Between and Betwixt

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A Comparative Analysis of the OntologicalLiminality of the Monstrous in Stephen King’s ’Salem’s Lot andNnedi Okorafor’s What Sunny Saw In The Flames

The concept of liminality was first introduced by Arnold van Gennep in 1960. Victor Turner, building on Gennep’s concept, posits that the “attributes of liminality or of liminal personae (threshold people) are necessarily ambiguous” (1969: 360). This, he explains, is due to the elusive nature of liminal beings as a result of their (dis)location – being positioned “neither here nor there”, but rather hanging “between and betwixt” classifications assigned culturally or ceremonially (Turner 1969: 360). Whilst Gennep and Turner sought to study liminality through an anthropological lens in order to comprehend and provide elucidation on the stages of ceremonial rites of passage, Jeffrey Cohen alludes to liminality within the literary psychoanalytical domain in “Monster Culture: Seven Theses”. According to Cohen, the ontological liminality of monsters – namely, their “refusal to participate in the classificatory ‘order of things’” and their resistance to being included “in any systematic structuration” – renders them “suspended between forms”, thereby threatening to “smash distinctions” (1996: 6). I would argue that this liminality of monsters, particularly when encountered within the literary genres of horror and fantasy, lends to an uncanny experience for the reader as, whilst the inclusion of monsters in such texts is expected and, as such, familiar (heimlich), liminal characteristics contribute to a gross unfamiliarity which, in turn, can be termed uncanny. In his 1919 paper “The Uncanny”, Sigmund Freud arrives at three explanations of the uncanny: the familiar being encountered in an unfamiliar setting, the unfamiliar being encountered in an otherwise familiar setting, and the repressed memories and societal taboos which ought to remain so being brought to light. Interestingly, liminal spaces are recognised as “space(s) in which the repressed returns” (Lundberg and Geerlings 2017: 1). It is due to the intersection between Cohen’s Monster Theory and the Freudian concept of the uncanny that both these works will be employed as a lens for my analysis of the ontological liminality of the monstrous in Stephen King’s ’Salem’s Lot (2011 [1975]) and Nnedi Okorafor’s What Sunny Saw In The Flames (2011). These novels are notably of two distinct genres. ’Salem’s Lot is classified as horror and, as such, Noël Carroll explains, is designed to elicit feelings of terror and trepidation (1987: 57). Conversely, What Sunny Saw In The Flames belongs to the realm of fantasy, a genre that is hinged on the broader thematic concern of a moral lesson being conveyed. Whilst the monstrous in each novel functions within the context of genre-specific conventions in an attempt to evoke different emotions, there are also various similarities between the vampires of King’s novel and the Leopard People of Okorafor’s, particularly when focusing on the inherent ontological liminality of these characters which, to reiterate, will be the focus of this study.

’Salem’s Lot follows the story of a small town, Jerusalem’s Lot, which falls prey to vampirism. Ben Mears, a novelist, returns to the town with the intention of gathering material for his next novel. Kurt Barlow and Richard Straker appear too, and soon inhabit the abandoned Marsten House. These new arrivals coincide with crimes such as disappearances of children and corpses, and murder. Ben is joined by a group of misfits, who realise the crimes have been committed by Barlow, the master vampire, and the civilians he has turned into vampires. The band of hunters attempt to attack Barlow at Marsten House, conflating the horror genre conventions of the haunted house and the vampire[1], and compounding the liminality of the vampires and the liminal spaces they inhabit. Despite the assumption that Barlow has been successfully annihilated, the novel ends with no confirmation that the rest of the vampires have been killed, and the assumption is that vampires continue to roam even the smallest of towns. Kevin McCarron claims that this refusal to “close” the narrative is “characteristic of much horror writing in general” (1995: 3). This comes as no surprise as, bearing in mind the intention of the horror genre (namely, to terrify), leaving the narrative open-ended elicits fear of the unknown, terrifying long after the novel has been read. More importantly, for the purpose of this study, the lack of closure at the end of the novel lends to further ambiguity and, as a result, the town as a whole remains a liminal space.

Eugenio Merino claims that “during the nineteenth century, English literature showed a particular interest in vampires” resulting in the “blood-sucker” becoming “the most familiar character of popular culture” (2005: 94). Margaret Carter explains that “supernatural entities falling under the general classification of ‘vampire’ include many varieties of blood-drinking demons, as well as the animated dead that prey on the living” (2007: 619). By combining these two definitions, it becomes clear that vampires are classified as non-human entities that prey on human blood and are neither entirely living nor entirely dead, but rather remain a liminal archetype for the atrocities of being caught in a limbo between the two absolute conditions. When Carroll claims that monsters in horror are “impure”, attributing impurity to a monster being “categorically contradictory”, he provides an example of such an impure being in the “interstitial” nature of “vampires” as simultaneously “living and dead” (1987: 55). This characteristic emerges repeatedly in King’s novel. Referred to repeatedly as the “Undead” (King 2011: 240, 337, 347, 387, 393, 399, 404, 412, 469), the vampires occupy a space on the very threshold of life and death – a liminal space. The prefix “un” of the term “Undead” implies that the vampires who were once in a state of being alive (a prerequisite to die), transitioned into a state of death but, due to their vampiric condition, were somehow able to undo or reverse the state – returning from the state of death but being unable to return entirely to the state of being alive. By entering into the discourse of the age-old debate regarding what – if anything – exists after death, we enter into unfamiliar and, resultantly, uncanny territory. The “un” prefix of the term “uncanny” has also come under analysis. Nicholas Royle explains that, “the ‘un’ unsettles”, among other things, “order and sense” (2003: 2). Thus, very existence of the vampires in ’Salem’s Lot unsettles the natural order of life and death, and perverts the possibility of anything existing after death as Freud claims that many people experience uncanniness of the highest degree in relation to death, dead bodies and the return of the dead – characteristics that lie at the crux of the representation of the vampire. Freud additionally claims that “the immortal soul” – which is what vampires initially appear to be due to their inability to remain dead – “was probably the first double of the body” (1919: 9). The vampire, thus, weaves together fears of death and contrasting fears and desires of remaining alive, thereby epitomising uncanniness. Additionally, it is the lack of human comprehension regarding this interstitial nature of the undead vampire that terrifies the reader, as it is human nature to fear that which cannot be comprehended. Cohen accounts for this, stating that “in the face of the monster, scientific inquiry and its ordered rationality crumble” (Cohen 1996: 7) and the inexplicable liminal existence of the vampire is relegated to the realm of the supernatural.

Liminality seeps into the very characterisation of the vampire. King describes the newly transitioned vampire, Danny Glick, through the eyes of another character, Mike Ryerson:

The eyes were open. Just as he had known they would be. Wide open and hardly glazed at all. They seemed to sparkle with hideous life in the last, dying light of day. There was no death pallor in that face; the cheeks seemed rosy, almost juicy with vitality. He tried to drag his eyes away from that glittering, frozen stare and was unable (2011: 161).

Whilst corpses are expected to have their eyes closed – with morticians even commonly gluing closed the eyes of the dead in order to force them closed – Mike expects Danny’s eyes to be open as he realises that Danny is not dead in the natural human sense. Interestingly, Danny’s eyes form the primary focus of Mike’s observation. In their essay “The eyes are the window to the uncanny valley”, Chelsea Schein and Kurt Gray claim that the horror genre “utilises alterations of the eyes” to evoke “uncanniness” as “there is something inherently creepy about abnormal eyes” (2015: 173). While Schein and Gray analyse ocular features of robots, I would suggest extending their analysis to that of vampires who can also be relegated to the interstitial realm of the neither living nor dead.

Robots with eyes, Schein and Gray conclude, violate a “fundamental expectation of the mind” and induce “uncanniness” (2015: 177). To reiterate then, Danny’s eyes being unnaturally “wide open” violates the fundamental expectation of the mind that the eyes of the dead ought to be closed and, as such, induces uncanniness. Forensic scientist John Murphy explains that the eye can be used to predict the time of death when performing an autopsy on a cadaver. According to Murphy, “about two hours after death, the cornea becomes hazy or clouding, turning progressively more opaque over the next day or two” (2004). The expectation is that Danny’s eyes ought to be completely opaque as he has been dead and even buried for many days. Danny’s eyes, however, are described as “hardly glazed at all”, suggesting that death in the natural sense has not overtaken his body. His eyes are, instead, described as “sparkling with hideous life”. Julia Kristeva writes that the very presence of the corpse, “seen outside of science, is the utmost of abjection” as it “disturbs identity, system [and] order”, positioning itself vicariously as “imaginary uncanniness and real threat” (1982: 4).

Following Kristeva’s claim, the adjective “hideous” is extremely poignant as it indicates Mike’s fear and disgust, his response of abjection and uncanniness, at his discovery of Danny’s state. Carroll opines that examples such as these “indicate that the character’s affective reaction to a monster is not merely a matter of fear” but, rather, “compounded by revulsion” (1987: 53). However, while horror has a “tendency” to associate monsters with “filth, decay and deterioration” (Carroll 1987: 53), King’s vampires create an uncanny experience as they deviate from historical representations of monsters of horror – rather than being filthy or decaying, they are described as beautiful. Danny, for instance, is described as boasting “no deathly pallor”. Rather, his cheeks are described as “rosy” – an adjective used to describe the rush of blood to one’s cheeks which is a sign of good health. This rosiness, however, should be absent due to “livor mortis (gravitational settling if the blood)” (Murphy 2004) of the corpse. His cheeks are also described as “almost juicy with vitality”, suggesting plumped skin which should not be so due to “rigor mortis (stiffening of the body)” (Murphy 2004). This indicates that Danny’s corpse still boasts characteristics of life despite having died, which results in an eerie, uncanny experience for the reader, drawing on Freud’s claim that “intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not” contributes to uncanniness (1919: 8). Further, Cohen claims that, “the monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy” (1996: 4) and this becomes clear in Mike’s reaction to Danny’s corpse. Mike tries to “drag his eyes away from that glittering, frozen stare” but finds himself “unable” to do so. As aforementioned, Mike is both fearful of and repulsed by his discovery. However, it is clear that he is additionally drawn to Danny’s appearance. As such, repeated descriptions of Danny – or of vampires in general throughout the course of King’s novel – serve to upset the genre-specific convention that monsters should be disgusting, simultaneously contributing to uncanniness as the reader who finds themselves drawn to and desiring the monstrous creature attempts to repress these desires, assuming such attraction to be taboo.

It is important to note though, that Danny’s body is doubly uncanny because his transition into the liminal state of vampirism occurs during the (arguably) liminal phase of transitioning from childhood to adolescence. This trope is echoed in Okorafor’s What Sunny Saw In The Flames, a fantasy bildungsroman that follows the formulaic narrative pattern of a young adult protagonist being inducted into magic and embarking on a quest that only she can complete due to her lineage, of which she was previously unaware. Like Danny Glick, Sunny is characterised as transitioning through a liminal period – from childhood to adolescence – because she is only twelve years old. Furthermore, Sunny is considered an outcast in Nigerian society because she is albino. In some African cultures, albinism in itself is considered monstrous and the individual with albinism is stigmatised as being bewitched or directly involved in witchcraft. Okorafor plays on this stigma to transpose Sunny’s otherness within natural human society (referred to as “Lamb” society in the novel) to an otherness as a newcomer to the juju/Leopard People society. Thus, Sunny holds an “extimate” position in both societies being, both, “exterior” to and “an intimate part of” both societies, “a position that defies the inside/outside, self/other boundary” (Gadoin and Ramel 2013: 7). This “extimate” social position further emphasises her liminal existence.

Sunny is guided on her journey by her friends, Chichi, Orlu and Sasha – all of whom have always known their status as Leopard People. Chichi explains:

Every Leopard Person has two faces—a human face and a spirit face. I’ve always known my human and spirit face. When I was born, for the first week of my life, I wore my spirit face. My parents didn’t know what my human face looked like until my seventh day of life […] Anyway, the spirit face is more you than your physical face, it stays with you, it doesn’t age, you can control it as it controls you (Okorafor 2011: 38-39).

Otto Rank’s concept of the doppelgänger which is explored by Freud as a cause of uncanniness comes to the fore in Chichi’s explanation. Each Leopard Person is inherently “double” as they possess two sides – both, physically and spiritually – and lead two lives. Chichi remarks that, upon birth, she entered the world wearing her “spirit face” and only after the first week did her “human face” appear. The norm for Leopard People then seems to be that their existence as Leopard People takes precedence, with their existence as humans forming a secondary element to their lives. More importantly, Chichi notes the power the spirit face – metonymically, the existence as a Leopard Person – has over a person claiming that “it controls you”. The narrative exists within the genre of fantasy and, as Tzvetan Todorov explains, the reader becomes aware of the “new laws of nature” (1975: 41) that permit the existence of two faces or even two entirely different elements of a person’s spiritual being. However, the reader remains in a state of hesitation as to whether the uncanny events being described in the narrative could be naturally explained or are the project and effect of supernatural forces. Nonetheless, as aforementioned, the uncanny event being alluded to in this case is the ability of the Leopard Person to undergo the processes of doubling, dividing and interchangeable identities, thereby extending oneself (Freud 1919), particularly at will, which renders them liminal beings as they are neither fully of this world nor entirely of the spiritual world. Rather, Leopard People exist on the threshold of the physical and spiritual plains, moving between plains at will whilst having a metaphorical foot firmly in each plain at any given time.

This intrinsic liminality leads to various other magical abilities: for example, Sunny is able to make herself invisible at will and pass through solid structures, such as doors (Okorafor 2011: 51-55, 84, 108). Invisibility, according to Turner, is also a characteristic of liminality (1969: 360). While King’s vampires are not able to turn invisible, they are similar to Okorafor’s Leopard People in that they are able to simply vanish. Marjorie Glick, for instance, is described as being able to “seep into the very pores of the wall, like smoke” (King 2011: 296). According to Cohen, “the monster’s body is both corporeal and incorporeal” and “its threat” lies in its very “propensity to shift” (1996: 5). As such, the liminal monstrosity of both the Leopard People and vampires, due to their ability to choose between corporeality and incorporeality comes to the fore, resulting in an uncanny experience for the reader.

Whilst there are various similarities between the vampires and Leopard People and both monsters evoke an uncanny experience and destabilise reality, I would suggest that the purpose of employing these monsters operates somewhat differently in each of the two genres. Whilst the monstrous in horror evokes simultaneous fear and revulsion, the monstrous in fantasy, despite evoking an uncanny response too, does not always elicit a negative reaction. This could, perhaps, be attributed to the fact that the vampires in ’Salem’s Lot are the antagonists while Sunny, in particular, as a Leopard Person in What Sunny Saw In The Flames, is a protagonist. However, I would argue that this is one of the greatest distinctions between the genres of horror and fantasy. While the monstrous can only ever be construed as possessing a propensity for evil in horror, the monstrous in fantasy is hinged on the moral choices made by individuals. Melissa Thomas explores this aspect of fantasy, noting that the “heroic cycles in fantasy are tailored to students” (2003: 60) as it seeks to teach a moral lesson. This is an appropriate approach to Okorafor’s fantasy bildungsroman. Thomas also claims that, in fantasy, “the hero always confronts and conquers evil”, which is a “metaphor” for young adults to learn from (2003: 60).

This can be traced to Sunny’s battle against Black Hat Otokoto and Ekwensu. When Sunny discovers that Black Hat Otokoto had been mentored by her own maternal grandmother, she realises her monstrous potential for evil. However, by triumphing against Black Hat Otokoto and Ekwensu, Sunny redeems herself as good. One might suggest that Sunny’s redemption arc allows her to overcome her monstrousness, but I would argue that it is the very reliance on her monstrousness that allows her to redeem herself. When finally encountering Ekwensu, Okorafor writes that, “on instinct, Sunny let her spirit face move forward … Relaxing her shoulders and mind, Sunny let Anyanwu, her spirit, her chi, the name of her other self, guide her” (2011: 154). Sunny’s first instinct is to allow her spirit face, the Leopard Person side of double personality, to step forward. Sunny does not simply accept or welcome her abilities as a Leopard Person, she relies on her abilities to rescue her and the rest of the world. Importantly, despite the anxiety she had felt when encountering Ekwensu whilst drawing on her nature as a human being, she feels calm and is able to relax her shoulders and her mind, trusting in her juju skill as a Leopard Person and allowing that side of her to guide her. What becomes clear, then, through the monstrous part of Sunny being in the metaphorical driving seat when she confronts and conquers evil, is that both sides of her double personality are in agreement and have chosen to be good. As such, it becomes apparent that the monstrous in fantasy operates to teach a lesson – that one can choose whether to be good or evil.

Horror, as previously stated, lies in complete contrast, as the inclination for evil is so great in monsters of the horror genre that it overtakes and consumes them. In ’Salem’s Lot, in particular, Carter observes that King employs the “traditional portrayal of the vampire as demonically evil” (2007: 628). This is highlighted when King describes a scene in which Danny Glick approaches his friend, Mark, requesting to be invited in. Danny’s eyes are described as being “reddish and feral”, his teeth are described as having “grown hideously long and sharp” and his ability to seemingly levitate is compared to being characteristic of “some dark insect” (King 2011: 267), echoing his transition from a human into an animalistic, predatory creature. Mark’s reaction encapsulates the terror King seeks to evoke in the reader:

He got out of bed and almost fell down. It was only then that he realized fright was too mild a word for this. Even terror did not express what he felt. The pallid face outside the window tried to smile, but it had lain in darkness too long to remember precisely how. What Mark saw was a twitching grimace—a bloody mask of tragedy (2011: 267).

It becomes clear that, despite Mark being Danny’s best friend, the creature Danny has transitioned into is unrecognisable. King attributes this to having “lain in the darkness too long”, referring simultaneously to physical darkness of the grave and the spiritual darkness of vampirism. Danny is then described as an “evil little boy” who “hissed” at Mark (King 2011: 267), illustrating again his detachment from his humanity. Furthermore, due to the snake historically being associated with and represented as evil, the onomatopoeic hissing further entrenches the depravity of Danny as an evil creature. King continues with the non-human comparisons, describing Danny’s physical stance: “the head cocked, doglike, the upper lip curled away from those shining canines” (2011: 268). Danny is compared to a hungry dog – a predator but also simply a loyal servant carrying out his master’s (Barlow) orders. The shining canines tie together the venom of the vampiric condition that could have infected Mark (much like a snake’s bite also infects) and the harmful bite of a rabid dog. However, when Mark attempts to injure Danny using the plastic cross, a symbol of good rather than evil, King writes:

The smile of triumph on the Glick-thing’s mouth became a yawning grimace of agony. Smoke spurted from the pallid flesh, and for just a moment, before the creature twisted away and half dived, half fell out the window, Mark felt the flesh yield like smoke (2011: 269).

Being emphasised again is the fact that Danny Glick is no longer a human – he is a “Glick-thing”, a remnant or aberration of the Danny Glick that once existed, an uncanny doppelgänger, if you may. Dimitris Vardoulakis’ explanation that “the doppelgänger has been commonly viewed as an aberration” or “stencil […] of the self” that is “defective, disjunct, split (and) threatening” (2006: 100), hence, comes to the fore. King draws on Danny’s liminality as neither human nor animal and neither living nor dead. Amidst his interstitial characteristics that leave the reader in a state of trepidation, the reader is made aware of one aspect of Danny’s monstrousness: he is inherently and intrinsically evil much so, in fact, that, when confronted with good, his aversion is so great that his smile turns into a grimace and he has no option but to flee. What follows is insight into the incorporeal nature of vampires. Much like Sunny is able to turn invisible and monsters such as Ekwensu are able to simply appear and disappear into thin air in Okorafor’s novel, Danny is described as being able to simply turn into smoke and disappear. Cohen’s thesis that the monster does not die, but simply disappears, to be born in a different place and at a different time comes to mind (1996: 4) and, with it, so too does an uncanny, eerie feeling. The reader is no longer simply afraid of Danny Glick as a vampire, but is terrified of his reemergence, which is awaited with bated breath as the inevitability of his return is a convention of the horror genre.

In conclusion, in both ’Salem’s Lot and What Sunny Saw In The Flames, liminality is a key trope that allows for the monstrous to create ambiguity and evoke uncanniness. In ’Salem’s Lot, King’s vampires occupy a position on the very threshold of life and death, blurring boundaries between the two absolutes and perverting the ideal of life after death. The ability to manipulate their corporeal and incorporeal states further contributes to the terror the vampires evoke. In addition, King’s characterisation of Danny Glick, a preteen in his liminal phase of development transitioning from childhood to adulthood, creates further ambiguity as the reader is neither introduced to an innocent child nor to an evil adult, but to a monster whom they initially cannot reconcile as either good or evil. As is the premise of the horror genre, King evokes terror and trepidation in the reader, finally depicting Danny Glick – and all the other vampires of the novel – as inherently evil due to their vampiric conditions. Whilst the monster in horror is undoubtedly evil, the monster in fantasy operates somewhat differently. In What Sunny Saw In The Flames, Sunny, like Danny, is also a preteen with the propensity to manipulate her corporeal and incorporeal features. Additionally, she boasts a double-faceted persona, possessing both a human side and a Leopard Person side to her identity. Liminality, in Sunny’s case, also evokes an uncanny, ambiguous experience. However, as fantasy explores the moral line that classifies an individual as either good or evil, Sunny is not represented as quintessentially evil simply due to her monstrousness. Instead, she is able to redeem herself by using her monstrousness as a gift to help others, rather than a weapon to harm, which I would suggest vampires are predisposed to doing. It is this very dichotomy between Danny Glick and Sunny Nwazue that highlights the varied employment and operation of monsters within the horror and fantasy genres. Whilst the horror genre serves primarily to terrify and, as such, employs monsters as evil beings, fantasy serves a didactic purpose, employing monsters as metaphors for teaching lessons of bravery and using one’s abilities to aid in the triumph of good over evil.


[1] As Dr Kevin McCarron suggests Caroline B. Crooney does in The Cheerleader (1991), The Return of the Vampire (1992) and The Vampire’s Promise (1993).


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Nabila Ismail

Nabila Ismail

Nabila Ismail is a part-time English Studies Academic, part-time tutor and full-time mother of two from Durban, South Africa. Her primary research areas are Subaltern Studies, Intersectionality and Feminism in an Islamic Context. A wordsmith, Nabila also expresses herself through creative works. Her poetry, prose and essays have previously appeared in the Kalahari Review.