Wednesday, June 12, 2013

I Frighten

Today, we need talk about a book, a writer, and a Latin word.

And, believe it or not, there's connection. And something very, very important for us all.

The writer first. Robert L. Folkner is one of Belfort and Bastion's favorite authors. He's already done one novel for us, Something For Everything. It is a sort of a retelling of the Faust tale but from the perspective of a modern American age of post-industrial decline.

But, now, Folkner's done a second work for us. This is a collection of short stories entitled Pure Theatre of Cruelty.

Now, for the word: terreō

It means, more or less, "I frighten."

Which is where we get into the important part.


Terreo is one of those interesting Latin words which shows up as multiple words in English. Most obviously, of course, is "terror." Related to that is "terrible." So there's two words and two distinct concepts right there. We have terreo in the sense of cause of causing fear—i.e., "The 9/11 hijackers were terrorists." But we also have the sense of something very, very bad, either in the meaning of evil ("The Cambodian Genocide was terrible,"), or in the meaning of something awful ("That dinner was terrible.")

But, curiously, terreo also shows up in English to mean something good, as in "Terrific."  Thus we have, "She's a terrific human being."

The problem arises because the underlying meaning of "terreo" got a little slippery when it was transferred to English via Norman French. When it got grafted onto what used to be Anglo-Saxon, it took on the meaning of something which evokes the grander emotions, whether for good or bad.

That's why translating "terror" or "terrific" can get tricky. Take Czar Ivan IV. We call him, in English "Ivan The Terrible" because he was known among the Russians as "Ivan Grozny."  So we have a vision of Ivan as a tyrant, "the Terrible," a kind of precursor of Stalin.

Except that Grozny doesn't really mean "terrible" in the sense that we know it today. In Russian it is more like "strong" or "formidable,"—more, in fact, like our "terrific." What happened was that when the title was translated into English in the 1500s, the translators were looking for a word that meant something "awe-inspiring," and (at the time) "terrible" did just that. " It was only after a few hundred years that the English-term had taken on today's more negative meaning.

Which isn't to say that Ivan the Terrible wasn't, indeed, "terrible" as we use the term today. He probably was. But, as one of the founders of the Russian state, and the man who helped put down the foundations for the Russian empire in Siberia and Central Asia, he might have a rather good claim on "Terrific" as well.

But, what's that got to do with Robert Folkner? For that, we need to turn to Theatre.


Folkner is a fabulist. Or, as he prefers to call himself, "a Fantasist." His fiction weaves in and out of the real world, taking the reader from the mundane to the fantastic, and back again …all in a matter of a few pages.

His current book with us, Pure Theatre of Cruelty, includes a number of tales…all of them fundamentally disturbing. There is "Classical Massacre," which gives us a pretty "terrible" picture of what a nuclear weapons strike would be like. Then, too, there's  " Fortune-Baby," where the supernatural, the cinema, and perfect justice all somehow become intertwined. And there's "Everyone Gets What He Deserves," which asks what would happen if our juvenile justice (or injustice) system were to gain a little too much power. And, well, there's much more beyond those.

The connection with terreo? Simply this: Folkner's tales are of the same stuff as terreo. They evoke terror, but also are terrific.

They evoke terror because they deal with horrible, horrible things—the death of children, torture, the heartbreak of exile. But they are terrific, not just because they are well written (they are) but because they are warnings. They are signposts that read "here there be dragons," and suggesting alternative routes.

Take "Classical Massacre." At first glace, the reader would be tempted to dismiss it. After all, the Cold War is over. The threat of nuclear annihilation is over, isn't it? This is passé, isn't it?

Or is it? As I write this, in 2013, at least five nations possess nuclear weapons—including North Korea and Pakistan, neither of which looks like a monument to national stability. Several other states have the capacity to produce them any time they like. And there are almost certainly non-state actors— Al-Qaeda, for one—trying to get them.

Oh, and here's something else to consider. What's one of the most rapidly accelerating arms races in the world right now? Try India and China, both nuclear powers with missile programs. Just last year (2012) India debuted the Agni-V, a ICBM that can carry multiple nuclear weapons. It's called "the China killer."

Consider that for a moment.


Or take "Everyone Gets." I won't provide any spoilers but suffice to say it involved a future in which the juvenile justice system meets time travel. A simple sci-fi/horror tale, you say?

Well, maybe yes, maybe no. Consider the social trend knownas  "the criminalization of children." It's been written about everyone from scholarly journals to the New York Times. Increasingly, we treat young people as criminal, guilty until proven innocent.

Thus schools are built like armed camps. Police are now regularly stationed in every school in the country…not to protect the young people from machine gun welding maniacs, but to keep the students in line.

How long before society's "terror" of the young becomes truly deadly?


So this is why Folkner is "terrible" and "terrific." He warns us. He points at the dark places in our society…and in our souls…and says "Here there be demons."

Here, he says, are things you must avoid. At all costs, you must avoid them. If you do not, then…well…the world is threatened.

And so Folkner joins that tiny band of writers, the men and women who stand before us with magic mirrors. They present us with our own secret faces…faces that may, indeed, be terrible.

Such people, such artists, are important …as important as those who follow Caesar and whisper, "you are mortal."

These men and women follow us all. And say, "Terrific or terrible…you can be either.

"The choice is entirely…entirely!… up to you."

Let us hope to God we make the right choice.


You may see Pure Theatre of Cruelty at Amazon here: