Correcting the Slave Narrative:
Toni Morrison’s Take on Horror to Challenge Antislavery’s Gothic Literature
By Tom Garback
Horror seems to be an instantly recognizable concept, be it channeled through monsters like vampires and zombies or through criminals, madmen, serial killers, and the like. Diving deeper into the subject, across the mainstream, one may find arthouse films like A24’s The Witch and It Comes at Night. These remind us that horror can have hard-hitting emotion and mature, provocative themes, items greatly lost in popcorn thrillers and torture porn flicks. The most nuanced offerings of the horror genre, and thus the most artistically fruitful, are perhaps works of literary horror. An example of this is Toni Morrison’s 1987 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, Beloved, which sees ex-slave Sethe and her young adult daughter Denver haunted by both the spirit and body of Beloved, the younger daughter murdered as a baby by Sethe in order to evade a life of slavery. Given that the book evokes a sense of magical realism, no concrete forms of plot are promised; for example, the adult Beloved is impossibly the older embodiment of the dead two year old, but through magical realism we’re able to ignore illogic for the sake of literary interpretation. To find the literary horror within this story, we must first define horror itself, and one of the most famous definitions is brought by “the master of horror,” novelist Stephen King. He argues that there are “three types of terror: the Gross-out…the horror: the unnatural…the dead waking up and walking around…when the lights go, and…[the] terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…” Morrison’s literary horror plays with a subtle form of terror—the unnerving as a sophisticated psychological metaphor. Terror is seen in the uncanny, or repressed memories coming to surface, causing one to recognize the simultaneous familiarity and taboo nature of the memory’s trigger. The horror of the narrative is that the trauma of slavery, barely repressed, always present, always uncanny and unsettling in the fashion of post traumatic stress disorder, does not fade over time in the same way that Beloved’s spirit does not die; in this way, Beloved, both in infant ghost form and adult human form, represents the horror of slavery and the greater horror of the novel: the mind’s inability to overcome abuse and grief.
The slave narrative wasn’t always so complex. Teresa A. Goddu, an Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University and author of the 1997 work Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation, wrote Chapter 5 in Gothic Topographies: Language, Nation Building, and ‘Race’ (2013). The essay is titled “‘To Thrill the Land with Horror’: Antislavery Discourse and the Gothic Imagination,” and discusses how the antislavery movement conveyed to their white audience the horrors of slavery in a way that “titillate[d] rather than terrify[ied],” which undermined the immoral institution by drawing it up as a form of entertainment (73). Goddu’s criticism of this improper depiction of slavery can be used to contrast Morrison’s depiction of the affects of slavery; Beloved may be written for, in part, commercial consumption, but it certainly does not view slavery as a subject for entertainment—and that’s because of the novel’s use of horror. Indeed, Morrison subverts horror tropes in exchange for an emotionally impactful atmosphere and a historically rich narrative, and through this use of horror she effectively communicates the trauma of post-slavery life in a manner of which the antislavery movement, as Goddu describes it, was incapable.
Through a lurid setting, founded on a haunting, Morrison creates a disorienting and unsettling frame for her novel. Goddu’s outline of the antislavery gothic shares a similar intent, but fails to ground its content in reality as Morrison does. 124, during the period of its haunting, is characterized as having “a pool of pulsing red light…[that] was sad. Walking through it, a wave of grief soaked [Paul D] so thoroughly he wanted to cry” (Morrison 9). If a grown man, one who’s lived through slavery and a chain gang, has the urge to cry simply by the presence of light, its effect might be of the supernatural, as if there is a quality within it that’s capable of possession or drastically altering moods. Red itself is an interesting choice; it could represent blood, which is a traditional tool in horror. Here, though, Morrison makes it elegant, and thus the result is fresh and unique. Red also stands for passion, but when passion has so negative an impact, there’s a dysfunction present—after all, sexual and romantic disfunction often populates scary stories and gothic narratives. “A kind of weeping clung to the air where it had been” Morrison writes, and we know that the novel’s setting won’t be able to hold much happiness (10). Goddu sees the antislavery gothic as depicting rural south in a dark and brooding fashion, often comparing slavery to a dungeon—this traditional and generic metaphor falls flat for such a reality as black lives on the field or in the household (75). Morrison’s setting is not so simple as a color, however—the initial point of the book, despite its non-linear narrative (which serves to disorient and convey the chaotic arrangement of memory and experience), sees 124 as red and haunted. Yes, two-year-old Beloved’s spirit is proposed as a state of being: “It’s hard for a young girl living in a haunted house” (Morrison 15). This situates the haunted house staple of horror as the starting point for 124. A twist on the exorcism even takes place, as Paul D commands the ghost to leave and smashes the kitchen table. Morrison adopts these genre elements as a way of communicating the horrific nature of 124 without sensationalizing the narrative in melodrama or even outright excitement, which is precisely what Goddu states the antislavery gothic does: “By playing to the white middle-class reader’s appetite for sensation, the antislavery movement ran the risk of conflating terror with enjoyment” (73). If Morrison had stuck to the norms of horror, she’d have undercut the maturity of her novel; if she hadn’t utilized horror at all, an injustice is done to the “sixty million and more” slaves to which she dedicates the novel, who must have the horrors of their lives written down.
When it comes to character, Goddu asserts the lack of authentic relationships in antislavery gothic narratives, which Morrison corrects by creating complex dynamics in the character relationships to convey the unstable nature of human interaction as a statement on loyalty’s downfalls and love’s destructive power. Goddu recognizes the basic depictions of individual slaves, who were viewed as “faceless, shackled figures in the background…a line of bodies” (76-77). By making slaves out to be the items of pity but assigning them no humanity is to equate them to animals, as if slaves were zoo pets incapable of knowing anything more of their situation than pain. Furthermore, Goddu writes that “the antislavery movement converted slavery into a conventional gothic plot replete with villainous slaveholders [and] suffering slaves” (74). These writers turned slaves into items of pity and nothing more, but Morrison draws up full humans, ones with flaws and contradictions and interests and intellect and humor and arcs. One example of this is the web of relationships between the four main characters, which utilizes horror in creating challenging personalities; this is Morrison’s way of saying that black people aren’t saints, and that makes them just as human and realistic as their white counterparts. In fact, assigning villainous traits to the leads makes them figures to be feared—it empowers them. Unhealthy relationships crowd 124; Denver and Paul D despise each other where a potential father-daughter connection, a principal dynamic of familial love, could have bloomed; Denver’s inability to fully communicate with her mother speaks to traditional household dysfunction; Denver’s entrancement with Beloved mirrors the horror trope of children befriending a ghost to the point of obsession; Paul D’s momentary sexual urge for and disgust by Beloved is reminiscent of possession; dysfunction is also seen in Paul D and Sethe’s failed sex and later partnership. Everywhere these humans interact while Beloved, as a ghost or human, is present, there is unsatisfying communication and bitterness. To focus on one relationship, Beloved is written as a ghost turned intruder who becomes parasite (or succubus) to Sethe, almost as if seeking vengeance for her murder. Sethe tells her daughter that “nothing ever does [die],” and this works as a message for the novel as a whole (Morrison 36). Yet, Amy says that “anything dead coming back to life hurts” (Morrison 35). These statements contradict each other, for how can the hurt of rebirth matter when nothing dies to begin with? At the intersection of these ideologies, we realize: even if something eventually dies, it will come back, and when it does, it brings pain—just as Beloved does upon reentering 124 as a human.
Elsewhere in the narrative, we are subject to descriptions of Sethe’s extreme and surreal past of physical and psychological abuse, hallmarks of the horror genre, just typically executed in garish form. The gore and brutality of her escape, too, challenge the tragic yet villainous archetype of the murderous mother. To make the protagonist a murderer of her own infant speaks to horror’s absence of innocent leads, especially in psychologically involved texts. Readers aren’t allowed to feel comfortable with their leads because horror has no place for comfort. The image of this murderer is contrasted with the image of Sethe as a savior, one who frees Beloved from a life of slavery. This dystopian-level act is then catastrophic because it means Sethe had to kill her daughter, and doing so as a last resort makes her the victim of committing the crime. Her image as a murderer is further contrasted with her image as a victim of slave torture on the most personal levels. Firstly, the lashings on her back make the shape of a tree, which Paul D rubs to feel “her sorrow, the roots of it; its wide trunk and intricate branches;” the narrator even states that “her back skin had been dead for years” (Morrison 17). These scars could represent the metaphorical “roots” of slavery or suggest that slavery is what kills the “tree of life,” as the skin is dead. This would make sense, as trees are further corrupted in the reality of slave abuse by the practice of lynching. Morrison’s imagery is grotesque, but practical—there are surely many slaves with similar scars. The Antislavery gothic provides no such symbolism, which wastes the opportunity to convey trauma through graphic visuals. Interestingly enough, though, Goddu notices that an antislavery sketch depicts whips as tree branches in order to fuse the abuse with the landscape of the south. This might suggest that even the problematic antislavery narratives understood the importance of trees as symbols of horror for slaves. Sethe bears this symbol for the rest of her life; perhaps it is the debt she pays for her killing Beloved, a mark of her monstrosity; perhaps it is the proof of stinted life, of the potential for vivacity and the whips that destroyed it. Sethe’s most extraordinary pain, however, comes from Sweet Home’s attack on her motherhood, when the schoolteacher’s men steal her breastmilk. A rape of extreme intimacy, this event is Morrison’s version of gore, of bodily invasion so grotesque that one cannot heal in the aftermath. Paul D undergoes a similar dehumanization when an iron bit takes away his right to speak. He admits that he “was something else and that something was less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub” (Morrison 72). To be less than a farm animal is to take away his manhood, his masculinity, pairing well with Sethe’s tarnished sense of motherhood. If the genre of horror is ever truly effective, its when the human mind and body are deformed, broken, and left to fix themselves in the dark.
To juxtapose racist and literarily weak antislavery text with Toni Morrison’s Beloved is to witness of triumph of African American literature. As a postmodern masterwork, a psychoanalytic study, a philosophical exploration, a family drama, a slave narrative, and of course a horror novel, this piece offers a glimpse of post-slavery America in a way that reminds readers, even today: just because an evil is undone does not mean it’s path of trauma has come to a halt—even in the empty spaces, in shadowy places, where turmoil has dwelled and fled, the pain still lingers, the spirit still rages, and the monsters placed inside of us by less resilient demons, to fester over sleepless decades and to grow twice the size of Man, might finally come out and see the light. In Morrison’s eyes, that light burns red, and the monsters are out for blood.
Goddu, Teresa A. “‘To Thrill the Land with Horror’: Antislavery Discourse and the Gothic Imagination.” In Gothic Topographies: Language, Nation Building, and ‘Race’, edited by P M Mehtonen and Matti Savolainen, Ashgate Publishing, 2013, pp. 73–86.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Albert A. Knopf, 1987.
About the Author:
Tom is currently pursuing a BA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College, where he is a Reader, Copy Editor, Staff Writer, and Blogger at various on-campus magazines. His fiction, poems, and essays have been featured in Teen Ink and Oddball Magazine and printed in Generic and Gauge magazines. Tom has been recognized by the National Committee of Teachers of English and has received several top accolades through the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.