No matter how far they run, contemporary horror writers can’t escape their genre’s racist forebears
Since the 2011 publication of Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet there has been an explosion in theoretical work on everything horrible and horrific. Books such as Ben Woodard’s 2012 Slime Dynamics and Graham Harman’s Weird Realism, Dylan Trigg’s 2014 The Thing, several conferences and edited volumes dedicated to the burgeoning field of “Black Metal Theory,” have all reinforced the feeling of horror through the baroque theoretical architecture of their academic monographs. But horror seems to be having a moment not just confined to the interests of goth-obsessed academics—or goths. Such modern day inheritors of the pulp horror tradition as True Detective, The Walking Dead, Hannibal, and American Horror Story are all enjoying adulation from fans and critics alike. Horror is having its day in the sun.
What is so horrific about the world today that draws so many now to this theoretically repellent topic? Thacker describes the horror of contemporary life as sustained by the eldritch abominations of the Anthropocene, neoliberal capitalism, runaway biotechnology, and oppressive states—that is, we live in inescapably horrifying systems. Other authors turn inward and see horror as firmly rooted inside us, or identify reality as weird itself in its apparent brute indifference to human concerns. But these are all objects of horror, however, not horror itself, and as such they still allow horror to escape definition.
The vagueness of this horrific theory may be the point. What unites many of these authors’ different approaches and interests is a conviction that the greatest horror of all is the unknown itself. Thacker’s influential definition of horror casts it as those moments where reason breaks down in the face of an unknown that humans cannot rationally understand, the “absolute limit to our ability to adequately understand the world at all.” While some have tried to ground horror in concrete experiences, like Trigg’s focus on a phenomenological horror of the body, most tend to emphasize this intellectual definition of the unknown as the most frightening thing the human mind can conceive. This might seem puzzling. How does such a definition come to take hold, when the culture it emerges from is filled with very explicit accounts of horror, from the zombie film to the serial killer? And where do accounts of the horror of political violence fall under this account, of genocide, ethnic cleansing, drone strikes, prisons, policing, and other sites that mark the collision of porous bodies with violent technologies of control and dispossession?
No genealogy of the contemporary turn to horror would be believable without the early American author H. P. Lovecraft. Heralded today as the creator of the cosmic horror story, Lovecraft’s influence is all over recent accounts of horror. Calling the inventor of Cthulhu the patron saint of modern horror wouldn’t be wrong. Lovecraft took it upon himself to change the critical neglect of horror stories with the publication of his 1927 Supernatural Horror in Literature. Sketching a lineage that included ghost stories from the Bible and Ancient Greece, medieval fairy tales and the gothic, and the contemporary writers that influenced Lovecraft the most, he used one definition of horror to organize his monumental study. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear,” he wrote, “and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” a definition that Thacker also quotes and others adopt.
It is debatable how closely this organizing concept matches all of the works Lovecraft described in his study, yet it certainly fits his own stories. His narratives are dominated by encounters with unknown and malignant forces that are constantly threatening the human world. Lovecraft often shows men (always men) encountering beings and situations that defy their comprehension, but the “unknown” in his stories isn’t really so much unknown as it is rooted in very particular and specific fears of racialized and sexualized others. Even for casual fans, Lovecraft’s racism is legendary. The last scion of an aristocratic New England family, Lovecraft was horrified at a changing America filled with all kinds of new people. Reading his stories it is difficult not to be taken aback by his depiction of “genetically inferior” people, isolated communities of incest, African-Americans described as ape-men, and his careful delineation between pure Anglo-Saxons and all other kinds of “swarthy” and “mongoloid” peoples. These images extend to his alien creations, often described as slimy masses of stench, abhorrent to look upon, and often procreating with humans in gross acts of miscegenation. Even Lovecraft’s most loyal contemporary critic S. T. Joshi admits that Lovecraft’s work is preoccupied with “the decline of the West.”
While Lovecraft’s racism is often disavowed in considerations of his fiction, it cannot be distanced from how he defined horror. Lovecraft was a master of describing the horror of the unknown, but his own faith in the white supremacy of his day prevented him from confronting the actual objects of his fears as not the unknown but the racialized bodies he encountered every day. His fantasies are derivative of longstanding Anglo slurs against almost all other groups of people, yet even Lovecraft’s definition of horror may not have been as unique as he thought, for the fear of the unknown has not only deep philosophical roots in Western culture but also theological ones. An avowed atheist his whole life, Lovecraft nonetheless shared a conception of the world and its horrors with that of the founding father of the Church, St. Augustine, whose own obsession with evil and all its horrors are visible in the fundaments of his influential theology.
Augustine spent much of his theological career trying to solve the problem of evil, or the apparent coexistence of evil with an all-powerful and just God. For Augustine, it was impossible for evil to be created by God himself, for God can only create what is good. Evil acts are not caused by God then, but are a side effect of human free will that can in its pride choose to turn away from the source of all good and so fall into darkness. This thought process leads to Augustine’s rather ingenious solution: Ontological evil is nothing at all, for it is “not a positive substance.” Only mistaken human perceptions create the appearance of evil. If we had God’s perspective and could look at all of creation in its infinite movements then we would see that the apparent existence of evil is just the result of a divine order that combines both perfection and free will.
It’s in the definition of evil as nothing that we find the link between Augustinian theology and contemporary horror. At first glance the idea that evil is nothing seems like a linguistic trick. However, in Augustine’s writings it is clear that nothing is not just “nothing” for him but instead something deeply terrifying. In his theology he argues that God made the world from nothing, ex nihilo, for to argue otherwise would be to admit that something preexisted God. This nothingness does not seem to go away either, but appears to always be corrupting Augustine’s divine order through the presence of evil, for only a universe “created out of nothing could have been distorted by a fault.” Evil is not just the absence of the good but also the admission of an originary lack in the world, of a void that is barely suppressed by existence and haunts the edges of reality. Ironically, Augustine’s divine cosmology starts to look a lot like our post-Einsteinian one, of a universe inextricably sliding towards the abyss of nothingness. For Augustine, only faith in God’s love keeps this nothingness at bay, but the horror of his theology is this nothing that continually threatens to undo the Christian subject.
Set side by side, Augustine’s theology dovetails rather nicely with Lovecraft’s atheism. Both conceive of a universe haunted by the nothingness at its core, and Augustine creates the whole structure of Christian theology to protect against this nothingness. Yet both are also united through their faith in structures that work to obscure the everyday and horrific workings of violence. Augustine and Lovecraft both likewise missed the reality of violence in their horror: Augustine could not comprehend a God who was not good and could allow evil to exist, so all other depictions of God were themselves evil; he famously wrote several tracts against “heretics,” inaugurating a long tradition of Christian paranoia and persecution. Lovecraft’s horror often disavowed his actual fears of black people, immigrants, and racial degeneration. On one level Lovecraft seemed to recognize the horrors that white supremacy created, such as in his vivid depictions of New York’s immigrant and working class slums, yet he was unable to ever critically reflect on it. Instead of writing about the very real horror white supremacy visited on the world, he could only ever see white supremacy’s own fears of horrific racialized bodies in fantasy.
Thacker and others, however, do not see a need for building up such systematic defenses against nothingness, for it is just the condition of existence that we all need to learn to get used to. In fact, staring into the nothingness may not be so bad for us every once in a while. It reminds us of our essentially porous bodies and our connections to a planet that we need to start taking better care of quickly if we truly want to avoid the abyss. In their attempts to yoke horror to the Anthropocene, these writers often articulate clearly the stakes of the environmental crisis without retreating into nostalgia for a Edenic Earth or the techno-capitalist dreams of geo-engineering. Yet in uncritically adopting this long philo/theological discourse of nothingness they often miss out on the very something that makes the world horrific today: the violence and dispossession of neoliberal capitalism and global white supremacy. People do not just experience a horror of the unknown but also of concrete moments of both everyday and extreme violence. The ubiquity of violence characterizes the Anthropocene just as much as any conceptual or intellectual attempts to understand it.
What would it mean then for horror itself to critically reflect on violence? One thing that horror seems to be unique at is highlighting those fears that unconsciously persist in any system. What we fear in horror is not so much the unknown but instead what we know and yet wish we did not know. Both Lovecraft and Augustine register their true fears—racialized people and an evil God respectively—yet cannot countenance that recognition itself. Because they cannot bear the knowledge of their fears, they instead replace it with a generic fear of the unknown. It is the work of horror that brings forth these fears that resist recognition. The most useful horror for today then would not be one that uncritically shines our prejudices back at us, or tell us the same stories of what we claim we are afraid of. Instead it would reveal those things that still now, deep in our bones, we cannot admit we fear.
In short then, this would be a horror that troubles our faith. Chiefly today this takes the form of a faith in the stability of our world, whether that be the stability of a liberal, colorblind police-order or of the very Earth itself. This recognition of horror’s power to disrupt faith is what I think draws Thacker and many others to it, and their work has been valuable especially for connecting to the horror of the Anthropocene. But it can still be pushed farther. We won’t experience the horror of a changing climate as an abstract concept, but instead as water wars, mass migrations, and totalitarian attempts to impose order. Horror gives to us the worst possible world we could be living in. Sometimes this can terrify us into inaction, but deployed in particular ways it can also force us to recognize the horrors we already have with us and should face. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and Augustine’s evil God may already be here with us in the Anthropocene. But the scariest thing we could do would be to fail to set our faith aside and confront it directly in all its horror.