CREEPY CLOWNS ARE THE NEW ZOMBIES

“Dost thou know the difference, my boy, between a bitter fool and a sweet fool?”

–Fool, King Lear, Act I Scene 4, William Shakespeare

So are clowns the new zombies? I don’t mean to draw too much attention to a fad that will likely fade much faster than the undead who have risen and kept stalking through pop-culture for decades now. But I do think the media’s current fondness for “creepy clown” sightings, along with lots of pranksters joining in may be a certain kind of colorful canary in a certain kind of collapsing coal mine that is worth exploring.

Before we go further, though, I’d like to make a distinction between “creepy” clowns and what I’ll call “spooky” clowns. “Spooky” clowns, in my view, are part of an entertainment and arts profession that delights in performance art, imaginatively dark makeup and costuming, and engages in everything from fire juggling to stapling each other’s flesh to the strains of gypsy jazz. I’m very fond of spooky clowns, and when I went to Portland, Oregon, to a horror convention a few years back, an evening of smoking and drinking with spooky and brilliant clowns was by itself worth the trip.

But when I talk about current news articles concerning “creepy” clowns trying to lure kids into the woods for money, that’s an entirely different wad of face-paint. So what’s up with the clown-thing? It’s not like they haven’t been a theme for as long as zombies, vampires and werewolves. Google them and you’ll get the works—American Horror Story, Stephen King, Rob Zombie, John Wayne Gacy, to name a few. And yet the fact that we currently have this phenomena of news items about people seeing them “out of place” in typical yet menacing combinations of baggy clothing, wigs, and makeup, means there has been a new and foreboding incarnation of the threatening fool.

Literary criticism will tell us that fools and clowns represent an inversion of societal structure. Shakespearean fools subvert the roles of the highest and lowest in European history—who is the real clown, the king or the jester, they ask. Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin offers his theory of the carnivalesque—that everyday folks, when participating in “carnival” situations, such as, in contemporary terms, holidays like Halloween and traditions like Spring Break and Homecoming, can break out of traditional roles and commit subversive acts with impunity. Some would say the archetype of the creepy clown comes in part out of this tradition. And yet the point of the aforementioned “subversive” behavior is that it’s condoned—like you can go topless on Spring Break and still grow up to be a lawyer right?

So then, whence comes the menace, and more importantly, the current popularity, of the creepy clown? I think it’s likely a complex story, but I’ll offer what might be one clue here, starting with thoughts on the zombie-craze. This got me thinking about the clown sightings not so much because of what the zombie-craze is wholly about, but what I have frequently overheard people say about it in casual conversation—that the popularity of zombies comes from fearing that the masses are numb dimwits who do what they’re told. The zombies are supposedly symbols of people who work bland jobs and just live to eat and shop and don’t question their existence. They obey without knowing they are obeying. The heroes in zombie stories therefore, are the people trying to “survive”—live “real” lives—without becoming zombies.

Okay, let’s entertain that concept for a moment, that the “zombie” symbol can be tagged to whoever we think these zombie-masses might be. One could be a Trump hero fighting Clinton zombies or a Clinton hero fighting Trump zombies or a prepper-conspiracy-theorist fighting off Oak Grove zombies. However you cut it, it’s a cornucopia of rotten choices. But maybe that’s just where we bring on the clowns—maybe there’s a bit of a consciousness developing that there really is no “other” to deem the zombies. Maybe there’s a sense of trapped-ness that the idea of droves obedient undead consumers doesn’t conveniently sum-up.

Some have offered theories that clowns can be scary because their appearance occupies the “uncanny valley”. Masahiro Mori, a Japanese Engineering professor, coined the term when talking about why life-like robots can seem scary (see interview). Some argue clowns can occupy this “uncanny valley” with their “life-like” appearance with a face that is frozen in some ways like a robot’s. But here’s where I point out an important difference—typically, clowns’ faces are frozen in an happy state. They do not merely possess a life-like appearance—they possess a happiness-like appearance. Except creepy clowns aren’t happy. Creepy clowns, like John Wayne Gacy, would just as soon say “kiss my ass” (his last words before his lethal injection) after killing your kids. They’d just as soon stab you as jingle their bells and giggle. A disturbing notion, but then, think of it in contrast to the folk-theories on the zombie-craze—maybe the people with the bland jobs shopping at the mall who before were going to metaphorically eat your brains, maybe they’re not so obedient after all. Maybe for some of us, there are cracks showing in the smiles painted on our faces. Maybe when we scratch our heads, wondering where all the so-called random violence is coming from, maybe there’s a little bit of orange hair and greasepaint under our nails. I offer the possibility that the popularity of the creepy clown-craze could be a backlash to forced happiness, an anger that forced discord between our outsides and the insides can have dangerous results. Ever have to give service with a smile when inside you are not smiling at all? Ever considered that feeling that way every day is freezing your face into a grotesque state of happiness and anger?

Of course most of the time we can separate stress from leisure, say that’s how the polka-dotted ball bounces and move on. But I do wonder, in a time of increasing automation, a time when concepts of an automated dystopia are coming frighteningly close to reality, if the idea of the vengeful clown, frozen in a smile, has become too appealing for some of us to resist. For these folks, it’s time to stand in the weeds beside the highway with a wig, baggy pajamas and a steak knife—just as a prank, of course—we hope…

Carl R. Moore is the author of Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, forthcoming from Charon Coin Press.

Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

The Crimes of Heaven and Hell is back in action. Find below an installment of the Is That an Old Book? review series. For more on that concept, the link is here. Meanwhile, suffice it to say that a health issue, combined with a rigorous writing and revising schedule with my publisher, has kept me more than occupied, and the blog has had to go on sabbatical. It’s back however, and I hope this fall will be a fruitful time for all forms of writing. As for an update on Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, I have been in recent communication with Charon Coin Press that we are still on track, yet do not yet have a release date. As soon as I know, it will certainly be announced here. In the meantime, enjoy the following review of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself:

A friend first handed me Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself because they knew I was a George R. R. Martin fan. Of course, the series A Song of Ice and Fire has gotten so popular its mere mention threatens the conversation with the juggernaut of its massive context rumbling over all else. This type of phenomena takes attention away from the aesthetic that made such stories popular in the first place. In the case of A Song of Ice and Fire, a significant part of its strength lies in its mercilessness. The story is merciless not only with its characters, but with any form of the comforting hope that usually accompanies fantasies and other stories that are considered to lend themselves well to escapism. With The Blade Itself, Abercrombie delivers a story that rekindles that sense of how extremely difficult it is to have a feeling of hope in the face of crushing odds and forces that leave a protagonist trapped and vulnerable to fate. An even more intriguing aspect of Abercrombie’s effort resides in the story’s lack of relying simply on whether a character lives or dies to create drama, but whether a character is able to reach their own realistically developed personal goals and desires. Survival of the soul becomes as important as the survival of the body beneath the looming specter of invasion and war.

The book draws an intriguing contrast between innovative characterization and common fantasy themes. Many of the scenes take place in a large city called the Agriont, a sort of late medieval fortress mixed with budding mercantilist berg. The ruling oligarchy and military vie for power while trying to simultaneously prepare for an invasion from the north. Jezal, a slacker of an army officer from a wealthy family, prepares for a fencing contest against a hardened champion while trying his best to ignore more serious political realities. Unsure of his odds, he detests his training and trainer, and remotely fears what an actual war will mean for his future. He develops some redeeming qualities when, against his better judgment, he finds himself falling in love with his commanding officer’s sister, Ardee West. Ardee is herself an exiled peasant who resents her dependence on her brother’s station for survival. Abused and powerless, she knows the limits of her option too well. Though a somewhat minor character effaced by most reviewers, she earns interest by well-sketched frustration and attempts to maintain her own a quiet yet gritty brand of bravery. Her self-destructive habits reflect an internal turmoil over how to confront her situation head-on without empowering her with some kind of ridiculous deus ex machina, oh-just-cast-a-spell or draw-a-sword solution. It is this type of real decision making set within a fantasy context that revives the aforementioned feeling of merciless fate one got in the early installments of A Song of Ice and Fire. The relationship between Ardee and Jezal, along with the build-up to the duel, becomes one of the book’s main story arcs and vehicles for developing the characters in the Agriont. Sand dan Glokta, another character who earns the reader’s sympathy very gradually, is a former POW turned torturer, who suffers constantly from his former wounds and present knowledge that helping the city’s ruling oligarchy is to paint oneself into a corner with a bucket of blood. Through these characters’ points of view we enjoy the unfolding tragedy of what amounts to a medieval dystopia about to devour itself.

As these events are taking place, another pair of story arcs, one in the frozen north, another in the desert south, begin to creep toward center stage. Logen Ninefingers, a reluctant northern warrior and former servant of a sadistic king, fights to survive as the leader of a troop of rogue bandits. A kind of Conan-meets-Robin-Hood figure, he regrets serving the cruel and instead enlists in the service of Bayaz, a merlin-like wizard who is returning to attempt to restore some balance to the lands. As close to ‘forces of good’ as the novel gets, Logen and Bayaz carry their rough ethics south to the Agriont and reveal a connection to the world’s rich history and mythology which allows them to make a bid to possibly thwart the dystopian oligarchy.

The novel contains many other worthy characters, as well as many other worthy subplots. Suffice it to say that the outcome of Jezal’s duel and love interest, as well as the outcomes of Logen’s and Bayaz’s quests, do not hinge simply on whether they live or die. Without spoiling the duel’s outcome entirely here, I will only say that the well-sketched resolution might have one reviewing the meaning of the word ‘Pyrrhic’. While I grant that the action sequences might be a little slow for some readers, overall, The Blade Itself offers enough originality and insight to make it a welcome addition to the ranks of high-quality ‘adult’ fantasy, with the especially impressive quality of not relying on simplistic kill-or-be-killed outcomes.