Beneath the Rising and a Terrifying Motif
Premee Mohamed's Beneath the Rising is about two teenagers, Nick and Johnny, who inadvertently awaken The Ancient Ones and must race around the world to save humanity. It's also about good and evil, the perils of transactional relationships, and what makes friendship real.
A fairly common strategy in novels—and an effective one—is to unfold both forward and backward. We read to learn what will happen next as well as to learn about the history and background of the characters. When this happens, we often (though not always) expect the forward and backward threads to eventually connect in some way.
Beneath the Rising uses this strategy to great effect. We follow the characters in a suspenseful adventure while gradually learning about their past and the history of their relationship. Along the way, we figure out how previously unknown aspects of that past have been instrumental in creating the current predicament. This helps the characters and their relationship to have depth and be dynamic (two different things), and it makes for a compelling read.
But I'm especially interested in how Mohamed enhances this structure through the use of motif—not just any motif, but one that is resonant, frightening, and relevant to the plot.
My earliest memory of her smells like blood.
I remember just enough.
I woke in twilight, a violet dimness, and looked at the hospital bed next to me: reek of dried blood and disinfectant, the unfamiliar profile of a pale girl visible through a clear mask.
They had loaded me with enough drugs to erase my body. I thought: I am a head. I am just a head. A head in a bed.
I suppose they thought it would be monstrous to let a little kid feel that kind of pain.
This is the very beginning, when we don't yet have context for anything. The hospital setting, the blood, and the drugs indicate there's a serious injury or illness. However, we don't know what has actually happened or even who the people in the room are.
But what we do get is very vivid—smells, shapes, a terrifying image of a disembodied head. In fact, we're getting a very complete description of the physical. The full rundown of symptoms, say, even without the diagnosis. Another way to think of it is we don't have the mystery's solution, but we have a set of solid, tangible clues. We have something to hold onto.
This happens, I think, because the details are sensory: the smell of blood and disinfectant, the violet color of the light, the shape of a profile, the look and feel of a clear mask. Thoughts aren't exactly sensory, but Nick's thoughts feel tangible because we get exact words that are also strange and vivid: I am a head. Even without an explanation, the details create an experience.
And what a terrifying experience. The blood and the dismemberment locate us in nightmare territory.
I should talk about that strange rhyme of "A head in a bed." It's funny enough to undercut the horror slightly, but it also makes it more real. The morbid humor pulls the beheading from abstraction into something more concrete. It also twists it to be slightly more memorable. And, of course, it introduces us to the narrator's personality, which finds humor even in dangerous situations.
Then, without a full explanation, this chilling scene is put away. It's a memory that is fuzzy to the narrator. Also it happened a long time ago. It was scary, but he survived, and that seems to be the point.
But the reader never forgets. The vividness of the details help to make that happen, but so does the imagery that recurs, in different twisted forms, to create a motif.
I notice the motif again about forty pages later. (There may be other instances that my subconscious grabbed but my conscious mind skimmed—that's the way these things often work for many readers.) It happens when Nick first sees an Ancient One.
But it didn't move like a person and the pale thing atop wasn't quite a face.
This reminds me immediately of the disembodied head, but it's also a reversal. It's a body without a head. A little bit further on, we get a longer description:
I ran, half expecting the thing in the trees to flutter up behind me and smother me, all of me, not just my voice, bury me in its light-absorbing blackness, crunch into me with the razor teeth of its skull, yes, that's what it was that's why it didn't look like a face it had no features because it was just a skull—
Of course, this faceless head makes me think of the bodiless head. Each head is missing something that I generally expect to be attached to it.
And the head is mostly what I'm interested in. But there's other work happening too, which ties the two scenes together extra firmly and thus guarantees that every creepy head going forward will make my brain flash back to the original creepy head.
First, the idea of being buried in "light-absorbing blackness" reminds me of drugs so strong the body disappears. Being smothered also connects to horrible smells, because each affects the ability to breath. And there's an echo from "twilight, a violet dimness" to "light-absorbing blackness," because both are about light disappearing and the color of that phenomenon.
I notice the italics, too. I believe this is only the second time the book employs them. Later on, they appear sparingly for emphasis, but are quite notably used for passages that describe the nightmares that Nick begins having due to proximity to the Ancient Ones—another link to terror.
The firm connection between these scenes helps to expand the motif's possibilities, meaning we can get more interesting heads, and the writer can create complexity through reflecting altered versions of the same imagery. Think of the way your brain connects opposites, for example—a head without a body then a body without a head. We try to slap them together and what we get is even more frightening.
These scary heads not only recur throughout the book, at terrifying moments, but they are dynamic, never quite the same. For example, nearly three quarters through the book, Nick describes Johnny:
Her face was as hard as a skull, white and harsh in the light from the lamp, carrying around it a halo of gold.
And very near the end, we finally get a clear view of Drozanoth, the Ancient One who's been chasing them:
The pale face was not a skull but pale shards of bone arranged around flaming eye pits— black flame, the light all wrong.
I remember the original scary head each time, but it's also changing, connecting to different characters, and taking on new meaning throughout the book.
I'm sure there's a lot of potential symbolism to be wrung out of the separate moments when eerie heads appear. Which character is described in that way at a particular moment of the book? How does Nick's changing perception of Johnny influence how these distorted skulls appear?
But I have limited space, and right now I'm most interested in the basic fact that they appear and pull the story together. I mean, a motif can also be a metaphor, but it does something special on its own, too.