly unraveling and mutating, placing their society in imminent peril of destruction. A coalition of members of various castes, under the leadership of the last emperor, Xanthot III, set to the task of building Aerie sanctuary facilities to study the degradation and develop a cure. The afflicted were placed into stasis and the healthy were divided into two groups: those who would defend what remained of the empire, and those who actively researched a cure. As their numbers dwindled, the remaining Rhakaa created AI Overseers to run the facilities and assist in the research. Ultimately, the last of the Rhakaa entered stasis, now completely relying on the Overseers to save their people.

Aerie Keshkaa-0 is the only such facility whose location is currently known. The facility is maintained by Overseers Seq and Myz, named after the Primes Seq’rha the Elegist and Myzandir the Centurion. The two performed as programmed, with Seq developing a fondness for the Rhakaa and Myz becoming more assertive and experimental. When the final Rhakaa went into stasis, Seq began to pressure Myz into developing a cure for their creators, while Myz kept up security measures to keep the creators’ safe from the enemies that encroached upon their territory. As supplies dwindled and became virtually nonexistent, Myz attempted to wrest control of the Sanctuary out from under Seq. In retaliation, Seq restricted Myz’s access to the facility’s systems, further slowing down research. The conflict eventually came to a head when Seq attempted to regain full access to the Sanctuary, resulting in a degradation of the facility and the main generator to malfunction. Backup power was eventually restored, but the Rhakaa stasis pods had been too badly damaged in the outage. By the time repair drones were sent to fix the pods, the Rhakaa were long-since dead.

Culture

The Rhakaa are obsessed with perfection and, as a result, their desire to achieve perfection is reflected in every aspect of their life. The symbol of the Rhakaa is the Hexagon, where each side represents one of the Six Virtues of Rhakaa culture: Tenacity, Ferocity, Sagacity, Vitality, Adaptability, and Austerity. Rhakaa architecture expresses this obsession with the hexagon. Their structures are linear with harsh, imposing shapes and angular geometry contrasted with the organic world surrounding them.

The Rhakaa are quick to remove any sort of weakness from their ranks. As a result, many Rhakaa do not live past adolescence. Those that do are given the opportunity to prove themselves in the  Ritual of the Claw, a week-long coming-of-age ceremony and series of tests, which ultimately determines the caste each Rhakaa will be a member of; until the Ritual, Rhakaa children are borne into the caste of their parents. Trials of strength, intelligence, and durability push each Rhakaa to the test, with those that survive becoming the next paragons of Rhakaa culture.

The Rhakaa do not believe in deities, instead opting to worship the ancient champion Primes of their people. All Emperors are included in this pantheon of Primes, as well as those who gave up much, including their lives, to protect Rhakaa civilization. Different Primes are called upon to assist in numerous situations; Zhaquir the Fastidious, for example, is channeled when Rhakaa are called to make a tough situation about their own lives or futures.

Government

The Rhakaa are ruled over by a singular Emperor, who assigns various Viscounts to govern over the regions of the Rhakaa Empire. The Empire was founded by Corthayx I the Sovereign, and his bloodline continued to rule over the Rhakaa until the last emperor, Xanthot III the Unguis.

Viscounts are determined by the current living emperor and can be replaced at any time, if the Emperor sees fit. One record indicates that a number of Viscounts planned to overthrow Emperor Takhirius I the Nefarious; in response to this potential coup, Takhirius had every Viscount replaced, with each new lord having to slay their predecessor. Rarely has such a culling of Viscounts occurred during the Rhakaa’s reign.

Military

After completing the Ritual of the Claw, each new Rhakaa adult would begin military training and service. The Rhakaa military was divided up into several ranks. Hunters made up the frontline troops and served under Greatwings, commanders that also acted as law enforcement for the Empire. Shadowsteps worked as scouts, envoys, ambassadors, and even spies.

Although the Emperor ultimately presides over the military, each Emperor also assigns a Suncrest general to advise in tactical situations and, in rare cases, act with impunity.


Special thanks to Leonora Moran and the Laguna College of Art and Design, for turning me onto this project.