The True-Weird and the Dreadful American Horror Hostility

Dibyakusum Ray

Dibyakusum Ray

Postmillennial horror authors — Michael Wehunt, Laird Barron (2014) or Brian Evenson (2016a, b) treat this concern through what I call a dissociative writing. This, I feel is again a silent homage to Lovecraft, as Graham Harman (2012), analysing the object-oriented philosophy in Lovecraft’s literature, notices the “de-literalising gesture” as his major stylistic trait.

Lovecraft, according to Harman, half-disclaimed the shape of the aberrant as possibly a feverish imagination, then obfuscated the essence of the monster further by inviting the reader not to ponder on the minute details of its body, but on a more “general outline”.

An octopus-dragon-human hybrid is thus rendered “something over and above the literal combination of its elements”. (18) The reader looks at the unthinkable, yet he is made partially blind. He sees yet he does not, maybe because the “I” and the “eye” lose synchronicity facing the cosmic eldritch. The modern American true-weird has repeatedly negotiated with the indescribable through similar dissociative fashion, as will be shown shortly.

Consider, for example, a story on the invasive Weird — instead of a quiescent eldritch (which is in most of Lovecraft and directly Lovecraft-inspired literature), the Large makes its presence felt in a classic supernatural fashion: a rap on the window, a shadow in the corner, a spectral disquietude in the heart of an urban setting.

Brian Evenson’s ‘The Window’ tells the story of an unnamed protagonist whose account might or might not be a trance: “He was all but asleep. Or he was asleep and then the sound woke him. Or he was dreaming and never awoke at all” (Evenson, 181). The story itself, as will be clearer later, is a meditation on incertitude.

The protagonist — “He” — wakes up hearing a sharp rap on the window. He is confused, and confusingly opaque in his slow cognition. It basically takes the story several hundreds of words to figure out the source of the disturbance — a disembodied, vaguely shining anthropomorphic figure at the corner of the darkened room, floating through. The man is not sure what he is seeing, not even whether he is in his senses, and Evenson dissociates the spectral even further from reality as the shadow lumbers through the room perfectly unaware of anything else in the surrounding.

It bumps into furniture but never changes its course, and does not seem to hear the protagonist gasping. The non-description of this “partly shadow rather than body” (Evenson, 183) shows a failure of the rational for the protagonist and the author alike as Evenson visibly struggles with his own writing: “It was the shape and size of a human but indistinct, it is edges blurred somehow, as if it were not existing here precisely at all, but instead existing somewhere else, in a place that happened, somehow, to overlap with this space” (Evenson, 184).

The classical genre tropes of “haunting” are subverted, because Evenson is invested in a perennial alienation between two worlds — none knows the other, one sees but does not understand, the other feels but does not bother — both captured at an inconceivable overlapping between the two.

There is no latent theme of vendetta, dogged persuasion or unfinished business, at least not till the protagonist decides to react against this invasion:

“Almost without knowing what he was doing, he hurled the book at it. The book struck but went through, not even slowing down, and struck the window behind it, making it shiver before then falling to the floor. The figure stopped abruptly … heading toward the other window, the one that was open … in his rush to shut the window, he managed to close it right on the figure itself.” (Evenson, 185).

The window severs the figure, two halves landing on either side of the glass. “He” calls the police while watching the swath of blood on the wall and floor slowly fading away, and the whole episode is dismissed as false alarm.

The narrative seems unsure whether the whole thing was a dream, but “He” is sanguine that there will be a payback. It was a case of nothing-ness assuming corporeality, an invasive outside suddenly aware of the innate hostility of the other. “He had hurt it, and now it would hurt him” (Evenson, 186). A mutual dawning opens a gulf of belligerence between entities ontologically alien to each other, and violence is the only way they can communicate with. “He” is certain that it would come back for him, to exert the same violent denial the shutting of the window signified. There will be blood, and “He” will be gone.

At least in this particular story, Evenson speaks of not so much of the terrifying nonchalance I am interested to touch upon, as he does of the friction with the Large that leads to a discernment of the other, which illuminates “all the dark corners in which the I’s mastery would be challenged” (Levinas, 2006, 121). Yet, this challenge is not without a certain comfort. I must retrace the core idea of super-sensibility a little to elaborate this point.

The notion of a blasé expanse is not without its thematic struggle, being grappled with since the Enlightenment. The motif of the Large here, let it be reminded, is Nature. Nature is unknowable, but you know — as a warm, reassuring gesture to your humanity — that you cannot know it.

The subject crawls out of the prison of selfish appreciation to discover that Nature can be pleasing universally. Nature, however, does not aim to please, nor does it create awareness of its perfection and harmony — the human subject can only strive for coherence for the supreme knowledge, the ultimate beauty beyond reach. Even at its full unreadable aura, Nature does submit itself to our sensual appreciation; the “sublime” frustrates, yet enthrals us with its artistic possibilities. The absence of conclusion opens up an array of unique approaches.

The beauty is the constancy of trial. How can that which is apprehended as inherently “contra-final” be noted with an expression of approval? It can, because the sublime “can be called into the mind by that very inadequacy itself which does admit of sensuous presentation.” (Kant, 25) We are assured that we are allowed to try to understand the mystique.

Immanuel Kant was writing about the uncaring cosmos inadvertently granting glory to mortal failure in ‘The Critique of Judgment’ (1790). Its connection to an apperception of the threat of the Large has been addressed by Eugene Thacker in Vol. 3, where he deduces that this approach to the non-realization of the cosmos is a “consolation prize”.

“We can, at the very least, comprehend this incomprehension—we can think the failure of thought”. The horror of the Large “is ultimately recuperated by reflexive, supersensible reason, and thereby domesticated within the confines of an internalised self correlating to an external world” (Thacker, 118).

It will be a mistake to assume that the nature of this assurance is always congenial. Evenson’s “He” has a terrifying experience, and he knows that there will be repercussions, but he, at least, knows the surety of a reprisal. The horror of belligerence is dependent on the cognition of the opposite. We fight our enemies because they are cognizably contra. “He” spends sleepless nights because irrespective of his slipping grasp on reality, “He” knows it will take vengeance.

This is, by Enlightenment standards, the beauty of mortality — you try to know the Large, although you may fail or die in the process. It does not necessarily allay the potency of the Large as a trope of horror, but it indeed creates a space of reading the apparent inscrutability of the invader. What is the intent? How sound is the strategy? Can it be countered?

In the passing, we may look at ‘Premature Communication,’ from the book ‘Teatro Grottesco’ (2008) by Thomas Ligotti, for a similar treatment. Densely cryptic, and completely dissociative of the spatial or temporal logistics of the plot, PC looks at a snow-grey world through the eye of a “child”. Ungendered and devoid of direct speech, this character is put under house arrest by parents on a wintry morning and transferred soon to a hospital.

“‘The ice is breaking up on the river’” (42) — knows the child from a spectral voice that follows day and night, like a foreboding prophecy. On their way to the hospital, the parents are killed as the ice breaks up on the river and their car is drowned (Ligotti never specifies the nature of the “‘tragic event’” (43), but the child knows, as the reader knows). Yet it does not matter. The snowflakes still fell one by one outside the window, the child needs no explanation because “‘The ice has broken up on the river’” (43).

The invasive Large has an engulfing presence here, much intense than ‘The Window.’ The Weird is never explained, not even starkly visible, never a shadow, a spectre or an abomination that terrorises the protagonist. Yet, we are somewhat assured by our realisation that the story is (possibly) a meditation on puberty.

The story can be read as an elegy to the first days of sexual awareness, familial suppression, isolation and violence. Maybe, every narrative of coming of age secretly demands the death of gerontocracy. Maybe, the child’s hands are restrained by the phobia of masturbation.

The spectral sound like a heap of rusted machinery can be the broken voice of a pre-teen child, and the darkness of growing up under the shadow of Puritanism can breed violence and/or frigid distance. The sheer symbolic force of the story grants the reader agency over the Large: “Even those anomalous moments, in which the senses threaten to overwhelm reason, are, in the end, recuperated within reason’s comprehension of its being overwhelmed” (116) — we come back to Thacker again, critiquing Enlightenment’s response to the philosophy of horror. You are afraid, but you know that you are afraid, and why. The Large is readable.

In retrospect, the post-millennial true-weird till this point, is removed from “A vast, sepulchral universe of unbroken midnight gloom and perpetual arctic frigidity” (Lovecraft, qtd. in Joshi, 145). Lovecraft himself was astringent about this strain “of a cosmos which gives a damn one way or the other about the especial wants and ultimate welfare of mosquitoes, rats, lice, dogs, men, horses, pterodactyls, trees, fungi, dodos or other forms of biological energy” (148). Even, the unfeeling supernatural has a deceptive, swindling insidious retinue of evil that actively engages with humanity in some true-weird fictions.

John Langan’s (2016) novel ‘The Fisherman’ is about the surreptitious presence of cosmic horror in upstate New York. This is a place that draws people in distress, by luring them with a promise of resurrection of the departed. The story opens with the bonding of two aggrieved widowers who find solace in fishing as an intense hobby. Their quest for undisturbed fishing reserves take them to the Dutchman’s Creek, leading up to the Ashokan reservoir.

Langan slyly plays with the metaphor of fishing as the duo continues their quest to find redemption from their grief. Before long, however, it becomes clear that an ancient evil lurks deep beneath the waters, and somehow the whole place has a mystical connection to an ocean of despair — an otherworldly sea that harbours immense creatures ready to invade the world intelligible. What they require is a fisherman — a navigator who will bring them to the shore; hence the entrapment of the aggrieved, unsuspecting protagonists.

Although, there is the depiction of a Lovecraftian Leviathan and the black sea of despair and sadness, the novel constantly sets the evil as dependent on the ascendancy over human emotions. The largest part of the novel, narrated in flashback, talks about the sordid past of Dutchman’s Creek in the early twentieth-century.

Once a colony of mostly European expatriates working as menials for the construction of the Ashokan reservoir, the location was haunted by an ancient sorcerer who — as revealed throughout the remainder of the novel — was planning to unleash the wrath of the empyrean creatures of yore on Earth.

This scheme required human subjugation and fealty, and the return of the deceased loved ones in undead form was the bait. Moreover, the evil magic was thwarted by good magic cast by a human, though the traces of the former remain to haunt and feed upon the despair of our aggrieved widowers.

Langan provides enough hint that the true evil lurking into the stygian sea can never be understood or vanquished due to its sheer divinity, but its ascension can be halted by mastering over the mortal failures.

The same happens in the climax, where the invasion is thwarted by coming to terms with “unreality” of the idea of resurrection. A purely human cognitive endeavour thus significantly alters the cosmic operations.

Evenson knew that the other shall take its revenge, Ligotti equated the Large to the awakening of dark impulses, Langan relates the negotiation with the inevitable to a Kantian proportion of comprehending the incomprehensible.

“It” cannot be understood, but it can be understood that “It” is beyond reach. Although treading firmly on the path of the Lovecraftian tropes, this section of American horror attempts to stall the full triumph of the irrational over reason. Reason is defeated, but it knows its defeat.

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