amelia beamer

The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror Review

(Payseur & Schmidt 978-0-9789114-0-9, $45.00, 165pp) November 2006.

John Clute did an art book on horror, and it’s called The Darkening Garden. Well, it’s more of an extended glossary, covering 30 critical and theoretical terms mostly invented by Clute himself, each accompanied by full-page drawings from different artists. Horror is perhaps the most difficult genre to define in that “horror” is often used to mean the emotional effect, a feeling of horror (what Clute calls “affect horror”), but the term also refers to a set of recognizable genre conventions of plot, character, theme, and setting — conventions Clute draws on and expands considerably to create a sort of grammar for horror. At $45.00 for less than 200 pages (but it has pictures!), The Darkening Garden gives a taste of Clute’s take on horror.

Clute is a science fiction and fantasy critic, reviewer, encyclopedist, and occasional novelist. Here he moves into the red-headed stepchild territory of horror, applying a similar analysis to horror as he did to fantasy in The Fantasy Encyclopedia (1999). Clute describes horror stories as basically adhering to a standard grammar of plot, using the terms “sighting,” “thickening,” “revel,” and “aftermath,” which are defined and likened to the passage of the four seasons, ending in winter. Using the seasons as an extended metaphor is as old as, well, farming, but dates back in literary criticism at least to Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957), which put forth four ‘narrative categories’ to describe all of literature: comic, romantic, tragic, and ironic — corresponding respectively to spring, summer, fall, and winter. While Frye’s categories describe the whole of literature passing cyclically from comic to ironic and back through, Clute’s describe the way a single story passes through each element. The resulting book is a series of more-or-less linked essays, arranged alphabetically though intended to be read in a somewhat different order. The accompanying pictures, whether insightful, joyously horrific, creepy, or self-referential, add to the thoughtful tone of the book, and play with the very idea of criticism by juxtaposing a prescriptive essay and descriptive picture (itself an attempt to analyze the text).

The book is limited to 500 copies (and 300 postcard sets of the pictures), and the terms will eventually be integrated into Clute’s planned online SF/F Encyclopedia. Clute’s analysis is provocative — but any attempt at genre theorizing, canonizing, or even anthologizing is the practice of laying out boundaries. To examine genres as anything other than commercial categories, we have to make artistic distinctions, or at least thematic ones. Clute’s been thinking about some of these ideas for years; in his 1995 Locus interview he called horror “a ‘locked’ genre; locked within the movement of Thinning that is the middle movement of the full fantasy structure. [Horror] tends to be a genre in which the violation is recuperated from only in terms of a shaken return to the norm. It doesn’t transcend, it doesn’t go through the evil” but gets stuck. More specific ideas were developed in his essay in Conjunctions 39: the New Wave Fabulists (2002), where he selects Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1899) as perhaps the quintessential horror text. Other essay topics are “Identity Loss”, Double” (or twin, or Doppelganger), and the ill-fated “Appointment in Samarra”, citing W. Somerset Maugham’s play Sheppey, where a servant sees Death in the marketplace and runs to Samarra, thinking to avoid Death, but — we know what happens. And the predictability of horror is what makes a prescriptive grammar at least somewhat applicable, describing how horror uses familiar tropes both to scare and to give a feeling of inevitability. Not to say that horror is simplistic — that’s another argument entirely — but that there are recognizable patterns. And, more importantly, the center of horror in “Heart of Darkness”, that glimpse of the void at the center of things, is the same center of horror described by The Darkening Garden — horror as a way of understanding the world.

–Amelia Beamer