The meaning of horror and “that dark sorcerer” Cormac McCarthy (with nods to Ligotti)

In the latest entry in “By Heart,” an article series from The Atlantic “in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature,” novelist Benjamin Percy, author of the just-released werewolf novel Red Moon, talks about the deep and permanent emotional impact that he experienced from reading a certain passage in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

He also branches out into a discussion of the impacts and effects of horror fiction in general, and bases his analysis on the literary technique of the suspenseful slow reveal in which a final, awful revelation gives the reader a shock of horror. “It’s the same reason we climb onto a roller coaster,” he writes. “It’s the same reason we climb a cliff and put our foot out over the open air and pull back. We’re daring the nightmare. You never feel more alive than in that moment. It’s a reminder of our mortality. If you look at the horror novel, or the horror movie, it’s a way of safely dealing with that spike of adrenaline.”

Now, I reject this general conclusion as inadequate, since I find much more truth and depth in Tom Ligotti’s contention, outlined in his essay “The Consolations of Horror” (found in The Nightmare Factory), that the familiar “roller coaster” and “face your fear” explanations of artistic horror’s appeal fall flat before the sole authentic “consolation” the genre has to offer, which is “simply that someone shares some of your own feelings and has made of these a work of art which you have the insight, sensitivity, and — like it or not — peculiar set of experiences to appreciate.” (Of course, this could just as well be offered as the final appeal and consolation of any kind of art. But its specific application to horror is especially moving.)

That doesn’t mean, however, Percy has nothing valuable to say. His final paragraphs in particular are buzzingly interesting and worthwhile, since he effectively tackles, and tackles quite nicely — in a scant 400 words — the problem with gratuitous gore, the question of the horror writer’s deep motivation, and the death and resurrection of his own ability to respond deeply to horrifying fiction, specifically on the level of story, after years of immersion in literary craft had effectively numbed him:

I feel that violence needs to be earned somehow — or it needs to earn out. You need to pipe the oxygen in before lighting the flame — or, in the wake of some violent act, there needs to be repercussions: a period in which the characters suffer and soak up what has occurred. Making it part of the causal structure and making it emotionally resonant, too. I would hope that any narrative that wrestles with this sort of thing is meant to horrify, and not excite. To discourage, instead of encourage, violence. And that’s the problem with movies like Saw and Hostel: They make a bloodbath into a kind of joyous exercise.

I’ve been practicing for these kind of scares my whole life. I grew up on genre: Westerns, sci-fi, fantasy novels, mysteries and spy thrillers — but especially on horror. Horror’s always gripped me in its bony fist. So I read everything by Shirley Jackson, and Anne Rice, and Stephen King, and Peter Straub and Robert Aikman [sic], John Saul, and Dean Koontz, and H. P. Lovecraft, and Poe. There’s something about me that’s drawn to darkness and to the theater of fear. I can’t quite put a finger on why that is — it’s the same reason some people like romance stories while others like action movies. But my greatest pleasure growing up was terrifying my sister by leaping out of closets with my hands made into claws, or scratching at her bedroom window. She slept with the light on until she was 27. I guess that was training ground for the novelist I’ve become.

I’ve become so attuned to craft that it’s sometimes difficult for me to get lost in a story. When I grew up reading, the only thing that concerned me was the question of what happens next — and the pages turned so fast they made a breeze across my face. The Road, for the first time in a very long time, owned me emotionally in that same fashion. I was able to turn off my craft radar and be swept away. I felt true terror. The kind of terror that used it [sic] make me, when I was a kid, wrap the sheets around my face and breathe through a little blowhole in fear of the shadow that seemed at the edges of my room. Cormac McCarthy, that dark sorcerer, makes me feel that way again.

More: “Cormac McCarthy’s The Road May Have the Scariest Passage in All of Literature,” The Atlantic, May 14, 2013

Click through to the article for the full text of the McCarthy passage in question, along with Percy’s detailed discussion of it.

Also note that for a darkly beautiful exploration and amplification of the Ligottian idea of horror art’s consolations, see Richard Gavin’s Teeming Brain column from last November, “To Suffer This World or Illuminate Another? On the Meanings and Uses of Horror.”

About Matt Cardin


Posted on May 16, 2013, in Arts & Entertainment and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I have to wonder if he’s actually seen SAW or HOSTEL, both of which I think have gotten a bad rap for surface-level assumptions about their content. Sure, there probably are people who find the violence in these films to be “celebratory” or “a joyous exercise”, but I think that misses the point.

    SAW was (for me), almost existentialist in nature (shades of Beckett), and I thought a fascinating character study on two people in an impossible situation. What would you do? What would I do? Those are the questions that came up for me in the film. Honestly, as a former theater major, I’d love to adapt it for the stage.

    HOSTEL, I thought was an excellent take on what I call the “out of your depth” realm of horror (think WICKER MAN or CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST), and a much better film than I expected. The horror, again, for me, was very existentialist in that you have characters trapped in an indifferent and hostile (no pun intended) environment. This is the humming anxiety and dread that comes from being in a situation, an environment, where one doesn’t know the rules, the customs, or what is appropriate behavior in the face of the alien. Anyone who has gotten lost in a bad neighborhood knows that fear. HOSTEL was that fear ratcheted up to its logical conclusion.

    Yes, there are shocking (and even over-the-top) moments in both films, but I firmly believe that to put it in Percy’s terms, these moments were earned, were justified, and acted in service of the greater existential dread.

    I think the more interesting thing would be for those who dismiss these films as “torture porn” (and I’ve seen a number of these films, and have found a lot of them to create deeper psychological fear than they are given credit for), to examine WHY they are dismissive of these films, and unable to put surface judgments on hold, and just sit with the experiences that are unfolding on the screen.

    That said, I think SAW and HOSTEL were excellent stand-alone films, and that sequels were unnecessary. I suspect if I were to watch a number of the sequels, I might be more in agreement with Percy about some of this. But SAW, HOSTEL, MARTYRS, HIGH TENSION, and, yes, A SERBIAN FILM all deserve far more merit and attention than the fashionable “torture porn” dismissals they are given. Even if one is deeply unsettled by the surface aspects of these films, or feels the need to dismiss them, these films have caused a reaction in the viewer.

    The more interesting question to me, is “why?”

    • We come to the theatre to be delighted and surprised. We cheer for the heroes. The problem for me with the SAW series and HOSTEL is that there is no redemption and no pay off. We’re drawn in to see a bloodbath, and what we expect as a payoff never comes. The scene from HOSTEL at the end is horrible, when a girl finally escapes, only to be killed. And we leave the theatre empty. We paid money for what? To be turned inside out? For what purpose? Its just a freakshow.

      • Some of us do pay to be turned inside out?

        For what purpose? To challenge ourselves, to grow.

        I have a background in theater. I’m not interested in staging productions that do not challenge my audience. If I am seeking out horror (which I do), then I want something that will challenge me, scare me, make me question myself and my assumptions. What does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to confront mortality? What does it mean to be “safe”?

        Maybe it’s a form of vicariously conquering demons, or finding solace in the acknowledgment that life is messy and there aren’t always happy endings.

        This form of entertainment is nothing new. The Grand Guignol Theater is a prime example of how this sort of entertainment finds itself recurring time and time again.

        I, too, honestly have my limits (no interest in seeing PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE, for instance, as I have no desire to sit through war atrocities, either real or imagined). But my limits are pretty high.

        I have demons to conquer. I have bad history in my life. Watching these films provides me with a cathartic sense of survival and/or acknowledgement.

        THAT is what I get out of them.

        On a side note, I also love The Marx Brothers, and Godzilla movies. So what do I know?

        • I do agree with you that SAW and HOSTEL are not nearly so twisted as the sequels were. I liked the premise of Hostel and thought it was a neat idea for a story. But like the film Irreversible, the attention on the drama is focused on the wrong thing. The rape scene in Irreversible reminds me of the problem that HOSTEL has a movie there is too much attention paid to things that gross you out. Its not transient enough. And I really dislike the ending for SAW

          • See, I found the rape scene in IRREVERSIBLE to be kind of overhyped and really not all that gut-punching (honestly, I liked Noe’s other films: I STAND ALONE and ENTER THE VOID better).

            I found the similar scene (involving more people) in the original I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE to be much more difficult to watch.

            I think Noe’s rape scene tried too hard to shock, perhaps, and was executed in such a manner that showed this intention, thus losing its power for me.

  2. My judgment on whether a movie is torture porn would be to imagine myself as a sociopath and consider whether or not a particular movie would appeal to my sociopathic sensibilities and worldview. A deep thinking non-sociopath could possibly sense a profound existential dread in almost anything, but that doesn’t mean that was necessarily the intention of the makers of the film or the received experience of most viewers.

    I’m not dismissive of portrayals of violence when used for a deeper expression of human reality. My opinion, though, is that violence can only achieve this when used sparingly. Otherwise, it more likely numbs one to possibility of existential dread. A better use of violence for this purpose is a movie such as Requiem for a Dream. Another movie that achieves this without any overt bloody gore is the less well known Kids.

    As someone prone to depression, I’m more wary of the impact of torture porn and violence porn. I can’t shake the feeling that artists truly do have a moral responsibility to their viewers and to society as a whole, whether or not they want to accept this. It’s the fact that art can inspire people to great deeds and horrific acts that makes art so worthy. What we put out into the world is what we help to manifest. That is such a fundamental truth that too many people blindly and ignorantly dismiss.

    That said, I would never want to forbid the use of extreme violence in movies. Like anything else, it is part of life. But art should inspire people to see beyond the violence toward compassion and understanding, toward existential insight or mortal wonder at our finitude. I personally don’t see movies like Saw achieving this, but maybe for a very small minority they might gain something worthy from such films. The question is whether what is gained by a small minority is great enough to offset the damage caused to the psyches of so many others, the moral numbing and societal disregard.

    Enough preaching for now.

    On another note, I woke up earlier today and a dream was lingering in my mind. All I could remember was being on a very long walk, an endlessly long walk. That was all there was to the dream. Going on and on and on. Then I remembered I had fell asleep listening to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

    I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, but I have read several other books by McCarthy and the adaptations thereof. My friend is an even bigger fan of McCarthy which is how I discovered him back in the mid 1990s. I find his writing interesting, although I’m not as big of a fan of that description-laden style.

    The Road seemed very different in style. McCarthy was holding back by leaving a lot out. There was a hyper-focus on the man and his son with the apocalyptic world a mere backdrop. There was a slogging repetitiveness to it which would have utterly failed if attempted by a lesser writer. I’ll have to read the book sometime to get the full sense of it.

  3. I can’t explain this any other way. I remember as a child watching shows like Unsolved Mysteries, and feeling daemonic dread and really relishing it. I think there is something in Chaos or the Other World, or the Wilderness, that modern civilization has cast aside, I agree with Hans Peter Duerr the author of Dreamtime: Concerning The Boundary Between Wilderness & Civilization that there is something “Out-There” through which we relish to complete us.

    Two great examples are the videogames Dead Space and Silent Hill. James in Silent Hill 2 is told to go visit there after receiving a letter from his dead wife, and the Other-World has a lesson to remind him of that he forgot (won’t spoil the end!). In Dead Space, a cult brings glorious convergence to humanity. Its the fear of the loss of self. Dead Space has many allusions to not just scientology but yoga, and the word yoga its definition means literally to join as in to a conveyance like a chariot. And practices like yoga marry people together. The fear in Dead Space is an inversion of capitalistic society. Huge mining ships representing human greed, they dug too deep, and now they will have Realization that they were never alone to begin with. That Other-World is yawning open and it is threatening to complete the entire of the Cosmos.

    Our imagination has figures, entities, that teach us our place.

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