Beyond the Wall of Sleep fails to fully realize the pessimism of its premise, but it sure has some radical sci-fi mystical imagery.Read More
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What can H.P. Lovecraft's The Festival teach us about madness in horror?Read More
Neil Gaiman’s A Study in Emerald won the Hugo Award in 2004 and for good reason. The premise of the story seems like an exercise in paradoxical thinking: what if Sherlock Holmes existed in the world of H.P. Lovecraft? In the introduction to his 2006 short story anthology Fragile Things, Gaiman summarizes the obvious problem:
“...the world of Sherlock Holmes is so utterly rational, after all, celebrating solutions, while Lovecraft’s fictional creations were deeply, utterly irrational, and mysteries were vital to keep humanity sane.”
The text of A Study in Emerald can be read on Gaiman’s website. It is a variation on A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle and focuses on the murder of a member of the royal family. An Afghanistan war veteran (our narrator) and his almost impossibly astute consulting detective of a flatmate, while pursuing the details in the case, are set into a battle of wits against a set of doppelgangers we eventually learn to be the real Holmes and Watson.
Gaiman’s story takes place in an alternate London in which the Great Old Ones of Lovecraft have conquered humanity and instated themselves in our ruling positions. My favorite passage, which describes Queen Victoria, also serves as an example of the Eldritch tone Gaiman brings to his strange 18th century London:
“She was called Victoria because she had beaten us in battle, seven hundred years before, and she was called Gloriana, because she was glorious, and she was called the Queen because the human mouth was not shaped to say her true name.”
As the mystery progresses, it becomes clear that a type of humanist morality is being invoked and we are following the story of unwittingly evil detectives. Holmes and Watson, the antagonists of A Study in Emerald are labeled as restorationists, who wish to overthrow the Elder Things that have conquered our species, opting for a world that is truly for us. A note left for the narrator's evil-Sherlock summarizes these thoughts:
“I send you this not not as a catch-me-if-you-can taunt, for we are gone, the estimable doctor and I, and you shall not find us, but to tell you that it was good to feel that, if for only a moment, I had a worthy adversary. Worthier by far than inhuman creatures from beyond the pit.”
The sentiment from one Holmes to another, darker Holmes is affirmative of the human spirit and never fails to fill me with hope. In the face of unceasing oppression - whether it be that of institutional religion, a Lovecraftian allegory for it, or simply the void itself - nothing is a stronger weapon than a reminder of humanity and the good we do to each other.
A Study in Emerald, in creating an opposition between genres, illustrates why detectives are true heroes in the face of horror. The instinct, as Gaiman articulated, is that classic mystery fiction and cosmic horror are diametrically opposed, but it is actually in their blending that we can understand how to live heroically underneath the looming void.
There is a great, long standing tradition of detective stories crossing over with horror. Paranormal investigator fiction is one of the most popular and accessible horror sub genres because it allows for the possibility of understanding through a heroic detective. From William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki The Ghost Finder and his electric pentacle to Mulder and Scully, horror has been made accessible through the tropes of detective fiction for over a century.
It’s true that in many ways having a deductive hero at the center of a horror story subtracts from much of the actual scariness of a narrative, but the lessons we can learn from these stories are deep and affecting. This is particularly true in more recent examples like True Detective where the horror is subtle and the unknown is in many ways unknowable. In this case, the detective’s role is to gaze into the void and when they find no answers, return to the world a better human after having confronted a boundary.
The detective, when placed in the tradition of cosmic horror, is heroic for holding on to humanity in the face of forbidden knowledge that would drive weaker willed individuals mad. They are the explorers and prospectors of existential frontiers, a testament to our unshakable human condition. They, like Gaiman's strange Sherlock, are able to look into the darkness for meaning and upon finding the incomprehensible accepting the challenge of living as a human in the abyss.
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.
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.
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.
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.”