the physiology of fear

July 13, 2020

That’s because only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear – the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness.

H.P. Lovecraft
Pickman’s Model

The typical (M R) James ghost story kicks off when someone discovers an old manuscript or a valuable or rare book, often with a religious connection or theme. Having seemingly set up a scene of remarkable dustiness, it turns out that evil resides in the pages, or lurking behind a dark corner of a church, waiting to manifest itself and reduce the unfortunate antiquarian to a wreck. (“Canon Alberic’s ScrapBook”, the first story in the collection, in which a drawing of a demon comes to life, is a good example of this, and an early collection of James’s stories was called Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.) You have to wonder what it was in James that inspired him to do this. He knew what he was talking about when he described the business of going through ancient collections, and he grew up in an ecclesiastical environment, so knew an apse from a chasuble; but why he found fear in these elements is something of a mystery in itself. It certainly adds to the plausibility of the stories, however, and their wide and enduring popularity. It also takes quite a talent to get a shiver from, say, an unconventional dating of a prayer-book, as he does in “The Uncommon Prayer-Book”. HP Lovecraft, who was probably about as far in temperament as you could get from James, wrote a long essay on supernatural fiction in which he described James as “a literary weird fictionist of the very first rank”, and in Darryl Jones’s introduction to Collected Ghost Stories we are given a vignette of how James came to sharpen his craft – by telling his stories after the Christmas service at King’s College, Cambridge (where he was provost) to an audience of uneasy fellows. Who might also, I was surprised to learn, have been uneasy at James’s fondness for the card game “animal grab”, which descended into impromptu wrestling bouts that would leave his opponents with “torn clothes” and “nailscored hands”.

Nicholas Lezard
Collected Ghost Stories by MR James – review
The Guardian, Tuesday 1st October 2013

Humans were still not only the cheapest robots around, but also, for many tasks, the only robots that could do the job. They were self-reproducing robots too. They showed up and worked generation after generation; give them 3000 calories a day and a few amenities, a little time off, and a strong jolt of fear, and you could work them at almost anything. Give them some ameliorative drugs and you had a working class, reified and coglike.

Kim Stanley Robinson
2312

Midnight

April 4, 2020

There’s no lock on the door
since the Midnight Men came,
with their pale, grinning faces
their tire-track eyes,
and the sound of the shadows
seems louder somehow,
on the street that runs empty
past Emily’s house.
She still plays there sometimes
on the grey concrete stoop,
with the screen door wide open
to welcome the rays
that spread out from the dish
on the middle school roof –
education for all’s what
the Midnight Men say.
And the grown ups all smile
as they murmur along
with the lessons they learn
in the new, better way,
while they work at new jobs
that the Midnight Men brought
till their finger bones show
white on red, like their teeth.
It’s much safer these days —
no one worries at all
about vandals or thievery —
those things are done,
and if every gaze shies from
the old Northgate Mall
no one says much about it
or questions the smell.
But young Emily wishes
her life would change back
to the way that it was
before fog drifted down
from the cracks in the sky
where tomorrow peeked through,
before Midnight came early
and never moved on.

Marcie Lynn Tentchoff

My reading as a child was lazy and cowardly, and it is yet. I was afraid of encountering, in a book, something I didn’t want to know. Perhaps my earliest literary memory is my fear of the spidery, shadowy, monstrous illustrations in a large deluxe edition of “Alice in Wonderland” that we owned. A little later, I recall being appalled, to the point of tears, by a children’s version of the Peer Gynt legend in an infernal set of volumes we owned called “The Book House.” I also remember, from the same set, a similar impression of pain, futility and crabbed antiquity conveyed by an account of Shelley’s boyhood. I read both these things when I was sick in bed, a customarily cheerful time for me.

Still later, in the fifth or sixth grade, I was enticed into reading, for my own good, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” The adventure in the cave gave me lasting claustrophobia and a dread of Twain, besides whom Poe and Melville seem good-humoured optimists. O. Henry was the only recommended author unreal enough for me to read with pleasure. Having deduced that “good” books depict a world in which horror may intrude, I read through all my adolescence for escape.

John Updike
On Childhood Reading

What do grown-up people know about the things boys are afraid of? Oh, hickory switches and such like, they know that. But what about what goes on in their minds when they have to come home alone at night through the lonesome places? What do they know about lonesome places where no light from the street-corner ever comes? What do they know about a place and time when a boy is very small and very alone, and the night is as big as the town, and the darkness is the whole world? When grown-ups are big, old people who cannot understand anything, no matter how plain? A boy looks up and out, but he can’t look very far when the trees bend down over and press close, when the sheds rear up along one side and the trees on the other, when the darkness lies like a cloud along the sidewalk and the arc-lights are far, far away. No wonder then that Things grow in that dark place near the grain elevator. No wonder a boy runs like the wind until his heartbeats sound like a drum and push up to suffocate him.

August Derleth
Lonesome Places

Owl

January 1, 2020

last night at the joint of dawn,
an owl’s call opened the darkness

miles away, more than a world beyond this room

and immediately I was in the woods again,
poised, seeing my eyes seen,
hearing my listening heard

under a huge tree improvised by fear

dead brush falling then a star
straight through to God
founded and fixed the wood

then out, until it touched the town’s lights,
an owl elsewhere swelled and questioned
twice, like you light lean and strike
two matches in the wind.

Alice Oswald

afraid of fantasy

December 8, 2019

For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it’s true. Children know that. Adults know it too and that’s precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons because they are afraid of freedom.

Ursula K. Le Guin
The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction

Realism is conservative

October 26, 2019

We live in uncertain times. We have always lived in uncertain times. I think what makes the weird inherently attractive is that it speaks to a part of us that knows, consciously or not, that the rules we play by, the realities we choose to agree to and normalize, have cracks in them. Increasingly, I think that putting realist modes and non-realistic modes at opposite ends of the spectrum does a disservice to both. Realism is conservative in that it tells us what we believe is real is in fact real. But it isn’t. It’s also consensual, questionable, open to interpretation, and often ignorant of other, competing narratives. We are in a moment when the consensus is beginning to shift. Non-realist modes seem to help us get a handle on this faster because they teach us the consensus was never absolute to begin with. People were excluded, people dissented. This breakdown is enjoyable at some level even as it’s also frightening. It means elements of our lives which we lacked the ability or will to question suddenly seem disputable, something we can fight back against. Breakdown gives us an opportunity to see what lies beneath, for better or worse. Increasingly what strikes me as strange about Lovecraft’s fiction is the sense that once the monstrous is encountered, the only options are madness, forgetting or death. And that in its own way is a conservative way of thinking: there are many more options. Resistance, recuperation, remembering, rebirth. This is the energy that comes from the collapse of the consensus — the possibility of change.

Helen Marshall
Interview with David Davis 15th November 2017

Fear

October 5, 2019

I asked the poet Tony Hoagland what he thought about fear. He said fear was the ghost of an experience: we fear the recurrence of a pain we once felt, and in this way fear is like a hangover. The memory of our pain is a pain unto itself, and thus feeds our fear like a foyer with mirrors on both sides. And then he quoted Auden:

And ghosts must do again
What gives them pain.

Mary Ruefle
On Fear: Our positive capability