Read This! Volume 7
New Horror Writing You Should Know
Years ago, I had a nightmare.
I sat in an armchair in a low-lit room watching television. On the screen was a close-up color image of the American flag waving in the wind. I watched in silence, filled with the same dread I would now feel seeing the Nazi or Confederate flag victoriously on display. That was all, but the deep feeling of nameless horror stayed with me long after I woke. It seemed unimaginable at the time, but today the dream feels more than a little prescient. As I work on my third vampire novel, set in a dystopian future only ten years away, I’ve been slowed by the conundrum of whether it’s even possible to conceive and write imaginary horrors while living in a present so beset by real ones.
It’s not just Trump remaking our country in his image as his raging howl of endless ego drowns out any last vestige of reasoned discourse, what little is left after years of squabbling TV commentators. It’s the increasingly casual worldwide genocides that go uncontested or punished. That anti-Semitism is rising again, along with growing intolerance of differences in gender, religion, culture, race or even country of origin. We’re controlled by leaders of an international economy built on a conceptual house of cards that threatens to fall at any negative opinion about its worth. Students bold enough to seek a higher education leave college as wage slaves with six-figure debts hanging over their heads. They’re forced to take any work they can to maintain monthly payments without penalties, while the same banks consume any inheritance that might save them with predatory reverse mortgages to their parents and grandparents.
As King George croons in “You’ll Be Back” from Hamilton, “Oceans rise, empires fall . . .” Should we pay any attention to the past, we’d see ample evidence of that truth in melting ice poles and the bankruptcy of what remained of the once-mighty nation of Greece.
My early passion for the horror genre was fueled by a search for freedom from fear in my erratic young life. The stories I read and movies I watched then were basic battles between good and evil with endings that always dispelled the darkness. Heroes overcame monstrous forces, or wicked protagonists were punished in true EC Comics style. Either left me with a satisfied sense that even if what scared me remained in my life, I could tell myself that it had an eventual end, and that one day I could rise above my current circumstances. It was only later that Lovecraft and Poe led me into a less benign world of the weird, one with no assured exit.
When horror movies rose in popularity in the 80s, began to spawn sequels that rolled into series, the defeat of their villains became less assured. By the time of Freddy Krueger, Chucky, and Jason Voorhees, it was even in question if the audience were rooting for them or their victims. The bad guys got all the good lines or best moves. It took more years than I liked for movies to go back to killing monsters to satisfy the cathartic urges of the audience, even if they returned in the next film to further the franchise. While we couldn’t be assured of a peaceful future, at least there could be a break between catastrophes. Less so now.
9/11 woke up America to what the rest of the world already knew after decades of terrorist bombings: There is no safety; any day can be your last, for no other reason than You Are Here. Once that lid is lifted, the rest of Pandora’s box comes tumbling out, from fears of pandemics and the bodily betrayal of cancer, to killer robot cars and lightning-struck plane engines, home invasions, electrical fires, bad club drugs, shoddy construction . . . the list of ways we can die at any moment is literally endless. How does an author scare anyone when everything around us has become so damnably terrifying?
What is the place for horror fiction in today’s chaotic world? More importantly, why watch movies from The Grudge to The Last Exorcist, The Babadook to Hereditary, and a host of others that, at best, tell us we can only keep our demons at bay, at worst, that they will consume all we are? Is there any reason to engage in “entertainment” that only validates the view that life is hopeless, filled only with terror and pain, inevitably ending in a death that, at best, is one we don’t see coming?
How do we escape from our own fear if even our fictions cannot? Do our lives have value, or are we bound by Samuel Beckett’s words in his 1953 novel, The Unnamable, “The search for the means to put an end to things, an end to speech, is what enables the discourse to continue.” Do we sustain the daily horror of life only long enough to find the right means to end it all?
The Conspiracy against the Human Race
Paperback / Ebook
Penguin Publishing Group, October 02, 2018, 272 pages
I looked for answers in Stoker winner Thomas Ligotti’s non-fiction collection of related essays, The Conspiracy against the Human Race, named after a similar text written by one of his fictional characters. That version is described as “based on the nonexistence, the imaginary nature, of everything we believe ourselves to be.” That’s a fair estimation of what Ligotti does here, in addition to defining our view of what that horror fiction is, what it does for us, and how it works. We seek sources of supernatural fear greater than our own, and want to see them defeated to give us hope. We are frightened by the unnatural as perceived in landscapes or the life-like, in puppets or dolls, the same terrain as the “uncanny valley” of disbelief in CGI animation that makes something slightly less than utterly real seem deeply disturbing. I found those passages a great reminder of why we write horror, especially as I plunge back into my novel—which makes it a convenient tome to add to any genre writer’s reference stack, next to your Elements of Style.
Ligotti breaks his thesis into six concise parts that examine aspects of identity, mortality, and horror fiction with insight and wry humor, often in its darkest discussions. The majority of the work is devoted to the debate over the intrinsic value of the self-awareness of humans. On one hand, understanding has led us to develop culture and civilization, art and architecture, science and religion. On the other, it was all created to stave off our fear of the daily nightmare of struggling to stay alive, with the full awareness of our inevitable death making it all seem pointless.
Ligotti cites a wide range of sources I was previously unfamiliar with to defend the latter opinion: Tsanoff, Bahnsen, Zapffe, Michelstaeder, Mainlander, and many more, who form a pantheon of pessimism, assuring us that the most destructive aspect of consciousness is that we are able to imagine the worst that can be. We hold it ahead of us like a decaying carrot that nonetheless offers no deterrent to continuing on, beaten forward by the stick of survival. They tell us that our lifelong fear of death is far worse than death itself—since once it actually occurs, we no longer care about anything—barring an equally complex afterlife that no departed loved ones have cared to come back to torment us with. For the relative handful of philosophers who stand in stark contrast to the optimistic majority who claim life is good, to know that “no one gets out of here alive,” as Jim Morrison put it, is enough to kill the party.
It was all summed up rather nicely by the late Douglas Adams, who wrote, “In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” Instead of facing up to the monstrous reality of the most basic fact that life sucks, philosophical pessimists say most of us do our best to deny it. We fall for promises of a fruitful afterlife, study scientific ways to avert or delay death, or bury our fears in sybaritic enjoyment to distract us from our inevitable ends.
If you agree with the interpretation that Beckett’s The Unnamable is literary sleight of hand, that the narrator may only live and exist in the words we read on the page, as he conjectures (which he does), The Conspiracy against the Human Race reflects a parallel point of view that all we are and all we know of ourselves is equally fictional, mutually agreed upon to obscure the horror of existence and death’s impending inevitability. Like Beckett’s protagonist, we are only what we say we are. There is no individual identity, simply a construct created to reassure us that we have value. In this context, the only point to existence is the perpetual justification of it, whether in financial, social, spiritual, or ethical terms. We are rich, popular, pious, or good, but that means we are.
Ligotti covers the death of self as a goal of Buddhism, to let go of the notion that we are anything but a series of responses to stimuli, the most habitual of which make up what we refer to as our personality. The popular aphorism, “I can’t change who I am,” becomes impossible when you face the fact that all that’s required to change is a choice—to not be like this, or do that. If we invent ourselves, there is no reason we can’t reinvent. As Captain James T. Kirk told warring factions, even if you insist you are killers because you always have been, you can decide not to kill—today. And repeat.
I disagree with Ligotti that Buddhism is a form of pessimism. I see it more as pragmatism, as is the idea that dukkha, human suffering, arises only when we don’t get what we want, or things don’t go “our way.” When our reactions are about us, our needs, not the world. To see things as they are, to react to the now as animals instinctually do, Buddhism says can lead to an easier existence.
That could lead to a stance that the only meaning to be found in life is life, a fair challenge in and of itself, and that our time is better spent living it than trying to wonder why it is. I think the majority of us who think about such things are more practical than optimists or pessimists. We know life has good and bad in it and ideally respond to either appropriately, knowing death is ahead, but not dwelling on something that hasn’t happened yet.
That attitude would simply be another form of denial to Ligotti’s pantheon. There was a time when I would have agreed. Through decades of depression from high school through my thirties I called myself a pessimist, saw the world as cold and unyielding, until ten years of therapy left me with the realization that inside every pessimist is an idealist who really wants the world to be a far better place, doomed to endless disappointment that it can never live up to their high standard.
For philosophers who see life as time spent waiting for and dreading death, the end should be viewed as a welcome relief, even if most of us would never consider taking advantage of its relatively easy availability. Many of Ligotti’s citations who survived their conclusions seem only to have deferred their final solution to remain with us long enough to shake the finger of meaninglessness in all our faces, until we feel as resolutely hopeless about humanity’s lot as they do.
Yet, I cannot despise my questing mind, even after the many years it weighed me down with depression that would have made many of Ligotti’s citations more appealing then than they are to me now. The ability to explore the thoughts in this book, and agree or disagree, debate, consider and learn, all require being aware. Experience is a bell curve, and consciousness may make me feel the bad times more keenly when they are here, but also lets me remember the good. I can anticipate an end to pain as well as I can dread future horrors.
So while I must go with the middle range majority of humanity on this one, diving deeper into the mechanics of how we see the world, remembering that we all live in subjective ones of our own making, is a fascinating journey worth taking. Despite the seemingly morbid subject, the book isn’t at all dark or depressing, and well worth re-reading to fully absorb.
Pornsak Pichetshote (Author), Aaron Campbell (Artist), Jose Villarrubia (Artist), Jeff Powell (Letterer) (Artist)
Paperback / Ebook
Image Comics, October 2, 2018, 168 pages
I almost always enjoy effective transformative reboots of old tropes, like Get Out, which recently revived the “sinister small town/things are not what they seem” movie thriller. Author Pornsak Pichetshote has nicely found a way to make the haunted house convention terrifying again, in a five-part graphic novel that effectively raises more monsters than it puts to rest.
Aisha is living with her mother-in-law in a building being rebuilt after an accidental bombing. She is a brown Muslim, Leslie is a white Christian, and according to her son, no matter how nice his mother acts, she’s manipulative and deceitful. It’s obvious Tom’s had issues with his mother for some time, but it’s also our first cue that nothing is as it seems, no one can be trusted.
We meet Aisha in mid-nightmare, under assault by a demonic form that begins to slip into her waking view. Half a dozen people died in the explosion downstairs, and despite the rent reduction that motivates the survivors to stay while the damaged floors are reconstructed, it has become the kind of sinister space described by Ligotti, off-kilter, wrong, and unnatural. Aisha’s friend Medina, who she grew up with, moved in to take advantage of the low rent and support her friend, but won’t believe anything weird is wrong there.
Tom leaves for a shoot in upstate New York that will take him off the grid for a week. Aisha is left alone with his mother and daughter, with only Medina to ground her. There are all the classic warning signs—quick flashes of demonic faces, fresh food suddenly rotten and fly-ridden, a knife that is suddenly bloody and then not. As the phantoms grow stronger, stay longer, they vent hate-filled rants—towelhead, whore, killer, trash, terrorist, and worse. As is the norm in this genre, Aisha is left trying to explain something no one else can see . . . until they do.
By then it is too late.
Events rapidly build to a pitch as Leslie is thrown down the stairs to her death by either a devil or her daughter-in-law. A white blonde neighbor swears she saw no one but Aisha on the landing, but her view of things soon seems colored by the same innate intolerance exhibited by Leslie when Aisha arrived. As Aisha lies in a coma, Medina and her friends gather and start trying to unravel what is really happening.
What follows descends rapidly into deep horror as the illusion that everything is all right gets torn away. Without revealing the intricate and enjoyable plot, suffice to say that the rigors of the convention are fully fulfilled as we’re dragged into the same nightmare as the characters, one beautifully evoked in the art team’s atmospheric images that roll effortlessly from moody realism to chillingly surreal as the spirits of the dead come back to settle their grudges.
In the end it is unclear if an amateur terrorist stockpiling homemade explosives caused the bombing that sets off events, or hate-filled neighbors determined to find fault in him snooping through his things. The story weaves in the widely disparate attitudes of all its characters, their beliefs slowly shifting as the story progresses. What makes it new is that it’s not just a series of cheap scares designed to shock and appall . . . The horror lies not only in death and the supernatural, it’s in our hearts and heads. In the classic words of the comic strip Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Stripped of their supernatural trappings, the story could play out every bit as sadly chilling, just following the path of prejudice and the pain it causes, set in the familiar world that we live in. I think that’s the true test of any really effective horror story—that the humanity of it could survive without the supernatural.
The quest for answers to my literary crisis found some resolution in these readings. We are only what we believe ourselves to be, and the world is only as good or bad as we see it. No matter how bad it seems, we are always capable, thanks to the curse of consciousness, of imagining worse. To find effective horror in fiction, I must uncover the unnatural in the ordinary, whatever that may be now, seek out the darkness in our hearts, and bring it all to the surface, into the light for examination and understanding.
It’s also remembering that writing, like life, is about the journey, and not the destination. So set sail, fully aware, and enjoy the trip, wherever the sea takes you. It really does beat the alternative.
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