"Of Flaneurs and City Crowds: Poe, Barker, Kitamura and the (Oedipal) Subject of Urban Horror" by Gyula Somogyi
Gyula Somogyi is Senior Assistant Professor at the Comparative Literature and Culture Department, University of Miskolc, Hungary. His main areas of research and teaching are 19th and 20th century fiction, literary and cultural theory, visual and popular culture, media studies, the theory and the practice of adaptation. Email:
Ever since the middle of the 19th century, the metropolis has been an inexhaustible source of inspiration for gothic and horror stories (Mighall “Gothic Cities” 54, Latham 592). The present essay is devoted to an analysis of two of these stories: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd,” Clive Barker’s “The Midnight Meat Train” thus the trajectory of the paper ranges from the first example of urban horror (Latham 593) to a near-contemporary vision of the gothic within the metropolis, to conclude with an examination of Ryuhei Kitamura’s The Midnight Meat Train, an adaptation based on Barker’s tale. The choice of these texts might seem somewhat random, but I believe that “The Midnight Meat Train” and its cinematic double can be interpreted as a rewriting and a reinterpretation of Poe’s masterpiece that stages the flaneur as he explores the hidden parts of the city to arrive at a point where the rational world gives way to the irrational.
Poe’s Unreadable London
The plot of Poe’s short story is relatively simple: having just recuperated from a serious illness, the narrator is sitting in a coffee house in London. Using his analytical thinking he can readily interpret the expressions on people’s faces to uncover the stories of their lives. But after a while, he notices a man who proves to be a lot more difficult to decipher. For this reason, he starts following the man around the city just to realize that he is always going round and round in the city without any apparent purpose. Faced with such a meaningless itinerary, he concludes that the man must hide some terrible secret. The story thus sets out to valorize the powers of reading, but it ends up being a cautionary tale about the possible pitfalls of interpretation.
At the beginning of the story, Poe’s narrator feels a “calm but inquisitive interest in every thing” (Poe “The Man” 388) and amuses himself
for the greater part of the afternoon, now in poring over advertisements, now in observing the promiscuous company in the room, and now in peering through the smoky panes into the street. This latter is one of the principal thoroughfares of the city, and had been very much crowded during the whole day. But, as the darkness came on, the throng momently increased; and, by the time the lamps were well lighted, two dense and continuous tides of population were rushing past the door. At this particular period of the evening I had never before been in a similar situation, and the tumultuous sea of human heads filled me, therefore, with a delicious novelty of emotion. I gave up, at length, all care of things within the hotel, and became absorbed in contemplation of the scene without. (Poe “The Man” 388-389)
The flaneur’s analytical gaze finds its objects in texts, the crowd within the coffeehouse as well as outside the busy streets where the observer can watch a whole panorama of contemporary urban life stratified by class (cf. Brand 6). Faces become texts to be read through a rhetorical analogy that Kevin J. Hayes finds to be very fashionable in Poe’s age: “reading someone’s character is a matter of interpreting a set of personal and cultural signs akin to language—signs such as clothing, facial expression, gesture, demeanor, and voice.” (Hayes 446) The narrator is especially successful in reading people at a glance:
The wild effects of the light enchained me to an examination of individual faces; and although the rapidity with which the world of light flitted before the window, prevented me from casting more than a glance upon each visage, still it seemed that, in my then peculiar mental state, I could frequently read, even in that brief interval of a glance, the history of long years. (Poe “The Man” 392)
For the flaneur, histories are written on bodies and accurate readings of people’s faces take place in spite of the briefness of the observation. Then soon enough appears the sight that puts the narrator’s reading capabilities to the test, a sight that requires more than a cursory glance and absorbs his whole attention:
suddenly there came into view a countenance (that of a decrepid old man, some sixty-five or seventy years of age,)—a countenance which at once arrested and absorbed my whole attention, on account of the absolute idiosyncrasy of its expression. Any thing even remotely resembling that expression I had never seen before. I well remember that my first thought, upon beholding it, was that Retzch, had he viewed it, would have greatly preferred it to his own pictural incarnations of the fiend. As I endeavored, during the brief minute of my original survey, to form some analysis of the meaning conveyed, there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense—of supreme despair. I felt singularly aroused, startled, fascinated. “How wild a history,” I said to myself, “is written within that bosom!” Then came a craving desire to keep the man in view—to know more of him. Hurriedly putting on an overcoat, and seizing my hat and cane, I made my way into the street, and pushed through the crowd in the direction which I had seen him take; for he had already disappeared. With some little difficulty I at length came within sight of him, approached, and followed him closely, yet cautiously, so as not to attract his attention. I had now a good opportunity of examining his person. He was short in stature, very thin, and apparently very feeble. His clothes, generally, were filthy and ragged; but as he came, now and then, within the strong glare of a lamp, I perceived that his linen, although dirty, was of beautiful texture; and my vision deceived me, or, through a rent in a closely-buttoned and evidently second-handed roquelaire which enveloped him, I caught a glimpse both of a diamond and of a dagger. These observations heightened my curiosity, and I resolved to follow the stranger whithersoever he should go. (Poe “The Man” 392-393)
The countenance of this man is entirely different from all the easily readable faces, it resists reading, which makes the face even more fascinating, leading to “a craving desire” to follow the man on his itinerary in London. Reading his clothes, his body and his face as signifiers seems to deny access to any depth, signs just proliferate endlessly. While pursuing the man, the narrator has to realize that “He crossed and re-crossed the street way repeatedly without apparent aim” even though “He urged his way steadily and perseveringly,” as if he was intent on reaching something:
I was surprised, however, to find, upon his having made the circuit of the square, that he turned and retraced his steps. Still more was I astonished to see him repeat the same walk several times—once nearly detecting me as he came round with a sudden movement. […] I was now utterly amazed at his behaviour, and firmly resolved that we should not part until I had satisfied myself in some measure respecting him. […] upon the whole, I was at a loss to comprehend the waywardness of his actions. (Poe “The Man” 393-394)
The man’s itinerary seems a possibly endless route without any meaning, which baffles the narrator’s desire for understanding, constituting an experience of the uncanny (cf. Hayes 465). After following him around the city for a very long time, the narrator finally decides to confront the old man:
as the shades of the second evening came on, I grew wearied unto death, and, stopping fully in front of the wanderer, gazed at him steadfastly in the face. He noticed me not, but resumed his solemn walk, while I, ceasing to follow, remained absorbed in contemplation. “This old man,” I said at length, “is the type and the genius of deep crime. He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd. It will be in vain to follow; for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds. The worst heart of the world is a grosser book than the ‘Hortulus Animæ,’ and perhaps it is but one of the great mercies of God that ‘er lasst sich nicht lesen.’” (Poe “The Man” 396, emphasis added)
The cathartic encounter between the narrator and the old man never happens: the man of the crowd does not even notice the narrator, while the narrator is unable to decipher the face of the old man (cf. Rachman 57). Nevertheless this failure results in a reading, the narrator compulsively tries to reach closure and give a certain interpretation to the events by inscribing the old man into the narrative scheme of a detective story, one of the archetypal narrative types of modernity. It was no wonder that Walter Benjamin in his influential monograph about Baudelaire called “The Man of the Crowd” an “X-ray picture of a detective story” (Benjamin 48). Yet we must realize that there is a considerable difference between this text and Poe’s detective stories: the Dupin texts allegorize the triumph of the analytical, while “The Man of the Crowd” narrates a reading stemming from a failure. Knowing this, the “afterlife” of the short story looks all the more puzzling: even though it insists on the notion of unreadability, it “forms a point of origins for many of the imaginative and social preoccupations of […] later explorations of modernity and its ideology” (Byer 221), for example that of Baudelaire or Benjamin. If we admit as much, this amounts to acknowledging that the notion of modernity has always had something to do with the urban gothic.
Historically, Poe’s short story grows out of a tradition of city sketches, which were very fashionable during the nineteenth-century, and led to the conceptualization of the notion of the “flaneur” as a social explorer in Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life and Walter Benjamin study about the French poet. According to Deborah Epstein Nord, in the first years of the century, the sketches “employed eighteenth-century literary conventions of urban description” (Nord 159), and owed much to colonial travel writing (McClintock 120). The emergence of this genre also implied a shift in the binary oppositions of “home” and “not home,” “familiar” and “unfamiliar”: the city, as a home suddenly became unfamiliar or unreadable, and this “bewildering multiplicity of the city” (Seed 160) had to be made familiar again through the act of seeing, writing and reading. Nord also argues that in the 1820s, the self-reflexive metaphor of these texts was the analogy of the theater (Nord 159-160), which allowed a social explorer to stage city life as a drama or a spectacle, while keeping a safe distance from what is going on (Nord 186). The writer was like an ethnographer who wished to remain an objective observer. From the 1830s on, however, the genre started to change: the city sketch ceased to be a purely aesthetical venture, because it embraced social commitment (Nord 186). One of the best examples of this latter type of city sketch was Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836-37). The relationship of Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” with this tradition is manifold. His positive review of Dickens’s Sketches in 1836 shows that he was fascinated with the genre, and reading Dickens also helped him refine his own principles of the aesthetic as well (Poe “Watkins” 204-207, Grubb 215-216). However his love of Dickens led to the textual appropriation of certain key scenes and figures as well (Mabbott 419-420, Rachman 76): Poe’s description of the urban crowd plagiarizes—or to foreshadow Barker’s narrative, cannibalizes—Dickens’s sketches of the city (Rachman 77). Poe’s city, as a repetition, is the locus of unreadability, and this “mystification of the city relies on Poe’s transfiguration of Dickens’s text and the effacement of London’s social relations.” (Rachman 76) Instead of giving a reassuring picture of the various strata of contemporary life, or protesting against social ills, it stages the aesthetic as a separation from history and a foreclosure of the ethical, and demonstrates the uncanny return of the unreadable (cf. Byer 241-242). As such, Poe stands at the beginning of the tradition that cast the metropolis as a gothic locus (Mighall “Gothic Cities” 54), and establishes what Robert Latham calls “the genre of urban horror” (Latham 593).
Barker’s Textual City
“The Midnight Meat Train” appeared as the first short story in Barker’s Books of Blood published in 1984. I believe that Barker’s representation of New York owes much to the change of emphasis Poe implemented in the genre of the city sketch.1 Interestingly enough they both write about cities they do not live in: Poe lived in Philadelphia when “The Man of the Crowd” was published and he heavily relied on Dickens’s textual cityscapes when writing the tale; while Barker, who did not know New York too well either, probably salvaged the long tradition of urban horror—for example H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook”, or T. E. D. Klein’s “The Children of the Kingdom” (cf. Latham 599, Mighall “Gothic Cities” 57)—to build the ghostly outlines of his city. Because of this, and similarly to Poe’s tale, Barker’s narrative is no sociographical piece preaching against the ills of the big city: the narrator’s ironic tone2 seems to accept these issues as a necessity of life.3 Barker’s story is an example of horror tales in which “Iconic sites of big-city life, such as apartment buildings and subways, became powerful loci of supernatural menace” (Latham 604): Leon Kaufman, who has recently moved to New York accidentally encounters Mahogany, the perpetrator of a series of gruesome murders in the subway. Their confrontation ends with Mahogany’s death, and Kaufman has to take his place as a servant to some dark power.
For Poe, the narrator of “The Man of the Crowd” typified the flaneur who was mesmerized by the vision of the city crowd, but Barker’s Mahogany as the subject of the gaze is less than fascinated by what he sees:
After a hard day’s work New York was on its way home: to play, to make love. People were streaming out of their offices and into their automobiles. Some would be testy after a day’s sweaty labor in a badly-aired office; others, benign as sheep, would be wandering home down the Avenues, ushered along by a ceaseless current of bodies. Still others would even now be cramming on to the subway, blind to the graffiti on every wall, deaf to the babble of their own voices, and to the cold thunder of the tunnels. It pleased Mahogany to think of that. He was, after all, not one of the common herd. He could stand at his window and look down on a thousand heads below him, and know he was a chosen man. […] [H]is stare caught them, and weighed them up, selecting only the ripest from the passing parade, choosing only the healthy and the young to fall under his sanctified knife. […] He stood on the platform and scanned his fellow travelers critically. There were one or two bodies he contemplated following, but there was so much dross amongst them: so few worth the chase. (Barker Books 10)
Mahogany’s gaze is a functional one, he does not care about stories people’s faces tell (as Poe’s narrator did), only the state of their bodies are important: are they good enough quality to be consumed by his masters. He thus typifies a figure that Rob Latham has called the “flaneur as serial killer,” an urban predator whose grotesque practices are made possible and even “augmented by urban anonymity” (Latham 595). These murders are inserted into a quasi-religious ideology (he is a “chosen man” with a sacred duty) and he is convinced that he serves “the highest possible authorities” (Barker Books 12), which lulls him into delusions of power and mastery about being exempt from ordinary justice.
Whereas Mahogany imagines the city as a hunting ground, the first lines of the story reveal that Kaufman’s attitude to his new home is quite different. After three months of living there, he seems to have lost his “innocence,” “naivete,” his “treasured illusions” about New York as a “promised land, where anything and everything was possible” (Barker Books 8). Kaufman is thus one of those characters found in world literature, “whose hopeful sojourns to the metropolis result in tragedy and dissolution” (Latham 592). “The Palace of Delights” as he calls New York, “lost her aura of perfection” (Barker Books 8). From his perspective, the city is like a lover or a mistress whose charm has already faded and is slowly becoming an abject female body:
He had seen her wake in the morning like a slut, and pick murdered men from between her teeth, and suicides from the tangles of her hair. He had seen her late at night, her dirty back streets shamelessly courting depravity. He had watched her in the hot afternoon, sluggish and ugly, indifferent to the atrocities that were being committed every hour in her throttled passages. (Barker Books 8)
As the narrator sums it up, “her behavior was less than ladylike” (Barker Books 8). Such a gendered view of the (masculine) subject and (feminine) city to be explored evokes the traditional gender coding of the flaneur (Felski 16), and hints that the secrets to be discovered in the story is somehow connected to the relationship between the sexes.
The mysteries of the city in “The Midnight Meat Train” are not connected to pleasure but to violence, and its symptoms surface in a series of murders4 that take place in the subway. The first body, Loretta Dyer’s (dier?) corpse is found “meticulously shaved” and “hung by the feet” in a subway car as if “she was a piece of meat” (Barker Books 9). In itself, this fact is meaningless and cannot even be inserted into a narrative about serial killers committing gendered violence: “There had been no rape, nor any sign of torture. […] It was disgusting, it was meticulous, and it was deeply confusing.” (Barker Books 9) The authorities responsible for arresting the serial killer do nothing to clear up this confusion: “The City Fathers, in their wisdom, declared a complete closedown on press reports of the slaughter.” (Barker Books 9). The emphasizedly masculine “City Fathers” lower the bar of repression, but to no avail: “Some greedy cop had leaked the salient details to a reporter from The Times.” (Barker Books 9) This confusion, the withholding of information, and the fragments that finally become publicized lead to a theory voiced by an “opinionated brute” Kaufman meets in a restaurant: “There’s something out there that’s not human,” while the protagonist is quite convinced that “the monsters to be found in the tunnels were perfectly human.” (Barker Books 10) And indeed so, Mahogany5 and the creatures found at the end of the subway line look banal enough. Such a picture of the cannibals6 is heavily reminiscent of the morlocks found in H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine7 written almost a century earlier, who became pervasive models for monstrosities lurking underground in the urban horror genre (Mighall “Gothic Cities” 57, Bleiler 357). Barker’s story is quite aware of this tradition and the author self-reflexively appropriates these motifs for his own purpose: to propose an ironical, grotesque representation of patriarchy.8 This allegorical dimension of the text might explain the text’s abjection of the feminine and its obsession with fathers and fatherhood.
The foreclosure of the feminine is palpable in three aspects of “The Midnight Meat Train”: the gender coding of the city as an abject female body regulated by the “City Fathers”; the appearance of the murdered female body that symbolically becomes the origin of the detective plot; and the disappearance of the maternal. I have devoted a few thoughts to the first two of these motifs, and I think the third is connected to the way the story handles the dream Kaufman sees when he falls asleep in the underground car:
For some reason his dreams were of his mother’s kitchen. She was chopping turnips and smiling sweetly as she chopped. He was only small in his dream and was looking up at her radiant face while she worked. Chop. Chop. Chop. (Barker Books 13)
The story is very reticent about attributing any specific meaning to the dream, but it might be worthwhile to conjecture a little. Eating and feeding is an ever-present motif in “The Midnight Meat Train”: once we encounter Kaufman in a restaurant; the dream is about his mother in the kitchen presumably cooking food for her child; and finally the final stop of the subway train is referred to as a “grotesque meal-line” (Barker Books 18) for the creatures. Beside killing away hunger, feeding someone also has symbolic meanings of nurturing, care and love, however the tender love between the mother and the child is later rewritten as a nightmare scenario between the son and the father, which is also referred to as “a dreamed sight.” (Barker Books 14) Similarly to the “greedy cop,” leaking information to the press, Kaufman also feels a voyeuristic urge to peep into the curtained-off other car where Mahogany is at work. The fabric of the curtain (like the Law) is torn somewhere to expose its abject sights:
He had to look. There was blood on his shoe, and a thin trail to the next car, but he still had to look. He had to. He took two more steps to the door and scanned the curtain looking for a flaw in the blind: a pulled thread in the weave would be sufficient. There was a tiny hole. He glued his eye to it. His mind refused to accept what his eyes were seeing beyond the door. It rejected the spectacle as preposterous, as a dreamed sight. His reason said it couldn’t be real, but his flesh knew it was. His body became rigid with terror. His eyes, unblinking, could not close off the appalling scene through the curtain. He stayed at the door while the train rattled on, while his blood drained from his extremities, and his brain reeled from lack of oxygen. Bright spots of light flashed in front of his vision, blotting out the atrocity. (Barker Books 14)
The sight—which can be labeled the primal scene of the story—cannot be described as seen by Kaufman, it is blocked out by terror. In fact, this “dreamed sight” can be interpreted as a repetition and a rewriting of the dream of his mother he saw earlier, but this time, it is not the mother chopping up turnips, but the father chopping up bodies as if they were simple meat.9 To recast it in a Lacanian way, the maternal Imaginary thus disappears under a layer of patriarchal violence. It seems that in “The Midnight Meat Train” the feminine and the maternal always disappear below different layers of the paternal Symbolic that work through repression and foreclosure (including the closedown on the press reports, the curtain blocking Kaufman’s view, the ignorance of the people about the creatures below).
And this brings us to the obsessions of “The Midnight Meat Train” with fathers and fatherhood, which is manifest in the phrase “City Fathers,” which term is used to refer to the leaders of New York, as well as the creatures underground:
“What are you? […] Are you accidents of some kind?”
“We are the City fathers,” the thing said. “And mothers, and daughters and sons. The builders, the lawmakers. We made this city.” (Barker Books 19)
These “City fathers” were thus instrumental to the birth of the city, but have since then become abject entities that needed to be expelled underground in order to preserve the Laws they have set in motion. Yet their monstrous appetite can only be abated through murders so their very existence becomes a transgression. The fact that these “fathers” do not exhibit such feral strength as the morlocks do hints at how the whole paternal system looks emaciated—just like Poe’s man of the crowd—and is crumbling under its own weight (or age): the geriatric cannibals cannot sustain themselves, and require the aid of trustworthy sons; Mahogany is getting old and makes more and more mistakes; and even Kaufman seems unfit for service.10 Even if Mahogany works for the fathers, he also dreams of symbolically becoming a father himself by taking an apprentice (a symbolical son): his body seems to be failing him, he is getting old after many years of service.11 Yet what he does not realize is that this view of paternity presented by “The Midnight Meat Train” does not allow for a nonviolent transition between father and son: even if the cathartic confrontation between Poe’s narrator and the old man never happens, the encounter between the main characters of the narrative leads to symbolic patricide that inserts Kaufman into the patriarchal lineage, even though first he finds it hard to understand why would anyone want to sustain these geriatric cannibals. He only starts to understand the reason when glimpses the “Father of Fathers” that these people—and in fact all this patriarchal lineage—originate from:
Kaufman’s gaze followed the pointing finger into the gloom. There was something else outside the train which he’d failed to see before; much bigger than anything human. […] It was there; the precursor of man. The original American, whose homeland this was before Passama Quoddy or Cheyenne. Its eyes, if it had eyes, were on him. His body shook. His teeth chattered. He could hear the noise of its anatomy: ticking, crackling, sobbing. It shifted a little in the dark. The sound of its movement was awesome. Like a mountain sitting up. Kaufman’s face was raised to it, and without thinking about what he was doing or why, he fell to his knees in the shit in front of the Father of Fathers. It was a giant. Without head or limb. Without a feature that was analogous to human, without an organ that made sense, or senses. If it was like anything, it was like a shoal of fish. A thousand snouts all moving in unison, budding, blossoming and withering rhythmically. It was iridescent, like mother of pearl, but it was sometimes deeper than any color Kaufman knew, or could put a name to. (Barker Books 19)
Kaufman here encounters the monstrous, inhuman origin of the patriarchal system itself. Barker’s “Father of Fathers,” the source of patriarchy within the story requires not conscious understanding, rather reverent worship. This being—which can be regarded as a travesty of H. P. Lovecraft’s “great old ones”12 as well as Lacan’s notion of the phallus—transfixes Kaufman and inserts him into the patriarchal lineage as a nurturer of his symbolic fathers.
As opposed to the random “atrocities” and violence committed everywhere in New York—and which comes to define every inhabitant of the city13—, this one has a purpose, albeit a grotesque one. Of course the final irony of the story is that all this tradition needs to be dissimulated, kept in silence: “The city would go about its business in ignorance: never knowing what it was built upon, or what it owed its life to” ((Barker Books 21, emphasis added). “The Midnight Meat Train” presents the system of the visible and the meaningful as predicated upon the invisible and the hidden that must remain unseen. This “ignorance” is mirrored by the silence of the servant as Kaufman’s tongue is ripped out by one of the fathers, which could be a grotesque literalization of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous line, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Understood as an allegory that operates through the abjection of the feminine and an obsession with fathers and fatherhood, Barker’s tale can be regarded as the grotesque parody of the Lacanian story of Oedipal subject formation:14 the subject’s Imaginary fantasies or dreams need to be overwritten by a paternal Symbolic, although there is one very important divergence from the Lacanian scheme: here the insertion into the symbolic does not yield a speaking subject, but a mute one, who reverently kisses the asphalt of his feminine city as a symbol of adoration. Interestingly enough, this patriarchal logic within the story is precisely the motif that Kitamura’s film remains silent about.
Kitamura’s Photos of New York
If it can be argued that Barker’s narrative—just like Poe’s—is also about the act of rewriting (the cannibalization of the city sketch or the tradition of urban horror), the same process seems to be at work in the relationship between the textual and the cinematic version of Barker’s story as well. Ryuhei Kitamura’s version seems to obscure “The Midnight Meat Train” allegoric dimension as a half-serious Oedipal narrative, but it introduces various subtexts that tease out other latent meanings from the tale. Probably the most important difference between the two versions15 is that while the short story with its ironical narration seemed to effectively prevent our identification with any of the main characters, the film clearly focuses on Leon,16 who becomes a photographer in Kitamura’s version. The flaneur appears holding a camera in his hands, alluding to possibly the most frequently quoted lines from Susan Sontag’s On Photography:
In fact, photography first comes into its own as an extension of the eye of the middle-class flâneur, whose sensibility was so accurately charted by Baudelaire. The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world “picturesque.” (Sontag 42-43)
Similarly to Poe’s narrator, Leon is fascinated by the city, but is very disappointed to see his artistic talents go to waste. We learn that he originally “started out as a painter,” but had to give up painting for creating photographs of victims of violence (murders and accidents) that fit only into the columns of tabloid articles and headlines. As opposed to this lifestyle, what he really wants to capture is the city itself, because, as he explains to Susan Hoff, a rich socialite who owns an art gallery, “no one’s ever captured it. Not the way it really is… the heart of it. That’s my goal, that’s my dream.”17 The movie is about his search for these secrets, and the “heart of it,” as Leon finds out, is connected to various forms of violence.
Hoff rejects the first pictures Leon shows her, because “It’s melodrama, arresting but empty.” They only offer what Roland Barthes calls studiums, they offer representations of “human interest” the appreciation of which, in Barthes’s words “require[s] the rational intermediary of an ethical and political culture” (Barthes 26). These pictures lack “the thing” that would grab our attention. She also suggests that what Leon calls “the heart of it” can only be seen during the night (“You were at the right place, weren’t you? […] But not the right time.”). After this prompt the protagonist does get braver and goes “shooting” at night. His first important catch is a scene that threatens to erupt into violence: Leon encounters a gang of African American thugs when they start to harass a young fashion model. He keeps shooting pictures and saves the girl by pointing out to the thugs that all their actions are taken by surveillance cameras symbolizing the relationship between the Law and “the gaze of the Other.”18 The film is precisely about how Leon needs to leave this safe area—as well as his aesthetic view of the world—behind and submerge into the city’s underworld in order to capture its “heart.” The outcome of this first glimpse into the unknown arrests Hoff’s attention as well, they no longer lack the punctum19 that was missing earlier: “[Leon] I didn’t imagine you to be the person that would say, "whoa." [Hoff] – I’m not. I don’t. I haven’t said it since high school. But that’s how good it is. I’m having a group show in three weeks. Get me two more images that strong and you’ll be a part of it.” Thus in Hoff’s expectations, we can recognize the shift that also drove Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” away from the Dickensian city sketch: instead of the studiums of social commitment and “empty melodrama,” Leon needs to capture the powerful icons of the urban underworld.
As part of this exploration Leon comes across “the man of the crowd,” Mahogany, and just like the narrator of Poe’s short story, he starts following him around during the night, hoping to score more pictures like the earlier one. He does shoot some pictures, but is soon confronted by Mahogany, whose threatening pose makes it clear that—just like the subway thugs he saw earlier—he does not approve of being photographed. However, Leon does not stop after this encounter and keeps stalking him, because he notices how the two strong images that he has shot, have a secret connection: the ring on Mahogany’s hand (a ring he will “inherit”) raises his suspicion that the man might be implicated in the disappearance of the young fashion model he saved earlier. His detective plot yields some ambiguous results, but when Leon visits Mahogany’s workplace, a slaughterhouse, the tables are turned: he finds out that now Mahogany is stalking him. Soon his camera is taken away from him, suggesting that he is no longer the active owner of the gaze, but is confronted by the threatening gaze of the other, which no longer gives security like the surveillance cameras did earlier.
If we think about the reason why Leon pursues this quest into the unknown parts of the city, The Midnight Meat Train seems to exhibit the same ambiguities that, according to Sontag, characterized the notion of the flaneur as a photographer:
Photography has always been fascinated by social heights and lower depths. Documentarists (as distinct from courtiers with cameras) prefer the latter. For more than a century, photographers have been hovering about the oppressed, in attendance at scenes of violence—with a spectacularly good conscience. Social misery has inspired the comfortably-off with the urge to take pictures, the gentlest of predations, in order to document a hidden reality, that is, a reality hidden from them. Gazing on other people’s reality with curiosity, with detachment, with professionalism, the ubiquitous photographer operates as if that activity transcends class interests, as if its perspective is universal. […] The flâneur is not attracted to the city’s official realities but to its dark seamy corners, its neglected populations—an unofficial reality behind the façade of bourgeois life that the photographer “apprehends,” as a detective apprehends a criminal. (Sontag 42-43)
In the beginning, Leon seems to be precisely that type of photographer (a slave to sensational journalism), who is always “in attendance at scenes of violence,” and is even disappointed that that his shots of a victim of an accident might not be good enough.20 The alternative that Hoff presents him makes us aware of the class interests behind the photographer’s gaze: it is not a universal, but an emphatically (upper) middle-class perspective and audience that Leon needs to satisfy by uncovering the “unofficial reality behind the façade of bourgeois life” that is connected to race, class and gender difference. The problem is that the photographer cannot keep his “detachment,” his “professionalism” and becomes engulfed by these stories. Leon gets traumatized by the world his eyes open to, and changes a lot during the film, which worries Maya a lot: strange sleeping habits, the scars on his body (literalizing Barthes’s famous rendition of the punctum that “bruises me”), his sudden appetite for rare steak (he used to be a vegetarian) and rough sex (which scene evokes Basic Instinct), his loss of interest in her and in traditional forms of aesthetics. She even asks him to return to shooting only what makes him happy (that is studiums), like her nude body—in fact Maya is in the first photograph that we see in the movie—, but Leon is incapable of doing that anymore, he keeps getting flashbacks of the slaughterhouse, the attack of the fashion model, or Mahogany’s face.
The ending of the film greatly repositions the emphases in Barker’s original story: here there is no hint at “the Father of Fathers” that giant inhuman presence inspiring Kaufman’s unconditional reverence. The “fathers” no longer seem human either: as opposed to Barker’s tale they look more monstrous and “Lovecraftian” than old and weak. They are also incapable of speech, or unwilling to communicate with Leon, so the subway driver needs to act as a stand-in. As he explains, Mahogany
didn’t have what it takes anymore. He knew it must be done. It was a privilege. I envy you. Before you were born, or the birth of any other human thing, that’s how long. Or longer. And now you found us as only a few before you have. The intimate circle that keeps the secret. We protect and nurture them and order is thereby preserved. It must be done to keep the worlds separate. You’ll understand soon enough. Now, serve as we all do… without question.
The film thus removes the original story’s patrilinear backbone and supplements it with something else. Nurturing here is not made out of irrational reverence, but to preserve “order.” Whereas for Barker, these fathers were the origins of the city, its order, its Law (“the builders, the lawmakers”), Kitamura’s script presents these monsters as figures for excess and transgression, who clearly threaten this order. Feeding them is a way for containing this menace, keeping “the worlds separate,” the seemingly “rational, grid-like New York City” (Mighall “Gothic Cities”57), and the irrational world that thrives within its bowels. However, catching a glimpse at the “heart of it” means for Leon that he becomes its silent thrall and servant.
In the previous pages, we have followed the footsteps of the different kinds of flaneurs roaming the metropolis’s streets. Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” shows us the irrational forces at work within the city of London, which converge around the mysterious figure of the man of the crowd. While doing so Poe appropriates the genre of the city sketch, but severes its ties with social commitments and becomes the “father” of urban horror. Barker’s New York is no less a pastiche of other representations of the metropolis than Poe’s London, and his textual appropriation seems to encompass the whole tradition of horror stories depicting the gothic city, Lacanian psychoanalysis, or even the critique of patriarchy found in feminist thought, which mixture results in a carnivalesque denunciation (or celebration?) of violence. While Kitamura’s film mutes the semi-serious Oedipal drama involved in “The Midnight Meat Train,” but lays bare the ideologies and ambiguities involved in the relationship between the flaneur-photographer, his represented theme and the audience.
- Barker, Clive. Tapping the Vein (Book Three). London: Titan Books, 1990.
- - – -. “The Midnight Meat Train.” Books of Blood: Volumes One to Three. New York: Berkley, 1998.
- Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
- Badley, Linda. Writing Horror and the Body: The Fiction of Stephen King, Clive Barker and Anne Rice. London: Greenwood, 1996.
- Benjamin, Walter. Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. Trans. Harry Zohn. London: Verso, 1997.
- Bényei Tamás. Rejtélyes rend: A krimi, a metafizika és a posztmodern. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 2000.
- Bleiler, Richard, “The Monster.” S.T. Joshi, ed. Icons of Horror and the Supernatural. London: Greenwood, 2007. 341-374.
- Bonaparte, Marie. “Selections from The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-analytic Interpretation.” John P. Muller, William J. Richardson, eds. The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1990. 101-132.
- Brand, Dana. The Spectator and the City in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.
- Byer, Robert. “Mysteries of the City: A Reading of Poe’s »The Man of the Crowd.«” Sacvan Bercovitch, Myra Jehlen, eds. Ideology and Classic American Literature. New York: Cambridge UP, 1986. 221-246.
- Felski, Rita. The Gender of Modernism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1995.
- Grubb, Gerald G. “The Personal and Literary Relationships of Dickens and Poe. Part Three: Poe’s Literary Debt to Dickens.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 5.3 (December, 1950): 209-221.
- Hayes, Kevin J. “Visual Culture and the Word in Edgar Allan Poe’s »The Man of the Crowd.«” Nineteenth-Century Literature 56.4 (2002): 445-465.
- Hurley, Kelly. The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and degeneration at the fin de siècle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.
- Joshi, S. T. The Modern Weird Tale. Jefferson: McFarland, 2001.
- Kalmár György. Testek a vásznon: Test, film, szubjektivitás. Debrecen: Debreceni Egyetemi Kiadó, 2012.
- Kitamura, Ryuhei. The Midnight Meat Train. Lionsgate, 2008.
- Latham, Rob. “The Urban Horror.” S.T. Joshi, ed. Icons of Horror and the Supernatural. London: Greenwood, 2007. 591-618.
- Mabbott, T. O., ed. The Selected Poetry and Prose of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Random House, 1951.
- McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. London: Routledge, 1995.
- Mighall, Robert. A Geography of Victorian Gothic Fiction: Mapping History’s Nightmares. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.
- - – -. “Gothic Cities.” Catherine Spooner, Emma McEvoy, eds. The Routledge Companion to the Gothic. London: Routledge, 2007. 54-62.
- Nord, Deborah Epstein. “The City as Theater: From Georgian to Early Victorian.” Victorian Studies 31.2 (Winter, 1988): 159-188.
- Poe, Edgar A. Essays and Reviews. New York: The Library of America, 1984.
- - – -. “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Poetry and Tales 397-431.
- - – -. Poetry and Tales. New York: Library of America, 1984.
- - – -. “The Man of the Crowd.” Poetry and Tales 388-396.
- - – -. “Review of Watkins Tottle, and other Sketches.” Essays and Reviews 204-207.
- Rachman, Stephen. “»Es lässt sich nicht schreiben.« Plagiarism and »The Man of the Crowd.«” Rosenheim, Shawn, and Stephen Rachman, eds. The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. 49-87.
- Seed, David. “Touring the Metropolis: The Shifting Subjects of Dickens’s London Sketches.” The Yearbook of English Studies 34 (2004): 155-170.
- Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: RosettaBooks, 2005.
- Winwar, Frances. The Haunted Palace: A Life of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1959.
1 Richard Bleiler lists other possible inspirations as well, claiming that Barker’s works are “redolent with homages to Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen, Clark Ashton Smith, and H. P. Lovecraft, sometimes explicitly stated, sometimes lurking just beneath the text for an aware reader to seize upon. At the same time, they cannot be called derivative and are frequently highly original.” (Bleiler 366) ↩
2 As Linda Badley argues as well, “Barker revitalized the tale of terror, relocating it in the iconic, the grotesque, and the ironic” (Badley 74). Especially the last term, “ironic” seems problematic here to me, given the stories that frames Books of Blood: in fact all of these stories we read in these volumes are etched into the skin of Simon McNeal, who received this punishment because of the lies, the tricks, the mockeries leading to the misrepresentations of the dead. ↩
3 As S.T. Joshi argues, “Although Barker now spends much of his time in New York, it is painfully obvious that he had not been there at the time he wrote this story, since its account of horrors on the subway is full of transparent mistakes (there is no ‘Avenue of the Americas’ line; one cannot hear conversation from one subway car to the next.” (Joshi 117) While I find it very interesting that Joshi expects “The Midnight Meat Train” to be referentially correct, I fully agree with his claim that “Barker is saying nothing of importance about the horror and decadence of the city, or of their causes.” (Joshi 118) Joshi is convinced that Barker’s story is just trashy fiction (Joshi 117) especially compared to the tradition he draws inspiration from: “I defy anyone to read his “The Midnight Meat Train” and then T. E. D. Klein’s “Children of the Kingdom,” and not come away with a vastly greater impression of the horrors that may dwell on the underside of New York City from Klein’s tale than from Barker’s.” (Joshi 131, cf. 260) ↩
4 However, the problem with casting the short story altogether as a detective story is that the protagonist is not a detective, and the truth behind the killings never get publicized, the cultural trauma of the crimes is never healed through the processes of public trial and conviction (Bényei 66). If in the story that heralded the birth of the detective story, Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, the identity of the killer is ambiguous, here the state of the dead bodies found underground lead to perplexing questions. ↩
5 “Kaufman looked down the abattoir at Mahogany. He was not terribly fearsome, just another balding, overweight man of fifty. His face was heavy and his eyes deep-set. His mouth was rather small and delicately lipped. In fact he had a woman’s mouth.” (Barker Books 16) In the comic strip version of the story that appears in Tapping the Vein, Mahogany indeed looks like a balding, chubby butcher. ↩
6 “There was nothing very remarkable about it. It had two arms and two legs as he did; its head was not abnormally shaped. The body was small, and the effort of climbing into the train made its breath coarse. It seemed more geriatric than psychotic; generations of fictional man-eaters had not prepared him for its distressing vulnerability.” (Barker Books 18) The comic strip version represents these creatures as cavemen with very sharp teeth. ↩
7 According to Kelly Hurley, Wells’s novel can be regarded as an example of “a general anxiety about the nature of human identity permeating late-Victorian and Edwardian culture, an anxiety generated by scientific discourses, biological and sociomedical, which served to dismantle conventional notions of the »the human.«” (Hurley 5) For a different account of the relationships between the fin-de-siècle gothic forms and the discourse of sciences, see Robert Mighall’s A Geography of Victorian Gothic Fiction. ↩
8 Barker’s story remains a bit ambivalent though, the parody and critique of patriarchy is not always distinguishable from the affirmation of violence found within its systems. ↩
9 The relationship between Kaufman’s mother and Mahogany is further reinforced by one little detail about the killer’s face: “His mouth was rather small and delicately lipped. In fact he had a woman’s mouth.” Later on when Kaufman kills Mahogany, the narrator notes that “Blood issued from his lips, painting them, like lipstick on his woman’s mouth.” (Barker Books 16) ↩
10 When Mahogany first sees his would be successor, he represents him the following way: “The potential victim hadn’t looked that healthy anyway, he thought to himself, he was an anaemic Jewish accountant probably. The meat wouldn’t have been of any quality.” (Barker Books 15) ↩
11 This father and son relationship between the two main characters might also remind us of a certain interpretation of Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd,” which interpreted the story as the mise en scène of the father in an Oedipal fantasy. For example Frances Winwar notes that “Edgar had drawn the theme from the profoundest springs of his personality. Six years after John Allan’s death he, the victim of the old man’s avarice and cold blooded calculation, had ‘gazed at him steadfastly in the face’ and meted out punishment through the immortality of his works, in which Mr. Allan had never believed.” (Winwar 209) Bonaparte argues that “The slayer-father, as imagined in the infantile sadistic concept of coitus, here appears as the mysterious unknown, the man of the crowd, ‘type and genius of profound crime’ as, also, in the orangoutang of ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue.’ In one case a dagger symbolizes the piercing phallus, in the other, a razor.” (Bonaparte 106). ↩
12 Rob Latham also claims that the story is “a shrewd fusion of serial killer routines with Lovecraftian cosmic dread” (Latham 613-614). However, as Linda Badley argues, “Barker turns Lovecraft’s coding wrong side out by making his equally marginal demons the heroes, the ‘true’ fathers of the human species.” (Badley 98) ↩
13 “Everyone he [Kaufman] met had brushed with violence; it was a fact of life. It was almost chic to have known someone who had died a violent death. It was proof of living in that city.” (Barker Books 8) In the beginning of the film version, Leon’s fiancée Maya is reading a history of the city and comments that “You know how everyone’s complaining about how dangerous the city is, and how they wish they could go back to the good old days when it wasn’t? Well, it turns out there never really were any good old days. It’s always been a hell hole.” ↩
14 In this sense, then, the narrative presented by “The Midnight Meat Train” confirms György Kalmár’s thesis that the horror genre shows the darker side of the Oedipal subject (Kalmár 78, 89). ↩
15 There are many other differences between the two versions, just to mention a few: even though Barker notes in a “making of” flick that Vinnie Jones’s performance gave Mahogany’s character a tragic complexity, we never enter into his mind as intimately as we did by reading the short story. Doubtless there are certain things we get to know about him: he lives in a hotel, which can hardly be called a home, because instead of ordinary household equipment, we mostly see knives and other tools of his trade. He also has a skin disease or mutation of sorts, which could be a result of his “job” as a signifier that suggests continuity between his human body and the cannibal monsters deep below. While “The Midnight Meat Train” staged the encounter between the two protagonists as sheer (bad) luck, but the film develops the plot in a way that contingency becomes necessity, and even suggests that there might be a deeper connection between them: they might be doubles. For example in a dream or vision, Leon sees himself as the butcher from the victim’s perspective, which foreshadows the end of the film and the narrative frame it is inserted into, which in turn seems similar to the plot of Barker’s story. They also have the same mark on their chest, which might be a symbol of their vocation, as well as their subjection, or—if we follow the half-serious logic of the short story—the mark left on the subject by the Symbolic. ↩
16 I will call the protagonist of the film Leon instead of Kaufman to emphasize his difference from his textual “twin.” ↩
17 In fact, Leon shares Kaufman’s infatuation with the city, but here the city is not gendered in the way it was in the tale: here the photographer has a quite real relationship with Maya, his fiancée, and it is through Maya’s friend that Leon meets Hoff in the first place. These two women offer him the possibility to realize his aesthetics dreams, which, in the end, become a nightmare: the movie is also about how Leon estranges from Maya because of his insistent search for the essence of the city. ↩
18 The police officer Leon relates the case to seems to be suspicious of his explanation: “[Police officer] And they ran off after you made your presence known. [Leon] No, you see them? No, no. It wasn’t until I pointed out the surveillance camera. That’s what made them leave.” ↩
19 As Barthes explains, what he calls punctum is “the element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow […] A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (Barthes 26-27). ↩
20 As for the “social heights,” the fashion model he saves would offer Leon another model to follow, the paparazzis stalking famous people. The reason how he got the shot of the harassment in the first place becomes a topic with the police officer: “[Police officer] Do you sell your photos? […] Erika’s a pretty big model. Tabloids’d be interested in these. [Leon] Really? I wouldn’t know. [Police Officer] Is that so? [Leon] Yeah. I wasn’t stalking her if that’s what you’re indicating.” ↩