Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Fatal Attractions: "Snuff Fiction" and the Homicidal Romance

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Fatal Attractions: "Snuff Fiction" and the Homicidal Romance

Article excerpt

This essay explores the eroticized violence of the serial-killer romance or "snuff fiction," tracing the history of the "lust-killer" from his Gothic roots to his post-Gothic incarnations, and exploring the genre's penetrating critique of pop-culture romance conventions through its brutal portrayals of the homicidal romance.

There lives within the very flame of love A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it

--Shakespeare, Hamlet

We spring from "generations of murderers," claims Freud, with "the lust for killing in their blood" (297). It is perhaps no accident that Freud speaks here of murder in terms of "lust" (and famously, elsewhere, of lust in terms of murder): desire and violence often share a representational lexicon, borrowing from a register of urgency that reaches out of appetite toward satiation. This satiation, however, may bring in its very gratification what William Ian Miller calls the "sickness of surfeit" (110). Claudius's suggestively phallic reference to love's "wick" figures a passion that destroys itself through its own intemperance: in depicting a flame snuffing itself in the liquid generated by its own heat, Claudius's words epitomize Hamlet's claustrophobic idiom of excess, wherein love chokes in an "excess of the good" that transforms "the desired" into "the disgusting"; thus, "disgust has a kind of inevitable connection with the satisfaction of desire" (110-11). For Miller, the central paradox of disgust is its "allure," its ability to simultaneously repel and attract (108). Pierre Bourdieu calls disgust "the paradoxical experience of enjoyment extorted by violence" (488) and, in language marrying dread and desire, describes the "ambivalent experience" of this enjoyment as "the horrible seduction" (6).

It is such seduction--ambiguous, immoderate, and contradictory--that this essay investigates. Specifically, it explores the post-Gothic serial-killer romance, a fiction in which the killer eroticizes rather than justifies or hides his acts of murder, and in which murderous representations intensify the Gothic's longstanding concern with the intersections of desire and violence by adding to it an alertness to "murder's undetermined, metaphysical dimension" (Black 6) and its implications for subjectivity, authenticity, and narrative. The Gothic has always raised questions about the nature of the human subject, through its abhuman figures, its abject transgressions, and its bold boundary-crossings of bodily and cultural categories. Further, the Gothic has, since its inception, evinced an ongoing fascination with masquerade, falsification, inauthenticity, and the counterfeit (Hogle 293). The post-Gothic serial-killer narrative adds to all this a new intensification of traditional Gothic's ploy of unreliability, inserting a self-conscious focus on textuality and our complicity with it, even as it complicates that complicity with questions about the reality of what we witness; this infuses Gothic's historical embedding in the counterfeit with a postmodern, poststructuralist alertness to simulation as a precondition to all forms of narrative. As scenes of violence so extreme that they take on the quality of animation unfold in the post-Gothic serial killer narrative, they increasingly raise questions about their own reality. Such scenes are replayed to the degree that they might be read as obsessive fantasies, or drug-induced hallucinations, or even as mendacious memoir or fragments of an unfinished novel. In this way, the textual uncertainty highlighted in the post-Gothic text escalates the ambiguities of traditional Gothic to new levels, in which such uncertainty makes it almost impossible to distinguish between the credible and the hallucinogenic or fantastical. A scene in Dennis Cooper's novel Frisk exemplifies this: we encounter two letters, one confessing to a series of grisly murders and one asserting the other is a lie, an epistolary trap to lure a potential accomplice into real murder. …

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