Discussing horror as a literary genre proves to be an exceedingly difficult undertaking. A reader familiar with contemporary horror writers will undoubtedly protest against this statement, citing the fact that horror writers are generally more than happy to discuss their stock tricks, ways of thinking, and sources of inspiration. True enough. Contemporary horror writers are a gregarious crew. Yet when it comes to horror itself, our paradoxically macabre attraction to the dark and inhuman realms of terror, everything remains infuriatingly inexplicable. This paradox—our attraction to the repulsive as embodied in horror fiction—is dubbed famously in critical aesthetics ‘the paradox of horror’. I will utilize as a demonstration the appeal of Philip Fracassi’s recently published ‘Lovecraftian’ horror novella, Altar. The book itself is quite typical of its generic milieu, given how Lovecraftian horror is racing to the fore of contemporary horror fiction with the encouragement of affluent writers like Ramsey Campbell and Thomas Ligotti (or more recently, Cody Goodfellow and Jeremy Robert Johnson). One advantage of Altar’s utilization as a demonstrative model for horror fiction is that its simplicity and quintessentially Lovecraftian plot vastly complicates many of the theories offered up in supplication to the paradox of horror. It is my intention to challenge several theoretical ‘suggestions’ regarding the paradox by emphasizing the hitherto overlooked experiential “gap” in horror and the corresponding encounter with the Other.Altar’s story is simple: some kids go to a public pool, encountering trouble in degrees varying from classic schoolyard bullying to a possible rape in the changing room. Inexplicably and quite unexpectedly, the pool cracks open, unveiling an indescribable source of subterranean ancient horror. The children at the pool invariably find themselves either irresistibly drawn to or physically devoured by the gaping hole. At the end of the novella, the survivors are merely the children’s parents, who stand helpless and horrified in the face of the inhuman monstrosity.
The paradox of horror thus rears its hoary visage—why are we attracted to such awful things? And make no mistake, the attraction is there. Readers feel a horrified bewilderment as the pool opens up. A sensation of violation at the cessation of the immutable stasis of terrestrial existence underlies the experience of the narrative. What securely holds all mundane activity in place is no longer there, voided as it is by the hole in the swimming pool. The reader is certainly confronted by a slew of unsettling elements, not the least valuable of which is a striking example of Descartes’ maxim of doubt.
In the beginning of the first of his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes famously claims that
up to now whatever I have accepted as fully true I have learned either from or by means of the senses: but I have discovered that they sometimes deceive us, and prudence dictates that we should never fully trust those who have deceived us even once. (Descartes 50)
This statement resounded through the history of western philosophy with a tenacity that
can only be attributed to an instinctual human tendency. In an unconscious mimicry of Descartes’ rational refusal to base knowledge on anything that has fooled him “even once”, we are inherently inclined to allow violations—even imagined violations—of perceived norms to color our conception of reality. This tendency is incidentally the central point of responsive arousal in the reader. Just as ‘paranormal’ encounters leave lasting impressions on the people they happen to, readers of Altar will readily admit that experiencing Fracassi’s fiction subtly alters their experience of the world.
In “Horror and the Idea of Everyday Life: On Skeptical Threats in Psycho and The Birds”, Philip J. Nickel somewhat clumsily calls this usurped worldview the “epistemological value” of horror (19). Nickel does not claim to address the paradox of horror itself, offering instead an “apology” for horror on a purely pragmatic basis which Nickel redeploys in the opaque vestige of “value”. According to Nickel, “Horror films often induce or suggest a particular state of uncertainty, experienced as epistemic anxiety, melancholia, or paranoia” in order to help us “give up the aim of providing a fail-safe intellectual backing for our actions” (18). Once this abandonment of intellectual comfort is complete, “we gain intellectual clarity about our actual situation”, a situation which is, according to Nickel, largely illusory (29). In other words, horror more or less artificially induces a kind of philosophical skepticism which, like Descartes’ rational skepticism, aids us in skirting static complacency in the shaky grounding of perceived everyday order.
Although certainly provocative, Nickel’s ‘epistemological value’ of horror seems insufficient to pose as an ‘apology’ for horror, even from an exclusively pragmatic standpoint. No one reads horror fiction to educate themselves on philosophical skepticism. Descartes Meditations would be sufficient to meet such ends. Nickel does, however, touch on what I would like to call fictionalized “gaps” in experience which may serve to complicate the paradox of horror. In the very spaces that Nickel posits the arousal of ‘philosophical skepticism’, I want to suggest the main attraction, the central horror of all that is horrific.
Towards the end of Altar, Gary, one of the main characters of the narrative, watches spellbound as the swimming pool splits open, revealing a seemingly endless abyss:
What had only moments ago been slowly drawing children toward it, creating a whirlpool effect, had torn completely open, like someone had punched a hole in a bag of grain, emptying its contents in one great vacuous, volcanic downward expulsion. (Fracassi 37)
What is striking about the inverted ‘volcanic’ eruption is that, “moments ago”, Gary was involved in an entirely unrelated and compelling storyline. Gary was, in fact, trying to alert a lifeguard to the depraved intents of two older boys who had just forced his sister into a pool changing room. Altar’s brilliance relies on Fracassi’s uncanny ability to divert the energy of an extremely tense and climaxing narrative into an unrelated, catastrophic, and therefore Lovecraftian event. This is exactly the moment, or gap, in which Nickel’s ‘philosophical scepticism’ is enacted. This is where, in a Descartian instant, the Other intrudes onto the terrestrial plane and demolishes all conceptions of the traditional order of the world. The reader is not, however, passively accumulating a new and pragmatic viewpoint, but falling headlong into the narrative action him or herself. What seems like an interruption in a narrative structure in Altar is rather the central aspect of horror fiction expanding and consuming the narrative structure itself—it is the gap, or moment of ‘philosophical scepticism’, taken to the utmost extreme.
The bewildering lure of immense experiential gap in Altar is exactly what complicates attempts to ‘solve’ the paradox of horror. In “The Paradox of Horror: Fear as a Positive Emotion”, Katerina Bantinaki deals with several attempts to answer the paradox. While Bantinaki’s central thesis deals with the “valence” (387) of negative emotions—a theory I have neither the space to bring out the prerequisite framework to support nor deny here—she makes much of the often-cited issue of “control” regarding the experience of horror. While comparing horror to “risk play”, or the particular element in child’s play involving some form of risk (i.e., fighting with sticks, throwing rocks, etc.), Bantinaki states that “the experience of fear can be rewarding only to the extent that one is in control of one’s experience” (390). The irony, then, is that the lure of Fracassi’s Lovecraftian story is at its apex when the reader is the least in control of the reading experience. Of course, theoretically, the reader is always in control in the strictest sense—he or she may put Altar down at any time and simply walk away. Nevertheless, I doubt that any reader of Fracassi’s Altar is able to put the book down at the point of the gap’s inception, metaphorically tearing open at the bottom of the pool. The narrative tension is here at its maximum as the involuntary attraction of Fracassi’s characters to the abyss mirrors the irresistible sense of chaos and bewildered confusion consuming the reader. Not only is the reader drawn in forcefully to the narrative event, but another type of control at the reader’s disposal, namely, the formal elements of classical narrative structure, is also suddenly in apparent abeyance. It is not the extra-narrative convention of physical control over the act of reading that makes Altar work, but the apparent loss of control. Remarkably, such a loss of control is much like the heat of passion.
Bantinaki observes in passing horror’s effectual similarity to falling in love. While describing the “physical manifestations” of horror, the “adrenalin rush, the skin conductance, the increased heartbeat”, Bantinaki claims, are like seeing a “person with whom one is madly in love” (386). This, I believe, is the central pleasure in horror, the prima causa of the phenomenon of horror fiction’s relentless captivation of the human mind. Bantinaki does not notice the contradiction between physical control over the narrative and the symptoms of romantic passion. Bantinaki’s discussion of control introduces an ultimately distancing element, strikingly akin to aesthetician Edward Bullough’s famous concept of “psychical distance” as outlined in his book Aesthetics: Lectures and Essays. Narrative distance, however, is exactly what horror effectively effaces. I argue that horror, rather than constructing formal boundaries between narrative events and its audience, seeks to draw the reader into a love-like passion for the Other.
I do not want to include the psychoanalytic specificity of the term “Other” here, since I don’t have the space to deploy the prerequisite Lacanian theory. I do, however, want to retain the possibility of the Other as a psychic entity, which is why I do not formulate another term for the object between the experiential gap in horror fiction. The Other is exactly what lies beneath the cracks of Nickel’s “philisophical scepticism”. What fills the space between the experiential gap in horror fiction is its black, formless flesh. The Other is all that is unknown, the great and horrifying beyond, the unimaginable and formlessness outside of the conceptual realm, represented feebly by human convention. In horror, we catch a glimpse of the Other within experiential gaps. Expectations of mundane experience are violated, not for our pragmatic benefit, but to unveil the mystery behind experience. We slip into the gap passionately precisely because it is a gap—we fall in love with the possibility of beyond, with the expanses of outside of the familiar, much in the same way, in the famous allegory, Plato’s seeker of truth falls in love with the daylight reality outside of the cave. And like the seekers emergence from the cave, we find the experience to be fraught with both pleasure and fear. In a perfect mirror image of Plato’s allegory of the cave, we encounter the Other in horror fiction by going beneath, by a descent into darkness.
Bantinaki, Katerina. “The Paradox of Horror: Fear as a Positive Emotion.” The Journal
of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 40.4 (2012): 383-92. JSTOR. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.
Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies. Trans. Michael Moriarty. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
Fracassi, Philip. Altar. East Brusnwick, N.J.: Dynatox Ministries, 2016. Print.
Nickel, Philip J. “Horror and the Idea of Everyday Life: On Skeptical Threats in Psycho and The Birds.” The Philosophy of Horror. Ed. Thomas Fahy. Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky, 2010. 14-31. Print
Justin Burnett is a proud father of two boys and a dilettante of the arts. His interests include music, art, critical theory, psychoanalysis and philosophy. His primary field of study is literature, in which he earned a BA from West Texas A&M University.