In the summertime, when I was a child, dozens of spiders would congregate on the ceiling of our carport just above the back door.
There were large spiders and small spiders, web-spinners and hole-hiders, and perhaps even a wolf spider or two, but the most numerous were the ones we called granddaddy longlegs: round bodies the size of pinpoints surrounded by long, spindly legs thinner than fishing wire. When I would come home, I would ask – beg, sometimes – for my mother or father to hold open the door while I dashed up the steps, head lowered like a bull, hoping desperately that I would make it inside before one of those eight-legged children of Ungoliant dropped from the ceiling and into my hair, at which point, had it happened, I know I would have dropped dead from fright.
I never had any fear that the spiders were going to do me harm. From time to time a friend (or a friend’s parent) would assure me that granddaddy longlegs don’t even have teeth with which to bite people, but that didn’t matter. Teeth and venom were irrelevant. It was the legs that bothered me – dark, long, wriggling, and entirely too numerous. I couldn’t bear them.
Perhaps it wasn’t the legs at all. My fear of spiders was, and remains, a pathological one, probably stemming from some trauma I’ve long since forgotten. But in recent times I’ve given thought to that phobia of mine, trying to put my finger on the quality of those creatures that unsettles me. Knowing that they are harmless, but fearing them as though nothing in the world were more evil and deadly: as a writer and student of writing, this response makes me wonder. I’ve come to believe my arachnophobia, whatever its real source, is analogous to a similar kind of fear, a thrilling, gut-deep fear that grips me when I read certain stories, watch certain films, and even listen to certain music – a fear that I find similarly difficult to define and explain.
Before I go further, I should mention that I am no aficionado of the horror genre. I have good friends who have seen many horror films and can speak about the subject with greater firsthand knowledge; I myself have seen only a handful. But I find that my reluctance to approach the genre usually has to do with the kind of fear these films tend to offer. I have not seen many slasher films, for instance; partly this is because of my suspicion that they would be unhealthy for my imagination and partly because I suspect I would not have the stomach to sit through one. But mostly it is because, for me, nothing in the genre has any inherent appeal. Masked maniacs and severed limbs bore me. It would take a talented filmmaker exercising the powers of good storytelling to make a movie about a serial killer hold my interest. Some have done this (I’m partial to The Silence of the Lambs), but not on the strength of their subject matter.
One important distinction here is between the fear of death and the fear of being killed. The slasher film, at least as I understand it, preys on our fear of the latter. It invites us to empathize with characters who are threatened with machetes and chainsaws and complicated limb-severing deathtraps. It evokes a visceral, animal fear of physical pain and injury. The former kind of fear, the fear of death considered in itself, I find more appealing, since it engages our emotions, imagination, and reason instead of merely our fight-or-flight instinct. Tolkien was especially good at this: the Barrow-wights, the Nazgúl, the Dead Marshes, all exude a stench of ruin and decay, of smothering darkness and hopelessness that haunts my imagination more powerfully than any of the physical perils the heroes in The Lord of the Rings face. But I find there is another kind of literary fear, one that’s deeper still and harder to name: a fear that carries with it the quality of bad dreams, or of other worlds.
C.S. Lewis (our constant companion here at The Study of Everything) makes this distinction in his essay, “On Stories.” He refers to “fears that are not of danger at all: like the fear of some large and hideous, though innocuous, insect or the fear of a ghost,” and makes the case that these fears offer a unique pleasure when we experience them in stories. In particular, he states (and I find myself in concord with him) that, of these kinds of fears, the ones that best excited his imagination are fears connected to the marvelous or supernatural, to the unearthly and uncanny, to the feeling of going “into another dimension.”
Much of the time, mere atmosphere does a better job of conveying this species of fear than the ghosts or monsters that populate the narrative. In fantastical stories especially, mood and tone matter more than almost anything else. Certainly my favorite weird tales are the ones that bank heavily on creating a thick ambiance of hazy dread, an air brimming with that distinct aroma of the unearthly, the eerie, or the magical. Andrei Tarkovsky’s great science fiction film Stalker is an example of this style done well; so is the anime series Serial Experiments Lain. Nothing overtly frightening even need happen in these stories for them to work their spell upon us. Their power is in the tapestry of colors and sounds and scents and emotional textures that the author weaves. (Often I find that atmosphere, of whatever flavor, is the source of a story’s power over the imagination; this is an idea I will likely revisit in a later post.)
But fears of this uncanny sort can creep into specific images as well as whole atmospheres. Images, when executed skillfully, have the power to transport us at once into that other realm – the realm of spirits or of dreams – because it is often in specific images that the unique thrill of this kind of fear comes into sharpest focus. I am almost convinced that the less logical and the more oneiric the terror, the better, though this rule must have its limits. The author who leaves literally everything to the imagination of the reader has failed: phrases like “I cannot describe the creature, so I shall not even make the attempt” smack of an impoverished or lazy imagination, and moreover they give the reader nothing, not the least whiff, of that unearthly aroma of dreams which so frightens our waking minds. Good writers will give us images and sensations enough to work with, though not enough to rob us of that indefinable quality of the uncanny.
When it comes to achieving this balance, two examples may prove useful as illustrations. H.P. Lovecraft is a writer celebrated for just this kind of horror – that primal quailing before the unknown and unknowable – and he may well be very good at it; I confess I am not yet acquainted with enough of his corpus to judge one way or the other. But in one of his best-known stories, “The Dunwich Horror,” I came across a passage of description that, while ghastly in its vivid rendering of the titular horror, struck me as inferior to a similar moment in Lovecraft’s own favorite weird tale, Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows.” The difference in quality between the two passages has everything to do with the difference between concrete imagery and the stuff of dreams.
Both stories, Lovecraft’s and Blackwood’s, treat with the same theme, more or less. In “The Dunwich Horror,” rural New England townsfolk become hosts to a malevolent entity from another dimension; in “The Willows,” two travelers canoeing down the Danube make camp in a country full of willow trees that seems to be home to similarly eerie forces. Both stories capitalize on the uncanny sensation that arises naturally from contact with other realms; both allow the reader to bask for many pages in an ever-thickening atmosphere of supernatural dread. The main difference is in the visible shape each author gives to his horror. Lovecraft allows the frightened townsfolk of Dunwich an extended glimpse of their horror through a spyglass, and the passage describing the creature (related by the character who glimpsed it) contains some of the tale’s most vivid and colorful language:
Bigger’n a barn . . . all made o’ squirmin’ ropes . . . hull thing sort o’ shaped like a hen’s egg bigger’n anything, with dozens o’ legs like hogsheads that haff shut up when they step . . . nothin’ solid abaout it—all like jelly, an’ made o’ sep’rit wrigglin’ ropes pushed clost together . . . great bulgin’ eyes all over it . . . ten or twenty maouths or trunks a-stickin’ aout all along the sides, big as stovepipes, an’ all a-tossin’ an’ openin’ an’ shuttin’ . . . all grey, with kinder blue or purple rings . . . an’ Gawd in heaven—that haff face on top! . . .
If you’re willing to fight through Lovecraft’s rendering of rural New England dialect, you’ll find a wild, chimerical richness, an explosion of alien images embodied in this creature from beyond. And there is no question that the creature’s overwhelming alienness is terrifying. But for all its nightmarish trappings, the monster sounds like it could be, well, real: it sounds like an animal we could see in our waking hours, even if we had to travel to the bottom of the ocean or into the depths of outer space to find it. We can imagine a gelatinous bulk with heads and limbs emerging and being reabsorbed, or simply appearing and disappearing, made all of “squirmin’ ropes” and covered in mouths, and we don’t have to strain our imaginations to do it. The physical features, though monstrous in their combinations, are merely physical. However alien the creature, the picture Lovecraft paints for us is concrete.
Not so in “The Willows.” Now, it is not that Blackwood skimps on physical description. The best parts of this story may be the patient, atmospheric passages where the characters slowly become aware that the trees, the river, the earth itself are haunted by an invisible and unwholesome presence, but when the time comes to reveal a momentary glimpse of the “other side,” Blackwood does not falter. But his descriptions have the illogical, amorphous quality of dreams. They suggest images, rather than describe them in ways that can be drawn on paper or even easily imagined. Consider this blindingly chilling moment, when the hero realizes that he and his Swedish companion have been “found” by whatever nameless entity haunts the swamp:
I saw it through a veil that hung before my eyes like the gauze drop-curtain used at the back of a theater—hazily a little. It was neither a human figure nor an animal. To me it gave the strange impression of being as large as several animals grouped together, like horses, two or three, moving slowly. The Swede, too, got a similar result, though expressing it differently, for he thought it was shaped and sized like a clump of willow bushes, rounded at the top, and moving all over upon its surface—”coiling upon itself like smoke,” he said afterwards.
Certainly the description is vaguer than Lovecraft’s, but that is not the only difference. In the narrator’s mind the being is not a single creature, but more like several moving together; for the Swede, the thing might not even be a solid mass. And the men’s descriptions do not quite match. The contradictions – one animal or many? solid or gaseous? – are precisely the sort we often encounter in that “underground sea or chaos” of dreams (if I may borrow a phrase from Borges), but Blackwood gives us enough specific visual details (horses, willow bushes, smoke) to tantalize our imaginations, and the aroma of the otherworldly is the stronger for it. The less our unearthly terrors fit within the logic of the waking world, the more I can believe they really are from another world altogether.
And what, we might wonder at this point, do the men in “The Willows” fear that this creature (or spirit, or entity) is going to do to them? Kill them? Perhaps, but perhaps the thought does not even cross their minds. In Lovecraft’s tale we have already learned that the Dunwich horror is a man-eater by the time we see it; indeed, it is a house-eater, a colossus that leaves a vast, stinking slug-trail of black slime and snapped trees in its wake. The townsfolk fear it for its alien qualities and its hideousness, but also because they know it can kill them, and the visceral, concrete nature of its appearance only serves to undergird their physical fear. In Blackwood’s tale the fear of being killed hardly rears its head. Like the willow-spirits themselves, the fear is shapeless: we sense only that a boundary has been violated, that beings beyond pity, beyond reason, beyond life and death, have looked down and noticed us. This does not mean that Lovecraft’s story is deficient and Blackwood’s is superior. It means only that the two stories aim to frighten the reader in different ways, and Blackwood’s method – conjuring in us that fear of the unknown which truly has no name, no face, and no defined shape – is the one I happen to prefer.
This sense of the uncanny, of course, is not restricted to images. Events, locations, even characters, can become bearers of that otherworldly aura of menace. To illustrate, let me cite a more contemporary example. The South Korean horror film The Wailing tells the story of a police officer whose daughter becomes possessed – by what exactly, we do not know, though we can guess it’s some kind of evil spirit. Evil is a prevailing theme in The Wailing, but the film concerns itself with that kind of evil that is fundamentally not human – an evil that comes from outside our ordinary experience and works upon our lives for reasons not given us to know. No moment better embodies this sensation of evil than the scene where, late at night, the policeman’s daughter sits down on the kitchen floor and begins to eat. And eat, and eat, and eat.
This scene is almost unbearably tense because it drips with diabolical evil. The girl’s reckless consumption conjures up numerous associations: it combines aspects of the Christian notion of demons as creatures of unrestrained appetite with East Asian notions of animal spirits indulging their base instincts. Moreover, her silence as she sits in that awkward pose, eating and eating and finally belching as her mother and grandmother look on in their own, confused silence, gives us a sense of ordinary social mores, even simple matters pertaining to dinner conduct, being violated by some force or intelligence that cares nothing for human manners. The mere wrongness of it turns our stomachs. So powerful is this impression of the demonic that, when the girl at last finishes her meal and turns to eye the kitchen knife waiting on the counter, the horror of the scene (for me, at least) is perceptibly diminished. We pass from that indefinable dread of spiritual malevolence to the more mundane fear of being sliced or stabbed to death, a fear that does not even require the presence of a demon. As Lewis said of a similar moment in John Masefield’s novel Sard Harker (which I have not read), the idea that something as eerie and alien as an evil spirit should simply want to kill us is “almost an impertinence.”
It is worth remembering that the scent of the land of dreams can arise from other sources besides the horrific. Some of my favorite passages in fantasy novels I’ve read are ones that describe encounters with magical or divine forces by use of metaphors and similes that suggest, rather than simply spell out, the indescribable sensations these forces produce. Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn has otherworldly language coursing through its pages like blood: glance at his description of the radiant, immortal beauty of the unicorn “leaping through the night like a falling star,” the sight of which makes men “laugh with wonder” long years after they had seen her. Or consider Li’vanh’s unendurable vision of the goddess Vir’Vachal in Joy Chant’s criminally-forgotten gem of a book, Red Moon and Black Mountain: “her eyes were the dark malty color of rich earth, and when he looked into them it was as if he were gazing down a fathomless abyss into the molten heart of the world.” C.S. Lewis himself offers several examples in That Hideous Strength, when the “gods” descend into Ransom’s living room, and each one fills it with a towering, cosmic presence, each of a different flavor: the aura of Mars is “tonic and lusty and cheerily cold, like a sea-breeze” and makes Ransom’s blood dance to a marching tune; old Saturn is “a mountain of centuries sloping up from the highest antiquity we can conceive, up and up like a mountain whose summit never comes into sight.” These books, too, carry the aroma of other worlds, but instead of using it to befuddle our reason and haunt our imaginations, they evoke wonder, or joy, or awe, or sorrow, and they do it in ways that affect us differently than descriptions of ordinary, “realistic” life could ever do.
What I think is the virtue of this kind of horror (or this kind of beauty) is that it heightens our awareness of, or sharpens our receptiveness to, that other world – if indeed another world exists. And on that subject, turn-of-the-century spiritualists like Blackwood or Arthur Machen can find common ground with religious storytellers like Tolkien and Lewis and even like me. Perhaps I find this form of horror appealing precisely because, as a Christian believer, I am naturally inclined toward an interest in the otherworldly. I don’t believe in willow-spirits or shoggoths or unicorns, but I do believe in that maddeningly unearthly (and yet viscerally human) character at the center of the Gospels: Jesus Christ, the God-man whose very existence confounds human reason and bears witness to realities beyond our (present) comprehension. But there are many readers who believe in nothing of the sort who find this kind of horror appealing all the same. You could ascribe to these fans various psychological or cultural motives for seeking out that scent of otherworld; I am inclined to pin it down to the innate human longing for the eternal, for the infinite – for God.
In this respect, tales of supernatural horror have something in common with fairy tales: they point us, however indirectly, toward grander truths, make us engage with questions with which we would not otherwise have had to grapple. As my former professor Danny Anderson has argued, the presence of otherworldly evil in a story raises in the reader’s mind the possibility of otherworldly good. And as for stories like Lewis’s or Chant’s or Beagle’s, which convey the grace and majesty and beauty that flow only from other worlds, so much the better. When our mundane lives are invaded, even if only though narrative art, by gods or aliens or entities from another dimension, we might catch startling symbolic glimpses of infinity. When we smell that unearthly aroma on the wind, we may well breathe the air of heaven.
These reasons alone might justify tales of the uncanny. But another reason looms even larger in my mind: that I find them terrible good fun. And, sometimes, isn’t that all we ask from the stories we read?