This post, and the book it discusses, carry trigger warnings for sexual harassment and assault. Please proceed cautiously.
Multiple times, I’ve had the chance to recommend T.E.D. Klein’s The Ceremonies. There are plenty of reasons why I should. It’s a well-remembered and much-loved work of horror (once considered “the Moby-Dick of horror novels” by Stephen King) by a well-respected author and editor, it’s a big thick doorstopper of a novel (and I love recommending those), and it’s an excellent book for the most part, a story blending pastoral beauty and folk mysticism with some of the darkest, most gruesome scenes ’80s horror had to offer. It’s even available currently in a handsome “author’s preferred” edition. But every time I came close to putting the book on a list, be it folk horror, doorstoppers of horror, or even cosmic horror without tentacles (the book’s horrors, the tangible ones, anyway, are gigantic worms), I paused rather than pulling the trigger. It’s not a complicated problem, but it’s one worth talking about, and one that should probably be discussed, because what was considered okay in the 80s isn’t okay now.
The Ceremonies is, on its surface, actually a pretty decent book. The story follows Jeremy Freirs, a graduate student and adjunct professor working on a thesis about gothic literature. To give himself a distraction-free environment, he rents a house in the South Jersey countryside, a small guest house on the farmland of the very religious and very Amish Poroth family. At the same time, one of Jeremy’s students, a dancer named Carol, is contracted to work for a diminutive older gentleman named Mr. Rosebottom, who might also be the embodiment of all evil on Earth and working to reawaken horrifying elder gods. The book interweaves these three plotlines as they slowly converge on Poroth Farm, bringing together folk horror, cosmic horror, a certain modern (for the time period) touch of gore and unknowable horrifying monsters into one package. Klein actually does a good job of it, too, building ominous dread through a series of small incidents and disappearances until the last hundred pages explode in a gory, brutal sprint between the hero and his definitely-not-human nemesis. It’s sometimes a maddening book in terms of pacing, but there’s good reason it’s listed in such works as Horror: 100 Best Books.
While The Ceremonies is deserving of all this praise, however, the cracks start to show once you look closely at how Carol is treated. She spends the book as little more than a pinball, bouncing back and forth between Jeremy and Rosebottom and their various plans, her every move manipulated by either the man who doesn’t seem to care about her all that much, or the eldritch and ancient horror who takes the form of a kindly old man. Rosebottom gives her dresses, protects her from Jeremy’s ham-fisted advances, helps her stabilize her living situation, and… isn’t that awful to her, actually, despite the “wanting to devour the entire earth and wake up a gigantic worm monster” thing. The larger immediate threat in Carol’s life is Jeremy, a man who has seemingly never heard the word “no.” In fact, right from the start, Jeremy is portrayed as kind of a jerk: he views the Poroths as a quaint attraction he can use as a study break from his all-important thesis, and continually pushes at Carol to visit him and to let him visit her. He also doesn’t really change much as the book goes on, either, still viewing the Poroths and their customs as quaint and backwards. Rosebottom even uses this to his advantage, gently goading Jeremy into performing rituals because Jeremy, in all his skepticism, just sees them as harmless folk games. Jeremy views everyone as lesser, and there’s no real attempt to turn away or color his behavior. He just seems to be a jerk for the sake of being a jerk.
But the worst insult dealt to Carol isn’t just that she’s kind of an afterthought in spite of being one of the major point of view characters–that’d be bad enough–but no, Jeremy almost rapes her, and Klein writes it as a bad thing that he stops. This isn’t an accusation I make lightly, of course, so naturally one needs evidence. This happens on page 297 of the author’s preferred edition of The Ceremonies:
‘Sure, why not?’ She felt his hand slip beneath the robe. ‘As a matter of fact, there’s this crazy Bram Stoker novel–‘
‘Wait, Jeremy, what are you doing down there?’
‘It doesn’t feel like nothing.’
‘I’m not going to hurt you, just lift yourself up a minute.’
‘You mean… like this?’
‘Mm. Do you have to keep both legs so– there, that’s better.’
She watched what he was doing, still held passive by the dream.
This passive, reluctant scene continues with Carol not really doing anything (it actually seems similar to “freezing,” a common response to non-consensual encounters) until Rosebottom breaks it up–not because it’s wrong, but because he’ll lose all his hard work if Jeremy has sex with Carol, further turning Carol into an object, stuck in a game of tug-of-war. But because that might have been confusing, allow me to summarize it once again in a single line:
The bad guy stops the good guy from sexually assaulting his love interest and it’s seen as a bad thing.
Now, granted, one could shrug this off as part of the large, systemic problem with ’80s horror. After all, rape is all over the place. Richard Laymon didn’t seem able to get through a book without someone (usually a woman) getting ravished or impregnated against their will. The splatterpunk subgenre, which started in the ’80s, usually included a sexual component for shock value, because venereal horrors are somehow even worse, and because when writers imagined people getting infected with something and reverting to their base desires, that always seemed to involve having sex with the nearest living creature until it died. And then eating it. ’80s horror was not a good place to be a woman, and in books involving body horror or possible virgin sacrifices, especially so. Hell, even in the few ’80s horror volumes written by women, there are occasionally rapey overtones. It’s kind of an unsettling genre for a decade or two in there.
Time, however, is linear, and the past will always be a strange dark age full of monstrous acts. Even if we were to excuse this narrative choice as a product of its time (and we shouldn’t), The Ceremonies is kind of egregious even for that. While many other authors do write villains who commit sexually violent acts, having the hero molest a woman without her consent casts the rest of the book in a dark light–and having the villain come in and interrupt so that they don’t have sex and derail his plans just underlines exactly how messed up the book is. This would be fine if we were given any indication that this was that kind of world, but with Klein’s lyricism and the beautiful sketches of the pastoral countryside, it doesn’t strike one as the kind of world where this kind of antihero could exist. Nor does Klein give any indication (other than the way he treats the Poroths) that we’re supposed to find Jeremy particularly unpleasant. So we’re left with an excellent book, a book that’s been recommended time and again, a book that one of the most recognizable horror writers of the last century claims is a masterpiece, and it has a section where the hero pulls a #metoo move and the villain is the one rooting for consent. It’s the one of the most egregious examples of an era filled with weird monsters and sexual violence, because at least the average storyteller writing a tale where someone is penetrated by a monster knew the act was supposed to be wrong.
If we’re to progress, we have to look a little more carefully at some of the books we put on pedestals. Sure, T.E.D. Klein is no H.P. Lovecraft (okay, the “Black Man with a Horn” story has kind of a sketchy title unless you’re familiar with it), but it’s still wrong to lionize someone’s novel without examining this kind of thing. While it’s not necessary to bring it up every time someone mentions the book, it’s useful to have critical conversations about the more problematic material in the things we read, and to remind us that things people got away with in the past definitely don’t fly in the modern era. It’s also useful to remember, highlight, and expose these moments in books like The Ceremonies that might be influential, but not as highly scrutinized in the public eye. After all, writers need to be held to the same standards whether they’re the province of the superfans who speak about them in hushed tones or the breakouts who sell tons of copies in airports.
Also–and I can’t believe I have to say this–maybe look up the basic definition of the word “consent” before writing your sex scenes. That’s important.