Friday, October 31, 2014

The Satanic Verse and its Meter

It rubs the lotion on the skin
or else it gets the hose again.
One of the creepiest verses ever included in a novel, the above lines are delivered in a sing-song voice by Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb, the murderer in Silence of the Lambs. I always thought that the creepiness of the line was a result of an adult, delivering a line that sounds like it could be from a children's nursery rhyme. The more I reflect on it, though, I am not so sure.
Darkness falls across the land.
The midnight hour is close at hand
Creatures crawl in search of blood
to terrorize y'all's neighborhood.
The Thriller album was amazing. For a kid of the eighties, it was the schoolroom basis for all water cooler talk. Did you see it? (I hadn't, because we didn't have cable, but I was not going to admit to a MTV-less household). 'Was it not amazing?' 'Was it not creepy?' 'I love those dance moves.' And the tune itself was incredibly sticky - one of the most invasive earworms ever. Add to that the Vincent Price voiceover on the creepy interlude, and it was a seminal song for a generation.
He thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts.
This line from Stephen King's It, is delivered by the child version of Stuttering Bill, the hero of the book. It is a tongue twister that is ostensibly used to help those who have trouble with sibilants in their speech to practice variations that require that attention be paid to the pronunciation. Its use in the book, however, becomes more than just a shibboleth. It is an incantation, an invocation, even a plea to the powers that can fight evil. The struggle of the hero with the speech impediment, working to perfect the phrase, adds to the suspense. And when it is used again by the adult Bill, revisiting all of his childhood struggles (including the conquered and now-forgotten stutter), the incantation and its creepiness increases.
Once upon a midnight dreary as I pondered, weak and weary..... quoth the Raven, 'nevermore.'

Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble...

Because I could not stop for death...

What is it about these pieces particularly that make them seem sinister?

I have been thinking about it a lot, and am convinced that the chilling nature of the rhyme comes from the fact that they are all written in Iambic Tetrameter. We all know the iamb - the metric foot that goes BAbump. But we are more comfortable with the pentameter. Ba DUM Ba DUM, Ba DUM,Ba DUM, Ba DUM. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Now is the Winter of our discontent. But soft, what light through yonder window breaks... The iambic pentameter replicates normal speech patterns, but with emphasis. Political speeches are often deliviered in a modified iambic pentameter - I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors”, and do so to very positive effect.

The tetrameter, by contrast, is missing something - that crucial foot that would complete the line. And because the line is shorter, the rhythm seems exaggerated. Add a clear rhyme to the end, and it becomes sing-song. It lacks the cadence of normal speech, and gives something quite different.

We accept much variation within adult human society.  But an adult who does not follow normal speech patterns is an adult who will attract attention of a very negative sort.  As with the line they deliver, a rhyming adult seems to have something missing.  In a real way, they represent all that goes BaBUMP in the night.

Once we have accepted the premise that there is something sinister about the pattern, it brings every poem that uses it into question, and makes us re-read it with the voice of Vincent Price echoing in our heads.

Just watch what happens in Christopher Marlowe's The Passionate Shepherd to his Love:

COME live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.

There will we sit upon the rocks
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

There will I make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies, 10
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider'd all with leaves of myrtle.

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull,
Fair linèd slippers for the cold, 15
With buckles of the purest gold.

A belt of straw and ivy buds
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my Love. 20

Thy silver dishes for thy meat
As precious as the gods do eat,
Shall on an ivory table be
Prepared each day for thee and me.

The shepherd swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my Love.

When read with an eye to the iambic tetrameter, there almost seems to be a hiss associated with every line. The lines are delivered from Hades to Persephone, rather than a shepherd to his love.
Happy Halloween!