John Clute makes a fascinating point in the current Interzone – ‘[contemporary planetary] horror is what happens when amnesia fails’. He goes on to reference W. G. Sebald, who alas I haven’t read, so of course I fell to thinking about H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe – and, of course, amnesia itself.
What’s fascinating about the amnesia comment is its implicit definition of the human condition. As people, it makes us forgetters of a disturbing truth we once knew very well. Human-ness – with all its positive qualities – isn’t a fundamental feature of ourselves, of our moral universe. It’s an escapist construct, designed to comfort and protect.
Given this, truth becomes implicitly Lovecraftian. To seek it out is, by definition, a debasing experience. Where, historically, pursuit of truth has been seen as a transcendent activity, it has now become a descendent, devolutionary one. To uncover the truth is to find out that you are in fact much less than you thought you were.
Lovecraft had this down cold. His truth seekers either go mad, retreat into willed ignorance, or just discover that they aren’t in fact human after all. Read from a non-humanist standpoint, the only sane people in his universe are the cultists. If truth breaks any higher good, then you might as well just have fun (and make sure that you’re either the first or the last to be eaten by Elder Gods etc, according to preference and temperament).
By contrast, Poe still has a sense of morality to him. Dig into Lovecraft, and you end up in an existential void; dig into Poe, and you’re condemning murderers, being shocked by necromancers and feeling contempt for swingers. Poe’s world is horrific, but that horror is an aberration, not an innate quality. It’s a place where uncovering truth is cathartic, not caustic. For him it’s the crime, not the context, that’s an act of amnesia.
Poe’s a 19th Century writer, Lovecraft a 20th Century one. We’re in the 21st Century now, and I can’t help wondering what the 21st Century definition of horror will be. I suspect Clute will be able to help there; when I’ve got a minute, I think I’ll be picking up his recent book, ‘The Darkening Garden: a Short Lexicon of Horror’, an apparently fascinating contribution to horror criticism.
But for the moment, I’m not sure what I’d define it as. The real question to ask is, I suppose, where do we find our sense of cultural security at this point in time? Horror subverts security. But that question leads to despair. Poe subverted moral order. Lovecraft subverted flattering illusions of moral order. We remain a culture that finds security in illusion. Where do you go from there?