Horror & Dark Fantasy

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The H Word: Visionary Monstrosity and the Epistemological Borders of Human Identity

Horror fiction explores human identity by utilizing monstrosity to envision disconcerting, resilient, and metamorphic aspects of human potential within an unknown universe. Knowledge in horror sometimes focuses on practical and apotropaic matters of survival and defense. Stay out of the fruit cellar. Keep holy water and a wooden stake handy. Don’t pick up cursed dolls. Maybe rethink knocking on the door of the old house that you know nothing about. Beyond commonsensical and supernatural survival strategies, psychic endurance, plasticity of mind, and individuation also often play a role in the education of horror protagonists: can they divert or redeploy the darkness either through sublimation or transformation?

The ancient Greek admonition to “know thyself” is easier said than done. We need to understand who we want to be, and we need evidence of who we are by our actions, thoughts, feelings, and our connection to others and the cosmos. The philosophical field of epistemology investigates what constitutes sufficient evidence to determine cognitive confidence (stanford.io/3i71N5b). In horror fiction, self-knowledge is accompanied with few instances of “confidence in response to evidence” that are completely free of terror, disgust, or madness. What you don’t know can hurt you, and in horror fiction, sometimes the sharpest cut is that which slices through a protagonist’s deepest assumptions about their identity. Implicitly, readers too are confronted with what we know and what we don’t behind shrouded desires, persistent fears, and paralyzing alienation.

Detractors of the genre, who refuse to see past the ghosts or gore, sometimes fail to recognize that knowledge—and even sublime wonder—is interwoven with disconcerting horror. Horror narratives engage with morbid taboos, but they do so to challenge the epistemological borders of human identity, whether exploring transgressive desires or displaying reified monsters connected to human mortality and discursive thought. Take worms. In 1843, Edgar Allan Poe published “The Conqueror Worm,” which asserts the drama of life is a “tragedy” with “its hero, the Conqueror Worm.” Even earlier, Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” (1681) uses the we’ll-all-be-worm-food motif as a strategy to rhetorically seduce maidens and point out the finitude of time. And in 1899, Kate Chopin in The Awakening considers worms in order to describe her protagonist’s despair at the impotence of humanity in the face of an infinite, indifferent universe: “There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why,—when it did not seem worthwhile to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead; when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation.” Worms and the limits of time and the nature of human identity bring us to Hailey Piper’s recent novella, “The Worm and His Kings,” which combines carnal knowledge, physics—theories of wormholes, the traditional wisdom of memento mori, and the fictional motif of Lovecraftian cults. A chthonic retreat for contemplation of ourselves.

Piper’s novella exemplifies how borders of identity are perhaps best explored in a subterranean environment, a fitting horror motif of externalized psychology adopted from allegories like Pilgrim’s Progress, the Faery Queen, Gothic Literature, and the psychomachia of Christian Morality dramas. Such works establish a tradition of a literal topography of the human soul and its struggles. Underworld imagery in “The Worm and His Kings” articulates the subconscious potential of identity that can manifest through meaningful action guided by an acquired knowledge of one’s darkest caverns of being.

Ligotti’s “The Last Feast of Harlequin” hovers in the shadows here, since Ligotti’s story came first and has a vivid sacrifice of the Winter Queen and the revelation of just how close some people in a clown cult connect to worms—a literal evocation of the memento mori motif. It’s not mere rhetoric that we’re worms or worm-food in “The Last Feast of Harlequin.” Unlike Ligotti’s Winter Queen, in Piper’s novella the transgender hero Monique is not reduced to victimhood despite a history of being exploited. Monique, maimed by a Dr. Sam while he was performing gender reassignment surgery (as in the “Kidney Heist” urban legend, Dr. Sam had been after Monique’s kidney), searches for her missing beloved, Donna, subverts an entire cult, and unifies with the titular Worm in an autonomous fashion.

Monique harnesses the cosmically dubious Worm divinity—a Dr. Sam on a cosmic scale—for amelioration of the past. The story ends optimistically: a compassionate human personality integrates into a malign or indifferent universe and appears set to do a better job than the Worm ever did. Monique’s transformation from marginal outsider to divine insider exemplifies how occult knowledge in horror can be an epiphanic and metamorphic journey.

Beyond practical or moral admonitions (don’t walk home alone in the dark, study dark magic, or pick up a serial killer or demon at a bar), nihilism and non-anthropocentrism must be counted among horror’s lessons—perhaps most supremely with Thomas Ligotti and further illuminated by his philosophical work The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Learning of the emptiness or malignity of the universe is not a rehearsal of meaninglessness but figures as a revelation of knowledge. It’s gnosis through surreal dreamlike horror or explicit visualization of inescapable rottenness.

In Ligotti’s “Nethescurial,” the narrator’s reading of vivid documents suggesting the reality of the entity called Nethescurial and its cult invades the narrator’s dreams and also opens the doors of dark perception. The scales of material humanistic narcissism fall from the narrator’s eyes, and the essential reality is too sinister to endure. But this passage into omnipresent darkness is a meaningful epiphany nevertheless—not simply a retreat from the unknowable, despite the narrator’s ending protestations that such things cannot be: “Nethescurial is not the secret name of the creation. It is not amid the rooms of our houses . . .”

Discovering the wrongness of the universe is a trope of cosmic horror familiar from H.P. Lovecraft and has appeared in science fiction such as Phillip K. Dick’s “Faith of Our Fathers,” where the narrator learns people are rendered compliant by hallucinogens, so they are not cognizant of the heinous reality of their condition. The inability of humanity to handle truth, or for humanity to feel diminished by it, is addressed in Goethe’s Faust, where Faust realizes he cannot comprehend the infinite truth of the macrocosm. Defeated intellectually, he turns to finite power and pleasure via diabolic compact. And in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Captain Beatty bitterly remarks upon the distinction between practical knowledge and cosmic uncertainties: “Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can, nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely.” Similar to Faust, who also contemplates suicide, Beatty’s cynical despair leads him towards destructive nihilism as a vandalistic fireman, and he ultimately goads the less jaded Montag to kill him. Neither Faust nor Fahrenheit 451 is horror per se, but this tendency to despair in the face of the unknowable subverts claims to define humanity by capacity for wisdom—homo sapiens.

This subversion of identity corresponds to pessimistic horror fiction like Ligotti’s works, where monstrosity illuminates alienated hopelessness through manifestations of cosmic anti-humanity. Ligotti often characterizes this feeling of being controlled by malign beings in disturbing renderings of puppets and mannequins. But this puppet-philosophy of being is not actionable for readers’ daily lives, as Ligotti observes in Conspiracy Against the Human Race: “Should this individual say ‘I am nothing but a human puppet,’ he would forthwith be marched to the nearest psychiatric hospital, conceivably overtaken by the horror of feeling he was a human puppet controlled by an alien force working outside him or within him or both.” Horror—whether it uses defamiliarizing surrealism, the mechanics of supernatural weirdness, or the psychedelia of dystopian science fiction—offers visionary knowledge of cosmic and personal pessimism and finds or creates gaps in consensus reality whereby human identities metamorphose into something uncanny.

Some readers of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” (1926) may find that the climactic reveal of monstrous self-knowledge resonates, whether they are alienated socially or psychologically, and a form of catharsis—the torment of living alienated is purged partly by confirmation of Otherness: “I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men. This I have known ever since I stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame; stretched out my fingers and touched a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass.” The touching of the glass triggers a memory revealing to the narrator he is an “abomination” that terrified a gathering of humanity into flight. This gives him a new mode of being rather than merely despair: “in my new wildness and freedom I almost welcome the bitterness of alienage.” Other readers might connect with the intimations of the young narrator of Thomas Ligotti’s “The Small People,” who, although he resents the epithet “little bigot,” hates the titular “small people” and their simulation of humanity. The story does not concern shorter people but an uncanny dread of beings mimicking humanity—doppelgängers with no extant history of their agenda. As in “Nethescurial,” the narrator recognizes a sinister taint lurks beneath the material world, and that these “smalls” and “half-smalls” (people appearing normal but linked psychically with the smalls) appear to be delighting in furthering corruption. The narrator gains enough unsettling evidence to question his own identity and the lineage of the human race. Such knowledge does not provide reassurance despite some degree of epistemological confidence; it leads to mad confusion.

Ligotti, Lovecraft, and Piper all suggest that the dominance of human civilization is perilously fragile, and that human fabric is knit over a void of uncertainty. In Lovecraft’s horror fiction, that void is filled by forbidden and appalling knowledge of prehuman history such as that contained in the Necronomicon or manifested by the physical deformity of his alienated Outsider. For Ligotti, knowledge undermines any purchase on what constitutes reality, and even what one may deem human.

The borders of identity presented by Piper are the most optimistic if also the most porous, since Monique’s epiphany that she may remake a flawed cosmos suggests that humanity when deified may transcend or transform defects of a malign or indifferent universe. Monique—once biologically male—raises also the alchemical ideal, which Arturo Schwarz sums up in “Alchemy, Androgyny, and Visual Artists”: “The problem with which the alchemist—as well as Surrealism and analytic psychology are concerned—[. . .] is to endow man with the awareness [. . .] of this marvelous reality: we are gods, because we are all man and woman at the same time.” Although alchemy promotes the transcendent knowledge of the androgyne, the worm is already a hermaphrodite, and the worm looms around the threshold of these human passages into uncanny selves. Monique incorporates wormholes—rather than memento mori—but the folkloric role of the worm as dehumanizing death cannot be banished. Consider a folktale called “Sammle’s Ghost”: Sammle, a phantom, must recover his burned body parts to be devoured by the Big Worm. This worm is a “king,” and Sammle’s ghost is unable to satisfy the requirements of passage to the otherworld because he can’t find a missing fingernail. The tale underscores an essential materiality for human identity to progress to another stage of development: an order to things—even if that order may not result in satisfaction—and a particular set of components to human identity.

In contrast to folkloric metaphysics implying designed spiritual transitions for identity, Ligotti emphasizes a pernicious disorder to human identity and the universe. Lovecraft’s horror speaks to a non-anthropocentric universe where cosmic knowledge—as in Goethe’s Faust—is beyond human capacity. Visionary monstrosity in horror fiction, especially supernatural weird fiction, challenges pretensions of human identity. Weird horror compels readers to consider by what monstrous and marvelous strings our skins and minds may be stretched to assume new forms and modes of being. Upon what stage—orchestrated by what ghastly pipers—do we dance confused to eldritch tunes and wander endlessly in infinite darkness?

Jason Marc Harris

Jason Marc Harris graduated with a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Washington, and an MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University, where he served as Fiction Editor of Mid-American Review. Exposed to Edward Gorey’s work (The Insect God, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, The Wuggly Ump) by kindergarten, Jason has been on an inevitable trajectory towards uncanny and sinister narratives ever since. Creative work in journals such as Apex and Abyss, Arroyo Literary Review, Bull, Cheap Pop, EveryDay Fiction, Marvels and Tales, Masque and Spectacle, Midwestern Gothic, The Offbeat, Psychopomp Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and Writing Texas. His novella of weird horror, Master of Rods and Strings (Vernacular Books), was released in print and Kindle July 2021. He teaches creative writing, folklore, and literature, and is the Creative Writing Coordinator at Texas A&M University in College Station, TX.