Sunday, May 21, 2017

Two Interpretations of Deadly Black Goo

In 1982, the cult classic Creepshow hit cinemas. Written by Stephen King and directed by George Romero, this anthology film was designed to be an homage to the beloved EC horror comics of the 1950s, Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear. Similar to the comics, it features five unconnected stories, some serious, some darkly humorous, and some a mixture of both. Also like the comics, the theme that irresponsible behavior leads to severe consequences is prevalent. Murderers never get away with their crimes, and despicable people get what's coming to them. (Interestingly enough, King himself plays a yokel named Jordy Verrill in one of the segments, to great effect.)

Five years later, Creepshow 2 was released. Though produced by the same team, it is, like many sequels, generally considered to be inferior to its predecessor. It still packs a wallop, though, with its top-notch special effects and eerie cinematography, and features a fantastic animated frame story involving a young horror-comic fan and a group of bullies. It only has three stories (a fourth was planned but never completed), but all are arguably excellent. It takes a different approach in the way it connects to the comics, which is quite satisfying. (King has a bit part in this one, as well, as a truck driver who makes a couple of flippant remarks about a hit-and-run.)

The second story, “The Raft,” is based on a yarn that King published in Gallery in 1982 and later appeared in his 1985 collection Skeleton Crew. Four college kids are headed to a mountain lake in late September for a weekend of sex and recreational drug use. To reach the eponymous raft, they must swim fifty yards or so through icy water. Already, viewers are wondering why the hell they thought it was a good idea to do something better suited to summer weather; the only explanation seems to be that the place will be deserted, thus giving them carte blanche to party down unobserved. I have no idea what's supposed to be so special about the raft, but it's clearly a big deal to these idiots.

Once they reach their destination, they notice a black slick in the water that appears to be moving. One of the girls foolishly sticks a finger in it and is pulled off the raft and devoured. Naturally, the other three are panic stricken, realizing that trying to get back to shore is highly unlikely to work, as the thing can probably move faster than they can swim. To make a long story short, two of the others get eaten, and the remaining one, cold and exhausted, decides to make a break for it. He manages to reach shore, but the goo turns into a wave and engulfs him.

The nature of the black stuff is never explained, and it leaves viewers to speculate about what it might be. As the story ends, the camera pans over to a “No Swimming” sign hidden in the woods, which serves as a kind of catharsis. One has to wonder, though, about the lake's previous visitors. It doesn't seem as though they were eaten because it would have been a big deal, and everyone would have known to stay away. Is the sign even related to the ooze, or was there some other reason that swimming was forbidden? The sign has clearly been there for a while, as vegetation has grown around it, so what are we to conclude? It would be fair to say that the thing hadn't always been there, that its incursion into the lake is, in fact, fairly recent, and that the sign was just thrown in as a joke to wrap the story up neatly.

One of the most well-known monsters in Dungeons & Dragons is the black pudding. Not unlike the goo in Creepshow 2, it is a large, moving mass of hungry darkness. It has been a part of the game since its first edition. Incapable of thought, it is an amoral killing machine that hangs out in the shadows of dungeons and caves, waiting to devour hapless adventurers. When Paizo introduced the Pathfinder roleplaying game, it included the black pudding in its first Bestiary. After much demand from fans, it received its own miniature in the latest set; it looks about as silly as you'd imagine, but I had to have one.

I've always found it humorous that the creature is called a black pudding because that's the name of a dish popular in England and Scotland. Over here, we associate “pudding” with the sweet, creamy Jell-O stuff. On the other side of the pond, it can refer to a number of different things. Yorkshire pudding, for example, is a kind of bready thing served with beef and gravy. Pudding in a general sense can refer to dessert. (In a Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch, the quixotic Mr. Badger requests whiskey for pudding, as well as for all of the other courses, resulting in all of the actors deciding to cut the sketch short for being too silly.) A black pudding, however, is something else, which Americans are likely to find distasteful.

The author/intelligence agent W. Somerset Maugham once remarked that if you want to dine well in England, eat breakfast three times a day. The British are not known for their cuisine (which might explain why there are so many Indian restaurants there), but the “full breakfast” is exquisite. In addition to eggs, bacon, hash browns, and sausage, it also includes baked beans, half a tomato, and mushrooms, things not normally associated with breakfast in the States. I have had the pleasure of having this meal a few times. Its preparation is pretty time consuming, so it's not something one would simply whip up on a whim. The other common ingredient in this meal is black pudding, which is essentially—get ready—fried blood. Yes, sir. They mix blood with fat and barley and fry it up in a skillet. The resulting concoction is indeed black.

But enough about that.

I have read Stephen King's nonfiction works On Writing and Danse Macabre, both of which contain autobiographical information, and he never once mentions having played D&D. It seems unlikely that he ever took an interest in it, as most of his time has been consumed by writing. The game was first released in 1974, the same year that King's first novel, Carrie, was published. Its success wasn't immediate, and he received a relatively small advance, so he continued writing furiously, not seeing it as his breakthrough. When the novel was published in paperback, his work finally paid off, and once his subsequent novels 'Salem's Lot and The Shining came out, he had established himself as America's premiere horror author. Even after that, though, he continued to churn out novels, stories, and screenplays like mad. He does not appear to be a gamer.

What I'm getting at is that the thing in the lake and the black pudding have nothing to do with each other. King did not get the idea for his story from D&D. They serve similar purposes within their respective narratives, but they are unrelated. Both are derived from an idea that has likely crossed all of our minds at some point: the menace of shadows. Fear of the dark is a common thing, especially among children, and what are shadows if not fragments of darkness that constantly surround us? Light and darkness coexist, but darkness is more pervasive. You can find areas of complete darkness (inside the earth, for example), but areas of light without shadow are nonexistent. Once you introduce an object into light, a shadow is cast. And what if those shadows have the power to hurt us, devour us? It is also clearly a metaphor for the idea of becoming lost in the darkness.

In the Doctor Who episode “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead,” the Doctor and his allies are threatened by the Vashta Nerada, creatures that live in shadows and, not unlike piranha, skeletonize those who happen into their territory. This is, of course, a different concept than an ooze that devours you, but it's kind of the same thing.

In short, stay out of the shadows, and don't swim in remote mountain lakes unless you're looking to become a slime's next meal.

No comments:

Post a Comment