Sunday, April 30, 2017

1. Horror Theory: Towards a Post-Fact World

How do we know what we know?  How do we persuade others that what we know is the truth?  And most importantly, in the creation of horror entertainment, how do we convince others that some outlandish and terrifying idea can be experienced as a reality, as truth?  The literary term for this, which is a component of Coleridge’s “suspension of disbelief”, is verisimilitude.  The concept typically refers to the believability of a fictional work, how lifelike it is in its conception.

But the term verisimilitude also contains more general philosophical implications that pertain to knowledge and its acquisition.  The philosopher Karl Popper and others have noted that the goal of scientific research is to arrive at some reasonably and objectively true assertion about an object of study.  However, the history of scientific research shows that over time, successive theories about various phenomena have been either false or only approximately true, needing further modification as new data emerges. 

Thus some scientific theories contain more “truthiness” than others, as Stephen Colbert might put it.  Or some science fiction and horror stories are more effective, because more believable, than others.  In both fiction and in scientific research, verisimilitude is strongly dependent on context: culture, economics, politics and sociology all impact whether a fictional product or a scientific result can be accepted as being at least provisionally true.  It is also worth noting that this acceptance of the “truth” is a more general and willful “suspension of disbelief”.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who with William Wordsworth was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England at the beginning of the 19th century, was the poet who gave us “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in 1798.  (See also The Crime of the Ancient Mariner).  Here is Coleridge discussing the importance of his insight to the enjoyment of poetry and other types of literature:

"... It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith…”                              

Another useful concept, in addition to verisimilitude and a “willing suspension of disbelief”, is the sci-fi critic Darko Suvin’s concept of “cognitive estrangement”.  Suvin refers to the genre of science fiction as “the literature of cognitive estrangement”.  Writing in the mid to late 1960s, Suvin noted:

…if one takes as the minimal generic difference of SF the presence of a narrative novum (the dramatis personae and/or their context) significantly different from what is the norm in "naturalistic" or empiricist fiction, it will be found that SF has an interesting and close kinship with other literary subgenres that flourished at different times and places of literary history…Moreover, although SF shares with myth, fantasy, fairy tale, and pastoral an opposition to naturalistic or empiricist literary genres, it differs very significantly in approach and social function*…

It is this “newness” and opposition to naturalism and empiricism that creates the “estrangement” which, if effective, contributes to readers’ enjoyment and experience of speculative fiction.  Elsewhere Suvin suggests that science fiction “has always been wedded to a hope of finding in the unknown the ideal environment, tribe, state, intelligence, or other aspect of the Supreme Good, (or to a fear of and revulsion from its contrary).”

In attempting to distinguish science fiction from other kinds of literature, Suvin proposed that the genre typically contains an utterly new and unfamiliar device or machine, the presence of which forces the reader, at least temporarily, to view the world from a new perspective.  Ideally, this new perspective supports different ways of thinking about society—here cognitive estrangement can be a kind of subversive thinking, a consideration of alternatives to the status quo, a basis for resistance.

Resistance—where have I heard that word lately? 

All three notions—verisimilitude, suspension of disbelief, cognitive estrangement—seem applicable to several of H.P. Lovecraft’s longer, more ambitious works.  In particular, Suvin’s “cognitive estrangement” may be operative in the development of Lovecraft’s cosmicist world view, which is not so much a resistance to the status quo as perhaps a revelation of what that status quo really entails—some terrible and shattering truth.

Lovecraft was primarily a horror writer who incorporated style and techniques from Poe, Dunsany and others, eventually developing his own “eldritch” approach.  But enthusiastic Lovecraft readers know that he made numerous attempts, some more successful than others, at science fiction.  These include “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” (1919), “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922), “The Colour Out of Space” (1927), “Cool Air” (1928), “The Shunned House” (1928), “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1931), “From Beyond” (1934) “The Challenge From Beyond” (1935), “At the Mountains of Madness” (1936) and “The Shadow Out of Time” (1936). 

All of these stories involved technologies or processes that ultimately challenged the narrators’ preconceived understandings of the world.   Admittedly, most of these are transitional works, halfway between fantasy and the science fiction that would later emerge in the “Golden Age”.  They are adorned with devices of various kinds, but the science behind them is still for the most part “weird”.  How did Lovecraft make these ideas—some of which originated in dreams—believable and effective?

Of the stories listed above, “The Whisperer in Darkness” seems to exemplify Lovecraft’s skill at persuading readers of the reality of an essentially outlandish notion:  that severe flooding in a remote area of Vermont would bring to light compelling evidence of a colony of Nyarlathotep-worshiping extraterrestrials from Yuggoth.  (This story has been discussed in earlier posts; see also ‘The Whisperer’—One of Lovecraft’s Best.)

Lovecraft establishes verisimilitude through a variety of conventional techniques.  He makes Wilmarth, the narrator, an “expert”, a rational, detached, and presumably objective and skeptical observer—at least initially.  Hence readers can trust his conclusions, because he is a professional folklorist, professorial and authoritative.  Akely, his doomed correspondent, reporting live from the scene of an alien infestation, is similarly described as “a notable student of mathematics, astronomy, biology, anthropology, and folklore” and earlier in the story as coming from “a long, locally distinguished line of jurists, administrators, and gentlemen-agriculturalists.” 

Both men are thus credentialed and believable, a hedge against being perceived as delusional or lacking credibility.  Until very recently, it has been assumed that the pronouncements of wealthy, educated, advantaged people are more believable than those coming from lower classes or different ethnicities.  What the two men discover in the Vermont Hills is further supported by ample documentation:  Wilmarth reviews local newspaper articles, letters, his own folklore research, and hieroglyphs on a strange stone artifact—which hieroglyphs strongly resemble those described in a horrible desk reference he makes occasional use of, the Necronomicon. 

Lovecraft was writing at a time when reverence for the veracity of the printed word was still strong, and several of his stories depict a diligent antiquarian scholar compiling reliable facts that by degrees bring some horror into focus.  Few would assume today that what is published is necessarily true, even partially so, given the prevalence of “alternative facts”.  Wilmarth’s research also includes photographs, and even a recording.  The evidence is overwhelming.            

Going back to Darko Suvin’s notion of cognitive estrangement, it is interesting to note the presence of two important devices in Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness”.  The first is the recording apparatus.  One of the story’s strengths is Lovecraft’s use of an emerging technology, still novel in the late 1920s, to support the believability of the tale—instead of pseudo-scientific gadgets common in the pulp science fiction of the time.  Akeley has proof—he has recorded a sample of the speech of one of the aliens—“…I took a phonograph there—with a dictaphone attachment and wax blank…”—and he also has Kodak photographs.  Thus instrumentation, a method of objective measurement, shores up the queasy hypothesis that is forming in the reader’s mind.

The second device is of course the means by which the beings from Yuggoth transport the minds of their captives across vast stellar distances.  

There, in a neat row, stood more than a dozen cylinders of a metal I had never seen before—cylinders about a foot high and somewhat less in diameter, with three curious sockets set in an isosceles triangle over the front convex surface of each.  One of them was linked at two of the sockets to a pair of singular-looking machines that stood in the background.  Of their purport I did not need to be told… 

The discovery of this device and of its extraterrestrial owners provides Wilmarth a completely new understanding of humanity’s place in the cosmos, one much more perilous and terrifying than his quaint folklore studies have to date revealed.  “Sometimes I fear what the years will bring, especially since that new planet Pluto has been so curiously discovered,” Wilmarth says near the end.  Unlike Suvin, but very typical in the case of  Lovecraft, science fiction has never “been wedded to a hope of finding in the unknown the ideal environment, tribe, state, intelligence, or other aspect of the Supreme Good”, but to its opposite.

The next post will apply these three concepts—verisimilitude, suspension of disbelief and cognitive estrangement—to H.P. Lovecraft’s foundational horror classic “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928).


*Darko Sevin’s work can be placed in the larger context of Marxist criticism, which emphasizes the  relevance of literature and other cultural products to economic, political and social struggles for justice and equality.

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