Horror, death and isolation

The more I read horror, the less I think of it as genre fiction. Sure, there are things that go bump, there are tentacles and fangs and clowns, but horror to me is not about monsters, it’s about the monstrous. So what is the monstrous, if not some alien beast wanting to devour the terrified protagonist? On the surface, what is and isn’t monstrous will probably differ from person to person, but there appears to be some universal themes. Death, for example, and isolation. Both are inevitable and inescapable, and if we dig deep down, they frighten us. They are part of a bigger pantheon of ‘ultimate concerns’ (according to existential psychotherapy), which also include gems such as meaninglessness and absence of external structure (dubbed ‘freedom’). Horror stories that tap into these anxieties work on an existential level, and may, in addition to terrifying us, help us process these unsettling topics in a safe setting.


Let’s start with death. We have an instinctive fear of death. It may be conscious or unconscious, but most if not all of us possess a smidgen of death anxiety. It may not be something we think about every day, but it is there, ready to raise its ugly head if the situation calls for it. The loss of a loved one, a threatening disease, an accident – anything that reveal how thin the film of life truly is can bring about death anxiety. A few years back, I read Irvin Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy, which is a tome on the theoretical and practical aspects of the same. It was a surprisingly interesting book given how dry the cover looked. In it, Yalom spends a great amount of time discussing death, fear of death and denial of death. “The fear of death plays a major role in our internal experience; it haunts as nothing else does; it rumbles continuously under the surface; it is a dark, unsettling presence at the rim of consciousness”, Yalom says 1.

Horror deals with death like few other genres, from the (usually) imminent death of the protagonist to the perversion of death in your average zombie, ghost, vampire or undead monster. We get the fear of death as well as the denial of death in one neat package. Typically, we also see the avoidance of death as the story tends to permit the survival of the protagonist. A fascination with horror often emerges in teenage years, which incidentally is when most first experience anxiety about death. Horror may thus be a way to contemplate and familiarise ourselves with death – a ‘safe’ venue to experiment with it and analyse it. Even a place to ridicule it, in some genres of horror. The role of stories in dealing with death is nicely put in the following quote:

“When we are young, we deny death with the help of parental reassurances and secular and religious myths; later, we personify it by transforming it into an entity, a monster, a sandman, a demon. After all, if death is some pursuing entity, then one may yet find a way to elude it; besides, frightening as a death-bearing monster may be, it is less frightening than the truth — that one carries within the spores of one’s own death.” 2

Horror may, in short, be a way to process death without having to break down the dissociation between intellectually knowing death is coming and truly being aware of the end. It is a way to deal with death without having to stare into its abyss, with all its associated dread and terror.


Then there is isolation. When referring to isolation, I am not talking about the trope of exploring the scary basement alone, although I am sure there is a relatively blunt metaphor in there. Existential isolation is more than just being temporarily alone. It is the awareness that there will always be an unbridgeable gap between yourself and others, even in their presence. We are born alone, and we die alone.

Horror is very rarely a rousing exercise in team building: the final chapter usually sees the protagonist alone in the face of terror. Isolation and alienation play key parts, sometimes building towards the end, sometimes existing from the first page. In Richard Matheson’s terrific I am Legend, the horror of the protagonist is both being preyed upon and the unbearable knowledge that he is completely alone. Without spoiling the ending of the book, isolation is a thread that runs through the entire novel and becomes almost beautifully poignant in the final chapter. Kafka’s The Trial is a tour de force of isolation (although arguably not horror in the strict, classical sense). Even the tagline of Alien, “In space, no one can hear you scream”, might not have been half as effective if the horror of isolation was not such a familiar one. In the words of Joseph Conrad: “We live, as we dream, alone” (Heart of Darkness).


While these themes are prominent in horror storytelling, they are of course not restricted to the genre. However, what horror brings to the table, that other genres may not, are elements of fear and disgust. Horror deals in these elements as a rule and not as an exception. Fear/disgust can act as a shortcut, bringing the reader of horror closer to the anxieties of death and isolation than other genres typically do, such as sci-fi and fantasy. It can also provide a buffer or tool for dealing with such anxieties. Fear, unlike anxiety, is something that can be faced and conquered. By putting these ultimate anxieties front and center, surrounding them with fear and disgust to allow the reader to feel a visceral reaction that is close (but yet safely removed) to the edge of the abyss, horror allows us to be just scared enough. We can play with death and isolation, analyse them and inspect them up close (in a safe setting), before we personify them (using whichever monster that strikes our fancy) and kill them off. Horror, to me, is thus not so much niche genre as a natural part of the human condition.


1. Irvin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy (1980) page 27
2. Irvin Yalom, Love’s executioner and other tales of Psychotherapy (1989) page 5

Painting the North

Kaare Espolin Johnson (1907-1994) depicted the nature and culture of northern Norway better than any other artist I know. He would typically start with a black surface, then scratch white lines in the pigment, and sometimes overlay this with paint and further lines. The result was dramatic: oddly dark and atmospheric, maybe even a bit eerie, but undeniably strong. The unusual technique sprang from a lifetime of poor eyesight, rendering his world in lights against shadow, rather than shadow against light.

I have visited galleries containing his work on several occasions, and have always come away with a sense of awe. Perhaps unintended, I have also left with the sensation of secrets and undercurrents, of history and stories untold. There is something visceral about the paintings that makes me want to pick up the pen and start writing.

It may be due to superimposing white on black rather than the converse, but these paintings tickle my love for horror. Not in the sense that I think they depict horror – they do not – but from a feeling of seeing things the wrong way around. It is that unusual, almost uncanny, quality that resonates with me. The uncanny is staple fare of horror fiction, and typically linked to representations of the self. Ghosts, twins, dolls, even zombies – they may all inhabit the uncanny valley. With Espolin Johnson, however, it is not the depicted humans or scenes I find uncanny, but the observer. Me. When I look at these paintings, it is my gaze that is the wrong way around. I find that much more interesting.

The Royal Albert conundrum

I like to play the piano. I’ve always liked to play the piano. From the first time I sat down, immersed myself in the music, I knew this was something I enjoyed. When I tell people I like to play, they tell me which instrument they got for their 7th birthday, discuss what type of music they enjoy, ask me if I prefer rock to classical, treat me to an anecdote of their brother, a violin and the neighbour’s two cats, or admit that they just bought a drum kit to their nephew. Not once have I been asked if I’ve played the Royal Albert Hall yet.

I like to write fiction. I’ve always liked to write fiction. From the first time I sat down, immersed myself in the story, I knew this was something I enjoyed. When I tell people I like to write, they ask me if I’ve been published yet.

Why is writing measured solely by publishing? My piano-playing skills will never take me to the stage or studio, yet I doubt anyone will ever think that my lessons and hours spent over the keyboard were wasted as a consequence. So why is that the case for writing? What’s so inherently different between writing and other art forms that we presume the former is only validated by external approval, and the latter hold value in and by themselves?

Any thoughts?

(Royal Albert Hall, courtesy of Wikipedia. Why are you not playing there yet?)

Cowardice, publishing and science

The publishing industry breeds cowardice. Apparently. Nobody in publishing dare defy commercial sense. Apparently. Profit is the measuring stick for literature. Apparently. Established authors lose their bravery in the face of sales numbers. Again, apparently.

The example used in the above op-ed is Haruki Murakami and his Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which I’ve not read yet, but I’ve been told isn’t as good as his other books. That’s a shame if it’s true. And it’s an even bigger shame if it is true that the lacklustre Colorless Tsukuru is a symptom of conformity and cowardice in the business. Yet I doubt it.

I doubt we’re on the eve of rampant cowardice. Thinking that authors somehow morph into robot-legged typewriters chasing sales at the first whiff of success, sheets of purple prose fluttering in the wind, is laughable. Thinking that authors cower under their desks, practically taking dictation from the marketing department, is insulting. But do I believe that authors are under pressure to be profitable? Sure. Do I believe that publishing is sales-focused? Yep. Do I believe that profit is necessary in publishing? Absolutely. And do I think this is a problem? Err.. sort of, maybe-ish.

Let me explain. I am a scientist. Scientists are often ranked according to their H-index (after physicist Jorge E. Hirsch). This index is calculated on the basis of the number of papers the scientist has written and the number of citations each paper has received. The higher the H-index, the ‘better’ the scientist. It can be a crude parallel to literature, where an author’s success can be measured in numbers of books and their respective sales. With me so far?

My point is, the H-index is not without flaws.

Firstly, the H-index is field-dependent. By that, I mean that scientific fields differ in how many papers each scientist typically writes and how many citations per paper are typically allowed. The literary equivalents are ‘field’-dependent differences in number of books (depending on length, topic, research burden, and so on) and size of audience. In science, it is understood that we cannot really compare H-indices across fields, and that the full range of fields, from popular to obscure, all add to our current library of knowledge. The same goes for literature. We’d fare poorly with only the popular branches of each.

Secondly, the H-index can be manipulated or inaccurately measured. Scientists can cite themselves, boosting their index, and the number of citations varies with the tools used to measure it, sometimes by a lot. For something that is intended to be objective, the H-index can be surprisingly unreliable and opaque. In publishing, manipulating sales figures is not unheard of. For example, some may recall how loopholes in the system meant you could buy your way up the Amazon Bestseller List (cite yourself, so to speak). Also, sales figures for books are definitely not transparent.

Finally, the H-index doesn’t take into account the future impact of the scientist. Many are ahead of their time, or misunderstood by their contemporaries. Gregor Mendel, now dubbed the ‘father of genetics’ springs to mind. His ground-breaking work was ignored for 35 years. The parallel to literature is obvious, and we have a long list of authors never truly appreciated in their lifetime (Kafka, Lovecraft, Poe, Melville, Keats, even Austen). Establishing their value, cultural or financial, based on contemporary sales is ludicrous in the extreme.

In short, while publishing (science) needs to make a profit (progress), counting sales (citations) probably shouldn’t be the only measure of success. To focus simply on immediate profit is akin to staring at the top stone of the Cheops, forgetting the other ~2.3 million blocks below. It goes without saying that you won’t build a great pyramid that way, nor will you build a business that lasts.


5:03 minutes of calm (Wild Theme)

Right now, NaNoWriMo participants are writing (hopefully) and sweating (probably) over their keyboards. If stress is your thing, then November is your month. But if you need an injection of calm, then I suggest taking a few moments to read on.

Local Hero is a wonderful film. Go see it if you have time to spare. (Go see it anyway). Its soundtrack is equally wondrous. And the most evocative track, hands down, is the Wild Theme, of which the best version is the live version from the 1993 On The Night (also the one that made it to Sultans of Swing – best of). Here it is, 5:03 minutes of calm: