My funny wife uses a term, “out of body,” which refers to that immense quantity of movies and stories that involve visits from beyond the grave, time travel, vampires, ghosts, mind-readers, talking animals. The list goes on. Because she is more discriminating and generally a more sensible person than I, she has no patience with such fare. Occasionally I will persuade her to give an “out of body” a try, especially if it’s an item that’s gained a following. But invariably, she’s right: the stories descend to nonsense, ask you to believe in Killer Tupperware or the power of ancient curses or brain swaps. It’s stuff that can put you right to sleep.
The problem is that, unless the “out of body” aspect rises to the level of metaphor, such stories have nothing to do with real people. Now, I understand how that might be exactly the pull. Sometimes real people are discouraging and a retreat into fantasy has its attractions. In the aftermath of such an escape, however, we are rarely left with anything about which to think. By contrast, stories grounded in what we usually take for reality, even if improbable, often send us off with an idea or two. Think of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The tale is loaded with exaggeration and unlikely adventure, but never descends to “out of body.” And when we’re finished, we might retain an image of Huck in the river bottom reaching the conclusion that “you can’t pray a lie.” Similarly Melville’s Billy Budd, a more difficult story, finishes with a vote in favor of law, which is to say, a vote in favor of civilization, which is our collective endeavor to stave off savagery. There probably never was anyone as innocent and attractive as Budd. He is a an angel who stutters, his only flaw, and so is even more improbable than Twain’s rascally King and Duke, but Budd serves to illustrate insights about envy and viciousness and, as noted, civilization that are valuable, even if you disagree with them.
My own inclination is to give the writer a break. By that, I mean that when I encounter an “out of body” story, I hold out for the possibility that I’ve bumped into a metaphor that I may not at first recognize. Among the most famous of such tales is Hawthorne’s ambiguous “Young Goodman Brown,” a story that has given students fits for years. In it, Brown leaves his wife, Faith, for a late night appointment in the forest. She tries to persuade him to say home, but he’ll have none of it. Once in the woods he meets the devil, disguised as a friend of Brown’s family, and the story culminates in a black midnight mass attended by almost everyone in his village, or so it seems to Brown. Because of that ceremony, he concludes that all those he has taken to be virtuous are, in truth, vile sinners. And then he wakes up, returns to town, and spends the rest of his days a grumpy, suspicious, miserable man. The “out of body” candidate is the devil and his theatrical trappings. But what, we have to ask, are we to make of all that? Is Hawthorne asking us to think there is literally a devil, a black man who lives in the forest, someone you can meet, a guy who carries a snaky cane and keeps a big book in which you can write your name? In The Scarlet Letter, Hester explains to Pearl that she has done just that, but any reader realizes she’s speaking in tricky metaphor. (This is a reversal of the way we usually speak to children where we try to make the difficult comprehensible. Here Hester makes the commonplace mysterious. Ah, Hawthorne.) The devil in “Young Goodman Brown,” of course, is not literal. It is Hawthorne’s way of illuminating the faults in his main character. There is no actual figure, no embodied principal of evil that we might avoid by staying indoors, even with a wife named Faith. Whatever else you might take from the tale, you come away with the understanding that Brown’s dark view of his wife and neighbors at the end of the story is evidence that “the devil” has won. And so the tale is instructive: if we see only evil in everyone around us, we’ve acquired a warped, demonic point of view. The potential “out of body” here has nothing to do with Killer Tupperware and everything to do with what Hawthorne liked to call the human heart.
The same might be said of Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw.” The haunting in that tale is a way of talking about the desires and frustrations of the governess. To take the ghost as “real” is to reduce the story to nonsense. The principle applies with respect to those troublesome and horrific witches in Macbeth. They are a way of illustrating Macbeth’s forbidden desire for the throne, even if Banquo sees them too. If witches, or even Lady Macbeth, are the ones responsible for the death of Duncan and the mayhem that follows, then Macbeth himself is no more than a poor puppet playing out his unavoidable fate. That’s a reading that strips him—and the rest of us—of responsibility. There is no vice; there is no virtue, only mechanical fated action. Ugh. That’s no way to read a book. The same is true of ghost that haunts the ramparts at Elsinore. What is he but a figure for the impossible demands young Hamlet places upon himself, demands that grow from the love of his father and his adolescent disgust with the unsavory behavior of the adults around him? Witches, ghosts, even talking animals and fairy dust (remember poor Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) become legitimate parts of stories if they stand for something lodged in, as Hawthorne would have it, the human heart.
Many years ago The New Yorker ran a story by Stephen King entitled “The Man in the Black Suit.” Like much of King’s work, it’s spellbinding and King has described it as homage to “Young Goodman Brown.” The story is told by Gary, an old man near the end of his life. He recalls entering the woods as a nine-year-old boy on a fishing expedition. Once there, he encounters the devil. Where Hawthorne’s Satan is recognizable by his snaky staff and his ability to travel around Massachusetts with remarkable rapidity, King’s is full-blown special effects horror: he has bright orange eyes, a huge mouth, claws, sulfurous breath and an unearthly voice. He’s full of terrifying lies and threats, not the least of which is the idea that he plans to devour Gary. In a panic, Gary flees and, through some good luck—the devil trips on Gary’s discarded fishing rod—makes it back home where he has to convince his father that he did not dream the encounter. The two return to the scene and Gary’s father—and the reader—are convinced: Gary did not have a bad dream; the devil came to him. The tale finishes with Gary, afraid to die, thinking that even though he’s lived a life of virtue, the devil might come to him again. If nine-year-old Gary does not merit the visit, neither does the older version. So far, so good. It looks like the man in the black suit is a figure for rotten luck. But at the very end of the tale, Gary decides that if good behavior is no protection from Satan, and it looks like it’s not, then all the truths of the moral world come tumbling down. (That’s a paraphrase, but it’s quite close to the original, which I no longer have.) And this is where the story slips into “out of body.” Old man Gary fears that he is unprotected by his long history of virtue, which means that what he names as moral truths are a set of rules he believes Satan is obliged to follow, as if real life is a kid’s game. He’s worried that Satan won’t play right, which at once turns King’s devil into something external to Hawthorne’s human heart, something like a tiger that can come out of the woods and eat us up, something like Killer Tupperware. But the devil, if he has any use to us at all, must be an interior possibility, a choice we make similar to the choice Brown makes in the forest. To say the devil wins in the Hawthorne story is to make a pronouncement about Brown’s point of view, which could be the point of view of any of us. It’s something from which we can learn. To say the devil wins in King’s story is at best to conflate evil with misfortune. At worst it reduces virtue to a kind of wager, or perhaps a game at which we can be cheated. That too is no way to read a book. As Hawthorne and many other writers illustrate over and over, vice and virtue work from the inside out. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy asserts: “Character is fate.” And character, yours and mine, is most decidedly “in body,” something that we spend our lives creating choice by choice.