Sex and the saw

Performance poet Daphne Gottlieb has assembled an astonishing — and sometimes unsettling — collection of poems that deftly skewers the perception and use of women in American pop culture.

Her Final Girl (Soft Skull Press, 2003) refers to the (generally) lone surviving female in the frequently inglorious realm of the so-called “slasher” film.

I may not be known for my affinity for poetry (though I can — and, with very little prompting, will — recite great chunks of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”). But as an avowed horror-film fan and a two-time contributing “splatterologist” to The Official Splatter Movie Guide, I’m not out of tune with Gottlieb’s source material.

And let me say that the poet truly knows the genre. Anyone can toss out a list of some of horror’s more enticingly outre titles (who can suppress a chuckle over the existence of a movie called I Dismember Mama?). But not just any title scanner is likely to quote from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 — “You got the choice, boy. Sex or the saw; you never know about sex, but the saw — the saw is family” — which Gottlieb does at the beginning of her poem “gone to static.”

She also drops savvy references to Bela Lugosi, as in “vamp” — “Bela Lugosi wanted it so bad he took up with a spike when/ he couldn’t make her come over to the other side of the/ mirror” — and incorporates into many poems obscure plot elements. “in a name,” for instance, recounts part of either Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left or that film’s strange source, Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring — or, more probably, both. Gottlieb also offers knowing advice of the type invariably ignored by slasher-flick characters; consider this, from “final girl II: the frame”: “If you hear music,/ you are in a horror movie./ That means you get a knife and fight back.”

The poet brandishes her pen with all the shocking brutality of Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees hacking away with his machete. Actually, she’s fiercer: Jason merely offs libidinous teens for our peculiar amusement; Gottlieb, however, hits us where we live, probing into the ways we’ve been socialized, and making us realize our unthinking acceptance of the type of cliche we’ve seen writ large on the movie screen.

If we’re very impressionable, Jason might make us scream. Gottlieb is more apt to make us squirm — brilliantly, incisively, taking no prisoners. Jason’s limited power is gone once the credits roll; Gottlieb’s words linger long after the final poem has been read and the “final girl” has survived.

At the same time, the poet recognizes — as several studies on horror films also have done — that a level of female empowerment in the genre does exist. Gottlieb begins Final Girl with a quote from film scholar Carol Clover’s “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film”: “[The final girl] alone looks death in the face; but she alone also finds the strength to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B).”

In a sense, Clover has there encapsulated the history of horror. With a few exceptions — Nosferatu comes to mind — “ending A” gives us classic horror’s typical lady-in-distress scenario. But even there it’s interesting that the threatened damsel is rarely rescued by the generally worthless leading man — as often as not, he’s unconscious in a corner — but by an older figure who intervenes because of the final girl’s ability to “stay the killer.”

Modern horror — for all its aesthetic shortcomings — is more apt to go with “ending B,” and as such is actually a very reasonable springboard for a book of feminist poetry. That much I knew going in. What I didn’t expect was how brilliantly and viscerally Gottlieb would wield this premise.

More Halloween reading

You know all the standard titles for shiver-inducing literature as well I do. So instead of belaboring the obvious, I suggest chill-hunters seek out these five, generally lesser-known titles.

Conjure Wife (by Fritz Leiber). Leiber’s splendidly creepy novel first appeared in Unknown Worlds magazine in 1943. A truly strange story about professors’ wives jockeying for social status through witchcraft, it’s a book that accomplishes the kind of terror in less than 200 pages that Stephen King can only dream of inducing in 1,000.

The Bat (by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Stephen Vincent Benet). A rare instance of a film (the 1926 talkie The Bat Whispers) turned into a novel that’s possibly even better than its source material. Essentially an old-dark-house mystery with a variety of strange characters and secret rooms, plus a murderous criminal mastermind (the title character, of course). The Bat is a cozy thriller with a nice quota of chills.

The Edge of Running Water (by William Sloane). This 1939 novel about a “mad scientist” trying to communicate with the spirit of his dead wife has lost none of its creepy kick. Totally sober and believable, it nevertheless incorporates nearly all the genre elements, including an old, dark house; an imperiled daughter; a younger scientist trying to keep his more aged colleague on track; a creepy housekeeper and, in this case, a medium. Running Water was filmed in 1941 as the worthy Boris Karloff vehicle The Devil Commands.

Seven Footprints to Satan (by A. Merrit). Written by one of the more shadowy figures of horror/fantasy fiction in 1928, this shaggy-Lucifer story presents Old Scratch as a collector of beautiful objects. The protagonist lives in (yes) an old, dark house, where he allows his “guests” to attempt to climb the Seven Footprints to his throne and win it all.

Grey Face (by Sax Rohmer). Best known for creating the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, Rohmer wrote this novel of the fantastic in 1924. One of his most highly regarded works, it remains little known outside of the author’s own cult circles. This reincarnation of the Count Cagliostro plot line was an outgrowth of Rohmer’s personal interest in the occult (the author was a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, along with poet William Butler Yeats and the notorious Aleister Crowley).

Final Girl author Daphne Gottlieb gives a free reading/book signing at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe (55 Haywood St.; 254-6734) on Wednesday, Oct. 22 at 7 p.m.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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