Weird Tales: Matthew Pridham on The Artful Silence

Writer: Matthew Pridham
Weird Tales Story: Renovations (Issue #348, Jan/Feb 2008)
Writer Bio: Matthew Pridham writes, reads, and lives in New Mexico. He is a fan of Nabokov, Argento and Dickinson. He believes in instant-runoff voting, universal healthcare, and writing things in lists of three.

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Where does the pleasurable fear of the unknown lie? Lovecraft told us “… the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown,” (Supernatural Horror in Literature, 1939.) He ascribes this largely to our evolutionary history, all those long ages of not knowing where the lightning came from, what the nature of death is, why the saber-toothed tiger burns so bright. His macrocosmic theories and interests led directly to his brand of “weird fiction”, a style that could almost be called the Dark Speculative or Scientific Horror or Sci-Ho or whatever someone of a more categorical bent might wish to label it.

What has always struck the deepest chord in me, though, is the blurrier dominion of the personal unknown. A murky realm, where the psychological and the supernatural may become entwined, confused, or just plain fused, it seems less amenable to the solaces of the smirking optimism Lovecraft derides a few sentences later. You’d think that the individual experience of the unknown would be easier to dissipate, that personal terrors could be tidied up more thoroughly (and hence, less pleasurably) than those concerning the cosmos. However, philosophic comfort cannot hold a candle to the explanatory power of dry, cold facts. A black hole, for all its quantum weirdness, can still be feasibly quantified, reduced to friendly little numbers useful for future study, application, and reproduction (look how useful it was for the Event Horizon.) Can you say the same for your nightmares? For your half-forgotten childhood fears or that missing sock or smudged movements out of the corner of your eye or any of the other countless, banal, impenetrable mysteries of existence? Can any system of psychology, religion or physics encompass this realm and explain it thoroughly without resorting to rhetorical or intellectual sleight-of-hand (such as that philosopher Daniel Dennett calls “greedy reductionism”)? We are left alone with our fears, at least with the most inexplicable of them.

Weird fiction, and horror in particular, may not be able to explain away these patches of darkness, but it can sometimes mine and mime them pleasurably. What I’ve always found amazing is how often stories can do this by not revealing, by implication, by (to use the Marxist term) mystification. What Lovecraft implies about the aims of his star-flung horde is far more disturbing than what he actually shows them doing. Similarly, his descriptions are vivified not through a minute mapping of monstrous physiologies, but rather through a jumbled grab-bag approach, which leaves the actual construction of the Horrid Thing to the reader’s own imagination (recall the beasts of The Festival, for instance.) What we don’t learn about Simon in the movie Session 9, what we don’t see of the ubiquitous Tomie’s internal self, what we can never never know about Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden, all are at very least as frightening as the more overt terrors of the zombie, the serial killer or the blood-sucking fiend. Not that the sole locus of unseen terror has to lie so literally with the visual… Horror can be as gory as it likes while yet maintaining a still and secret heart of the unsettling.

In my opinion this is what so many writers missed while trying to follow in Clive Barker’s tread. They saw the gore and the sex, but they often missed entirely the spiritual side, the more ephemeral quality hiding behind and within the carnival. On a quieter plane, Ramsey Campbell scares more hell out of me with what he implies than most authors can with tomes of description. Robert Aickman (master and possibly sole practitioner (alas) of the “Strange Story”) creates a similar frission by leaving the logic of his stories cracked and dangling. As in much of David Lynch’s work, the hapless reader is left to fill in those gaps, to bridge disparate story-lines with her/his own twisty reasoning. The result is (for many of us) a deliriously personal feeling of the disturbing.

There is, though, a difference between willful obscurantism and an artful silence. Using that term “mystification” is probably a mistake on my part, as it suggests an empty formalistic gesture as opposed to an organic display of the unknown. This, “a display of the unknown”, is even more obscure and unhelpfully so. But how else to describe the craft of the horror writer? If the oldest fear is that of the unknown, how can you elicit that fear without rendering the unknown known? Do you string out the terror, only to release it in full disclosure by story’s end? Or do you cobble together fragments of oddness and let the reader/viewer sift around until s/he gets bored? Those are both acceptable paths towards the creation of various types of stories, but they leave one with a feeling of the unknown plugged up in the first case, and only aped in the second. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote (in the Twilight of the Idols) “That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts.” While he wasn’t speaking of the weird tale in specific, the comment seems applicable. Are horror authors here to smother our fears? To embody our wordless anxieties only to purge us of them? Or should they carve new shapes, or spaces around shapes, for us to admire, absorb, dwell on? Is horror essentially a conciliatory genre, or a bruising one? Dickensian or Samuel Becketty (you try adjectivizing his name)?

Better minds than mine have mused more thoroughly on this matter. What (in my opinion) the most disturbing of authors do is more like writing around, like tip-toeing about that palpating heart of the unknown, giving us a good angle now and then but not settling for easy, admittedly more market-friendly, solutions to their nightmares. This is one of a few ways in which to write a disturbing story, but the primary one, I find, that leaves you disturbed long after the encounter and, consequently, hungrier for more.

Comments

  1. Jesse says

    I concur, I concur.

    This, I think, is what has been most exciting to me about the wealth of Asian horror and fantasy which has been steadily gaining popularity stateside–particularly in the realm of Japanese comics and film. Junji Ito (of Tomie fame) accomplishes what very few other horror authors, artists or directors (of any nationality or medium) manage–he creeps me nine kinds of hell out. His method of doing so is, as you astutley note, by keeping much of what might seem mandatory to mainstream audiences hidden from the reader. I adore storytellers such as he, who never explain things to the point where the reader has to make a choice as to wether or not the motivation or backstory is believable. Once you Go All The Way and tell the reader just how the X came to be, why Z’s childhood turned him/her into the person they have become, exactly what the Y looks like from every conceivable angle, etc., then you better have made damned sure you are skilled enough to not lose credibility.

    Like Ito, the director Takashi Miike relies on the logic of nightmares to propel many of his films, and it will be interesting to see how America responds to his method of storytelling. Obviously his films have been growing in popularity over here for the past decade but it would be laughable to place them within a hundred meters of mainstream horror audiences…but now comes an American remake of his film One Missed Call. Being of the dogmatic “if you think subtitles break a movie than stay out of the cinema” camp I am doubtful of said remake will accomplish what his original (and far from my favorite) movie did for the simple reason that the storyteller is absent… Unfortunatly, Miike’s burgeoning fan base here seems to focus on the director’s deserved reputation for favoring copious sex and utra-violence instead of his skill at handling horror and urban fantasy in a manner wholly at odds with a gorehound’s sensibilities–subtlety, and without watering down our repulsion or wonder by attempting to explain what should be outside the audeince’s understanding.