Horror: the poetry of the lizard brain

To be fair, this is not specifically about Lovecraft, but actually some notes on what I consider to be weaknesses that are structurally inherent to the horror genre itself. Lovecraft just happens to be the midden onto which I toss the rotting filth of my antipathy. Reasons to hate Lovecraft: 1, 2, ∞.

Horror is in a curious position as a genre given that it is almost entirely based on emotion, or rather a small gamut of emotional reactions, rather than a form or idea (pick your counter-examples in whatever genre you like). It relies upon stereotypes rather than tropes. Tropes are what we find in all literature, and it is the interruption and overturning of such tropes (which are weak indicators of our expectations) that we often point out a work’s originality and creative merit.

In contrast to this, horror overturns little. It wishes to trigger. It seeks to plug into our most ancient reflexes. It is the poetry of the lizard brain. Its focus is disgust, and not thought. That is its first level. If horror is to become any more “intellectual” than this (i.e., at all…), then this visceral reaction must be aligned with some cultural analogue, and this is the second level of horror. In Lovecraft, this is via some barely veiled WASP racism (do I really need to spell out what lies behind the “horror” of Shub-Niggurath, all torturous attempts at etymological rehabilitation aside). In Kalki by Dan Simmons, it is through a disappointingly un-nuanced form of orientalism (yeah, I went there).

This photo is as crap as a reference to Lovecraft should be.

The final level, as I see it, is the attempt to make horror systematic, formalized. This is doomed by the very source of horror as the literature of that which cannot be expressed (quite different from the inexpressible…I am not getting into a discussion regarding Adorno and Paul Celan and how some things are such an affront that to write about them seems to put writing itself in jeopardy, though after reading Todesfuge I cannot but side with Celan). This third level of horror can be seen in Lovecraft’s use of words that are the shibboleths of his oeuvre. These are meant to be some kind of etymological reaction formers. The preeminent example of this is “eldritch”. It sounds venerable, ancient (elder), with echoes of an uncanny grotesqueness (witch, ditch…).

The problem with all this is that the part of the brain to which this genre makes its appeals resists systematization, and the reader who bothers to read through Lovecraft’s collected works (have mercy on my sense of taste, as I did) begins to interact with each new example in the text of such words much as a bird-watcher might greet the most scraggly pigeon in the street, that is with something less than ecstasy. It all becomes a bit…obvious. The text waves a red flag at us screaming “you will be afraid soon, oh, so very scarified.” In actuality, the logic of horror is analogous with the logic of pornography, wherein there is a continuous need to ‘make it new’ (I am thinking of Gore Vidal’s words in the documentary Thinking XXX).

Finally, we can indirectly return to some of the problems surrounding the notion of the inexpressible, and consider Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons. I simply don’t feel comfortable with horror that leeches off the Holocaust. It smacks of theodicy, for how and when could it ever appropriate to introduce paranormal elements to the ferocious reality of millions of deaths?


Some films manage to provoke me to think about old ideas in a new way, and reading some jottings from a while back when I saw Saw (zing) for the first time I thought I would inflict them on the internets. Effectively, what these films are for me is an examination of technology and its relationship with the subject.

The killer (although this word seems too small for the character), Jigsaw, gives his victims explicit choices and instructions which are so basic as to be an affront to our autonomy. Indeed, the question of choice in its entirety is slowed down to a crawl, so that even its most elementary aspect (of a to be or not to be, to be dead or alive) ceases to mean anything. We would take the approach which would regard this film as inhabiting the universe of meaninglessness – but this would be too easy. It reduces the genuine trauma of the encounter with nihilism to the level of cliché.
The creators of this franchise describe their serial killer as anything but this, instead preferring to call him a scientist (though these are not mutually exclusive terms). Is it all one big experiment then? Is it an investigation into the …. no. Short answer. No. First options like this are to be avoided, and so we must make the effort to cease considering “meaning” because it probably won’t get us anywhere: this is a world without significance (namely the world from inside Jigsaw’s “game”), but it has real enough meaning. Indeed this is just the point that he repeatedly attempts to make. In his attempts to redeem his players through violence, he wants to drive home – via blood and suffering – that meaning is reality, and that this has always been enough. Don’t look for it in status, work, drugs. Accordingly, his world is satanic, in the original sense of the word, without the religious overtones (excusing the occasional set-piece evocative of images of Christian suffering). He is the opponent to the views of all his victims. He is the adversary of all who inhabit his creation, which the outside world never truly penetrates unless on his terms (consider Saw II and the policeman’s son).
The choices he presents are those of one testing creatures to see whether they are truly worthy of life, but unlike the prologue to the Book of Job there is no implicit defendant against the vicissitudes heaped upon the characters we observe. The subject posited here by the film and by Jigsaw is one that is fundamentally alone and isolated. Co-operation, when it surfaces, is exploitation. This is the political philosophy of the film. It presents a universe, as we said, that has meaning, but this meaning is anchored by evil. This gives us a theodicy. The subject never does good, but rather realizes that they have done bad. Though Jigsaw claims to be freeing his victims, he frees them into death. The choices he offers are made within the realm of psychosis. This gives us both a thanatocracy and a schizocracy. Nobody could forgive, as he asks at the end of Saw III (nor would it be forgiveness as understood within any moral-ethical tradition I can think of, but simply another game.
He punished his protege at the end of Saw III for allegedly having made impossible tests. This demonstrated to his own satisfaction that she was “unworthy” to carry on his work. More consistent would be the interpretation that she was punished for her crudity, for making explicitly that the dice is loaded in his game. It shows his clockwork universe to be a vicious construction that serves only itself, and that the interaction with humans for which he uses it, some kind of perverse educational apparatus, has only one end. That end is for the machine to rend the flesh. It is beyond Kafka’s In der Strafkolonie, for even in this story the punishment of the prisoner brings about an epiphany through blood. Saw is the world where the lacunae by which we are constituted as social and ethical beings are played upon with a viciousness that is troubling in its honesty. Our negative constitution, if I can call it this, is made all too obvious in Jigsaw’s refrain: ‘I want to play a game’. It shows the limits of all these game logics made social. It is the world where we are only ever subject to, subjected.
What we are subjected to is clear. Metal, glass, clock-work. It is low-tech. Aside from video surveillance, much of the tortures would have been possible in the early days of industry- if Thomas Newcomen or James Watt had been completely, bat-shit insane. It is a return to a kind of simplicity, as in the Discovery Channel(s)’ documentaries about steam engines, but inverted away from this techo-pastoralism. So many films attempt to convince us of our prowess, of our ability to be collectively in control. Conspiracy films especially manifest this, because somebody, somewhere holds the puppet strings. All Tom Clancy hi-tech propaganda movies say “behold, we are totally awesome”, it is pure techno-ideology. Reality proves otherwise. The mission to kill Osama (never mind the ten years it took to actually find the guy – what about all those super spy satellites) was less Top Gun and more Hot Shots given that they crashed a multi-squillion dollar helicopter in the process.
Jigsaw, trained as an engineer, points to the fragility of our bodies in the face of technology. And not digital, high-tech mechanisms of social control and surveillance (which Jason Bourne shows us can be outwitted anyway), but the metal and grease industrial type, of Blake’s dark satanic mills, the capital of Marx and Engels. He talks of his rules as the rules. Disembodied and superficially logical (though diabolical), he says “follow them” and little else. It is utterly cruel because it we cannot follow such rules. These are the linear algorithms of the machine age, but we are inhabitants of the flexible information age. Does he perhaps have a point, noting in our political and ethical freedoms a lack of fixedness of purpose? No. It is utterly cruel, as we cannot revert to such a pre-scientific, dogmatic attitude, and using scientific tools of coercion is simply ironic. We are subjects, and Jigsaw seeks the erasure of this. Jigsaw is the inhumanity he claims to help us escape.
If nothing else, from this mess of philosophical confusion (my fault) we can note a contradiction between what still passes for a popular definition of the subject. You know the one; it rails against inauthenticity and atomization. two different, but related issues. Atomization is a derivative of scientific thinking, the person reduced to the smallest potential actor in the petri dish of human society (in some ways identity politics [wherein I am “gay”, or “a woman”, or “Christian”] is a further fragmentation, the sub-atomic splitting of the person…but there may be something akin to a principle of diminishing returns in this attempt at further precision). Inauthenticity posits some perfect ideal of coherence, one which is inimical to flow and change and development. The technology of today renders both of these irrelevant.
That we can be crushed and sliced by Jigsaw’s blades and hammers, vices and spikes does points to the fragility of our bodies, it is true. We are not immortal. Our medical technologies cannot solve everything. We feel pain. This, however, is banal. We do not live in fear of slipping in the shower. We assume our proper-functioning. We live under the maxim that we will operate fairly efficiently, accidents notwithstanding. Jigsaw turns accident into necessity, however, and we are to take this as some sort of great lesson to be learned. But it is not. It is psychotic bullshit. Jigsaw is fucking mental. The best we can make of all this is that we are slowly leaving his machine-logic behind, and accordingly that we need to work to redefine the subject in the terms of our new technologies and scientific developments. The point about Jigsaw is that he should not be possible.
And I am only a little sorry about that pun.