The Darkening Garden: Revel

The following is an entry reprinted from The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror, written by the World Fantasy Convention 2012 Encyclopedist Guest of Honor, John Clute. This is the seventh entry of several from The Darkening Garden to be reprinted on this site over the course of ten days. Some formatting has been changed from the original published form of the text. Bolded items within this entry can be found within The Darkening Garden as additional / complementary entries. – The Editors

Image © Tara McPherson

Revel is both a noun and a verb. As a noun it describes a formal event bound in time and place, an event in which the field of the world is reversed: good becomes evil; parody becomes jurisprudence; the jester is king; Hyde lives; autumn is the growing season. As a verb, Revel refers to actions which create and animate such an event, actions of telling which catch revelation on the wing; it also points to the subversive nature of story itself: because, as it is being told, every story about the world threatens to transport us out of our previous understanding of the world. In this lexicon, therefore, Revel as noun and verb represents the third of four successive stages — Sighting, Thickening, Revel and Aftermath — that describe those works of Horror which seem most completely to exhaust the potentials of the form. Revel comes after the thickening rind of appearances is peeled away at last, when the truth of things glares through the peeled Masque or Danse Macabre; and resolves into the exhausted latency of Aftermath. Revel delivers the truth (see also Serpent’s Egg); it is most devastating when the truth it delivers is revealed to be some form of Vastation, some defining expression of the malice of the world. Revel occupies the same slot in the four-seasons model of the narrative structure for horror as recognition does in the similar model for Fantasy, which is elaborated in several linked entries by John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) ed John Clute and John Grant. But Recognition is weighted towards a recovery of the lost or stolen past (the season it is analogous to is spring), while Revel tends to announce the world to come (and the season it is analogous to is fall). The wings of revelation create a wind from the future, from the winter of the world that the occupants of the early 21st century are now entering (see Horror for a short presentation of the concept that as a whole Fantasy is shaped around recapturing the past, while as a whole horror is shaped around obeying the future (see, again, Vastation). Revel is the action of the real world announcing itself. It is “Reason” awakening itself from sleep.

Revel, in other words, marks the moment when a horror tale ceases to describe the welling up of the repressed and the subversive within the restraining walls of “civilization”, and begins to tell it as it is. The most perfect example of this may be found in a film not usually thought of as horror, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) dir Frank Capra (1897−1991). It is a film open to an almost infinite variety of interpretations as regards the meaning of George Bailey’s imprisoned life; the most common of these interpretations is that the provincial airlessness of that life — a life which leads him to try to kill himself — is worth the cost, because the innumerable life-frustrations inflicted upon this latterday Bob Cratchett have bettered the lives of others, all of whom remain unaware that he has sacrificed his life to them. This reading of the film plausibly treats its climax positively: when the angel causes Bailey to recognize the worth of his life, and allows him to return to and to recover that life, It’s a Wonderful Life can properly be understood as a full Fantasy tale (for the relationship of these terms, and of Fantasy as a whole, to the range of subjects covered in this lexicon, see Horror). But if the angel’s counter-story is true — if Bailey had never been born into his life of benumbing sacrifice — then the proper climax of the film is the unveiling of Bailey’s Bedford Falls as Pottersville in the long Revel sequence during which the never-born Bailey sees the true faces of his neighbours, sees the true nature of capitalist exploitation of the heart of America, sees the future (significantly, Mr Potter, the villainous cheating banker who has been instrumental in exposing Bailey to the way of the world, escapes any punishment for his criminal actions; as the film closes, he lies in wait for the next opportunity to bring Bailey — whose life-problems have not been solved but simply deferred — to his senses). Under the latter reading, It’s a Wonderful Life neatly transacts the four stages of the full Horror model: Bailey’s Sightings of the nightmare to come, each time his normal need to experience life has been melodramatically frustrated; the Thickening and intertwining of these frustrations into a net of fixated circumstance; the Revel as described above; the Aftermath, which is not directly experienced but which can be clearly anticipated lurking beyond the final frame: because Potter lives; because Christmas lasts only a single day; because George Bailey has seen the Revel.

We spend time on this film for two reasons: because it offers a dramatic opportunity to note the radical distinction between a fantasy and a horror reading of a familiar story; and because that distinction here hinges on whether its climax is to be understood as a recovery of the past or as obedience to the future, as Recognition or as Revel. Certainly, in terms of the arguments presented in this lexicon, the heart of the film lies in the latter reading, in its telling demonstration of the subversive power of Horror to open the eyes. This seductiveness of Horror (some form of seduction or uncanny persuasiveness lies at the heart of almost all supernatural fiction, cf. the angel in Capra’s film) is often rendered as a Masque or Carnival, in which the movements of the dance themselves seem to peel away the rind of the congested past. Both the masque and carnival are best understood — in the frame of argument presented here — as manifestations of the Revel. Such moments are prominent in 19th-century writers like E T A Hoffmann, Sir Walter Scott, Edgar Allan Poe and Nikolai Gogol, though Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), unless one think of its inwardly spiralling narrative as analogous to a dance of revelation, or the wedding night murder as ceremonial, does not express itself through Revel. Nor is it unsurprising — slightly further into the century — that the various Christmas Books of Charles Dickens — including of course A Christmas Carol (1843) — constantly invoke, and refuse, the carnivalesque. Given that it is a deliberate fantasia on Dickens’s Carol, it is perhaps inevitable that It’s a Wonderful Life both quotes the 19th century, life-affirming aspects of the dance, in its parody-with-love of the Fezziwig Ball, and simultaneously enacts a horrific counter-dance of Revel out of the changed world of the 20th century, as described at length above.

There are Revels in Robert W. Chambers’s The King in Yellow (coll 1895). The artistic rendering of a Revel, in Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” (in The Great God Pan, coll 1894), persuades the appalling clique of Late Victorian gentlemen who “occupy” the foreground of the tale into forcing the suicide of a woman who kills men by — in effect — forcing them to see her naked and entire (see Motif of Harmful Sensation). Much fin de siècle and decadent writing hints at Revels which unfreeze the action into full horror, but rarely enters fully into the enactment of “festivities” prophetic in this way of the world to come, though Joseph Conrad, in “Heart of Darkness” (1899 Blackwood’s Magazine), comes very close indeed in his depiction of the life of Kurz. More explicitly, though very much less resonantly, Kenneth Grahame comes closer to creating a pre-Aftermath vision of the world turned upside down in the picnic of the under-beasts in The Wind in the Willows (1908). It is, however, an argument frequently proposed in this lexicon that Horror — like all examples of the literatures of the fantastic — is deeply sensitive to the nature of the world itself, and as the engines of history accelerated the rate of change at the beginning of the 20th century, this sensitivity became more and more tortured, increasingly more exorbitant.

So we enter the full spate of Revel. No one single text definitively marks the shifts in the ground of being generated by World War One; it might in fact be argued that World War One itself is a definitive rendering of the Revel of the world. Indeed, such imagery, variously couched, is commonly found. It is certainly the case, for instance, that trench warfare has often been seen as a Danse Macabre; that No Man’s Land has been understood as the veritable face of the world, our home from now on; that, in essence, the Great War is understood to have peeled the rind off the civilized world, and that we have been naked to reality ever since: hence the denial cultures that poison the early 21st century. A single example of the literary use of the war may stand in here for dozens: the long opening “Gethsemane” sequence from The Cross of Carl: an Allegory (1931) by Walter Owen (1884−1953) depicts an unnamed apocalyptic battle, perhaps the Battle of the Somme, as a world-ending Revel; the remainder of the book uncannily prefigures the Aftermath-years of the century up to and including world war two (see Aftermath for details; Owen’s quite extraordinary text may have been drafted as early as 1917). Less case-specific, two of Gustav Meyrink’s novels — The Green Face (1916) and Walpurgisnacht (1917) — are Revels inherently illustrative of the trauma of war; and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924) sublimates — as does much of his work — similar material into an artifact of taming discourse, which readers may be expected to pretend to believe; by the end of his second great work about the 20th century, Dr Faustus (1947), a tale that sets out to define the convulsions of an Aftermath world, there is no belief left in a saved world: all we can hope for from a universe defined in terms of syphilitic dance is that the Revel will not be worse than last time.

As the 20th century progresses, Revels begin to proliferate. Charles G Finney’s The Circus of Dr Lao (1935) is perhaps the best known story to conflate Circus and Revel, along with many further tales, from authors like Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon, that examine the same ambivalent relation between nostalgia for a world well lost and subversion of the present. A similar nostalgia/subversion dynamic marks the Baseball story in fantasy; but despite the omphalos of Home Base, and the fact that its players “horrifically” act out — almost like clockwork — plays fully describable as iterations of the rules that govern those plays (baseball may be the only sport describable to the blind), baseball stories tend largely to mute the Revel aspect so visibly potentiated within their fundamental structure: this may be a form of patriotism. Out of an ocean of choices, four more exemplary titles can be mentioned. Robert Aickman’s “Ringing the Changes” (in The Third Ghost Book, anth 1955, ed Cynthia Asquith) ends in a literal Dance of Death, but one in which the protagonist’s wife joins, leaving him forever as she gallivants deadpan into the new desert world which he will never understand, being belated. The long descent of the protagonist of Fred Chappell’s Dagon (1968) into Bondage culminates in an epiphanic (though almost immobile) Revel conducted in the presence of the God, which is an idiot, and a Serpent’s Egg, and which will rule the world. The whole second half of Peter Straub’s Floating Dragon (1982), as a whole an omnium gatherum of Affect Horror effects, can be understood to superimpose Revel upon Thickening, a Revel so boisterous and prolonged it almost seems to proclaim a welcome to the worst infections the world can offer. Elizabeth Hand’s Winterlong (1990) is structured entirely through a crescendo of Revels which, once again, strip the world of its masks. And Glen Hirshberg’s “Mr Dark’s Carnival” (in Shadows and Silence, anth 2000, ed Barbara Roden and Christopher Roden) returns to an even blacker outcome, for the dance his protagonist enters is death for sure, and the world which echoes his terminal moves is made up of the betrayed bones beneath America. In this tale, and in so many others, the dance of Revel is Taps for the future.

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