Episode 6: Beware the Outsider

In the previous episode, I talked about how being the outsider can be scary, leave you more susceptible to harm, but that isn’t always the case.

Spain’s conquistadors were “outsiders” when they arrived in the “new world,” for example, but on balance, they weren’t the ones in jeopardy. Entire native civilizations were, instead.

On the lighter side of things, you know who else is an outsider? Superman. Kal-el is an alien, but despite some high-level parallels between his experience and the immigrant or refugee experience, no ultimately he’s a long, long way from being similar to the average person forced from their homeland due to a calamity. Most people don’t end up in a place where they happen to perfectly resemble the majority of the population, can be assimilated into the culture with zero effort, and, oh yes, happen to imbued with powers that would enable them to conquer everyone around them if they so desired, just because their new home shines a different kind of sunlight on them.

I dare say, in fact, that literally no one in the real world has had a comparable experience.

Comic book writers have explored the idea of Superman (or a reasonable facsimile of him) running amok, causing unfathomable destruction and / or spreading horror among the common folk. There is Ultraman (the DC villain, not the toksatsu hero), The Plutonian, Kid Marvelman, Omni-Man and more.

Other storytellers have told tales of mysterious and ultimately terrifying outsiders. From Black Sabbath in their song “Iron Man,” to (of particular interest to me) Michael McDowell in his fascinating horror saga Blackwater, some authors have skillfully examined and exploited our wariness of strangers.

Full Episode Script

Note: This is the first episode where I started reading from a script (with minor improvisations sprinkled in) as opposed to reading from bullet-pointed list of notes.

There once was a man who was either from the future or who was from our time and traveled into the future. I’ve read conflicting reports. Either way, what he saw in the future was an apocalyptic, cataclysmic dystopia. The end of the world. The fall of humanity wrought by some unknown horror. And seeing this, he knew what had to be done. So he came back to our time to warn us. But something went wrong.

How his time machine functioned is unknown, except that it apparently somehow incorporated a magnetic field. Some disastrous magnetic mishap turned his body into metal. Steel, lead, some other alloy, it really doesn’t make a difference the exact type of metal. He’d become known as the iron man. Ignored or viewed as an oddity by the rest of humankind, the very same people he once sought to save. Unable to communicate, barely able to move, at least for a time, his condition and ostracism eventually drives him mad, until eventually it turns out that the iron man is in fact capable of moving, and much more. He’s capable of bringing about the Armageddon he had foreseen.

The Black Sabbath song Iron Man is a succinct, efficient nightmare. A horror story about a man whose heroic ambitions inadvertently render him an outsider, and whose outsider status drives him to become the world’s greatest villain.

Last episode I talked about how scary it can be to be the outsider. But as we saw in multiple examples from that episode, sometimes the scared outsider turns into the scary outsider.

But there are other occasions, in fiction and in reality, sometimes an outsider starts and ends the story as the primary threat. Historically, large forces of ill-intentioned outsiders have been responsible for the destruction or declination of entire cultures. The Sea People of the Bronze Age. The Conquistadors in the Western Hemisphere. The Portuguese, among other European kingdoms, in Africa. The words foreign and invaders are often loaded words now thrown about casually and in bad faith, but in certain historical contexts they applied to a literal invasion force: organized and motivated, determined to plunder, consume or occupy.

The fear of such aggressive, conflict-chasing and death-dealing outsiders in any era is, of course, understandable. And for some people it was a cloud hovering not far above their heads for most if not all of their lives. And that still applies, sadly, in some battle-torn parts of the world.

So while some form of prejudice often inspires fear of an outsider, in some cases the fear is born of suspicion set by direct, impactful precedent.

And this has been exploited in fiction as a way to thrill and chill readers and watchers for a long time. The British author Sir George Tomkyns Chesney essentially created an entire subgenre called “invasion literature” with his novella The Battle of Dorking, the story of a Britain overrun by a German-speaking force referred to only as The Enemy or… The Other Power.

Chesney’s story is effectively the progenitor of stories that range from War of the Worlds to Red Dawn. From the early spy novel The Riddle of the Sands to the comic We Stand on Guard to the television series V. All of these stories–and many others like them–feature a fearful, coordinated and often sudden assault from a literal army of outsiders, some coming from as far as deep space, and others from as close as the country next door.

But there are, of course, other stories that don’t involve such large-scale, monumental conflicts. Stories of frightening outsiders who don’t come from some distant land, but are nonetheless people on the fringes of society. They may act alone, or at least in much smaller, tighter numbers. And yet to the lives they impact, in that moment, they may seem no less apocalyptic than an armada of warships appearing off the coastline. Charles Manson and his “family” are an obvious, horrifying non-fiction example. The true crime book The Man From the Train hypothesizes that a lone outsider–a man named Paul Mueller–road the rails from town to town killing entire families in the early 20th century.

In fiction, the great Richard Matheson once wrote of another travelling purveyor of terror, albeit one who did not directly kill. In his short story “The Distributor,” Matheson tells of a man, Theodore Gordon, who shows up in a pleasant-enough suburb solely to surreptitiously sow suspicion and paranoia, turn neighbors against one another, ruin lives, and then move on. Is he working for a higher authority? Or is this his own personal project? We never find out, we just know that he’s terrifyingly effective at what he does.

A similarly-behaved, more clearly motivated group of alien outsiders appear in the classic Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” Like Theodore Gordon, their aim is to initiate enough discord to make the people of an idyllic neighborhood attack each other. For the aliens, this is a dry run showing how easy it would be for them to conquer Earth just by distantly causing a power outage, turning on a car engine at an opportune time, and after that, mostly sitting back and letting the group destroy itself.

Other extra-terrestrial or preternatural outsiders intent on destroying small towns might take a more direct approach. The aliens in Alice Sheldon’s “The Screwfly Solution” instigate global femicide to eliminate humankind so that they can have the Earth for themselves. Mr. Dark, head of the traveling carnival in Something Wicked this Way Comes, is an active collector of lives. The same could be said of Leland Gaunt in Stephen King’s Needful Things. Another King story, The Storm of the Century gives us yet another demonic solo outsider who invades a town and openly spreads mayhem and terror.

And then there is a much lesser-known outsider, created by another horror novelist who got his start in the 70’s. Michael McDowell wrote some very compelling stories that have gotten some more attention in recent years courtesy of Will Erickson’s TooMuchHorrorFiction blog and through being reissued by Valancourt Books, but they are still largely under the radar for many horror fans. And his magnum opus, perhaps, is the Blackwater Saga, which begins with a flood that brings a very strange woman with no history into the town of Perdido, Alabama, and particularly into the world of the Caskey family, which will never be the same after her arrival.

Elinor Dammert should be a much more notable villain–or anti-villain–in the annals of horror fiction. She is uniquely compelling. Seemingly overpowered and yet, in the end, dependent on the help of ordinary people. Sometimes cold, yet clearly determined and inspired. Smart and calculating, but also impetuous and somewhat short-sighted. Murderously evil, yet also the benevolent bringer of prosperity to a family and even an entire town that she comes to think of as her own.

If you haven’t read the Blackwater Saga, and odds are you haven’t, I highly recommend. It’s not full-force, propulsive horror, and has very long stretches of drama, in fact, but it’s ever-unnerving and disquieting, particularly in the way that Elinor insinuates herself into Perdido’s most prominent family, the Caskey’s, and can lull you into thinking, time and again, that she’s good guy in the story. At least until the next time she coldly and viciously murders someone, in the process creating a vengeful ghost that will settle for killing others to injure Elinor emotionally in place of being able to get to her directly. And I’ll give you a second to stop here in case you don’t want to hear anymore because you’d rather read it for yourself.

Okay, if you’re still here, or you’ve come back after reading it, let’s get into what Elinor Dammert seems to be. I say seems because it’s never fully defined–by design–in the novel. She appears to be some kind of reptilian river goddess. She is, quite literally, some kind of monster–for lack of a better word–wearing a human disguise. Her nature is essentially revealed very early on (and also on the most recent cover of the book since it’s been reissued). She is discovered in a hotel room after flood waters have receded, with the water line in the room itself being too high for her to have survived inside waiting to be rescued as she claims. Her powers of persuasion seem to make the target of her temptations–Oscar Caskey–oblivious to this, though it’s not lost on Bray, a black man employed to be of general service to the Caskeys. Incidentally, in something of a standard trope for the genre at the time, many of the black characters–save for one who grows loyal to Elinor–are essentially rendered outsiders and sidelined by the fact that they recognize something strange is going on and are trying to quietly disengage from whatever it is.

Back to Elinor, she can either control the weather, at least on occasion, or possesses such intimate knowledge of it that she can use it to her advantage. Hence when a sufficiently strong storm arises out of nowhere, she makes sure that a rival is on the road when it arrives, being driven through the storm, so that said rival can die in a car “accident.”

Like several of Elinor’s victims, the woman who dies in that “accident” was a lousy person who had very recently harmed a child. Other victims include the psychotically and abusively overbearing Caskey matriarch–a staple character in Michael McDowell novels–and a violent ex-husband. Characters you’re not expected to sympathize with. But then there are also children who she attacks and kills to strengthen herself when needed, including a mentally handicapped boy who follows Elinor innocently to be sacrificed in the river that…birthed her? Or is her? Something in between, it’s hard to say. It’s much easier to say that that boy didn’t deserve what happened to him, and it gives us all the proof we’ll ever need that Elinor is not above killing an innocent if it will help her get what she wants.

And what does she want? Elinor is an ultimate outsider. She’s not even human. Yet she seemingly wants to simply live a human life. To experience love, marriage, motherhood and grand-motherhood. Friendship and kinship. Financial success, and the luxuries and pleasures that come with it. All of these things. But she wants them on her own terms, which is that of a supernatural being–a demigod or deity or something along those lines; something that ranks above mere “creature” status. She does not relinquish her powers in her pursuit of a more ordinary, mortal existence, thus eliminating the possibility that this stage of her existence could ever be “ordinary.”  She seems content to compete “fairly”–on human terms–with her enemies only for so long. At a certain point, each and every time, when she either runs out of patience or it looks like she might not completely get her way, she decides to stop play-acting as a regular person and be herself again. This never comes across as a plot convenience or contrivance, the character forgetting or failing to use their powers for no reason until the author decides it’s time to move the plot along. This is her character. This is who she is. Someone who wants to pretend to be part of a lesser, more vulnerable group, but not at the expense of giving up the plans she has for herself that involve that group. Elinor is a manipulator and murderer, and ultimately proves quite selfish, delivering a speech late in the novel that justifies all the suffering others have been through due to her machinations, and absolving herself of any wrongdoing.

This, of course, makes sense for a godlike being with little concept of limitations, faults, consequences. She’s incapable of feeling the same kind of suffering she is even indirectly is responsible for. And works as a metaphor for certain kinds of treacherous, powerful outsiders we might encounter without fully knowing it in the real world; the person who wants to present themselves as down to earth but whose casual decisions can impact a number of lives, and whose status insulates them from real repercussions. Think of a high-ranking executive who says or does something that makes people want to stop doing business with their company. Who would really suffer from the fallout of that? The exec who even if they are forced out might still possess generational wealth? Or the employees potentially facing cutbacks or layoffs, who are truly part of an entirely different group from that executive despite technically belonging to the same organization?

So it is with Elinor, just on a more deliberately homicidal scale. Beyond that, even, Elinor’s true feelings about humankind are revealed in how she treats her two children. One of her daughters, in her youth, is a sickly child. The other is a tiny infant, but grows to be healthy. Elinor gives up the healthy child to be raised Oscar’s horrible mother–Mary-Love–in what Mary-Love takes a sign of her continued influence over the family. Truthfully, Elinor doesn’t care  for the healthy girl, Miriam, because she recognizes almost immediately that Miriam is too human, too unlike her. She gives birth solely to use her as leverage to negotiate favorable terms with Mary-Love. Elinor’s second child, the sick girl, Frances, is sick because she never fully belongs on the land with people. Later in life she discovers that she is far more at home in the water, to a point that she eventually never wants to come out of it again. This is the girl that Elinor truly loves. The one who is an outsider, who will, in her more monstrous state, find that she has a natural urge to devour people more than walk among them.

And maybe this was one of Elinor’s primary goals–to extend her lineage, although it’s fairly apparent she could have done this without the long-con masquerade. So while it might have been one of her goals, it wasn’t the only one. Perhaps she was fascinated by Oscar, who’s not a particularly fascinating individual, but you can never account for someone’s taste in other people. Maybe she was just bored with being the outsider, the river monster never seen by anyone who could live to tell the tale, and wanted to give this whole being human thing a go before her time is up. She ends up giving it a pretty full ride, too, living a long adult life, seeing her daughters and even grandchildren grow to adulthood. But in the end, although she may sometimes think she wants to belong, her actions tell the real story.

Elinor doesn’t want to be part of the group, she wants to use parts of the group, while discarding others. In the end, en route to killing her, she manages to turn Mary-Love into an outsider within her own family, which, to be fair, Mary-Love married into just like Elinor. And it again warrants a mention that, like other Southern mothers in McDowell’s novels, is a bit of an evil person in her own right. Part One of my second-favorite McDowell book, The Elementals, is titled “Savage Mothers.” A play on words because the last name of the focus family in that story is “Savage,” but still, the meaning is very apparent. I’m not here to play armchair psychologist either, so I won’t speculate as to why this was a theme he sought to revisit. But the Blackwater saga alone gives us no shortage of “savage mothers,” with Elinor herself become one to an extent. And that isn’t limited to how she treats the one child she initially gives up and generally shows little affection toward, it manifests in how she treats the matriarch she usurps.

For an imperfect parallel from the animal kingdom, there are ants called “slave-makers,” and one way one type of slave-maker might stealthily take over a colony is to feign harmlessness–in their case the ultimate harmlessness of playing dead–to trick the worker ants into bringing them into the nest. Once inside, the slave-maker kills the original queen and covers herself in the dead queen’s pheromones, leaving the rest of the colony none the wiser. This is Elinor Dammert, except of course deific instead of insectile. And therefore much more dangerous and frightening.

But one needn’t be a Southern alligator-goddess to be a menacing outsider.        

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