Clive Barker’s short story The Yattering and Jack offers a unique take on the demon-possessing-a-home genre. Instead of the typical: demon enters, chaos ensues, demon leaves; we turn everything on its head: demon enters, demon is ignored, demon gets captured. And running through these beats are wonderful tidbits of the bureaucracy in Hell complete with demon schools and employment hierarchies. It’s really a fun, short ride!
But what struck me most about this story was the transition of fear.
H.P. Lovecraft said it better than I (or anyone else) ever could, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
The unknown in this story is the key factor.
When we start, it is assumed by the reader that the Yattering, the demon from hell, is acting from a mysterious, otherworldly standpoint that will soon create havoc for Jack, the protagonist. In so many horror novels and movies some action by a character, typically the skeptic, invites an unknown entity into the story. The events of the story then focus on what this mysterious force might be and what it does via escalating situations where fear is a type of food for the demon. Think every Paranormal Activity movie ever made.
In Barker’s story something strange happens, a demon inhabits Jack’s home. When the protagonist should be terrified, he is unconcerned. He passes all of the demon’s tricks off as commonplace. The most egregious example is when the Yattering explodes a cat in Jack’s living room. Jack enters his blood-coated home, blames the dogs (which he doesn’t own), and proceeds to clean up the mess without emotion.
After several failed attempts to evoke fear in Jack, the demon is at its wit’s end, crying, screaming for attention. It even tries to get help from its supervisors, aka Beelzebub, in a last ditch effort to either get reassigned or simply obliterated. The Bee-bub man is unmoved. At one point, I actually sympathized with the Yattering, something that marks Barker as a master storyteller. Here is this hell spawn fresh out of hell-iversity, and he’s just trying to prove how big and scary he can be. But Jack is too dull to notice.
That’s just... rude!
After Jack’s children return home for Christmas, it is revealed that Jack is feigning ignorance. He is fully aware of his situation and thus the unknown shifts from Jack to the Yattering. It’s a strange transition, and it is never fully explored how Jack is aware of the situation. I guess it can be assumed that his mother let him in on her deal-with-the-devil, but that part is left up to mystery.
Through this simple shift of knowledge the Yattering goes from aggressor to victim. Jack becomes its tormentor, and we can really appreciate how a simple shift of perspective can recolor our whole conception of the story.