In the afterword to the 2020 reprinting of Kathe Koja’s seminal novel from 1991, The Cipher, Maryse Meijer writes: “Unlike many horror stories, in which protagonists stumble on some terrible thing while on their way somewhere—or are stumbled upon—the Funhole is always-already there; there are no arrivals, no departures, no exotic locations or moonlit graveyards or abandoned houses or clocks striking midnight. There is just…life, without glamour or artifice or fantastical set-dressing, and those who face it are certainly no heroes.”[i]
Anyone who has encountered The Cipher’s Funhole will appreciate Meijer’s description of the perfectly knowable—and yet unknowable—horror present in the novel. This knowable and unknowable ur-horror is where I want to focus our attention.
Things are not supposed to have a claim on us. Or, if they do have a claim on us, or can be said to ask particular things of us, it is not much of one. Things do not seem to demand to be granted rights, for example, as they do not seem to be living. If, like a black hole or a beach, a thing (or a collection of things) is considered “alive” or living, it is only so in a very limited manner.
But, of course, everything hinges on what a thing is taken to be. At a minimum, people are not supposed to be reducible to things. People are supposed to have a unique ethical claim on other people. And for a good reason. So, what follows is not an argument that humans are not deserving of ethical attention and action. Rather, this will be an examination of what might be happening in a loosely defined cluster of writing I’ll call “existential horror”—writing that engages questions about the nature of life and death, distinctions between living and non-living, and that calls into question realism and realist representation as a central way of honing our attention to the world.[ii]
Paradoxically, though, it is realist in at least one specific sense, the sense explained by Meijer, in which it is “just…life, without glamour or artifice or fantastical set-dressing.” And yet, it pushes at the bounds of what we could call “realism” or “realistic,” because it troubles the distinctions between living and non-living; dream-life and waking life; past, present, and future. Written mostly by women who are working in the realm of dark, existential philosophical fiction, it is sophisticated, complex writing that, importantly, refuses to occlude the dynamics of social relation.[iii]
In Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism, Elizabeth Povinelli draws attention to manifestation (“in Emiyengal as awa-gami-mari-ntheni”[iv]), the long-overlooked facet of Indigenous Australian ontology that there are moments (events, occurrences, happenings) when “something about the coordination of existence needs heeding.”[v] Such moments cannot be explained, Povinelli says, by the notion of ready-to-hand (Zuhandenheit); manifestation is an “intentional emergence.”[vi] It is an occurrence marked by the fact that “something not merely appears to something or someone else but discloses itself as comment on the coordination, orientation, and obligation of local existents and makes a demand on persons to actively and properly respond.”[vii] That a moment might possess a kind of agency, making an intentional showing of itself possible, likely does not sit well with “Western” understandings of ontology and being. But, for Povinelli and her friends and colleagues, manifestation presents us with “the fundamental task of human thought, and thus the fundamental task of training humans how to think […] to learn how to discern a manifestation from an appearance.”[viii]
Appearances, unlike manifestations, can be encountered and understood with preexisting categories and expectations. When it comes to appearances, we can rest assured that little reflection will be required of us, few demands will be made on us to attune ourselves to the rich and complex socio-historical-geological relations, and we will likely feel no obligation to “actively and properly respond.” An appearance does not alter our understanding; it does not request our deepest forms of paying attention, and it does not make manifest “how one attends to the mutual involvement of all things in the immanent arrangement of existence.”[ix] Manifestations, on the other hand, do just that.
Take Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, Charlene Elsby’s Affect, and Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, for instance. All three novels, published within the last few years, pay punishingly close attention to the horrors of embodiment, relation/ality, history, dependence, consciousness, and the very act of storytelling. The “darkness” of the texts is a stark realism of the sort Meijer describes: no Romantic scene of moonlit graveyards or dusty, empty mansions, no clocks striking midnight, no bad guys chasing people around with knives, no ghosts, even. But, crucially, what is real and what is not is often neither clear nor the point.
In The End We Start From, we follow a new mother and her baby attempting to survive a series of ecological catastrophes: floods, then a fire, and continual fleeing, continual search for food and safety. In Affect, we enter the mind of a narrator obsessively detailing the banal structure of consciousness in relation to a significant love affair. In Fever Dream, we join the conversation between a woman who has just woken up in a hospital and a young man, as the woman remembers her life (and a struggle to save her daughter), marked by losses and illnesses caused by common pesticides used in the fields surrounding the town where she lives in Argentina. In all three books, time is fluid and difficult to pin down. Dead or absent or missing characters are not quite dead or absent or missing, and what is living—how living things move and behave—is thrown into question.
As in The Cipher, the friction in these books (and the stuff of horror in them) is just life, requiring a peculiar examination of its arrangement in a moment, such that it asks us to consider the horrific “mutual involvement of all things.” Is it “horrific” because a totalizing understanding of such mutual involvement might be beyond our comprehension, prompting us to feel terror in the face of our own limits? Is it horrific because it makes an implicit demand? Is it horrific because the depth of socio-historical dynamics is on display, made manifest in the smallest of interactions, revealing to us our histories of sexism, settler colonialism, racism, our pettiness, our greed, our pathetic attempts at establishing and maintaining dominance? That is, do they show us our profound failures? I think it is a distinct possibility. This is the sense in which, like a manifestation, it makes some kind of demand on readers to respond.[x]
In the case of each book mentioned, the manifestations are taken to have a kind of agency, though what that means and looks like in each book is distinct. What unites them is a sense that, perhaps, not every thing gives way under the pressure of the intellect, and that such things can make claims on us. In The End We Start From, it is the material of the world that does this—rocks, water, wood to make boats. Interspersed with various creation myths, the book imagines the world as a kind of self-creating and self-destroying entity. The world is granted a fascinating and disturbing agency. In Affect, it is the content of consciousness that is pulled out of context, examined as though it were nearly free-standing. Each constitutive part is given its own agency, and each part calls out maddeningly to the narrator and the reader, as a whole person might. In Fever Dream, it is the specter of death, made partially material, that serves as the manifestation. And it is a poisoned land and the deaths it has produced that become agents, calling out to the narrator to be addressed, to be attended to.
I want to be careful here. I am not singing the praises of artwork that contributes to a general scene of “obfuscatory jargon” or that contributes to wholesale, overapplied dismissal of verifiability. The artwork I want to praise has taken very great care not to occlude (and, in fact, to examine) social dynamics, no matter how much it calls reality into question. Doing so requires at least one kind of attunement to truth and considerations of what is defensible and what is not.
Art can get out ahead of politics, and it often does. I’ve talked a bit about this before, but on this occasion I want to stress that what dark existential horror (of the sort examined here) can show us is precisely that and how our politics has failed us and everyone else. It applies pressure to the assumption that almost everything can be understood as an appearance—or the comfortable assumption that a demand is not being placed on our understanding—but it does not wave a hand and say, “Nothing can be understood; there is no truth, no authority, no value!”
And these are only a handful of examples from the anglophone world. What other horrors are being confronted, across the globe, by the millions of writers working to explore and catalogue and confront them?
[i] The Cipher, Kathe Koja, Meerkat Press, 2020. Originally published in 1991.
[ii] Thomas Ligotti writes in this direction, and his work should be acknowledged, even if it is not the focus of this piece. “What we do, as a conscious species, is set markers for ourselves. Once we reach one marker, we advance to the next—as if we were playing a board game we think will never end, despite the fact that it will, like it or not. And if you are too conscious of not liking it, then you may conceive of yourself as a biological paradox that cannot live with its consciousness and cannot live without it. And in so living and not living, you take your place with the undead and the human puppet” (The Conspiracy Against the Human Race 28, emphasis mine).
[iii] The phrase “occlusion of social dynamics” appears multiple times in Jordana Rosenberg’s “The Molecularization of Sexuality: On Some Primitivisms of the Present” and I intentionally invoke Rosenberg’s use here, and throughout.
[iv] Povinelli, p. 58, Duke University Press, 2016.
[v] Ibid., 68.
[vi] Ibid., 58.
[vii] Ibid., 58.
[viii] Ibid., 58.
[ix] Ibid., 69.
[x] In speculative fiction and science fiction, some writers have done this in some way or another, notably Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler. The “horror” aspects are more pronounced in the books examined here, however.