John Clute is fighting an uphill battle.
Anyone who reads science fiction, fantasy, and/or horror knows that this three-headed genre isn’t respectable—like keeping a mangy, mongrel Cerberus in your basement. We’ve all heard the sneers. We may even have voiced the sneers. Culturally, this may be changing—although please note that there is a difference between being culturally popular and culturally respectable—but academically, ground is being given only slowly, if at all.
Academic literary critics don’t like sffh, both because it’s perceived as vulgar (although in today’s world of Cultural Studies, Media Studies, and postmodernism, vulgarity is increasingly not an issue) and because it doesn’t respond to the traditional tools of literary criticism, what in America is known as New Criticism, a methodology developed in response to imagist poetry. New Criticism is passé in academic circles, having been recognized as excessively narrow in scope—sometimes verging on the willfully blind—and particularly unsuited to texts outside the canonical literature of Western Europe and North America, but its values, the ideas about what makes a text worth reading, the work it expects to find a text doing, have persisted. Teaching literature still begins with the basic building block of New Criticism, the close reading, in which the student is expected to analyze a passage for its diction and syntax, but most importantly for its imagery. We prize imagery—metaphor, symbolism, etc.—in literature because we’ve been taught that a high concentration of non-literal language is a sign of artistic merit.
Speculative fiction renders this attitude deeply problematic, not because it doesn’t have symbolism, but because its nature is to literalize every symbol and metaphor it comes across. Tolkien’s Ring is a symbol of evil, yes, but it is also evil in and of itself. It is literally evil, and thus there’s nothing for a traditionally trained literary critic to latch onto.
There are plenty of other ways to analyze a text, and they are being practiced in both academic and non-academic criticism inside and outside the “ghetto” of speculative fiction, but because the New Critical method is the first method we learn, and because for many people it’s the only method they learn, it colors our collective judgment very strongly.
I once had a professor tell me that science fiction wasn’t a valid genre.
There are several possible responses to this pervasive attitude of withering contempt.
- Like the fox in the fable, stalk off muttering about sour grapes. This is the reverse snobbism attack, and while it may be emotionally satisfying, it’s an intellectual dead end. There’s nowhere to go.
- Move the battle. Much academic, or academic-equivalent, criticism of sffh has chosen this route, with the most sustained and notable success being in the arena of feminist theory. Feminist literary criticism is using different weapons than old school lit crit, and as a variety of critics have proved, sffh responds very well to the reading protocols of feminist analysis.
- Like Annie Oakley, assert “Anything you can do, I can do better.” Fight the battle for literary merit head on.
John Clute, in The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror, as in his earlier works The Encyclopedia of Fantasy and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, has chosen Door #3. He has in fact wrenched it open and gone striding through with guns blazing.
The Darkening Garden is, among other things, an attempt to define and explain the literary genre of horror in such a way that academically trained and minded critics will be able to understand and appreciate what’s at stake, what the genre does, and why we ought to pay attention to it. His first move is to reject an affect-based definition of horror, preferring rightly to define horror by its narrative structure, which he classifies as “mov[ing] toward bondage.” Rather than specific images, the lexicon talks about patterns of imagery—about doubles, for instance, about loss of identity, about the Holocaust. The book is playing unabashedly to the academic audience, with the result that its language is dense and jargon-laden, and sometimes you get passages like this:
Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1899 Blackwood’s Magazine) incorporates maybe the definitive—and certainly the best known—utterance of the nature of Horror in all literature, an ultimate gape of rage, a final saying of the world at the close. As the supernaturally meme-absorbent Stanley Kurtz approaches death, he gazes upon something not explicable as a vision of African landscape illegible to aliens, or of atrocities he may have committed with in it: but there is no God to damn him. ... By the time Kurtz cries out at last, “The horror, the horror!,” he has transited all that fiddle of story, and can only utter the final grammar of reality entire, a rage isomorphic with how the world is truly said, the still point where any great Horror story ends: nothing but true, intransitive.
This passage, along with its arrogant impenetrability (I could even argue, if I wanted to, that the language of the passage tropes the thematic nature of the text under discussion), showcases another of Clute’s strategies: the aggressive co-optation of “respectable” texts into his definitional argument about a traditionally unrespectable genre. “Heart of Darkness” has all the academic cachet you could ask for; at other points in The Darkening Garden, Clute suborns It’s A Wonderful Life, Through the Looking Glass, The Wind in the Willows, Cosi Fan Tutti, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Bob Dylan, James Joyce, Stephen Sondheim, Federico Garcia Lorca, and a variety of other texts and artists who have either academic or cultural respectability and are not, therefore, usually classed as horror. Clute, in fact, takes a perverse glee in demonstrating their membership in his marching army; see for example the entry on PICTURE BOOKS and the long analysis of It’s a Wonderful Life in the entry on REVEL.
So what is it, in all this sesquipedalian finery, that Clute is arguing? The Darkening Garden is arranged as a lexicon, with thirty entries ranging from AFFECT HORROR to VASTATION, and its argument is perforce scattered like a trail of breadcrumbs throughout the book. Clute recommends beginning with the entries on HORROR, AFFECT HORROR, SIGHTING, THICKENING, REVEL, and AFTERMATH, which I duly did, and immediately found myself in argument with his argument.
Clute has a particular theory about the relationship between fantasy, science fiction, and horror (the entries on the BOUND FANTASTIC and the FREE FANTASTIC are the place to start), and the ways in which this Cerberus genre reflects our species’ relationship with our planet. His theory has a corollary premise that you can’t talk about our species’ relationship with the planet until the point in history that we became aware of the planet, which he identifies as the Enlightenment. I find this theory an intriguing one, and find Clute’s analysis of this phenomenon in the twentieth century very compelling, particularly his comments on World War I, but I—having written my doctoral dissertation on horror in Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedy—would argue that horror has become a locus and nexus for the working out of these concerns in the vastation (Clute’s word) of postmodernity, not that horror did not exist before these concerns emerged to trouble us. Horror is an infinitely flexible genre—more flexible, I think, than either science fiction or fantasy; it shapes itself to meet the cultural needs of its artists and audiences and has done so for as long as we have had written language, and probably longer.
The other thing that makes me uneasy about Clute’s argumentative definition of horror is his use of an explicitly prescriptive four-part structure in talking about the narrative progress of horror. I am dubious about this rhetorical move for several reasons. One is that, as a genre theorist myself, I am suspicious of and philosophically opposed to prescriptive definitions. In my experience, this leads to a habit of fitting the facts to the theory instead of modifying the theory to suit the facts. Secondly, Clute maps his four part structure of horror (sighting, thickening, revel, aftermath), not only to his four part structure of fantasy (wrongness, thinning, recognition, return), but also to the seasons (fantasy proceeds autumn, winter, spring, summer, while horror proceeds spring, summer, autumn, winter). This is a lovely poetic conceit—and even when I don’t agree with Clute, I am moved and delighted by the poetry of his thinking—but it feels profoundly arbitrary to me. It also evokes one of the magisterial texts of New Criticism, Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957); Clute does not cite Frye directly, which leaves me uncertain and skeptical about how the intertext ought to be interpreted.
The third reason I am unconvinced by the prescriptive four-part structure is that it reminds me strongly of the most famous four-part prescriptive definition in literary criticism—which is also the crowning example of distorting the facts to fit the theory: Aristotle’s theory of the structure of tragic drama. Aristotle is prescriptive like a prescriptive thing. It’s the nature of his writing. His theory of tragedy is constructed by working backwards from a single chosen exemplar, Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex—and that exemplar, as scholars of Greek tragedy have argued, is far from representative of the genre as a whole. Aristotle’s orderly and logical scheme, with its hamartia, peripeteia, anagnoresis, and katharsis, is every bit as seductive as Clute’s sighting, thickening, revel, and aftermath. But, as generations of high school students—forced to identify Hamlet’s hamartia—will attest, Aristotle’s schema only works on tragedies which are playing by his rules.
I am not as widely read as John Clute; I can’t offer an opinion as to how many novels, short stories, movies, graphic novels, and other narrative works of horror are playing by his rules. But I worry that the prescriptive definition, even with all of Clute’s disclaimers and caveats, will make it easier, rather than more difficult, for works of horror to be dismissed as schlock or trash or the derogatory term of your choice. Because tragedies which don’t meet Aristotle’s criteria have been scorned for centuries, which (I would argue and have argued) is part of the reason Clute is in the position of trying to rehabilitate horror in the first place. I also found, when I was working on sixteenth and seventeenth century horror, and therefore thinking about twentieth century horror a great deal, that part of what makes horror, as a genre and as a viewpoint, powerful is the fact that it can’t be fully defined, that it doesn’t play by the rules. The more you try to codify horror, the more you’re missing the point of what it does.
Despite my methodological and epistemological arguments with The Darkening Garden, I found this short lexicon to be thought-provoking, lucidly—and sometimes gorgeously—written, and full of persuasive and cannily observed ideas about modern horror as the genre-child of (principally Anglo-American) cultural experience in the last two and a half centuries. In particular, Clute’s idea that horror is a genre in which “the story ... comprises a dialogic argument with the false world where all Horror stories take their start” is an insight that leaves me breathless with intellectual delight. Horror stories are always built on the idea that the world as it presents itself to us is somehow false, whether that falseness hides vampires or hostile aliens or entities of cosmic malevolence, but I didn’t recognize the truth of that until John Clute pointed it out to me.
Sarah Monette completed her Ph.D. in English literature in 2004. Her novels are published by Ace Books. Her short fiction has appeared in many places, including Strange Horizons, Alchemy, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and has received four Honorable Mentions from The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror.