Ginger Nuts of Horror
I read a lot of weird fiction and weird horror. Since I was drawn into reviewing the stuff for Teleread.com and elsewhere, I’ve been reading it not only constantly, but semi-professionally. A while back, I was lucky enough to land a detailed interview about my own new book, and horror in general, from John Linwood Grant on his greydogtales blog, where I came out with some statements, largely inspired by all that reading, which I’d like to qualify and clarify. I also digested some extended comments on the interview on the Facebook group for Thinking Horror, which nudged me towards saying more...
Primarily, I want to go into more detail on my previous comments about quiet horror, compared to other types of horror. This isn’t intended as a blanket criticism of quiet horror as a sub-genre (whatever my reservations about pressing any definition of a sub-genre into service as a marketing category), but more as a prophylactic against lazy, pedestrian, or otherwise imperfectly realized quiet horror, as well as a reminder that other styles of horror do exist, with reason. If anything, it’s a plea for some – but not all – quiet horror writers to spread their wings and raise their game, as well as a cautionary note about the sub-genre’s shortcomings.
This is also an inquiry into the influence of Robert Aickman, who seems to be becoming as much of an exemplar and model for current horror authors as H.P. Lovecraft was a decade or two ago, and into just where that could be leading (or misleading) some writers. In his introduction to the 2014 Faber & Faber edition of Aickman’s first collection, Dark Entries, Richard T. Kelly claims that “he was the finest horror writer of the last hundred years,” and that “at times, it’s hard to see how any subsequent practitioner could stand anywhere but in his shadow.” So it’s obvious that some savants have great expectations, at least, of his influence.
Many, many delineations of quiet horror seem to lean on what it isn’t – which is usually much more clearly defined than what it is. As Selena Chambers said in a recent round-table on quiet horror, “when we think of Horror, we think of the visceral: gore, blood, mutilation, slasher, demons, devils, and monsters.” Against this, she contrasts “the more implicit aspects of the horrific that to me are more spiritual, philosophic, symbolic, mythological, metaphysical, etc.” This isn’t to pick fights with Selena Chambers’ fine body of work, but merely to highlight this heavily underlined contrast. And here’s Paula Cappa in 2013 extolling quiet horror: “Quiet horror stories do not feed you blunt visceral violence: no gore-is-more philosophy; no bloody slasher meisters, no cheap thrills. Quiet horror hits a high key when it stimulates the intellect (sometimes even to the point of being a tad cerebral).” Once again, she weights her definition of quiet horror heavily towards what it isn’t, rather than what it is. And, she continues, “often, this quiet darkness will hold a message that is not only cleverly hidden but also symbolic. That ‘Ah-ha’ moment is one we all love to experience.” And elsewhere on the Kboards, she says, “I just can’t handle all the blood gore that’s out there.”
Blunt visceral violence? Blood gore? Sounds like the Old Testament to me. Or tragedy – Greek or Jacobean style. Or Zola. Rabelais is visceral. So is Tom Jones. More on that below, but in summary, why privilege the exclusion of blood and viscera from horror, when they slop and slosh around the commanding heights of Western literature?
The obvious, no-brainer argument cited in 2016 in Publishers Weekly, “links many readers’ reflexive disinterest in horror fiction to their dislike of slasher stories and movies.” One consequence is the shuffling aside of horror into other genres that you’re more ready to be seen in public with. Look at Tor’s 2016 Halloween reading list of “9 Horrifying Books That Aren’t Shelved as Horror.” But once we move past the presumed kneejerk reactions of a broad reading public, which many writers and literary folk appear to presume on without actually checking that kneejerk reflex, is that really the end of the story about a preference among writers and committed horror/weird fiction fans for quiet horror, or even the emergence, or re-emergence, of that category?
One other reason, which Joyce Carol Oates kindly put on the table in her October 31, 1999, New York Review of Books article on H.P. Lovecraft, “The King of Weird,” could be the principle of tacit contract. There, Oates affirms that: “Readers of genre fiction, unlike readers of what we presume to call ‘literary fiction,’ assume a tacit contract between themselves and the writer: they understand that they will be manipulated, but the question is how? and when? and with what skill? and to what purpose? However plot-ridden, fantastical, or absurd, populated by whatever pseudo-characters, genre fiction is always resolved, while ‘literary fiction’ makes no such promises; there is no contract between reader and writer.”
Actually, I don’t think that’s so. With some literary fiction, at least, and its readers, there is an all too obvious tacit contract – a social contract. Look at Jonathan Franzen, and his advocates and promoters – who apparently weren’t that ready to sign up for Paul Beatty’s brilliant, subversive satire, which still managed to win the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction and the Man Booker Prize. As The Guardian’s writeup of Beatty’s win asserted, a large swathe of America’s supposed literary reading public “have little patience for work that plays with their own expectations of what a book might be.” The tacit contract which that swathe signed up for appears to involve grooming their intellectual vanity, while reinforcing and validating their felt social pre-eminence by flattering their sensibility and refinement. Not all literary fiction is guilty of that bad bargain – but then not all genre fiction is guilty of reaching a mechanical resolution in obedience to its own tacit contract. And I’d shudder to think of horror, or any other genre for that matter, signing up to the Franzenesque social contract, for its particular set of deliverables. Even if it is the contract insisted on by some supposed gatekeepers of the walled garden of serious literary status.
Robert Aickman fits into that quiet-versus-nasty dichotomy in more ways than just the most obvious one of being an almost caricature snooty Brit, as man and writer. M. John Harrison, a fellow Brit cut from a very different cloth, came up with a penetrating insight into Aickman in a 2015 interview with Twisted Tales, that his “obliquity and reserve” amounts to “symbolism that doesn’t quite mesh with – or even entirely admit to – its own subject matter. For me the Weird was always a kind of perverted or broken Imagism.”
What does Harrison mean by that? Short of asking the guy, here’s my interpretation. Central to Imagism was the Ideogrammic Method, “a technique expounded by Ezra Pound which allowed poetry to deal with abstract content through concrete images.” In Aickman’s case, the concrete images are his often extraordinary and ambiguous situations and occurrences. And the perverted or broken part? The underlying abstract content or subject matter that Aickman doesn’t want to admit to, or coordinate his images with.
How does this personal and stylistic issue chime with the Franzenesque bargain of supposed literary seriousness? Well, one way is that if you have a knack for a certain tone, a certain feel for significant omissions, it can be surprisingly easy to produce mysterious, allusive, cryptic fiction. You can even seem profound. You can win kudos for being, as China Miéville dubbed Lovecraft, “a neurotically acute barometer of society’s psychic disorders,” without having the number-crunching nous to actually graduate from barometrics to models and simulations of those disorders. All you need do is project a vague obscurity that readers can beam their own imaginative projections on. It’s a technique, maybe even an artful one. Is it actually that… uh… deep?
Aickman himself provides a justification for his obliquity and reserve, which I haven’t seen bettered anywhere else in his writing, in the first story of his first collection, Dark Entries, published in 1964. In “The School Friend,” he puts these words into the friendly, sympathetic mouth of the protagonist’s father: “‘Mel,’ said my father, ‘you’re supposed to write novels. Haven’t you noticed by this time that everyone’s lives are full of things you can’t understand? The exceptional thing is the thing you can understand. I remember a man I knew when I was first in London . . .’ He broke off. ‘But fortunately we don’t have to understand. And for that reason we’ve no right to scrutinise other people’s lives too closely’.” I can’t imagine anyone except perhaps Robert Fordyce Aickman seriously advocating that conclusion as a worthwhile position for a writer to hold, never mind a writer of the inexplicably strange, but I strongly suspect that Aickman did adhere to it. There’s plenty more in his critical writing along the same lines, which I’ll go into below. But how can a writer be hailed, as Peter Straub did, as “this century’s most profound writer of what we call horror stories,” when he implicitly and explicitly refuses to inquire explicitly into the mysteries of the human heart? Where’s the profound in that?
Aickman did at least work around his lacunae with tremendous, conspicuous, artfulness, but more subsequent quiet horror than I’d like to see seems to me to be stylistically unambitious, in a way that much current horror writing, gloriously, isn’t. And I’m not talking about subtle shifts of perspective or narrative voice, I’m talking about full-on experimental prose. I’ve tried not to mention too many current names in this article so as not to press-gang perfectly good writers into either side of an argument they probably won’t want to take sides in, but I can think without effort of at least three modern weird horror authors I’ve read in the past month alone who produce fantastic original prose that is conspicuously unquiet. (And yes, to be fair, I can think of one equally gifted writer of quiet horror – who promptly polevaulted midway through a shortish collection from quiet to utterly disquieting unquiet.) Some quiet horror writing, alas, looks to me to be in too much danger of striking the Franzenesque bargain of not upsetting expectations.
Or let’s hear China Miéville on a different kind of tacit bargain: “One of the ways of panning for credibility in the pulpstream is to nod and wink at the reader that one is far too sophisticated to not know what one is doing, using all these popular devices. At its worst, this becomes a tedious nodding at the audience: I’ve called this the postmodernism of philistines.” In contrast, he advocates “retaining the firefights and cliffhangers,” precisely “because the tradition of page-turning storytelling is exciting and interesting.”
Quiet horror, unlike those firefights and cliffhangers, seems to me too often to be just written in a quiet tone. This isn’t just a matter of setting, drama or lack thereof, or presence or absence of incident, or gore, or scale, or scope. I’d hesitate to describe any of Poe’s classic horror tales as quiet, even when they contain no massive dramas, no cast of thousands, no earthquakes, simply because of their sustained hysteria, the compacted breakneck style that does such a good job of acting out as well as describing insane frenzy. Plus, intimation (not imitation) makes for poor differentiation. If you are writing in the same general milieu and register as your peers, and excluding certain imaginative resources and literary devices from your work, keeping to the same tonal palette of muted shades, the same pianissimo dynamic, you are going to need very distinctive personal gifts and ideas to be able to stand out from the crowd. Not all quiet horror writers possess those – or perhaps, their individual gifts could flourish better outside quiet horror.
That’s one instance of what we might be missing out on when we keep quiet. I also spoke in my greydogtales interview about Lovecraft’s espousal of The Cult of the Capital Letters. What I meant by that was his success in world-building, all those proper nouns for improperly improbable Things. China Miéville outlined what’s at issue here in his grudging tribute to Tolkien: “His genius lay in his neurotic, self-contained, paranoid creation of a secondary world. That act of profoundly radical geekery reversed the hitherto-existing fantasy subcreation … It’s precisely this approach, the subject of most scorn from the ‘mainstream’, which is Tolkien’s most truly radical and seminal moment. His literalised fantastic of setting means an impossible world which believes in itself.” The fabulous fabulisitic vigour to build worlds across multiple stories, or forcefully enough in a single tale to detain readers within that imagined world, seems too often lacking in much quiet horror. Even Aickman does it – for example, in “The Wine-Dark Sea” or “Niemandswasser.” And yes, world-building is all about fulfilled tacit bargains – even more so when those worlds are reamed out into entire franchises. But I don’t have an issue with bargains as such – so long as they’re open and honest ones. And much of the best fiction in any genre always teases, plays with the reader’s expectations, threatens to unpick that grand bargain, keeps the audience on tenterhooks by artfully withholding the bargained-for resolution. Escapist bargains? Snobbist bargains? Take your pick.
M.R. James is another horror writer who’s an escapist world-builder in a different, very charming way. And what lies beneath his delightful unity of tone and period colour? A surprising diversity of period, setting, and subject matter. A series of suggestively sketched schemata that outline the supernatural premises of the stories without killing off the sense of mystery and wonder. A crawling thing of slime. A tentacled monster that sucks your face off. A Bluebeard who cuts the beating hearts out of living children. Was that really what genteel Edwardian readers signed up for? Regardless, that’s what they got. Some quiet.
Another aspect to the quiet-versus-unquiet debate, picking up from that point about M.R. James, is the intellectual content of horror stories – in the sense of the actual working out of overtly articulated ideas or premises. Personally, I do love fantastic horror that typifies the definition articulated by Tzvetan Todorov, where “the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural or supernatural explanation of the events described.” That hesitation and ambiguity creates a delicious push in a story towards a resolution that may or may not actually come, and the doubt around the basis of events can reach to the deepest levels of existential or philosophical doubt. But that isn’t in any way to decry more overtly supernatural horror, and horror of any kind that hinges on an armature of explicitly articulated ideas. And yes, horror that too explicitly spells out the supernatural rationale [sic.] for its uncanny occurrences, or the various rules that vampires or ghosts are or aren’t constrained by in this particular story, often loses the imaginative nimbus of wonder, but writing that works out new implications of ideas, and even uses ideas to inspire the imagination, can often gain more than it loses, as well as exhibiting a mind that genuinely does have the power to reason, well, a little bit profoundly. Look at John Langan’s The Wide, Carnivorous Sky, for example. (And yes, that’s breaking my own embargo on living examples, but it’s too good to miss.)
Development of ideas can obviously be done in a quiet context, even through a datadump, but often it fits just as well into a more physical, dramatic exploration of those ideas. You absolutely can have unquiet horror that’s more than a tad cerebral. Fiction without such a skeleton of ideas isn’t necessarily lacking in depth or value, but fiction with it definitely has unmistakable solidity and substance. And fiction that hints at underlying prophetic profundity through sleight of hand, but never actually delivers on deep insights, despite the many hints and nudges, disconnects and void spaces, in its narrative? Weeelll …
Aickman might well not have agreed. He certainly spent much ink in his series of introductions to the Fontana Books of Great Ghost Stories arguing against any intellectual approach that seeks overt explanation and articulation, eulogizing the submerged nine-tenths of unconscious mental experience, and declaring that the ghost story “need offer neither logic nor moral,” and that “everything that matters is indefinable.” That may or may not be so, but it definitely indicates what we might lose if we stick too closely to the mode of Aickmanesque quiet horror. H.P. Lovecraft, meanwhile, produced some of the most philosophically provocative modern horror – provocative enough to have inspired works of actual philosophy – in a pulp fiction ambience of tentacled jellies from outer space.
Then there’s the question of truth to personal experience, which situates a fair share of the quiet horror I’ve read within the same social setting, and even the same area code, as the author. What informs and inspires each writer’s imagination and talent is always a personal matter, but why feel any obligation to Stick To What You Know, when for one thing, mainstream literary fiction no longer heeds that obligation, and for another, what you know, at the most immediate remove, consists of real horror probably far beyond what you could dream up from first principles? Aleppo. ERs. Drive-by shootings. Social disintegration to match any horror seen in Dunwich. The great dying of over 50% of all animal life within the past half century. If you live the kind of quiet life where quiet horror is the only kind you are ever likely to personally encounter, then you are very lucky. And I don’t mean just lucky in the personal sense, though that certainly helps. I mean lucky in the social, economic, geopolitical, even historical sense. Unquiet horror, or at least horror with a broader compass, is one of the genres that might help your imaginative sympathy with, and understanding of, the other, very real, horrors outside your immediate comfort zone. Aickman would probably not have agreed: among the bad reasons he lists for choosing to read ghost stories, “the worst is the quest for a sadistic thrill, something that is better sought in a daily newspaper.” But there are far more positive reasons than sadism, despite Aickman’s repeated assertions, to read unquiet horror.
Writing of W.B. Yeats, Edmund Wilson referred to the literary style of the 17th century as a “personal thing” which “fitted the author like a suit of clothes and molded itself to the natural contours of his temperament and mind.” Aickman to me seems a self-conscious artist to a degree that perhaps even now still isn’t fully appreciated, but no great thinker, and I fear that some of his fans encounter the one, but come expecting or hoping for the other. And his style I find cut far too tight and narrow for my taste. It cramps my style, period. And I’d hate to think of other writers fitting themselves into that mould unless it really does suit them personally, or unless they have very clear and well-thought-out reasons for doing so. Mere awe at his artistry really isn’t enough.
Thomas Ligotti, a horror writer profound enough to have written an entire work of pessimistic philosophy, insists that “literature is entertainment or it is nothing.” For most of literary history in the West at least, the canonical literary forms, the exemplars, were the epic or the tragic. Neither of those was remotely quiet. And horror is one of the genres that can still tap into the resources of wonder and terror, visceral entertainment and sublime pathos, that fuelled those forms. Only since the Industrial Revolution has quiet literature stepped to the fore. If literature, for most of the time that literature has existed, whether written or recited, didn’t feel any onus to be quiet, why should we now?
Paul StJohn Mackintosh, 25 February 2017; updated 11 May 2017