Future Imaginary and the role of Horror

When considering the “failure of the imagination” which traps people within capitalist realism, the potential in invoking an incoherent – though not necessarily unreal – alternative mode of thought or existence is crucial to breaking out of the bind of capitalist realism. Being able to posit an incoherent alterity is the first step towards being able to move towards a coherent alternate reality. But trying to pull away from the familiar and towards a new paradigm inevitably produces an encounter with Horror.

After reading Capitalist Realism, with its focus on what I have decided to term a “failure of the imagination” – not in the sense that we, the collective political and human consciousness, are exhibiting a personal failing – produced by the peremptory enclosure of possibility inherent in capitalist realism, I have re-committed myself to questions about the Future.

I have a terrible tendency to submit to the logic of “realpolitik” (in itself a form of capitalist realism) when evaluating the possibilities for creating better systems and better outcomes. While I believe it is partially the result of the natural contrarian in me responding to the more daring potentialities imagined by the people whom I choose as friends and compatriots, it nevertheless perpetuates a limited and limiting view of what could be.

On the Always Already Podcast, at the end of December 2018, the hosts contended with Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy. Without having read it, my understanding of it is of an imaginary book. This book is co-written by the description of the other book’s contents as provided by the crew at Always Already and by my own already-developing thoughts on the role of horror (both genre and emotion) and fear (both affect and effect) in philosophy – but philosophy writ large: any mode and means of asking questions.

Horror, according to Thomas Ligotti, is something which exists independent of the human mind. In “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror” he says:

“[O]ne thing we know is real: horror. It is so real, in fact, that we cannot be sure it could not exist without us. Yes, it needs our imaginations and our consciousness, but it does not ask or require our consent to use them.” (187)

Horror is something with which we must contend, not because it offers us anything in particular, but because it is unavoidable. Horror, whose handmaidens are Pain, Death, and Uncertainty, is, in point of fact, the soil in which the tree of philosophy has taken root.

Listening to Always Already, Thacker seems to be asking that we prepare ourselves to contend with something that cannot ever be perceived, a something which…

“…is that which paradoxically reveals the hiddenness of the world in itself. […] [You] reveal something which is a paradoxical re-hiding of it at the same time…”

One of the big debates around Lovecraft – the conundrum of his rich, descriptive prose and the his narrators’ perpetual encounters with the “indescribable,” – was put to rest (in my mind) by Mark Fisher, who was building on an analysis by China Mieville, in his essay “The Out of Place and the Out of Time: Lovecraft and the Weird” (collected in The Weird and the Eerie):

“After (1) the declaration of indescribability, and (2) the description, comes (3) the unvisualisable. For all their detail, or perhaps because of it, Lovecraft’s descriptions do not allow the reader to synthesize the logorrheic schizophony of adjectives into a mental image…” (23)

In other words, Lovecraft creates a cognitive rupture by providing enough (or so much) information so that a solution – a coherent image, in this case – ought to be possible, while simultaneously frustrating any attempt to generate that solution. This question of a something or somewhere which is perceptible as a logical and/or affective possibility but which, at the same time, cannot be constructed or imagined as a coherent whole is a powerful philosophical tool.

When considering the “failure of the imagination” which traps people within capitalist realism, the potential in invoking an incoherent – though not necessarily unreal – alternative mode of thought or existence is crucial to breaking out of the bind of capitalist realism. Being able to posit an incoherent alterity is the first step towards being able to move towards a coherent alternate reality.

But trying to pull away from the familiar and towards a new paradigm inevitably produces an encounter with Horror. Following from Ligotti’s assertion that Horror exists independent of the human, then perhaps it can be said that, in the way that venomous creatures are able to prolong their existence by disrupting the biological systems of their predators, Horror serves a similar function in the preservation and perpetuation of particular realities; Horror is a defensive tactic of collective existence which disrupts the cognitive systems of those seeking to change it.

Here it is important to distinguish between Horror, horror-as-genre, and horror.

Little-h “horror” is that which can be described as a feeling or emotion. It refers to a strong negative reaction, often literally embodied, which combines characteristics of disgust, pity, revulsion, and an instantaneous rejection which can be a precursor to fear.

Capital-H “Horror” by contrast is that philosophical/affective entity which Ligotti described as existing independently from the human consciousness. “Horror” is part of the collective consciousness, it is a fundamental part of both generating and processing reality itself.[1] Here, Horror refers to an affective quality which can be perceived even when it is not accompanied by horror. While some philosophical projects (as well as scientific, religious, and narrative) projects inspire horror in those who encounter them, all philosophical projects and re-imaginings of reality will produce Horror.

(While this is exceptionally true of efforts taking place in the tradition emergent from the Enlightenment and ultimately the Modernist philosophical projects, there is reason to believe that even in non-Western Rationalist reality paradigms Horror is emergent all the same. Regardless of what their precepts may be, collective reality rejects its own re-interpretation.)

This means that “horror-as-genre,” as a collective, wide-ranging aesthetic project dedicated to exploring the production of both horror and Horror, is kin to the philosophical and scientific projects which seek to push the boundaries of what is admissible in reality. But horror-as-genre can be deployed in the service of two outcomes: the first is the exploratory, imaginative function of positing the “outside” of reality, and the second is as an inoculation. Exposure to horror and Horror (especially in the places where they intersect and intensify each other) encourages familiarity with them, and that familiarity introduces the possibility of separating horror and Horror, making it possible to engage with each quality separately.

An inclusive survey of horror-as-genre quickly reveals the variety of emotional impulses present in a seemingly inclusive category. (This is partially a result of the diversity of any given audience. However, it is also because horror-as-genre traffics readily and effortlessly in pity and grief from tragedy,  and a variety of pleasurable sentiments.) So the evocation of mere horror is insufficient as a metric by which to recognize the shared quality which unifies horror-as-genre. What brings the disparate elements of horror-as-genre (a quality which enables a recognition unimpeded by the sometimes confounding confluence between genres) is the evocation of Horror – the affective, philosophical conundrum of the supposedly “unimaginable.”

By transforming the now-cliched Nietzsche quote into its raison d’être, horror-as-genre prepares us for life on the precipice. On one side, the worn-out, inhospitable, hazy terrain of the past, on the other, the abyss of the future, and between the two, the narrow ledge of the present. Capital-H Horror is the cognitive vertigo which comes with a prolonged gazing into the uncertainties of what is not-yet-known and what has not-yet-happened. It is the result of rejecting the materiality of the present and the collectively imagined real in favor of supposing that the void may not be empty after all.

Postmodernism created a Horror in modernism with its fundamental re-imagining of reality as inherently self-contradictory. The capacity of subjects and objects to contain themselves and their opposites generates unmitigated chaos in a modernist reality. The narrative complexity of postmodernism, the constant reproduction through speech and act, can make it impossible for a model of collective imagination which is still bound by the systems of modernism to adapt and respond. Meanwhile, the parts of reality which have embraced and adapted to the postmodernist model are already distant enough from large parts of the collective imagination to be perceived as an already reimagined “future.”

This implicit (though inaccurate) distancing is the result of both an evocation if Horror and the fundamental assumptions of modernism. As a post-Enlightenment ideology, modernism sees all change as progress, any modification, addition, or change constitutes a progressive evolution. This progressive assumption means that postmodernism is – by virtue of being “new” – both more recent and more forward thinking. But it is also disruptive, and that disruption, with its demand of a new paradigm, produces Horror in those attempting to engage it. The alterity of postmodernism to modernism renders it unreadable, especially at the beginning, or, in other words, “indescribable.”

The clash between perceived temporalities or other paradigmatic structures is a perpetual source of Horror. Horror which is very effective at disrupting the processes of the collective imagination. Developing a recognition of the role of Horror in demarcating reality modes and, more importantly, becoming comfortable with Horror as part of the imaginative process is a necessary component of liberating ourselves from the reality systems which have begun to negatively impact the collective imagination.

[1] Always Already discusses the intellectual crutch of the phrase “something itself” in the Thacker episode, which brings up a lot of very interesting questions. Nevertheless, at this time, the phrase will have to stand.

Bibliography

Aultman, B, et al. “Ep. 60 – Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy.” Always Already Podcast, 27 Dec. 2018, alwaysalreadypodcast.wordpress.com/2018/12/27/thacker/.

Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie. Repeater Books, 2016.

Ligotti, Thomas. Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe. Penguin Books, 2015.

Ridiculously Terrifying: Kevin Smith’s Tusk

Imagine the serial killer logic of Criminal Minds, the inventive and perverse body horror of The Human Centipede, and the wacky, irreverent – yet nonetheless emotional – hijinks of 90s slacker cinema, each taken to their logical extremity simultaneously.
You might then, for the briefest of moments, catch a glimpse of the feverish nightmare that is Tusk.

The trailer for the Kevin Smith’s 2014 film Tusk is as ambiguous as the film itself. For two and a half minutes, it is impossible to tell if you are watching a trailer for a comedy movie, a shlock horror flick, or something somewhere in between – a loving, though no less mocking, send up of the horror genre of the sort which were the rage in the first half of the 2010s.

The basic set-up has a young, hot-shot podcaster going to Canada to interview a well-traveled old man, only to be drugged and abducted by his prospective interviewee who plans to transform him into a walrus. (That’s right.)

Obviously, the events of the film defy all logic – be it scientific, medical, or rhetorical – but they are executed with such unflinching dedication and apparent sincerity so as to demand the audience suspend their disbelief and meet the movie on its terms.

Justin Long is deeply hateable as Wallace Bryton, host of a successful humiliation comedy podcast with the puerile, though provocative, name: “The Not-See Party.” At the risk of attributing meaning where none was intended, Long’s performance may succeed thanks to the implicit moral law: only a complete asshole could find himself in such a situation.

Genesis Rodriguez plays Ally Leon, Bryton’s longtime girlfriend. Rodriguez is the true star and emotional core of this film, without her tender and engaging performance the movie would have devolved beyond its barely manageable absurdity into pure farce.

Haley Joel Osment carefully navigates the divided loyalties familiar to anyone with a best friend completely outclassed by their better half. Osment’s Teddy Craft struggles to balance his involvement with Wallace’s podcasting fame fueled antics and his recognition of increasingly unattractive qualities his friend has developed as a result of success. Osment manages the convoluted emotions demanded of his character with grace and a persuasive friendliness.

Meanwhile, Michael Parks and Johnny Depp (almost entirely unrecognizable under a terrible wig, false nose, and exaggerated not-quite-Quebecois accent) compete for the distinction of most bizarre and unsettling performance.

Parks projects an unsettling menace without ever appearing physically threatening. The psychosis he reveals with every wild-eyed pronouncement is a performance wasted on his would-be interviewer. Long’s Wallace is dedicatedly vacuous and self-involved, ensuring that each scene he shares with Parks incites a piteous horror of the sort usually reserved for small, stupid animals. Parks unflinchingly executes a performance which demands everything from waxing poetic about an animal otherwise banished to satiric 19th century poetry (familiar from another Kevin Smith film, Dogma) to deranged vocalizations and low brow caricature.

Depp’s Guy Lapointe is a washed-up Inspector Clouseau, beaten down by the world and haunted by his past failures, keeping all of the exaggerated ridiculousness of a Peter Sellers’ character and adding an incongruous sense of grief and world-weariness.

Were Depp’s character the beaten down, veteran gumshoe in any other film, he would certainly drink too much. Instead, Smith writes in the fast food diner equivalent of the raw egg hangover cure routine, leaving the desperate protagonists to lay their plight in the dubious – and, in this case, greasy – hands of the only man willing to take them on.

When Parks and Depp share the screen, scenes that would have, at best, been satires of stereotype, become distressingly unsettling and perverse, suffused with a menace that originates as much in the distorted portrayals as it does in the narrative context.

The special effects have that rubbery quality particular to practical effect, yet are no less unsettling or horrific for it. Give the propensity for gory realism and smooth CGI in so much of contemporary cinema, the return to silicone and painted foam exacerbates the conflicting impulses present throughout the film. They are patently ridiculous and heighten the un-reality of the mechanics of the plot, simultaneously, however, they have the inescapable materiality of something that exists.

Smith’s filmmaking is impeccable. He wields the misdirection of the frame and the editing suite to maximum effect, especially in the scenes which delve into the unexpectedly complex relationship ensnaring Wallace, Ally, and Teddy. The film establishes a pattern of flashbacks early on, lulling the audience into a sense of security. The slow unfolding of a dreamy, already unreachable, sun-dappled status quo illustrates the depths of Wallace’s douchebaggery, while demonstrating the genuine affection – rooted in what little remains of the young man she fell in love with – which ties Ally to this undeserving cretin.

Imagine the serial killer logic of Criminal Minds, the inventive and perverse body horror of The Human Centipede, and the wacky, irreverent – yet nonetheless emotional – hijinks of 90s slacker cinema, each taken to their logical extremity simultaneously.
You might then, for the briefest of moments, catch a glimpse of the feverish nightmare that is Tusk.

The commitment to seeing the film through without giving in to the nudge-nudge-wink-wink of irony is quite possibly the thing which makes it surpass all other recent horror films in terms of absolute perversity. It has none of the ironic trope inversions which made Tucker and Dale vs. Evil or Cabin in the Woods so delightful. Instead it operates with the white-knuckled sincerity of a horror film unselfconscious of genre.

Somehow, regardless of the way it should absolutely be a bad joke, Smith never breaks the tension, keeping the audience captive (quite possibly against their will and their better judgement) up until the very end. The audience is left dangling over the abyss, uncertain if the soft cushion of a punchline awaits them at the bottom. Without ever telegraphing whether the story will end on a laugh or a piteous cry, Kevin Smith has brought the metahorror of cognitive dissonance to its apotheosis. The film traps the audience in that moment where they are uncertain whether or not they should laugh.

After all, a joke without a punchline is a horror story.

 

Content Warnings: mutilation, suicide, kidnapping, infidelity, crass language, douchebaggery.

Capsule Reviews I

It has seemed incomprehensible to some that there should be any need or desire for horror fiction when one need only look to the newspaper or out the window to find things to make one’s blood run cold.

But Professor Nobody, who makes his appearance in Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer, explains why it is exactly, in moments of turmoil and distress, that we turn to horror fiction, not as individuals, but as a collective:

“In transforming natural ordeals into supernatural ones, we find the strength to affirm and deny the horror, to savor and suffer them at the same time. […] In story and song, we could entertain ourselves with the worst we could think of, overwriting real pains with ones that were unreal and harmless to our species.”
— “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures,” Thomas Ligotti

With that in mind, consider picking up the following titles the next time you are at loose ends and looking for something to read.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer

Beyond a barrier blocking off a portion of the Floridian peninsula, some kind of otherworldly natural rejuvenation is at work. In Annihilation, the first book, we join the 12th expedition, this time comprised entirely of female scientists, across the barrier as they seek to understand what is happening in Area X,. Few things in that otherworldly Eden are as they first appear.

The first installment works excellently as a stand alone narrative, introducing us to Area X and establishing the tantalizing promise of the Southern Reach, the government department tasked with understanding Area X. The subsequent two books take you deeper into the mystery of Area X and the Southern Reach to find answers that are as strange and satisfying as the questions to which they correspond. Vandermeer’s lush prose is rivaled only by the Florida landscape it describes and the elegant tapestries of his characters.

Ultimately, Jeff Vandermeer’s alienating masterpiece might best be described as it was by the reviewer Scott Christensen on Google Books: “It’s kind of a love story at the end. And I thought that was sweet.”

(Read Annihilation to prepare for its cinematic adaptation, starring Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Oscar Isaac.)

Looming Low (Vol. 1) Edited by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan

The first anthology out from Dim Shores, a press established by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan in 2015 dedicated to Weird and dark fiction. The press has has made a name for itself publishing chapbooks from esteemed Weird fiction authors including Jeffrey Thomas, and more recently, Gemma Files and Joseph S Pulver, Sr.

Looming Low Vol. 1 serves as a whistle-stop tour of contemporary Weird fiction. While it features works by established names like Michael Cisco, Brian Evanson, Livia Llewellyn, and S.P. Miskowski, it also includes stories from less immediately familiar names. As a whole,  it serves as an excellent introduction to Weird fiction and its impressive variety of styles and topics; from the supernatural to the mundane, the romantic to the fraternal, and beyond, the human heart is metamorphosed before your eyes as it tangles with the incomprehensible and the irreconcilable.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti has been described as a mix between Kafka and Lovecraft. His personal brand of transcendental horror, as if Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau had ascended to that higher spiritual plane only to realize that life is something worse than a cosmic joke, is utterly unlike anything else. His dreamy, rotting post-industrial landscapes peel back to reveal humanity dancing on the end of a string, while elsewhere, close by, the universe laughs.

Perhaps most effectively, unlike the hapless or blissfully ignorant characters which populate Weird and Science Fiction, who unwittingly stumble upon unimaginable horrors, Ligotti’s characters often walk to their doom with some foreknowledge. His protagonists are seekers after truth, aware that they are damning themselves by looking but unable look away.

The Penguin classics single volume re-release of his first and second collections of short stories (Songs and Grimscribe, respectively) is an opportunity for everyone to re-/discover this master of dread.

Edited 26 JULY 2018 (for typos/clarity)

Book Review: The Grimscribe’s Puppets, Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. ED. Miskatonic River Press, 2013

“I don’t really want to see a ghost, but if someone said, ‘Do you want to go to a haunted house and see a ghost?’ I would say, ‘Yes’.”  — Kelly Link. Oct. 6, 2015. Brown University

A review of The Grimscribe’s Puppets by Justin Steele on arkhamdigest.com said, “Thomas Ligotti, one of the finest horror authors, can be a tough pill to swallow. […] His work is definitely not for everyone though, casual horror readers would most likely be turned off by this particular brand of philosophical horror, yet everyone should read Ligotti at least once.” Though I have never read Ligotti, I can easily (and eagerly) imagine his desolate cityscapes, and agonized protagonists who lurch through them, revolted by the existential truths they have uncovered. Their miserable voices call to me saying, “We are all connected. None of us is alone.”

Book photo from MIskatonic River Press

Pulver’s collection here is (according to Wikipedia) award-winning and rightfully so. The stories in it bring a range of voices, both narratively and creatively, together in a dizzying rush through the darkened, greedy corners of our universe. I started the book in the middle, with Jon Padgett’s 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism, and from there explored outwards from the center of the book, devouring the stories and letting the thread, whatever Ligottian impulse Pulver had called forth from them for this collection, which bound them together, thread its way through me and draw me in, another puppet for the Grimscribe, or whatever else is hiding out past the blue veneer of the sky.

Of extra special note are Livia Llewellyn’s Furnace, Kaaron Warren’s The Human Moth, Robin Spiggs The Xenambulist, and Gemma Files’s Obliette (which I didn’t save for last, and highly recommend you take the editor’s implicit recommendation and let it be the last morsel of this collection you savor to end the experience). The Human Moth left me feeling like Ms. Link, now that I know stories like it exist, though I might prefer to have eschewed that knowledge, I must seek them out.

ORIGINALLY APPEARING IN PRINT AS THE FIRST STAFF PICK 
AT THE LOVECRAFT ARTS & SCIENCES COUNCIL