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“Murie Sing Cuccoo”: Folk Horror and The Lighthouse

By Oscar Mardell.

This is a sequel to this essay.


Now I am the Mad Mad Daddy
I am the Mad Mad Daddy.
– The Cramps, ‘The Mad Daddy’ (1980)


The Lighthouse (2019) hides its family tree in plain sight, its every frame betraying an eerie resemblance to some bygone precursor. And there can be little doubt that Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968), Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and Robin Hardy’s The Wickerman (1973) sit proudly in its ancestry. When Bloody Disgusting asked about the relationship between The Lighthouse and The Witch (2015), Eggers explained:

It’s not like I’m trying to make a ‘Robert Eggers Cinematic Universe’, where there’ll be a third New England horror-adjacent folk tale where the ghosts of Thomasin the Witch teams up with the One-Eyed Seagull to harass a nice couple who starts a B&B somewhere in New England in contemporary days… But yeah, both films are me trying to commune with folk culture of my past and are me and my brother’s take on New England folk tales. So they’re certainly companion pieces.

Eggers doesn’t say it outright, but the implication is clear: his films are descendants of the Folk Horror Triumvirate — and legitimate ones at that, bypassing the pitfalls of cliché by means of two innovations. First, Eggers’ films are not set in the landscapes of Great Britain, but in those of New England. Second, nor are they folk-adjacent horror tales (as we might say of the Triumvirate) but reversals of that dynamic, “horror-adjacent folk tale[s]” — narratives concerned foremost with the treatment of “folk”, then with the cultivation of “horror” (the same cannot be said for Ari Aster’s Midsommar, whose depiction of European “paganism” is even more outlandish than that of ‘Wickerman’). And what’s more, both these innovations lead us back to Camp: in horror, few endings feel as perfectly conventional as the ecstatic writhing of a gravity-defying witch, or the overdriven laughter of a homicidal maniac — even when the witch in question is the daughter of Mayflower pilgrims, or the maniac an employee of the United States Light House Service.

Of course, The Lighthouse isn’t heir only to The Blood, Witchfinder, and Wickerman: in an interview for Sight and Sound, Eggers discussed the film’s other sources, both literary (William Shakespeare, John Milton, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe, Sarah Orne Jewett, M.R. James, H. P. Lovecraft, Harold Pinter, Sam Shephard) and filmic (Ingmar Bergman, Joseph Losey, The Dardenne brothers, Fritz Lang, G.W. Pabst, Jean Grémillon, Jean Epstein, John Huston). And yet, I contend, the most important ancestor to The Lighthouse is none of these but Penda’s Fen — the BBC1 Play for Today written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke which first aired at 9:30pm on 21st March, 1974.

After that first screening, Penda’s Fen aired once more on the BBC, and once on a late-night Channel 4 broadcast some time in the 80s, before falling into near-total obscurity. Thanks, however, to a group of enthusiasts and the BFI, it was restored and made available as a DVD in 2016. It has been hailed as a masterpiece ever since, and now it’s starting to receive the commentary it deserves: from Strange Attractor comes Of Mud and Flame: A Penda’s Fen Sourcebook — a breath-taking collection of scholarly essays, creative contributions, interviews with cast members, reflections from the playwright, and the full revised screenplay. And with The Lighthouse available for download (and Folk Horror enjoying something of a vogue) its timing couldn’t be better.


Penda’s Fen takes its title from the old name for Pinvin — a small village at the foot of the Malvern hills where Stephen Fowler — a fanatically Conservative schoolboy — has the various layers of his identity (ethnic, national, sexual, spiritual, etc.) eroded through a series of surreal encounters: with his parents, who reveal to him that he is not only adopted but mixed race; with the local milk boy, of whom he finds himself becoming enamoured; with a local playwright, who introduces him to radical politics; with the playwright’s wife, who assures him that gay men make “very good fathers”; with his own (adoptive) father, who proves to have Manichean sympathies; with angels in the hills and demons in his bed; with his hero Edward Elgar, who reveals to him the secret of the Enigma Variations; with “the mother and father of England” — model Anglican parents who prove to have little tolerance for the likes of Stephen; and, finally with the eponymous Penda, the last Pagan king in England. Upon which, Stephen arrives at his crucial moment of self-discovery, proudly declaring:

I am nothing pure. My race is mixed. My sex is mixed. I am woman and man. Light with darkness. Mixed! Mixed. I am nothing special. Nothing pure. I am mud and flame!

As Rudkin explained in a 2003 piece for Vertigo: “what the old pagan king enjoins upon [Stephen] is to reject the notions of belonging and ‘type’ altogether, and go out instead into a complex world, truly individuated, empowered by his own mixedness and inner contradictions, and unique”.

But Penda’s Fen is emphatically not a Folk Horror. As Matthew Harle and James Machin write in their introduction to the Sourcebook:

Although increasingly mentioned in the same breath as the recently canonised 1970s Folk Horror triumvirate … Penda’s Fen resists conscription into the genre. Unlike the former films, it does not achieve its potency by surmounting any crude, generic pulp trappings, for it has none. Despite its occasional horrific imagery (including the notorious scene inspired by Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare), it is by no means a horror film.

Penda, in other words, doesn’t adhere to what I have called Folk Horror’s true form — it’s nightmarish in/version of Camp: with only “occasional horrific imagery”, and no “pulp trappings”, it’s seldom nightmarish, and never Camp. Unsurprising, then, that Rudkin was keen to distance his work from the term. As Sukhdev Sandhu once recorded in The Edge is Where the Centre Is:

After the recent public screening of the film, Rudkin distanced it from the field of “folk horror” — ‘psychogeography, hauntology, folklore, cultural rituals and costume, earth mysteries, visionary landscapism, archaic history” — in which it has come to have hallowed status. ‘It’s a bloody political piece,’ he observed, before adding, ‘I’ve always thought of myself as a political writer’.

Of course, it’s not just Penda’s “political” element which disqualifies it from Folk Horror: that “label”, as Adam Scovell explains in his own contribution to the Sourcebook, “is one of the most politically charged, with its questioning of the links between landscape, nationality, and folklore”. What properly distinguishes Penda from The Blood, Witchfinder, and Wickerman, is its political optimism, its earnestly suggesting that “skewed belief systems” — in this case Conservative dogma — might eventually be transcended by rational inquiry and self-discovery. The triumvirate, on the other hand, concedes nothing of the sort.

Nor, as it turns out, does Penda really qualify as a narrative of self-discovery. In ‘Stephen and the Women’ (to my way of thinking, the standout essay in the Sourcebook, and certainly the most critical of its subject), Carolyne Larrington demonstrates that Stephen doesn’t actually “reject the notions of belonging and ‘type’ altogether” — that he simply adopts new ones. “Stephen,” writes Larrington:

succeeds in embedding himself within a new patriliny, one which rejects or reconfigures elements of his past and present existence, and which sets him free…to discover himself anew. I use the term ‘patriliny’ deliberately here, for Stephen’s process of self-actualisation is in reaction to, and is largely shaped by the men who surround him: his father, the headmaster, the local TV playwright Arne, the composer Sir Edward Elgar, Joel the milkman, and the other boys at his school.

Hence, Larrington remains sceptical about the validity of Stephen’s final declaration:

Adoption, not sexual reproduction, rearing children wherever they come from … this is the future which the film both heralds and approves; the ‘foreign body’ can be assimilated into the emerging vision of England that Stephen’s final self-definition of ‘mixedness’ begins to delineate. The nuclear family, strangely symbolised (and rendered unappealing) when embodied in ‘the mother and father of all England’, is thus challenged by queer and radical possibilities — child-rearing without child-bearing, fathering without heterosexual sex — but within a model that is by no means feminist…

Yet…the role of women within this new dispensation remains highly equivocal. Young women are empty-headed, giggly and unquestioning; older women are shown as problematic mothers, incapable of reproduction, conscripted into performing maternal labour for fractious and ungrateful sons yet — importantly — imparting crucial warnings and offering sympathetic encouragements when Stephen needs to hear them. The future Stephen envisages for himself…appears to hold no substantial place for women.

Whatever else it is, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a warning against this very situation, an allegory of the monstrosities which result when patrilinies attempt to perpetuate themselves independently of women, when they bar them from meaningful roles within the reproductive process. What that novel showed to be a nightmare Penda seems to present as a utopia.

But Penda might anticipate Larrington’s critique. Buried in Rudkin’s script is the suggestion that Stephen’s “discovery” might just be further dogma. Stephen is chatting with the playwright, Arne, and his wife, when the following dialogue unfolds:

Arne: We are consumers: blind gaping holes at the end of the production line, for stuffing with trash. We’re not even citizens. We’re doped serfs, in some mad great wall of China enterprise. Our task masters no Hitler or Stalin or Mao but our own management class. Their pink fat faces even get to look alike.

Mrs Arne: My husband is what people call a paranoid.

Stephen: Persecution mania.

Mrs Arne: That’s right. Trouble is, his twisted notions usually prove true…

Arne: Here am I, subverting you. Your father will be horrified.

Here, Mrs Arne seems to be paraphrasing the Lacanian proposition concerning the pathologically jealous husband: “even if all the facts he quotes in support of his jealousy are true, even if his wife really is sleeping around with other men, this does not change one bit the fact that his jealousy is a pathological, paranoid construction” (1). Arne is not suspecting his wife of infidelity, but the situation is analogous: even if what he says about the “management class” is “true” — even if the nation’s rulers really are bent on “some mad great wall of China enterprise” — this does not change one bit the fact that Arne is “a paranoid”. And this proposition casts radical doubt on the legitimacy of Stephen’s final declaration (especially if, as is here suggested, it is the result of his being “subverted” by Arne). According to Mrs Arne’s logic, Stephen’s discovery might well be “true” — “the foreign body”, as Larrington phrases it, might well be “assimilated into the emerging vision of England”; but that wouldn’t necessarily make Stephen any less of “a paranoid” — his vision of “mixedness”, in other words, might still be a misogynistic fantasy (2).

So what would Penda’s Fen look like if Mrs Arne’s suggestion were more explicit? Or if its vision of “mixedness” did, in fact, contain a “substantial place for women”? What, incidentally, if it were also a Folk Horror?


It would probably look a bit like The Witch (2015). The screenplay begins with the following note “To the Reader”:

This is a tale of witchcraft, told as a simple family of seventeenth century New England might have believed it to be. All of their folkloric and religious beliefs, in this film, are true…

In order to effectively depict this world in which ordinary people understood supernatural occurrences to be an expected part of life, it is essential that all aspects of the film to be carried out with utter naturalism…Yet, with all this authenticity and “realism,” it is still a folktale, a dream. A nightmare from the past.

At the head of this “simple family” is William, an archetypal paranoid, albeit of the New England variety: a puritan settler. William relocates his family to the edge of the woods, desperate for them to lead the godly life and for the Devil to have no place among them. If The Witch were a film in the tradition of The Crucible, the Devil would simply be presented as a figment of William’s paranoid imagination, as a construction of mere “folkloric and religious beliefs”. But two things distinguish The Witch from that tradition. First, it presents William’s beliefs as “true” — the family really is stalked by the Devil (who inhabits their goat), and by his devotee (the eponymous witch). Second, The Witch makes explicit that this “truth” doesn’t make William’s beliefs any less “twisted”; that even with the Devil present William is still a paranoid, and that his abuses exceed whatever the Devil’s presence might justify: William steals from his wife and he imprisons their children in a cattle-shed (3) It’s precisely the sort of thing we might expect Mrs Arne to pen if she too were a playwright.

And like Penda’s Fen, The Witch is profoundly concerned with the workings of patriliny. At the edge of the woods, there is no one for William’s family to trade with, but there is also no one for his children — two of whom are rapidly approaching sexual maturity — to marry. Hence, the question “How will the family’s individual members survive?” is quickly supplemented by “How will the family’s lineage continue?” When Caleb, the eldest son, starts ogling his sister Thomasin, William’s wife Katherine quickly advocates for her to be removed:

KATHERINE (O.S.) (whispering) She’s old enough, she needs must leave to serve another family…God save us, Caleb is well. WILLIAM hesitates.


KATHERINE (O.S.) He is also near the age of… apprenticeship.

WILLIAM (O.S.) We must keep him still. And Thomasin… I’ll take the horse to village tomorrow with Thomasin. The Tildens or the Whytings, they can make use of her. They are good folk. Kate. Kate. Stop. We will find food. I know it.

In case we were in any doubt that incest is at the forefront of their minds, or that “apprenticeship” is a euphemism here, Katherine later accuses Thomasin outright:

KATHERINE You bewitched thy brother, proud slut…Did you not think I saw thy sluttish looks to him, bewitching his eye as any whore?

In blaming Thomasin for Caleb’s lust, Katherine makes Thomasin’s role explicit: she is to mediate between men, and must, therefore, be married into — or else given away to — another family which will propagate its lineage through her; under no circumstances can she occupy a substantial place in William’s. The notion that Thomasin might be the one who carries the family line, and that Caleb might be the “slut” who threatens to pervert it, is simply inconceivable.

With no possibility of marrying a legitimate partner and fathering actual children, Caleb, like Stephen, must be inscribed within a new patriliny. William takes Caleb hunting in the forest — an experience he subsequently describes as “a father spend[ing] godly time with his son” — when the following conversation takes place between them:

WILLIAM Art thou then born holy and righteous?

CALEB No, nay! My first father sinned and I in him…

WILLIAM Art thou then born a sinner?

CALEB Aye. I was conceived in sin, and born in – iniquity.

WILLIAM Good. Then what is thy birth sin?

CALEB Adam’s sin imputed to me, and a corrupt nature dwelling within me.

WILLIAM Well-remembered Caleb. Very well. And canst thou tell me what thy corrupt nature is?

CALEB My corrupt nature is empty of grace, bent unto sin, only unto sin, and that continually.

Naturally, the doctrine raises difficult questions for Caleb, whose brother was killed before he was baptised.

CALEB An if died? If I died this day?

WILLIAM What is this?

CALEB I hold evil in my heart. My sins are not pardoned.

WILLIAM Thou art youngly yet –

CALEB (overlapping) An if God will not hear my prayers?…

WILLIAM Look you, I love thee marvelous well, but ‘tis God alone, not man, what knows who is a son of Abraham and who is not. Who is good and who is evil. Fain would I tell thee Sam sleeps in Jesus, that thou wilt, that I will, but I cannot tell thee that. None can.

We know full well what “sins” Caleb is referring to here: not simply original sin per se but his lust for Thomasin in particular (an expression of original sin, certainly, but not identical with it). Caleb knows that he cannot eradicate this sin — that he cannot simply cease to experience lust; but he also knows that he’ll have no place among the Elect if he doesn’t succeed in directing his urges along some godlier course. In other words, Caleb cannot be a “son of Abraham” and heir to the “first father” if he cannot find a legitimate partner on whom to father sons of his own. How, then, can he be guaranteed a place in this patriliny?

On the face of it, the eponymous witch and her master the Devil are simply evil. The witch murders the family’s firstborn and puts a fatal curse on Caleb; the Devil persuades Thomasin to sell her soul at a meagre price (“butter” and a “pretty dress”) before persuading her to join the witch’s coven. But, in doing so, they both solve the question, “How will the family’s lineage continue?” — and they do so, moreover, by making both children “mixed”. Under the witch’s curse, Caleb retains his male body but gives birth — not from a vagina, of course, but from his mouth, and not to some metaphorical “fruit of the womb” but to an actual piece of fruit: a “small rotting apple” — a clear sign that the boy who sought to be a “son of Abraham” is now a daughter of Eve, mother to issue of his own and a legitimate member of the oldest of matrilinies. Thomasin, meanwhile, writes herself into the Devil’s book and joins a witches’ coven — which is to say, she transcends the role assigned her by the patriliny (to be a token of exchange between families but not a legitimate member of any), inscribing herself within an alternative lineage and adopting a meaningful position within an parallel unit of kin. What makes the respective ecstasies of Caleb and Thomasin so disconcerting is the suggestion that, though both are evidently “twisted notions” (the children are exultant in spite of the obvious fact that they are damned) they are also “true”: the children are exultant because they have been liberated from the suffocating confines of William’s patriliny — a Hell in itself. It’s a vision of mixedness which, in contrast to Penda, does, indeed, contain “a substantial place for women” — even if that place is the result of witchcraft and devilry.


But what happens when we have not one “paranoid” but two? And what, moreover, when their “twisted notions” are not mutually compatible?

This, I think, is the central question raised by The Lighthouse. The film depicts two employees of the United States Light House Service — the script calls them “YOUNG” and “OLD”, though they introduce themselves as “Ephraim Winslow” and “Tom Wake”, respectively. And they are trapped at an island station “Somewhere far off the coast of Maine. Around 1890.” YOUNG is marked as a “paranoid” from the outset. Shortly after arriving on the island, he starts seeing impossible phenomena: giant tentacles in the lantern room, huge logs floating in the sea, mermaids beneath the waves, and the body of a man floating face down on the surface. And like The Witch, The Lighthouse presents these “twisted notions” as “real” — they are every bit as “naturalistic” as everything else onscreen. What’s more, we soon learn that some of them — the mermaids, at least — are not just in YOUNG’s head. When YOUNG asks OLD about his previous second, OLD replies:

Aye, went mad, he did. First a strangeness. A quietude. Then wild fancies struck him. Ravin’ ‘bout sirens, merfolk, bad omens and the like. In the end, no more sense left in him than a hen’s tooth. He believed there were some enchantment in the light.

When YOUNG sees the decapitated head of that same second sitting in a lobster pot, we are presented with the question: is this just another of Young’s paranoid fantasies? Or could it also happen to be real? Might OLD be a Bluebeard, regularly disposed to murdering his colleagues?

OLD, however, harbours just as many “twisted notions”. His stories about his past don’t add up, and he is fanatically superstitious — particularly when it comes to seabirds, which host, he reckons, the souls of dead sailors. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this “twisted notion” also turns out to be “real”: a tempest takes off when YOUNG kills a gull. Hence, we are presented with another question: is the link between the gull and the storms just one of OLD’s paranoid fantasies? Or does it also happen to be “true”? Is OLD, in other words merely some hapless Wickie who keeps getting lumped with idiot assistants — young men who are ignorant of how things work out here, and who lack the psychological wherewithal to stave off paranoia for a single day?

Things become particularly complicated when YOUNG an OLD start having different — and mutually contradictory — experiences of the same events. In the thick of a drunken stupor, Young “spills his beans”: he discloses that his name is not Ephraim Winslow, as he had told OLD, but Tom Howard; Ephraim Winslow, he explains, was the name of YOUNG’s former ward whose death he (deliberately) failed to prevent (and whose body, we learn, is that which YOUNG has been seeing floating face down in the sea). The following morning, YOUNG tries to escape in a dory; OLD destroys it with an axe before taking a swing at YOUNG, but immediately afterwards claims that it was YOUNG who swung at him. The morning after that, YOUNG finds a strange record in OLD’s logbook: for the much of the film, we’ve watched YOUNG engaged in back-breaking labour; here, however, he’s been written down as disobedient and neglectful. For YOUNG, then, OLD is a deranged layabout who might have killed his previous colleague, who has since tried to kill him, and who is now trying to cheat him; for OLD, meanwhile, YOUNG is a deranged layabout who might have killed his previous colleague, who has since tried to kill him, and who is now trying to cheat him. Both views are, to some degree, “twisted notions” — a fact that remains unaltered if either of them happens to be “real”. But could they both be “real”? Can these mutually exclusive fantasies both be “true”, when YOUNG and OLD are, emphatically, different people?

OLD is never more scornful of YOUNG than when he “spills his beans” — i.e. confesses his secrets (in this case, his “true” identity); OLD insists, moreover, that this confession is sure to drive YOUNG mad, if it hasn’t already. On the one hand, there is something distinctly Wildean here: the notion that secrecy forms the basis of identity — that keeping things to yourself is the surest way to prevent that self from being erased (by other selves, society at large, ennui, etc.) — could have come straight from The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray, or any number of Wilde’s short stories (4). On the other hand, things are taken up a notch in Egger’s hands, for YOUNG’s secret is not just the basis of his identity, YOUNG’s secret is his identity — his “beans” are not just what he knows, but who he is. And this raises an important question: when YOUNG “spills” those “beans”, does he simply disclose his “true” identity? Assert his “real” self? Or might the very act of disclosure also erase that “true” identity? Does it render his “truth”, in other words, another of his “twisted notions”? Young might well be Tom Howard — this needn’t make him any less “paranoid” for thinking so.

That this is the case — that YOUNG’s “true” identity is also a “paranoid” fantasy — is further suggested by the staggering coincidence inherent in the fact that his “real” name just happens to be the same as OLD’s. It’s what makes the following exchange so confusing and so funny:

YOUNG Thomas.

OLD Aye?

YOUNG It’s Thomas.

OLD Aye.

YOUNG No, I… I’m Thomas.

OLD I’m Thomas. You’re Ephraim.

YOUNG I lied.

OLD Well, I’ll be scuppered.

YOUNG I’m Thomas. Tommy.

OLD Tommy? (laughs) Tommy Winslow.

YOUNG Tom Howard.

OLD What’s Winslow?

YOUNG Nothing.

OLD Nothing?

To repeat: YOUNG and OLD are, emphatically, different people; The Lighthouse is neither Fight Club (1999), nor any incarnation of Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And yet, both OLD and YOUNG are “Tom” (at least, OLD is definitely “Tom”, and YOUNG is purporting to be “Tom”). The suggestion here is that both men are competing for the same position within the symbolic order, both fighting to inhabit the same identity. When OLD insists that YOUNG attacked him, and that YOUNG has been neglecting his duties, this is less a reflection of YOUNG’s actual behaviour than OLD’s way of admitting that YOUNG is winning the fight — that YOUNG is rapidly becoming OLD, so to speak, and that they are ceasing to be separate personalities. And in case we were in any doubt, Eggers makes it clear when YOUNG finally murders OLD: hitherto, YOUNG has been unable to master OLD’s lengthy oath; after driving a pickaxe through OLD’s skull, he rattles it off as if it were known to him the whole time.

Much of OLD’s behaviour is an effort to prevent this from happening, to keep YOUNG from usurping his identity. By constantly farting, OLD attempts to inscribe between himself and YOUNG the distinction between the object and subject of disgust (or, as Kristeva would have put it, between abject and ego); by making YOUNG do all the work, the distinction between master and slave. And before long, OLD makes sure to inscribe between them the difference between father and son as well. While YOUNG is still expected to leave the island, OLD comes out with the following sentiments:

Well, I’ll say it… I might even miss ye, Ephraim Winslow, yer fastly a true blue wickie in the making, you is. Thought one night you was bound to split me skull in twain, but yer a good-un. Why you’ll be workin’ the lamp in no time —

OLD is not just expressing quasi-paternal affection, here; he is formally inviting YOUNG into the wickie family tree — the lineage passed from generation to generation of male lighthouse keepers, wherein one trains the next to tend the lights, who trains the next, who trains the next, etc. How is this lineage mediated? What figures come between the men to ensure that it’s legitimate? The lights, of course. Little wonder, then, that OLD’s feelings for the lamp is explicitly erotic:

OLD: I’m damn-well wedded to this here light, and she’s been a finer, truer, quieter wife than any a liveblooded woman.

YOUNG Ever married?

OLD Thirteen Christmases at sea… little ‘uns at home. She never forgave it.

Problem is, all of OLD’s distinctions turn out to be radically unstable: abject and ego, master and slave, are mutually constitutive categories. And where there is only one light — only one “finer, truer, quieter wife” — the father/son distinction is the most unstable of all. YOUNG begins to hanker for that same light — or, to put it bluntly, becomes racked with (quasi-)Oedipal desire for his father(-figure)’s wife(-substitute):

YOUNG Why haven’t I? Pause.

OLD What?

YOUNG The light?

OLD I’m the keeper of this station, lad.

YOUNG The… I ain’t…

OLD (CONT’D) Some other station y’can tend the light.

YOUNG The manual says—

OLD My log is the only book on this rock—

YOUNG I mean, I’m a wickie, you says, but I ain’t trimmed one wick once—

OLD (CONT’D) ‘Tis Gospel!

OLD (CONT’D) I’m the keeper of the light, lad, I never let no man touch her—

YOUNG I ain’t –- the book says we alternate—

OLD (CONT’D) Don’t concern yerself with the beacon! Mine, lad!

The film’s last shots show YOUNG on a rock, naked and battered while gulls peck at his liver. He has stolen the light, so it seems appropriate that he should suffer Prometheus’ fate; but he has also usurped his father’s position in the family tree, so he must also suffer Oedipus’: YOUNG’s eyes, we can clearly see, are “bloody, burnt-out sockets”.

Do women have a “substantial place” here? I mean, the actual, “liveblooded” kind? On one hand, the answer would seem to be a resounding “no”. Not only are there no female figures on the island, there is no obvious need for any: women are not required for the wickie line to perpetuate itself (a female needn’t be present for one man to teach another the tricks of the trade); in fact, women aren’t needed to mediate between the men at all — the lamp will do instead. The nearest thing to a real woman on this island is a bit of scrimshaw that YOUNG finds hidden (presumably by OLD’s previous second) in his mattress — a carving of a buxom mermaid, to which YOUNG spends no small amount of time jacking off. For YOUNG, then, the female body seems to be no more than this, a masturbatory prop. And in this respect, the mermaid is, for YOUNG and OLD alike, the female body par excellence: because she has a tail in place of a vagina, she cannot be involved in the reproductive process. On the other hand, it’s clear that this is far from a utopian situation. YOUNG (as OLD says of his previous second) is haunted to the edge of his wits, driven mad by a spectre more terrifying to him than any murderous wickie: a mermaid with a vagina (and no small amount of work on the part of Egger’s props team went into making that vagina). As a mermaid, she is the image of a female which the all-male line has deprived of her reproductive function; with her vagina, she mocks the members of that line with the sign of her right to a more significant role. For Eggers, the exclusion of women, like the sleep of reason, produce monstruos.


(1) The ‘proposition’ is made in The Seminar, Book III: The Psychoses, in the section “The Psychotic Phenomenon and Its Mechanism”. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the original text to hand, all of my local libraries are on lockdown, and even the post service is on hold until further notice — so I’ve quoted another paraphrasing from Slavoj Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology.

(2) Important to keep in mind is that, for Lacan, even if Stephen’s vision of “mixedness” were not explicitly misogynistic — even if it did happen to coincide perfectly with some objective (and, moreover, knowable) reality — this would merely be a coincidence, and Stephen’s vision would still be a paranoid construction. A broken clock can still tell the correct time.

(3) Of course, for Lacan, William would still be a paranoid even if he didn’t abuse his family.

(4) In ‘The Sphinx Without A Secret’ (1887), for example, a young woman rents an apartment, and visits it once a week, for no other reason than to maintain the appearance of having a secret.




Oscar Mardell

Oscar Mardell was born in London and raised in South Wales. He currently lives in an urban commune in Auckland, New Zealand where he brews beer and practices Aikido. He teaches in the English Department at St Mary’s College, and volunteers for English Language Partners NZ. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in War, Literature & the Arts, The Literary London Journal, and DIAGRAM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, November 22nd, 2020.