Everything Is Scary

Be responsible, contemplate the void.

Time, Books, RAGNAROK

“I replaced your books with other books. The covers are the same, but the content has been altered. I don’t think you read enough, but that is not why I did it. I changed every single word of some of the books. In others, just a single comma on a single page. This is a metaphor, but I’m not quite sure what it represents.”

-The Faceless Old Woman That Secretly Lives in Your Home, Welcome To Night Vale 31, “A Blinking Light up on the Mountain"

Looking at my bookshelf, I am horrified. There, side by side and mostly out of order, are the physical instructions on how to imagine hundreds of specific stories. Most, bound in attractive and colourful covers, contain stories I like - some that I love - and sit there as a self-assurance. One day, I say to myself, I will re-read those books. The stories on their pages are not ethereal. They transcend time. This is what I say, but I know it’s not true.

The Chuck Palahniuk books I loved so much as a teenager but am slightly embarrassed by now, fantasy novels based on tabletop games with titles like Trollslayer, innumerable H.P. Lovecraft anthologies - they sit there, each one having played an important role in time of my life, promising to bring me back to those specific formative moments I spent in its pages.

But nothing transcends time, truly, and the fact is, with the exception of the books on my shelf that I already have read multiple times, the stories on my shelf might as well have self destructed the moment I finished consuming them, Inspector Gadget style. Unless I’m going to lend it to a friend, an exceptional book stays on my shelf solely as a comforting failsafe. What if I need to pull a quote from one of my five editions of Dracula? What if there’s an emergency and I need to intimately refamiliarize myself with Stephen King’s The Stand? What if I just need to escape to a simpler time when I thought I was the only guy who really got Fight Club?

Those times will never come. The books on my walls are a manifestation of my denial. Deep down in me there is a fear that the good things I’ve experienced are gone forever (because they are) and when I look upon the rows of book spines on my shelf I see doors to those moments. If I were to pick a book off the shelf, however, and re-read it, my experience will be different thanks to a million different circumstances. The past is inaccessible. The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In My House could have changed the contents of my books and I wouldn’t even know it.

In That Is All, the final book in John Hodgman’s Complete World Knowledge trilogy of fake almanacs, my fear of losing the past is made manifest. On the very first paper surface of my copy, above the word “All”, is the ominous (or is it portentous?) instruction to destroy the book, one day at a time. Each of the book's first 365 pages is part of a page-a-day calendar for the final year of human existence, the year of Ragnarok (originally scheduled for 2012, but hey, it could still happen).

Known as Today in Ragnarok, Hodgman’s future-gazing calendar of literary destruction is the perfect medium for a story about the end of all existence. Spanning multiple narratives and calling back to the predictions the author made in his previous two fake almanacs, his page-a-day of doom contains all the horror tropes you could ask for right alongside the best Stephen King jokes ever written.

As you read of the fabled nerd jock convergence, Nick Nolte’s June 9th awakening as the Mayan bird-snake god Quetzalcoatl, the return of an old-timey radio show everyone remembers but never actually existed, and a giant wave of blood from another dimension, the destruction should ideally be represented in the absence of book behind the page you’re currently reading.

Of course, as a person trapped in the ever changing present and terrified of the irretrievability of the past, I can never bring myself to actually go ahead and destroy the book. Part of me knows that I’m not alone in this, and that the instructions to destroy “That Is All” are in fact a thematically resonant joke, but they do illustrate my relationship with art perfectly. I am precious about it, I treasure it, I use it to build a fictional space from where I once came as a younger man. The books on my shelf look like the hallway I tell myself I’ve been walking through, that I can access somehow, and the first entry in Hodgman’s calendar is a reminder that they're just cleverly positioned mirrors.

In the audiobook version of That Is All, (which is the only audiobook you absolutely must own), the Today In Ragnarok section is placed after the main text and prefaced with the impossible instruction to break off a piece of whatever device you are using to listen in order to represent the passage of time. This underlines the insincerity of the request (the book is comedy after all), but I can’t help but wish I actually did have that strength of will to let go of an experience after it’s occurred.

But I can’t. My past is precious to me and the future is too unknown. If I were to reread every book I own, I would put them right back on display, each one now holding a new impression of me, the reader. They would all still loom over me, as they do now, from that shelf, serving as a comforting lie that I can always go back.

Still, I am aware of that lie, and in it I see the horror of my being stuck to the present moment. If only I would have the strength of will to do as Hodgman says, and arrive at day one of Ragnarok with nothing but a black piece of thick paper that used to be a book but now just says “THAT IS ALL”.

Monster Mob: Horror in Jon Ronson’s “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”

The Leviathan

 

In Jon Ronson's newest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the author makes a stirring observation: We’d seen people destroyed by governments and corporations before, but when Justine Sacco was destroyed, it was the first time we’d ever done it ourselves. In an interview with Jesse Thorn on the Maximum Fun podcast Bullseye, the idea is perfectly distilled in the following exchange:

Ronson: I thought some of this stuff was amazing because I’ve spent my life writing funny stories about people going crazy with power, and here it was us. I say in my book that “this is the first time I’ve ever sat across the table from somebody who had been destroyed by us.”

Thorn: You literally wrote a book called Them.

Ronson: Yeah. I should have called this book Us.

You probably remember the incident he’s referring to, if not first hand then from Ronson’s popular New York Times article from earlier this year detailing Sacco's destruction. Essentially, Sacco made a joke in poor taste before getting on a 12 hour flight to Cape Town. When she arrived, her life had been ruined by Twitter outrage. She had been ganged up on by the Twitter hive mind, made into a sacrificial avatar for us to burn at the stake in a righteous reflex to denounce white privilege.

Ronson uses this, and a number of other examples of modern public shaming, to deftly call into question one of the most uncontrollable destructive social forces humanity currently knows. A virtual mob of Twitter users can turn a normal human being into a social pariah, costing them not only their reputation, but their life long vocation and the chance to meet anyone new without having to broach the topic of the scars left from their virtual lashing. The persecutors may be motivated out of a need to do good, a lust for social inclusion, a sense of political activism or just to watch the world burn (read: for the lulz).

The idea of being publicly shamed is terrifying in its own right, and it would be easy to point to how the simple knowledge of such a social practice breeds a panopticon style society, negating any validity to claims of valuing free speech. But what I find more horrifying than becoming the prey of the same sort of memetic leviathan that destroyed Sacco and the others detailed in Ronson’s book, is the idea that I am part of that invisible, life-eating beast.

The Horde

Mobs are a staple of horror media. A swarm of rats or flesh eating scarab beetles; a congregation of fanatical cultists or a horde of zombies - these evoke a fear of critical mass. A single zombie is splatter-able, but an undead sea of gnashing teeth and moans is an inevitable death made manifest. Just like a single hateful tweet, one zombie can ruin your day, but probably not in a world-ending way. That said, if one destructive vector happens to make enough noise in the right place, it could attract others, instigating an all consuming tide of ugly bytes or self-righteous words, depending on the example you’re following.

 They're coming to get you, @TheRealBarbara

They're coming to get you, @TheRealBarbara

I’ll admit, likening Twitter-shaming to zombie-like behaviour is unfair and inaccurate. The participants in a shaming aren’t brainlessly motivated by unholy hunger. Rather, they are true, fully sentient human beings. A better horror analogy would be the row house people from Junji Ito’s horror manga, Uzumaki.

Uzumaki is about a town possessed by an unknown force that manifests its influence through the shape of a spiral. The citizens of the town become obsessed with the shape in various nightmare scenarios that range from self-mutilation, to body horror, to narrative terrors that don’t have a name outside of Uzumaki-specifc jargon (snail people, mosquito babies, the Jack in the Box). When the influence of the spiral reaches apocalyptic levels, the remaining citizens take to the only remaining structures in town: ancient row houses.

Unknowingly obsessed with the spiral, the people seeking shelter twist together and become one writhing mass, trying to make more room in the row houses by expanding the ends but instead acting out the will of a higher entity. In the end, the expansion connects each of the old structures to create one giant row house, which, when viewed from above, forms a town-sized spiral.

 This is what happens when you don't enforce municipal zoning policies.

This is what happens when you don't enforce municipal zoning policies.

On the individual, human level, a person in the spiral row house is just trying to stay safe and do the right thing. Outside the walls of her shelter, an exiled row house denizen may find an unthinkable fate. That’s why she helps in the building effort, unknowingly part of a collective horror greater than she can possibly imagine: a massive, tangled abomination made of autonomous individuals. If you die in a row house, you are evacuated. If you don’t belong, you are thrown out. The row house is a body of bodies and it is concerned with its own standard of ungodly health.

Twitter evokes this kind of collective being. We, the users, are each thinking for ourselves, experiencing a whole life of our own. But when topics begin to trend, that autonomy is betrayed as false. We may act under the assumption of free will, and that may very well be the case, but we’re all in that same spiral row house, which, when looked upon from the outside, is utterly un-human on a climatological scale.

Bodies

 #RowHouseProblems

#RowHouseProblems

Many cases of true horror can be distilled to a discrepancy of scale. What we can’t comprehend makes us feel insignificant. Imagining the distance between us and the nearest star is upsetting because it makes us feel small (though not nearly as small as we actually are).

The same feeling can be evoked in the opposite direction. I am often disturbed by the idea that the whole self that I call Peter Counter is not only a collection of cells with the same DNA, but is also built on a symbiotic foundation of bacterial colonies to which I’m not genetically related. I am made out of microscopic entities, a row house for tiny life, a social network for microbes.

To take part in a social media event like the shaming described in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, or to participate in any kind of trending discussion on a large scale social media platform, that is to accept your place in the body of something bigger than you can comprehend. We are individuals tangled up in a shared ideal - be it political or otherworldly - and the resulting whole entity has no regard for humanity.

My Precious Big Bang, My Shameful Central Sun

Fear and Nihilism in The House on the Borderland

The saying goes that the greatest fear is fear of the unknown. H.P. Lovecraft is famous for this sentiment in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature and he should know - the man of Providence is credited as the father of modern horror. I think that, as prescient and true as this statement is, Lovecraft’s definition of horror is slightly inaccurate. It doesn’t go far enough. The unknown can be conquered, but the unknowable is something that truly puts us in our place.

 Penguin republished   The House on the Borderland   in 2008 as part of its Red Classics line of horror books. Just read it already.

Penguin republished The House on the Borderland in 2008 as part of its Red Classics line of horror books. Just read it already.

I realized this after reading William Hope Hodgson’s 1908 novel The House on the Borderland, a seminal text in the weird fiction genre and one of the most beloved horror books on my shelf (Lovecraft would agree, having named Hodgson as one of his great influences). Following in the Gothic tradition, the story is presented as a found manuscript, with bookends detailing its discovery and footnotes from a fictional editorial staff.

The fictional document that makes up the brunt of The House on the Borderland is written by a meticulous hand and details a hermit’s time in a strange house under siege by pale, swine-like man-things and a cosmic journey to the center of all universes. In the final third of the book, the titular structure allows the hermit to travel through time at an advanced speed. He witnesses the death of our planet and the solar system before floating, bodiless, before a great green sun for three isane chapters of hallucinatory void-gazing.

Lovecraft named Hodgson as a major influence in his Yog Sogothery, and in these three cosmic chapters the literary lineage is clear. Celestial bodies that bear something resembling sentience, the horror found in differences of scale and the awe inspiring majesty of realizing your own insignificance: these are all present here in their most distilled forms. It is absolute cosmic horror and yet, it is at this point that the book lost me.

A single line summoned my 21st century humanity into Hodgson’s portrait of horrific objectivity. As the hermit’s consciousness dwells for aeons in the green light of the star he muses:

“And then, suddenly, an extraordinary question rose in my mind, whether this stupendous globe of green fire might not be the vast central sun - the great sun, round which our universe and countless others revolve.”

That’s not how the universe works, I thought to myself. There is no central sun. Hodgson, that poor bastard, brought too much of his immature turn-of-the-1900’s “science” into his book hoping to lend a little extra force to the existential gut punch of is more celestial chapters.

Over a century of scientific progress separates the words of The House on the Borderland and the astronomically enlightened world of today. We have some very detailed ideas about how the universe started, the shape it has taken, and how it will end (if indeed it ever will), and none of them involve a massive, green, possibly sentient globe of burning gas.

 Hubble > Hodgson (image courtesy of  HubbleSite )

Hubble > Hodgson (image courtesy of HubbleSite)

I thought it was a shame that Hodgson’s influential novel dated itself in such a crippling manner. Until that pseudo-scientific line, I had been amazed at the book's ability to truly stand up to the test of time. The House on the Borderland is early 20th century horror that feels fresh, modern and relevant.

The book is written in such a way to effectively produce maximum feelings of littleness. When the hermit goes on otherworldly journeys beyond the borders of human reality, he is guided by a will that is not his own. The effect is the feeling of an incredible planetary clockwork that has no room for even the most basic free will. We are thinking things guided through a violent lifetime which bears no significance on the machinations of the universe(s). Only Hodgson’s universe isn’t the one I know. How could it be? The initial steps in the development of the Big Bang theory wouldn’t be taken until four years after the book's publication.

But, as time went on, after I finished the book for the first time, the images of that green star stuck with me. When I look into the night sky I imagine the pale green light of the central sun, so immense in size and so far away, and it feels less impossible to me. Not because I don’t know any better, but because maybe I can’t know any better.

According to a 2008 article in Time Magazine, Neil deGrasse Tyson is kept up at night by a horrific question of cosmic proportions: are we intelligent enough to figure out the universe? It is certainly worrisome quandary, especially coming from a man who has become the go-to face, voice and wiggly fingers of science.

 In the depths of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson waits dreaming. (via  giphy )

In the depths of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson waits dreaming. (via giphy)

Having taken up the torch from Carl Sagan before him, Tyson’s vocation positions him on the border of humanity and the void. He lives his life in the proverbial house on the Borderland. That’s why his admission of fear is so troubling to hear. We rely on Tyson and his colleagues to stare into everything that is untouched by humanity and bring us answers, but he worries we’re just not the right living things to find them.

In essence, the worry described by Tyson is flirting with epistemological nihilism, the hyper-skeptical philosophy that it is impossible to know anything. He looks into the void and finds one growing in himself - an infectious nothing that serves to negate humanity with cosmic objectivity.

In that revelation, there is the true transcendent fear inspired by Hodgson’s hundred year old text. Just like the author could not have known the nature of the universe at the time of writing, neither can I right now as I type this very sentence. Sure, I concede that the specifics of Hodgson’s terrible cosmos are very likely inaccurate, but mine will probably look similarly primitive come 2108. My precious Big Bang theory will be my shameful Central Sun.

The quest to find our place in the universe is arguably the most pragmatic and noble pursuit a human can dedicate himself to. When faced with the base inability to understand the cosmos, however, our science - just like faith - becomes a fragile teather we cling to as we move through a dark clock work we will never even know exists. Barring a psychedelic trip through time and space, the clockwork will forever be unknowable and, to quote the late Terry Pratchett, commenting on The House on The Borderland, “This is where the screaming really starts.”

Darkness follows.