MICHAEL H. PRICE: The folklore-into-fiction connection
Recycling-in-action: Herewith, an encore of a presentation I delivered earlier this month at Tarleton State University’s Langdon Weekend arts-and-farces festival at Granbury, Texas.
If it was good enough for Aesop and Shakespeare and Mark Twain, then it should suit the rest of us – as tradition-bound storytellers with roots in the Old World and in early-day Americana, that is – just fine and dandy.
I am speaking of folklore – the oral-tradition narrative medium that encloses and defines any and all cultures and stands poised as a chronic muse (often ill-heeded or, if heeded, ill-acknowledged) for anyone who attempts to relate a tale for popular consumption. This is a self-evident truth so obvious as to go overlooked.
Yes, and the barrier between folklore and commercial fiction is as slender as the upper E-string on a guitar, and just as sensitive. Pluck that string and watch it vibrate, and the blurred image suggests a vivid metaphor. The inspiration, at any rate, is as close within reach as air and water, and often less subject to pollution.
“So! Where do you-all get your ideas, anyhow?” The question, vaguely indignant, crops up every time a published author goes out communing with the readership. Stephen King has long since perfected a suitably snarky reply: “I get mine from an idea-subscription service in Utica.”
King is joking, of course, and even the most cursory reading of the humongous body of work that he represents will find King tapped into a deep lode of rustic folklore. Witness, for example, The Shining, a 1977 novel-become-movie in which a key supporting character takes prompt notice of a precocious child’s thought-projecting abilities: “My grandmother and I could hold conversations … without ever opening our mouths. She called it ‘shining.’”
I grew up in close quarters with two grandmothers like that – not in Stephen King’s sense of “shining,” as such, although with each I felt a communicative bond that ran deeper than articulated speech. Each, that is, seemed to sense what might be burdening my thoughts at any given moment, whether or not I might care to put any such thoughts into words. And each grandmother, too, was a prolific and spontaneous storyteller, dispensing colorful family-history tales, fables in the Aesopic tradition, and hair-raising horrors divided more-or-less equally between waking-life ordeals and dreamlike supernatural hauntings. With such living-history resources at hand, who needed Little Golden Books?
My maternal-side grandmother, Lillian Beatrice Ralston Wilson Lomen (1895–1982), characterized her ghostlier yarns as “haint stories” – haint being a back-country variant of haunt. She knew by heart James Whitcomb Riley’s famous moral-lesson poem of 1885, “Little Orphant Annie, (sic)” with its recurring admonition that “the Gobble: ’Uns’ll git you ef [if] you don’t watch out!” And she could concoct – or recollect, or fabricate from combined experience and imagination – stories and verses every bit as horrific, and as absurd and uproarious.
When I would inquire as to the truthfulness or factuality of a tale, such as the conjure-woman story she called “Hansel and Gretel in the Piney Woods,” my grandmother would reply: “Well, now, I reckon it’s all true except for the parts that’s not – and if them parts ain’t true, then they ought to be.”
When I would urge her to put these accounts into writing, she would demur: “Well, I ain’t no writer – that’s how come we pass these stories along, amongst our peoples.”
Or perhaps the purveyors of spoken-word folklore were the truer writers, inscribing their legends and histories and imaginative flights onto the scroll of tribal memory. Nowadays, tribal amnesia seems to have become more the norm.
Years after her passing, I undertook to transform one of my grandmother’s oral-tradition stories, “The Man Who Wouldn’t Stay Dead,” into a comic-book piece. I sent the script to its assigned illustrator, Frank Stack, the Texas-bred cartoonist-turned-professor of art at the University of Missouri. Frank replied with an inquiry: “Is this supposed to be scary? Or funny?” The answer on both counts: “Yes.” The finished result possesses precisely that dichotomy of supernatural terror and slapstick hilarity; it appears, as “Rude Awakening,” in a 1998 anthology called Southern-Fried Homicide.
My Grandmother Lillian kept in mind any number of twists on that “Man Who Wouldn’t Stay Dead” theme, which she first related to me around 1955 as “one I l’arned as a young ’un in the Old Country.” (The “Old Country,” in her perception, was Indian Territory, her native Oklahoma Hills, geographically near Texas’ Central Panhandle where my nearer ancestors had resettled but a world apart in terms of rural-vs.-urbanized society.) In one account, the titular figure was a defunct farmer who returned from the grave to annoy his widow and thwart her would-be suitors. In another telling, he became a backwoods patriarch who hauled off and croaked in the midst of a family gathering – only to deny his demise and hang around to torment his kinfolks and their visitors. Each version had the same climax and denouement: rigor mortis and discombobulation.
In a late revelation, I found the October 1976 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction to contain essentially that same “Man Who Wouldn’t Stay Dead” story, under the title “A Case of the Stubborns” – complete with backwoods setting and dialect to match. I read Robert Bloch’s short story to my grandmother, who found it familiar: “Well, I sw’a’n’!” she said. “That feller must’ve growed up amongst the same peoples as me!”
Well, hardly. Bloch (1917–1994), a Chicago-born Germanic–Jewish storyteller who remains most widely known for the 1959 novel Psycho, simply had developed the ability to breathe the atmosphere of folklore, and to exhale it, constructively, into cold print. Bloch and I became cordially acquainted during the waning 1970s, as fellow writers in the arenas of horror, humor, and motion-picture lore, and he made plain his affinity for plain-folks mythology as a source of fascination and inspiration.
“So where do you think Psycho came from?” Bloch asked me. “Modern-day folklore and gossip, that’s where, from sources so far removed from one another that a lot of people wouldn’t find them compatible.” His story of Norman Bates, a mother-dominated loner of murderous instincts, owes as much to the exploits of Edward T. Gein, a secretive predator of rural Wisconsin whose crimes had come to light in 1957, as it does to Bloch’s connections with another fellow altogether, a spooky-literature enthusiast and critic–historian whose every move seems to have been superintended by an overbearing mother.
“Folklore doesn’t have to be ancient, y’know,” averred Bloch. “The minute ol’ Ed Gein was found out to be a dangerous character – the folks around Plainfield [Wisconsin] had considered him something of a weirdo, all along – then the folk-tales started proliferating. He became the new Boogeyman, in those parts. Parents started warning their misbehaving children that ‘Ed Gein is gonna get you if you don’t watch out!’ just like that Whitcomb Riley poem had cautioned the youngsters to watch out for ‘the Gobble-’Uns.’ And the Gein jokes, sick jokes to be sure, cropped up, one after the other, like this one: ‘Why did Ed Gein’s girlfriend quit him?’ And the answer: ‘Because he was such a cut-up.’
“There got to be so many of those ‘Geiners,’ as the locals called their little nervous riddles, and so many ghastlier details about the Gein case had gone unreported [in the newspapers and the wire-service dispatches], that I figured it was just a matter of time before this hideous legend a-borning would get turned into a piece of fiction. So I stepped up to the plate and made it my story and called it Psycho. Of course, it helped Norman Bates’ development that I knew this other fellow … who couldn’t seem to untie himself from his mother’s apron-strings – nice guy, too, and certainly no menace to society, but the circumstances seemed to fit. And as it turned out, the deeper the authorities went poking into the Gein case, the more evident it became that ol’ Ed had suffered more than his fair share of pernicious Mom-ism, too.”
Bloch cited, as an influential example, a motion picture from 1935, Frank R. Strayer’s Condemned To Live, which fellow film historian George E. Turner and I had discussed in the original volume of the Forgotten Horrors books: “Y’know, every culture, no matter how primitive or civilized, has its variations on the vampire legend, the walking dead who prey upon the living. And literature, and then the movie business, they’ve lunched out on that tradition since who-knows-when. But most of the Dracula-type movies are content to hang onto the Middle European mythology and let it go at that.
“But this one little movie, now, it reached out in a broader sense – to suggest a Third World origin for the superstition, and then to suggest that such a condition might even stem from a prenatal influence. Raised the stakes, you should pardon the expression, on the whole fantasy, and remained unique among the vampire pictures until Blacula came along [in 1972], with its parallels between the vampire scares and the institution of slavery. That’s what I mean about reaching out to the greater range of folk-tale traditions to beef up your fiction.”
Bloch added this: “Where I’m coming from, anyhow, is someplace bigger than just the horror-fiction market. I came up, as a teen-ager, under the direct influence of H.P. Lovecraft and that whole Weird Tales [magazine] community of pulp-fiction scribes. Lovecraft’s greater body of work, y’know, has to do with that ancient race of cosmic monstrosities that got themselves kicked off the planet, with their bad breath and their antisocial conduct, but hung around the fringes, anyway, looking for a way back in. Lovecraft took the germ of mythology – and doesn’t every society have its myths about why-for those Bad Old Days were so bad? – and incubated it into a whole new strain.
“It was that long-winded essay of Lovecraft’s, Supernatural Horror in Literature [first published in 1927], that helped to steer me toward all that business,” Bloch continued. “Waked in me an awareness of my own Yiddishe storytelling heritage, it did, and got me interested in the Southern folk-tales, in particular. And it was Lovecraft who hipped me to Irvin Cobb, the Saturday Evening Post writer from Kentucky whose humorous pieces I already knew, but whose Southern Gothics – Cobb called ’em his ‘grim stories’ – were kind of obscured by his greater fame as a funnyman.”
Continued next week…
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price’s Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books is available from Midnight Marquee Press at www.midmar.com. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com.