Deep Shadows and Numinous Horror: Introducing “Echoes from Hades”
The question of whether I found Horror or Horror found me is a longstanding one, and despite much contemplation, I’m no closer to a definitive answer. Perhaps there isn’t one to be had. Either way, Horror unquestionably crept into my world early, and with indelible power.
My name is Richard Gavin. I am a Canadian author of supernatural Horror fiction, and although this has been my vocation for the better part of two decades, my relationship with Horror stretches further still, reaching back to my formative years. Given my novice status here at The Teeming Brain, I thought it best to use this initial installment of Echoes from Hades as a form of introduction to this background and my outlook on such things.
One of my initial memories of movies was seeing Tod Browning’s 1931 version of Dracula on afternoon television. The film’s impact on me was immediate and dramatic. Monsters and the macabre swiftly became a constant in my life. And unlike so many passions that erupt in one’s childhood, Horror never lost its lustre for me.
I do not believe I’m being dishonest when I say that my young mind intuited, albeit vaguely, that there was something grand about Horror, something important. The whole field felt akin to an iceberg: its true significance was submerged, seething somewhere beneath its latex make-ups and Gothic prose.
Today, Horror remains of such importance to me that I always write the word with an initial cap, thus distinguishing it from the mundane sensations of disgust and the tabloid journalism mode of equating the emotion of Horror with human atrocity. For while these real-world tragedies clearly have emotional heft, I reject the notion that an interest in, or even an obsession with, Horror is equal to a drooling fascination with the myriad cruelties human beings inflict upon each other, on animals, or on the planet itself. I consider such things travesties and have, rightly or not, excised the term Horror from any association with them. I opt instead to distinguish Horror as both the heightened emotional response and the stimuli that cause it; stimuli that could be artistic, ritualistic, paranormal, philosophical, or any combination thereof.
As I moved through adolescence, my interest in Horror not only deepened but became more multifaceted. I began to reach beyond the somewhat narrow confines of Horror-as-commercial-genre and into the fringes where the art form overlapped with myth, religion, and philosophy. Indeed much of my adult life has been equal parts writing original Horror fiction and exploring the timeless motifs that run through many of Horror’s most impacting and enduring works.
Discovering H.P. Lovecraft was a watershed moment for me (something I suspect is equally true of many other readers of The Teeming Brain). However, unlike a number of Lovecraft’s stalwart readers, I did not encounter his fiction at what is often considered to be the “right age,” namely, late childhood to early adolescence. Although I had read many of the supernatural classics by the time I entered high school, I somehow did not encounter HPL until I was seventeen, when I chanced upon a Del Rey paperback edition of The Tomb and Other Tales with its striking Michael Whelan cover illustration.
Today I wonder if my relative, ahem, “maturity” may have immunized me against the juvenile pitfall of admiring Lovecraft only for his monsters or his seemingly endless fascination with all things hoary and degenerated. For what appealed to me about the man’s work was the otherworldly sweep that coloured his finest tales.
Though I had always housed an interest in what could be described as “the occult,” it was Lovecraft who served as a true portal for me, whetting my interest in the more sophisticated works of cosmicism, philosophy (Eastern and Western both), anthropology, and magick. My study in these areas enhanced my understanding of and general interest in Horror, which brings me to this column’s raison d’etre:
In my humble opinion, a number of the explanations regarding the whys and wherefores of Horror are unsatisfactory. For example, the oft-evoked analogy of Horror being akin to a roller coaster has to be one of the most facile and ill-conceived explanations in popular culture. It suggests that a fleeting visceral thrill is the genre’s primary virtue, that its impact lasts only as long as the viewing or reading. I suggest that the roots of what we call Horror — both the emotion and the force that begets it — bore far deeper. In fact, I suggest that they form a ligature that hooks us up to more primal levels of being.
“I suggest that the roots of what we call Horror form a ligature that hooks us up to more primal levels of being. Horror is the genre whose very nature shocks our preconceived reality constructs.”
Horror is the drama of the abyss, the cinema verite of the subconscious. It is the nightmare expressed, trawled up from that seething marsh of illogical action and taboo form, and given heft. It is the genre whose very nature shocks our preconceived reality constructs.
Because of this, encapsulating Horror as simply “entertainment” feels, at best, inadequate. This of course is not to suggest that Horror can’t be fun. It often is immensely enjoyable. (I’ve yet to turn down a viewing of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond or Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead.) However, it seems to me that the potent nature of the genre’s motifs places it in a different class than the media that are designed to provide a stint of mindless distraction from the ways of the world. What’s more, reflecting upon Horror often enhances one’s enjoyment of the experience, rather than wringing it dry with academic word-fencing.
If anything, Horror, even at its most ludicrous, shines a glaring spotlight upon the human condition.
This column’s reference to Hades is significant for various reasons. Hades was of course the Greek god of the Underworld, and also the name of the Underworld itself. But equating the Greek Underworld with the Christian concept of Hell would be erroneous. To the Greeks, the Underworld was not a place of infernal torment but a realm of outré image and deep shadow. It was the domain of the dead, whose fleshless shades travel swiftly and strangely.
Those uncomfortable with a mythical theory needn’t squirm: Jungian psychology applies equally well to my intent. For as C.G. Jung himself wrote in Psychology & Alchemy:
The dread and resistance which every natural human being experiences when it comes to delving too deeply into himself is, at the bottom, the fear of the journey to Hades.
Over the coming months it is my hope that in this column we can make that descent together, heeding the darksome echoes that bubble up from the deepest parts of our selves, from that chaotic sphere that churns against the placid rhythm of material progress and civility.
I look forward to taking the journey with you.