This is a follow-up to my previous pieces on Old versus New Horror, and whether there is some kind of faceoff in the horror/dark/weird fiction community similar to developments in science fiction during that genre’s New Wave era. And specifically, I wanted to pin down what I see as the distinguishing marks of New Horror that make it so interesting.
The whole topic of whether horror is a radical or reactionary genre is live (or undead) enough to generate some recent articles on the theme of, well, “the question of whether horror is a conservative or liberal genre.” Even if this puts horror into the firing line of American culture wars – and frequently shot by both sides – it underlines that one way of looking at major strands in post-war traditional horror, and especially the horror of the 1970s and 1980s boom, is as a reactionary kickback against the threats of social, economic, and technological change – a literature of reassurance. “Genre fictions have some of the most aesthetically conservative readers in the literary world,” as one recent respondent to an earlier debate on science fiction remarked. “Genre is not so much a literature of estrangement as a literature of reassurance. Nobody should look to it for help.”
Thankfully, New Horror may no longer be guilty of that failing. To demonstrate why, see how Thomas Ligotti‘s brilliant non-fiction analysis The Conspiracy Against the Human Race sets up one particularly telling faceoff – “two horror novels that postulate the reality of supernatural possession—William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) and Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” Now, The Exorcist as book or film was arguably one of the key works of the great horror boom. But it doesn’t come off well in Ligotti’s analysis. “In the world of Blatty’s formulaic novel, certain characters are dressed for doom and others for survival.” Ligotti portrays The Exorcist as a by-the-numbers morality tale “in which good wins out over evil (we can spare the quotes), reassuring readers that human life, and the fabricated theistic order to which it is annexed, is all right,” but which all the same is casually, hypocritically murderous towards its characters – replicating the puritanical sadism of slasher movies that “punish” teens for their “sins” of intoxication, fornication, dancification, and sundry other forms of excess. (If you want to think your way into a truly horrible mindset, try and imagine the kind that feels it’s fine to butcher someone for having sex – and yes, in parts of the world, people do think that way outside the realms of horror fiction.)
As Ligotti underlines, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is in every way a negation of Blatty’s Exorcist. In Lovecraft’s novel, the universe is in the hands of forces that are indifferent to human life, as it is in the real world. This is acceptable to very few readers. Good and evil are childish abstractions, as they are in the real world. Again, this is acceptable to very few readers. And the idea of human beings as creatures with souls is not an issue in the story because it was not an issue for Lovecraft. Everyone, not only the hapless protagonist of the book, exists in a world that is nightmare through and through.”
And despite the fact that his work came almost 50 years earlier, and is in a far more recherché style, “Lovecraft’s handling of the subject matter of supernatural possession is so at odds with Blatty’s that the two men might have been living in different centuries, or rather millennia. The narrative parameters of The Exorcist begin and end with the New Testament; those of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward could only have been conceived by a fiction writer of the modern era, a time when it had become safe not only to place humanity outside the center of the Creation but to survey the universe itself as centerless and our species as only a smudge of organic materials at the mercy of forces that know us not (as it is in the real world).”
The context of that analysis is every bit as telling as its argument. Ligotti has written a serious conceptual analysis of what he sees as the issues at play in horror, which can stand up as a genuine – although very personal and partial – philosophical argument. It touches on questions of consciousness, reality, ontology, personality and identity, self-awareness, and existential doubt – let alone the straight issue of how to (or whether to) live. In passing, it’s now also as indispensable to understanding the whole horror genre as Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature or Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. You can see why work that raises a genre to a level where it can take on such issues might be very compelling – and very upsetting for more conservative practitioners in the field.
Lovecraft, says Ligotti, “really went the limit of disillusionment in assuming the meaningless, disordered, foundationless universe that became the starting point for later figures in science and philosophy. Lovecraft existed in no man’s land of nihilism and disillusionment. He will always be a contemporary of whatever generation comes along. One cannot say the same about most recipients of the Nobel Prize in literature, never mind writers of horror fiction.” Doesn’t sound like a literature of consolation to me. But serious and compelling literature that demands to be read? Maybe.