Tentacles Longer Than Night, Vol. 3 Horror Of Philosophy – Eugene Thacker

This is a crucial twist in both Poe’s and Lovecraft’s stories – what is horrific is not that one is insane, but that one is not insane. – Eugene Thacker, Tentacles Longer Than Night, Vol. 3 Horror of  Philosophy, p.4

Ray Milland in The Man With The X-Ray Eyes. Having been pushed to the edge of sanity by his ability to see through not just clothes and stone, but reality itself, he has ripped his eyes from his their sockets. The last line, dropped from the final print, was his agonizing declaration, “I can still see!”

While I’ve had my share of nightmares, including those that leave me waking up screaming, only once as a child of about eight or so did I ever have a Night Terror. Upon waking from a nightmare, I always know what is and is not real, that I was asleep and am now awake, that it was nothing more or less than my brain scaring me.  That Night Terror, however . . . I awoke to see a large patch of blood on the ceiling of my room. It had dripped into a spreading pool on my bed. I screamed and screamed. It wouldn’t go away. My father came in to see what was wrong and he started to sit down in that spreading pool of blood! I told him not to sit down and when he asked me why, in that instant, the blood, the dark patch on the ceiling, the pool at the foot of my bed, that horrid plop of the drops – it was all gone. I tried to tell my father what had happened, but the impossible part was making clear to him that what I had seen and heard and felt wasn’t just a dream. It was, in fact, a horrible reality that may well have begun while I slept, but chased me into the waking world, leaving me terrified.

In the third and final volume of his series Horror of Philosophy, Eugene Thacker offers what is, in effect, a lengthy study of various literary themes in (mostly literary, although some Manga as well) horror fiction. Blurring the lines between literary criticism and philosophy – something that is really quite irritating, to be honest – Thacker’s major premise in this work, as in the previous two volumes, is that when human thought confronts its own limits, it encounters that which can neither be thought nor spoken, yet seems to demand to be named and spoken and described.

Except, really, what’s so horrifying at the thought of human beings limited in their abilities? We can’t run very fast. For our size we’re far weaker than other animals. Consciousness (the villain in Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against The Human Race), when combined with our sociability and language, are the tools with which we’ve been equipped to survive in a world in which there are the eaters and  the eaten. Other than the fear of being eaten by another creature (which, let’s face it, is pretty terrifying), what’s so awful about the reality that our world isn’t about anything, that we’re contingent, limited creatures, and that not just ourselves, but all that we know and all we will never know will disappear? It is what it is, after all.

Horror fiction, whether literary horror, genre horror, novels, or films, or manga all present us with a variety of questions, including important philosophical questions. When done well, we confront not just the literal (or figurative) horror on page or screen; we also confront that which frightens us most. The pay-off, of course, comes when that horror is defeated. Contemporary horror, particularly in film, offers the disquieting idea that, in fact, the horror is not overcome. Indeed, it seems to insist over and over that there is no escape from the horror that awaits us – whether that be death itself, a protracted dying, or a madness so thorough one’s very self becomes irretrievable.

Last week, I watched for the first time in 20 years the last movie that truly scared me. Event Horizon is about the attempted recovery of the first ship designed to travel faster than light. It had been lost, but has suddenly appeared in a decaying orbit above the planet Neptune. Along for the ride is the man who designed the ship, played by Sam Neill. When asked about the whole faster-than-light travel being impossible, Neill goes into a discussion about creating an artificial singularity which would, theoretically, bend space-time, allowing the ship to travel immense distances in an instant.* When they arrive on the ship, they find the crew missing, a haunting yet indecipherable log entry, and the occasional uncanny event, such as seeing dead loved ones, or those left behind on earth, or worse.

The horror of Event Horizon comes when that enigmatic log entry is deciphered. Apparently the cost of breaking the laws of physics is more than just the ability to move between the stars in an instant; it also propels you into a dimension of what Neill’s character calls “pure choas. Pure evil.” For me, this right here, is the most horrifying thought. Not that our Universe places a limit upon our abilities to travel long interstellar distances. It is, rather, the idea that there exists somewhere a place in which chaos rather than the ordered regularity of our Universe rules. A place where things like cause, effect, time, matter, energy have no meaning. While such a place is certainly possible, in theory, it is a place in which life would be impossible; the horror would be to find oneself trapped in such a place with no hope of escape.

The idea that the world and the Universe are quite indifferent to humanity and its concerns is neither new nor particularly frightening. It certainly carries with it, contrary to Thomas Ligotti’s insistence, no negative categorical imperative, that we human beings should end ourselves once and for all. How it’s possible to make the leap from the “is” of inhabiting a Universe where our very existence is an accident of circumstance to the “ought” that we should, therefore, end ourselves is quite impossible for me to figure out.

Whether it’s a Manga series about spirals (and this does sound quite terrifying), a Poe story about a maelstrom, one of Lovecraft’s many stories about indescribable horrors he goes on in some detail about, or a radio play about a darkness that seems to have teeth (and, yeah, this one would be pretty scary too), this idea that human beings encounter the unknowable, therefore confront our own limitations and thus have some kind of existential revelation about our own limitations and irrelevance is also at the heart of one of Stephen King’s better short stories from the 1980’s. Included in the collection Skeleton Crew,  the story “The Jaunt” concerns itself with a family about to embark on a trip to Mars via teleportation. While the family waits, the father tells his son the stories he knows about how teleportation was invented. When asked why they have to be put to sleep before using the teleporter, the father offers the wild suggestion that, even though in the physical realm, teleportation happens in an instant, there might yet be something . . . in . . . that instant that is beyond our ability to comprehend. So, of course, the story ends with the family arriving on Mars. The son, however, didn’t take his sedative, remaining awake during the teleportation only to discover that “in” is far bigger and more horrible than it is possible to imagine.

Everything else is just a variation on this simple formula.

I find it fascinating to believe that our being a contingent, limited species is somehow a source of angst, whether metaphysical or existential. Oh, I’m sure it is for some people. By and large, however, the idea that the Universe really doesn’t care one way or another about us human beings seems to illicit shrugs more than screams of fright. To select obscure pieces (with the exception of Dante’s Inferno and various works by Poe and Lovecraft) that would open up the possibility of this paradoxical encounter between that which cannot be yet it, that which cannot be explained yet is described incessantly ignores the variety of topics laid bare by horror fiction in its sheer variety: fear of sex and becoming an adult; fear of the ambivalent relationships we continue to have with friends and family members who have died yet continue to be a part of our lives; fear of the possibility that science just can’t explain everything; fear of our annihilation, whether through natural or artificial cataclysm; various political fears. A fear of the unnameable “Nothing” that brings human thought  both to an abrupt end yet causes it to work harder just doesn’t seem, well, very scary at all.

There are things that horror fiction and philosophy share. There are ways each can inform the other beyond an exploration of the boundary regions of human thought and experience. Most of all, both are simultaneously base yet vaunted exercises of the human imagination. It would seem to me a multi-volume work on the relationship between horror fiction and philosophy might explore these commonalities rather than propose a singular topic – das Nicht – as the core not only of horror, but of the horror of philosophy.

*Never mind that, by passing over the event horizon of the singularity, the ship and the people on it would be stripped of their materiality, reduced to elementary particles that would forever be trapped within the singularity. I know science fiction loves to travel faster than light, but, yeah, not so much.

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Halloween & The Horrifying

Ours is society awash in horrifying images. For some reason we prefer the false and manipulated .

Ours is society awash in horrifying images. For some reason we prefer the false and manipulated .

I’ve been enjoying the run-up to Halloween this year more than usual. In fact, there were many years I couldn’t have cared less about it. As I’ve grown older, however, I not only appreciate it more; I have come to enjoy seeing how far I can push my own sense of what is frightening. Unfortunately, that I do this on social media means that sometimes I run up against folks whose tolerance for frightening images might be a bit lower than mine. Still, this year I have actually creeped myself out more than once with images I’ve chosen for profile pictures.

Why this growing fascination with what one Facebook commenter called “the ghoulish and the macabre”? In my case, I’ve always enjoyed spooky stuff. I grew up on horror movies, those school book club books on horror movies, Stephen King’s novels, films like The Exorcist and Friday the 13th (I stopped at 3). As I’ve aged, fewer and fewer things scare me, even as some of the images and words from my childhood can make me pull the covers up just a bit more at night. The scene in Salem’s Lot when the boy vampire shows up at his friend’s bedroom window . . . anything ticking or scratching at a window and I flinch before I look, even though I know there are no such things as vampires. Odd house sounds can, on some nights, remind me of the horrible sounds from the attic at the beginning of The Exorcist. And while I find Hellraiser amusing rather than frightening, the idea of hell not so much as a torture chamber or pit of tar or fire, but a place where sense and logic, cause and effect, cease to function frightens me to no end. I mean, to my soul. Photographic images that challenge our usual notions of reality truly terrify me.

All the same, the current generation’s fright triggers – vampires of one sort or another; zombies; demonic and satanic possession – really just don’t do it for me. I have lost the ability in many ways to suspend disbelief. That most depictions of the horrific these days rely either on tremendous amounts of blood and gore – a cop out used by people who equate projectile vomiting with fear – or on too-worn tropes and memes whose every possible angle has been explored leaves me groping, as I wrote above, for something that truly terrifies me.

In the preface to his first collection of short stories, and later in more detail in his non-fiction work Danse Macabre, Stephen King is clear that what frightens us is always at least in part socially determined. For example, he cites the fact that The Exorcist was huge in America when it first opened, while in Germany (as an example) it was barely noticed. King writes this is probably due in part to America’s general fear of young people and young adults running wild, using bad language, and all that free sex stuff that was going on (I don’t think it’s an accident that both original author William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin pushed the boundaries both of taste and what should and should not be described in the scene in which Regan violently masturbates with a crucifix, all the while chanting, “Let Jesus fuck you!”). In Germany, on the other hand, these were the years of the rise of domestic urban terrorists like Baader-Meinhof. When a society’s fears are literally life and death rather than just changing social mores, what is and is not frightening can be very different.

Ours is a world filled with real horrors. The photograph of that Syrian boy’s drowned body washed up on a beach shocked pretty much everyone in the West. Other photos of the ravages of war in Syria or Congo, stories of child soldiers and child sex trafficking, stories of racial and religious violence, photographs of the ravages of poverty and the social pathologies it breeds: these are the stuff of our day-to-day nightmares. The problem, however, is there seems to be little any one of us – or perhaps most frightening all of us together – can do. The combination of the medium and the relentlessness of tales of real horror people all over the world overwhelm even our ability to empathize. We allow ourselves to be numb to real human suffering as an antidote to the fear of paralyzing inaction that comes with yet another horror story.

Those fears don’t go away. They take root, fester in our minds, and escape in age-old images of the vampire, the creature that comes in the night first to terrify then devour, the living dead seeking revenge upon the living, and of course the total loss of self or a moral center that comes with demonic possession. We share these stories with one another in order to deal with fears we know have no basis in reality because the attempt to address things that truly frighten us would leave us paralyzed with fear. Horror and its attendant images are healthy ways for us to relieve our frustrations, resolve things we believe can we can resolve.

We shouldn’t forget the fun factor. Few things are more fun than sitting in a darkened room, all alone, watching a horror movie. The mild adrenaline rush, the perked-up fight-or-flight instinct, the jump scare that releases tension in our bodies, the final reveal of whatever it might be that terrorizes the characters (and us, vicariously), gives us the opportunity both to be shocked and to wipe our brow and think, Oh, it’s only_______It could have been a !!!!!!! which would have been much worse. When the movie’s over, we watch the credit’s roll, reminding us just how false were all those images and sounds; the real world snaps back in place; there is, when horror movies are really well done (which is rare), that aftertaste of being ill-at-ease, a moment or image from the movie lingering in our thoughts. I saw the 1970’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers when it was released. I thought the movie was OK, right up until the image of the pods and the pod-people, and what the pod people were doing, came around. I started to get scared, which allowed me to move in to and with the film right up until the final moment when Donald Sutherland points and emits that terrifying scream that shows he has become one of the pod people. I didn’t sleep well that night. At all.

Being afraid is normal. It’s our body’s way of telling us, Get the hell out of here before you die! In a society whose middle-class has become a cloying bubble eager only to protect itself not only from extraordinary (and therefore rare) dangers but the everyday threats and even struggles that actually help us become functioning members of society, the odd couple hours spent screaming about devils and monsters is a good way to remind ourselves there are still very real things out there that threaten us. There are real things of which we ought to be afraid; facing fanciful fears wearing masks of monsters and creatures that cannot be helps us understand that we must face our monsters. Sometimes the monsters are too much and lots of people are hurt. On the other hand, in the best horror films, no matter the cost the creature from the dark is defeated.

Pushing the boundaries of what people consider frightening – not to say in bad taste – at this time of year is a good and healthy way of reminding us sheltered middle class white folk there really are things out there ready and willing to kill us; worse, there are threats to our psychological integrity, thing that would render us mad long before we were offered the solace of death. We are much in need of reminding that the monsters and images may be no more real than a child’s fantasy, but the need for fear and caution against the truly terrifying is all too real.

The Reach By Stephen King

She took Stella’s other arm and they moved forward again. Other figures came out of the snowy night (for it was night now). Stella recognized many of them, but not all. Tommy Frane had joined Annabelle; Big George Havelock, who had died a dog’s death in the woods, walked behind Bill; there was the fellow who had kept the lighthouse on the Head for most of twenty years and who used to come over to the island during the cribbage tournament Freddy Dinsmore held every February – Stella could almost but not quite remember his name. And there was Freddy himself! Walking off to one side of Freddy, by himself and looking bewildered, was Russell Bowie. . . .

They stood in a circle in the storm, the dead of Goat Island, and the wind screamed around them, driving its packet of snow, and some kind of song burst from her. It went up into the wind and the wind carried it away. They all sang then, as children will sing in their high, sweet voices as a summer evening draws down to summer night. They sand, and Stella felt herself going to them and with them, finally across the Reach. There was a bit of pain, but not much; losing her maidenhead had been worse. They stood in a circle in the night. The snow blew around them and they sang. – Stephen King, “The Reach”, in The Dark Descent, ed. by David G. Hartwell, p. 29

—–

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us – Hebrews 12:1

It was Garage Sale Day in our subdivision yesterday. Along with a Bloom County anthology, my wife brought home David Hartwell’s massive anthology of short horror fiction The Dark Descent. The very first story is “The Reach”, which originally appeared in Stephen King’s own collection Skeleton Crew. That was where I first read it, some thirty years ago now. I was surprised this story was included in an anthology that has “The Call of Cthulhu”, “The Rocking Horse winner“, and so many other stories that range from creepy to terrifying. When I first read “The Reach” all those long years ago, I understood it wasn’t scary at all. There was something beautiful about this tale of death, of love both of people and place, and most of all of a life lived without either pretense or shame, greeting the end with courage even as fear seemed so ready to swamp you.

What I didn’t get, however, was just what King was doing at the end. It would be five years before I could name it. Five years and a year of theological education, however, made me realize that, whether he knew it or not, King was offering an example of “that great cloud of witnesses” that have gone before us. When I learned that, this story that I had always enjoyed became so much more. It became something that I love, and love to share, reading it out loud to a chosen few, like my family last night at dinner.

The story is a simple-enough one: Stella Flanders has lived her whole life on Goat Island, Maine, never once crossing “the reach”, which we learn is the body of water between to bodies of land. In the autumn of 1979 she celebrates her 95th birthday, surrounded by friends. Suddenly her husband, dead 13 years now, is sitting there and asks her when she is going to cross the reach. She is too terrified to speak. Other appearances occur; these events are interspersed with her trying to form the words she knows her geat-grandchildren will not understand as to why she never once visited the mainland. When the end comes, she puts on winter clothing, straps on boots, and heads out for a walk across the winter-frozen Reach for her first and last trip to the mainland. She is found after a winter storm passes, frozen, sitting on some rocks above the tide line.

It’s seems a simple enough story. The ghostly appearances of Stella’s long deceased husband don’t really seem all that frightening. It is Stella’s fright, however, that makes us afraid. As she heads down to the small bay on the island, she sees her husband out on the ice, waving and encouraging her to come across. About half-way, a winter storm hits, blinding her. The cancer that is killing her, combined with the weather, is weakening her, physically and emotionally. Then, her husband is there, lifting her to her feet as she is about to fall. Then, her best friend, long dead, emerges from the swirling  snow. They are joined by so many others. The reason Russell Bowie is looking a bit abashed is his death was from pure stupidity: he was riding his snow mobile on the ice before it was thick enough to hold the weight, broke through and was never seen again.

The symbolism here is clear enough, the sentiments about life lived deep rather than wide are important, and that final scene so perfectly drawn that one does not need to be a Christian or use my particular interpretation as a guide to finding so much wonder and joy in this story. It is clear enough to me, however, that King found some residue of his Methodist upbringing to create a portrait of a good death of a good woman, greeted by those she had known and loved who help her cross the Reach without fear. I have held this story close to my heart for many years, even though – or perhaps because! – I find it not just beautiful in the telling, but comforting and reassuring as it offers a glimpse of our most basic hope: that our death will not result in nothingness, that those we’ve known and loved will show love for us, not allowing us to die alone.

Instead of all the corny bourgeois “Christian” films that seem to be coming out recently, I think an adaptation of this story, particularly by King’s best interpreter, Frank Darabont, would offer viewers a chance to see and hear something theologically, Scripturally, and just emotionally uplifting and powerful without it being connected to our middle-class belief that Christianity exists to support our pet institutions. One can hope, I suppose.