Undeniably, one of the great disadvantages of consciousness—that is, consciousness considered as the parent of all horrors—is that it exacerbates necessary sufferings and creates unnecessary ones, such as the fear of death. Not having what it takes to take their own lives (ask Gloria Beatty), those who suffer intolerably learn to hide their afflictions, both necessary and unnecessary, because the world does not run on pain time but on happy time, whether or not that happiness is honestly felt or a mask for the blackest despondency. Every shrewd slave knows enough to be as perky as he is submissive in the presence of his master. And those seated in the head offices of the earth know that gales of gleeful talk must be blown the way of ordinary folk, who need to hear that things are all right all the time, or, if they are not all right, soon will be.
Whether your ambition is to rule over your fellows or simply to maneuver among them, a show of jaunty optimism is requisite. In a section of The World as Will and Representation where
Schopenhauer argues that only pain is real while pleasure is an illusion, the philosopher writes: “I cannot here withhold the statement that optimism, where it is not merely the thoughtless talk of those who harbor nothing but words under their shallow foreheads, seems to me to be not merely an absurd, but also a really wicked, way of thinking, a bitter mockery of the most unspeakable sufferings of mankind” (Schopenhauer’s emphasis). Those who do not wholly endorse Schopenhauer’s opinion of optimism can still gain some understanding of what he is talking about when they behold a spittle-chinned demagogue bawling out homilies and falsehoods to a rapt audience. It is on such occasions that optimism reveals itself as so noisome that even those who customarily prefer an optimistic spell to be cast upon them may become queasy with a sense of the wickedness that turns the gears of the world-machine. “Wickedness,” we know, is a categorical term
proper to philosophical systems of morality, for those who care about such fabrications. Yet sometimes those who do not usually care a whit about such things are moved to bark out moral recriminations as the horribly clownish face of optimism brightens the sky the better to peruse the bodies and minds being mangled below.
Optimistically wicked or not, most people cannot afford to care, or to care too much, if they are living in the best or the worst of all possible worlds. They can care only about the one thing that, for anybody who likes to think of being alive as being all right, is worth caring about. And that one thing is this: feeling good, or as good as possible, no matter what “feeling good” might mean to a certain individual at a certain time. For instance, whenever asked in so many words, “Hey, what are you doing there?,” you might say, “I’m hammering a nail” or “I’m searching for absolute truth.” Yet all you are really saying is this: “I’m trying to feel as good as I can.” Of course, you may be caught in a tight spot where the best you can feel is not very good or is even very bad. These are situations in which the alternative, or the perceived alternative, is to feel worse. Ergo, you are still trying to feel as good as you can, though you might not see it that way as you mark time feeling not so good until you can once again feel good in the way you like most. But as evolution would have it, we seem to have a “negativity bias” that reins in those feelings which, when we feel them, are felt to be unquestionably good.
As one arm of evolutionary psychology hypothesizes, pleasurable emotions and sensations germinated because they were adaptive.1 Example: In past ages, climactic release from the stress of carnal desire was an unarticulated catalyst for the generative survival of our species, the link between the two phenomena not yet being known. The illiteracy at issue now long gone, most of us are given to praise fleshly pleasure, though few celebrate the biological drive that leads to it, just as everyone praises a good meal but not the hunger that makes it so pleasurable. The analogy between these pleasures and others that are also appetite-driven, such as those of a drug addict, should be clear. Being freed of a desire is indeed a pleasure. But knowing the remorseless ways of nature, should anyone be thunderstruck that by mutation she has put a lid on the extent of our pleasure and a limit on how long it may last, not to mention favoring pain as the main inducement for our behavior?2
If human pleasure did not have both a lid and a time limit, we would not bestir ourselves to do things that were not pleasurable, such as toiling
for our subsistence. And then we would not survive. By the same token, should our mass mind ever become discontented with the restricted pleasures doled out by nature, as well as disgruntled over the lack of restrictions on pain, we would omit the mandates of survival from our lives out of a stratospherically acerbic indignation. And then we would not reproduce. As a species, we do not shout into the sky, “The pleasures of this world are not enough for us.” In fact, they are just enough to drive us on like oxen pulling a cart full of our calves, which in their turn will put on the yoke. As inordinately evolved beings, though, we can postulate that it will not always be this way. “A time will come,” we say to ourselves, “when we shall remake this world in which we are battered between long burden and brief delight, and without disruption wallow in gladness all our days.” The belief in the possibility of long-lasting, high-flown pleasures is a deceptive but adaptive flimflam. It seems that nature did not make us to feel too good for too long, which would be no good for the survival of the species, but only to feel good enough for long enough to keep us from complaining that we do not feel good all the time.
In the workaday world, complainers will not go far. When someone asks how you are doing, you had better be wise enough to reply, “I can’t complain.” If you do complain, even justifiably, people will stop asking how you are doing. Complaining will not help you succeed and influence people. You can complain to your physician or psychiatrist because they are paid to hear you complain. But you cannot complain to your boss or your friends, if you have any. You will soon be dismissed from your job and dropped from the social register. Then you will be left alone with your complaints and no one to listen to them gratis. Perhaps then the message will sink into your head: If you do not feel good enough for long enough, you should act as if you do and even think as if you do.
That is the way to get yourself to feel good enough for long enough and stop you from complaining for good, as any self-improvement book can affirm. But should you not improve, someone must assume the blame.
And that someone will be you. This is monumentally so if you are a pessimist or a depressive. Should you conclude that life is objectionable or that nothing matters—do not waste our time with your nonsense. We are on our way to the future, and the philosophically disheartening or the emotionally impaired are not going to hinder our progress. If you cannot say something positive, or at least equivocal, keep it to yourself.
Pessimists and depressives need not apply for a position in the enterprise of life. You have two choices: Start thinking the way God and your society want you to think or be forsaken by all. The decision is yours, since you are a free agent who can choose to rejoin our fabricated reality or stubbornly insist on . . . what? That we should mollycoddle non-positive thinkers like you or rethink how the whole world transacts its business? That we should start over from scratch? Or that we should go extinct? Try to be realistic. We did the best we could with the tools we had. After all, we are only human, as we like to say. Our world may not be in accord with nature’s way, but it did develop organically according to our consciousness, which delivered us to a lofty prominence over the Creation. The whole thing just took on a life of its own, and nothing is going to stop it anytime soon. There can be no starting over and no going back. No major readjustments are up for a vote. And no melancholic head-case is going to bad-mouth our catastrophe. The universe was created by the Creator, by damn. We live in a country we love and that loves us back. We have families and friends and jobs that make it all worthwhile. We are somebodies, not a bunch of nobodies without names or numbers or retirement plans. None of this is going to be overhauled by a thought criminal who contends that the world is not double-plus-good and never will be. Our lives may not be unflawed—that would deny us a better future to work toward—but if this charade is good enough for us, then it should be good enough for you. So if you cannot get your mind right, try walking away. You will find no place to go and no one who will have you. You will find only the same old trap the world over. Lighten up or leave us alone. You will never get us to give up our hopes. You will never get us to wake up from our dreams. We are not contradictory beings whose continuance only worsens our plight as mutants who embody the contorted logic of a paradox. Such opinions will not be accredited by institutions of authority or by the middling run of humanity. To lay it on the line, whatever thoughts may emerge from your deviant brain are invalid, inauthentic, or whatever dismissive term we care to hang on you, who are only “one of those people.” So start pretending that you feel good enough for long enough, stop your complaining, and get back in line. If you are not as strong as Samson— that no-good suicide and slaughterer of Philistines—then get loaded to the gills and return to the trap. Keep your medicine cabinet and your liquor cabinet well stocked, just like the rest of us. Come on and join the
party. No pessimists or depressives invited. Do you think we are morons? We know all about those complaints of yours. The only difference is that we have sense enough and feel good enough for long enough not to speak of them. Keep your powder dry and your pessimistic, nihilistic, and defeatist temperaments in check. Our shibboleth: “Up the Conspiracy and down with Consciousness.”
Antagonistic to any somber ideations, humankind has trained itself to ingest ever-increasing disillusionments and metabolize them without any impairment to its system. By means of self-mastery through conscious autosuggestion, or by whatever means, the biblical Genesis and all other fables of origination have been unproblematically reduced to mythic precursors of the Big Bang theory and the primordial soup. Pantheon after pantheon has been belittled into “things people used to believe in.” And supplications to the Divine are murmured only inside the tents of faith healers or in the minds of the desperate.
The only constraint on disillusionment is the following: It must creep along so sluggishly that almost none can mark its movement. Anyone caught trying to accelerate the progress of disillusionment will be reprimanded and told to sit in the corner, if only in free-world nations where the Church and the State have lost the clout to kill or torture dissenters. A sign of progress, some would say. But sufferance of renegade minds should not lead us into premature self-congratulation.
The rate at which our kind plods toward disillusionment is geologically slow, and humanity can be cocksure of its death by natural causes or an “act of God” before it travels very far toward that beatific day when with one voice it might exclaim, “Enough of this error of conscious life. It shall be passed down no longer to those innocents unborn.”
In “The Last Messiah,” Zapffe conjectures that with the passing of generations the more profligate will become humanity’s means of hiding its disillusionments from itself: the more brainless and delusional its isolation from the actualities of existence; the more stupefying and uncouth its distractions from the startling and dreadful; the more heavy-handed and madcap its anchorings in unreality; and the more callous, self-mocking, and detached from life its sublimations in art. These developments will not make us any more paradoxical in our being, but
they could make all manifestations of our paradoxical nature less effective and more aberrant. Speaking in terms of his time, and ours, Zapffe writes in “The Last Messiah” of our rising “spiritual unemployment.”
The absence of naturally (biologically) based spiritual activity shows up, for example, in the pervasive recourse to distraction (entertainment, sport, radio—the “rhythm of the times”). Terms for anchoring are not as favorable—all the inherited, collective systems of anchorings are punctured by criticism, and anxiety, disgust, confusion, despair leaking in through the rifts (“corpses in the cargo”). Communism and psychoanalysis, however incommensurable otherwise, both attempt (as Communism also has a spiritual reflection) by novel means to vary the old escape anew; applying, respectively, violence and guile to make humans biologically fit by ensnaring their critical surplus of cognition. The idea, in either case, is uncannily logical. But again, it cannot yield a final solution. Though a deliberate degeneration to a more viable nadir may certainly save the species in the short run, it will by its nature be unable to find peace in such resignation, or indeed find any peace at all. . . .
If we continue on these considerations to the bitter end, then the conclusion is not in doubt. As long as humankind recklessly proceeds in the fateful delusion of being biologically fated for triumph, nothing essential will change. As the numbers mount and the spiritual atmosphere thickens, the techniques of protection must assume an increasingly brutal character.
Rather than being a visionary or a prophet, Zapffe was an analyst of disaster, and his pessimism is nothing if not down to earth.
The Romanian-born French writer E. M. Cioran counted among his greatest accomplishments breaking himself of the habit of cigarette smoking and the fact that he never became a parent. Nothing in Cioran’s file would lead one to think he was ever tempted to have children. His
remark was a derision of people whose fecundity had swollen a world he would rather have seen in ashes. A maestro of pessimism, Cioran published several volumes of philosophical essays and aphorisms that assaulted what he considered the inexcusable crumminess of all creation. Contained in his works is an ample stock of quotable outbursts, any one of which could serve as a synopsis of his conviction that human existence was a wrong turn made by the universe. “Life,” he wrote, “is an uprising within the inorganic, a tragic leap out of the inert—life is matter animated and, it must be said, spoiled by pain.” But that was just his opinion.
Those who feel they have free will, meaning everyone, also feel they are free to have any opinion they want on any issue before them. They are like those “believers in anything” already mentioned who may have an opinion about whatever they believe to be true. As we know, the premier opinion that has held in all time and places is that there is some sure reason for the continuance of the human species. This opinion is so prevailing that it is usually assumed to be a fact and not an opinion. In Reason’s Grief: An Essay on Tragedy and Value (2006), George W. Harris propounds this opinion most poignantly: “While we might . . . admit that the existence of human and animal suffering is itself a tragedy, it would be a greater tragedy still to end it all. How can we account for this tragic sense, the sense that something would be lost with such a termination?” That it would be a greater tragedy to end all animal and human suffering than to have it continue is an opinion stated as a fact.
Granting that “something would be lost with such a termination,” it remains to be established whether or not that “something” were better let go than kept going. And that this termination inspires in us a tragic sense for which we need to account is also only Harris’s opinion—one that he later, with disarming honesty, concedes is reserved for those who are fortunate enough to have lives they believe are worth having; otherwise, what he calls the “apocalyptic option” would be all right.
Nothing definitive supports the opinion that humanity should persist in being, just as nothing definitive supports the opinion that humanity should cease to exist. In place of universally convincing reasons in this matter, or even commonsense thought, there is pressure. Thus, people who hold the opinion that the human race should go extinct are pressured
by the bad opinion of almost all others to excoriate themselves as wrong in having this opinion. All said, the opinion of an antinatalist is not reckoned a praiseworthy one in this world, and antinatalists are cognizant of this fact. Dissimilarly, pro-natalists are not at all cognizant that their opinion that procreation is all right is not praiseworthy either.
Opinion: There are no praiseworthy incentives to reproduce. For
pro-natalists, children are only a means to an end, and none of those ends is praiseworthy. They are the ends of people who already exist, a condition that automatically makes them prejudiced in favor of existence. (In his essay “Benevolent Artificial Anti-Natalism” [EDGE, 2017], Thomas Metzinger terms this baseless conviction “existence bias.”) Yet even though these people think that being alive is all right, they are not at a loss to think of reasons why in some cases it would be better not to have been. They can only hope that their children will not be one of those cases, for their sake as well as for the sake of their offspring. To have a praiseworthy incentive for bearing a child, one would first have to prove that child’s birth to be a good in itself, which no one can prove about anything, least of all about something that has no predictable outcome. You could argue, of course, that a child’s birth is a good in itself. And you could go on arguing until the child ages to death or sickens to death or has a fatal vehicular misadventure. But you cannot prevail in an argument about any child’s birth being a good in itself. You can only accept that someday the child who was born will come to an end that is an end in itself, which, as people sometimes say, may be for the best.
In place of arguments pro or con, pressure is brought to bear on breeders-in-waiting to be of the opinion that there is indeed a plethora of praiseworthy incentives for making more of us. The pressure put upon them, biology notwithstanding, takes the guise of the good opinion of others who want them to think, and who themselves think, they are right in having the opinion that procreation is all right. Some may resist this pressure, but they will not be roundly praised for doing so, although they may receive a dispensation if the product of their union is likely to be defective.
Among the least praiseworthy incentives to reproduce are parents’ pipe dreams of posterity—that egoistic compulsion to send emissaries into the future who will certify that their makers once lived and still live on, if only in photographs and home movies. Vying for an even less
praiseworthy incentive to reproduce is the sometimes irresistible prospect of taking pride in one’s children as consumer goods, trinkets or tie-clips, personal accessories that may be shown off around town. But primary among the pressures to propagate is this: To become formally integrated into a society, one must offer it a blood sacrifice. As David Benatar has alleged in Better Never to Have Been, all procreators have blood-red hands, morally and ethically speaking.
Naturally, the average set of parents is able to conceive of less reprehensible, but still not praiseworthy, incentives for reproduction. Among these are the urgency to beat the biological clock or abandon all hope for the legendary enjoyments of the parental role; the desire to solidify a spousal relationship; the wish to please one’s own parents with grandchildren; the need of an insurance policy that one’s offspring will probably feel obligated to pay off once their begetters are in their dotage; the quelling of a sense of guilt or selfishness for not having done their duty as human beings; and the squelching of that pathos which is associated with the childless.3
Such are some of the non-praiseworthy incentives of those who would fertilize the future. And they are all pressures of one kind or another. These pressures build up in people throughout their lifetimes and cry to be released, just as our bowels cry to be released to avoid the discomfort of a fecal build-up. And who, if they could help it, wants the discomfort of a fecal build-up? So we make bowel movements to relieve this pressure. Similarly, quite a few people make gardens because they cannot withstand the pressure of not making a garden. Others commit murder because they cannot withstand the pressure building up within them to kill someone, either a person known to them or a passing stranger. And so on. Most of our days consist of pressures to make metaphorical as well as actual bowel movements. Releasing these pressures can have greater or lesser consequences in the scheme of our lives. But they are all bowel-movement pressures of some kind. At a certain age, children are praised for making a bowel movement in the approved manner. Later on, the praise of others dies down for this achievement and our bowel movements become our own business, although we may continue to praise ourselves for them. Yet pressures go on influencing our lives, including pressures to have some opinions rather than others, and even the proper release of these literal bowel-
movement pressures may once more come up for praise, congratulations, and huzzahs of all kinds.
No different from other species on this planet, humanity will flourish while it can, even though there is no praiseworthy incentive to do so.
Nevertheless, we cannot count out the possibility that with the passing of hundreds or thousands of years we will attain immortality, or something close to it, which would obviate our function as servants of our species whose primary interests are to survive and reproduce ourselves. Let us also presage that at this distant stage of human evolution we have fully fathomed all material matters of the universe—its beginning, its end, and all its workings. Having reached such an intellectual apex, we would need only to bar from our thoughts a single question, one to which there can be no positive answer in either material or metaphysical terms. The question takes various forms. We have already investigated one form of this question: “What use is it to exist?” Herman Tønnessen, in his essay “Happiness Is for the Pigs: Philosophy versus Psychotherapy” (Journal of Existentialism, 1967), cites another form of the question: “What is it all about?” He then explains the context and significance of the question.
Mitja (in Brothers Karamazov) felt that though his question may be absurd and senseless, yet he had to ask just that, and he had to ask it in just that way. Socrates bandied about that an unexamined life is not worthy of Man. And Aristotle saw Man’s “proper” goal and “proper” limit in the right exercise of those faculties which are uniquely human. It is commonplace that men, unlike other living organisms, are not equipped with built-in mechanisms for automatic maintenance of their existence.
Man would perish immediately if he were to respond to his environment exclusively in terms of unlearned biologically inherited forms of behavior. In order to survive, the human being must discover how various things around as well as in him operate. And the place he occupies in the present scheme of organic creation is the consequence of having learned how to exploit his intellectual capacities for such discoveries. Hence, more human than any other human longing is the pursuance of a total view of Man’s function—or malfunction—in the Universe, his possible place and importance in the widest conceivable cosmic scheme. In other words it is the attempt to answer, or at
least articulate whatever questions are entailed in the dying groan of ontological despair: What is it all about? This may well prove biologically harmful or even fatal to Man.
Intellectual honesty and Man’s high spiritual demands for order and meaning may drive Man to the deepest antipathy to life and necessitate, as one existentialist chooses to express it: “A no to this wild, banal, grotesque and loathsome carnival in the world’s graveyard.” (Tønnessen’s emphases)
The quote at the end of this excerpt from Tønnessen’s essay is taken from Zapffe’s On the Tragic. While Tønnessen believes that “intellectual honesty” must lead to “ontological despair,” ultimately his preference is for living the heroic life of a clear-eyed desperado of pessimism—after the existential stylings of Miguel de Unamuno, Albert Camus, William Brashear, Joshua Foa Dienstag, and others—rather than wallowing in the self-deceptive happiness of a human pig. In principle, there does seem to be a moral divide between the way of the desperado and that of the pig; practically, there is none. Both are spoiling for survival in a MALIGNANTLY USELESS world. And survival is for the pigs.
Ask Professor Nobody about reasoning the state of our lives to the limit. Tilting again toward stridency, here is what he has to say on the subject in “Pessimism and Supernatural Horror— Lecture Two.”
Dead bodies that walk in the night, living bodies suddenly possessed by new owners and deadly aspirations, bodies without sensible form, and a body of unnatural laws in accordance with which tortures and executions are meted out—some examples of the logic of supernatural horror. It is a logic founded on fear, a logic whose sole principle states: “Existence equals nightmare.” Unless life is a dream, nothing makes sense. For as a reality, it is a rank failure. A few more examples: a trusting soul catches the night in a bad mood and must pay a dreadful price; another opens the wrong door, sees something he should not have, and suffers the consequences; still another walks down an unfamiliar street . . . and is lost forever.
That we all deserve punishment by horror is as mystifying as it is undeniable. To be an accomplice, however involuntarily, in a reasonless non-reality is cause enough for the harshest
sentencing. But we have been trained so well to accept the “order” of an unreal world that we do not rebel against it. How could we? Where pain and pleasure form a corrupt alliance against us, paradise and hell are merely different divisions in the same monstrous bureaucracy. And between these two poles exists everything we know or can ever know. It is not even possible to imagine a utopia, earthly or otherwise, that can stand up under the mildest criticism. But one must take into account the shocking fact that we live on a world that spins. After considering this truth, nothing should come as a surprise.
Still, on rare occasions we do overcome hopelessness or velleity and make mutinous demands to live in a real world, one that is at least episodically ordered to our advantage. But perhaps it is only a demon of some kind that moves us to such idle insubordination, the more so to aggravate our condition in the unreal. After all, is it not wondrous that we are allowed to be both witnesses and victims of the sepulchral pomp of wasting tissue? And one thing we know is real: horror. It is so real, in fact, that we cannot be sure it could not exist without us. Yes, it needs our imaginations and our consciousness, but it does not ask or require our consent to use them. Indeed, horror operates with complete autonomy. Generating ontological havoc, it is a mephitic foam upon which our lives merely float. And, ultimately, we must face up to it: Horror is more real than we are.
Autopsy on a Puppet: An Anatomy of the Supernatural
Billions of years had to pass following the formation of the earth before its atmosphere became . . . atmospheric. This transition could only have occurred with the debut of consciousness—parent of all horrors and the matrix of atmosphere. With our bodies bogged down in the ordure of this world, our new faculty instigated the genesis of other worlds, invisible ontologies that infiltrated appearances. Now we could feel the presence of things beyond the reach of our physical senses. The circumference of our fears dilated with further expansions of consciousness. Under the cover of atmosphere there seemed to be another side to the realm of being we knew, or thought we knew. Seeing shadows in the moonlight and hearing leaves rustling in the wind, our ancestors impregnated these sights and sounds with imaginings and apprehensions. Atmosphere had finally arrived, both foreshadowing horror and taking its substance from horror. Without this alliance, the first horror stories could not have been told.
As the horror story matured and branched out, so did the qualities of its atmosphere, most of all among the great names of this literary genre. For these writers, the atmosphere of their works is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It is the index of an identifiable consciousness that has been brewed from an amalgam of sensations, memories, emotions, and everything else that makes individuals what they are and predetermines what they will express as artists. Thus Lovecraft, in a 1935 letter to Catherine L. Moore, wrote these remarks on the weird story:
It must, if it is to be authentic art, form primarily the
crystallization or symbolization of a definite human mood—not
the attempted delineation of events, since the “events” involved are of course largely fictitious and impossible. These events should figure secondarily—atmosphere being first. All real art must somehow be connected with truth, and in the case of weird art the emphasis must fall upon the one factor representing truth
—certainly not the events (!!!) but the mood of intense and fruitless human aspiration typified by the pretended overturning of cosmic laws and the pretended transcending of possible human experience. (Lovecraft’s emphasis)
The works in which Lovecraft most successfully put his theoretics of atmosphere into practice are paradigms of weird (or supernatural horror) fiction. Yet he wrote himself off as a failure in his pursuit to get on paper what he had in his head and strove to the end of his life to do what no other horror writer had done before him nor will ever do: lay bare his consciousness in an artifact. By the stress he placed on atmosphere, Lovecraft showed the way to an analysis of this element in horror literature, and, by extension, to an evaluation of the genre as a whole.
While his personal use for atmosphere was to facilitate a sense of cosmic laws being overturned and human experience being transcended, he also defined the general purpose of atmosphere in horror stories: to give consistency (mood) to an imagined world in which we can at least pretend to escape from our mere humanity and enter into spaces where the human has no place and dies to itself either weeping or screaming or in awe at the horror of existence. Here lies the paradox of consuming horror as an escapist venture.
The secret of atmosphere in supernatural horror is simplicity itself. Already spoken of in the first paragraph of this chapter, it is here repeated and made categorical: Atmosphere is created by anything that suggests an ominous state of affairs beyond what our senses perceive and our minds can fully comprehend. It is the signature motif that Schopenhauer made discernible in pessimism—that behind the scenes of life there is something pernicious that makes a nightmare of our world.
This something, this ominous state of affairs beyond what our senses perceive and our minds can comprehend, has previously been discussed in connection with Blackwood’s “The Willows.” In this story,
Blackwood was careful not to dissipate with explanatory details the atmosphere he created. Lovecraft admired this work for its evocation of “nameless presences” that remain nameless and yet are powerfully felt. This is not a rule that Lovecraft himself often followed, as is particularly evident in his later stories. In such works as “The Dunwich Horror” and At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft details, analyzes, and, unlike Blackwood in the “The Willows,” names the monstrosities at the center of these narratives. Nevertheless, there are always unparalleled images and ideas in Lovecraft’s fiction that stay with the reader and instill a feeling of unknown horrors surpassing those that have been made known.
From the perspective of atmosphere, horror fiction may be dated only as far back as the novels of Ann Radcliffe, which contain enough visionary mood to make up for their bodice-ripper plots. Radcliffe’s genius resided in turning a rage in the late eighteenth century for the picturesque in natural topographies into one that emphasized sublime dread as an aesthetic. Her works are known for the descriptions they contain of landscapes featuring mountains of intimidating height, valleys vast and deep, and moody twilights. Here quoted is such a view as witnessed by Emily St. Aubert, the heroine of Radcliffe’s most popular novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). In this scene, Montoni, the story’s malefactor, is delivering Emily and her aunt to his home. (Please bear with yet a few more long excerpts, ones from a long novel in which Radcliffe at length and often entertained her readers with sublimely thrilling carriage rides.)
Towards the close of day, the road wound into a deep valley. Mountains, whose shaggy steeps appeared to be inaccessible, almost surrounded it. To the east, a vista opened, that exhibited the Apennines in their darkest horrors; and the long perspective of retiring summits, rising over each other, their ridges clothed with pines, exhibited a stronger image of grandeur, than any that Emily had yet seen. The sun had just sunk below the top of the mountains she was descending, whose long shadow stretched athwart the valley, but his sloping rays, shooting through an opening of the cliffs, touched with a yellow gleam the summits
of the forest, that hung upon the opposite steeps, and streamed in full splendour upon the towers and battlements of a castle, that spread its extensive ramparts along the brow of a precipice above. The splendour of these illumined objects was heightened by the contrasted shade, which involved the valley below.
“There,” said Montoni, speaking for the first time in several hours, “is Udolpho.”
Emily’s initial sighting of Udolpho elicits the same kind of tingling sensation she feels for nature’s mixed effects of minatory gigantism and soul-striking splendor.
Emily gazed with melancholy awe upon the castle, which she understood to be Montoni’s; for, though it was now lighted up by the setting sun, the gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering walls of dark grey stone, rendered it a gloomy and sublime object. As she did, the light died away on its walls, leaving a melancholy purple tint, which spread deeper and deeper, as the thin vapour crept up the mountain, while the battlements above were still tipped with splendour. From those, too, the rays soon faded, and the whole edifice was invested with the solemn duskiness of evening. Silent, lonely, and sublime, it seemed to stand the sovereign of the scene, and to frown defiance on all, who dared to invade its solitary reign. As the twilight deepened, its features became more awful in obscurity, and Emily continued to gaze, till its clustering towers were alone seen, rising over the tops of the woods, beneath whose thick shade the carriages soon after began to ascend.
The extent and darkness of these tall woods awakened terrific images in her mind, and she almost expected to see banditti start up from under the trees. At length, the carriages emerged upon a heathy rock, and, soon after, reached the castle gates, where the deep tone of the portal bell, which was struck upon to give notice of their arrival, increased the fearful emotions, that had assailed Emily. While they waited till the servant within should come to open the gates, she anxiously surveyed the edifice: but the gloom, that overspread it, allowed her to distinguish little more than a part of its outline, with the massy walls of the
ramparts, and to know, that it was vast, ancient and dreary. From the parts she saw, she judged of the heavy strength and extent of the whole. The gateway before her, leading into the courts, was of gigantic size, and was defended by two round towers, crowned by overhanging turrets, embattled, where, instead of banners, now waved long grass and wild plants, that had taken root among the mouldering stones, and which seemed to sigh, as the breeze rolled past, over the desolation around them. The towers were united by a curtain, pierced and embattled also, below which appeared the pointed arch of a huge portcullis, surmounting the gates: from these, the walls of the ramparts extended to other towers, overlooking the precipice, whose shattered outline, appearing on a gleam, that lingered in the west, told of the ravages of war.—Beyond these all was lost in the obscurity of evening.
The horrid vicissitudes of Emily’s stay at Udolpho further extend the spirit-stirring and densely atmospheric world in which she is immersed. To move along the plots of her essentially romantic narratives, Radcliffe entrapped her heroines in castles so great and gloomy that their dungeons seem to have dungeons and their towers appear to the imagination to sprout supplementary towers into infinity. Within such gargantuan settings, Radcliffe’s young women are terrorized by men of a wicked nature. They are also terrorized by simulacra of the supernatural that are later exposed as being natural in origin. Then they are rescued by their beloveds and, presumably, live gladsome lives unmarred by their traumatic experiences.
Some readers and critics disapprove of Radcliffe’s ex post facto rationalizing of what seemed at the time to have been depictions of bona fide supernatural events, which for them dispels much of the frightful atmosphere she worked so diligently to create. The protest is that if she did not explain her way back to nature, her protagonists would have had to look into the face of a metaphysical horror that challenges one’s concept of reality rather than the lesser horror of having to marry a man of bad character. It must seem a paradox, then, that Radcliffe is credited here as the parent of supernatural atmosphere when there are no supernatural happenings in her narratives. The resolution to this paradox is discussed in the section Supernaturalism later in this chapter. For now,
let us listen to what Lovecraft had to say about Radcliffe as an author “who set new and higher standards in the domain of macabre and fear-inspiring atmosphere despite a provoking custom of destroying her own phantoms at the last through labored mechanical explanations.”
To the familiar Gothic trappings of her predecessors Mrs. Radcliffe added a genuine sense of the unearthly in scene and incident which closely approached genius; every touch of setting and action contributing artistically to the impression of illimitable frightfulness which she wished to convey. A few sinister details like a track of blood on castle stairs, a groan from a distant vault, or a weird song in a nocturnal forest can with her conjure up the most powerful images of imminent horror; surpassing by far the extravagant and toilsome elaborations of others. Nor are these images in themselves any the less potent because they are explained away before the end of the novel. (Supernatural Horror in Literature, 1927; revised 1933–35)
The only real disappointment of Radcliffe’s novels is that she did not follow through on the death threats to her main characters with their actual deaths, which, considering each of her novels in whole, burns off some of their atmospheric set-up with the resplendent sun of a happy ending. But to leave her heroines or heroes lying dead at the end of one of her narratives would have violated the terms of the genre of Gothic romance in which she wrote. And that would truly have been a blemish on her record as an adept storyteller. Atmospherically, death itself had not yet been added as an element to concentrate the effect of a horror tale.
The next innovation in atmosphere began with Poe in the early nineteenth century. Poe was familiar with Radcliffe’s works, which laid the groundwork of the Gothic genre and registered brisk sales. Possibly in reaction to Radcliffe, he turned the world of scenic thrills and salvation upside down in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The story begins at evening as its narrator approaches on horseback a secluded mansion flanked by a swampy and putrid-looking tarn. While the House of Usher may at first seem to be oozing an enchanting Gothic
atmosphere, the narrator goes out of his way to argue that this is not so. The dilapidated manse, which has a deep crack running across its façade, is not sublimely desolate in the manner of the ruined castles of Radcliffe’s novels. It is rather a locus of indomitable despair. Here is how we see the Usher estate through the eyes of the character who has come to visit the old pile.
I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees
—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveler upon opium—the bitter lapse into everyday life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down
—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the
remodeled and inverted images of the grey sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.
However the narrator tries to relish rather than be distraught by the atmosphere of the house and its bedraggled grounds, he cannot do so. From the tenor of this beginning, the reader can expect no saving outcome. The atmosphere Poe created in the introductory section of his greatest tale is genuinely atmospheric because it bodes doom, which can mean only one thing—death. And in “The Fall of the House of Usher” such is the portion of Roderick and Madeline, the brother and sister who are the last of their family to occupy the hereditary domicile.
Furthermore, the precarious condition of the house worsens to the point where the structure itself begins to cave. To thicken this climate of demise, the light of a blood-red moon shines through a widening breach in the masonry of the Usher abode as it sinks stone by stone beneath the still surface of the noxious tarn. Earlier the narrator told us of the identity that the local townspeople perceived between the House of Usher and its inhabitants. Admirably, Poe’s tale culminates in the extinction of both.
With this conclusion, Radcliffe’s picturesque Gothic world had been supplanted by an atmosphere spilling out of death—the most ominous state of affairs with which we must deal.
In his tales, Poe created a world that is wholly evil, desolate, and doomed. These qualities give consistency to his imagined world. And there is no escape from this world, only a fall into it. Poe’s enclosure of the reader in an environment without an exit distinguishes his works from those of earlier writers like Radcliffe. His characters do not take us from place to place looking at the scenery. They are inside a world that has no outside—no well-mapped places from which one can come and none to which one can go. The reader of Poe never has the sense that anything exists outside the frame of his narratives. What they suggest is that the only thing beyond what our senses can perceive and our mind can fully comprehend is blackness, nothing. It is the same in those most atmospheric of experiences we all know—dreams.
When you dream, you do not feel that anything exists which is not in your immediate surroundings. You cannot be anywhere in a dream except the place you are already in. Besides the psychological entrapment of dreams, there is also their fundamental strangeness, and Poe was expert at insinuating this phenomenon into his stories. Reading
“The Fall of the House of Usher” is like having a lucid dream: we know that everything we see is unreal, yet there is paradoxically a heightened reality to it all. To awaken from such a dream is to lose your freedom from yourself and return to an onerous embodiment where consciousness is a tragedy and you cannot soar unscathed within an atmosphere of death. You can only die.
It was almost a century after the 1839 publication of “The Fall of the House of Usher” that Lovecraft took a giant step in the art of atmospherics with his “Call of Cthulhu.” Well known as they may be to readers of horror fiction, the story’s introductory sentences require transcription here.
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
From Lovecraft’s overture to this tale, the reader may surmise that besides the death of a character or two, the human race itself may go under by voyaging too far on the “black seas of infinity.” While the above statement is abstract, it is all the more atmospheric for being so, and we are ardent to read what “dissociated knowledge,” not a stunningly evocative phrase, has been pieced together by one Francis Wayland Thurston, who is displaced from his old reality and set into an ill-starred fictional world that makes all of his former days seem a heaven of naïveté.
“I have looked upon all that the universe has to hold of horror,” F.
W. Thurston writes after he has pieced together the puzzle, “and even the skies of spring and the flowers of summer must ever afterward be poison to me.” In other words, he has done what no one has been in a position to
do before him—sort out the worst of existence from any compensatory dividends, a process which leads him to conclude that life is a malignancy it were better not to know. This is Lovecraft’s atmosphere— that of a world in which the “frightful position” he has placed all human existence could lead to universal madness or extinction at a moment’s notice. Through this atmosphere, Lovecraft gives consistency to an imagined world where there is greatness in knowing too much of the horror of a planet in the shadow of Cthulhu and all that this implies about our existence. As for those people who still go about their ordinary, average business complacently enjoying the skies of spring and the flowers of summer, innocently unaware of the monstrosities with which they coexist—they are children. They have no idea that there is nothing worth living for in Lovecraft’s world. They are not in its atmosphere. Yet at any time they could be. It must be remembered that the atmosphere of a supernatural world and its horror exists only in the human imagination. There is nothing like it in nature, nor can nature provoke it. It is a contrivance of our consciousness, and only we can know it among all the organisms of the earth. We are alone in our minds with the atmosphere of a supernatural world and its horror. We are both its creators and what it has created—uncanny things that have nothing to do with the rest of creation.
The literary world may be divided into two unequal groups: the insiders and the outsiders. The former are many and the latter are few. The placement of a given writer into one group or the other could be approached by assessing the consciousness of that writer as it is betrayed by various components of his work, including verbal style, general tone of voice, selection of subjects and themes, etc. As any reader knows, such things do vary among authors. To pin any of them down within a capricious or oneiric taxonomy of insiders and outsiders would then perforce become an experiment in uselessness.
Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, T. S. Eliot, Knut Hamsun, Hermann Hesse: who is on the inside and who is on the outside? The brain reels when considering well-known works by these writers, as they seem to express sensibilities at several arms’ length from those of average mortals. Immediately, we recall
Hemingway’s story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” which ends with a travesty of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name.” Then our thoughts turn to the collection of degenerates in Faulkner’s novels, which do not seem intent on showing off the nobler side, if there is one, of the human race. Nor should we forget Eliot’s homage to entropy, The Waste Land (1922), or the unbalanced protagonists who lead us through Hamsun’s Hunger (1890), Hesse’s Steppenwolf (1928), Sartre’s Nausea (1938), and the entire output of Beckett. Conveniently, the status of these authors—insider or outsider— has been adjudicated for us by the Swedish committees that dispensed to each of them a Nobel Prize in literature, which is annually given out to authors who produce “the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency.”
But should these literary greats be classed as insiders exclusively because they received a prize from a panel of Swedish judges? Some would say “yes,” but not entirely because of the Nobel. Some would say “no,” despite the Nobel.1 These conflicting opinions leave our job unfinished insofar as determining the consciousness of an author to be that of an insider or an outsider. To expedite this inquest, we could use a candidate whose credentials unambiguously place him in the latter group. To fill this position, any number of worthy outsiders could be named. One of them is Roland Topor, whose short horror novel The Tenant (1964) is a document that expresses the consciousness of an unimpeachable outsider. To discern with a modest confidence what places a writer on the inside or the outside, The Tenant will be compared with another short novel that shares its theme, One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand (1926) by the Nobel Prize-winning Luigi Pirandello. In itself, theme is no giveaway of an author’s consciousness. What counts is how that theme is resolved. Pirandello’s resolution parades the symptoms of “an idealistic tendency,” while Topor’s takes the anti-idealistic position.
The theme of One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand is explicitly that of the self as a falsehood born of our systems of perception and cognition. In contrast to the dogma of the many, as Pirandello’s narrator and leading character Vitangelo Moscarda comes to appreciate, the self is an insubstantial construct invented to lend coherence and meaning to an existence that is actually chaotic and meaningless. However well we function as bodies, we also recognize—
because we are so often forced to do so—that they are unstable, damage-prone, and disposable phenomena. Simultaneously, we believe—until a malignant brain lesion or some life-rending event causes us to question this belief—that our “selves” are more sturdy, enduring, and real than the deteriorating tissue in which they are encased.
In One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand, Moscarda is made aware of his misperception of his self, and by extension of the entire world of forms in which the self functions, by a misperception he has made about his body. Early in the story, he believes his nose to be evenly structured on its right and left sides. Then his wife tells him that his nose is not symmetrical but is lower on the left side than on the right. Being an incurably pensive individual, Moscarda is troubled by his wife’s remark; being an intellectually honest individual, he has to admit it is true. That he misperceived this single feature of his appearance leads Moscarda to investigate what other delusions he has been entertaining about his appearance throughout his life. He ascertains a constellation of them. After scrupulous self-examination of his physical person, he grants that he is not the man he thought he was. Now he believes he is an outsider to himself—a figment in his own eyes and in the eyes of others.
Later, Moscarda is condemned to further revelations: “I still believed this outsider was only one person: only one for everybody, as I thought I was only one for myself. But soon my horrible drama became more complicated.” This occurs when he discovers “the hundred thousand Moscardas that I was, not only for the others but also for myself, all with this one name of Moscarda, ugly to the point of cruelty, all inside this poor body of mine that was also one, one and, alas, no one. ”
Fortunately for Moscarda, and ruefully for the reader (at least the reader who is an outsider), he comes to accept the unreality of everything he had conceived himself to be and becomes one with all that exists. He no longer thinks but simply is. “This is the only way I can live now. To be reborn moment by moment. To prevent thought from working again inside me. ” The last paragraph of the novel is an exaltation of his
new state of existence.
The city is far away. There comes to me occasionally, upon the vesper calm, the sound of its bells. I, however, no longer hear those bells within me, but without, ringing for themselves and perhaps trembling with joy in their resounding cavities, in a
beautiful blue sky filled with a warm sun, to the twittering of swallows or swaying heavily to wind and cloud, so high, so high, in their aerial belfries. To think of death, to pray. It may be that there is one who yet has need of this, and it is to his need that the bells give voice. I no longer have any such need, for the reason that I am dying every instant, and being born anew and without memories: alive and whole, no longer in myself, but in everything outside. (Translation by Samuel Putnam)
End of story. Things turn out all right for Moscarda. He is now an outsider who has been saved. In his loss of a self, he brings to mind U.
G. Krishnamurti, John Wren-Lewis, and Suzanne Segal—those unwitting prodigies who recovered from shocks to their systems, following which the cognitive mechanisms which produce a fictive ego shut down. In these instances, the individual who loses himself is the beneficiary of a rapturous pay-off. This is truly a “good death” in which someone disappears as a purported self and is reborn as . . . no one. He is content just to exist, and equally content not to exist.
But does anyone really believe that Luigi Pirandello knew firsthand his protagonist’s state of selfless beatitude? Or is it more likely that he just imagined this ending of a decidedly “idealistic tendency”? Yet whether Pirandello actually experienced or merely researched the ideal resolution to Moscarda’s painful self-consciousness, it is not a resolution available to the reader, who could follow Moscarda’s route to salvation step-by-step and never be delivered to the promised land of the ego-dead. If it were so, Pirandello would have discovered the most phenomenal cure ever known for the sufferings especially reserved for humankind.
He would have solved every scourge we face as a species. As one might expect, though, he did no such thing. Instead, Pirandello resolved his fairy tale by lowering down a deus ex machina. His book is a moral scam with mystical transcendence standing in for the prayer Moscarda says he no longer needs. This is what the literary insider offers. In The Tenant, Roland Topor supplies the opposing view of the outsider.
When Pirandello’s character Moscarda describes his escalating puzzlement over his identity as a “horrible drama,” his words appear as a formality—a perfunctory gesture that fails to convey the uncanny nature of his situation. In The Tenant, on the other hand, Topor affectingly dramatizes the horror of his non-hero Trelkovsky as he traverses the
same terrain as his Italian counterpart. A critical passage in Topor’s novel begins with the following sentence: “‘At what precise moment,’ Trelkovsky asked himself, ‘does an individual cease to be the person he
—and everyone else—believes himself to be?’”
A Parisian with a Slavic name, Trelkovsky is an outsider and moves in a world where outsiders are persecuted, as they are in the real world. Hoping to move into a new apartment—one previously occupied by a woman named Simone Choule, who was critically injured and not expected to live—he is made to feel as if he is nobody by the landlord, Monsieur Zy, and then by the other residents of this sinister place. By flexing their self-appointed grandiosity, Trelkovsky’s persecutors can maintain their own delusional status as somebodies, real persons who are well adapted to the hell they have created for themselves.
Anyone who is marked as being outside of the group is fair game for those who would assert their reality over all others. (Compare with the psychosocial devices of Terror Management Theory.) Yet they, too, are nobodies. If they were not, their persecutions would not be required: they could pass their lives with a sure mindfulness of their substance and value. But as any good Buddhist (or even Pirandello’s Moscarda) could tell you, human beings have no more substance and value than anything else on earth. The incapacity to repose alongside both the mountains and the mold of this planet is the fountainhead of the torments we wreak on one another. As long as we deny a person or group the claim to be as right and as real as we are, so long may we hold this dreamlike claim for ourselves alone. And it is the duty of everyone to inculcate a sense of being empty of substance and value in those who are not emulations of them.
Without being consciously aware of it, Trelkovsky experiences an epiphany at the midpoint of the novel that is inspired by his neighbors’ behavior toward him: “‘The bastards!’ Trelkovsky raged. ‘The bastards! What the hell do they want—for everyone to roll over and play dead!
And even that probably wouldn’t be enough!’” He is more right than he knows. Because what they want is for everyone to roll over and play them.
Martians—they were all Martians. They were strangers on
this planet, but they refused to admit it. They played at being perfectly at home. . . . He was no different. He belonged to
their species, but for some unknown reason he had been banished from their company. They had no confidence in him. All they wanted from him was obedience to their incongruous rules and their ridiculous laws. Ridiculous only to him, because he could never fathom their intricacy and their subtlety.
Trelkovsky’s neighbors cannot admit to themselves what he comes to realize: Everybody is nobody; no one is empowered to define who he or she is. But people do arrogate to themselves the authority to make a ruling on who you are, and you will stand mute before their bench. From the outset, Trelkovsky is manipulated to accept this verdict; finally, he pronounces it on himself. To his broken mind it seems that the only way to defy his neighbors’ murderous conspiracy against him is to cooperate in it. He does this by allowing himself to fall from the window of his apartment and through the glass roofing over the courtyard below. The first time does not kill him, so he hauls his bloody anti-self back up the stairs, jeering at his neighbors who have come out to lunge at his body with sharp objects. He then falls a second time from the window.
Following in the footsteps of Gloria Beatty, he decides to call it quits in the world’s lugubrious game. Interestingly, The Tenant concludes with the same kind of leap beyond the mundane as does One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand. Sadly for Trelkovsky, it is a leap in the opposite direction. More accurately, it is a leap that does not deliver Topor’s protagonist from his “horrible drama” but one that catapults him into the outermost nightmare of nobodies.
As an insider, Pirandello resolved the theme of One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand in a spirit-lifting mode. Imbued with a different consciousness, the outsider can only give us resolutions of a miserablist nature. For the past few slivers of human history, those of us living in what is termed the free world have been allowed to hold disparate worldviews, but only on the condition that they affirm, directly or indirectly, the survival of the species. They must not be pessimistic, nihilistic, or in any respect skeptical about the livability of human life.
Such perspectives might well be valued by outsiders, but insiders, who form the preponderant division of humankind, will not incorporate the outsider’s stark attitudes and unhappy endings into their philosophies, ideologies, national policies, or fraternal by-laws. Both Pirandello and Topor dealt with the identical theme: the transformative dissolution of
one’s self-concept. The former writer ended his story with a portrait of a man who joyously transcends himself by becoming the “no one” in the novel’s title. This resolution has already been deplored as a put-up job. An insider might say as much about the ending of Topor’s novel, which implies a descent into nightmare that Trelkovsky never saw coming.
In the epilogue to The Tenant, it turns out that Trelkovsky survives what should have been his death-plunge. But he does so in a strange way. Regaining consciousness in a hospital bed, he sees he has a visitor. And now everything comes home to him. (Anyone can tell where this is going.) The hospital bed where he now reclines is the same one that, at the beginning of the story, he stood beside as he looked over the
bandage-hidden body of his apartment’s former tenant, whom he wanted to see for himself was not going to recover from her injuries and try to reclaim her old lodgings. She, too, had fallen from the window of that shabby residence. The newly bedridden patient, like the one before, identifies to his horror the one who has come to visit him. It is himself. Immobilized by his injuries and his face dressed to expose only one eye and an opening for his mouth, he realizes that he has changed places with the woman whose apartment he once coveted. Perhaps not for the first time, as he might be caught in a loop of reincarnations, he has come to be at his own bedside. Realizing what has happened to him, the one in the bed, he already knows what is going to happen to the one standing over him, the one who is not him anymore, and yet is. Trelkovsky has now solved his (and Moscarda’s) riddle: “At what precise moment does an individual cease to be the person he—and everyone else—believes himself to be?” Answer: at the moment when an individual becomes conscious that he has been trapped in a paradox of identity and there is no way out for him as long as he believes himself to be something he is not. Ask any puppet that thinks it is a person.
As neither Pirandello nor Topor underwent the transformative dissolution of the self-concept that is the common theme of their stories—it would be the high point of each man’s biography if they had—are they not equally disingenuous? The answer to that question would seem to turn upon which author’s representation of the world you deem to be more symbolically well founded: ending one’s days in serene communion with all that makes up the world . . . or trapped in a damaged body in a
hospital bed, unable to do anything but scream at the sight of a clueless wraith, the nobody who was you in the dream that was your life.
Whichever conclusion to these thematically analogous stories appears more faithful to human experience depends on who you are . . . or who you think you are. This is a very Pirandellian theme.
While Topor’s vision seems empirically sturdier, Pirandello’s is the crowd favorite. To receive the prize Pirandello awards Moscarda, if only for a moment before one’s death, would make amends for a lifetime of lashings. Grievously, just because something is a desideratum does not mean that believing in it will save you. But Pirandello and his kind want you, and themselves, to die trying. All Topor and his kind have to say is that you should always have your affairs in order, which may bring you some peace of mind if you are confined to a hospital bed . . . or only looking for a new apartment.
In his essay “The Undelivered,” Cioran wrote: “The more we consider the Buddha’s last exhortation, ‘Death is inherent in all created things; labor ceaselessly for your salvation,’ the more we are troubled by the impossibility of feeling ourselves as an aggregate, a transitory if not fortuitous convergence of elements.” Cioran could not have been more right about the impossibility of feeling oneself to be a thing of parts, a being made as it is made. Transporting ourselves to and fro on the earth and walking up and down upon it, we are doggedly believable characters, although we are not provably anything more than that. Yet we do seem to be more than that, and seeming is enough for us to get by as we have all these years.
In the course of our disillusionments, we have confessed to being bodies made of elementary particles just like everything else. But we must stop short of any tidings that would put us on a par with bacteria and beer mugs. That would be to skyrocket disillusionment out of the atmosphere, leaving us without a speck of our invaluable selves and the games they play. One game that most writers of horror fiction play with their characters is called Good versus Evil. And they play it as if it were the only game in town. Certainly it is the oldest game in town, the one we have relied on for much of our characterization from the time we first knew who we were, or thought we did. A few horror writers, though,
play a different game, one in which, as Poe wrote, “Horror is the soul of the plot” rather than believable characters. The game of Good versus Evil is about horror in the world, and its players, its characters, are given a fighting chance. The other game is about the horror of the world, and none of its players has a chance, unless by pure chance.
For example, compare two horror novels that presume the reality of supernatural possession—William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) and Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (written 1927; published posthumously, 1941). In the world of Blatty’s Good-versus-Evil novel, certain believable characters are dressed for doom and others for survival. (This is a formulaic element of nearly all popular horror novels.) Two priests, Frs. Karras and Merrin, give their lives to save Regan, a believable characterization of a young girl whose body, and perhaps her soul—the relationship between body and soul among Christian sects is not consistent—has been possessed by a demon or demons. The deaths of these priests are acceptable to readers as part of the story’s formula, despite the fact that they are the sort of characters whom ordinary folk care about. Burke Dennings, the director of the movie in which Regan’s actress mother Chris MacNeill stars, is murdered by the possessed Regan. He is not a terribly likeable fellow, being a profane and belligerent drunk, so the function he serves is that of a character who can be killed off to advance the narrative in a shocking direction, since the reader does not care much about him, however believable he may be. This is very acceptable to readers, who are within their rights to expect at least one person to be slain over the course of a horror novel. Such is the way that the greater part of those who patronize works of fiction like to see writers handle their characters—believably.
They also want a finale in which Good wins out over Evil, which assures them that the formula “being alive is all right” is the right formula.
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is in every way a negation of Blatty’s Exorcist. In Lovecraft’s novel, the universe cares nothing for human life, just as it is in the real world, and one does not care about the characters—they are only a perspective from which to view the horror of the plot. This is acceptable to very few readers. Good and Evil are rubrics of an existential code long gone, just as they are in the real world. Again, this is acceptable to very few readers. And the idea of human beings as creatures with souls is not an issue in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward because it was not an issue for Lovecraft. Everyone, not
only the hapless protagonist of the book, exists in a world that is a wall-to-wall nightmare. In Lovecraft’s universe without a formula, everyone is killable—and some kill themselves just ahead of the worse things waiting for them. Life as we conceive it, let alone a configuration of atoms that goes by the name Charles Dexter Ward, occurs in a context of permanent jeopardy which only remains to be discovered and from which there is no salvation. Lovecraft does not want to take you on an emotional roller-coaster ride, at the end of which he tells you to watch your step as your car comes to a stop and you settle back onto steady ground. He simply wants to say that we no longer have to stand back very far to see that the human race is what it always has been in this or any other world—irrelevant, which is as liberating to some as it is maddening to others, including Lovecraft’s characters.
Lovecraft’s employment of supernatural possession as a storytelling device in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is so alien to Blatty’s in The Exorcist that the two men might as well have been living in different centuries, or even different millennia. The narrative parameters of The Exorcist begin and end with the New Testament; those of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward could only have been conceived by a fiction writer of the modern era, a time when it had become safe not only to place humanity outside the center of the Creation but also to survey the universe itself as centerless and our species as only a smudge of organic materials at the mercy of forces that know us not, just as we are in the real world.
As for the special fate of the protagonist of Lovecraft’s novel, his possession by his ancestor Joseph Curwen, a master of occult arts, is only a means to much larger ends that have been eons in the making. As previously imaged, he is just a configuration of atoms, not an ensouled creature of a god who has been toying with us for the past hundred thousand years more or less. Absolutely up-to-date—that is, post-everything—The Case of Charles Dexter Ward emerged from an imagination that was deferential to no traditions or dogmas, and its author went the distance of disillusionment in assuming the meaningless universe that became the starting point for later investigators in the sciences and philosophy. (Ask the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg, who notoriously said, “The more we know about the universe, the more meaningless it appears.”) Although Lovecraft did have his earthbound illusions, at the end of the day he existed in a no man’s land
of disillusionment. As a fiction writer, he will ever be a contemporary of each new generation of mortals, because there will always be many a character in the real world for whom human life is not acceptable.
In many horror stories there is an assortment of figures that appear as walk-ons or extras whose purpose is to lend their spooky presence to a narrative for atmosphere alone, while the real bogey is something else altogether. Puppets, dolls, and other caricatures of the human often make cameo appearances as shapes sagging in the corner of a child’s bedroom or lolling on the shelves of a toy store. There are also dismembered limbs and decapitated heads of manikins that have been relegated to spare parts strewn about an old warehouse where such things are stored or sent to die. As backdrops or bit-players, imitations of the human form have a symbolic value because they seem connected to another world, one that is all harm and disorder—the kind of place we sometimes fear is the model for our own home ground, which we must believe is passably sound and secure, or at least not an environment where we might mistake a counterfeit person for the real thing. But in fiction, as in life, mistakes are sometimes made. When they are, one of those humanoid replicas may advance to the center of a story’s action.
In E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman,” for instance, the protagonist Nathanael discovers that the too perfect girl to whom he has proposed marriage is really just an automaton. This shakes him up so greatly that he is committed to an asylum until he recovers his senses. The incident with Nathanael’s mechanical fiancée, a thing of parts who is the creation of two mysterious characters in the story, also shakes up others who are in love with dream girls. As Hoffmann’s story goes, “Many lovers, to be quite convinced that they were not enamored of wooden dolls, would request their mistresses to sing and dance a little out of time, to embroider and knit, and play with their lapdogs, while listening to reading, etc., and, above all, not merely to listen, but also sometimes to talk in such a manner as presupposed actual thought and feeling.” Toward the end of “The Sandman,” Nathanael’s madness returns, and he leaps to his death from a steeple after screaming, “Turn and turn about, little doll.”
There are many abominable fates in horror stories, and among them is that of Nathanael. Worse still is when a human being becomes objectified as a puppet, a doll, or some other caricature of our species and enters a world that he or she thought was just a creepy little place inside of ours. What a jolt to find oneself a prisoner in this sinister sphere, reduced to a composite mechanism looking out on the land of the human, or one which we believe to be human by any definition of the word, and to be exiled from it. Just as we know that dreams are merely reflections of what happens in our lives, we are also quite sure that puppets, dolls, and other caricatures of our species are only reflections of ourselves. In a sane world, no correspondence could exist between those artificial anatomies and our natural flesh. That would be too strange and awful, for things to become confused in such a way. More strange and awful, of course, would be to find this a living confusion—life as the dream of a puppet.
When the narrator of Joseph Conrad’s novel Under Western Eyes (1911) writes that “the belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness,” he seems to be speaking for the author, who shunned the supernatural in his fiction.
Nevertheless, Conrad was a great depicter of what he felt was an ineffable deviltry that nests in the shadows of all that is. And any close reader of Conrad will perceive the impure breath of the supernatural in many of his works. In Heart of Darkness (1902), for example, he pulls at the collar of psychological realism, plying his genius for nuance and stealing up to the very border of supernaturalism. By proceeding thus, Conrad impresses upon his audience the consciousness of a horror that goes beyond the human and takes in all of being.
Conrad’s odyssey into horror begins when the narrator of Heart of Darkness, Charles Marlow, acquires a position with a European business concern as the skipper of a steamboat. His first charge is to guide the vessel down a snaking African river to a remote outpost run by one the company’s best men, Mr. Kurtz, a prolific supplier of goods to his employers. At every point, Marlow feels his journey is taking him farther and farther into an unholy land as he progresses toward his destination.
Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish.
There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away—in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare to yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect. I got used to it afterwards; I did not see it any more; I had no time. I had to keep guessing at the channel; I had to discern, mostly by inspiration, the signs of hidden banks; I watched for sunken stones; I was learning to clap my teeth smartly before my heart flew out, when I shaved by a fluke some infernal sly old snag that would have ripped the life out of the tin-pot steamboat and drowned all the pilgrims; I had to keep a look-out for the signs of dead wood we could cut up in the night for next day’s steaming. When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality—the reality, I tell you—fades. The inner truth is hidden—luckily, luckily. But I felt it all the same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me. . . .
This passage substantiates that you do not need the supernatural to invoke the supernatural. Reality fades more and more as Marlow approaches Kurtz, who embodies the horrible “inner truth” of things. On
the level of narrative, this inner truth is outwardly made plain by one look at Kurtz’s base of operations, where the barbarous means of his successful career are visible everywhere. But Kurtz is not just a bestial headman managing a trading post in Africa. His whole meaning as a character is much more than that. What the brutally atavistic Kurtz signifies to Marlow surpasses the “wickedness of men” and deposits the steamboat captain on the threshold of an occult truth about the underpinnings of the only reality he has ever known—the anchoring fictions of civilization.
If Kurtz is simply a man who has realized his potential for wickedness—which, by inference, is a potential for each of us—then he is merely another candidate for incarceration or the death penalty. But if he is a man who has probed the mysteries of something that is wicked in its essence, then he has crossed the point of no return, and his last words
—“The horror! The horror!”—have prodigious implications. Not to say that the assorted overtones that literary critics have heard in the story— civilization is only skin deep, European colonialism was a bad business
—are not horrors. But they are not the horror that every incident of the narrative prefigures. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad did not cede “the horror” a local habitation and a name (example: The Creature from the Black Lagoon), but artfully suggested a malignity conjoining the latent turpitude of human beings with that active in being itself.
As a species, we might have been saved both from our turpitude, latent or not, and from any notion of turpitude active in being itself. The real horror, the real tragedy, is that we were not saved. In an 1898 letter to the Scottish writer R. B. Cunninghame Graham, Conrad wrote:
Yes, egoism is good, and altruism is good, and fidelity to nature would be the best of all . . . if we could only get rid of consciousness. What makes mankind tragic is not that they are the victims of nature, it is that they are conscious of it. To be part of the animal kingdom under the conditions of this earth is very well—but as soon as you know of your slavery, the pain, the anger, the strife—the tragedy begins. We can’t return to nature, since we can’t change our place in it. Our refuge is in stupidity . . . There is no morality, no knowledge, and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us
about a world that . . . is always but a vain and floating appearance. (Conrad’s emphases)
Too conscious that Heart of Darkness was not the place for such discourse, Conrad gave us Marlow’s sensitivity to an “implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention” and Kurtz’s resonant last words. If our species was not saved from consciousness, at least the above letter was saved so that we could know what horror was in Conrad’s heart.
Some horror writers are not the least concerned with the wickedness of men but exclusively attend to an “implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention,” which is to say, something pernicious behind the scenes of life that makes our lives a living nightmare. For Lovecraft, this all-embracing nightmare became the grounding for the supernaturalism of his writings, most famously in his negative mythology of multidimensional horrors sometimes collectively designated as the “Great Old Ones,” who came to earth from other worlds, much like the Body Snatchers and the Thing. Their individual names alone, some of which were referenced earlier in this book, convey their otherworldly demonism. Here are some other names: Dagon, Yog-Sothoth, and Shub-Niggurath the Goat with a Thousand Young. Lovecraft also wrote of unnamed beings that may be apprehended only by their sensory attributes, as with the eponymous entity in “The Colour out of Space” or the unobserved source of the “exquisitely low and infinitely distant musical note” that sounds in the blackness above the Rue d’Auseil in “The Music of Erich Zann.”
In composing the latter work, Lovecraft came up with a model supernatural horror tale, one in which a subjective mind and an objective monstrosity shade into each other, the one projecting itself outward and the other reflecting back so that together they form the perfect couple dancing to the uncanny music of being. The mind in the story is that of the nervously afflicted narrator; the monstrosity is the unnamed and unnamable nemesis of the nervously afflicted Zann. With his viol playing, Zann battles to keep at bay this thing that would destroy an already tumble-down world as represented by the Rue d’Auseil, the street on which he lives and where he dies. In “The Music of Erich Zann,” Lovecraft offers no sanity or system of meaning. What he does
offer are Zann’s “weird notes,” which correspond to powers of disorder that scoff at our fabricated world and show us the horror of our lives.
Belief in the supernatural is only superstition. That said, a sense of the supernatural, as Conrad evinced in Heart of Darkness, must be admitted if one’s inclination is to go to the limits of horror. It is the sense of what should not be—the sense of being ravaged by the impossible.
Phenomenally speaking, the supernatural may be regarded as the metaphysical counterpart of insanity, a transcendental correlative of a mind that has been driven mad. This mind does not keep a chronicle of “man’s inhumanity to man” but instead tracks a dysphoria symptomatic of our life as transients in a creation that is natural for all else that lives, but for us is anything but.
The most uncanny of creaturely traits, the sense of the supernatural, the impression of a fatal estrangement from the visible, is dependent on our consciousness, which merges the outward and the inward into a universal comedy without laughter. We are only chance visitants to this jungle of blind mutations. The natural world existed when we did not, and it will continue to exist long after we are gone. The supernatural crept into life only when the door of consciousness was opened in our heads. The moment we stepped through that door, we walked out on nature. Say what we will about it and deny it till we die—we are blighted by our knowing what is too much to know and too secret to tell one another if we are to stride along our streets, work at our jobs, and sleep in our beds. It is the knowledge of a race of beings that is only passing through this shoddy cosmos.2
As explained in an earlier section of the present contrivance, literary use of the supernatural may strikingly differ among the works of diverse authors or even within the output of a single author. A noteworthy example of the latter case displays itself in a comparison of two of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, Hamlet (c. 1600–1601) and Macbeth (c.
1606). In Hamlet, the supernatural element is extraneous; in Macbeth, it is integral. While both dramas are patterned along the lines of a soap opera—complete with squabbles, schemes, betrayals, and deceptions in a world on the make—Macbeth is played out within a supernatural order
that is reinforced throughout the play and gives it a terrible mystery that Hamlet lacks. The latter tragedy does have its ghost, but this apparition serves only as a dramatic device to get the plot moving, which could have been done without an otherworldly intervention that gives away the work’s central secret from its commencement and in no sense tinctures the incidents of the play with a tenebrous and malefic presence, as is the case with Macbeth.
Without the three witches (aka Weird Sisters; Sisters of Fate), who officiate as masters of a power that reduces the characters of the story to the status of puppets, Macbeth would not be Macbeth. Without the ghost of Hamlet, Sr., Hamlet would still be Hamlet. As we all know, later in the drama Hamlet the Younger doubts the words of his father’s presumptive spirit and double-checks them by having a troupe of actors stage a number called The Murder of Gonzago, so that the indecisive protagonist can see for himself how the new king, his uncle Claudius, responds to the play’s reenactment of how he killed his brother. Hamlet needs earthly evidence, not just the words of a revenant, to confirm the crime. The play’s the thing, not the ghost. It is just too much that after all the inside information thunderously told by the Hamlet the Elder in the first act, Hamlet the Younger would still feel the necessity to engage in his own detective work before making his move. Another setup could have been used to point the finger at Claudius’s nefarious deed—a snoop in the shrubbery perhaps—and the paternal shade could have been edited from the play. Along with this excision there would be lost a side issue of interest to Shakespeare scholars—to wit, the Bard’s treatment of Catholicism’s doctrine of Purgatory—but nothing apposite to the story would have gone missing. And the matter of whether or not the ghost is truly that of Hamlet’s father or a lying goblin is not kept so much in the reader or playgoer’s mind to be a source of great suspense and would have derailed the course of Hamlet’s plot had it turned out to be the latter. All told, Hamlet is not a work that gains anything considerable from a supernatural intrusion.
In both Hamlet and Macbeth the title characters deliver a mass of majestic rhetoric concerning the mysterious matters of human life.
However, there is a dimension of the unknowable in Macbeth that situates us in a world of cosmic misrule outside the boundaries of the natural order. Hamlet is a tragedy of human errors; Macbeth, an uncanny puppet show. The springboard of the earlier play is, once more, the
treacherous murder of Hamlet’s father. That of the later piece is a malicious witchery in the world, an unbodied agency that tugs Macbeth through motions that accurse him and his wife as much as they do their victims. The play is a ferment of fatality. Every action is choreographed by a supernaturalism that deracinates its main characters from their natural drives to survive and reproduce and leads Macbeth to the revelation, among others, that “Life’s but a walking shadow”—that death is the thing that makes us uncanny things that have nothing to do with the rest of creation. Hamlet has bad dreams, as do we all. But Macbeth cannot dream. As contracted by fate, he has murdered sleep and knows only a waking nightmare.
In his Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational (1917), the German theologian Rudolf Otto writes of the “numinous,” the wholly Other (that is, God), as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans (“a terrifying and fascinating mystery”). Confrontations with the numinous are uncommon outside the lives of religious mystics, who may be terrified by their supernatural assignations but are never undone by them. For these extremist believers, the supernatural is a terror of the divine, not a demonic horror. And it is the absolute reality. After conjuring up the wholly Other through prayer and meditation, cultists of the sacred feel themselves to be nothing in its presence, only a bit of crud stuck to the shoe of the numinous. Eventually, so says Otto, they make common cause with the numinous and are able to feel good about themselves. On Otto’s say-so, these are encounters with the supernatural in its truest and most encompassing sense; any others, including those evoked by supernatural horror stories, are primitive or perverted. What else could a theologian say? What other kind of supernatural story would he have to tell? While The Idea of the Holy has some electrifying moments when things are touch and go, the ending is all blessedness and no harm done. But this is not what readers expect when the supernatural is the featured element. They expect death, good or not so good, and will feel swindled if they do not get it. Because death is what really terrifies and fascinates them. In the midst of their lives, they are deep in death . . . and they know it. They do not know the numinous, which hangs back from life
and welcomes very few into its circle. Why things should be this way is the real mystery.
The context of Otto’s tract is the nature and origins of religion, a respectable fixation for scholars, divines, and anyone else who has a few coins to throw in the pot. But paranormal researchers have written with as much conviction, investigative rigor, and personal experience about their own field of study; they, too, have tales to tell of the terrifying and fascinating, as if anyone could have a monopoly on these emotions or reserve their copyright for true believers only.3 The supernatural is in the public domain, and, whatever the ontological angle, it is packaged with plots that are missing from the natural world. When we and our prototypes were part of that world, our lives had as little plot to them as the doings of earth’s flora and fauna. Later, as our consciousness began to inflate, we strayed off from the natural. Our bodies stayed behind, but our minds searched for stories with better plots than just survival and reproduction. However, these stories could not be set in the natural world, where there are no stories—where things just happen willy-nilly and events have no meaning outside of material practicality. These stories had to have plots at a distance from biology.
Say what we like, we do not believe ourselves to be just organisms.
Ask any medical researcher in his home-sweet-home if he thinks of himself and his wife and kids in the same way he does the animals he left back in the lab. That we are critters is only a scientific technicality. What we see in our mirrors are human beings, and what we need in our diet is the sustenance of stories telling us that we are more than the sum of our creaturely parts. And our supply of this provender comes from only one source—our consciousness, which dramatizes survival as storied conflicts between everyone and his brother and tricks up procreation as legends of courtly love, bedroom farces, and romantic fictions with or without laughs.
But such narratives are not really very far from nature, as we can confirm for ourselves. Those recitals of physical or psychological strife among us: Are they really so removed from survival in the natural kingdom? No, they are not. They are still nature, red in tooth and claw. Masked by our consciousness and its illusions to seem uniquely human, our war stories, success stories, and other bio-dramas are not
qualitatively different from their analogues in the wilderness. This goes doubly for romance yarns, those dolled-up variations on mating rituals as seen in nature documentaries. They are not detached from the procreative dog-and-pony show as observed by zoologists and would be dramatically incomplete without a sexual union as their chief motive.
Properly considered, they are an ornate pornography, with oft-repeated plots having their climax in a release of tension between two parties and their falling action in what cinematic pornographers term a “money shot,” which in conventional filmic products is replaced by a kiss or a marriage by way of consummation.
As survivors and procreators, we unravel stories that at their root are not dissimilar from the habitual behaviors seen in nature. But as beings who know they will die we digress into episodes and epics that are altogether dissociated from the natural world. We may isolate this awareness, distract ourselves from it, anchor our minds far from its shores, and sublimate it as a motif in our sagas. Yet at no time and in no place are we protected from being tapped on the shoulder and reminded, “You’re going to die, you know.” However much we try to ignore it, our consciousness haunts us with this knowledge. Our heads were baptized in the font of death; they are doused with the horror of moribundity.
Death—do we really believe it is part of the order of our lives? We say that we do. But when it becomes lucent to our imagination, how natural does it feel? W. A. Mozart’s attributed last words are apropos here: “The taste of death is on my tongue. I feel something which is not of this world” (Quoted in Jacques Choron, Death and Modern Man, 1964). Death is not like survival and procreation. It is more like a visitation from a foreign and enigmatic sphere, one to which we are connected by our consciousness. No consciousness, no death. No death, no stories with a beginning, middle, and an end. Animal stories of survival and procreation have no comparable structure because animals have no consciousness of death.
Obviously, not all fictional plots end in death, only those which follow a character’s life until it can be followed no more. However, in the world of nonfiction where we are making a go of it on our own, we know how far we will be followed. What we can never know is How and When the following will end. But suppose we did know How and When the ending would take place? What then? How could we go on? Who could live through a story whose ending he or she knew from page one—
not in a general sense but as to the How and When of that ending, which may be a crucifixion and not an easeful cessation? Only because we do not know How or When our life stories will finish can we keep going.
We remain in suspense about these details, making it possible for us to follow attentively the twists and turns of our personal plot. And so the story holds our interest for as long as it lasts.
Yet everyone knows What is going to happen at the end. We just do not know what it will be like when what is going to happen actually happens. One would think that would be enough to ruin the story, knowing What is going to happen—that no one is going to make it through. Somehow, though, it does not. Our crafty minds have taken care of that. They have thought a thousand different endings, most prominently that of dying in one’s sleep, or not thought about the ending at all. But when it comes, it comes. Nothing will turn away that distinguished visitor. After being long refused admittance into our lives, death materializes outside our door and begins pounding to be let in.
Now everything quivers with an aura of the uncanny, and nameless shapes begin to form. As the end nears, consciousness surges and the pieces fall together. Being alive is all right, or so most of us say. But when death walks through the door, nothing is all right. As some believe that life is that which should not be, the bulk of the rest of us believe the same of death. That is its terror and its fascination. Everyone knows that we are all the dead-to-be. There are gewgaws and knickknacks that stay in shape far longer than our mortal forms. If we called ourselves dead from the time we are born, we would not be far from the truth. But as long as we can walk or crawl or just lie abed sucking tubes, we can still say that being alive is all right.
Without death—meaning without our consciousness of death—no story of supernatural horror would ever have been written, nor would any other artistic representation of human life have been created for that matter. It is always there, if only between the lines or brushstrokes, or conspicuously by its absence. It is a terrific stimulus to that which is at once one of our greatest weapons and greatest weaknesses—imagination. Our minds are always on the verge of exploding with thoughts and images as we ceaselessly pound the pavement of our world. Both our most exquisite cogitations and our worst cognitive drivel announce our
primal torment: We cannot linger in the stillness of nature’s vacuity. And so we have imagination to beguile us. A misbegotten hatchling of consciousness, a birth defect of our species, imagination is often revered as a sign of vigor in our make-up. But it is really just a psychic overcompensation for our impotence as beings. Denied nature’s exemption from fictitious designs, we are indentured servants of the imaginary until the hour of our death, when the final harassments of imagination will beset us.
Apart from vulgar mortality, supernatural literature also centers on the death of sanity, identity, ideals, abilities, passions, and hand-me-down conceptions about the universe and everything in it. Death is accepted in horror stories because a plot that did not ignite its terrors—in a fictional world, that is—would be a narrative miscarriage. But in real life few of us hang out in morgues and mausoleum chambers, and even those who do are only perversely inuring themselves to the graphic details of what puts us in these places. Being alive is supposed to be all right, but not when you have no choice but to consider the alternative.
An example of how this might happen, one with which most of us are conversant, is the prosaic plot of a vehicular misadventure, a mischance that is ordinarily experienced as a dreamlike ramble with unforeseen stops along the way.
Imagine: You may be traveling on a slippery road when, without warning, your vehicle begins sliding across several lanes of oncoming traffic. You know that such things happen. They may even have happened to you on a prior occasion. You know that they happen to other people all the time. Nevertheless, this accident was not in your plans, which is why it is called an accident. In principle, it could be plotted as a cause-and-effect confluence of circumstances, although you would never be able to trace them to their originating source, not even if you went back to the beginning of time. It might occur to you, though, that the responsibility for your accident-to-come lay with a friend or relative who called and asked you to come over and lend a hand in some fix-it project, because you would not even be out of the house except for that untimely request. Yet you would be just as right to hold other factors responsible: the slippery road on which you were driving, the weather that made the road slippery, all the things that determined the weather, the length of time you spent looking in your clothes closet for the shoes that would be most proper to wear for the fix-it project in question—that interval of
perfect extent which made sure you would be just where you needed to be so that you would not be too early or too late to become involved in a vehicular misadventure.
But whatever the proximate or remote causes of your vehicular misadventure might have been, you had an idea of how things were to happen that day, as you do every day, and spinning out of control in your car while other vehicles try to circumvent a collision with you was not on your schedule. One second ago you had a firm grip on things, but now you are veering toward who knows where. You are not filled with horror, not yet, as you careen along the pavement that is slick with rain or snow glistening in the moonlight, the wind wailing and shadows scattering. At this point everything is all strangeness. You have been taken to a different place from where you were just a moment before.
Then it begins. This can’t be happening, you think—if you can think at all, if you are anything more than a whirlwind of panic. In reality, though, anything can happen now. This is the whispering undercurrent that creeps into your thoughts—nothing is safe and nothing is off limits. All of a sudden something was set in motion that changed everything.
Something descended upon you that had been circling above your life from the day you were born. And for the first time you feel that which you have never felt before—the imminence of your own death. There is no possibility for self-deception now. The paradox that came with consciousness is done with. Only horror is left. This is what is real. This is the only thing that was ever real, however unreal it may have seemed. Of course, bad things happen, as everyone knows. They have always happened and always will happen. They are part of the natural order of things. But this is not how we would have it. This is not how we think things should be for us. This is how we think things should not be. And all supernatural horror, as we remember, derives from what we believe should be and should not be.
Yet might we have avoided this horror by warding off our belief in what should be and what should not be, by believing only in what is? No, we could not. We were doomed to hold this belief and to suffer what looms out of it. What doomed us (if one will forgive another imperious repetition of this theme) was consciousness—parent of all horrors and author of all we believe should be and should not be. While consciousness brought us out of our coma in the natural, we still like to think that, however aloof we are from other living things, we are not in
essence wholly alienated from them. We do try to fit in with the rest of creation, living and breeding like any other animal or vegetable. It is no fault of ours that we were made as we were made—experiments in a parallel being. This was not our choice. We did not volunteer to be as we are. We may think that being alive is all right, especially when we consider the alternative, but we think about it as infrequently as possible, for this very thought raises the spirits of the dead and all the other freaks of nature.
No other life forms know they are alive, and neither do they know they will die. This is our curse alone. Without this hex upon our heads, we would never have withdrawn as far as we have from the natural—so far and for such a time that it is a relief to say what we have been trying with our all not to say: We have long since fallen from Nature’s arms.
Everywhere around us are natural habitats, but within us is the shiver of startling and dreadful things. Simply put: We are not from here. If we vanished tomorrow, no organism on this planet would miss us. Nothing in nature needs us. We are like Mainländer’s suicidal God. Nothing needed Him either, and His uselessness was transferred to us after He burst out of existence. We have no business being in this world. We move among living things, all those natural puppets with nothing in their heads. But our heads are in another place, a world apart where all the puppets exist not in the midst of life but outside it. We are those puppets, those human puppets. We are crazed mimics of the natural prowling about for a peace that will never be ours. And the medium in which we circulate is that of the supernatural, a dusky element of horror that obtains for those who believe in what should be and should not be. This is our secret quarter. This is where we rave with insanity on the level of metaphysics, fracturing reality and breaking the laws of life.
Deviations from the natural have whirled around us all our days. We kept them at arm’s length, abnormalities we denied were elemental to our being. But absent us there is nothing of the supernatural in the universe. We are aberrations—beings born undead, neither one thing nor another, or two things at once . . . uncanny things that have nothing to do with the rest of creation, horrors that poison the world by sowing our madness everywhere we go, glutting daylight and darkness with incorporeal obscenities. From across an immeasurable divide, we brought the supernatural into all that is manifest. Like a faint haze it floats around us. We keep company with ghosts. Their graves are marked in our minds,
and they will never be disinterred from the cemeteries of our remembrance. Our heartbeats are numbered, our steps counted. Even as we survive and reproduce, we know ourselves to be dying in a dark corner of infinity. Wherever we go, we know not what expects our arrival but only that it is there.
With eyes that see through a translucent veil shimmering before us, we look at life from the other side. There, something escorts us through our days and nights like a second shadow that casts itself into another world and fastens us to it. Leashed to the supernatural, we know its signs and try to tame them by desensitization and lampoonery. We study them as symbols, play games with them. Then an eerily hued light bathes them, and they become real in a peculiar modality: the grinning skull, the curving scythe, the moldy headstone, all the dark creatures of the earth and air, every memento mori we have hidden within us. These skeletons of ours—when will they come out and show themselves? They groan more loudly with each passing year. Time breezes by with chilling haste. Is the child in that old photograph really an erstwhile version of you, your little hand waving farewell? The face of that child is nothing like the face you have now. That child’s face is now melding with the blackness behind you, before you, around you. The child is waving and smiling and fading as your car keeps skidding toward your abruptly curtailed future. Bye-bye.
Then another face appears. It has displaced the one you are used to seeing when your rearview mirror goes crooked, as it has now, and confronts you. You cannot look away, because the other face is lit up like a full moon, which both terrifies and fascinates you. And nothing about it looks natural. It seems rigid—the face of something that belongs in a toy chest. The face is smiling, but too much and too long to be real. And its eyes do not blink. The scene shifts moment by moment. People, places, and things appear and disappear. You appeared as others expected but not as you chose. You will disappear as if you had never been, having taken your turn in this world. You always told yourself that this was the natural way of things and that you could submit to it because you belonged to nature . . . MALIGNANTLY USELESS nature, which coughed you up like a little phlegm from its great lungs. Yet the supernatural has cleaved to you from the beginning, working its oddities into your life while you waited for death to begin beating on your door. It has not come to save you, but to bring you into its horror. Perhaps you
hoped to make it through this horror that sat like a gargoyle upon your life. Now you find there is no way through. Only seconds are left, each one strangling you a little more tightly. Incantations are spoken all around. They have lost their power. The living and the dead jabber inside you. You cannot understand them. Dreams become more lustrous than memories. Darkness is shoveled over dreams.
Those unblinking eyes are still gleaming in the mirror, the eyes of that face, smiling too much and too long. And you can feel your own face smiling, too, your eyes not blinking. Now that secret you never wanted to know comes into your head—that you were made as you were made and manipulated to behave as you behaved. And as this secret comes into your head, the smile of that face in the mirror pushes up at its edges. So does yours, doing as it is bidden. Both faces at once are smiling the same smile. It widens past all sane proportion. At last a long-restrained voice cries out: What is this life! But only silence answers, and it mocks every mad hope you ever held.
No self now, consciously speaking.
No feeling your old self or new self, false imaginings if you think about it, self-conscious nothings everywhere you look.
No one to hear you weep or scream, making a go of it on your own, bye-bye.
No arms of nature, abandoned on the doorstep of the supernatural, minds full of flagrantly joyless possibilities, a real blunder that was, the human tragedy.
No reality to speak of, nobody here but us puppets, contradictory beings, mutants who embody the contorted logic of a paradox. No immortality, ordinary folk and average mortals coming and going, can’t stay long, got an appointment with nonexistence, no alternative to consider, being alive was all right while it lasted, so they say.
No life story with a happy ending to tell, only a contrivance of horror, then nothingness—and nothing else.
No Free Will-to-live, no redemption by a Will-to-die, how depressing.
No philosophies to peddle, pessimism a no-sale, optimism had to close its doors, too wicked to pass code.
No meanings or mind-games, repressional mechanisms broke down, self-deception shuttered its windows.
No awakening from a dream within a dream, mutation of consciousness—parent of all horrors, best not mess with it, extinction looking better all the time.
No more pleasure, what there was of it, a few crumbs left by chaos at feast, still a good supply of pain, though.
No praiseworthy incentives, just bowel-movement pressures, potato-mashing relativism.
No euthanasia, bad for the business of life, you’re on your own there, but watch out for the eternal return, most horrible idea in the universe.
No loving God, omnipotence off duty and omniscience on leave, the deity He dead—the horror, the horror, even the skies of spring and the flowers of summer must ever afterward be poison, blame it on the piecing together of dissociated knowledge.
No compassionate Buddha, Body Snatchers got him, heard tell, or some kind of thing, maybe next lifetime.
No Good-versus-Evil formulas around here, Azathoth running the show, human beings a mistake or a joke, something pernicious making a nightmare of our world.
No being normal and real, the uncanny coming at you full speed, startling and dreadful.
No ego-death—enlightenment by accident.
No way out of harm’s way, better never to have been, worst saved for
No Last Messiah, buried in the fingernails of midwives and pacifier
makers, gone the way of messiahs past.
No bleakness either, a failure indeed.
No terror management by isolation, anchoring, distraction, sublimation.
No tragedies to read or to write, death kept at a safe distance past the vanishing point down the road.
No escape routes into a useless bliss, useless existence, malignantly so. . .
What now? Now there is only that unnaturally spreading smile—a great gaping abyss where blackness reaches out to blackness, nothing. Then: the sense of being swallowed. The story is done; the plot complete.
To contest Zapffe’s philosophy, or any philosophy like it, would be as facile as to contest that of any other philosopher whose reasoning does not suit your predilections. If his analysis of human existence appears secure in a certain light, it may be flouted with little exertion by anyone thus motivated. Zapffe did not discover the New World, with a handful of dirt to prove it. He was someone who thought he had worked out why humankind should go extinct, knowing that we would never make that choice, whatever he and his Last Messiah had to say. Whether we are sovereign or enslaved in our being, what of it? Our species will still look to the future and see no need to abdicate its puppet dance of replication in a puppet universe where the strings pull themselves. What a laugh that we would do anything else, or could do anything else. That our lives might be a paradox and a horror would not really be a secret too terrible to know for minds that know only what they want to know. The hell of human consciousness is only a philosopher’s bedtime story we can hear each night and forget each morning when we awake to go to school or to work or wherever we may go day after day after day. What do we care about the horror of being insufferably aware we are alive and will die . . . the horror of shadows without selves enshrouding the earth . . . or the horror of puppet-heads bobbing in the wind and disappearing into a dark sky like lost balloons? If that is the way you think things are, go shout it from the rooftops and see where it gets you. We are staying put, but you can go extinct if you like. We can make more little puppets like you, but we do not call them that. We call them people who have indivisible selves and stories that are nothing like yours.
Being somebody is rough, but being nobody is out of the question.
We must be happy, we must imagine Sisyphus to be happy, we must believe because it is absurd to believe. Day by day, in every way, we are getting better and better. Positive illusions for positive persons. They shoot horses, don’t they? But as for shooting ourselves—ask Gloria Beatty, ask Michelstaedter, ask Weininger, ask Hemingway. But do not ask Mainländer or Bjørneboe, who hanged themselves. And do not ask
Jean Améry, author of Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death (1976), who made his exit with a drug overdose. Améry survived Auschwitz, but he did not survive his survival. No one does. With our progenitors and the world behind us, we will never hold this life to be MALIGNANTLY USELESS. Almost nobody declares that an ancestral curse contaminates us in utero and pollutes our existence. Doctors do not weep in the delivery room, or not often. They do not lower their heads and say, “The stopwatch has started.” The infant may cry, if things went right. But time will dry its eyes; time will take care of it. Time will take care of everyone until there are none of us to take care of. Then all will be as it was before we put down roots where we do not belong.
There will come a day for each of us—and then for all of us—when the future will be done with. Until then, humanity will acclimate itself to every new horror that comes knocking, as it has done from the very beginning. It will go on and on until it stops. And the horror will go on, with generations falling into the future like so many bodies into open graves. The horror handed down to us will be handed down to others like a scandalous heirloom. Being alive: decades of waking up on time, then trudging through another round of moods, sensations, thoughts, cravings
—the complete gamut of agitations—and finally flopping into bed to sweat in the pitch of dead sleep or simmer in the phantasmagorias that molest our dreaming minds. Why do so many of us bargain for a life sentence over the end of a rope or the muzzle of a gun? Do we not deserve to die? But we are not obsessed by such questions. To ask them is not in our interest, nor to answer them with hand on heart. In such spirit might we not bring to an end the conspiracy against the human race? This would seem to be the right course: the death of tragedy in the embrace of nonexistence. Overpopulated worlds of the unborn would not have to suffer for our undoing what we have done (just so that we might go on as we have all these years). That said, nothing we know would have us take that step. What could be more unthinkable? We are only human beings. Ask anybody.