The Horror of Life

The contrivance and the immanence of horror lies in our having to be constantly forgetting how we are daily conscripted into this lie of form around the formless, and how residing at its core we imagine ourselves and find nothing. It is not the reality of death that we deny, but that we are alive in the first place, and that all this squirming is as a result of this affliction, this threat that like water seeping into a damaged boat must be constantly displaced back inside the body of itself. Horror does not get to us, get into us, because it threatens death, but because it reminds us that we are alive.

– Gary J. Shipley: On the Verge of Nothing: Pessimism’s Impossible Beyond ( 86).

Short Takes: On Poe’s Eleanora

I AM come of a race noted for vigor of fancy and ardor of passion.

– Edgar Allan Poe

Poe’s Eleanora, a prose poem of love and death, the methodical joys and sorrows of pain and loss absolved in madness and bliss outside the solipsistic bowers of forbidden eroticism. This story falls flat for me, it’s pure commercialism. No longer the obsessive power of Ligeia…

The tale about forbidden love, the incestual theme so apparent in many of Poe’s tales, the romantic enclosure, the Wordsworthian bower of bliss, the world of the real becoming more fantastic as the two young lovers become more entangled in erotic relations. The consumptive death of the young girl, the cursed vow of the young man, the escape from the bower to the ruins of reality and a new life. Typical cliches of the Gothic world becoming trite and overused. It’s as if at this point in his career Poe had given into the worst forms of public taste, resigned himself to offer only the most melodramatic excesses with an eye upon monetary gain rather than the unique obsessions of his inner experience.

Even though I love Bob Thomley’s authorial voice (listening to the Audible version), the tale itself seems but a ghostly echo of Poe’s earlier tale of obsession, almost as if he wanted to revisit it, revise it to end on a more positive note, but in the end all the fantastic apparatus of seraphs, heaven, and the angelic voice of the ending dream are pure bullshit. This one should be stricken from Poe’s best tales… his descriptions of the natural world becoming unnatural are as always, the only form, style and hint of excellence in an otherwise throw-away tale that was beneath his genius. One can’t blame him, he needed to sell works to a lackluster public of bland readers whose need for seduction, love, and erotic forms of excess craved the melodramas of the gothic music. Poe was only trying to cater to this enfeebled mass of morons…

What we do we fear?

The more we yield to the desire to know, stamped as it is with perversity and corruption, the more incapable we become of remaining inside some reality, any reality.

E.M. Cioran, The Fall into Time

We’re all taught to believe there is a natural order to the world, that the ‘principle of sufficient reason’ guides our understanding, that reality is as it seems it is… then something strange and eerie creeps in, a hint that things are not quite right, that something is tilted in the world’s order, and we are victims of a horrendous lie, a fiction, an untruth. Horror begins at the edge of the natural and supernatural, an uncanny realization that things are not what they seem to be but are hiding something, that below the surface of objects and appearances is something else; something darker and more sinister is lurking at the heart of existence. And we are afraid… the fear, the dread, the intimate connection between the real and unreal suddenly spark within us a feeling of terror at the unknown surrounding us. It’s this vague apprehension of darkness, this nothingness that cannot be named, seen, or touched; the vague feeling of something awful is lying in wait, abiding in the shadows just beyond our mind’s eye; an unknowing thing that will not be reduced to words or reason. It’s this vagueness; this inability to think, to reason, to know what is and is not there beyond our mind, our body, that awakens in us those primal emotions of fear, dread, terror, anxiety, panic. Like children we want to fight or flee; hide, disappear, vanish from the presence of this unseen force, this malevolence we feel is there in the shadow kingdoms. Immobilized, frozen by fear of what is or is not there we stand fixed like those stone heroes who gazed upon the Gorgon’s face, saw the serpent locks writhing, the eyes that transfixed them like some devilish mesmerist, bound them in that dark chamber of the mind’s terror unable to move, to think, to dispel the shadowy malevolence impinging on their fragile lives. Caught in an eternal grimace of pain they stand there for all to see, their eyes blinded by the dark light that pierced their minds with its even darker intent.

Evolutionary biologists and psychologists, and those who have pondered the primitive mind and traced the origins of fear agree that our early ancestors faced danger from predatory animals (ranging from mammalian carnivores to venomous animals such as spiders and snakes); from hostile members of their own species; from invisible pathogens, bacteria and viruses; from loss of status, ostracization, and ultimately social exclusion, which in ancestral environments could mean death; and they faced the risk of lethal injury following dangerous weather events such as violent thunder storms, falls from cliffs, and other potentially hazardous topographical features.1 We are hardwired against dangers because of this long evolutionary heritage. But we no longer live in the jungle, roam in the wilds like weak and unprotected apes. So, what happens to fear in the aftermath of civilization which is a protection against the dangers of the wilderness and jungle worlds of our ancestors? The fears are still there waiting to be triggered, awakened, brought to bear on those forces that suddenly impinge on those survival mechanisms but in a new light.

Alcohol, drugs, various forms of extreme mental pressures will awaken these old forms, and a bewildering mix of dread and terror in our supposed safe world is unleashed. Then all the old panoply of negative emotions resurfaces rising up from their sleeping vaults in the psyche like so many unwanted guests. We seek explanations, ways to control or assuage these irrational fears that haunt us. We read horror stories, watch splatter films, listen to spooky ghost tales around a campfire to fool ourselves into believing it is all fiction, unreal, a part of entertainment to be objectified and lived through vicariously. Hoping that the dark fears at the heart of the human are just that: unreal. But are they?

I want to explore in the coming weeks and months some of those weird, uncanny, fantastic tales of imagination from Poe, Lovecraft, and Ligotti along with other lesser-known authors. Explore the workings of these tales upon our imaginations and how they both entertain and instruct us in the horrors of our world.

  1. Clasen, Mathias. Why Horror Seduces (pp. 35-36). Oxford University Press.