Category Archives: Essays

Unhinging Horror: An Anxious Response to the “madness” of Hereditary (2018) and The Haunting of Hill House (2018)

By Sean Moreland

This post is, in part, a personal and very tendentious review of Ari Aster’s film Hereditary, and Mike Flanagan’s Netflix mini-series The Haunting of Hill House. As such, it contains a number of spoilers for both, so caveat lector.

My response to both is shaped by broader concerns with the long and troubling history of representations of “madness” and “mental illness” in popular horror fictions (literary, cinematic, and televisual). In this respect, it is motivated in part by a panel I recently participated in at CanCon 2018, Ottawa’s s annual speculative fiction convention, titled “Horror and the Problematic Portrayal of Madness.”   On this note, keep your eyes on this space for a forthcoming continuation of that discussion with my co-panelists, Nathan Caro FréchetteTonya LiburdDavid Nickle, and Derek Newman-Stille.

This post is also in part a personal discussion of the relationship between anxiety, depression, grief, and the pleasures and problems of horror spectatorship from the point of view of a lifelong “horror fan” whose fandom (or, to use my colleague Aalya Ahmad’s preferred term, “fan(g)dom”) has, for better or worse, shaped my work and interests as a literature and film scholar, professional educator, and occasional writer of poetry and fiction.

It should be noted that throughout this piece, I bracket both the terms “madness” and “mental illness” (which often mean very different things). In doing so, I do not intend to erase the realities, struggles, joys, sufferings, or triumphs of those who identify with these terms, or who have had these terms forced upon them. Rather, to mis-paraphrase a silly song, I want to hold these closely in quotation marks, while signalling that they do not, and probably cannot, have a neutral, transparent, cross-cultural or trans-historical meaning.

First, Hereditary.

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I saw the film during its theatrical run with my wife and a friend. My wife enjoyed it, jumped at the jump-scary scenes, and was untroubled by it otherwise. It was, in her estimation, a “good horror film,” although not a great or especially original one. My friend and I, on the other hand, who both live with levels of anxiety that sometimes become difficult to manage (or function socially and professionally through) and who both consider ourselves to be horror film “connoisseurs,” began having the prodromal symptoms of an impending panic attack by the mid-point of the film.

These, for me, peaked during the family dinner scene. The tense, unbearably emotionally fraught conflict between the members of the Graham family too closely resembled and amplified some of the most painful and confusing conversations I’ve had with family and loved ones over the years.

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The guilt, resentment, helplessness, and next to total breakdown of effective communication between them massively spiked my anxiety. In light of the film’s conclusion, it becomes clear that none of the characters are talking about primarily what they think they are talking about during this scene. This retrospective dramatic irony encapsulates how Hereditary ultimately unhinges its own apparent representations of “mental illness,” an unhinging echoed by much of the critical conversation around the film (i.e, “it’s ridiculous to criticize a film’s representation of mental illness when it is ultimately about demonic possession!” or “to say anything positive about this film is literally to attack and erase those who live with mental illness!”)

During this scene, I was on the verge of having to walk out of the film to try to get my heart-rate down, my circulation to extremities going again, and my mind from buzzing with a shit-tonne of awful anxious ideation.

Shortly after this scene, things started to slide seamlessly into spectacular and undeniable malevolent supernaturalism. Corpses in the attic becoming re-animate, spontaneous human combustion, menacing apparitions blossoming like spring flowers, acephalic ritualistic tableaux… an eruption of Grand Guignol that gave me a crashing, cathartic sensation of relief as my panic transmuted into a far more pleasurable feeling of weird familiarity – “right, I’m watching an over-the-top supernatural horror film, OK, I can just enjoy this for the delirious spectacle that it is becoming,” and my desire to walk out of the theatre ended.

That feeling is pretty much what I experience any time I am able to re-direct my rising anxiety and evade an impending panic attack (by vigorous exercise, long walks, meditation, pet-bonding, self-medication, absorbing my attention in a film sufficiently to ease the circulation of my thoughts around the painful rapid pace of my heart and strain of my breathing, or some other means.) As my heart-rate lowers, warmth returns to my extremities and my vision stops whiting out at the edges, a kind of quiet elation sets in; some kind of psychic disaster has been averted. My reaction to Hereditary emphasized for me that part of my life-long attraction to horror films stems from their ability to create this kind of catharsis, which, when it works, is hugely helpful to me in managing and transmuting my anxiety. Indeed, one blogger has written of understanding the film as being “about” anxiety itself, and therefore useful in understanding their own experiences living with it.

Because of the degree to which the first half of the film, with its cultivation of the “horrors” of “mental illness,” emotional trauma, and excruciatingly dysfunctional family relationships generated anxiety for me, its sudden and inevitable slide into flamboyant supernaturalism was anxiolytic. For many viewers, however, the moment this kind of dread dissipates is the moment the film either loses much of its power, or becomes unforgivably problematic. It has elicited what I think are some of the most incisive criticisms of the film. As one blogger puts it, Hereditary

“is ugly. At its core is a journey of abuse, grief and mental illness which posits that there is no good way to cope when one’s world is torn apart by any of these things. And as it goes on it morphs into a visceral, soul-crushing experience merged with  bits of genre conventions that will have horror geeks patting themselves on the back  while others will be left unsure how to feel about the whole thing.”

There is some truth in this assessment of the film. Given how heavily reliant, and lovingly referential, Hereditary is toward its horror-cinematic and literary inspirations (as opposed to the lives and fate of its characters) there is something to the idea that it fetishizes its conventions at the expense of its characters.  However, I’m troubled by this writers’ characterization of the film’s reception being polarized between “horror geeks” (there is a long history of pathologizing Gothic and horror fictions, and those who create or consume them, in particularly gendered and classist ways that lurks behind a statement like this) and the rest of humanity (who are, presumably, more “humane,” or “sensitive,” or “sane” than those “geeks.”)

Lena Wilson puts it in a way that doesn’t automatically pathologize anybody who enjoyed or appreciated the film, while still underlining its most crucial problem:

“The literal destruction of their grieving family unfolds with dreadful inevitability, as both Annie and Peter ultimately die by their own hands. Their deaths, despite paranormal influences, can be interpreted as suicide, in light of the film’s overt references to mental illness. Despite ever-evolving diagnoses and new forms of therapy, the stigmatization of mental illness in our society is alive and well.”

Many critics have responded to the commercial success of and considerable critical praise for Hereditary by pointing out its lack of “originality.” As a review in The Economist puts it,

“Viewers may not guess every specific—because the specifics are wonderfully bizarre—but the sinister conspiracy plot is far less surprising than the one in “Get Out”, for instance. It is less original and resonant, too. The film sometimes pretends to be a classical tragedy about bereavement, motherhood and mental illness, but with its regular scares and its rudimentary plotting, “Hereditary” is fundamentally a hokey Halloween haunted-house chiller, complete with spooks, séances and people who are foolish enough to run upstairs rather than out of the door when they’re being chased.”

I wouldn’t argue with the claim that Hereditary is less original than Jordan Peele’s Get Out (that masterful film sets a tremendously high bar!) On the contrary, I think its relative lack of originality is part of what makes it so disturbing; it uses its generic precursors to produce a sense of fatalistic inevitability. That’s one aspect of Freud’s otherwise-superseded theory of the uncanny I think still holds water – that the feeling of the uncanny is always rooted in a disturbing familiarity.

Often the most disturbing films are the ones that do all-too-familiar things, just a little differently. I didn’t find Hereditary especially “original,” but I sure didn’t find it “hokey.” Had more of its audience felt this way, it would surely have disturbed, unsettled, or disgusted far fewer of them, myself included, and would clearly be a less divisive topic for discussion.

But it is certainly much more concerned with using its narrative and effects to create a sense of dreadful fatalism than in exploring in an open-ended and psychologically dynamic way the lives of its characters. The unfortunate members of the Graham family are all, ultimately, revealed to be little cogs in a massive sensory-affective machine designed to do nothing so much as generate a feeling of inescapable doom. This unflinching, relentless focus makes it both a powerful horror narrative, and a dangerous and distressing (non)portrayal of “mental illness.”

Nor does Hereditary “pretend” to be a “classical tragedy.” It’s pre-texts are not primarily Oedipus Rex or The Bacchae. They are, rather, classic psychological Gothic tales, from Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Maupassant’s “L’Horla,” through to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. In each of these fictions, a particular psychological disposition or state is inextricably linked to the inevitable destruction of a character or characters. In short, Hereditary‘s strengths, like its “sins,” are practically constitutive of this mode of horror.

Poe’s  “Usher” is, I think, an especially apt point of comparison for Hereditary. It is a story that literally incorporates many phrases and images and ideas from earlier work, using them to create a sense of excessive familiarity and mechanistic inevitability. It banks on its readers’ prior familiarity with the conspicuous tropes of Gothic fiction  to achieve its effects. The crumbling ancestral mansion, which will collapse at the conclusion, in an obvious echo of Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, as the “crack” emphasized throughout the tale reminds its readers, bringing the Usher family, prey to neurotic afflictions and phobias, crashing down with it.  The symbolism in Poe’s tale between the haunted house, cracked and irreversibly collapsing, and the “mad” mind is forceful, and intricately interwoven into every sentence of the story, each element setting up the inevitable doom of its conclusion. Its “human” characters are automata, parts of its fatal machinery.

Given the massive scope of the tale’s influence, “Usher” is a crucial text for any consideration of the role “madness” plays in modern horror, and its influence is in no way limited by the lack of originality in its elements. For “Usher” is a Frankenstein’s monster of  stitched-together parts. Poe lifted elements from a hundred prior sources for it, many of them Gothic fictions; Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (which similarly marries “madness” to both heredity and fate), Sir Walter Scott’s translation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Das Majorat,” the structure and conclusion of the Grandfather of the Gothic, Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho and even Mary Shelley’s novel itself. The work he designed this re-organized engine to perform is the production of a singular effect; a powerful, intricate sense of passive wonder and horror in the face of inevitable doom.

Richard Ingram, who is credited with coining the term “Mad Studies,” writes that “mad studies–written in the lower case–has existed in many different times and places. For example, I see Nietzsche as a forerunner of Mad Studies. I think he was one of the people who was continuously writing about his own struggle with madness in his philosophy, before eventually being psychiatrized.”

The same could certainly be said (and has been said) of Poe, who was posthumously translated into a “madman” by Rufus Grisworld, romantically valourized as a martyr of madness by Baudelaire, and treated as a posthumous subject for literary-clinical investigation by Freud’s pupil Marie Bonaparte, among countless others. To what extent did Poe’s tales “problematically appropriate” the “madness” of others for commercial exploitation? Do what extent did they codify and propagate the proto-clinical ideas of James Cowles Pritchard and other Victorian psychologists by embedding them in a hugely influential and highly compressed literary form, casting even contemporary mad-perceived or mad-identified folks (including viewers of Hereditary) under the vampiric shadow of long dead physician-philosophers? And to what extent are they, instead, in Ingram’s words, products of and testaments to Poe’s own “struggle with madness” (which need not mean Poe’s struggle with “insanity,” or with “mental illness,” or with “latent dementia praecox,” or “sublimated psychopathy” resulting from “sexual inversion.”)

Hereditary similarly exploits its own generic over-saturation to generate and/or discharge tension in audiences. Like “Usher,” it synthesizes this generic determinism (the tendency that unifies all of its cinematic influences and conventions) with the idea that “madness” is a fatal sentence (whether it is understood through the lens of “mental illness”, or fatal supernatural machinery.)

Horror writer Thomas Ligotti, who often works in this mode, has described his own fictions as “a matter of personal pathology,” expressive of, and possibly therapeutically related to, his own lifelong experience of debilitating depression and anxiety. He describes this mode in his essay, “Consolations of Horror.” Speaking of “Usher,” he asks, “Did you ever wonder how a Gothic story like Poe’s masterpiece can be so great without enlisting the reader’s care for its characters’ doom?”

Ligotti contradicts analyses that cast empathy and emotional mirroring as the primary basis for horror fiction’s appeal – such fictions “work,” some would have it, because we “identify with” and “believe in,” and therefore feel alongside, their characters (for elucidations of this idea, see, for example, Noel Carroll’s classic study The Philosophy of Horror, 1990, and more recently, Mathias Clasen’s evolutionary psychological account of horror’s appeal in Why Horror Seduces, 2016.)

Ligotti proposes instead, “Unlike a horror story whose effect depends on reader sympathy with its fictional victims, this one doesn’t want us to get involved with the characters in that way. Our fear does not derive from theirs.” Despite its fundamental violation of this widely touted explanation of horror’s appeal (has any reader, with the exception of Antonin Artaud, strongly identified with and seen themselves accurately  reflected in one of Usher’s characters?) “Usher” is widely recognized as among the most effective and influential horror tales ever written.

Ligotti suggests that “Usher” is so effective because:

“we don’t look over any character’s shoulder but have our attention distributed god-wise into every corner of a foul factory which manufactures only one product: total and inescapable doom. Whether a given proper noun escapes this doom or is caught by it is beside the point. Poe’s is a world created with built-in obsolescence, and to appreciate fully this downrunning cosmos one must take the perspective of its creator, which is all perspectives without getting sidetracked into a single one.”

Why are readers (at least, readers like Ligotti, and to some extent myself) drawn back to Poe’s tale, then? What kind of “pleasure” does it offer? Ligotti claims “the consolation” that “Usher” offers readers “is that we are supremely removed from the maddeningly tragic viewpoint of the human.”

This was also a large part of the weird aesthetic and emotional catharsis of Hereditary for me. At a certain point, I was freed from identifying with its human characters, their traumas, griefs, emotional sufferings too recognizably close to my own, and therefore generative of almost-unbearable anxiety.

Perhaps this sort of pleasure is more likely to be experienced by those with certain depressive and/or anxious tendencies?  While I’ve never been labelled with a clinical diagnosis beyond depression and general anxiety,  I experience many of the tendencies associated with a schizoid personality ( as a therapist once pointed out to me, though “a personality style and a personality disorder are not the same thing.”). So, seemingly, do most of the strange, nebulous personalities that narrate Ligotti’s fictions. So do many of Shirley Jackson’s literary characters, including Eleanor of Hill House, with whom I have closely identified since first reading the novel at the age of 12.

Both Ligotti’s fictions and Hereditary seem to offer particularly schizoid resolutions to the anxieties of trying to negotiate emotional suffering through the fraught and confusing complexities of too-intimate interpersonal relationships.

Are these tendencies in me part of what made Hereditary‘s hinge so anxiolytic? Might it make sense to talk about such fictions as “schizoid horror” (extracting that term from its more restricted clinical use, while questioning the authority and consistency of its clinical conceptions themselves)? Or is this instinct to label and categorize likely to tend back toward pathologization?

Some viewers didn’t think Hereditary “owned” or “earned” the hinge whereby its “madness” swung from “mental illness” to “demonic occultism.”  I think, narratively and structurally, it did.  Nevertheless, Hereditary‘s hinge, its shift from “a family history of mental illness,” “DID,” “schizophrenia,” and “trauma” to “PAIMON!” and Phallocentric Goetic theurgy involves a very literal erasure of “mental illness,” along with the (illusory) psychological autonomy of its characters.

This is especially troubling to me because that hinge was the one on which my anxiolytic catharsis (as opposed to my appreciation for its ability to build and maintain anxiety and grief) depended. But I’ve been, in part, conditioned by many prior fictions to recognize, and appreciate, the smooth swing of that hinge, for it is hardly unique to Hereditary.

It is closely paralleled by many films that “bait” the audience with apparent representations of psychological alienation, and then switch them out for a paranormal reality, whether wonderful, horrible, or somewhere in between (from The Return to Oz through The Sixth Sense to Donnie Darko, it’s a common device.)

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Mike Flanagan’s Haunting of Hill House series uses a similar hinge, although to different effect.

I have a lot of admiration for Flanagan’s series in general; it is in so many ways a beautiful, aptly haunting thing. Where Aster’s film is a love-letter to many different horror films (probably none more so than Polanski’s  Rosemary’s Baby, however), Haunting is clearly a loving email (a sometimes meandering and sentimental one) to both Shirley Jackson herself, and to Stephen King (whose own early literary tributes to Jackson are marked by similar meandering and sentimental tendencies.)

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It resects and re-stitches aspects of Jackson’s novel in fascinating ways. It also, ingeniously and defiantly, uses the expectations of viewers (like myself) who know and love the novel to mislead and re-direct attention. Where Hereditary uses its allusions to foreshadow and reinforce its viciously fatalistic vision, Hill House uses them to expand upon while departing from its source material. Their respective temporal structures emphasize this difference. Hereditary traps viewers claustrophobically in the present perception of the Graham family, while revealing that present to be merely an illusionary ignorance of how the past has already determined the future.

Hill House draws heavily on the analeptic structure King is so fond of using to explore the relationship between “adult” and “childhood” experience. It’s a structure especially evident in his novel It, which seems an important source for Flanagan’s series. The series uses this structure, entirely different from that of Jackson’s novel, to distance itself from the plot of the novel, and to displace its chilling conclusion, even while having Steven Crain’s (the homophony is no coincidence) character directly quote from it. In the series, the unhinging of the main characters from mental illness, and their suspension instead from the supernatural threat represented by the house (a threat redolent of King’s revision of Jackson via Lovecraft in Salem’s Lot and The Shining,) contains at least the possibility of freedom. Heredity, here, either familial or generic, need not be fatal.

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Initially, the series’ nominal echoes of, but characterization and structural departures from, the novel bothered me. But it unfolds its differences from the novel with increasing fluency and impact as it proceeds, opening spaces clearly suggested by many of Jackson’s writings (and, of course, King’s). For example, one of the scenes that initially irritated me involved Eleanor’s famous “cup of stars” dialogue being transposed so that Mrs. Dudley delivers it to Nell, who is still a child. Up to that point, Mrs. Dudley (portrayed with impressive rigidity, which even more impressively dissolves later in the series, by Annabeth Gish) has seemed very much like the character of the same name in the novel, and it made no sense to me to place that quintessential speech in her mouth. But, like all the characters in the series, Mrs. Dudley is a far cry (in the night, in the dark) from herself in the novel, and the series eventually “earns” this transposition in a very poignant way.

However, as well as Kingly meandering, the series strays too far into soap operatic, gothic melodrama for my tastes.  So many scenes of women in long, flowing night-gowns wandering, imperilled, through the palatial house at night! Daphne du Maurier, get thee behind me!

Yes, there is an aspect of that in Jackson’s novel (and yes, it was amplified by the novel’s marketing and most of its covers in the 60s and 70s) but part of what makes her novel stunning is its stark paring-back and exposure of the underlying psychological mechanisms of the gothic romance.

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The Internet is rife with responses to the series that emphasize, earnestly or otherwise, its fright-factor, ability to induce fainting, vomiting, etc. Some of these seem more like a William Castle-esque viral campaign than “authentic” self-reported responses to the series, but I have no doubt that many viewers were truly disturbed or triggered by some of its scenes.

I didn’t do any of those things (although I did cry a few times, and got a few solid startles.) But there were a few moments in the series that had my anxiety rising into concerning territory (one advantage to Netflix being that I can turn the thing off and come back to it when I’m calmer.)

All of these moments centred around Nell’s character. As I’ve already said, I’ve felt a kinship with the novel’s Nell, a lonely, longing, somewhat schizoid and Quixotic character since childhood. Her counterpart in the series (portrayed by Victoria Pedretti) really resonated with me.  Her distraught phone calls to her family the night of her death, their belated realization that they weren’t there for her when she called, their guilt that they didn’t do enough to help her…. I had trouble sitting through that. It’s the kind of thing I dread having to face on a daily basis.

Strangely, though, it was the series’ portrayal of Nell’s sleep paralysis that most disturbed me.  Those scenes very closely resembled by own experiences of sleep paralysis, particularly those that occurred when I was in my teens, before I had any idea what I was experiencing. I was terrified to talk about those experiences with anybody, because I was convinced they were indicative of either impending death or “going crazy.”

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I experienced such “hag attacks” occasionally for many years, generally during periods of acute anxiety. The first episode occurred when I was 17. It wasn’t until I took an undergrad psych course 2 years later that I read about the phenomenon.  The relief was overwhelming. “O THANK THE GODS, IT’S JUST SOME KIND OF MINOR NERVOUS SYSTEM GLITCH, I’M NOT EXPERIENCING DEMONIC OPPRESSION OR HAVING A SERIES OF STROKES OR DEVELOPING A PSYCHOSIS!”

The scene in which Nell describes her symptoms to a sleep technician, who later becomes her husband, who reassures her that they are normal, and normally harmless, really resonated with the relief I found at that revelation.

Sometimes, I take comfort in thinking about my nervous system, and my personality, as simpler and more mechanically reducible things than they are, things that could be “fixed” by some kind of minor “tweak” (thus my fondness for claiming that my most cherished literary works “pare back and expose” various “underlying psychological mechanisms,” a phrasing grounded in a particularly functionalist, and therefore probably ableist, conception of the mind, and one I often find it difficult to think outside of.)

But I want to come back to that narrative mechanism, that structural hinge, whereby throughout the series, most of the characters (and to a lesser extent, the audience) are led to believe their strange and tragic experiences result from a familial tangle of, probably hereditary, “mental illness,” “cognitive disorder,” or “emotional dysfunction…” all of which is ultimately explained by the cosmic threat presented by the soul-hungry house they had the misfortune of moving into (at least it isn’t a giant child-eating space-spider.)

Where in Hereditary, this hinge swings into a closing scene of delirious grotesquerie, in Hill House it opens the door on a curiously triumphant celebration of love’s posthumous persistence that clashes sharply with the resounding final paragraph of Jackson’s novel: “Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

King’s voice rings clearly in Flanagan’s revision. In the series, none of the Crains are, ultimately, alone, and none of the Crains are, ultimately, “mentally ill.” The narrative reinforces their father’s insistence that what they had come to believe were delusions, hallucinations, and paranoiac invasive thoughts were merely mis-interpretations of their relationship with a reality in which there are “more things than are dreamt of” in bio-medical psychiatry. “Mental illness” ceases to exist; the only “madness” was in denying that such preternatural (to use Steven Crain’s preferred word) threats were real.

Despite this supernatural King-ification, there’s a way in which this is also a response to the role of “madness” in Jackson’s work itself.

There are many distinct parallels between Jackson’s textual representations of psychological alienation and the ideas of contemporaneous anti-psychiatric writers including R.D. Laing. Laing interpreted a wide variety of conditions, including notably schizophrenia, as being caused by social (and, with typical casual misogyny, especially maternal) influence. To reductively simplify, Laing thought insanity was a sane response to insane social pressures, including those imposed by “schizophrenogenic” mothers. This is a concept evident throughout Jackson’s work, and that of many of her horror-writing contemporaries, including Robert Bloch (Psycho) and Charles Beaumont (“Miss Gentilbelle.”) Laing’s views have been largely rejected by neurobiological psychiatry, although some of his therapeutic experiments arguably influenced contemporary socialization-focused approaches. But they were influential in Jackson’s time, and probably inform the way that both mother-figures and traditional societal influences function as an external menace, very much like a supernatural threat, in so many of her stories (as, certainly, does her own troubled relationship with both her mother and husband.)

This leads me to the importance of sociologist Kathryn Church‘s caveat that “Mad studies doesn’t reject medical models of madness [but it puts] them into a historical trajectory, one that shows that psychiatry isn’t an absolute interpretation of human mental states.”

I think fiction can play an important role in delineating those trajectories, and that the way “madness” functions in the work of particular writers, film-makers, and artists (often quite removed from any supposed clinical or psychiatric “reality”) can be very revealing of this.

But it is unclear to me where fantastic, and especially horrific, fictions that darkly mirror certain “human mental states” fit into this crucially important historical and political examination. Is transforming the phenomenology of a deeply troubling “human mental state” into a fictional world in which it is the expression of very different conditions and physical laws ever NOT troubling, and potentially dangerous? Is it potentially a useful way of challenging the de-historicized absolutism of medico-psychiatric diagnosis? Are these prospects always, or ever, mutually exclusive?

Hill House’s closing scenes were, for me, hugely cathartic, but in an entirely different way from Hereditary‘s. The latter left me giddy and disturbed. The former left me crying, but somehow comforted.

Hill House is “sad horror,” surely, but also loving, humane, hopeful horror. My experience of it, my appreciation for it, is no doubt in part because I’m grieving the sudden loss, a couple of months ago, of my mother, who first invited me in to Jackson’s Hill House.*

The feeling of loss, and of the felt presence of an absent, and much-missed, loved one (unmoored from any religious or metaphysical belief in an afterlife) is fertile ground in which the desire for the supernatural can grow. It’s a large part of my emotional reality these days, and may have made me especially responsive to the series. Hill House gave me an aesthetic outlet for grief, one intensified somehow by transient fright. But does that change its troubling transfiguration of “mental illness” into supernatural menace?  Does that unhinge it in a potentially revelatory way? Does that necessarily make it less effective as a work of “horror?”

These are, at least to me, open questions, open doors, and I’m not even clear what kind of hinges their answers might swing on.

 

 

* I was about 12 years old when I read Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, with its high praise for Jackson’s novel. I was talking to my mother about it, and she realized she owned a copy as part of the abridged Reader’s Digest book series she subscribed to, which we both read and talked about, so the novel is caught up in my memories of my Mother in stark contrast to the way Eleanor’s, and Jackson’s, mother’s shadow hangs over the text.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE LIFE AND AFTERLIFE OF HORROR FICTION by John Glover

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In the world of horror fiction, through the booms and busts, writer, scholar and librarian John Glover meditates on a perennial question….

The idea that publication of horror fiction follows boom and bust cycles is common among the people who make up the field, from writers to readers, from publishers to critics. It’s easy to understand why this view persists, given the rise and fall of the Gothic, the penny dreadful, the pulps, and the horror boom that lasted roughly from 1970 to 1995. Readers and aficionados of the genre are accustomed to saying that all of the above are the same thing, just wearing different masks. While this is true in the sense that similar subject matter and tropes recur through the decades, increasingly I’m coming to question whether horror will survive as a formulation for the literature that most of us recognize under that name, whether Dracula, Psycho, or The Drowning Girl.

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Caitlin R. Kiernan has long contested the value of the term “horror” as a generic label.

 

If it weren’t for the rise of the web and its capacity to perpetuate both communities and content, the term “horror” would largely have fallen out of use by now to describe the genre. As things stand, however, I feel that we’re currently in the middle of two waves of fiction that could rightly be called “horror,” each as similar and distinct as the Gothic and the pulps. One of these waves is essentially the long tail of the last boom, and the other is a new formation built from literary fiction, a new attention to sociocultural concerns, and explicit engagement with the genre’s history. The coexistence of these two waves has caused anxiety in the field, not least because the word “horror” itself became anathema after the market crash of the mid-1990s. Many authors working today take a nuanced approach to writing horror—heavily informed by the lessons of the boom.

One of 2015’s most successful horror novels was, on many counts, Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. This elegant tour de force is graced with both literary style and genuine unease, revolving around a case of suspected possession and a family forced to turn their lives into a media spectacle in the hope of saving their daughter. It quite clearly belongs to horror, drawing on such sources as The Exorcist and the reflexive frights of Scream, featuring a narrative self-awareness based out of reality television and social media that can stand comfortably with literary conceits stretching back through the history of narrative. The fabric of the book is woven from after-action discussions between the protagonist and her literary documentarian, and blog posts analyzing the abortive documentary filmed during the events around which the novel centers. The novel shifts easily back and forth between exposition, recollection, and introspection. These many layers are critical to the book’s success, and leading it to be described in one review as “smartly, viscerally [exposing] the way mass media, the Internet and pop culture have transformed our experience of that primal human impulse, horror” (Heller).

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How else can we tell that A Head Full of Ghosts is a horror novel? As of this writing it is a candidate for a Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association, for Superior Achievement in a Novel. Users of the social reading website Goodreads identified the novel as “horror” more frequently than any other genre. Finally, none other than Stephen King said that it “scared the living hell out of me, and I’m pretty hard to scare.” Awards, readership, and influential voices all indicate that this novel belongs to the horror field.

All of that said, A Head Full of Ghosts was published by William Morrow, a HarperCollins literary imprint. While this high-visibility publication has been cause for celebration among horror writers who aspire to broadly successful authorial careers, HarperCollins has avoided the H-word in describing it (though the imprint does in fact publish works it categorizes as horror). What does it mean for a novel to succeed in a genre to which its publisher does not necessarily feel it belongs? Tremblay himself has diverse interests and a genial social media presence that connects with longtime horror authors and professionals… as well as musicians, educators, literary authors, and all manner of people involved in the book trade. He does not seem to me to resemble the bulk of authors prominent during the boom, who in profiles and interviews were likely to cite a narrower set of influences and interests: Bram Stoker, H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, and so on.

Authors continually remix literary genres, of course, and genres go in and out of fashion, but both Tremblay and his Head Full of Ghosts exist in two (or more) separate spheres of horror. A quarter century after the boom, one might expect to see a resurgence of horror in a new generic formation. That has happened in the guise of things like “zombie fiction,” and a healthy stripe of dark YA, and horror novels that fly under different colors for any number of reasons, but it has also not happened, insofar as substantial numbers of people still read, write, and talk about “horror.” Here I will leave Paul Tremblay as case study, but it seems worth saying that he has good company in the sundry contemporary authors who exist in a state not entirely unlike that of Schrödinger’s Cat, being both horror authors and not-horror authors.

If there’s something distinctive about the horror genre, starting around 1970 and ending in the mid-1990s, it seems useful to discuss that time frame. Various books have been associated with the start of the boom: Rosemary’s Baby in 1967, The Exorcist in 1971, Carrie in 1974. All make reasonable candidates for signposts, and certainly there was a market for short horror fiction at the time, including men’s magazines and fantasy and science fiction publications that occasionally published horror.

What is somewhat harder to pin down is precisely when the idea of a “horror author” or “horror writer” emerged. While many authors wrote horror stories of one kind or another prior to 1970, the concept of an author who was segregated from others by the adjective was not common. I’m not going to say that no one called herself a horror writer prior to any particular date, as that would require exhaustive searching to prove a fairly small point. I do think it’s notable, however, that the MLA International Bibliography, WorldCat, and Google Books include virtually no mention of a “horror writer” or “horror author” prior to 1960, and barely any prior to 1970. None of those sources are without their problems, but for all that we have supposedly always had horror fiction, it’s interesting to me that we have not always had horror authors. Not until the late 1970s and 1980s do we really see the idea gain traction, coinciding with the rise of postmodernity in the U.S., the consequent broadening of the canon, and the mass market success of horror fiction.

The end of the boom has been discussed by countless writers, editors, and anthologists, from the end of Zebra Books to the glut of vampire fiction, and I see no need to cover it again here. Scholarly work in this area, however, has been limited. The best study thus far published about the horror boom as a phenomenon unto itself is Steffen Hantke’s 2008 article about Dell’s Abyss imprint and the decline of literary horror in the 1990s. By focusing his work on an imprint exceptional in its time, publishing substantial numbers of female horror authors who wrote in anything but demotic style, Hantke anticipates concerns and disputes that have taken on greater resonance than ever in recent years (64).

In an essay based on a speech he delivered at the 1998 Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Awards Banquet, Douglas E. Winter discussed at length the rise and fall of the category of “horror” publishing, and how such authors as William Peter Blatty or Jack Williamson did not write books that went under that name. He called this kind of writing “a progressive form of fiction, one that evolves to meet the fears and anxieties of its times,” and claimed that “[w]hat we are witnessing, then, is not the ‘death of horror,’ but the death of a short-lived marketing construct that, although it wore the name of “horror,” represented but a sideshow in the history of the literature” (Winter).

Can we really call “short-lived” a period of vigorous literary productivity that lasted at least a quarter of a century? I don’t think so, and I think it becomes more problematic if you start from the position that there are meaningful differences between Gothics, Victorian ghost stories, pulps, the mid-century fiction of Richard Matheson and Shirley Jackson, and so on. To say that it’s “all horror” makes some sense to me as a reader, because it’s what I personally seek out, and this is supported on some level by books like Becky Siegel Spratford’s The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror, one of a class of tools designed to help librarians understand genres and make recommendations for library patrons looking for something to read. The same is true of surveys of the genre like Gina Wisker’s Horror Fiction, which seek less to parse out than to provide a rich overview of the full progression of the literature of fear in its different phases. Useful rubrics for broad understanding or guides for literary taste, however, will not necessarily provide the best guide for periodization.Spratford

A significant turning point in the horror boom was the formation of a professional organization devoted to writing horror. The Horror Writers Association met for the first time in 1985, spurred by a sense of shared interests and a need for a professional organization, among other things. The story of its founding, originally as the Horror and Occult Writers League, has been documented many places, but the timing generally seems to come in for little discussion (perhaps a mercy, given what was to follow). Not many years after the field started taking on the trappings of other popular genres like fantasy and science fiction, romance, and mystery, the market started to wane. It didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen totally, but this newly organized group of professionals was to some extent deprived of their newly catalyzed profession. Notables like Ellen Datlow, Stephen King, Anne Rice, or Peter Straub were able to persevere, but countless others changed genres, switched to other kinds of writing, or left the field.

What happened after that was predictable in some ways, less so in others. Writers who wanted to write fear-inducing fiction found other niches where they could do that. Sometimes that meant small press and markets paying well below professional rates, if they were free to write at that level or driven to it by their own natures. Others found welcome audiences in other genres for darker spins on the thriller or fantasy novel. Small presses variously endured, failed, or appeared, and the last decade has seen a surge in new markets for dark fiction. The Stoker Awards given by the HWA did not vanish with the mass market, and neither did World Horror conventions. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, who in 1988 launched their summative anthology series, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, did not call a halt when the field was in a down-swing. Datlow currently edits The Best Horror of the Year, a summative anthology that she launched solo in 2009 after the final volume of Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and her work has been joined over the years by similar volumes focusing on horror, dark fantasy, weird fiction, and so on.

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What also happened after the boom was that many of the people who were part of it, both the professionals and the readers, stayed together in various ways. Some of that resembled historical activities of fans in other genres, such as fanzines and letter-writing, but some of it was not as readily possible after previous literary markets waned. Many members of the horror community stayed connected online via Usenet, chat rooms, message boards, blogging platforms, and all of the social media that have come since. Even with the most powerful signifier of the time, the word “horror,” largely erased from the market, it was possible for the people of horror to stick together as never before. This reaffirmed the existence of both their community and the horror field, even when that field at times looked very sparse.

Earlier I claimed that there are two separate waves of horror fiction ongoing today. The more recent one is characterized by authors like Laird Barron, Stephen Graham Jones, Caitlín R. Kiernan, John Langan, Livia Llewellyn, Nick Mamatas, Helen Marshall, Simon Strantzas, or Paul Tremblay. These authors have by and large been heavily influenced by mainstream literary or academic writing cultures, are socio-politically aware in ways that carry over to their fiction, business practices, or both, and occasionally write metafictional or otherwise highly reflexive stories that engage with the genre’s history.

The other wave, the long tail of the boom, is visible in many places. Publishers like Centipede, Subterranean, and Valancourt are reissuing work from the boom, sometimes in revised or expanded versions. In other cases they are releasing sequels to or alternate versions of decade-old horror novels that have enough of a potential readership that publishers can afford to invest in sometimes lavish editions. Even allowing for the vagaries of memory and searching on the Web, it is easier than in decades past to dive into the memorabilia, fan reports, photographs, and retrospectives associated with the boom. This sustaining of the aesthetic of the boom undoubtedly has fed into the success of any number of recent publications, from presses large and small or authors who self-publish.

Is this a genuine continuation of the boom, or just an outsized case of nostalgia? I’m not sure, but there is a wider range of awards for the horror field these days, and it often seems like significantly different groups of authors and kinds of fiction are associated with different gatherings, whether it be World Horror, Readercon, NecronomiCon, or Necon. In future, I would like to examine more thoroughly the awards, nominees, and guests at such events, and attempt to map the different spheres of the genre, associated with the boom or otherwise.

In a nice irony, the thriving Nightmare Magazine regularly runs a column entitled The H-Word. It consistently features thoughtful commentary from authors across the spectrum of horror. Explicit engagement by professionals writing today under a column bearing a title that was at one point a joke is perhaps indicative of the field’s ability to cope with an ongoing state of flux better than during past publishing cycles.

Where does that leave us? On the one hand, it’s easy to locate published fiction that rests comfortably cheek by jowl with the horror of the boom, whether in anthologies, magazines, or novels. On the other, it’s also easy to locate anthologies, magazines, or novels that partake of horror while eschewing the H-word, whether as prominent as a novel like A Head Full of Ghosts or otherwise. The rise of transmedia spectacles like The Walking Dead lies in this camp to some extent, insofar as one can spend hours trawling through reviews and critical articles describing it as “dark drama” or the like, before getting to anything that will call it without adjective or concession simply “horror.” Whether this reflects actual animus against horror is difficult to say, but it does confirm that some people perceive one term as significantly more useful than another, decades after the boom.

If my portrayal of this situation of two ongoing waves of horror fiction is accurate, are they going to end? Can we still talk at this point about the cyclical nature of the field, in a world where micro-presses, boutique presses, Kindle, and other means can keep a genre rolling along in some capacity as long as there are customers ready to buy? It may be that we are not, as many have argued, in any sort of golden age or temporary efflorescence, but have actually entered something like a steady state where nothing ever dies.

If I were to point to a marker indicating anything like relative ill health in horror fiction, I might point to changes in the scholarship. A recent Call for Papers that went out on academic discussion lists for a “monster studies” conference session did not use the word horror at all. Likewise, the Horror Literature section of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts is smaller than it used to be, partly because some members of the association choose to talk in other genre contexts about subject matter that many have seen as belonging to horror. The existence of scholarship is, of course, not a precondition for the existence of the fiction it treats, but it is part of the swirl of the literary ecosystem—reviews, criticism, fandoms, and so on—that reflects the life of fiction once it has left the bookstore or library.

In 2015 I attended the World Horror Convention, still one of the major gatherings for professionals in the field. Panel discussions were vigorous, energetic, and spoke to ongoing engagement with horror and serious questions about what horror is or is not, should be or should not be. This gathering seems to me to be in relatively good health, although the impact of this year’s division of the event into an awards weekend in Atlanta and a convention in Las Vegas, held within days of each other, is yet to be seen.

On the other hand, I recently ended a two year term on the Board of Directors of James River Writers, a thriving literary organization based in central Virginia. In that time, never once did I hear attendees discuss horror fiction at our events, which include a sizeable annual conference that actively works to accommodate writers of YA, erotica, romance, other genres not always welcome in “serious” literary circles. On those occasions when I talked with members of the organization or visitors about what I write, the conversational ground inevitably became shaky the moment I trotted out the H-word. In the most memorable of these interactions, the woman I was speaking with said that her daughter liked Twilight and vampire books. I said that I could appreciate that, because I wrote horror. She hesitated for a long time, but eventually she said that she didn’t usually think about people writing horror, and that you usually thought about horror movies. While this conversation may simply reflect lack of awareness, it suggests to me the possibility that for some people, from experienced readers to novice authors, the subject matter of horror exists, but not necessarily a living genre entirely devoted to ghosts, zombies, vampires, werewolves, serial killers, haunted houses, the occult, and so on.

At the end of the day, I’m not suggesting that we should attempt to rename the genre or the study of its literature. I do, however, think that we should be cognizant of the extent to which the horror boom shaped the way that we consider, write, and write about horror fiction. While I am not prepared to say that M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, or Shirley Jackson did not write horror fiction, I am coming to believe that it’s anachronistic to talk about any of them as being horror writers. Our tendency to do so is a byproduct of our own moment in the history of the literature of fear.

Acknowledgments

I presented an earlier version of this at ICFA 37 as “Anxiety, Nomenclature, and Epistemology after the Horror Boom,” where the audience had many helpful comments and useful queries. I am grateful for criticism from Lindsay Chudzik, Mark Meier, and Sean Moreland, all of which helped to strengthen the work, and to s.j. bagley for many thought-provoking conversations about the boom. Finally, I am grateful for the support of my employer, VCU Libraries, in pursuing my scholarly interests.

ThinkingHorror

Thinking Horror, volume 1, edited by s.j. bagley and Simon Strantzas

 

John Glover is a librarian at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he supports humanities research and instruction, contributes to various digital humanities projects, and studies quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore. He has chapters forthcoming on Supernatural Horror in Literature and Laird Barron’s Old Leech stories. He also studies the research practices of writers, and last year he co-taught “Writing Researched Fiction” in VCU’s Department of English. He publishes fiction and literary essays as “J. T. Glover,” and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pseudopod, Thinking Horror, The Lovecraft eZine, and Nightscript, among other venues.

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John (aka J.T.) Glover

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