The New Violence

A story from the collection OTHER MINDS AND OTHER STORIES

The Fellowship was in Rome. Shortly after arriving, the writer planned to screen an Italian horror film in his studio. It was set in Rome in the 1970s, a classic of the giallo genre, in which a killer in black leather gloves murders multiple victims with a meat cleaver. The writer invited all the other fellows to attend. Some were artists like him, but most were scholars. Whereas he was there to write fiction, they were there to write monographs, and every week they shared their research with each other. On the day of his screening, it turned out, an archaeologist had offered to lead a tour of a nearby museum. Its pottery collection, numbering hundreds of black-figure jugs, included the subject of her monograph, a famous Etruscan jug dating back to the seventh century BC, and she invited other fellows to accompany her. After lunch that day a large group set out down the hill from the Academy. The writer decided to go as well. For several hours the archaeologist led them past glass cases of fat orange amphorae, across whose curved surfaces the dark silhouettes of mortals and gods impaled each other with spears or bit into each other’s brains. Eventually their group arrived at the Etruscan jug, isolated from the others on a pedestal in a small showroom. The jug was celebrated for its scrolling portrayal of a battle scene, in which conquering soldiers stab their enemies. As she led them around the pedestal, the archaeologist described the firing process: a glossy slip had to be painted over the figures’ silhouettes, which would turn black in the kiln, while the unvarnished background turned a burnt red. For each line in the figures’ bodies—blank eyes, hilts of swords, gaping wounds and mouths—incisions had to be scraped into the slip, allowing the red of the ground to show through. The writer admired this symmetry: wherever the soldiers slashed at their victims with swords, the artist had to slash at their silhouettes with a stylus. It even put him in mind of the giallo, whose killer was also often visible in silhouette, a stabbing shadow on the wall. Whenever the blade cut into a victim, the film would cut as well, returning, after the edit, to their injured flesh, where a lurid line of red paint now gleamed. The writer was moved to imagine that this was the same red line as on these jugs, a two-thousand-year-long vein connecting seventh century Etruscan figures to 1970s Italian figures. The ceramicist and the cinematographer had been practicing the same art, he thought, scraping away at the same images, the one on jugs and the other on celluloid, both revealing the deep redness beneath things. For thousands of years, it seemed, the people of this region had been driving horrific images into each other’s minds. Each generation of artists had continued to perfect the pictorial depiction of death, inheriting strategies of verisimilitude and passing them down in turn, across millennia and across media, from the mythological tableaux on these pots to the paintings of Christian martyrs, from the rows of cephalophore statues in the park—holding out their severed heads to passing joggers like poor beggars, panhandling with their brainpans—to the serial killer in the film, a never-ending nightmare of incisions, exoculations, and beheadings that had been haunting the Italian head and the Italian eyeball for all time. Giallo and this jug were just two guises of a single genius loci, the writer realized, as he watched the archaeologist circle the pedestal to take photos, notes. He found himself wondering what she would think of the film, if she watched it that night. Its hero was, like her, a kind of archaeologist: while investigating an abandoned house he thinks to chisel off the sheetrock, uncovering a bloodred fresco in one room (a child’s stick-figure mural of the murderer), and exhuming a walled-up skeleton in another. On the walk back to the Academy the writer reminded everyone about his screening. But later that evening, as he waited in his studio, it grew clear that none of the scholars were going to come. The only fellows to show up were other artists—a composer, a photographer, a painter—and after delaying a while for the archaeologist, the writer pressed Play. The next day, at lunch, he sat at the archaeologist’s table, alongside the same group of scholars from her tour. She asked how the screening had gone, and he told her, frankly, that she had missed a masterpiece. She was apologetic: I just can’t stand horror movies, she said. All that violence—what’s the point? The others murmured in agreement, and he shrugged understandingly. But inside he wanted to know: What was the point of the violence on her jug? In the weeks that followed, as he attended the other scholars’ lectures, the question continued to trouble him. Whenever he looked to the archaeologist in the audience, her face always glowed with pleasure, hungrily absorbing whatever horror painting or horror sculpture was on display: the grisliness of Gentileschi’s Judith, hacking away at Holofernes; the monstrous statues at Bomarzo; barbarians being slaughtered on a sarcophagus’s relief. What was going on inside her mind, he wondered. Why this violence, and not that violence? What did she see here that she could not see in the giallo, or what did she see in the giallo that he could not see? Finally the night of her own lecture arrived, and as she calmly clicked through her slideshow, sharing graphic close-ups of her horror jug, the writer felt he was beginning to understand. Scholars must prefer old violence to new violence, he thought. The older the violence was, the more it must look like knowledge, to them. Just as fossils turn to oil in the earth, violence must turn to knowledge in its oldness. In the giallo, whenever the hero uncovers a violent fresco or a skeleton, he can still recognize, with dread, that it is an image of his own death he is seeing; whereas this was precisely the knowledge that the archaeologist was able to ignore, there on the ancient surface of her jug. The giallo had been released two thousand years too early for her to maintain this same distance from it, and so, in the meantime, she would go on studying pottery. Not Italian violence, only Etruscan violence. Amphora gore, yes; movie gore, no. She refused to watch 1970s black-gloved murderers, while she devoted her life to seventh century black-figure murderers. Maybe centuries from now, the writer imagined, an archaeologist would come to the Academy to conduct research on giallo. They might exhume a copy of the same film from a Roman landfill and deliver a packed lecture to the other scholars, pausing each death scene to explain its practical effects: prop blade, red paint, latex. By then anyone who might be frightened by the film—everyone in this room, for instance—would be gone. They would have long since joined the jug underground in the becoming of knowledge. This thought, more than anything he had seen or heard in Rome, was what did come to frighten the writer. He turned from the illustrated cadavers in the slideshow to the imminent cadavers around him. They were jugs, he thought. One day we will all be jugs. That was the true horror of the giallo film, if not of every horror film. With each stroke of the meat cleaver the murderer was sending living beings into the world of jugs, banishing them to a future when their skulls would hold no power and no terror. If he could watch this with pleasure now, it must be because his vision had already been invaded by that future: he was seeing today’s deaths with tomorrow’s eyes. The archaeologist proceeded through her slideshow, and he studied the grotesque details there freshly, seeing the jug as if for the first time. Just as centuries of dirt had had to be brushed from its surface, he could see centuries of seeing being scraped away from each new slide. Allowing the red of the ground to show through. He saw the stabbed soldiers, paused in the postures of their dying. The swords fixed forever in their flesh. He saw their mute mouths, crying out with pain but without sound. And the sight of it all—all that violence—disquieted him. This was how the jug must have looked, he understood, in the dawn of its making. When the first Etruscan laid eyes upon it, still glistening from the kiln, this was the horror it must have driven into them. He could see it clearly. He could not look away. And after the lecture had ended, and he returned to his studio, he found he could not sleep. He took out the giallo again. Maybe this time, he thought, he would be able to see what the archaeologist saw. Alone in the dark, centuries before those others who would come, he might be able to see it new, now, for the first time. The writer pressed Play and the horror began.

BENNETT SIMS was born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He is the author of the story collection Other Minds and Other Stories (2023), the novel A Questionable Shape (2013), which received the Bard Fiction Prize and was a finalist for The Believer Book Award, and the story collection White Dialogues (2017), winner of the Rome Prize for Literature 2018–19 and named a best book of 2017 by Bookforum. He is a recipient of a Michener-Copernicus Society Fellowship. His fiction has appeared in A Public SpaceConjunctions, Electric Literature, Tin House, and Zoetrope: All-Story, as well as in the Pushcart Prize Anthology. He has taught at Bard College, Grinnell College, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Scroll Up