In The Pure And The Hated the idea of split personality is a central theme. It relates to what identity is and how irrational impulses may drive a character.
As I trace the roots of horror fiction in Gothic and look at how it has evolved, I want to look at some of the themes of the genre. The theme of the double occurs early on in works such as Poe’s story William Wilson, in which the protagonist encounters his negative doppelganger. It is there in Dostoyevsky’s The Double, which centres on a government clerk who goes mad, obsessed by the idea that a fellow clerk has usurped his identity. It deals with the internal psychological struggle of its main character, Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, who repeatedly encounters someone who is his exact double in appearance but confident, aggressive, and extroverted, characteristics that are the polar opposites to those of the toadying “pushover” protagonist.
The theme throws up elements of the human struggle with identity, which is at the core of the subversions Horror executes in its narratives. The genre undermines certainties, and identity, with all its accompanying irrationalities.
R.L. Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde is the most famous example of the double in literature. While critics have attempted to contain the narrative as an exploration of split personality it transcends their reductionist attempts and remains an uneasy nightmare on the edge of sanity. The protagonist discovers a potion that alters him, both reducing him to a simian character, interestingly at a time when easy Victorian complacencies were undermined by Darwin’s The Origin Of Species, and also liberating him to acts which affronted Victorian mores around sexuality. The novel remains a classic in doppelganger literature, a compelling take on identity, splitting, conditioning and addiction.
Years later, Stephen King, the master of modern Horror, wrote the brilliant The Dark Half. In the novel Thad Beaumont is an author whose own books – cerebral literary fiction – are not very successful. However, under the pen name “George Stark”, he writes highly successful crime novels about a violent killer named Alexis Machine. When Thad’s authorship of Stark’s novels becomes public knowledge, Thad and his wife, Elizabeth, decide to stage a mock funeral for his alter ego. His epitaph at the local cemetery says it all: “Not A Very Nice Guy”.
Stark, however, emerges as a physical entity and goes on a killing spree, gruesomely murdering everyone he perceives responsible for his “death” – Thad’s editor, agent, and the People interviewer, among others. Thad, meanwhile, is plagued by surreal nightmares. Stark’s murders are investigated by Alan Pangborn, the sheriff of the neighbouring town of Castle Rock, who finds Thad’s voice and fingerprints at the crime scenes. This evidence, and Thad’s unwillingness to answer his questions, causes Pangborn to believe that Thad – despite having alibis is responsible for the murders.
I want to look further at how Horror undermines identity. I will also look at psychoanalytic perspectives on the genre.
The Pure And The Hated uses a split personality to explore moral dimensions within a family that is hiding secrets. It explores what happens when those secrets are exposed.