Sunday, August 13, 2006

Curses! Curses!


By curses, I don't mean, me proud beauty, the villain's maledictions while twirling his moustachios, fingering his beard, or some other bermuda triangle.
While considering paranormals and paranormal qualities yesterday, it occurred to me I don't remember reading a good curse contribution to a plot since Sax Rohmer, or maybe the Lady of Shalott.
Their benevolent obverse or twin - prophecies - are still available in abundance, however, in many fantasies.
But curses, except as vivid vocal addenda, seem to have fallen into disrepute as a raison d'etre, and their plot contributions reduced to a tidy tack-on as an occasional shriek from an anonymous wise woman in front of her cottage or old gypsy vagrant conveniently detached from her caravan.
Curses have a long history as part of the social security system - from grave robbing to bibliomaniacs. Only the names of the gods invoked changed.
Thought it was a pity they no longer had any force with the public when I read the text of a curse - included as a matter of course in medieval manuscripts - on Wikipedia:
For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hands and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying out for mercy, and let there be no surcease to his agony...Let bookworms gnaw at his entrails...
Bookworms. Heh. Heh.
And this, I understand, is one of the milder examples.
A few curses have persisted in the modern consciousness: the Curse of Tutankhamen (science) The Scottish Play (theatre), the Curse of the Bambino( sport), the Hope Diamond (treasure).
Curses may be part basis for some of our feeble superstitions, but they do seem to have languished in our fiction.
Readers are more apt to have their imaginion fired by aliens, Area 51, vampires, shape-shifters, assorted were-beasts and peculiar life-spans.
Though many protagonists align with or possess supra-powers, it seems the curse is under utilized as an objective agent.
Maybe I'm totally wrong.
Maybe I haven't read the right stuff.
Thoughts?

28 comments:

Sela Carsen said...

Working from a fairy-tale perspective, the curse is alive and well. What I like about them is that they're the Iago of the supernatural world. They don't need a reason to be evil. They just are. Seems that all you had to do in order to be cursed was walk on the same side of the street as a witch with PMS and voila! Cursed!

Comes in very handy in shorter fiction.

Gabriele C. said...

The MC of Tamara Siler Jones' Dubric Mysteries (Ghosts in the Snow, Threads of Malice, and soon to come, Valley of the Soul) suffers from a curse.

But be warned, the books are not for the faint hearted.

Ric said...

Curses are like the magic folk - they have disappeared from modern writing. Probably has to do with all the super young editors and agents. They have no connection to trees and woods and fairy tales.

Stephen King/Richard Bachman's Thinner. Great curse, great story.

In the very day scheme of things, how often do you run across an old Gypsy?

Bernita said...

Works as an automatic motif then, Sela, like a curse tablet.

Oooh, Gabriele!

The Wikipedia source suggested, Rick, that the curse against manuscript thieves was the source of our modern copyright and plagerism rules.

EA Monroe said...

Belief, the binding force of a curse. And fear. How does one break the stricture of fear? How better to keep one's enemies from trespassing or children from wandering astray? Superstition evoked fear, meant to teach and warn.

You'd be amazed at the hysteria and pandemonium a colorful hex can create. ;-) Necessary ingredients: one gullible mind, a dash of fear, and the capacity to believe.

Bernita said...

Some of the belief lasts for centuries, EA. Was just reading about the Tichborne curse of Lady Maybella, her Dole and the Crawls.
Of course, I don't know if the rather detailed anthema of "seven ill-fated sons, followed by a generation of seven daughters resulting in the extinction of the ancient name" was part of the original curse or are later ammendations.

MissWrite said...

I love that example of a curse... for a 'milder' one, it was enough to make me cringe. Heehee.

From a non-fairy-tail perspective, I think curses work less in modern plots because people (in general) don't believe they work as they did in ages past where large populations truly believed in such things. If they didn't outright, they had some reservations, or fears that it just might hold some weight.

Vampires, ghosts, and all the rest of the paranormal arsenal still work because, although most rational folks don't really believe they exist, on some level there's that, well, maybe... and to top that off, for some strange reason, in a deep-seated area of our heart, we kind of wish they did.

It's funky really when you think about it, because vampires, ghosts, werewolfs, and the ilk are not really pleasant fellows (or gals), so it really defies logic that we'd want to make love to them, or believe they're really out there.

Somehow, as a culture, we've managed to mystify them, and romanticize them to the point that blood sucking be damned, vampires are COOL. And so are all the rest of the hairy, ethereal, or just plain icky things that used to go bump in the night, but now we wish went bump in our beds.

Curses just never made the grade as cool.

LOL

Bernita said...

The vamps and weres' attractions signify the sophistication of horror, I think, Tami.
May also represent in a small way society's search for continuing beauty, longevity, etc.
Curses, on the other hand, are not associated with virility, vitality, or other transforming means of survival, rather the wasting of it.
And, as Rick, pointed out, not an urbanized concept in the general population - in spite of the botanicas that provide the means/tools for hexes and the like.

Flood said...

I had a girlfriend who was convinced her elderly neighbour was giving her the Evil Eye.

This post reminded me of Alice Walker's A Color Purple, in which Celie curses Mister:

"'Til you do right by me, everything you even think about gonna fail."

And it was true.

Bernita said...

The Evil Eye...Hmmm.
The kids say I used to give them the "Eyes of Death" look...

kmfrontain said...

I went from the standpoint that the curse's effect is more important than the words, especially if you happen to be dying when it's cast. In the case of Bound in Stone, my Shadow Master had time to say "Stay in there forever" to the man that had just given him the death blow. And so, poor innocent warrior's soul gets stuck in his body forever, even after he's taken a death blow to the gut two years later. And then he gets to know what it feels like to be a walking pustulent corpse. And after he's had a few corrections to help his body stink less, gets to be a walking dessicated corpse for the next 60 odd years. So for me, it's not words but the effect of them.

Bernita said...

Karen, seems to me a curse's effectiveness always has to be in the QED - otherwise it's just a devout but forlorn hope.

MissWrite said...

"And so, poor innocent warrior's soul gets stuck in his body forever, even after he's taken a death blow to the gut two years later."

Ewwww, Karen, that's an awesome curse!

kmfrontain said...

Yep, Tami. I wanted a really nasty of a curse. (Because I'm evil to my characters. Hee hee.)

Yeah, I know, Bernita. The effect has to stand out. It's just that the words of the curse sometimes go all fancy for nothing. I think this is what I mean to say. Don't you think that the traditionally written, fancy doom and gloom curse can get old? It's almost as bad as reading a prologue that tells the mythology of the world up front.

Bernita said...

Stuck on like a fancy brooch, you mean, Karen, an ornamental thing that doesn't really do anything except to heighten the atmosphere?
Way to often.
I like a curse to be integral and double edged - Delphic style - if they are going to be used.
I dismiss the absolute ones. They are not logical. No power or curse is absolute.
Taking an example from Macbeth (and the curse's brother, prophecy,) "no man born of woman," I delighted in the response "McDuff was from his mother's womb untimely ripped."
Yeah, baaybee.

Devon Ellington said...

That's a very good point -- I hadn't thought about it like that.

Hmmm -- maybe it's time to put the curse back into literature, eh?

Bernita said...

Devon, I think there's lots of paranormal ground to be re-explored.

Carla said...

"I don't remember reading a good curse contribution to a plot..." Ah, well, that puts me in my place....
Your Wikipedia entry reminds me of the curse tablets from Bath, except that the Bath curse tablets tended to curse person or persons unknown who had already committed a crime, rather than acting as a deterrent. Colleen McCullough used this curse tradition in one of her Masters of Rome novels (think it was 'Caesar's Women', but don't quote me), where a Gaulish woman insulted by a Roman matron goes to her local temple to "buy a curse of a long life spent in misery". It worked, at least in the plot, as the Roman matron did indeed have a miserable and bitter life in the next two books.

Bernita said...

Oh crap.
My apologies.
I honestly didn't remember the curse in Ingeld's Daughter, Carla.
Your own fault, I was so caught up in the suspense that in places I skimmed like crazy- entirely unaware of the individual factors that caused the suspense, since I approached it as a reader and not as a critic.

G.G. Kay mentions curse tablets associated with the races/the Blues and Greens/Justinian and Theodora in his alternate history of Byzantium.
Used them as authentic colour or background in a very satisfactory manner.

Bernita said...

In any event, I was thinking mainly of the paranormal genre, not historicals.

December Quinn said...

I'm loosely working on a historical curse paranormal, Bernita. Are you psychic?

M.E Ellis said...

Love that medievil (sp? Always had trouble with that word!) excerpt.

Curses. They freak me out!

:o)

Bernita said...

That separated -at-birth thing,I guess, December - though how that works when I'm older than you, I don't know.

Nice fulminating, threatening tone, isn't it, Michelle.

archer said...

I haven't read a good curse story lately. They all end up sort of like "The Monkey's Paw."

Rod Serling published a collection of Twilight Zone episodes in short story form. This was around 1960 when the show was popular. One of the stories was about a cursed car whose owner is compelled to speak only the truth, until he can sell the car. I thought it was pretty clever. Of course in 1960 I thought heavyweight wrestling and the Three Stooges were pretty clever too.

Kirsten said...

Patricia Schonstein's book A Time of Angels turns on a couple of curses -- when one character's wife runs away with his from-childhood best friend, he (the cuckolded one) casts one spell that causes his friend's shoes to always come untied, and another to make his friend's sausages and breads spoil (the friend runs a little bistro). He doesn't activate the second curse, but ends up having unintended consequences. A satisfactory little book, although I agree w/ the caveat at the end of the Publishers Weekly review reproduced on Amazon: "the conclusion brings together many elements of the characters' fates but fails to imbue them with meaning." Worth reading, though, if you like magic realism; it's not a very long book.

Bernita said...

The Three Stooges aren't clever, Archer?
Oh. Dear.

I do enjoy magic realism, Kirsten.
This one sounds like kitchen maven magic.

archer said...

Oh, okay. I adore the Stooges. As to pro wrestling, I can still put an opponent in the Figure Four Leg Bind, if he'll do me the courtesy of holding still.

Dakota Knight said...

This post reminded me of one of my favorite curse books, Thinner by Stephen King. Loved that book. You're right, Bernita. After thinking about it, I haven't seen a good curse in a long time. Hmmm...imagine the possibilities.