Ginger Nuts of Horror
People seem to react strangely when I describe certain subjects as “beautiful.” When I look at a cinema monster, an H.R. Giger painting; the surreal entities that inhabit the works of Bosch, Goya, Werka and numerous others, they seem to think that there is an air of contrivance; of conscious perversity, in the expression.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Clive Barker's Cenobites, Cronenberg's Brundle-Fly, Carpenter's Thing, the eponymous Alien...there is a particular kind of beauty in their strangeness, their grotesquery, and it lies in the conception and elaboration of the image; the existence of these entities as projections of imagination, and therefore of human preoccupations, human concerns, no matter how bizarre or other-worldly they might seem. This is something that the best horror, in any format, acknowledges, either consciously or otherwise; that what begins as fright, disturbance or disgust can very quickly become (or occur in tandem with) aesthetic appreciation; one that takes into account the imagination and craftsmanship required to realise such an entity.
Hellraiser's Cenobites are not just walking icons of bodily mutilation; they incorporate certain aesthetic details that resonate on a cultural level; the papal, the regal, the transgressive, evoking not only aesthetic responses, but visually communicating something about their characters and philosophies. Similarly, the Alien, designed by renowned artist H.R. Giger; a phallic, sinuous beast that seems – at least partially- bio-mechanical, its form a system of intertwining tubes and musculature, its general body form echoing those of cats, snakes, insects and human beings, all at once. The Thing...an entity that incorporates all preconceptions of anatomy and then blasts them apart, intermingling incongruous scraps and fragments; a metamorphic beast that is part alien parasite, part sentient cancer, carrying with it all of the information from every entity it has ever assimilated, terrestrial or otherwise. These are prime examples of how storytelling can be evoked and elaborated via subtle means; in terms of aesthetic details that an audience may not even consciously notice, but which helps to evoke an unspoken sense of depth and resonance in their minds.
Visual mediums such as cinema and video games are particular in this regard, in that they can incorporate these details by virtue of their natures, but a similar effect can also be achieved in written fiction; the use of seemingly redundant details to evoke a sense of a creature or character's back story; their histories and personalities.
H.P. Lovecraft is arguably the most conspicuous example, in that his descriptions of other-worldly and extra-dimensional monstrosities are often so elaborate as to be difficult to comprehend. His (not very) short story At the Mountains of Madness contains (often painstakingly) detailed anatomical descriptions of creatures that have become iconic of his “Old Ones” mythos; the cucumber-bodies, star-fish headed, many-tentacled, multiple-winged “Old Ones” themselves, as well as the amorphous Shoggoths, the impossible cities which they once inhabited.
Though lengthy to the point of abstraction, Lovecraft's descriptions leave the reader with a sense of the truly uncanny, other-worldly natures of these beings, as well as fomenting the sense of cosmic disturbance that was Lovecraft's principle concern. Here are entities not only outside the experience of humanity, but seemingly the bounds of biological possibility; closer to demons and mythic monstrosities than things that might actually exist. Via their description, Lovecraft evokes a disquieting sense that the universe is vaster and stranger than any presumptions of science or religion or any human construct might allow for; the image alone allows for the blossoming of reader imagination into unexplored contexts, effectively allowing imagination to grow and evolve by feeding it metaphor, of which it is also comprised (a kind of benign, metaphysical cannibalism taking place).
Horror, along with its siblings science fiction and fantasy (generally collated for market purposes under the label of “speculative fiction.”), is uniquely placed to inspire this kind of evolution, in that, at its most ideal, it operates outside of parameters (in terms of possibility, morality, taste etc). Anything and everything is possible, both in terms of image and conception; the entities, the settings, the architecture that might occur limited only by the writer's imagination and the reader's ability to visualise them. The very best material, in any medium or format, is rife with this quality; H.R. Giger's artwork comprised of nothing else; images that are indelibly embedded not only in cultural consciousness, but on a more fundamental level; within the collective human psyche, referring, as they do, to universal human experience and concern; the decay, infection and violation of our bodies; the rebellion or co-option of anatomy; disease, infestation; appetite, consumption, excretion...everything is encapsulated in Giger's work, but without the provision of any wider contexts; no words or back mythology necessary; they create their own, by their very natures, suggesting depths that are beyond the static image, leaving the audience simultaneously aroused and soiled, erotically engaged and repulsed.
This is the beauty of disturbance; the beauty of monsters; something that writers and film makers and artists of all mediums have realised and explored at various intervals. The aforementioned Alien is as much a distressing erotic entity as it is a horrific one, redolent in form and operation of human genitalia, but also something that seeks to infect and impregnate as well as murder. In that, it becomes more than merely an animal; it is redolent of a rapist or possessing spirit; it violates and transforms in the manner of the more classic vampire, the image and mythology of which are bound up with concerns of foreign invasion; of the “outside” or deviant transforming us, removing from what is proper and correct. Similarly, one cannot help but read descriptions or see images of Barker's Cenobites without being struck by the strange appeal of their design and aesthetic, whilst being simultaneously distressed by the subject matter. They represent flesh and anatomy as artist's clay; stretched and sculpted and twisted into states of symmetry it might not otherwise enjoy. By their design alone, they evoke ideas; perverse and transgressive ideas, but ideas nonetheless; notions which the audience might not have been able to otherwise conceptualise or articulate: transcendence through transgression, the evolution of self by distorting and mutilating all that seeks to impose parameters thereof (flesh and anatomy being the most fundamental and inalienable barrier in that regard). We do not need to know anything more of them (though Barker provides a little through their now iconic proclamations); seeing them is enough to elicit these responses.
That is why I find monsters beautiful; because they are capable, without the slightest word or explanation, of transforming us.