I’m working on notes for a series of short essays and interviews examining the philosophical weirdness at the heart of many horror texts and how best to think about ‘weaponizing’ this weirdness. I’ve got some definite plans in the offing to interview at least two cool folks doing some cool things, an artist-illustrator and a fiction writer, respectively. I’m hoping to convince more people to submit to my interrogator’s chair, but we’ll see. I’m also going to do a number of case studies on texts which can serve as models for my ideas. I’m being really vague, I know, and that will be the big shortcoming of this first post, but hopefully things will get clearer later on. So here we go.
The problem: much horror fiction (fantasy or sci-fi, literature, film, video games, art, etc) tends to depend on novel phenomena which are easily deconstructed to reveal human-centric socio-cultural anxieties. For example, a deconstruction of the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers easily reveals symbolized anxieties dealing both with the Cold War and with suburban American conformity. In this way, the speculative nature of the ‘horror’ effectively disappears. Many critics and writers will treat these interpretations of horror texts as totally exhaustive of the text itself, dismissing the weirdness that motivated the text in the first place (and which often remains in excess of the aforementioned interpretations). Banalized in this way, horror as a genre comes to serve a tepid role as ‘coping mechanism’ for ‘modern life's complexities.' In effect, the confrontation with the unknown, the potential philosophical raison d’etre of modern horror and science fiction, is occluded by more mundane surface reads.
It’s my contention that horror as a textual device, whether in film, literature, art, or other media, can better serve its speculative core. Indeed, in a contemporary context, our confrontations with nonhumans, with other species, with ecological degradation and catastrophe, and with the wider universe and the limits of human knowledge requires a restating of this speculative core.
The task is essentially simple: to construct the speculative aspect of fictive horror in such a way as to minimize the deconstruction of the ‘novel phenomenon’ into a metaphor or symbol for a historically specific sociocultural context. To be sure, it isn’t possible to completely eliminate these types of reads.. All writers and artists and thinkers exist in a historical context, and so will unconsciously absorb the social, political, and cultural anxieties of the time, as well as the central narratives which describe and reinforce those anxieties. Our work will always be susceptible to deconstruction to reveal these conditions and underlying preoccupations.
But, increasingly, the speculative dimension of philosophy that horror addresses is actually bumping up against our everyday lives. It is mixing with the social, with the political, and with the cultural. It is becoming increasingly relevant, even if most people are generally unaware. To take advantage of this, horror texts can be written in such a way that the confrontation with the unknown, the approach to the unhuman, the revealing of the outlines of a subterranean, planetary, nuomenal darkness are able to function as the central thematic struts. These things, if structured in the right way, can become what the story is really about, rather than thin veils for the sublimation of other anxieties. I would call this deliberate attempt “hyperhorror.”
From the outset I want to acknowledge that what I’m talking about is not new. I’m not laboring under the idea that I’m inventing a new genre of horror fiction or anything like that. What I’m arguing for is a certain resumption of the underlying project of horror as a cultural textual device. I’m not speaking of horror as a literary genre. I’m not talking about signs on bookstore shelves, or categories on web retail sites. I am careful not to limit the concept of horror to literature. It is an expansive textual device which can involve art, the internet, and video game craft, among other platforms. And at its foundation there is a feedback loop between literature, criticism, science, and philosophy which, in their reciprocal discourse, provides the meat and gristle for this enterprize as well as the tools to analyze and critique it.
Before ending this first short note I want to quickly define horror in its affective sense. And before I do even this, I do want to acknowledge that the vernacular definition for horror has shifted somewhat in the last 100 years or so. I’m not really a scholar in the field, but my impression is that the popular genre use of the word ‘horror’ now unofficially connotes the sensation more accurately described as ‘terror’. I won’t get into the problem (in our current sociopolitical context) of trying to reinstitute ‘terror’ as the proper genre title for this enterprise (try to imagine the public reception of something called ‘hyperterror’). So we’ll stick with horror, and simply point out that we don’t mean bodily disgust and fear of injury or death when we use the word.
For my purposes, the affective sense of horror in the context of hyperhorror is a general but acute feeling of fear or dread of a novel phenomenon (or phenomena) mixed with an awe of the scale, unfathomability, or utter alienness of the forces engendering the phenomena. At its best, a concept of hyperhorror should minimize moralizing the horror response: it should focus on the horror itself as neutral, resulting in a paralyzing hesitation, a simultaneous push and pull between profound realization and total incomprehension. Hyperhorror eliminates crude human actionables from the menu of human responses. All that we can do is watch and wait. It pushes the horror to a fever pitch while simultaneously demanding that its audience not reduce horror to ‘a bad thing that we can and should fight against.’
In the next short note, I want to briefly examine my own specific interests in hyperhorror as an artist, which are currently threefold: the creature, the ontology of life, and the recalcitrance of matter. Later on, we’ll look at some ‘model texts’ for my ideas -- works that can serve as jumping off points for pushing these ideas further.
I set myself the goal of getting this site up-and-running this summer. I had it in mind to create a platform for getting my work out which would differ a little from the usual artist website. Writing is becoming a larger and larger part of my practice, so having a pretty robust blog seems like the obvious route. I've kept my research notes in a private blog up until now, but I've begun to think that at least some of my inchoate thoughts are worth sharing, at the very least to help open up a dialogue. Some of the ideas I'm working with are quite a lot bigger than me, and no one thread of creative production is going to cover enough ground in order to get at all the questions I want to ask. So, my practice is evolving into multiple parallel threads of work with writing probably acting as the cement. At least that's how it looks right now. You never know...
A word on the title. In dealing with problems surrounding notions of the unhuman, there are two sort of conceptual pivot points that I use: the invertebrate and the eponymous Lovecraftian monster. The invertebrate, primarily, because I think of these animals (and a host of other life-forms notable for their differences from us) as the contemporary source of inspiration, fascination, and anxiety about the unhuman. The invertebrate is an animal, so it is taxonomically closer to humans than plants or fungi, and yet its differences can be so extreme as to render that relation inconceivable. In relating to us, but simultaneously differing from us, as a form of life, I argue that the invertebrate is dancing along the margins of the abyss of objecthood, always threatening to drag us in with it.
This abyss of objecthood refers to those questions about the nature of life that are raised by living things that are so other as to be hard to conceive of as life, let alone as animal. That's where the shoggoth comes in. Lovecraft's formulation of these entities as plastic, amoebic, and capable of masterful mimicry positions them as a way of picturing the unthinkability of life. When pinned down taxonomically, they slither and metastasize out of their categories; when interrogated at the finest grain, they seem to disappear; they offer the potential for being a no-thing. That is, life, like the shoggoth, is nothing in particular. So, there you have it. A start anyway. Here's to the next chapter.
arts educator, painter, drawist, heavy metal enthusiast, and long-time Lovecraft fan