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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.”