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“That Didn’t Scare Me”: Thoughts on Horror Fiction

“Horror is not a genre like the mystery or science fiction or the western
. . . Horror is an emotion.” – Douglas E. Winter

“That didn’t scare me.” This level of criticism grates my sensibilities. That didn’t scare me. It’s the sort of comment you overhear when leaving the cinema or that you might witness among a torrent of social-media posts, not generally known for their insight or elucidation in the first place. It’s not even the brevity of this comment that bothers me, but rather that this grunt seems to convey a shallow understanding of horror: “That didn’t scare me.”

As a life-long connoisseur of horror, I seldom experience genuine “fear” while reading (or viewing)—that adrenaline-fuelled dread termed “art-horror” by Noel Carroll in The Philosophy of Horror. It does happen to me on occasion though, this sense of frisson: I remember the worrying, childhood anxiety of the doomsday clock in John Bellairs’s The House with a Clock in Its Walls, that horrible cosmic grandeur I experienced the first time I turned the pages of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, or the overbearing sense of inexorable supernatural fate in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

But if invoking this feeling of fear is such a rare experience—a sort of holy grail of reader reaction—then you might rightly wonder why I carry on exploring this particular section of the library? Am I not effectively one among the crowd, professing with a sneer, that didn’t scare me? It’s a reasonable question. Put another way: If horror doesn’t get you scared, then what are you getting?

In his introduction to the anthology Prime Evil (1988), editor Douglas E. Winter makes an observation, often repeated, what he calls “an important bit of heresy”: “Horror is not a genre like the mystery or science fiction or the western . . . Horror is an emotion.” This is a good place to start: horror is an emotion, and so the success or failure of horror literature is predicated on eliciting an emotional sensation in the reader. Similar to how a joke might be deemed a success or failure depending on the laughs. But there’s got to be more to it than that.

Consider a grand piano, onyx black, appropriately festooned with cobwebs and candelabra bedecked with dripping red candles. Imagine being allowed to play only one note, probably down the far left end of the instrument where the theme from Jaws is usually played. Now imagine that the sole way to enhance the effectiveness of this note is to hammer that one key harder and harder. For many, this is horror. Hammering that single key. Lots of people love that one pounding note too, and feel cheated if they don’t get that adrenaline rush; that didn’t scare me. Sure, that single note might be novel for a moment, sometimes even effective in a particular context, as the musician changes speed or intensity. But you’ll forgive me if I tend to feel overwhelmingly bored with this sort of concert.

Uncertainties 4, painting by B. Catling

“Horror is an emotion,” Douglas E. Winter tells us. I would respectfully like to amend that assertion. Horror is a range of emotions. And each of these moods, if they are to be successful, must be cultivated differently. We know that good horror is rarely just a single note. There are far more keys on that piano—and they’re all elegantly tuned. To borrow the subtitle of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, the genre is eine Symphonie des Grauens—a symphony of horrors.

There seems to have been a proliferation of horror-related literary descriptors in the early- to mid-twentieth century (or at least an increasingly formalised awareness of them): cosmic, weird, numinous, uncanny, strange, among others. I believe these words are of merit, not because they define sub-genres, but because they reflect attempts to describe particular nuances of affect (emotional responses) to be found in the “ghost story”—the dominant mode of horror in the late nineteenth century, itself rooted in the gothic tradition. Despite the common trope of the wailing bedsheet, the ghost story has always been quite diverse and adaptable. As is occasionally observed, the “ghosts” in the works of M. R. James are often not ghosts at all, but demons and other such denizens; while the stories of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and Henry James practically beg for the qualifier “psychological” so as to set them apart from the less imaginative chain-rattling fare. And yet, even though Algernon Blackwood himself called “The Willows” a ghost story, that attribution would seem a wholly inadequate description for the troubling sentiments that masterful tale evokes. Who can blame Lovecraft for writing an entire treatise pondering the aesthetics of the weird or Robert Aickman for labouring the strange?

This attempt to describe dominant effects found in horror storytelling continues apace; sometimes these descriptions are celebrated, other times they’re inelegantly stated, occasionally there’s some sort of backlash. Current nomenclature includes “quiet horror” or “elevated horror”, “horror adjacent”, “new horror”, and the ostensibly respectable “thriller”. But surely horror means horror. It doesn’t need your fancy terms. Perhaps the worry is that defining a “sub-genre” will limit creativity, possibly that it’s just a marketing ploy, or, worse still, a declaration of vogueishness, a demonstration of an otherwise unspoken desire to be au courant. Or maybe outsiders discovering good horror ruin the mystique of the insular and supposedly marginalised horror geek who has been reading Thomas Ligotti this whole time anyway.

As someone who thinks often about the mechanics of horror storytelling, it makes sense to me that we recognise and try to describe the wide-ranging nuances of emotional sensations available to writers of horror. I believe understanding this diversity makes horror literature a stronger, richer, and more enjoyable pursuit.

Over the years I’ve written down some words that I’ve come to associate with the various emotional resonances found in horror literature. Take a moment to read through them. Think about stories you’ve read that evoke these sensations to varying degrees of success, and how these ideas differ from one another:

Strange
Weird
Dread
Uncanny
Eerie
Wonder
Awe
Decadence
Terror
Occult
Despair
Numinous
Epiphany
Nihilistic
Cosmic
Psychical
Mysterious
Gothic
Melancholy
Unreal
Surreal
Disquietude
Morbid
Oneiric
Mystical
Supernatural
Sublime
Grotesque
Unease
Paranoia
Revulsion

I have not attempted to arrange these words in any sort of order. I’m not sure I would know how. Nor would I feel confident to state that this list is complete; no doubt you can think of more. Call these words what you’d like—sub-genres, modes, atmospheres, moods, sensibilities—but they all describe, directly or indirectly, discreet emotional sensations that a skilled writer can elicit from a reader. It also stands to reason that this variety of effects requires a broad range of appreciative sensibilities—though I understand that not everyone will respond equally to each of these words. Still, there are plenty of emotional sensations available to the skilled writer, the adrenaline rush of fear being only one of them. And this sensation alone is insufficient to judge the vast scope of horror. So much for “That didn’t scare me”.

Numerous essayists over the centuries have attempted to define some of these modes, to delineate their core attributes and limits. Anne Radcliffe made an early attempt at that classic bifurcation, differentiating terror and horror: “the first expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them”; to these twin poles, Stephen King added revulsion (the “gross-out”, he called it). Thomas Burke gives us the sublime, when “the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it”; while Freud sets out a reasonable starting point for the uncanny (“that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar”).

Though the weird is often associated with Lovecraft’s examination of supernatural horror in literature, I like Mark Fisher’s more recent philosophical definition in The Weird and the Eerie: “that which does not belong”; and of the eerie: the “failure of absence” or the “failure of presence”. (Fisher also helpfully tells us that the weird and the eerie need not necessarily be aligned with fear either, thank you very much.) The well-known rules for the ghost story proper were set out by M. R. James; so too does Edith Wharton give insight in her preface to Ghosts: “What the ghost really needs is continuity and silence”—although she also notes, “the more one thinks the question over, the more one perceives the impossibility of defining supernatural events”.

It’s true that many have tried to put words to these nuanced facets of horror. Certainly, some overlap or work in tandem, while others command entirely recognisable sub-genres on their own. We can look to Arthur Machen for the mystical (“Omnia exeunt in mysterium”), to Aickman for the strange (“it must open a door where no one had previously noticed a door to exist”), or to Joyce Carol Oates for the grotesque (“a blunt physicality that no amount of epistemological exegesis can exorcise”). There are whole books written on the subject by Dorothy Scarborough, Montague Summers, Peter Penzoldt, Devendra P. Varma, Julia Briggs, Jack Sullivan, Glen Cavaliero, S. T. Joshi—you may not always agree with their conclusions (isn’t that half the fun anyway?), but all are attempting to give names to the various effects a “horror” story can elicit.

Which brings us to the present volume, the fifth in a series of unsettling tales. Believe it or not, Uncertainties is a themed anthology. The remit was nothing so superficial as vampires or zombies or folk horror or Cthulhu (only in dustbowl Oklahoma this time), but rather to exhibit horror’s myriad nuances, to open up strange vistas of unsettling possibilities and other-worldly ideas, to commune with intrusions from the outside and those disquieting gestations from within. “Ghost stories,” as Elizabeth Bowen observed, “are not easy to write—least easy now, for they involve more than they did.” But these twelve writers take up the challenge, each in their own way, with expert awareness of the genre’s limitless possibilities.

Algernon Blackwood put it well in “The Willows”, a story that’s caused me many sleepless nights in terrible awe of the unknown: “ ‘There are things about us, I’m sure, that make for disorder, disintegration, destruction, our destruction,’ he said once, while the fire blazed between us. ‘We’ve strayed out of a safe line somewhere.’ ”

So you can call these stories whatever you’d like: weird, strange, eerie, uncanny . . . I call them Uncertainties.

Brian J. Showers
Rathmines, Dublin
24 February 2021

If you liked this essay and want to show
your support for independent press:
Buy a copy of Uncertainties 5.


Brian J. Showers is originally from Madison, Wisconsin. He has written short stories, articles, and reviews for magazines such as Rue Morgue, Ghosts & Scholars, and Supernatural Tales. His short story collection, The Bleeding Horse, won the Children of the Night Award in 2008. He is also the author of Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin (2006), the co-editor of Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu (2011), and the editor of The Green Book. Showers also edited the first two volumes of Uncertainties, and co-edited with Jim Rockhill, the Ghost Story Award-winning anthology Dreams of Shadow and Smoke. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.


Previous volumes of Uncertainties are also available:

Uncertainties Volume 4, edited by Timothy J. Jarvis

Uncertainties Volume 3, edited by Lynda E. Rucker

Uncertainties Volume 2, edited by Brian J. Showers

Uncertainties Volume 1, edited by Brian J. Showers

Our Haunted Year: 2018

2018 Christmas

Running Swan River Press can be a difficult job. The hours are long, usually after returning home from my day job (also weekends), and any financial risks are wholly my own. The victories are incremental, only often partly enjoyed with my attention fixed on what the next challenge might be. That’s why it’s nice to sit down with a cup of coffee, some homemade cranberry bread, and reflect on some of the successes of this past year. I’m always pleasantly surprised at how many there are.

IMG_2036The first book of the year was R. B. Russell’s Death Makes Strangers of Us All. I’ve known Ray for a good long time now, and where guidance is concerned, you can’t go wrong taking your cue from Tartarus Press. This is the third book Ray and I have done together. The first two were Ghosts (2012) and The Dark Return of Time (2014). Michael Dirda at the Washington Post seemed to like the book too, commenting that, “The disorienting title story of R. B. Russell’s superb Death Makes Strangers of Us All takes us into an ‘unreal city’ straight out of Kafka or Borges.” Not too shabby, huh? You can read more reviews here and an interview with Ray here.

IMG_2079The next book was a long-time in coming: William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. This title is one of the two of which I own excessive multiple editions: the Chapman & Hall, 1908; the Arkham House, 1946; plus innumerable paperbacks, etc. The situation really is ridiculous, folks. I figured the logical next step would be to publish my own edition. And this I did, with my dream line-up consisting of Alan Moore (introduction), Iain Sinclair (afterword), John Coulthart (illustrations), and Jon Mueller (soundtrack) — everyone who participated shares a deep admiration for Hodgson’s masterpiece, which is really the only way to do a project like this one. Apart from some production difficulties (ugh), we produced a beautiful signed edition just in time for the 100th anniversary of Hodgson’s death at Ypres in late April 1918. Alan declared it the finest edition of The House on the Borderland that had ever been published. Some reviews can be read here, a wonderful discussion between John Coulthart and Jon Mueller is here, and if you want to listen to Jon’s soundtrack (and even buy a digital copy), you can do that here.

IMG_2100Next was up may well be our most unsettling book of the year: Nicholas Royle’s The Dummy & Other Uncanny Stories. Apart from his introduction to Joel Lane’s The Anniversary of Never (2015), this is the first time I’ve worked with Nick. I suffered a few sleepless nights due to him, but sure, it was worth it. The stories evoke the uncanny in the Freudian sense, and that cover by Bill Bulloch is most disturbing. Reviewer Mario Guslandi also liked the book: “Royle’s dark fiction is always worth reading . . . His storytelling is impeccable, his plots always interesting and his characters credible.” If you’re still not convinced, you can read an interview with Nick here. You need a copy if you don’t have one already.

IMG_20180620_162604_437Shortly after The Dummy, we published Rosalie Parker’s Sparks from the Fire. This book was special not only because I got to work with Rosalie again, but also because Rosalie’s collection The Old Knowledge (2010) was the very first hardback book we published, ushering Swan River into a new era. Publishers Weekly gave a favourable review to what is one of our most popular books of the year: “[Parker’s] treatment of the fantastic is often so light and ambiguous that stories in which it does manifest are of a piece with tales such as ‘Jetsam’ and ‘Job Start’, sensitive character sketches whose celebration of life’s unforeseen surprises will appeal to fantasy fans as much as the book’s more overtly uncanny tales. Parker proves herself a subtle and versatile writer.” Naturally, I think you should buy a copy. Here’s an interview with Rosalie conducted by Jason E. Rolfe and some more reviews.

DnDQUqNX4AARHq8.jpg largeAnd then there’s Uncertainties 3. I edited the first two volumes in 2016. This year, to keep things fresh, I handed the reins over to Lynda E. Rucker, whose collection You’ll Know When You Get There (2016) I hope you’ve already enjoyed. Lynda did a superb job in selecting stories, showing the broad range of what supernatural literature in all its guises can do. Do take a peek at the line-up! In addition to some great reviews, Joyce Carol Oates wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that, “Among the most memorable books I’ve read this year are [ . . . ] several slender, elegantly designed collections of short stories of the uncanny (Uncertainties Vol. 1, 2, 3) published by Swan River Press.” Okay, so she has a story in the anthology too, but still! In addition to all that, Robert Shearman’s “Bobbo”, Lisa Tuttle’s “Voices in the Night”, and Rosanne Rabinowitz’s “The Golden Hour” were chosen for Best British Horror 2019! I don’t know about you, but I’m very much looking forward to Timothy J. Jarvis’s turn as editor for Uncertainties 4 next year.

47575930_571374369993353_4001565216583188480_nThen there are issues 11 and 12 of The Green Book, the former of which was excessively late this year. I apologise. Anyway, issue 11 boasts cover art by none other than Mike Mignola. This marks the second time we’ve worked with Mike — anyone remember the first? Issue 11 features articles on Lord Dunsany, plus the first serialised entries from A Guide to Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Fiction, a long-term project I’m working on with Jim Rockhill. Issue 12 features more entries from the Guide, and our issues for 2019 will continue with these. The project has has proved an extremely enlightening one. I’m learning loads and my reading list has grown like you wouldn’t believe. Intrigued? Stay tuned.

dublin logo final copyThe reason The Green Book 11 was delayed for so long turned out to be one of the absolute highlights of the year for me. The second Dublin Ghost Story Festival took place in late June. As in 2016, the festival sold out long before this intimate event and proved to be just as enjoyble as its predecessor. The guest of honour was Joyce Carol Oates (!!), and the opening night’s entertainment was provided by the great Reggie Oliver, who is surely one of the finest writers of the supernatural tale. Other guests included Helen Grant, Andrew Michael Hurley, V. H. Leslie, Rosalie Parker, Nicholas Royle, R. B. Russell, and Lisa Tuttle, each of whom brought with them their passion for the genre. Ladies and gentlemen, you’d better believe we indulged the entire weekend in all things ghostly and strange, with discussions, readings, signings, and a trade hall that could easily claim the entire contents of your bank account. There are some photos over on Facebook. So will there be another Dublin Ghost Story Festival? I’d love to know the answer to that too!

37710479_2143309032570526_903951175399768064_nSure, running Swan River Press isn’t always easy, but looking back over the year I can clearly see the late nights and hard work were worth it. Thank you again to those who have shown Swan River support through this past year. I raise my glass to everyone who read our books and shared them with friends, wrote reviews, attended the festival, supported us through patronage, or sent correspondence and kind words. And a special thanks as always to the Swan River team: Meggan Kehrli, Ken Mackenzie, and Jim Rockhill. They put in loads of work, and it’s due to their expertise that our books always look their best.

Oh! Before I forget, because I completely missed it during the year, October was our fifteenth anniversary — our first publication, a chapbook entitled “The Old Tailor & the Gaunt Man”, first saw print in 2003. I’m working on a bibliography, Fifteen Years of Swan River Press, which I’ll try to issue as soon as I can.

I promise you I’ve got a full publishing schedule ready to go for next year. Some titles I’m particularly excited about, so make sure you’re on our mailing list. It’s the best way to get the jump on all things Swan River. You can also join us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I look forward to hearing from you all again soon.

 

 

Coulthart and Mueller on the Borderland

BorderlandConducted by Brian J. Showers, © April 2018

For Swan River’s new edition of The House on the Borderland (with a new introduction by Alan Moore and an afterword by Iain Sinclair), artist John Coulthart contributed ten illustrations, while musician Jon Mueller recorded a three-track album especially for issue with the book. Publisher Brian J. Showers discusses with the pair William Hope Hodgson, his classic novel, and its influence on their work.


Brian J. Showers: Do you recall the first time you read William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland?

John Coulthart: Yes, I was about twenty at the time. I’d been reading ghost and horror stories from the age of ten but it took me a while to get round to Hodgson after being alerted by Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature”. The first copy I found was the notoriously disgraceful 1977 paperback from Manor Books, the cover of which is still the worst of all the House on the Borderland covers. The quote from Lovecraft has his name printed at a much larger size than Hodgson’s; the house is a typical American farm in a dustbowl landscape, while the foreground of the cover painting is occupied by a preposterous corncob. If I hadn’t been so eager to read the book I would have refused to pay the mere 25p it was selling for. I was further aggrieved when I found the 1972 Panther edition (with excellent cover art by Ian Miller) to discover that Manor Books had omitted the opening poem and some of the novel’s other front matter. An inauspicious introduction.

1977 Manor BooksJon Mueller: I only just discovered the book within the last four years or so. I stumbled upon a mention of Hodgson in an article, and was surprised I had never heard of him. The article suggested that The House on the Borderland was his best work, so I figured I’d start there. I couldn’t help but see the similarity between the two men in the story, discovering the central character’s journal, and my discovery of Hodgson’s book. Both seemingly random, yet somehow fated. From there, this realisation grew to surreal heights as I too got lost in the nightmarish (not just descriptively, but literally) world of its story. Like the two men in the book, it consumed me. I wondered about the central character, his dog, the beasts, and what was happening as the universe seemed to implode within the house, and even within them. I walked away from the end of the book feeling like I was really woken from reality. That a whole other layer of existence was all around me. John, do you remember what your initial takeaway was?

Coulthart: Now that the book is so familiar it’s difficult for me to recall an initial impression other than one of surprise at the sudden change of tone halfway through. Any book that begins with a kind of adventure narrative — even one involving monstrous entities — can be relied upon to develop fairly predictably but that’s not what we find here. I was also impressed by the lack of resolution or tidy explanation, an unusual thing in genre novels even today. The inexplicabilities at the heart of the novel are a persistent attraction.

1969 Panther HorrorShowers: When I first read The House on the Borderland, I was floored by the sense of cosmic wonder that it elicited from me. Some readers have observed the book is clunky in its construction, the less sympathetic have gone so far as to call it naive. But for many readers it undoubtedly holds real and inexplicable power. What do you think those inexplicabilities are?

Mueller: I think the natural reaction is to try to make sense, or understand, or know. But we can’t. We’re given many details, but what they lead to, if anything, is something we struggle with in general. That being said, there’s no hint with a book like this that we have a chance of knowing. In fact, it builds an empire of not-understanding, but within that not-understanding, an odd feeling like we’re there, within it occurs. That is a peculiar situation for a human being and I think that’s why it’s so alluring.

Coulthart: You could write a long list of the questions the book presents, beginning with the House itself and its connection to other dimensions. Then there’s the Recluse’s relationship with his sister, the nature of the Swine-things, whether the visions are real (as in genuine views across time and space) or hallucinations/dreams, and so on. Inexplicabilities such as this stimulate the mind because of the gaps they create, gaps which are then filled (successfully or not) by the reader’s imagination. Whether Hodgson’s inexplicabilities are a result of inexperience or design is of no consequence, it’s how they affect the reader that matters. People who complain about such things don’t seem to realise that filling in the gaps and providing explanation destroys the frisson of the weird tale. Robert Aickman and Thomas Ligotti deal with similar disjunctions in their own work. If you want “well-constructed stories that make sense” there are thousands of examples elsewhere; many of those polished and coherent tales were being written by Hodgson’s contemporaries, none of whom are remembered or read today.

Showers: How did you each approach or engage with Hodgson’s text with regard to your own creative contributions — John’s illustrations and Jon’s soundtrack — for this edition? Did you take inspiration from any other sources?

IMG_0291Mueller: I was following through on some existing approaches I had been working with but tried framing them within the context of particular sections of the book — the emotional energy it expressed, the tension building and seeking catharsis, but also the moments of surreal calm, which of course get interrupted by more chaos. I bookended the work with dense gong sounds to represent the complex detail with no definition or resolution, as we’ve been discussing here. Like asking, “What do you expect here? What’s in it for you? What sense can you make of all this?”

Coulthart: I think I paid closer attention to the details than I had done in the past. If you’re illustrating a story in a fairly realistic manner then you’re forced to address certain questions of appearance that might otherwise remain unresolved while you’re reading. So the Recluse describes himself as an old man, and yet (as I think Iain Sinclair notes) he’s very active in the earlier chapters. There’s a couple of slight nods to other artists: I’ve always liked Jack Gaughan’s cover for the Ace paperback so the House in the Arena is reminiscent of his painting. And the figure floating in a fiery nimbus is a nod to Philippe Druillet who does this in some of his Lone Sloane comic strips. It only occurred to me later that Druillet was also one of the first French artists (possibly the first) to illustrate Hodgson in 1971; looking at his drawings it turns out that he had his Recluse floating through a landscape in a similar fiery nimbus.

HotB0Showers: Do you have any other thoughts on The House on the Borderland or William Hope Hodgson that you’d like to add?

Mueller: I’m fascinated by Hodgson’s personal life and how his literature came out of it. How the isolation of the sea, his hatred of it, and the torment by other sailors he experienced perhaps brought about his aim for revenge against forces that seemed to outnumber him. I admire how he potentially translated some of his many struggles with these forces into creative endeavours. I think that’s why The House on the Borderland has no resolve. These forces never really die. They just change form.

Coulthart: It’s tempting to wonder what he might have done had he survived the war, but then he wouldn’t have been William Hope Hodgson if he hadn’t also insisted on returning to the Front after having been wounded. The men of action in his novels and stories are all personae of the author, the Recluse included. Even if he had have lived twenty or thirty years more I doubt we’d have anything else like The House on the Borderland, it’s sui generis.

Buy Swan River Press’s The House on the Borderland here.

Listen to Jon Mueller’s soundtrack here.


Jon Mueller is a Wisconsin-based artist whose aim has been to use drums, percussion and sound as a way to express something felt but not easily defined. More about his work, performances and recordings can be found at www.rhythmplex.com

John Coulthart is a World Fantasy Award-winning artist, designer and writer. His illustration and design work has been exhibited worldwide, and includes commissions for Abrams, Angry Robot, Granta, Harper Collins, Savoy Books, Tachyon, and many others. www.johncoulthart.com