Uses of the Undead: Part 3

In last week’s post we looked at the three magical weapons that popular culture has with which to fight monsters, including poop. Thus armed, let’s consider our strategy and then go look under the bed.

Saturn Devouring His Son (Goya)

Saturn Devouring His Son (Goya)

With Fava Beans and Chianti for All

Taking arms against a sea of troubles is doomed to failure. Better to boil the sea down to a single monster, the “archetype of the times,” that incarnates as many of those troubles as possible. Godzilla is a wonderful example, right down to his emergence from the sea.

For me, the preeminent monster of American life is Hannibal Lecter, the cultured, erudite, serial killer cannibal psychologist brought to life by Thomas Harris in several books and movies. If we unpack him a bit, I think we’ll find him a Janus-like semi-divinity, drawing on both the vampire and zombie archetypes.

Indeed, it is in these dual Urbilden that Hannibal finds his power, for combining them permits him to represent both predatory capitalism and coercive collectivism, two of the greatest of all monsters in American Culture. This multivocality is part of the power of symbols, for it enables them to draw power from radically different sources; just think of the different valences of the American flag, which all lay claim to in the service of very different visions. So it is with these two monsters, whom both Limbaugh and Maddow fans can enjoy as images of what they fear and how to deal with these fears.

Herkos Odonton: Behind the Hedge of the Teeth

As cultured, erudite psychologist, Hannibal possesses glamour. He perfects the DSM 5’s “socialized antisocial personality disorder:” what we used to call psychopathy or sociopathy. In this aspect. Hannibal draws on the vampire archetype. Charismatic, instantly charming, he slips in and out of the lives of his pursuers with lethal ease, and eventually seduces one of them, who becomes his lover.

The others Lecter consumes in a parable of power explored by Elias Canetti in Masse und Macht (published in English as Crowds and Power). For Hannibal is not a romantic vampire, and his appetites are far more gross than Count Dracula’s. The only way in which he is “nicer” lies in his narrower choice of victims: all of them minor Authorities, to whom Lecter has no intention of being subject.

Yet his methods are identical to those of his prey, thus thoroughly de-romanticizing power in the same way Canetti did (and note the resonances with Lovecraft at times):

Smoothness and order, the manifest attributes of the teeth, have entered into the very nature of power. They are inseparable from it.. ..

The teeth are the armed guardians of the mouth and the mouth is indeed a strait place, the prototype of all prisons. Whatever goes in there is lost, and much goes in whilst still alive…. The readiness with which the mouth opens in anticipation of prey, the ease with which, once shut, it remains shut, recall the most feared attributes of a prison….

[This] narrow gorge through which everything has to pass is, for the few who live so long, the ultimate terror….

The road that the prey travels through the body is a long one and on the way all its substance is sucked out of it; everything useful is abstracted from it till all that remains is refuse and stench.

This process, which stands at the end of every act of seizing, gives us a clue to the nature of power in general.

The Vast Stone of War

As a serial killer and cannibal, then, Hannibal also draws upon the zombie archetype, but not shambolically. He comes to us as an avatar of one of the greatest of the Powers, famously worshiped as Moloch, into whose fiery belly worshipers cast their first-born children.

In Howl (1955), Allen Ginsburg unveils Moloch as the servant of Empire: “Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo… Moloch the vast stone of war…” Less a god than an Appetite, Moloch has claimed many of our children since then, even more in other lands, and most pass through his belly not to death but to wounded, morbid lives in struggling communities.

That same appetite is manifest in the eagles of Zeus, unleashed in our times against those who would steal information, the fire of the post-modern Prometheus, from the idols of State and Business. (The Ecuadorian Embassy and Moscow are more comfortable rocks than most; I do not think Chelsea Manning will find Leavenworth so, especially since she has affronted not only the State but a fundamental purity code as well.)

Fortunately, neither vampires nor zombies, nor other ancient Children of the Night, are entirely subject to the Powers, for they are powers themselves, Antaean, anarchic, and subversive. And we the people are their Ursprung. The ongoing redefinition of vampires and zombies in books, movies, and film is actually a populist rebellion against the archetypes of power, an attempt to take back the Night for ourselves and not for our masters, for whom monsters are a tool for dividing and conquering.

Next week we’ll look at the war of the monsters, their allies and fellow-travelers on both sides, their weapons, and their strategies.


About Dave Trowbridge

Dave Trowbridge has been writing high-tech marketing copy for almost thirty years. This has made him an expert in what he calls “pulling stuff out of the cave of the flying monkeys,” so science fiction comes naturally. He abandoned corporate life in 2007 — actually, it abandoned him — but not before attaining the rank of Dark Lord of Documentation, a title which still appears on his business card and serves to identify clients he’d rather not work with (the ones who don’t laugh). He much prefers the godlike powers of a science fiction author (hah!) to troglodyte status in dark corporate mills, and the universe is slowly coming around to his point of view. Dave is currently laboring over the second edition of the space-opera series Exordium with his co-author Sherwood Smith, and looking forward to writing more stories in that universe. He lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with his writer wife and fellow BVC member, Deborah J. Ross, and a tri-lingual German Shepherd Dog responsible for three cats. When not writing, Dave may be found wrangling vegetables—both domesticated and feral — in the garden.