Outer Dark insists upon its own nightmare, exhibits the logic and fractured narrative of a fever-dream and exposes the reader to scenes and images lifted from some hillbilly Disasters of War; except without the war or the disasters, just the threat. The inhabitants of this outer dark are too diffuse, too fated to bother with anything as motivated or focussed as atrocity. Until the last chapter, anyway.
I would compare it to Heart of Darkness but that novel at least has a sense that the darkness has a point of entry. From the moment the two protagonists of Outer Dark listlessly perform the birthing of their incestuous child and then the father, Culla Holme, takes the infant out to die in the woods, we are not invited to witness a descent or burrowing into some dark place, as Marlow allows us to travel. The darkness is everywhere. Heart of Darkness offers up such memorable observations as this, off the top of my head:
“We live as we dream: alone’
Clear statements based on new experiences suggesting that, whilst Marlow is undoubtedly heading towards the horror, the horror, there are other places. In contrast, Outer Dark gives us exchanges such as this, which follows a discussion of the ‘mulefoot’ hog’s place in Old Testament laws on cloven feet:
Makes ye wonder about the bible and about hogs, too don’t it?
Yes, Holme said.
I’ve studied it a good deal and I cain’t come to no conclusions about it one way or the other.
It isn’t a frightening novel. How can there be tension when there is no safe place from which the reader can be ambushed? Like Titus Groan or, even more, Titus Alone, the world we’re presented with is sick in essence, corrupted at an atomic level; it’s too alien, the language too flamboyantly gothic for any bad deed or turn of events to ever shock us. But it is a successfully contaminating novel, as one can only assume the author intended it to be.
I’ve encountered this blank-faced Appalachian nightmarism before; in the music of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and, more particularly, in the songs of Dock Boggs. Boggs recorded a handful of sides for Brunswick in the late 20s. Boggs’s short first career (he was amongst those ‘rediscovered’ by enthusiastic folk scene folk in the 1960s) was similar to many of his contemporaries’ but his songs were not. Greil Marcus gives him a dignified, compelling portrayal in Invisble Republic but it’s one Song, Sugar Baby, where Boggs gives a contemporary voice to the fantasia of Outer Dark.
Just as Outer Dark takes for its heart a broken, doomed family – the baby is lost, the mother/sister escaped and hunting the baby, the brother/father hunting the mother/sister – so Sugar Baby communicates a similar, if more domestic sense of unbearable ties and unbearable divisions.
Over a banjo that always makes me think of dancing skeletons and meant – first time I heard it – that I would never laugh at the instrument again, Boggs threatens and mocks his scolding partner. Marcus describes him as singing ‘like the bones are trying to escape from his face’, or something similar. I have never heard a song that so perfectly captures the tone of male domestic shame and rage. Boggs parrots a nagging voice.
Who’ll rock the cradle, who’ll sing the song?
Who’ll rock the cradle when I’m gone?
His response is far outside the boundaries of any other early folk recordings I’ve heard and, whilst lacking the dramatic extravagance of Holme’s solution to domestic ennui – leaving the baby out in the woods to die – Boggs’s is the same in spirit; both self-pitying and cruel:
I’ve done all I can do, said all I can say
I’ll send you to your mother next payday
Christ, Appalachia must have been the pits. The song, like the characters and landscape of Outer Dark, is both defeated and savage. When I next hear Dock’s banjo staggering and leering out of the speakers I will likely picture the sea of mulefoot hogs that stampedes a ravine-path towards the end of Outer Dark, many of the animals spilling into the river below, taking a drover with them.
Outer Dark presents us, like Heart of Darkness, with a journey through a land where Ovid’s Plague of Ageina seems to have been taking place so long that everyone at first started treating it as normal and then absorbed it, made it part of themselves. It is dotted with ever-more decayed and impotent institutions, an enthusiasm for arbitrary punishment and foam-flecked magical thinking being the only dynamic or uniting social forces. And in that, at least, we can find some common ground with Holme, Rinthy and Dock.