Peter Straub and Transcendental Horror
by Gary K. Wolfe and Amelia Beamer
“Horror is a house that horror has already moved out of.”
- Peter Straub, “Horror’s House”
“The horror! The horror!”
- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
“He understood that things were exactly what they were. It seemed more than he could bear.”
- Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day
Horror is a notoriously difficult genre to define, often described either by formulaic conventions of plot and character or in terms of so-called “affect.” As has often been noted, it’s the only popular genre actually named after the fear, terror, and similar emotions intended to be produced in the reader.1 Film scholar Linda Williams identifies horror (at least in film) as what she calls a “body genre”—a genre intended to produce a literal bodily response in the audience (her other examples were melodrama [weeping] and pornography [arousal], though we might add comedy [laughter] to this list). Even Terry Heller, whose 1987 study The Delights of Terror remains one of the more sophisticated theoretical discussions of literary horror, described his topic as “a group of works that seem to share the main purpose of frightening their readers” (Ch. 3). Furthermore, the Web site of the Horror Writers Association (formerly Horror Writers of America), a professional writers’ association, proclaims that horror’s “only true requirement is that it elicit an emotional reaction that includes some aspect of fear or dread” (“What is Horror Fiction?”). It’s possible that this traditional single-minded approach to horror even dates back to Poe himself, who in a famous 1842 review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, argued in favor of a kind of short fiction characterized by “a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out,” and that every single word or sentence in a tale should lead inevitably to the “outbringing of this effect.”
But horror, or at least horror writing of any degree of narrative complexity, has never really been limited to a single effect—or affect—and it might be argued that such a single-minded approach to sensation almost catastrophically narrowed the range of the field, leading it toward self-parody during the commercial boom and bust cycle of the 1970s and 1980s. Even then, however, a small but highly visible group of “literary” horror writers sought to expand and deepen the narrative possibilities of the field and in recent years, both in literature and the media, this sort of horror has experienced a kind of rebirth. One sign of this rebirth is the diffusion of horror tropes into other modes, from comedy to romance to literary fiction. On the media side, this might be viewed as the Buffyization of horror (from Joss Whedon’s highly complex and successful TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1997-2003), where traditional horror tropes may be repurposed as comedy or even romance, to much commercial success in the case of Buffy and certain of its successors. The “paranormal romance” has even grown into a commercially viable subgenre of its own in the wake of this trend, with its own formulas, its own Web sites, its own awards, and (as of 2006) even its own annual “best of” anthology.2
The most recent theoretical model of traditional horror as a genre or mode of storytelling can be found in John Clute’s book, The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror, and it’s a fairly powerful model. In attempting to elucidate a vocabulary for understanding horror, using mostly terms of his own invention, Clute defines horror as following a recognizable grammar or structure, comparable to the passage of the four seasons ending in winter: Sighting, or “a glimpse of terror to come,” is related to Freud’s uncanny, and hooks the protagonist into the emerging narrative; Thickening, which begins to realize the portents of Sighting, moves the unwilling protagonist deeper into the “suffocating tangle of plot”; Revel, in which “the field of the world is reversed,” and the terrifying truth made manifest; and Aftermath, or recognition that the newly revealed world is “no longer storyable,” and that the story must end. There are innumerable examples of horror in both fiction and film that subscribe to Clute’s frankly prescriptive system, or that can be described mainly in terms of affect. Clute’s model is not the only template for horror fiction, of course, but it is among the most provocative, and it provides a starting point for our own argument about the increasingly complex uses of the material of horror in recent works by Peter Straub and other writers.
We want to explore a body of fiction for which traditional horror provides a kind of foundational substrate, but which takes Clute’s notion of “Aftermath” in some fundamentally different directions. This is the kind of fiction, denying or subverting the strictures of genre, that Peter Straub refers to when he says, “horror is a house that horror has already moved out of” (“Horror’s House,” 66). It is, to a great extent, fiction that eschews the language of traditional horror, that is not satisfied with effects, but that is not shy about occasionally using these effects, manipulating and transforming familiar tropes, and repositioning horror in the context of a narrative movement that denies the closure of the traditional horror dynamic. The work of Peter Straub and a number of other contemporary writers characteristically open up where traditional horror shuts down; in the face of what Clute calls “vastation,” they seek to find room for something like the sacred. This revisionist approach to horror breaks through both horror and fantasy tropes to arrive at a kind of transcendence: a heightened sense of reality laced with deeper, more difficult, and more powerful meanings than are available through traditional narrative techniques or genre protocols. Such an “opening up,” or sense of transcendence, is achieved not only through the portrayal of extreme emotional states—the familiar stuff of much horror—but also by the use of deliberate narrative effects, including unreliable narrators, stories-within-stories, metatextual layering of narratives, shifting points of view, self-conscious allusiveness, and often surprising dissonances of tone and style. Traditional horror, in contrast, tends to be narratively conservative, characteristically narrowing the potential for meaningful action in a world only gradually revealed to be damaged, reduced, terrifying—in John Clute’s term, “a Cloaca down which the raw world pours” (“Beyond the Pale” 425). The damaged world is still there in this kind of transcendental horror, but it often serves more as a starting point than as a revelation; a novel such as Straub’s lost boy lost girl begins with the emotional devastation of serial murders and a suicide, but seeks to move its central character beyond this toward some sort of accommodation. Material horror (the actual effects mentioned in those earlier definitions) is therefore as much a function of angle of vision, or point of view, as of raw sensation.
Manipulating point of view, of course, has long been a familiar technique in classic horror—witness Dracula or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—and as we shall see, there are numerous such antecedents for these techniques. Many of the key techniques of what we are calling transcendental horror, we readily admit, are not entirely new, while others clearly reflect such postmodern concerns as narrative instability and self-reflexivity, as well as modernist concerns such as psychological realism, allusiveness, and stylistic complexity. In fact, it is in large part this expansion of horror to include these aspects of modernism and postmodernism that enabled Straub and a few other writers to survive the collapse of the genre horror market, with its traditional Gothic strictures, and incorporate elements of it into a more contemporary mode of writing, which in many cases barely resembles genre horror at all, despite the occasional presence of these familiar trappings.
Peter Straub’s reputation as a bestselling horror writer dates from the 1979 publication of his now-classic Ghost Story, although he had previously published a mainstream novel (Marriages in 1973) and two more conventionally Gothic supernatural tales (Julia in 1975 and If You Could See Me Now in 1977). Ghost Story, while introducing a level of complexity in its interlocking narratives and time frames that was rare in horror fiction, deliberately explored many of the conventional tropes of the genre, and both this novel and Straub’s later Floating Dragon (1983) and The Talisman (in collaboration with Stephen King, 1984) might profitably be discussed in terms of Clute’s prescriptive definition of horror as described above. Beginning with Koko in 1988, however, Straub seemed to be deliberately setting out to expand the possibilities of horror within the context of the contemporary novel. With its two related novels Mystery (1990) and The Throat (1993), Koko launched an exploration of a complex personal mythology—the “Blue Rose” stories—in which the conventions of supernatural horror are clearly subsumed by the effects of personal traumas ranging from a violent childhood event to the experience of the Vietnam War, and to his characters’ quests to transcend, or at least accommodate, these powerful events. Ironically, as Bill Sheehan points out (262), Straub’s most realistic work is what eventually gained him the greatest recognition within the fantasy community: both Koko and “The Ghost Village”—a reworked episode from The Throat—became his first works to win World Fantasy Awards, and yet both are stories without significant fantastic content.
During this same period, Straub’s other short fiction also began to reflect this harsh realism and to reconsider or reposition the materials of horror in distinctive new ways. In three of his most powerful stories, published within a few years of each other between 1988 and 1994, he explores various mechanisms for coping with such childhood damage or trauma. “The Juniper Tree” (1988), “The Buffalo Hunter” (1990), and “Bunny is Good Bread” (1994) all begin in worlds which, for the protagonists, are already desolate. “The Juniper Tree” and “Bunny Is Good Bread” both concern young boys who suffer at the hands of insensitive and brutal fathers and who end up spending their afternoons in local movie theaters where they suffer sexual abuse at the hands of local child-predators. In the case of “Bunny is Good Bread,” the young Fee Bandolier is even forced to watch his mother gruesomely and gradually die after a brutal beating from his father (who is later revealed to be a serial murderer as well). In both tales, the movies that the boys watch become entangled with their own stories and their notions of their own identities. And both stories end with abrupt leaps decades into the future, in which we learn that the first-person narrator of “The Juniper Tree” has become a respected novelist, while the boy Fee from “Bunny is Good Bread” goes on to commit brutal rapes and murders before enlisting in the Special Forces for service in Vietnam.
Straub depicts essentially the same extreme experience—child abuse—as leading toward a serial murderer in one story and a novelist in the other. Character is central: the characters’ capacity, or lack of capacity, for transcendence is evidenced in what they do with their lives after these childhood nightmares. The unnamed narrator in “The Juniper Tree” uses the plots of the movies playing during the abuse to integrate this devastating experience into the undamaged portion of his life—using fiction as a means of healing. On the other hand, Fee Bandolier in “Bunny is Good Bread” fails to heal from his horrific experiences and instead finds in his own tragedies a template for revenge against the damaged world, expressed in the form of serial murders (significantly, the film he watches is an imaginary noir revenge melodrama, while the narrator of “The Juniper Tree” sees the actual 1949 film Chicago Deadline, about a newspaper writer). Another important difference between the two stories is the narrative approach: the first-person narrator goes on to a successful life, while the more distanced Fee, described in third-person narration, fails to do so.
Ironically, however, neither of these stories involves aspects of supernatural horror, and it’s the long novella “The Buffalo Hunter” (1990) that combines a more traditional horror-story ending with a rare effort to directly portray transcendent experience. In this story, the protagonist Bobby Bunting is already an adult in his thirties, having long ago moved away from home to work as a data clerk in an anonymous New York corporation. However, Bobby is still unable to cope with a father who declared him a “fuck-up,” saying that he was “never going to amount to anything in this world.” As in “Bunny Is Good Bread,” Bobby’s mother is dying, suffering from an unspecified illness causing lapses of consciousness, and Bobby’s father resists paying a doctor for treatment. Bobby is aware of some vague catastrophe in his past, but “his life depended on keeping this knowledge locked inside him.” He has developed some odd habits, such as drinking vodka from baby bottles, but his most remarkable means of escape turns out to be an ability literally to enter the worlds of the books he is reading—first a Luke Short western titled The Buffalo Hunter, later Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake, and eventually Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. This selection of books itself may say something about the necessity of moving beyond the limits of genre, but Bobby’s most remarkable experience occurs shortly after his encounter with Chandler’s world: on his way to work, a sudden ray of sunlight falls on him, and the world falls silent. “His eyes had been washed clean of habit, and he saw.”
It was as if all of life had gloriously opened itself before him. If he could have moved, he would have fallen to his knees with thanks. For long, long seconds after the lightning faded, everything blazed and burned with life. Being streamed from every particle of the world—wood, metal, glass, or flesh. Cars, fire hydrants, the concrete and crushed stones of the road, each individual raindrop, all contained the same living substance that Bunting himself contained—and this was what was significant about himself and them. If Bunting had been religious, he would have felt that he had been given a direct, unmediated vision of God: since he was not, his experience was of the sacredness of the world itself. (163).
As Bill Sheehan writes in At the Foot of the Story Tree, this passage may be “one of the clearest, most naked expressions found anywhere in Straub’s work of a belief in the existence of sacred, transcendental mysteries …” (225). At the very least, it’s one of the few occasions where Straub has attempted to dramatize such a belief in terms of a particular character’s moment of insight, although he has spoken of it in interviews, and although in later fiction—as we shall see—he has sought to develop means of conveying such a notion more indirectly to the reader solely through narrative technique. But Bunting’s vision, and even the transcendence that he derives from fiction, is not enough to save him: while in the world of Anna Karenina, he steps in front of a train like Anna herself. The story’s final section portrays Bobby’s building superintendent admitting his recently widowed father into the blood-spattered room where Bobby had been found horribly crushed and mutilated, “like he got hit by a truck” (206).
Between Bobby, Fee Bandolier, and the unnamed narrator of “The Juniper Tree,” we are presented with three possible responses to childhood horror: turning into a monster (Fee), escaping into a world of artifice and possible transcendence (Bobby), and becoming a successful novelist (the narrator of “The Juniper Tree”). But “The Juniper Tree” and “Bunny is Good Bread” turn out to be connected in other ways as well. “The Juniper Tree,” according to the afterword in Straub’s collection Houses Without Doors, is one of two stories actually written by Tim Underhill (the other is “The Blue Rose,” another tale of childhood violence). Underhill later shows up in Straub’s major novels Koko (1988) and The Throat (1993), as the central point of view character. These stories, Straub tells us, “represent the first part of Underhill’s efforts to comprehend violence and evil by wrapping them in his own imagination” (“Author’s Note,” 357). Fee Bandolier also shows up again in The Throat, under the guise of the mysterious and genuinely terrifying Franklin Batchelor, a renegade officer apparently modeled on Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz from “Heart of Darkness” (1899), almost certainly one of the ur-texts of transcendental horror.
Tim Underhill turns out to be a central figure in all of Straub’s fiction, and the one who most often grapples with the paradoxical relationship between horror and the transcendent. This struggle is made more overt in Straub’s remarkable pair of recent novels concerning Underhill’s grief over his nephew’s disappearance. lost boy lost girl (2003) and In the Night Room (2004) combine moving explorations of character with playfully postmodern narrative techniques and powerfully evocative themes, including the nature of evil and the ways in which reality and personal identity are constructed. In lost boy lost girl, Underhill returns from New York to his childhood home of Millhaven upon the suicide of his sister-in-law, and soon faces the disappearance of his beloved nephew Mark as well. Learning that Mark had become obsessed with the abandoned house of a serial killer named Kalendar, whose many victims apparently included his own young daughter, Underhill begins to fear that Mark has fallen victim to a second serial killer currently terrorizing the city. Mark is never exactly found, but Straub provides an ending that seems to represent a kind of transcendent escape into cyberspace. Underhill gets an e-mail from Mark directing him to a Web site where Mark, in the company of Kalendar’s daughter—who somehow survived after all—is seen walking romantically on a beach, with lowering clouds in the distance: the eponymous lost boy and girl seeming to live on safely in a kind of cyberspace afterlife. But the novel’s internal logic shows this escape to be false, and this is made explicit in In the Night Room, when we learn that lost boy lost girl is yet another of Tim Underhill’s fictions. Underhill, whom we recognize as a fictive shadow of Straub himself, consistently (and sometimes tragically) searches for the hints of transcendence which he wants to believe lie behind the traumas of life, from childhood violence to the Vietnam war. The fact that he is portrayed as an author thus takes on added significance, as he seeks to discover this transcendence through his own fiction. But in a sense that fiction is never more than an approximation of the insights he wants to convey; portraying a character having a transcendent moment, or offering an apparently transcendent denouement for a character, merely externalizes a fundamentally internal struggle. Straub, whom we may assume is a somewhat shrewder novelist than Underhill, seeks to deliver the sensation directly to the reader at the level of narrative technique, and his most important experiments in this direction are found in these two novels.
The books are hardly conventional horror or fantasy by any genre standards, and in fact are pointed experiments in the manipulation of point of view. In the Night Room begins with what seem to be dual plotlines, one involving Underhill receiving creepy e-mails from dead people and encountering a bizarrely frightening fan, the other involving a children’s book author named Willie who has recently married an ominously secretive financier; interestingly, Willie’s most famous book is also titled In the Night Room. Soon, however, we realize that the chapters involving Willie are part of a novel Underhill is writing, and that the mysterious events in his life are the result of a supernatural agency, perhaps the ghost of the murderer Kalendar, who felt unjustly maligned by Underhill’s previous novel lost boy lost girl. To complicate matters further, Willie finds herself transported into Underhill’s “real” world by an Oz-like whirlwind, and the two of them set out for Millhaven to restore a balance and perhaps learn the true fate of Kalendar’s daughter Lily.
The indeterminate nature of reality is a central inquiry in these books, and it may be seen in various elements, including that deranged fan who tells Underhill that he compulsively collects multiple copies of the same books, looking for the “real” book, on the theory that the print run of each book includes a few copies of the “correct” book the author had actually intended to write. But even this fan, Jasper Dan Kohle, turns out to be something other than what he seems (his name is an anagram of the murderer Joseph Kalendar). In one truly remarkable chapter, we are thrust into a completely different story in which we meet a Hardy Boys-type teen detective named Teddy Barton who suddenly realizes he will never solve the mystery he is working on, and will in fact never do anything new again. Teddy’s world has collapsed mid-narrative when his author (another character from the same Underhill novel that created Willie) is killed. While the notion of the embedded tale may be a familiar one from the history of earlier Gothic fiction, few novels have so boldly situated the reader within these fictional worlds-within-worlds, and in Straub’s hands the technique more closely resembles the reality-testing fictions of Philip K. Dick than earlier Gothic traditions.
These metatextual and metafictional chapters, anagrams, and coded messages repeatedly create a feeling of revelatory horror, both for Underhill and for the reader: Underhill’s cryptic e-mail messages and his encounter with Kohle are genuinely unnerving, as is Willie’s devastating realization that she is a fictional character (who, in a nice touch, must constantly eat candy in order to keep from disappearing altogether). In the Night Room invites us to read it as deconstructing lost boy lost girl, revealing the latter as a wish-fulfillment narrative by a grieving author and thus casting doubt on narrative reliability in the newer novel as well. Straub plants only a few clues in lost boy lost girl to suggest how the narrator is playing with reality—most notably through a single chapter which pointedly switches to first person in an otherwise third person novel. In the Night Room, however is explicit in manipulating the levels of narrative reality, with characters emerging from books written by other characters and, at least in one case, the Teddy Barton chapter, a character living within a novel written by another character who himself is a character in a Tim Underhill novel! Reality, we are repeatedly reminded, is conditional, contingent, indeterminate—a function of the stories we tell to describe it. The various narrative effects are central both to generating the feeling of horror and to implying the more nebulous idea of transcendence, the notion that at the heart of the horror is some kind of emotional truth, a truth which Straub hopes to make manifest to the reader even when it isn’t immediately apparent to his characters.
The deliberate misdirections in these novels, the metatextual pyrotechnics and endless reality testing, are closely related to what we are calling transcendence. Such transcendence is not mere insight, not just a matter of puzzling out the epistemology of the narrative, but the much more disturbing emotion that arises from glimpsing a reality that neither the characters (nor the reader) are fully prepared to deal with. When Willie gradually comes to realize that she is a fictional character somehow transported into a “real” world, her sense of disorientation is one the reader can readily identify with, because we ourselves have experienced the same disorientation upon making the discovery a few chapters earlier. While there are many examples of this in In the Night Room, the core revelation and the dramatic center of the book is the discovery that Lily Kalendar was in fact not murdered by her father, as Underhill realizes when he sees a glimpse of the real Lily through a window. It seems to be one of the few moments of irreducible reality given to Underhill in either of the novels—until we remember that we are still trapped in Underhill’s viewpoint, and the most we can claim with confidence is that Underhill believes he has found the core reality of his largely self-constructed tale. For the reader, given what we now know of the reliability of Underhill’s viewpoint, the “core” remains contingent.
Straub’s narrative techniques in In The Night Room and lost boy lost girl question both the nature of fantasy and the nature of narrative reality and serve as a meditation on the purposes, methods, and limits of fiction as a way to frame experience, particularly when that experience involves extreme or traumatic emotional events. And the past doesn’t ever go away, whether it erupts in the form of e-mails from the dead or the unlikely survival of Lily Kalendar. As Underhill says in Koko, “deep down, the things that happened to you never stop happening” (143). Straub has repeatedly drawn upon personal experience in his fiction, and has discussed the auto accident he suffered at age seven, with repeated hospitalizations and a long convalescence that essentially ended his childhood. Additionally, as Straub discussed in an unusually candid interview in Locus magazine in 2006, some of his bleakest stories, “Bunny is Good Bread” and “The Juniper Tree,” also draw from personal memories of childhood abuse, which he only recovered and confirmed later in life—giving a particular poignancy to a comment made by the narrator of “The Juniper Tree,” that [I] knew that I had something to remember without knowing what it was” (110). These very difficult, very powerful, and very traumatic experiences shaped Straub’s life, but to speak of them only in terms of how they inform his fiction is to risk falling into the trap of purely psychological interpretation. Autobiography is a source of emotional experiences for many authors, personal narratives which are rewritten in fiction for a number of reasons: to communicate a depth of feeling, to unconsciously or consciously analyze and reinterpret events, to make a character more sympathetic—or to seek means of deriving clarity and promise from a damaged world. In Straub’s work, the damaged world is an a priori condition, and the narrative uses extreme experience and experimental storytelling techniques to work through the implications of this world, in the same way that talking about damaging experiences can help one accept and transcend those experiences. The sheer extremity and personal nature of such events, and the difficulty of describing them, are central to the notion of transcendence in horror.
Horror and Transcendence
Transcendence is admittedly a nebulous and elusive concept. It can refer to a moment of revelation given a character (as with Bobby in “The Buffalo Hunter”), an interpretation of events by a narrator who may or may not be reliable (as with Tim Underhill), or to a state of mind which the author strives to convey to the reader through the manipulation of narrative technique. Straub described the difficulties with trying to elucidate it in an interview with Locus magazine in 1994:
In fiction, you cannot write about transcendence. You can’t even talk about it right, because the words we use are inadequate for the things they’re supposed to be invoking. What you can do, if you’re good enough and you’re paying enough attention, is lead the reader along a path of extremity, so that he has at least some dim notion of what it’s like to be truly terrified for an extended period of time, or to be really jolted by some unexpected and miserable experience. At moments of terrible terror and extremity, one can experience a sort of clarity. Nobody would want to go through the aftermath or the consequences, but at those moments, one sometimes can really see. And then next to that you can put something about the other half of that experience—what you might see, what you might experience, that you could carry with you later when you’re healing. (“Path of Extremity” 4)
Straub is not the only contemporary writer to think along these lines, and for the remainder of this discussion we want to suggest how a number of newer writers—writers whose careers began well after Straub’s—have addressed similar issues. China Miéville also discussed transcendence in a recent Locus interview: “As [Clute] says, horror has to do with the numinous, the uncovering of the terrible truth that is there under the everyday. That is only another articulation of uncovering the transcendent truth under the everyday” (“Fabular Logic” 73). Miéville is another writer who, from his New Crobuzon novels to his short fiction to his recent young adult novel Un Lun Dun (2007), has brought a veritable arsenal of techniques, ranging from surrealism to Dickensian social realism to comedy, to the task of exploring the revelatory nature of extreme or grotesque events and characters. Miéville’s fiction was widely associated with a vaguely defined movement called “the New Weird,” which was debated on a now-defunct discussion board in England in the early 2000s, but which was more broadly defined that what we are discussing here. Miéville himself cited such horror writers as H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith as among the precursors of the New Weird, a movement which also included substantial elements of science fiction, fantasy, and surrealism. His insight suggests significant links between notions of transcendence and elements of more traditional Gothic fiction.
Transcendence is difficult to write about, as Straub says, because it cannot be described or evoked directly; instead it’s something such fiction triangulates and infers, though never fully articulates. It is, in a sense, a precipice, perhaps a descendant of Longinus’s notions of the sublime as reconsidered by Edmund Burke, who wrote, “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” The notion of the sublime as a potential function of terror is a staple of Gothic criticism, often associated with something like Clute’s “vastation” or the Lovecraftian awareness of a vast, cold, indifferent universe or of the terrors lurking beneath the surface of everyday life. The question Straub raises is: what happens next?
Of course, a fair amount of baggage inevitably attaches itself to a term like “transcendence.” Science fiction has its own materialistic version of the concept, reflected in the fannish term “sense of wonder”; in classic texts like Olaf Stapledon’s The Starmaker (1937), for example, the reader can experience this sudden realization of the vastness of the universe, and perhaps the essential loneliness of the human condition. Science fiction has historically embraced this idea as an imaginative challenge, creating ever more daunting vistas of space, time, and consciousness, but the sort of horror we are discussing, like much literary fiction, seeks its vastness in the interstices and outlying edges of the diurnal world; the wonder is already imbedded in experience, waiting to be discovered or articulated. In some ways, transcendental fiction owes as much to Katherine Mansfield or Flannery O’Connor as it does to Poe and Lovecraft, and we could readily point to passages in, say, Steinbeck’s East of Eden or D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow or Virginia Woof’s Mrs. Dalloway that could be considered evocative of transcendence. Flannery O’Connor’s famous story “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” for example, invokes the almost mystical cosmology of Teilhard de Chardin in a tale of understated realism rather than through the vaulting leaps of material imagination that tend to characterize traditional science fiction and fantasy. In transcendental horror, we may see both approaches even in the same story.
It’s for this reason that a number of younger writers working in this mode are often reviewed as mainstream fantasists, and seldom regarded in terms of horror. Yet Kelly Link often uses such traditional horror tropes as zombies and ghosts, even when, as in “The Hortlak,” she subverts these tropes in comedic or absurdist ways, while at the same time populating her stories with radically damaged or alienated characters. In the case of “The Hortlak,” the story elements include harmless but uncommunicative zombies frequenting a convenience store, an animal shelter employee who gives dogs a last car ride before euthanizing them, and a store clerk whose pajamas reveal the secret lives of unrelated characters. The recurring themes of death and loss of control generate a deeply terrifying feeling, but one that can hardly be described as affect horror, and one that implies meanings just out of reach. Characteristically shifting between mundane reality and fantastic events, sometimes within the same paragraph, Link is another writer who repeatedly suggests the notion of a reality beyond experience. Similarly, M. Rickert’s “Map of Dreams” begins and ends with a mother whose six-year-old daughter is gunned down by a crazed sniper on a New York streetcorner, and while the intervening narrative takes the grieving mother through episodes involving time travel and Australian aboriginal dreamtime, the central triggering event is one of pure horror, a mother watching her own child’s death. Another writer who sometimes works in this mode is Jeffrey Ford, whose story “A Night in the Tropics” begins as a childhood memory, but then embeds what is essentially a horror tale about a cursed chess set, as the adult narrator returns to the bar and meets a hooligan from his childhood. Again, point of view is crucial; while a traditional horror writer might have been satisfied with the tale of the chess set, Ford frames it as an almost nostalgic tale from the narrator’s childhood, again involving the persistence of the past and the hint of a darker meaning—a technique which Ford has used to great effect in many of his tales.
While we could multiply such examples at length from the work of Link, Rickert, Ford, Miéville, Graham Joyce, Elizabeth Hand, Joe Hill, M. John Harrison, Dan Chaon, Margo Lanagan, Neil Gaiman, Christopher Priest, and many others—or for that matter look backward toward Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad, Arthur Machen, Roald Dahl, Shirley Jackson, and others—these authors share a common interest in adapting the materials of horror in a mode of fiction that, directly or indirectly, aspires to evoke transcendence. These are not writers who “transcend” genre—a formulation that demeans both the genre and its alleged transcenders—but rather writers who incorporate genre materials among a complex of other narrative resources, often producing fiction that seems to defy any sort of traditional genre reading protocols at all. In the work of any of these writers—or any number of others—we may encounter ghosts, zombies, demons, succubi, brutal murderers, or supernatural events, but stories are rarely derived from these elements. There is something more, something that separates these works from traditional horror; to paraphrase a Taoist apothegm, horror that says it’s horror is not transcendental horror.
We are not arguing that transcendental horror is in any sense a conscious literary movement, and in fact it may well be more usefully regarded as a reading protocol or a critical approach than as a definable group of works or authors. If that’s the case, many texts might yield to such a reading, concentrating on emotional trauma, narrative experimentation, and the capacity for evoking a sense of transcendence, rather than on the simple affect of traditional horror. In either case, we think it is a useful tool for understanding the continual reinvention of the materials and techniques of horror fiction, and for discussing the kinds of transformations that contemporary genre fiction is undergoing.
(A version of this paper was presented at the 28th International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on March 16, 2007.)
It’s uncertain when this observation first appeared in print, but it indirectly may have been one of us. In the introduction to his anthology Foundations of Fear, David Hartwell writes, “Critic Gary Wolfe’s observation that ‘horror is the only genre named for its effect on the reader’ should suggest that the normal usage of genre is somewhat suspect here” (10).
2 See The Best New Paranormal Romance, ed. Paula Guran (New York: Juno Books, 2006).
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—. The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror. Cauheegan, Wisconsin: Payseur & Schmidt, 2006.
Hartwell, David, ed. Foundations of Fear. New York: Tor, 1992.
Heller, Terry. The Delights of Terror: An Aesthetics of the Tale of Terror. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Miéville, China. “Fabular Logic,” interview in Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field, November 2006, 9, 73-74.
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Straub, Peter. “Author’s Note,” in Houses Without Doors. New York: Dutton, 1990.
—. “The Buffalo Hunter,” in Houses Without Doors.
—. “Bunny is Good Bread,” in Magic Terror: Seven Tales. New York: Random House, 2000.
—. “Fearful Places,” interview in Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field, July 2006, 7, 78-79.
—. “Horror’s House,” Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field, April 2003, 8, 66
–. In the Night Room. New York: Random House, 2004.
–“The Juniper Tree,” in Houses Without Doors.
—. Koko. New York: Dutton, 1988.
—. lost boy lost girl. New York: Random House, 2003.
—. “The Path of Extremity,” interview in Locus: The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field, January 1994, 4, 65.
“What is Horror Fiction?” Horror Writers Association Web site.
Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” in Film Genre Reader 2, Barry Keith Grant (Austin: University of Texas Press), 1995, 142.