Horror is the shock and revulsion of apprehending something sickeningly awful. In literary terms, it’s often distinguished from terror, a creeping dread of something yet unseen. Terror is the build-up; horror is the reveal.
‘Horror is an emotion,’ American author Caitlín R Kiernan told Weird Fiction Review in 2012, ‘and it’s an – increasingly unsuccessful – marketing category.’
Certainly, horror fiction isn’t fashionable right now. It conjures op-shop shelves full of dusty, black-covered paperbacks, with author names emblazoned in white or metallic foil – Stephen King, Anne Rice, Clive Barker, Dean Koontz.
Kiernan is known for her dislike of genre pigeonholes – but her 2009 novel The Red Tree was the most horrific book I read in 2015. Reading it at night, at home alone, I felt physically afraid. The book purports to be the journal of a grieving novelist, who seeks to overcome her writer’s block by staying in an isolated Rhode Island farmhouse. In its basement, she discovers a manuscript full of unnerving folklore concerning a nearby red oak tree. The novel draws heavily on tropes of weird fiction, the gothic and the metafictional ‘found manuscript’.
The Red Tree mines its horror from the existential crisis of the writer’s blank page, and the nightmares that could fill it. After transcribing moments of increasingly visceral horror, the protagonist comes to believe the tree is an ancient, malevolent portal to unspeakable places.
‘You don’t know how paralyzing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything,’ wrote Vincent van Gogh in an 1884 letter to his brother Theo. ‘Life itself likewise always turns towards one an infinitely meaningless, discouraging, dispiriting blank side on which there is nothing’.
The act of writing so often feels like confronting a terrifying void. And no writer understood the existential shock of one’s own insignificance better than HP Lovecraft. As Wired journalist Clive Thompson observes, Lovecraft’s stories chart ‘the collapse of language in the face of an emotionally unhinging reality’. Or, as people say online, ‘I can’t even.’
Kiernan, a palaeontologist by training, argues that Lovecraft understands what geologists call deep time: ‘Our smallness and insignificance in the universe at large. In all possible universes. Within the concept of infinity. No one and nothing cares for us. No one’s watching out for us. To me, that’s Lovecraft.’
In my darkest moments I comfort myself with the idea that my writing will outlive me. It will show I existed and strove. But what if nobody reads it? Horror is horrifying because it strips our illusions, forcing us to bear awful truths utterly alone.
I’m reminded of the ninety-year-old woman who died alone in her home in Auburn, Sydney, leaving volumes of handwritten diaries. Excerpts from her frank, unsentimental musings were broadcast in August 2014 on the SBS television program The Feed.
‘Was my life complete [sic] worthless? I don’t know and never will know,’ she wrote. ‘Am I writing nonsense? It doesn’t matter as no one is going to contest my thoughts.’
Perhaps we contemplate horrors in writing precisely because we yearn for the fellowship of storyteller and audience, even if it’s illusory. From campfire yarns to cinemas full of screams, humankind has long used gruesome tales as bonding exercises: a horror shared is a horror halved.
Then there is Aristotle’s metaphor of catharsis – the idea of being cleansed – which has been popularised by the cultural mainstreaming of psychoanalysis to the point where it now seems commonsensical. Catharsis is said to purge ‘terror and pity’ from both storyteller and audience, converting these ‘unhealthy’ emotions safely into vicarious thrills.
The Anxiety Disorders Association of British Columbia even advocates that people who are tormented by terrible fears of illness, death, failure and loss should spend thirty minutes a day writing ‘worry scripts’ – detailed, vivid descriptions of their most horrifying scenario – to regain power over their everyday thinking.
‘Something weird happens when you write about your worst fears,’ British author Alexander Gordon Smith writes at Tor.com, the blog of the SFF publisher. ‘They lose some of their power, because when they’re laid down like that then you have the control.’
But American novelist Philip Connors disagrees. ‘To be asked if my writing is a form of catharsis annoys me, because it annexes the territory of literature under the flag of therapy,’ he writes in The New Yorker.
Connors’ 2015 memoir, All The Wrong Places, explores the impact of his brother’s suicide. For him, writing it was awful and gruelling – ‘an artistic challenge, not a therapeutic exercise’. But by moulding his shapeless horror, anger, guilt and despair into a compelling narrative, Connors hoped to help readers feel less alone.
At the end of her life, the nameless Sydney memoirist was forced to confront her own frailty and alienation – but she could still make her thoughts ‘less gloomy and self-destructive’. The best way, she wrote, ‘is to get up, make a mug of tea and try to write and put my thoughts on paper.’