One work that had a big influence on me as both a writer and a reader was Alan Moore’s run on D.C.’s “Swamp Thing” comic books, which I read when I was in college back in the ’80s. I was never a big comics fan. But I read them at a friend’s suggestion and was blown away.
In particular, I admired Moore’s approach to symbolism. The way he employed classic monsters to represent some larger point about society or the human condition.
He wasn’t the first to do that, of course. From their inception, monsters such as Dracula and Mr. Hyde personified malicious forces lurking just below the placid surface of Victorian society. You could argue that horror fiction — stretching back to ancient folklore and myth — has always served as a Rorschach blotch where a careful observer can pick out the anxieties of the individual or society that produced it.
What I liked was the fact that Moore was so obvious about the symbolism.
A couple of my English professors, the same blinkered souls who told me that comic books and speculative fiction are artistically worthless, insisted that obvious symbolism is a failing on the part of an author. Symbolism is supposed to be some elusive entity hiding among inert plots and passive characters, unknowable to the unwashed masses and detectable only to those who truly understand “great literature.”
Moore’s attitude? Fuck that. The zombies are the undying legacy of racism. The werewolves are simmering female rage in the face of institutionalized sexism. Boom.
I’m not talking about symbolism where the author bonks you over the head because he or she clearly feels you’d be too dumb to pick up on it otherwise. I’m talking about symbolism that’s out in the open because the writer sees no reason to hide it. There’s a narrative to tell. A point to make. Why not let the power of the story directly engage the reader, rather than play some coy game of hide-and-seek as to what it’s about?
I thought of that approach to symbolism when I read “For Emmy,” a novella by Mary SanGiovanni — another story that openly states its larger theme and proceeds to illustrate it in an indelible manner.
The theme, and I’m not really giving away any spoilers here since it crops up at the beginning, is despair in face of our inability to guarantee the safety of those we love. In this case, initially at least, the loved one is a missing little girl.
That’s an old theme, of course. From folklore dealing with fairie kidnappings all the way up through “The Exorcist” and beyond.
But what makes “For Emmy” distinctive is that it isn’t concerned as much with the initial terror of the disappearance so much as its aftermath. It’s more about the way that the corrosive residue of a tragedy can continue to eat away at those touched by it for years afterward. And it leads up to a conclusion that’s subtly rendered, but gut-wrenching in its impact.
I was impressed that SanGiovanni was able to convey this sense of lingering tragedy and long-term psychic damage in a mere 107 pages. She’s a propulsive, efficient storyteller with a good sense of the telling details that move a narrative along, but I wouldn’t describe “For Emmy” as a slam-bang read. Her technique is refined. Almost delicate. For all the horror in the story (and make no mistake, it is scary) the pervasive mood is a kind of despairing melancholy. Which makes a quietly devastating final twist that much more affecting.
Ultimately, the book is about the extent to which the realization of our inability to protect loved ones can warp us. Not a reassuring message, to be sure. But then again, we don’t really read horror fiction to be reassured, do we?