The Shape of Horror
A genre is defined by a set of conventions and rules, and art is evaluated in said genre based on how well it adheres to, subverts or purposefully refutes those rules. When it comes to horror, the rules change depending on who you talk to. Some will tell you that a horror story need only be scary and that spookiness is the the unblinking eye of the beholder. Others might list for you a byzantine set of commandments reaped from the annals of the horror film canon before telling you to just watch Scream or Cabin in the Woods. I will tell you it’s a three step process.
Two years ago, when I read Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X trilogy I was thrilled. Weird fiction is my favourite sub genre of literature, and to be taken on such a complete journey through strange times and places and ending up staring at a world just a little bit less for me, was fantastic. The story stuck with me, and as I considered why it was so affecting, and I have come to the conclusion that it has perfectly distilled the cosmic horror arc into three acts. Because it’s a trilogy, I don’t even have to label them, because the book titles are also self-explanatory: Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance.
The arc outlined by VanderMeer’s trilogy can be applied to most horror with a cosmic bent and even made to accommodate other flavours of the uncanny tale. Obviously, it’s not a hard and fast rule, but the more I think about it, the more the structure seems to fit some of the most chilling stories of all time.
Act One: Annihilation
In the first act of a cosmic horror story there must be an annihilation. This is most often a death, or a series of deaths, but it doesn’t have to be. In Area X the first act follows a nameless biologist and a team of scientists into a strange, malicious region near an American coast (it’s not specified which one). The entire book serves as a sort of primer to the un-human threat at the core of the overall story by destroying its characters. Some die, others are transformed, but by the end of act one, just as the title suggests, all is annihilated.
The purpose of the annihilation act is to bring an audience to an un-human border. The scale of the annihilation can vary, but the key is that it introduces death, limitation and the world beyond our experience, cuing us for a reactive second act.
Act Two: Authority
The second act is a human reaction to the annihilation of act one: humans attempt to assert authority on the terrible force that threatens them. In Area X authority is bureaucracy, and the allegory to this proposed three act structure is so complete that the main character of book two is literally named Control. The assertion of authority provides the conflict and rising action to a cosmic horror story. It’s the home team saying “We got this;” it’s the squad of US marines that are ready for the bug hunt; it’s the appeal to our greatest human traits of courage, reason and cooperation.
Act two is at first a retreat from the violence of act one, and in Authority it’s quite a calm relief. Of course, that’s undercut by a mounting sense of doubt as the confidence of our protagonist slowly winnows away in the face so something he can never truly understand. In true second act fashion, the assertion of authority against cosmic horror ends on a down beat. At the heart of the genre is a deep pessimism, one predicated on the principle that we are incapable of prevailing against extreme, indifferent forces that prove our own insignificance.
Act Three: Acceptance
While the third act of a story for normos will rise up from the doubt sewn in its second act—Luke will rescue Han and kill Vader, Harry will ascend to adulthood and destroy Voldemort, the hot young man will realize his mistake and kiss the hot young woman—cosmic horror continues to plummet into the abyss. Acceptance rather than triumph is the final beat of a perfect horror story. Horror is a genre of falling down, and on a cosmic level that’s simply understanding that there was never anything you could do to stop it.
Acceptance is as close to an explanation as readers ever get to the terrifying questions of Area X. But somethings can’t be known by human minds. The ending, given the context of the genre and the nightmarish events of the earlier acts, is more lyrical than anything, but it asks the reader to once again consider annihilation only this time with the knowledge that there is no virtue in resistance. You will abandon this mortal coil leaving behind a world that never cared for you. Abandon authority, accept annihilation.
Because this structure is based on a modern work of weird fiction, it is easiest to apply to similar works that evoke horror from out of space and time. Call of Cthulhu, for instance, begins with the annihilation of the narrator’s uncle, progresses as the storyteller attempts to reason his way through the terrible documents left behind, and is forced to accept a terrible reality that will soon come to an end. But this shape of horror can still be applied to other sub genres such as the gothic tale or even the slasher film.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the eponymous natural philosopher annihilates God by creating life out of death, attempts to retreat back to a normal life, but inevitably must take horrid responsibility for his actions and accept a world in which life, with all its pain, nuance and loneliness, can be made by an ignorant human. In practically all zombie media the arc begins with the annihilation of a portion of humanity, progresses to see humans looking for a cure, and ends with whatever survivors are left simply trying to readjust to a newly hostile world. In slasher films you have a cold open with no survivors, a struggle with the killer, and usually a lone survivor who must accept that he–no, it’s still out there.
The annihilation horror arc can teach us a lot about how we deal with horror in life. By looking at stories through this framework, a school of thought emerges, in which human agency is humbled by border experiences and trauma, and in which the most heroic act is to look into the face of unspeakable things and admit there’s nothing you can do to make them go away.