Chances are, you won’t look at the intestines on the cover of my new collection of horror stories, Peritoneum, and think, “This guy has read every Jane Austen novel at least twice!” While I suppose Northanger Abbey should be my favorite, on some days it’s Sense and Sensibility.
Austen was doing a lot of her best writing in the 1790s, which was when some of the most important early horror novels were written. Austen’s marriageable women characters seem to be in mortal danger, but their danger is murky. Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe, Austen’s contemporary, like Austen’s phenomenally successful “domestic novelist” predecessor Samuel Richardson, made the danger much clearer: women of certain classes who lacked the protection of men were under constant threat of rape. In such an unbalanced society, even the most trivial-seeming social interactions had extreme stakes. A simple tea could make your heart jump out of your chest.
Ladies dreamt of Pemberley, and meanwhile, the French mounted heads on spikes. The 1700s were not tame or polite. Google the paintings of William Hogarth, or read the Marquis de Sade. It was a time of revolutionary extremes.
For the Peritoneum epigraph, I chose a quote from 1700s-superstar Jonathan Swift. A line from Swift: “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.” A classic Swiftian bit of ironic understatement, it’s also a really gory joke. Swift uses the joke to thoughtful ends, and one of his points is this: probing beneath the surface of things, for reasons and truths, might produce ugliness instead of answers. That’s a bracing bit of wisdom from a time known as “The Age of Reason.” But when the alternative to Pemberley might be rape, women might very well feel unsafe in their skin. Austen kept the skin on, but she showed its vulnerability.
Our reasons for feeling unsafe in our skin in the 2000s are different. Sexual violence remains real enough, but we have a different brand of social unbalance. We’re scared of terrorists and mass shootings and viruses and politicians and scientists, but the ugliness is still in our guts, ready to alter our persons for the worse. Ours is a time of revolutionary extremes.
Nowadays Jane Austen gets marketed with zombies and sea monsters. We don’t seem to be in a subtle, skin-on mood, which is fine with me (cf my book cover, which I adore), although I have to admit I prefer my Austen the old way. I’m not advocating for a return to Austen’s indirect manner of suggesting the horrors beneath the skin during her high-stakes ballroom soirees, nor do I think we ought to flay all the people all the time to accommodate twenty-first-century extremism. I’m saying that the 1700s, in Austen’s politeness and Swift’s abattoirs, gave us what we need for our times: both skin-on and skin-off techniques for exploring revolutionary ugliness. Austen and Swift didn’t take anything for granted. She kept the skin on because she wrote about society’s surfaces, their fragility, commenting on how she maneuvered her little brush on two little inches of delicate ivory. While Austen’s writing is as controlled as her heroines must be to survive the gauntlet of courtship, Swift’s is wild and digressive, as chaotic as a flaying, as his satirical work is itself a flaying of society to expose the guts unsusceptible to control. To explore their worlds’ revolting undersides, Austen and Swift wrote in revolutionary ways. Understated or uproarious, dancing or flayed, the characters writers suspend before readers contain glorious imperfections, the exposure of which can tantalize and horrify. The 1700s gave us blueprints for exposure. It’s time we followed them to destinations fit for modern revolt.
L. Andrew Cooper scribbles horror: novels Burning the Middle Ground and Descending Lines as well as anthologies of experimental shorts Leaping at Thorns (2014 /2016) and Peritoneum (2016). He also co-edited the anthology Imagination Reimagined (2014). His book Dario Argento (2012) examines the maestro’s movies from the 70s to the present. Cooper’s other works on horror include his non-fiction study Gothic Realities (2010), a co-edited textbook, Monsters (2012), and recent essays that discuss 2012’s Cabin in the Woods (2014) and 2010’s A Serbian Film (2015). His B.A. is from Harvard, Ph.D. from Princeton. Louisville locals might recognize him from his year-long stint as WDRB-TV’s “movie guy.” Find him at amazon.com/author/landrewcooper, facebook.com/landrewcooper, and landrewcooper.com.