Repression, Horror and the Settler Gothic

The horror novel ‘says, in a symbolic way, things we would be afraid to say right out straight… it offers us a chance to exercise… emotions which society demands we keep closely at hand.’

Stephen King

In the British Gothic tradition, what returns from the repressed is that which has been subjugated by Enlightenment sensibility: “the feeling unfelt, the pain denied, the unspeakable and concealed shame of families, the cover-up of political crimes, the collective disregard for painful historical realities” (Rand qtd. in Castricano 802). In contemporary American Gothic, however, what “returns” to haunt the living are very often the Indigenous peoples who have been slaughtered and displaced in the name of “civilization.” Buried beneath the architectures of settler colonialism (both literal and figurative) the ghosts of imperialism come back to haunt and torment settler occupants who fail to understand their relationship to the land.

In this sense, the dead Indian is a pervasive trope that has been firmly entrenched in the Gothic imaginary. Warren Cariou suggests that the prevalence of the trope “reflects a widespread and perhaps growing anxiety suffered by settlers regarding the legitimacy of their claims to belonging on what they call ‘their’ land. This fear can be described in Freudian terms as a kind of neocolonial uncanny, a lurking sense that the places settlers call home aren’t really theirs” (727).

Two of Stephen King’s novels play a foundation role in establishing the return of the repressed in the colonial cultural imaginary: The Shining (based on Arapaho land) and Pet Semetary (set on Micmac territory) both illustrate how repressed colonial violence and the misappropriation of Indigenous land results in settlers being haunted. According to Valdine Clemons, who offers analysis of Native American representation in The Shining, King’s work illustrates how, “like the classic Gothic villain, American society is haunted by its own past crimes, from which its victims rise up as ghosts” (191). King’s “Indian” novels, King himself argues, create the space to address issues that evade realist depiction–making them potential sites of political intervention: “the horror novel ‘says, in a symbolic way, things we would be afraid to say right out straight…” King writes, it offers us a chance to exercise… emotions which society demands we keep closely at hand” (King qtd. in Clemons 213).

Building on King’s work, critics such as Clemons have begun to theorize further the relationship between Indigenous and American Gothic out of the structural relationship between Indigenous land and American “horror”. For Clemons, the Gothic is an agent of social change, a means of incorporating the margins into the centre. In other words, in the Gothic, via the return of the repressed, the subaltern does speak—albeit from a structurally and thematically oblique position.

King’s 1977 novel The Shining offers one provocative example of how the gothic genre might facilitate the expression of the subaltern voice. Clemons reading is instructive here. Indeed, Indigenous peoples are a spectral presence throughout this novel. Clemons notes that early in the narrative, Danny, the novel’s young clairvoyant, remembers a child’s puzzle that reads “can you see the Indians in this picture?” (193), suggesting the way in which the absence of Indigenous people “haunt” the American imaginary, while also proposing a method of interpretation for the reader—who must carefully look for Indigenous presence where it appears to be absent. Further, Jack, Danny’s father and the conduit through which the repressed returns in The Shining, initially hears Danny’s infamous REDRUM refrain (“murder” spelled backwards) as “red drum” and comments that it “sounds like something an Indian might take on the warpath” (193)—thus linking genocide with the spectral presence of Indigenous people in the narrative. Most importantly, the Overlook Hotel, the looming Gothic structure playing the lead role in the novel, is built on Arapaho land, “an Indian tribe whose members, with a larger group of Cheyennes, suffered a savage massacre at the hands of some ‘ill-trained and drunken militia” (Clemens 191). The slaughter of Indigenous peoples thus forms the (disavowed) ground upon which the Overlook is constructed and American Indians “speak” through the haunting and violence that makes up the core of the novel.

Similarly, in Pet Semetary, Indigenous ground is the foundation of the “horror” for settler Americans. In this novel, settlers bury their dead in a Micmac burial ground, which, in response to colonialism, has turned “sour.” After being buried here, loved ones return as the living dead, terrorizing their families and loved ones and giving “voice” to the violence of colonialism. As Grady Hendrix points out,

When King was writing Pet Sematary the Micmac Indians were much in the news. In 1980 the United States government finally passed the Maine Indian Claims Settlement, which recognized ownership of Maine lands by Native Americans and gave two recognized tribes $81 million, ostensibly to buy back their lands but more like a pay-off for them to drop their claims to lands which had, until then, been in private hands. It was a hard-fought case that resulted in a lot of tension and the Micmacs were excluded from this settlement until 1992, when they were given $900,000 and equal recognition. These headlines were definitely on King’s mind when he wrote Pet Sematary, and he even has Jude mention to Louis that the North Ludlow Woods, “Ends up going onto those state lands I told you about, the ones the Indians want back.”

As in The Shining, Pet Semetary identifies settler occupation as the source of American haunting and King mobilizes the Gothic towards an ostensible critique of colonialism.

Repression is core to the settler colonial project, which, as Patrick Wolfe has famously argued, aims to erase and replace. The Creek scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn makes this repression plain when she argues that “new nations are born from the spilling of blood of other nations a fact that must be denied if a nation is to see itself as ethical” (39).  In this sense, Pet Semetary and The Shining give voice to a colonial history that, in a culture of disavowal, is elided in other popular genres, particularly, as King would have it, realist fiction.

That being said, the return of the repressed,  as it is evoked in King’s work also risks reinforcing the notion of what the Cherokee author Thomas King (no relation to Stephen) calls the “dead Indian”. For King, there are three major configurations of Indians in the social and cultural imagination: Dead Indians, Live Indians, and Legal Indians:

Dead Indians are, sometimes, just that. Dead Indians. But the Dead Indians I’m talking about are not the deceased sort… They are the stereotypes and clichés that North America has conjured up out of experience and out of its collective imaginings and fears. North America has had a long association with Native people, but despite the history that the two groups have shared, North America no longer sees Indians. What it sees are war bonnets, beaded shirts, fringed deerskin dresses, loincloths, headbands, feathered lances, tomahawks, moccasins, face paint, and bone chokers. These bits of cultural debris—authentic and constructed—are what literary theorists like to call “signifiers,” signs that create a “simulacrum.” (54-55)

Most importantly, what the dead Indian represents for Thomas King, is a lack of real, vital presence in the now. For him, the dead Indian is a collection of continually reinforced stereotypes that work together to create an imaginary presence that non-Native people substitute in lieu of the actual Indians that inhabit everyday life. The dead Indian is thus, in a very Gothic sense, a spectral presence in the lived reality of settler colonial existence: it has no substance, no presence aside from the simulacrum that holds it together. Never Dead Native writes that, “The Indian Burial Ground trope is successful because of its ability to stir up supernatural trepidation while also appealing to collective societal fears that have been ingrained into public consciousness for centuries.”

In this sense, the dead Indian represents the Freudian uncanny, an unsettling double that, despite its familiarity, remains unhemilich in its relegation to the past. In a very literal sense, then, the “dead Indian,” as an articulation of the return of the repressed in the Gothic, reinforces the very colonial idea that Indian culture is dead or dying (or, at best, living dead.

That a live Indian might actually inhabit the Gothic, that he or she might actually be the subject of the return of the repressed (as opposed to the object) is rarely, if ever, considered in popular representations of the “Indian burial ground,” complicating the political import of the genre.

I owe my love of reading to Stephen King. At a very early age, I learned that I could imbibe all of the monsters and horror I wanted. Those topics were forbidden to me by my parents when it came to movies, but if I was reading a big fat book, everyone was happy. Part of the appeal of King’s work, as critics such as Clemons and Hendrix point out, is that it is surprisingly complex. There are political themes and threads that bring a depth to his writing seldom found in thriller/horror genres.

That said, as Never Dead Native points out, it is time for the Indian burial ground trope to die:

It’s time for creators to move beyond these tropes, not only for the sake of respecting Native horror fans, but also to renew dusty plot lines and unveil new possibilities for horror. Questioning these tropes is not just a matter of race baiting or stirring up guilt, but can be seen as a genuine opportunity to revamp and enrich Indigenous involvement in horror. Rather than repeating age old cycles we can all move beyond that and lay the burial ground trope to rest.

Quite frankly, we have no need of this regressive trope if we open up to the amazing horror being written by Indigenous authors. King’s work has made space for a new generation of “horror” authors that we should be turning to for colonial critique. Stephen Graham Jones and Eden Robinson both cite King as a major influence, and both radically resist the dead Indian trope by positioning Indigenous characters as the subjects of their stories while challenging colonial boundaries between haunter and haunted.

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