Kicked in the Teeth by Art

Listening to NPR’s All Songs Considered podcast recently, I pretty much got kicked in the teeth by art. The theme of the pre-Halloween show was “The Songs That Scare” and it found some dark places I certainly wasn’t expecting. I’d never heard Sufjan Stevens’s “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” or Hayden’s “When This is Over”, but now that I have, I’ll never forget them.

I was listening to the show sometime after Halloween, after the revelations about Jerry Sandusky and Penn State had started coming out. I was stunned by yet another story in which numerous people had abdicated moral responsibility in favor of protecting an institution.I mean, I know this kind of thing goes on all the time, and has gone on throughout history, but I’m always amazed and saddened by humanity’s ability to gloss over evil in the interest of some “greater good”.

I’m fortunate to be well insulated and sheltered from such things. As far as I know (always a big “if”), nothing of this sort has ever gone on in my extended clan. I do know some adults, though, friends who have gone through childhood abuse of one kind of another, and it’s safe to say that they are permanently changed. My biggest worry these days is my socially awkward, obsessive compulsive daughter’s introduction to school and the meanness of other children. The true evils of the world? I can’t even imagine, although art of various kinds often keeps me in a sort of walking daze when it touches upon such things.

As a fan of genre fiction, I always picked up a copy of the now defunct The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror anthology each year. The collection, first edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow, then by Datlow along with Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, was a always a good way to keep a finger on the pulse of what was going on in the storywriting world. You can count on a few tales that revolved around bad things happening to children. Fairy tales, in particular, always seemed ripe for this kind of retelling.

I was unused to seeing such tellings in zombie stories, though. David Wellington’s “Good People” has a scene where it’s very obvious that a three-year old child will suffer the same grisly fate as her mother. Adam-Troy Castro’s incredibly powerful “The Anteroom” has its undead (now truly dead in an afterlife limbo) narrator remembering the betrayal of killing his own child. Of course, it’s a given that children will suffer like the rest of us in the inevitable zombie apocalypse (Romero’s Night of the Living Dead dispensed with any rose-colored fantasies about that way back in 1968). AMC’s The Walking Dead is currently getting (some would argue too much plodding) mileage out of the possible fate of a little girl lost in walker-infested woods). The powerful (and graphic) trailer for the video game Dead Island gets its power from the fate of the little girl in the middle of it.

As disturbing as all of that is, though, it’s always had the distance of fiction. Sure, I can get in discussions about whether Costco or Sam’s Club makes for the better fortress against the zombie hordes, but I know that such strategies will never really be put to the test.

But back to those songs. Stevens’s “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”, of course is about the infamous serial killer who sexually assaulted and then killed over 30 young men and teenagers. Laced with piano and delicate fingerpicked acoustic guitar, the song progresses from Gacy’s childhood under a drinking father and on through his crimes. The song attempts a delicate balancing act, uttering an early “Oh my God” at Gacy’s crimes, but then portraying those crimes with a surprising softness. And to be honest, the song’s twist to some kind of introspection on the narrator’s part (And in my best behavior / I am really just like him / Look beneath the floorboards / For the secrets I have hid) comes far too easily. It’s not where the song’s power lies. For me, it’s the almost throwaway line “They were boys with their cars, summer jobs” and all of the potential those boys never had a chance to realize. I find it to be a profoundly creepy song.

Hayden’s “When This Is Over” finds its inspiration in the story of Susan Smith, who rolled a car containing her two small sons, still in their car seats, into a lake to drown. Hayden, though, tells the tale from the perspective of one of Smith’s sons, as the water is filling the car. Hayden’s vocals, somewhere between Tom Waits and cookie monster metal, leaves something to be desired, threatening to take the song from affecting to melodrama. But it’s hard not to get caught by the child’s confusion (“What did we do? / I cleaned my room just as she asked me to”), his faith that they’ll be rescued (“You’re still asleep, baby brother / I’ll wake you up when this is over”), or the final rationalization that when the searchers find the brothers in their pajamas, they’ll see that the whole thing was a mistake.

I have to wonder if either song would have had the same effect on me, flawed as both of them (to me) are, if I weren’t a parent. Once you have kids, you spend your days in a constant state of exhausting vigilance — not just against predators and evil, but also for accidents that could injure or maim your children. You’re seriously susceptible to portrayals of other people’s children suffering. You can’t help but think a quick “There but for the grace of God go I.” I’m honestly fine never hearing the Hayden song again, and not just because of the vocals.

I also caught both of these songs in a vulnerable state because I’d just seen an online comic strip called Camelia. I hesitate to even mention its name, and would also hesitate to post a link if I hadn’t lost it, because this thing shellshocked me for days. And I apparently saw one of the tamer, less soul-searing episodes (if that’s possible). Camelia is about a little girl being sexually abused by her father, but it’s also about the facade the entire family erects around the entire situation.

Camelia gets a stuffed bunny who comes to life at night and exclaims that he and Camelia will be best friends and have lots of great adventures. After a visit from Camelia’s dad (not shown), the rabbit kills itself by leaping from the upstairs bedroom window, landing in a pile of countless other stuffed animals who had done the same. The strip I read was an unsettling mix of black humor, evil, and absolutely no hope. I honestly didn’t have the courage to venture any further than that one strip, especially after reading some comments that discussed the series’s other events. It’s haunted me ever since.

Someone would logically ask, “Why the hell would you subject yourself to that? Why would you read or watch or listen to such unsettling stuff? Well, for one thing, I believe that art is supposed to take you out of your current time and place, whether it takes you somewhere serene (Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, for instance) or somewhere much darker. You learn a lot about yourself by how you react to uncomfortable art, even if you do your best to put your head back in the sand.

Granted, I didn’t need these songs or comics or video games or movies to make me realize that I find child abuse appalling, but even as I say that, I know that the distractions and ritual of daily life have a natural effect of placing a veil around my awareness of what goes on in the world. My father used to accuse me of being intrigued by darkness. That’s when I was a teenager, and therefore a bit of a nihilist (isn’t everyone, at that age?). I’ve since grown up enough to know that there are indeed good happy songs and, heck, even beauty to be found in the world. But uncomfortable art? There’s something to be said for it — and for being unsettled by it.