I keep writing reviews that include a line to the effect that “it’s like Lovecraft, but it also explores aspects of human psychology that Lovecraft always ignored.” This has happened with The Ballad of Black Tom, Annihilation (the book and the movie), Prey, and The Friendship of Mortals. I’ve been writing this so much that I can’t call this an exception to the rule anymore. It has become a style of its own.
It feels wrong to call it “Lovecraftian” horror. Lovecraft deliberately minimized the role of human emotions and thoughts in all his stories. Lovecraft’s philosophy was that human beings were unimportant “incidents” in the grand cosmic scheme, and he wrote accordingly. That was part of the horror. (Hence “cosmic horror” as a synonym for “Lovecraftian”.)
The works I listed above certainly retain elements of cosmic horror, but flesh out their human characters, making them interesting and relatable. Whereas Lovecraft approached the horror of humanity’s place in the cosmos with a detached, dispassionate tone, subsequent writers have framed it by humanizing their characters first, then pitting them against the unimaginable outside forces.
This style is also different from the kind of horror that humanizes things too much to be called “cosmic”. Stephen King, for example, writes in a style more like that of noir detective thrillers that feels too immediate and gritty to be “cosmic”—even in stories that have what you might call Lovecraftian elements. (e.g. 11/22/63) The works I’ve described above are much closer to a 50/50 balance than King’s style of an “earthly” horror story with a few cosmic elements.
My point isn’t that any one of these styles is better or worse than the others; but just to point out that they are distinct, and that I don’t know of any term that fits stories like those I’ve listed here. Calling them “semi-Lovecraftian” or “semi-cosmic” feels too weak. “Weird fiction” or “New Weird fiction” is too broad. The best I can come up with is “humanized cosmicism”, but that sounds awkward.
It Comes at Night is a highly misleading title for this film. Actually, everything about the marketing campaign is misleading. It’s not really a traditional horror film at all. Aside from a few disturbing images and jump scares, its primary focus is horror of the psychological and atmospheric sort, rather than any physical monsters.
Of course, this brand of horror is very much to my taste. The most frightening things, I’ve always believed, are not what we see, but rather what we imagine. Ultimately, the root of all horror is the unknown, because in it the human mind traces all the most terrible threats.
And from this, it should follow that It Comes at Night would be a truly terrifying film after all, because it certainly provides the audience with plenty of unknowns. But in spite of that, it’s not as scary as one might expect.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’ll begin by summarizing the plot–don’t read ahead if you don’t want to know the spoilers.
I have a tradition of watching a horror movie around Halloween. This year, I selectedThe Thing because Joel Edgerton is in it, and I’ve thought he is one of the best actors around ever since I saw him inJane Got A Gun earlier this year.
The Thing is a prequel to a 1982 film of the same name. I haven’t seen that one, but from what I have read, the plots of the two films are the same: a team of researchers in the Antarctic are terrorized by an alien life-form that can disguise itself as a human being.
It is a strong setting. The isolated Antarctic has potential for an eerie atmosphere, and the shape-shifting monster attacking the trapped team could have made for a tense, Alien-like horror picture.
I say “could have” because it squandered its potential. The biggest flaw was the wildly inconsistent behavior of the monster. It would attack people, replicate them exactly, and seemingly copy all their memories and knowledge. Sounds pretty smart, until you realize that in its normal form, The Thing was powerful enough to just wipe out everyone there with brute force.
Also, it was a major plot point that The Thing could only copy organic material; not artificial stuff like fillings in teeth. Again, this was a cool idea, but it was completely contradicted by the fact that The Thing apparently could copy the clothes its victims were wearing, because whenever it appeared in disguise as another human, it was always dressed identically to the real person prior to their demise.
None of the characters were especially memorable–Edgerton’s was probably one of the better ones, but that may have just been because he was the only actor with whom I was familiar. The heroine of the movie, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is not bad, but the script is muddled as to whether she is supposed to be just a regular scientist fighting to survive or an Ellen Ripley type of character.
In the end, The Thing suffered from the most common problem in all horror fiction: it showed the monster too much, instead of relying on characters and atmosphere to create a mood of fright and tension.
“Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.” [He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.]—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil. Aphorism 146
On June 6, 2014, I was struck with the inspiration for a novella. It came to me in a flash as I was riding in the car. I had just begun work on what would become The Start of the Majestic Worlda few weeks earlier, but the idea for this other book came to me so close to fully-formed that I felt compelled to write it down. I finished the first draft in August of 2014, and then spent the next year editing it.
What was remarkable about the experience was how easily it all came to me. Normally (for me, anyway) writing a story is a difficult and tedious process. I have a general idea what I want to do, but filling in all the details is a long, painful ordeal.
Not on this one. 90% of it came to me in the space of a day. Everything from a detailed plot structure to the characters to minor bits of description and lines of dialogue appeared ready-made. It was almost as though the book wrote itself. Not only that, but I very quickly became convinced it was the best story I had ever written.
So why, given that, haven’t I already published it, since I wrapped it up over a year ago?
Well, the thing is, it’s really, really dark.
Most of my stories are horror, or at least have horror elements. I’ve written stories involving human sacrifice, murder, torture, demonic possession, and all sorts of other disturbing things. So it’s not like I’m a stranger to grim subject matter.
But this was different. It was creepier than even some of the stuff that Colonel Preston did in Majestic World that I ultimately cut for being too disturbing. And the ease with which it all came to me only made it more troubling.
I did a lot of soul-searching after writing this book. That sounds dramatic, but I really did start to wonder about what kind of mind would come up with this kind of story.
A lot of things have changed in my life since I first got the idea to write it, and for whatever reason, I haven’t felt the same desire to write horror since I finished it.
I was thinking about this recently, ever since the calendar turned to October. I still love this month, and Halloween, and spooky stories–but I think I want to return to writing less intense stories; more on the order of The Revival,that stresses atmosphere and mood. And maybe I’ll dabble in other genres as well.
With all that said, I am thinking of publishing this book soon. I spent the time to write it, so I think it is worth putting out into the world.
[Plot spoilers abound–but the power of this book is not in its plot, but rather in its atmosphere, so I don’t think it is ruined even if you know what happens. But, fair warning…]
Annihilation is about a team of scientists–a biologist, a surveyor, a psychologist and an anthropologist–sent to explore a mysterious region called “Area X”. This place was created by some unexplained disaster called “the Event” many years in the past, and the 11 previous teams sent there have either disappeared or, more disturbingly, returned as mere shells of their former selves.
The biologist narrates the story, beginning with the team’s entrance into Area X. The main features of the landscape are a lighthouse on the coast and a structure which most of the team calls a “tunnel”, but which the biologist refers to as a “tower”.
Almost immediately, they begin to encounter strange phenomena–eerie moaning sounds at dusk, and then, a strange and disturbing line of writing created seemingly in plant-life on the wall of the tower/tunnel.
Before long, the team begins to distrust one another. The biologists sees the psychologist hypnotize the others, while remaining impervious to it herself. The anthropologist is killed in the tower, by what the biologist believes to be a creature writing on the interior of the tower.
It soon becomes apparent that the biologist is not a reliable narrator, as she gradually reveals important details like the fact that her husband was part of the 11th expedition–one of those who returned as a mere shell, before dying of cancer months after returning home.
No one and nothing is entirely reliable in Area X, and this is part of what gives the tale its unnerving atmosphere. VanderMeer skillfully creates a mood of gnawing dread by introducing this uncertainty. Other writers would do well to mimic his method of creating fear through implication and speculation rather than through blood and gore.
Eventually, when it appears the psychologist has betrayed them, the biologist makes her way towards the lighthouse on the coast, leaving the surveyor behind at their camp after arguing with her. At the lighthouse, she finds a strange picture of the lighthouse keeper from before “the Event” and, even more significantly, a huge pile of journals from previous expeditions–far more than the 11 that “officially” were supposed to have taken place.
Finally, she finds her husband’s journal, but does not read it. She exits the lighthouse and finds the psychologist lying wounded outside. She has been attacked by the same creature–which the biologist now calls “the Crawler” assumed to be responsible for writing on the wall of the tower.
After a brief exchange, the psychologist dies and the biologist makes her way back to the camp. Along the way, she encounters the creature responsible for the eerie moaning noise, though she escapes and never actually sees it. After that, she is shot by the surveyor, but is able to withstand it, apparently due to some infection or other mutation resulting from her time in the tower.
She shoots the surveyor, and then returns to camp to make final preparations to explore the tunnel and find the Crawler. She reads through the journals she collected from the lighthouse, concluding with her husband’s. His account describes he and his fellow team members seeing their doppelgangers entering the Tower–suggesting that these doppelgangers are the entities that returned from Area X to the outside world. Most significantly, his journal is largely addressed to the biologist; and is meant to express his feelings for her.
To me, this was the most extraordinary part of the entire book. While she has at times discussed her relationship with her husband, and how its deterioration ultimately led him to volunteer to go to Area X, her tone has always been cold and detached. When she reads the journal and realizes that her husband made the journey largely as part of a desire to connect with her, and regrets that she never tried to connect with him in the same way, her tone changes–real emotion comes through.
It’s a surprisingly romantic and touching passage–only a few paragraphs, but very moving. Like Victor LaValle in his excellent Ballad of Black Tom, VanderMeer has succeeded in imbuing his tale of Lovecraftian cosmic horror with real human emotion–no mean feat, given that the genre’s creator premised it on the insignificance of humanity.
After reading the journals, the biologist enters the Tower and finds the Crawler–a suitably mind-warping encounter with the indescribable, in the best Lovecraftian tradition. At the center of the unimaginable, incomprehensible thing, she sees the face of the lighthouse keeper from the photograph, providing some hint at the creature’s origin.
After this last encounter, the biologist decides to follow her husband’s last recorded plan which was to go to an island off the shore. The book ends on an ambiguous and yet strangely bittersweet note.
I have said that the core of Annihilation is not its plot, but rather its atmosphere. Reading what I have outlined here does not give you the sense of it. VanderMeer writes the sort of story I love: an undefined time and place, with the tension residing in the eerie setting and the horror being the horror of doubting one’s own sanity. He has written the book that At The Mountains of Madness wanted to be.
There are some flaws–early on, I felt it was bogged down too much by description. (Though I have frequently been found guilty of too little description.) He uses the expression “far distant” too much, and occasionally the biologist’s detached, scientific tone would be jarred by the use of a word like “scary”, which seemed too simplistic to me.
The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.
…then Annihilation serves as the very model of a weird tale.
The day dawned dark and grim As I arose from the depths of nightmare. I gazed with fear my window from And saw the streets outside were bare. The city was deserted, a gilded grave of glass. I started out upon the street, And not a soul I met as I went along; For none was there to meet. The sun shone green betwixt the clouds, A cast of light I never saw; And the wind blew strong and cold, The air was harsh and raw. And then at last, an empty highway on, I met what might have been my twin– Save the empty sockets for his eyes, And his cacodaemoniac grin. He smirked, as if ‘t were all some joke. And then he melted to a bloody pulp. And it was then–I think–that I awoke.
The hour was late, and the guardsman held his lonely vigil. A moonless night, disturbed only by things which might be; The imagined things which almost don’t exist, but leave their sigil Imprinted on the black depths of humanity’s genetic memory.
As the guard gazes into the night, what monsters may be there? Whence come the phantasmal sounds that make him raise his gun? Is the darkness populated with fiends, lurking everywhere– Or are the beasts loosed within his brain, content therein to run?
Is it a comfort to say that tales of these abominations Are products of our minds; some mentally abhorrent whim? If the vilest of monsters are the works of our imaginations, Then what kind of things are we who have imagined them?