N – Or the Frailty of the Non-Monster

n-picturePre-Reading Note:  My grad program has been time consuming, so I haven’t been able to post as regularly.  I hope to keep up a slightly more regular posting schedule, however, in coming weeks, my writing will be supplemented by the works of other bloggers who will add to my Walking Dead Series and/or write about their first frights! (Get excited!)

Funny Story: It took me a second perusal of the comic rendition Stephen King’s N to realize that the plot sits at the nexus of some of my favorite literary areas of exploration.  What – you were expecting a story that was literally funny?  Sorry to disappoint you.  This is a horror blog.  We don’t laugh here.

But in all reality, those who are antiquated enough to situate the content of comic books – or even Stephen King’s body of work – in some arbitrary category of “low brow” culture need to attune their brains to all the potential for analysis that such mediums foster.  My boyfriend Michael’s blog, My Comic Relief, which makes a regular endeavor of deconstructing and dissecting comic books, is one testament to the richness and merit readily available in pop culture works.  And such merit is further demonstrated in Stephen King’s N, which lends itself to significant analysis.

N is the story of an insidious field in rural Maine that serves as a sort of portal to a dimension of reality that we cannot see (think, as Vanessa in Showtime’s now defunct Penny Dreadful would call it, a sort of demimonde, or world apart from this world).  And the story is largely epistolary – told through letters and articles, although dialogue between characters is also present, realistic, and compelling.  So why does the story provide such exciting fodder for my analysis?  Well, because I love talking about horror, madness, and geography (in terms of area, or what Yi Fu Tuan would call “Space and Place,”) and N deals with all three of these issues (insert nerd-squeal of delight).  You see, this seemingly unassuming, stone-dotted field in the middle of nowhere has the sinister propensity to, well, drive people crazy.  (As Homer Simpson says when he parodies Jack Torrance in The Shining: “Go crazy?  Don’t mind if I do!”)

The field was originally owned by an A. Ackerman, who, on July 26th, 1911, shot and killed his wife and daughter before turning the pistol on himself.  Translation:  One knows she’s reading a Stephen King comic book as soon as she opens the front cover.  Ackerman’s land and inheritance (twelve dollars) is bequeathed to a one-year-old who survives the trauma and is addressed in the lawyer’s inheritance letter as Miss Acker; she is allowed to inherit the land and the money on her 18th birthday (although “allowed” to inherit seems like an incongruous phrase to apply to the acquisition of a virulent haunted-monster-demon field of insanity).

But inherit the field she does, and one receives the sense that her malevolent land has had an odd effect on her life.  Miss Acker is presented as the quintessential crone who stands eerily as the threshold guardian between the world of the living and the land of monsters contained in the field she guards.  Her positioning is not surprising.  In my post on Blair Witch, I argue that the feminine – insofar as it exists as a legitimate, non-exclusive category, which perhaps it never really can – is often considered removed from culture and closer to both nature and the unknown.  Often, women linger in the forest where they mix potions and plan their vicious machinations – at least, if you trust Western-culture lore that springs from puritanical society.  Miss Acker’s position as the happenstance guardian of the mysterious field seems, to me, a variation on this motif.  She sits on land that is, from the omniscient perspective of the story, “marked” – made distinct from the norm – the same way her old age, and the same way her femininity, are marked.

One senses that Miss Acker’s (Norma’s) temperament does not mirror the malevolent field she’s been forced to stand besides, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, out of the sheer agony involved in being the gatekeeper to evil, she might be relieved when N (Nathan) finds the field one day in an effort to pursue his side-passion for photography.  He glimpses seven tall, stately rocks – they appear arranged intentionally, like totems, perhaps, of a so-called tribal society.  But when he holds up the camera to photograph the field, an eighth rock appears in the lens.  These dissonant versions of reality thrust N into an immediate frenzy.  He counts the rocks maniacally before leaving the field and becomes obsessed with counting long after he’s left the site.  He receives visions of monsters who he believes the rocks are guarding, and he comes to the conclusion that there must be an even number of rocks to keep the monsters in their place.  “Even” is good.  “Odd” is bad.  Everything must be counted.  He loses sleep, and in desperation seeks the help of psychiatrist John Bousant.  (It should be noted that as N leaves the field after his initial encounter, the comic book features a chilling picture of a haggard Norma, watching N from a distance.  We assume, however, that he does not see her).

Perhaps among the most commendable elements of this comic book is its realistic, intelligent depiction of psychiatric illness (insofar as it’s valid to say that N has one).  N, who develops a form of OCD after repeatedly counting the rocks on Ackerman’s field, doesn’t represent the tiresome, stereotypical raving and often laughable madman who descends upon the story’s plot to provoke humor and foster mindless antics (perhaps drooling or portending the apocalypse with wide eyes).  N is highly lucid, self-aware and articulate – a father and an accountant who has glimpsed a remnant of the unknown and, it seems, is having trouble processing the experience.  He acknowledges the possibility that he’s constructed a story around the field, but finds his narrative too compelling to discard.  One receives the sense that he truly is affected by forces beyond his own comprehension, that his agency has been displaced by that which may be both monstrous and supernatural.  After several sessions with Bousant, he lifts himself off the prototypical psychiatrist couch in a state of infinite sadness.  Nobody can help him, because something larger than his own mind is at work.  He thanks Bousant as he’s leaving, and, shortly thereafter, kills himself.

While it may seem at this point that I’ve indifferently blabbed the end of the story to you, N’s death is, in many ways, merely the beginning of the story.  Though King’s comic builds up to N’s death, that death is, in many ways, the igniting incident in a string of ensuing madness and mayhem.  Without revealing specifics, it becomes evident that others tend to react to their encounter with the field the same way N does, that N’s unplanned discovery of this field provokes a tumultuous interplay between the world of the person and the world of the monster – a monster who, in the comic, is depicted as a large, unattractive, leering figure with a stereotypically masculine face and build.  To that end, we can safely assume that N’s madness wasn’t immanent, rather, a by-product of his collision with a location that has enough agency to plan and scheme, to affect those who cross it with a strength atypical of what we might attribute to “mere geography.”

Of course, the notion that a physical location can have power over an individual is not an idea that’s new or innovative.  To greater or lesser degrees, we are all at the mercy of our geography and how we interpret it.  What seems distinct about Ackerman’s field is that (and yes, this does reveal some of the story’s “meat”) – it tends to affect all who encounter it in a similar way (possibly, but not wholly, with the exception of Norma Acker,) and its power to affect the individual barely if at all diminishes when the individual moves to another location.  To that end, one field, situated off the beaten path, has the possibility not just to influence, but to overtake, the individual, a startling reminder that a larger force is at work and N’s visions of monsters are founded in reality.  The location literally overtakes additional locations – other tracts of land, and the location of the individual.  A brush with this demimonde has the power to consume.

This, of course, should not be surprising.  It seems a typical trait of the monster – the stereotypical mutant – that she or he has the power to consume (and unlike Sesame Street’s blue beast, usually he or she consumes more than cookies).  Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert explicated the categories “angel” and “monster” to describe types of literary descriptions of women in Victorian England.  Much like the femme-monster – the mad Bertha Mason, who is confined to the attic in Jane Eyre because of her supposed dangerousness and potency (of which she really has very little) – the supernatural monster is assumed inherently potent, and even more so in N, because, contrary to the ugly, furry, eyesore monster who imposes on your visual field as he consumes your body, you can’t really see the monster’s in N – they appear to the field victims only in visions, and thus represent that which has uncanny agency even in its absence from our human matrix.

By the monster’s presence, then, he or she naturally forms a binary: there is the monster (always “the other”) and then those who are not monsters, not monstrous.  Because of the monster’s danger, he or she often exists in another location, a secluded location that does not have the warmth and familiarity of what Yi Fu Tuan calls place, or the vast, expansive freedom of what he dubs space, whether that location is Rochester’s attic, which houses Bertha in Jane Eyre, or King’s demimonde.  The monster, always conceived as powerful – and sometimes literally powerful, though sometimes powerless – exists in a place apart from the non-monsters.  But, like most monsters, the monsters in N mutilates the body, even if they do it by infecting the psyche and provoking, to suicide, those who have brushed their threshold.  It is no wonder that frail non-monsters quake in the presence of the beast.

King, in the end, reminds us that William Ernest Henry was telling the ultimate lie when he proudly attested that he was the “master of his fate,” and the “captain of his soul,” – for this is only true insofar as we remain uninfluenced by space and place, and, to one degree or another, we are always influenced by space or place.  Do not fear, King suggests, crossing the path of the monster.  For the potency of Stephen King’s monster’s in N are such that they might just find you.  N tells Bousant that he feels a strange force drew him into the field.  To that end, N’s fatal brush with the demimonde was pre-ordained by its insidious but elusive inhabitants.  If you believe monsters are mindless, bumbling blobs, the monsters in N suggest otherwise: these hidden beasts are calculating killers, hiding in a forgotten field of murder, a border of violence, in rural Maine.

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N – Or the Frailty of the Non-Monster

9 thoughts on “N – Or the Frailty of the Non-Monster

  1. Fantastic piece. I loved it. The idea of a marked place, of totemic markings is really fascinating and remains potent never mind how many times it’s been used .

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  2. Loved this piece, really fantastic. I’m fascinated by the idea of the marked place, a totemic place such as you describe. I know it’s been used thousands of times down the centuries, but it really does call to something in us – the temenos. Really enjoyed the ideas you put forward here.

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    1. I haven’t actually read the original short story (though come to think of it, I’m not sure why not). But the comic does an excellent job pulling the reader into the raw feeling of psychological discontent. Definitely stuck with me as well.

      Liked by 1 person

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