The Challenge of Horror: The Fragility of Existence

 

“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.”1

Flannery O’Connor was neither subtle nor officious in her statements regarding literature, instead she said plainly and with acumen exactly what she felt about the deep seated beliefs she held regarding both writing and her faith. In many ways this is the challenge that horror writers face in our time. Most readers are complacently satisfied in their own opinions about life, assuming an optimistic cast of mind that if we work hard enough, do the right things, keep our nose clean, vote for the right leader, protest against the powerful and rich and ugly forces that seek to control us, make the right friends, teach our children the right ethics, go out for an evening or holiday, take in a movie or some other diversion of entertainment, etc. that somehow, someway things in the end will turn out for the best. That after all we live in the best of all possible worlds, right? Wrong.

For most writers of horror the world is a little untidy, tilted like a bad pin-ball machine that seems to be forever looping back on itself with the end game ball moving forever toward that black hole of “you lose”; caput, the end. One hears the cynical and sardonic laughter somewhere off-stage… Fatalist? Determinist? Pessimist? Nihilist? Horror writers have been called all of these and much worse. But do any of these tropes and metaphors truly pin the head on the donkey’s ass of what it is that horror writer’s are trying to tell us? No. For all the power of those intellectual and cultural elite, those critics who forever picture themselves (me included!) as the primal readers and critical purveyors of truth, we don’t really know a thing about it. We talk about it, grind it through this or that critical lens: gender theory, race theory, postmodern, post-structural, thematic, structural, allegorical, et. al.. So many theoretical frameworks to choose from and all of them tell us more about themselves and their own agendas than about the message being conveyed and communicated in a single story from a horror writer. Critics are notorious for their lack of ethical commitments, or if they have any it is usually of the dogmatic kind rather than the grappling type of a Jacob wrestling the Angel of doubt variety.

In the past fifty years we’ve had writerly texts, readerly texts, texts that seem to echo other texts, or mimic the signposts of a multitude of influences in-between various texts. We’ve even had the author disappear from view, the author as “dead” theory of a text that writes itself as if the author were nothing but an automated feed-back system and conduit between speaking texts. It’s as if the cacophony of texts in a library were suddenly alive and the Swiftian Battle of the Books had truly, rather than figuratively, taken over where humans had left the scene for parts unknown.

So what if we subtracted ourselves from all these strange accumulations of theoretical hype? What if we sat there in the silence of our own home letting the author (and, yes, this would assume that someone out there in the cosmic dust had once sat down and written the words one is reading! No dead authors here!) speak with the voice of horror? Is the author of horror speaking for himself or an other? Are the characters merely voicing the anxiety and fears, the insecurities and uncertainties of the author’s own mind; or, is she listening to something else, channeling some darker portent and transport from the Outside in – an “antennae of the race” in some Poundian throwback to cyborg fetishism? Is the author through her own tale confronting the very unknown as unknown, or is a trick – a slight-of-hand magician’s ploy, pulling the rug out under our very eyes leaving us puzzled and forever lost in our own imaginings? Seeking to discover in the power of rhetoric and persuasion to convince herself that what is being said, written in the blood, sweat, and tears of the night truly are her own thoughts; or, is the author and her the characters, thoughts, entities something more alien, more monstrous, and impossible?

Are horror writers after all the voice of this impersonal and indifferent universe within which we all live and have our being – the force and terror of its furious malevolence; a machine grinding away at the mesh of particles until the entropic dust is broken down into absolute darkness. And, why do we feel it as malevolent and entropic? Why not gentle and kind and negentropic? Science? Why is horror a form that reveals to us the dark secret of a universe in which we feel homeless, a sense that we are the true aliens in this cosmos; that we are in its eyes much more monstrous that anything it could grind out of even the most base material? Are we not the very horror we seek to escape from into some more sublime realm? Didn’t Plato always admonish us that this real, our empirical universe was a tissue of illusions? Unreal.  Isn’t it true after all that the universe in its indifference is merely letting us know that we are the monstrous force of self-reflecting nothingness  infesting the universe with malevolence? Imposing our own human designs upon an otherwise insignificant realm? That malevolence is not out there somewhere ready to pounce on us, but the core of our own meaning-making systems of language, narrative, and rhetoric.

What does a critic know that a horror writer doesn’t? Does the critic do no more that repeat the gestures of his ancient kind, the accumulated knowledge of rhetorical and homiletical wisdom of a reader whose supposed to know? But what is this knowledge the critic reveals? What is it that is hiding in these horrific entertainments? Are they after all as many horror writer’s suggest mere distractions, entertainments to keep the real horror of our lives at bay? Or, are they as O’Connor suggests a form of shock therapy in which the author guides us through the dark trenches of our cosmic doom, providing us a way to apprehend the blind spots in our mind’s eye – a truth about the world that would otherwise go undetected without the help and didactic tactics of the author’s secret gnosis – her knowledge of the way of things? Does horror offer us a separate knowledge – a dark gnosis into the secret life of things? Or, is this too an illusion or persuasion and rhetorical gesture?

Can the critic tease out the hidden meanings in the horror writer’s strange and disquieting tales? Bring back from the word-hoard, the etymological zoo of human language in all its variations some forgotten, half-repeated truth; a word from the Word? Can the critic dig down into those ruinous wastelands of derangement at the kernel of the author’s tale, a knot in the abyss of meaning, and reveal at last the hidden truth overlooked by our less than subtle minds? What responsibility does the critic have toward the author and audience alike to reveal the dark transports within an author’s text that the author herself has not already provided in the tale itself? Isn’t this a presumption on the part of critics to assume they know more than the author herself what is being said; the intent and meaning that even the author has yet to grasp? Or, is the author herself unknowing of the truths being spun out within the labyrinth of her tales? What if the author’s message is on the edge of thought, an extreme of transgressive literature of terror that not only seeks to break through the defensive mechanisms of the reader’s mind, cast doubt on everything she or he is, or has ever believed; but also opens a portal in the reader’s mind that allows the dark mystery of the author’s intent to reveal itself. Is insanity and madness the telos of the author’s intent, a breaking of the reader’s enculturated complaisance? A tale that contaminates its reader, forcing her to confront the abject horror of life in all its stark terror?

And when the tale is over can the reader return to her cozy and comfortable life without feeling any change at all? And, if so, has the horror tale done its job, or is it merely one more failed report; a fake news story to lead the wary reader astray. Is this truly horror, then? Or is the truth of horror much more dangerous and life threatening? Isn’t the point of true horror to lead the reader up to the edge of the abyss, let her gaze into the darkness of her own fears and uncertainties; and force her to face them squarely, shock her into the monstrous truth of existence? Or, is this too much to ask of horror? Isn’t it after all just a mere distraction, an entertainment that leaves its reader with a slight quizziness and nausea, but nothing more; a sort of momentary laughter of disgust, nothing else? What is horror after all?

What if it were the simple truth of suffering? We all suffer, the great religions of the world have all one way or the other provided paths out of this world, an escape from this world of suffering. But what if we ask a different question as Todd May does in A Fragile Life: “How do we live in such a way as to recognize our own fragility without seeking to escape it while at the same time not making ourselves abject before it?” Does Horror offer us an answer to such questions? I had already spoken of this in a previous essay in which I quoted John Keats letter to his brother John on Negative Capability:

“I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, and at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Ultimately as Todd May says of his own work: “My hope is that… I am not alone in wanting to embrace acceptance and reject invulnerability.” (FL, p. 204) Isn’t the shock of horror aimed at this invulnerability, the defensive systems or egoistic barriers that protect us and make us rigid, fill our lives full of illusions that hide rather than revealing the truth of our ontological situation in this bleak universe? What if we could lose control without losing our reason, openly accept the suffering entailed in this life, face the horror of existence and our own consciousness without reaching after some safety net, some religious or philosophical Teddy Bear to hug against our nights of terror and insomnia?

As I had stated in that previous essay, horror opens us to that fragility, to the mutual contamination of self and world without seeking either reconciliation or recognition (in the sense of Hegel’s dialectic), which would close down meaning of things to some reductionary singular, unitary, and literal form. Instead horror opens us to the self-sacrificial discognition between self and world that separates both outside and inside, absence and presence.  Instead of reducing the encounter with the horrific to the normalizing processes of interpretation, the best horror unleashes the forces of the irreconcilable, contradictory, and paradoxical leaving us unable to reduce the facts or events to a stable or unified meaning. The best horror seeks to experience the unknown as unknown; and thus, the nightmare, as it is, eschews all conciliatory modes of interpretation and recognition, allowing it to enact an operation that maintains and even courts contradiction with any and all known systems of meaning: religious, scientific, cultural, aesthetic, philosophical. etc., opening us to the contingency of self and world; our duplicitous state of in-betweenness. As Todd May suggests,

To accept the contingency of things and the quiet sadness that may go along with it is not to lie prostrate before the world. Rather, it is to embrace a perspective that can, with luck, help us find a path along the Large Matters through which we define the central aspects of our lives. It will not always do so. For some, those beggared by fortune, it might fail to do so. But if we are not, with Rose Sayer, simply to rise above our humanity, then coming to terms with the fraught nature of our existence is perhaps what is left to us, and acceptance is perhaps our means. (FL, pp. 205-206)

Eugene Thacker in his work Infinite Resignation asks: “Is there any philosophy that is not, in some way, built up upon disenchantment – and that does not, ultimately, crumble beneath its weight? Disenchantment as chanting, as a chant, a mantra, a solitary, monophonic voice rendered insignificant by the intimate immensity surrounding it.”3 In his Conspiracy Against The Human Race the horror writer Thomas Ligotti’s Professor Nobody assents to such a notion, saying,

Supernatural horror was one of the ways we found that would allow us to live with our double selves. By its employ, we discovered how to take all the things that victimize us in our natural lives and turn them into the very stuff of demonic delight in our fantasy lives. In story and song, we could entertain ourselves with the worst we could think of, overwriting real pains with ones that were unreal and harmless to our species. We can also do this trick without trespassing on the real estate of supernatural horror, but then we risk running into miseries too close to home. While horror may make us squirm or quake, it will not make us cry at the pity of things. The vampire may symbolize our horror of both life and death, but none of us has ever been uprooted by a symbol. The zombie may conceptualize our sickness of the flesh and its appetites, but no one has ever been sickened to death by a concept. By means of supernatural horror we may pull our own strings of fate without collapsing— natural-born puppets whose lips are painted with our own blood.4

Maybe this is the shock of horror O’Connor addresses, that we are fragile creatures in a universe that does not know us, and is indifferent to our desires or pities, our prayers or curses. And yet, through its elements of narrative and story the horror tale can provide this shock in such a way as to convey this truth, disturbing our complaisant mind’s out of their lethargic state; awakening us to its bittersweet message of vulnerability, and thereby opening up our lives to the fragility of existence without our need to escape its dark transports into madness or insanity, psychopathy or sociopathy. Maybe we can begin to understand this thing we are, and the universe within which we have been thrown; without seeking after some literal meaning or explanation other than that we are here, now, living our vulnerability.

(Note: As I’m working through my writing of a book on Thomas Ligotti I’m testing various approaches, ideas, and ways of presenting it. So will from time to time be posting various aspect of this current work. Bare with me… )


  1.  Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 805–6.
  2.  May, Todd. A Fragile Life: Accepting Our Vulnerability. University of Chicago Press (March 1, 2017) FL
  3. Thacker, Eugene . Infinite Resignation. Repeater (July 17, 2018)
  4. Ligotti, Thomas. The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (pp. 93-94). Hippocampus Press. Kindle Edition.

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