In ancient times our planet was already manifest as the maleficent kingdom of the Dark Lord of Time, Abraxas. The place from which all things began: a portal to the infernal realms, a killing machine, a graveyard in the dust of the cosmos, a palace of absolute death and destruction. It was known as Anareta in the ancient tongues of the most unholy tribes. Later it would weaken into common parlance, a myth…
One of the most common astrological terms used in medieval Astrology is the term Anareta. It derives from the Greek and translates to “destroyer”, standing for any planet that has deeply maleficent effects on one’s life. In the ancient cosmos of the Gnostics it was known as a mask and parable of Earth herself, the ontological seat of all evil and horror. In some interpretations, Anareta is a harbinger of doom and the destroyer worm at the core of life itself; for others it destroys form in the chaos of formlessness, shaping our lives by force and without our consent.
Later dualists of the Gnostic variety would appropriate this astrological sign as an indicator of the ontological horror of earth itself and all life on it as an endless killing zone: an infernal paradise in which the lords of death ruled lawlessly. According to Gnostic theology, the entire manifest cosmos was created by a hostile (or at best, ignorant) force of darkness and is thus a hideous aberration whose mad mind shapes and reshapes the cosmic fires attuning them to a never-ending circle of bittersweet agony without end.
Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian would take up this anaretic theme as his portrays the Glanton Gang on its death march across the Mexican desert:
The white noon saw them through the waste like a ghost army, so pale they were with dust, like shades of figures erased upon a board. The wolves loped paler yet and grouped and skittered and lifted their lean snouts on the air. At night the horses were fed by hand from sacks of meal and watered from buckets. There was no more sickness. The survivors lay quietly in that cratered void and watched the whitehot stars go rifling down the dark. Or slept with their alien hearts beating in the sand like pilgrims exhausted upon the face of the planet Anareta, clutched to a namelessness wheeling in the night.1
Ernest Becker in his last work Escape from Evil once described the organic nightmare of our world as “a gory spectacle, a science-fiction nightmare in which digestive tracts fitted with teeth at one end are tearing away at whatever flesh they can reach, and at the other end are piling up the fuming waste excrement as they move along in search of more flesh.”2
The monstrosity of life for humans is more delirious in that unlike the non-human animals, plants, and insects around us in this infernal paradise we are fully aware, conscious of the fact of this nightmare-in-Life; haunted by the very power of thought itself to know and see the world as it is. And, yet, over eons of time the very fact of our plight, our consciousness, we turned away into illusion; distanced ourselves from the harsh truth of the world, produced a secondary world of hope and faith, of desire and happiness to assuage our suffering within this kingdom of death. This accidental fall into consciousness with its concomitant tendency to withdraw from any actual knowledge of the world as it is, coupled with a desire to escape this dark truth led us over eons into various convoluted systems of belief to support our utopian desires to survive and propagate our species upon this killing world. Even now as we face certain extinction in the face of our deluded schemes to create an artificial paradise to obviate the truth of our dark heritage we still hang onto optimistic belief we are the exception to the rule, that we, alone, shall overcome and survive all odds to live on in this universe of death.
There are those among us who have tried to communicate a counter-truth, to open the eyes of their brethren to the deceptive powers of their own minds, and show them the world as it is; as world of pain and suffering, a killing-zone without reprieve. These few, these pessimists among us have not been well received by the many; in fact, for the most part they have been silenced, left unpublished, or left to their own kind to languish in oblivion outside the conclaves of the happy and optimistic worlds of artificial delight. This was to be expected, no amount of rhetoric or persuasion has yet succeeded in awakening the many to the dark visions of the shadow brethren of the dark knowledge, a gnosis of things in their vastatation.
With the rise of the Enlightenment an era of illumination and Reason, revolutions and wars, came a heterodox turn toward the dark and gothic in art and literature, even as philosophers and scientists began preaching progress and humanistic optimism for our species and its political spectrum. These darker brethren of the arts dissatisfied by the supposed Light of Reason opened up channels into the older modes of superstition, lust, terror, and deviance; a counter-world to the realm of happiness being presented by the mainstream rulers of democratic utopias. It showed forth the underbelly of violence and terror at the heart of revolutionary fervor, of the dark powers of irrationalism at the center of supposed Enlightenment Reason and Politics.
Against such utopian desire and the comedy of existence a literature of dread and terror would arise in the midst of all this light and optimism, a world of ancient castles and Gothic towers, of madmen and lunatics, women forced into sexual slavery and imprisoned in realms of darkness where the torturers dungeon pervaded every aspect of existence. It was a realm of sublime terror, of natural mountains and forests that hovered in a mood of strangeness in which nameless things seemed to roam just at the edge of sight. It would be from this Gothic world of such authors as Anne Radcliffe in her The Mysteries of Udolpho that a generation of Romantic poets would inherit a new atmosphere of heights and depths, of ruins and dark shadowy realms of wickedness and lust.
It was a realm of the daemonic, a “world of the nightmare and the scapegoat, of bondage and pain and confusion; the world as it is before the human imagination begins to work on it and before any image of human desire, such as the city or the garden, has been solidly established; the world also of perverted or wasted work, ruins and catacombs, instruments of torture and monuments of folly.”3 This was a world where the ancient pagan spirits held sway, the wandering fauna and satyrs of old brought forth out of forest and glen. Here Fate and Necessity ruled the natural world and those children of man who believed themselves free.
This is the world of tyrant, inscrutable, ruthless, melancholy, whose insatiable will demands loyalty and absolute devotion. At the same time it is a realm of victims, those who must be sacrificed to bolster the strength of others. Dark rituals and savage pagan rites carried out under the deep cover of ancient night and the horned moon. A world of cannibalism, torture, and mutilation in which the victims undergo the ancient rites of sparagmos or tearing apart of the sacrificial body as in the folklore of giants and ogres.
And, yet, these fantasy worlds would give way to more naturalistic settings and atmospheres in which nothing was named, and the moods were set by what is nameless and hidden away in the dark hollows of the mind or castle. For the ancient Greeks ate and nemesis ruled the world with an iron fist, the omnipotence of external fate, which in later times became the wheel of fortune. Ate was the goddess or spirit of delusion, infatuation, blind folly, rash action and reckless impulse who led men down the path to ruin. While Nemesis was the Goddess of vengeful fate, rightful retribution, or revenge as represented in her name which has a rough translation of “to give what is due” from Greek language/ dialect to English. Samuel Johnson once spouted that there were only three themes in Western Literature: love, power, and revenge.
Revenge is an act of passion; vengeance of justice. Injuries are revenged; crimes are avenged. —Samuel Johnson
Gothic romance is a stepchild of the ancient Greek tragedies melded to the ironies of the Enlightenment age of Reason. Romance would inherit the Aristotelian conceptions of pity and fear, which would unite the bittersweet world of pain with forms of pleasure. In this early literature fear was aligned with the sublime of distance, or terror, in which natural objects would take on the moods of the mind’s self-imaginings. Fears of being touched by the daemonic, or horror; and, fear without an object, or dread (Angst) become pensive and melancholic. Both the heroic and decadent forms of pity would interlace these worlds, sparking masculine chivalry or the tender and languid operations of a relaxed charm, broken only by the animistic fantasies of a mind gone wild with darkness visible.
This was the age caught up in a transition for the marvelous realms of magic and superstition impinging on a new spirit of secularism and atheism. This was an in-between time, a time in which a recognition that time is out of join, a sense that time is the devourer of life, the mouth of hell at the previous moment, when the potential passes forever into the actual, or, in its ultimate horror, the tick-tock time of puppets become all too real, machines that were too human bound to the circle of a repetitive time of commerce and instruments.
Yet, it was the realms of dreams that became the earmark of horror and the daemonic pull ghosts and vampires, werewolves and wicked landowners turned demon princes. The Gothic tales would harbor “gods, demons, hell, spirits and souls of men, miracles, prodigies, enchantments, witchcraft, thunder, tempests, raging seas, inundations, torrents, earthquakes, volcanoes, monsters, serpents, lions, tigers, fire, war, pestilence, famine, etc.”4 Joseph Addison (1672–1719) provided a more psychological account of sublime terror in his journal The Spectator in 1712, claiming “it does not arise so properly from the description of what is terrible, as from the reflection we make on our selves at the time of reading it,” situating those things that terrify us at the center of our attempts to understand our own identity (Addison 2000, 105). (Cardin)
This shifting sense of identity and self would remain at issue throughout the history of horror moving between the mainstream culture of capitalist desire, and the decadent undertow of its shadow in the worlds of dissolution, decay, and corruption within the Romantics and Late Romantic eras. In the figure of Edgar Allen Poe the threads of this two-fold realm of Romantic decadence and the mainstream realm of science and commerce seemed to discover a sense of strange bedfellows. Thomas Ligotti would say of Poe:
“In his tales, Poe created a world that is wholly evil, desolate, and doomed. These qualities give consistency to his imagined world. And there is no escape from this world, only a fall into it. Poe’s enclosure of the reader in an environment without an exit distinguishes his works from those of earlier writers like Radcliffe. His characters do not take us from place to place looking at the scenery. They are inside a world that has no outside— no well-mapped places from which one can come and none to which one can go. The reader of Poe never has the sense that anything exists outside the frame of his narratives. What they suggest is that the only thing beyond what our senses can perceive and our mind can fully comprehend is blackness, nothing. It is the same in those most atmospheric of experiences we all know— dreams.”5
This feeling of enclosure, of being imprisoned in a cell, closed off from one’s self and the world, fragmented and tortured by a sense of the immensity of nothingness surrounding us; an abyss of solitude and eerie all pervasive doom. As Camille Paglia puts it in Poe the whole tradition of English Romanticism fuses with a debilitated Puritanism. “American Romanticism is really Decadent Late Romanticism, a style of sexual perversity, closure, and fragmentation or decay. Poe, Coleridge’s heir, shows Wordsworthian nature as a dead end. His Gothic entombments shut down the American frontier and repeal the ideal of progress. Poe moves Romanticism into its Mannerist late phase. From 1830 on, American and French Romanticism develop on parallel tracks.”6
The Romantic critic of our age Harold Bloom once said of Poe’s relation to the great optimist of the American Renaissance: “Self-reliance, the Emersonian answer to Original Sin, does not exist in the Poe cosmos, where you necessarily start out damned, doomed, and dismal.”7 For Poe the Self was not to be relied on but rather is a self-lacerating nothingness that should be expunged as soon as possible. For Poe there was no escaping our bondage to the past, we were all locked in key step with the ruinous demise of Usher, caught in the snares of a fatalistic world of ancestral power and hatred, revenge and death.
As if Poe had been reading Freud’s ruminations in the The Ego and the Id (1923) about the bodily ego he would conclude his The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym:
I.e. the ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly from those springing from the surface of the body, besides, as we have seen above, representing the superficies of the mental apparatus.
In Freud this notion would seem to mirror Poe:
The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself the projection of a surface. If we wish to find an anatomical analogy for it we can best identify it with the “cortical homunculus” of the anatomists, which stands on its head in the cortex, sticks up its heels, faces backwards and, as we know, has its speech-area on the left-hand side.
This sense of self and consciousness being tied to the body and its sensations, a questioning of its origins as a surface tension in the bodily functions rather than some essential element or eidos in its own right; a mere function of the ephemeral and decaying world of temporal relations rather than some incarnation of an immortal Self. It’s this movement from the superstations of both philosophical and religious myths of Self-Identity to at more scientific and materialist secularism – a disenchantment of the ancient powers of Mind in magic and religious forms which would inform Poe and his legacy in those to follow in the literature of horror.
This sense of the erasure of Self and Identity would become overt in Poe’s Eureka:
Think that the sense of individual identity will be gradually merged in the general consciousness—that Man, for example, ceasing imperceptibly to feel himself Man, will at length attain that awfully triumphant epoch when he shall recognize his existence as that of Jehovah. In the meantime bear in mind that all is Life—Life—Life within Life—the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine.
Half parody and satire, a sort of daemonic laughter at the Emersonian credo of Self-Reliance, the dissolution and fragmentation of self in the cosmic graveyard of the abyss. To this, Poe appends a “Note”: “The pain of the consideration that we shall lose our individual identity, ceases at once when we further reflect that the process, as above described, is, neither more nor less than that of the absorption, by each individual intelligence of all other intelligences (that is, of the Universe) into its own. That God may be all in all, each must become God.” [my italics]
As Bloom would say of this mishmash of bodily ego and sublime self-effacement and merger with the abyss: “If we read closely, Poe’s trope is “absorption,” and we are where we always are in Poe, amid ultimate fantasies of introjection in which the bodily ego and the cosmos become indistinguishable.” (ibid., 14).
The erasure of self and cosmos in a mutual absorption would haunt the worlds of many horror writer’s, but would be one of the centerpieces of the Ligottian cosmos: a cosmos bereft of humans absorbed by the tentacular powers of nameless horrors in an infernal paradise of self-lacerating nothingness.
Ultimately Poe’s complete oeuvre is a “hymn to negativity” (Bloom), a abyssal quest for the ruinous expulsion of Self-Reliance and every form of Transcendental Idealism. Summing up Poe’s legacy and influence Bloom eulogizes:
Whatever his actual failures as poet and critic, whatever the gap between style and idea in his tales, Poe is central to the American canon, both for us and for the rest of the world. Hawthorne implicitly and Melville explicitly made far more powerful critiques of the Emersonian national hope, but they were by no means wholly negative in regard to Emerson and his pragmatic vision of American Self-Reliance. Poe was savage in denouncing minor transcendentalists like Bronson Alcott and William Ellery Channing, but his explicit rejection of Emerson confined itself to the untruthful observation that Emerson was indistinguishable from Thomas Carlyle. (ibid., 20)
Against the whole tradition of Emerson, Whitman, and Self-Reliance and its mythologies of capitalist desire rampaging across the American Continent cannibalizing the inheritance of the Native Americans, would be a counter-tradition of dread, terror, and horror of such exceptionalism and expansionism; one which would flow into H.P. Lovecraft and his circle, and then to the generations to follow until Thomas Ligotti would take up the banner and underscore this dark and pessimistic worldview at the heart of Poe’s mythology: the negation of self and cosmos in mutual self-absorption and annihilation.
- Cormac Mccarthy. Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West
- Becker, Ernst. Escape from Evil. Simon & Schuster (1976)
- Fyre, Northrop. The Anatomy of Criticism (Kindle Locations 2567-2569). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
- Matt Cardin. Horror Literature through History: An Encyclopedia of the Stories that Speak to Our Deepest Fears. Greenwood (September 21, 2017)
- Ligotti, Thomas. The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (p. 191). Hippocampus Press. Kindle Edition.
- Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae (p. 572). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
- Bloom, Harold. Edgar Allan Poe (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views). Chelsea House Pub (January 1, 1985)