Hello Darkness, My Old Friend: Three Eclipse Stories

Yesterday’s solar eclipse was the first total solar eclipse in the U.S. since 1979, and it was a pretty big deal because of both that and because the path of totality ran from coast to coast — from the Pacific Northwest to the Southeast United States. Such a long path meant plenty of opportunities for eclipse viewing. Trips, buses, hotels, and even campgrounds were booked a year in advance as tourists flocked to cities and towns located in the path of totality. The last eclipse to be visible only on U.S. soil occurred in 1776.

Solar eclipses have fascinated societies for centuries. Many cultures relied on the movement of the sun and moon, so they developed expert tracking techniques. Eclipses may be represented in Chumash cosmological cave art in California (the Chumash nations are the original coastal inhabitants, from L.A to Malibu), and Anasazi petroglyphs in Arizona. Elsewhere, it’s said that kings feared eclipses so much that they installed doppelgangers to sit their thrones for a day, because of a belief that an eclipse guaranteed a monarch’s death; in India, some believe that babies born during an eclipse develop birth defects. In the United States, during the partial eclipse in 2010, many people stayed home, and pregnant women reported being advised to retreat inside to protect their unborn children. (What?) The Sun is often viewed as the source of life, so it feels weird when the sun and the moon meet up when they’re supposed to be opposites. At the very least, it’s disruptive. Midnight in the afternoon? Isn’t that only supposed to happen closer to the Earth’s poles? (I freely admit my limited knowledge of anything further north than Vancouver comes from the Robin Williams movie Insomnia and the Niles/Templesmith comic 30 Days of Night.) For more history and folklore, click here and here.

In seven years (2024) another North American eclipse will occur, and the path of totality will run from Southwest Texas to Maine. While you’re waiting, catch up on some eclipse stories.


Pitch Black (2000): Hell yes. No list of this kind is complete without David Twohy’s space-horror adventure, which redefined this subgenre of science fiction films in many ways. A, an antihero turned out to be the hero, B, the people you expect to survive don’t (although, as usual in Western cinema, the story is not kind to Muslims), and C, the action was almost nonstop from beginning to end. (Like Mad Max: Fury Road). If you haven’t seen this movie, you should stop reading now and go get it. No, wait until after you’ve read this post. A disparate group of spacefarers (including Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, and a pre-Farscape Claudia Black) crash lands on a desert planet with three suns. As the group explores, looking for food and a way off the planet, it becomes apparent that a previous settlement and research station was quickly abandoned. Meanwhile, the group is picked off one by one by intelligent, aggressive, and absolutely bloodthirsty flying creatures that only come out at night. The only human who can see them is Riddick (Vin Diesel), a serial killer who was being escorted to lockup when the ship crashed. His eyes were surgically altered so he could see his prey at nighttime. And then the group discovers (quite conveniently, but I can overlook it in favor of the film’s promise) that this planet is about to undergo a rare event: solar alignment AND a total eclipse, equaling unbridled hunting for the eerie bloodthirsty creatures pursuing them. The group desperately attempts to survive long enough to locate both a shuttlecraft and power cells to fuel it. The officer escorting Riddick offers him freedom if he helps the group escape the planet. And it all gets darker from there. Literally.

Pitch Black launched what is known as The Chronicles of Riddick, which delve into both the backstory and future of Riddick as a character. I didn’t care for anything beyond Chronicles, the second film, and I liked that more for its art, costumes, and cinematography, than I did for Riddick’s character backstory. The other two films are nothing like the first. So I often rewatch Pitch Black as a standalone, for the sheer horror of it (but mentally rewrite the ending so at least one other person survives). I remember being eager to watch Pitch Black in the theater because David Twohy previously had masterminded one of my favorite alien conspiracy films: The Arrival, starring Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Crouse, which also featured a nice surprise twist at the end.

The Watcher in the Woods (1980): By today’s standards — or by the standards of anyone on a regular diet of supernatural horror movies — Watcher In the Woods might be considered pretty lame. It’s a ghost story with a pretty good twist, though, and it has a lot of femininity going for it. Based on Florence Engel Randall’s 1976 young-adult Gothic mystery book of the same name, Watcher is Disney’s early-80’s version of a horror movie. As just about every book-based movie does, it differs from the book a wee bit — an eclipse is a plot point in the film, not in the source material, which is why I’m discussing the movie version.

The movie is one you can watch with kids. I saw Watcher in the Woods way back when, and it absolutely made an impression. It left me with both a curious sense of wonder and a terrific fear of Bette Davis (even though ultimately her character turned out to be a sympathetic one). I like to rewatch it every now and again for nostalgia’s sake. If you’ve seen it, you know the drill—family forsakes busy city life for (spooky) English manor, and supernatural hijinks ensue, especially after the elderly former owner (Bette Davis) notices a strong resemblance between the eldest daughter, Jan, and her own daughter, Karen, who went missing under supernatural circumstances some thirty years ago. And before you know it, she and a mysterious presence in the forest have roped Jan and Jan’s sensitive little sister Ellie into some sort of ceremonial ritual that has to take place during the soon-to-occur solar eclipse.

As I mentioned, Watcher in the Woods has a few things going for it. Women are front and center in the narrative; Jan and Ellie realize they are the only ones who can discover the secret of the Watcher and help Mrs. Aylwood. Without spoiling anything, suffice to say that the ghost isn’t a ghost, but something completely different. That is also true to the book. Randall wrote a Gothic supernatural mystery that turned out to be slightly slipstream. This makes it stand out from other 1970s supernatural horror-mysteries (The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby…) that admittedly are more adult but far more well-known for the horror that comes from their straightforward subject matter.

Nightfall by Isaac Asimov & Robert Silverberg (1941, novelette; 1990, novel). It took Robert Silverberg nearly two years (1988 to 1990) to bookend Asimov’s classic 1941 novelette (which he wrote when he was 21) into a full-length novel. At the prompting of editor Martin H. Greenberg, Silverberg wrote a beginning and an ending to the original work, then submitted it to Asimov, who loved it.

Nightfall follows an interdisciplinary group of university researchers on Lagash, a planet with six suns (the names of which differ from novelette to novel), who discover troubling evidence of a regular collapse of civilizations every two thousand years. Because Lagash (Kalgash in the novel) is always illuminated, no one has any knowledge of Lagash’s stars. Lagash’s residents never even bothered to invent light bulbs or lamps. This mindset hampers the scientists’ investigations when the astronomer in the group begins to suspect something is in orbit around Lagash — if it is in orbit, it’s invisible. The news worsens when they discover a rare solar-planetary alignment is in the works — that hitherto unknown planetary body will eclipse the suns at the moment of their alignment, plunging Lagash into darkness, and thus, apocalyptic chaos. And who should hamper their efforts at informing the public but a disbelieving journalist? When night finally falls, though, what drives everyone mad is not the darkness, but the sight of the stars — the revelation of the vastness of the universe.  

It’s a classic story, if the reader can overlook specious science and zero female characters. The science is specious, but then so is the science in its descendant, Pitch Black. I loved the story, but wondered how an entire planet full of people could not understand darkness at all? Were there closets on Lagash? Caves? Basements? (If no basements, did they have horror stories?) And how could it take a little over 2000 years for a solar alignment? And how could the scientists find out only two months in advance of an eclipse event? And where are the women in Lagash’s science divisions, or are there any on Lagash at all?  

Silverberg’s expansion doesn’t add much to the narrative; the book is a good read, but, in Farscape parlance, “could be more.” That said, his beginning and post-apocalyptic ending do not (to me) feel tacked on. The additions do go into more detail about what the group members were studying that led each to their conclusion, and consensus, concerning the cause and imminent downfall of civilization; for example, the beginning reveals the psychologist was studying the correlation between darkness and mental illness. The novel-size story makes for a good read on a Sunday afternoon, but I prefer the novelette.  


Do you have a favorite eclipse story? How does the eclipse factor into a particular short story, novel or movie? Keep the chain going in the comments below!

 

2 Comments

  • Weasel of Doom August 22, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    We drove to see the eclipse at Washington County Fairgrounds in Missouri, in the path of the totality. It was really cool. Of course, the trip back took 12 hours instead of 6.5, but it was worth it 😉

    Reply
  • Shara White August 22, 2017 at 1:06 pm

    Oh, I freaking hated Nightfall. I read the book first and I just couldn’t get over the flaws, and I hated the writing style with a passion. The short story, when I was finally convinced to read it, I liked marginally better, enough to maybe give old Asimov a try one day, but UGH, the book. It’s one of the few novels I actively hate, despite loving the premise so much!

    Yesterday’s eclipse though? TOTALLY AWESOME.

    Also totally awesome: Pitch Black. I freaking love that movie. Also loved The Chronicles of Riddick for different reasons, though I have issues with Riddick for some crappy sexism that just didn’t need to be there. Pitch Black was amazing though. Freaking loved it.

    Reply

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