Body Talk

Robert E Howard's CONAN THE BARBARIAN by Ezra Tucker
Robert E Howard’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN by Ezra Tucker

A quick Twitter exchange got me thinking about (well, continuing to think about) horror genres, and body horror in particular. I’d been listening to an audio horror podcast, and as soon as one of the stories started to turn into body horror, I tuned out.

Clive Barker and the Hellraiser franchise are, as far as I’m concerned, a gold standard in a  genre of horror that’s fairly popular, and for good reason. However, I can’t really bring myself to appreciate and enjoy what we’d call modern “body horror” anymore, primarily because the focus is almost entirely on the “ick factor” elements, rather than the deeper reasons for those feeling of uncomfortableness that gross visuals bring up.*

In comparison, I’ve found myself drawn more and more to the unexplained, not necessarily horror in a conventionally-paranormal ghost sense, but rather abstract existential horror (“Lovecraftian” for a lack of a better term, though Machen is arguably almost superior). What terrifies me, rather than grosses me out, is a sense of realization of the grander chain of things, that I’m not only not at the top of the food chain, but I’m not even at the top of the intelligence chain. Also, the chance that it’s not even a chain or a ladder with a semblance of order, but a wild and ever-changing, unknowable web, makes me fear in a deep part of my gut. I can’t come to a conclusion, I can’t learn anything about it beyond what I experience, and what I experience is so beyond my comprehension at the time I can only hope to survive, or at best, be ignored by it.

~

Sean T. Collins touched on some of the really interesting bits here how this is applicable to the religion of the Iron Islands in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice And Fire books (the Game of Thrones series)

Because Martin is not just the child of Tolkien. […] 

Martin is the child of Howard.

This is Howard’s world. A world of so many bizarre and terrifying ruins that they can’t possibly be reconciled, a world where there are as many mind-warping remnants of impossible architectures as there are stars in the sky. 

And this is, in many ways as it turns out, the World of Ice and Fire. The world of the Basilisk Isles, of Sothoryos, of Yeen, of Hyrkoon, of Yi Ti, of Leng, of Asshai. As with Howard, the point is not aligning all phenomena in an intelligible system, but in suggesting that the system is beyond intelligence. (It’s not for nothing that Howard and Lovecraft were close friends and correspondents, often riffing on one another’s science-fantasy-horror concepts within their own work.) The world through which Conan wanders, or about which Maester Yandel writes, is in a very important way just a series of trapdoors that drop you directly into nightmare after nightmare. The drop is the point, not the floor that connects them.

The idea of Howard being a major influence (as much as Lovecraft) in the early creation myths of Westerns (moreso than Lovecraft arguably) is such a fascinating idea, and it certainly ties into this idea of something truly horrifying being that which we can’t be codified in any sort of large-scale creation myth or pantheon. Howard, as Collins is touching on, created a world (the world of “Conan the Barbarian”) where dueling creation myths, unexplainable phenomena, and remands of former inhabitants and civilizations exist in some sort of paradoxical state of the world as it is for the character(s). There is no real overlapping reason, Collins argues, because there doesn’t need to be one. That lack of codification of the world for Conan the Barbarian is what makes Howard’s world so intensely dangerous and horrifying.

This is, to Collins, the appeal of the “magical” elements of the world of Westerns in Martin’s books, because while the danger of diving too deep into history and expository work to explain the history and mechanics is that it ultimately strips the story down to explanation. It’s why so many of Howard’s elemental world of barbarians and monsters work. They’re meant to be reminders of

~

from 1987's "Hellraiser"
from 1987’s “Hellraiser”

Now, this brings us to the ultimate flaw of modern body horror, which is that its focus on exquisite and intensely-intrinsic (physiologically) mutilation and mutation of the form, the root of body horror (the fear of an unknown invasion of the familiar and personal) is changed into something else (the horror of grossness), ultimately turning what I’d consider an interesting subgenre into just another hack-fest.

However, this does lead into something interesting, which is just why I can’t keep up. It’s not that I don’t like gory grossness (I mean, the fact that I advocate for 1980’s trash-bag gloriousness Motel Hell constantly should be evidence of it). However, it’s interesting that I just don’t find it scary. It’s fun and cool and schlocky, it’s just not scary. What’s scary to me is far different. What’s scary to me is what I genuinely don’t know.

I don’t know what’s out there beyond my field of view. I find myself genuinely concerned when I can’t track or predict a story, or when I find stories that deal with that same level of non-understanding. Howard’s Conan fights beasts on instinct, from forgotten folds of history that he can’t think of, because if he does it could destroy his mind. Lovecraft’s fear of the unknown (arguably the intense root of his xenophobia and racism) is in the idea that, at the dawn of a new century, exploration by bolder souls will show us a horrific truth, that we’re not at the top of the food chain.

I’m scared of finding out that no matter what, all of what I know is pointless, especially against the larger strength and knowledge of the void. Some things just happen and I can’t understand them.

Fuck, I hate the void.

*) Of course, there are obvious clashes with this thesis, in particular and idea that came to me while I was doing some deep thinking (scrambling some eggs for lunch). A major one (that I’d hope to eventually be able to dedicate some serious brainpower to) is the idea that are my own feelings about abstract Lovecraftian horror rooted in my male cisgendered heterosexuality, considering the intensely feminist leanings and implications of good body horror, which is more aptly-describable as “body/invasion horror,” which is rooted so deeply in the ultimate threat against women, the violation of space…but that’s another rambling I’ll get to.

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