Category Archives: Horror

In Which I Notice a Subgenre

When I wrote my post on Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible I’d intended to make an observation that would have taken the post on too long a detour. The Invincible belongs to a branch of science fiction I’ve never seen acknowledged as its own subgenre. (Although it wouldn’t surprise me if someone had already defined it somewhere.[1] I don’t have that many original ideas.) It’s a blend of space opera and horror and for the purposes of these notes–this post is too much a working-out-of-ideas to call it an essay–I’ll call it Spaceship Gothic.

I use the word “gothic” advisedly. Spaceship Gothic isn’t just any horror/science fiction mashup, but a kind with characteristics analogous to Gothic novels’ obsession with architecture and air of doomful cursedness:

  1. A small group of people confined to a spaceship, space station, or enclosed, uninhabited planetary environment.
  2. A dangerous and incomprehensible discovery. A natural phenomenon, transcendent force, or alien life form we can’t understand or communicate with.

Combine #1 with #2, assume nothing good will come of it, and you’ve got Spaceship Gothic. The best-known example is the movie Alien; I’d also cite Forbidden Planet, The Black Hole, and Event Horizon.[2] Novels include Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible and Solaris, James Smythe’s The Explorer, Peter Watts’s Blindsight, and Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Dry Salvages. On television we have any number of Doctor Who stories and the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Q Who” (though I’d argue that later Borg episodes don’t qualify, as the Borg became more communicative and more comprehensible).

The Spaceship of Otranto

The Gothic novel is a genre centered on environment. The hallmark of a Gothic, the thing it absolutely has to have to be Gothic, is a mansion or a castle, isolated and sparsely populated. It’s a genre named after architecture.

The horror genre borrows from the Gothic novel the tendency to strand characters in enclosed locations. Get everyone into an abandoned hospital, a cabin in the woods, or an old dark house. Isolate them with a freak storm, bleak moorlands, a confusing forest, even just a flat tire miles from anywhere. Then you pick them off one by one.

Spaceship Gothic takes this to its logical conclusion. A Gothic needs a house; Spaceship Gothic needs a spaceship. A spaceship is the ultimate closed environment. You might think your Old Dark House is in the middle of nowhere but most of the time a spaceship is surrounded by literally nothing. From the time it leaves its home planet until it reaches its destination, a ship is its crew’s entire world.

Some Spaceship Gothic stories, like Planet of the Vampires or Prometheus, take their crew to a planet. If so, it’s uninhabited aside from an alien ruin, archaeological site, crashed ship, or sparsely crewed or abandoned base. Most space opera treats planets as small spaces, metaphorical islands.[3] Whatever the crew finds planetside, it feels paradoxically claustrophobic: yeah, technically the crew has an entire planet to roam, but where would they go?

Other spaceships are the same deal: abandoned, wrecked, drifting. Few or no survivors. Except for a Curse.

The Curse

Like the heroes of happier space operas, the ones with their eyes peeled for New Worlds and New Civilizations, Spaceship Gothic crews are explorers and solvers of mysteries. They just have less fun solving them. The crew of the Nostromo is reluctantly diverted to an alien crash site. Prometheus is about an archaeological dig. Stanislaw Lem’s novels star scientists encountering unusual life forms on alien planets. The crews in Event Horizon and The Black Hole discover what happened to earlier, vanished space missions.

All of which is standard for space opera. As I implied, you could probably find a Star Trek episode with the same setup as any Spaceship Gothic story. The difference is in where the stories end up. Space opera is optimistic. The characters find a new life form, a strange gadget, a new scientific phenomenon, or a tricky engineering problem and it’s awesome, in the old sense of “inspiring awe” as well as the new. It’s a mystery to solve. Not all space opera characters succeed, but they could. Theoretically. We can talk to the aliens, we can figure out how the MacGuffin works. The universe is understandable! Human potential is limitless! Spaceship Gothic is what happens when it’s not.

In a Spaceship Gothic story the characters set out to solve a mystery but discover a curse. It’s bigger than whatever they thought they were looking for, if they were looking for anything specific at all. It’s transcendent, inherently incomprehensible. Something beyond. The characters throw themselves against it, and break.

If the Curse is an alien it won’t communicate or cooperate. It might be hostile, like the Borg, the eponymous Alien, or any number of Doctor Who villains, but it could be indifferent, or even trying to help. Solaris is, as far as we can tell, benign, but that doesn’t stop it from confusing and disturbing everyone who visits.

Often the Curse isn’t even a life form, just a force like the time warp from James Smythe’s The Explorer, or an impossibly advanced artifact like the Krell machinery in Forbidden Planet.

The Curse doesn’t need to hurt anyone itself. Spaceship Gothic being horror, it sometimes leaves most of the cast dead, perhaps with one or two escaping, Ishmael-like, to tell the story. (This is much more common in Spaceship Gothic movies, which tend towards the exploitative.) But the Curse doesn’t necessarily kill them directly. It’s often just a catalyst, the actual villain being some initially-sympathetic character whose character flaws have turned operatic. If there even is a villain. Sometimes the crew just can’t deal with this incomprehensible thing they found and self-destruct like the cast of a Coen Brothers movie.

So What is this Genre Doing?

I nominated two of Stanislaw Lem’s novels, The Invincible and Solaris, as Spaceship Gothics. I’d also add Fiasco and Eden, and maybe the novel that inspired the movie First Spaceship on Venus, though I’ve never read that one (I’m not sure it’s ever even been translated). Lem was interested in randomness, and how people look for order in randomness. He was also interested in the limits of human knowledge, and how people cope when they discover the answers to some questions (what’s Solaris up to? What’s happening on planet Eden?) are beyond their reach. Those themes, and Lem’s specifically pessimistic take on them, led him to write Spaceship Gothics.

Spaceship Gothic is a genre of incomprehensible forces that roll into people’s lives and leave them reeling. Remember how I mentioned the way planets in space opera work like islands? In SF, subjects and settings often stand in metaphorically for things on different scales. When SF talks about the universe it’s often, on another level, dealing with the world, or just our little part of it. Like the characters in SF stories, we’re surrounded by complex forces and systems–economic, legal, physical, ecological. They run our world. In a human lifetime we can only comprehend a fraction of what there is to know about them. But that doesn’t stop them from affecting our lives. No amount of Heinleinian competence can guarantee we won’t get knocked down by a natural disaster, a recession, a chronic disease, or the side effects of climate change.

(To a certain extent, this could be not only a working-out of anxieties, but also a corrective to traditional space opera, which, at its worst, can have a colonialist streak–its admiration for humanity’s potential has sometimes led to the assumption that space opera heroes have the right to control anything they find.)

The good news is that the universe is vast and there is an infinite amount to learn. This is also the bad news.

Traditional space opera looks into infinity and feels a sense of wonder. Spaceship Gothic is what you get when space opera looks into infinity, feels anxious and creeped out, and decides to hide under some blankets until it goes away.


  1. TV Tropes has a page for “Raygun Gothic,” but they’re talking about something completely different and using the word “gothic” with no reference to what it actually means, the same way geek culture uses the word “punk.”  ↩

  2. For movies aimed at such different audiences, The Black Hole and Event Horizon have weirdly similar gimmicks. How many stories are there where a Spaceship crew find a lost ship near a black hole that turns out to be a gateway to hell?  ↩

  3. A lot of Star Trek and Doctor Who becomes easier to understand when you realize they’re distant cousins to the middle part of The Odyssey; it explains, for instance, why most planets seem to have one major city and why most aliens have a single culture.  ↩

My Best of 2010, Part Three

N. K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms

When I review books I tend to write about theme a lot. (I hope I’m less simpleminded and reductive about it than your average high school English teacher.) N. K. Jemisin’s books have plenty of interpretive possibilities–among others, there are ideas here about power, and how it interacts with religion, and how cultures use their gods even as they think of themselves as following or living under those gods–but I must confess that when I read these what I most appreciated was their narrative drive.

I read these books at times when I was frustrated with stories padded with meaningless action, narrative cul-de-sacs, and excess exposition. (Too many recent books, and way too many movies, seem to think that unless they overemphasize and overexplain everything their audiences won’t Get It.) Attention spans are shrinking, but so many novels and films feel weirdly long, harder to sit through than many genuinely longer older works. So it’s a relief to come across novels like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms which earn their length. These books plunge straight into their plots, deliver worldbuilding and backstory as they go, and waste no time.

These are both “outsider caught in a world of complicated schemes and political maneuvers” books, and both sidestep one of the usual problems with this plot type: it often discourages active protagonists. It’s easy for this kind of book to resemble a stereotypical mediocre hard-boiled detective story whose narrator bounces from thug to thug, gets exposited at, and ends every scene by falling unconscious from a blow to the head. I was glad these books–The Broken Kingdoms in particular–starred narrators who had goals and were constantly making plans.

I also loved that these were two more entries in an my favorite fantasy-genre trend: series whose individual volumes are complete novels, not chunks of a 3000-page epic narrative. (In my cynical moods I suspect the epic-writers have no faith that their audience will come back unless they’re left hanging. In my case, they’re the ones I’m most likely to drop, partly because by the time I’ve picked up volume two I’ve usually forgotten the plot of volume one.)

Caitlin R. Kiernan, The Red Tree

I started writing a couple of paragraphs about this, then realized the paragraphs were threatening to turn into a short essay, as much about the horror genre as about this book. I hope to finish that essay and post it; in the meantime, I’ll just say I liked the book.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future

I wrote about this around the time I read it.

Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

This is another book I’ve already written about.

China Miéville, Kraken

As with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I liked Kraken for the force of its story. It’s probably not China Miéville’s best novel, but he seems to have had fun writing it. The prose reads like it’s running, like it’s tripping over itself to get the ideas out–and there are a lot of ideas here: the book starts with the impossible theft of a giant squid and from there sprawls out in all directions. The pages ooze enthusiasm and some of that enthusiasm transferred to me at a moment when I was having a hard time feeling enthusiastic about anything at all.

Kraken is Miéville’s stab at the “hidden magical subculture existing in the margins of a modern city” genre. (I’m trying hard not to call it “urban fantasy,” because these days that term means at least two different things.) What distinguishes Kraken, besides Miéville’s abundant imagination, is its attitude towards magic. Sometimes these “the real world, but with magic!” stories set up a magic-vs.-science rivalry, in which “science” (or “technology”) is a mysterious force opposed to magic. Which annoys me. First, because it misrepresents what science actually is–it’s a process, not a hegemonic culture, philosophy of life, or force of nature. Second, because these stories always push us to root for magic–which is, wow, so creative and dreamy–and against science, which is cramped and closed-minded and inhuman, apparently. Anyone whose sense of wonder has ever been tripped by witty, enthusiastic science writing knows this is not an honest argument. Fantasy isn’t real, but it’s about reality, and when a story touches something real and isn’t honest about it, in a poetic or metaphorical sense, it grates.

So it’s wonderful that Kraken doesn’t prescribe any particular attitude towards magic. Maybe you’re awestruck, but it’s just as okay to think, as Kraken’s protagonist Billy does while pondering the Law of Sympathy, it’s “trite” that “a thing has power, moronically enough, because it’s a bit like something else.” Billy works in a natural history museum. He’s a tour guide, not a scientist, but he sees the world with a scientist’s eyes. Kraken,unusually for an urban fantasy, suggests that the rational, curious, investigative approach of a scientist might be as valid a way to understand a fantasy universe as it is to understand the real world.

The Comics that Scare Me

Mention horror comics and most comics fans picture something like this:

A panel from Four Color Fear.

(That’s from the recent anthology Four Color Fear. Which I will also post about at some point, although in that case the horrific bits aren’t what I intend to write about.)

As that panel suggests, most comics that get classified as “horror” aren’t so much scary as campy. Some people don’t think comics can be viscerally scary at all, and they have a point, but there’s a caveat. As Richard Cook writes in the essay I just linked to:

To the extent that “scary” refers to the visceral, immediate fears that horror movies deliver so effortlessly, the answer is yes. But if “scary” also encompasses the deeply-rooted fears and common anxieties of the readers, then perhaps there is some hope for horror comics.

A recent post at the blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics about scary moments–scary in the “anxious” sense–which snuck into ordinary superhero comics got me thinking about what comics, if any, give me the sense of creeping unease I get from good weird fiction.1 And the first answer that came was Jim Woodring’s Frank. Which might sound a little weird on first blush to anybody only vaguely familiar with Frank, because Frank looks like this:

The cover of Frank number one.

Frank’s world–dubbed the “Unifactor”–is not immediately alarming (though it gets more so the closer you look). But it unsettles me–something the merely queasy EC tradition of O.-Henry-with-gore horror comics can’t pull off. To explain why Frank is so much more powerful than Tales from the Crypt (and why I suspect the unsettling core of this work might whisper too quietly, or in too foreign a tongue, for some readers to hear) I’ll first have to describe the kind of thing Woodring does.

One story that particularly creeped me out was “Frank in the Ruse Garden.” This is the story that finishes the first Frank collection published by Fantagraphics in 1994; I’m pretty sure it also appears in the big Frank hardcover and the recent Portable Frank. Like all the Frank stories, it’s told without dialogue, and it goes like this:

Portable Frank Cover Art

A leaflet in Frank’s mailbox informs him that he’s won a dream vacation. Unbeknownst to Frank it was put there Manhog, the Unifactor’s resident ne’er-do-well. Which explains why, after a long drive into a stony and desolate landscape, Frank finds a deserted cabin jutting half over a crevasse. The accommodations are ramshackle, the views aren’t verdant so much as vertiginous, and the only entertainment option is the Rev. J. Bufo’s fine book, The Case Against Art. Frank beds down and makes the best of things.

He wakes in the night to pounding and clattering. A swarm of animate hammers are whacking at the porch. Frank chases them off. They come back. Frank stuffs them into a pillowcase and tosses them into the canyon. He’s just chasing down one more that had a go at his car when he trips over a shape which rises out of the dirt to reveal a Great. Big. Momma. Hammer.

Uh-oh.

A chase scene! Lots of really scary-looking pounding from the big hammer! The hammer backs Frank up to the cliff… and overbalances, plummeting to the ravine floor like Wile E. Coyote.

As that last reference suggests, this is, in outline, all very Warner Brothers. Maybe like one of those slightly alarming Robert Clampett cartoons.2 But that’s not what I think of when I read the actual comic. “Frank in the Ruse Garden,” like all the Frank stories, like most of Jim Woodring’s work, is one hundred percent unadulterated Uncanny. Like Jim Woodring saw fever dreams we’d forgotten ages ago, and put them down on paper to remind us.

Woodring’s deep blacks and strong pen strokes have the look of and 18th-century woodcut from a book of forgotten lore. It feels like there’s more information there, revelations for readers who look hard enough and understand the context. And the night scenes of “Frank in the Ruse Garden” have a feeling of darkness and silence and aloneness that’s hard to capture in comics; I know what night feels like at Frank’s cabin, what the nothing-but-clattering sounds like. It feels real enough that, as abstract as Frank appears, I forget he’s a… well, whatever he is. He’s more or less a person.

But mostly what makes “Frank in the Ruse Garden” very much not a Porky Pig adventure is what happens after the big hammer’s last plunge. Frank sits on the edge of the ravine and stares down. In the ravine is the pillowcase, now still, and the great hammer, broken in two, its expressionless eye completely dead. Frank has screwed up. Something unusual and tremendous has gone out of the world. No matter the provocation, Frank should never have allowed the situation to come to this.

This is one of the core conflicts driving the Frank stories. The Unifactor is an animistic world of spirits and strange forces. Time and again, Frank comes in contact with numinous wonders, and fail to rise to the occasion. Frank comes upon a field of floating souls, and grabs one to use as a flying horse. Frank dives into a well ringed with eyes, and emerges mutated and warped. Frank wanders into the House of the Dead wearing a party hat, and it’s, like, awkward.

Manhog, too, tends to bite off more than he can even get his teeth around. He doesn’t just fail to rise to the occasion–he doesn’t realize there’s an occasion to rise to. Frank wanders down the wrong path because he’s looking for something indefinable, hungry for meaning; Manhog is just hungry. Usually Manhog ends up in worse shape than Frank.

The difference is that Frank is open to whatever experience has to teach him. Manhog never learns; he believes he knows everything he needs to, so his surprises are usually nasty ones. Frank knows the world is bigger than he is, it’s full of things he doesn’t understand, and he actively tries to learn to understand them. He may not do the right thing but in the end he at least learns what the right thing is, even if it’s sometimes too late.

Here’s why I find the Frank stories creepy as well as uncanny, and why “Frank in the Ruse Garden” scared me more than anything from the Vault of Horror, and why it might not scare someone else at all. Lurking under the surface of Frank are philosophical horrors, quietly unsettling ideas: “Good” is not a switch you flip. Rising above Manhog’s level is not a one-time effort, it’s an active, constant process, something you get up every morning and do. For all his good intentions, with the best will in the world, sometimes Frank is still the kind of person who can throw a pillowcase of baby hammers off a cliff. And Frank, as strange as he looks, is us.


  1. Well, relatively recent. Check the date and compare it to this post, and you’ll see just how long it takes me to write a thing these days. ↩

  2. I’m grateful I didn’t see “The Great Piggy Bank Robbery” until I was an adult; as a child I’d have had nightmares for weeks. As it was, I was more than sufficiently freaked out by Tex Avery’s “The Legend of Rockabye Point.” ↩

M. R. James, “Wailing Well”

Any classic ghost story anthology worth the tree-pulping will have something by M. R. James. Usually it’s “Casting the Runes,” “Count Magnus,” or “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” It’s almost never “Wailing Well.” “Wailing Well” is not one of M. R. James’s all-time best stories. Nevertheless, it has its good points.

The Premise

A troop of Boy Scouts are camping in the countryside. Their scout leaders warn them not to enter the area marked off on their map by a red line. This works as well as you would expect.

Where to Find It

“Wailing Well,” written in 1927, wasn’t included in James’s four original collections but is available in the Penguin Classics volume The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Stories. There’s also an etext of this story at Gaslight so you might as well go read it before continuing.

Analysis (With Spoilers)

“Wailing Well” doesn’t begin like a horror story and continues looking unlike a horror story for what feels like a long time (though actually only a few paragraphs). Continue reading M. R. James, “Wailing Well”

The Uninvited Face

Cover Art

Casting around for ideas to get myself blogging again, I thought I might bow to October’s zeitgeist and devote the month to the horror genre–or at least to the part of the genre I like: the part that’s uncanny, not gruesome, and sometimes a little old-timey. I plan to cover ten underappreciated stories or movies. (Or more, if I can swing it. I briefly thought of going for 31, but in my current state of distraction that’s just a little overambitious.) Most will probably not be as long as this essay.

I’ll start with “The Uninvited Face,” a short story by Michael Asquith, because, damn, this one really is obscure. I had no idea how obscure until I tried researching it: as far as I can tell (from, admittedly, just Google and Google Books) Michael Asquith never wrote anything but “The Uninvited Face,” and “The Uninvited Face” never appeared anywhere after it first saw print in The Third Ghost Book edited by Lady Cynthia Asquith (1955). And what with the double Asquith, I’m guessing that was nepotism.

Despite that, it’s very good. (And not the only obscure but stunning one-off story in this volume. Marghanita Laski had a long writing career, but “The Tower”–briefly reviewed in The Third Ghost Book’s entry in Stephen Jones and Kim Newman’s Horror: Another 100 Best Books–is apparently her only ghost story.)

To save time, I’ll use a set format for these reviews–first the premise, then where to find the story, then some analysis.

The Premise

Dr. Graham, an elderly physician, recounts the story of Julian Ferris, a government scientist plagued by the knowledge that, in the Cold War 1950s, his work will be turned to no good end… and by the apparition of a friendly, but not quite human, face, which seems to be offering something Julian begins to think he should accept.

Where to Find It

As stated above, you’ll pretty much have to find a copy of Lady Cynthia Asquith’s Third Ghost Book.

Analysis (With Spoilers)

This might be the only story ever published by Michael Asquith, but this can’t be the only thing he ever wrote; the writing is too assured. If there’s a flaw, it’s that Asquith sometimes summarizes things that might have been played out in dialogue–Julian’s first description of the Face, for instance. Asquith’s style reads smoothly and he knows when and how to change it: he shifts to a fast-moving, almost stream-of-consciousness present tense for the chaotic climax.

One of the few slips in tone comes when Dr. Graham tells us Julian’s father, a painter, was “a portrayer, that is, if I may speak bluntly, of the diseased, the blasphemous and the obscene.” That’s right: Mr. Ferris was (gasp) a surrealist. I bet he also listened to jazz music and hung out with beatniks! It’s not clear just how reliable a narrator Dr. Graham was intended to be. On an Occam’s-razor basis, I’d assume “perfectly.” But Dr. Graham’s inadvertently hilarious get-off-my-lawn moments affect how much I want to trust him, which affects how I read the story. More on this later. Continue reading The Uninvited Face

Widdershins, Black Spirits and White

Widdershins by Oliver Onions and Black Spirits and White by Ralph Adams Cram are collections of ghost stories available from Project Gutenberg.


Oliver Onions’s most famous story is “The Beckoning Fair One.” Oliver Onions’s only famous story is “The Beckoning Fair One.” Now that I’ve read Widdershins I think I know why. All writers have wells they go back to but in Widdershins Onions found one he couldn’t leave alone. He gives us “The Beckoning Fair One,” and then every second story is “The Beckoning Fair One” again, only less good.

Onions’s favorite subjects are writers and artists. He likes stories about artists driven to madness by dubious muses. “The Beckoning Fair One” is of course the best of these. The narrator of “Benlian” falls under the spell of a sculptor who is literally putting himself into the creation of an inept statue. The most fearsome side effect of Benlian’s domination is the narrator’s loss of his sense of aesthetics: the longer Benlian controls him, the better the crappy statue looks. In “Io,” to vary things a little, Onions writes about a young non-artist woman driven to madness by the Greek Gods. Her brother seems to have wandered in from the Drones Club. It reads like P. G. Wodehouse wrote a story confusing Keats’s “Endymion” with the Necronomicon.

Onions keeps returning to conflicts between popularity and greatness, which in his mind are incompatible. Genius is abrasive. Artists create popular crap, or see their good work go unrewarded. In “The Beckoning Fair One,” Oleron’s frustration with the latter situation may make him particularly vulnerable to the ghost. In “Hic Jacet” an Arthur Conan Doylishly self-loathing detective novelist struggles with the spirit of a deceased avant-garde colleague, and loses. I wonder whether Onions had nightmares about waking up to find his name in the bestseller list?


Ralph Adams Cram wrote exactly six ghost stories, collected in Black Spirits and White. They range in quality from treacly to terrifying. “Sister Maddalena” is the romantic treacle. “No. 252 Rue M. le Prince” and “The Dead Valley” are classics, and “In Kropfsberg Keep” and “The White Villa” are decent. Four out of six isn’t a bad record.

Cram was an architect and looks at everything with an architect’s eye. In one story the narrator solves a mystery by deducing, with his architectural knowledge, that a window should exist in a wall where there is none. Most of Cram’s stories are named after their settings, almost all of which are buildings–“No. 252 Rue M. le Prince,” “The White Villa.” “The Dead Valley” is set in the wilderness, but it’s still about a vividly detailed place. Every one is meticulously imagined–just the decor of No. 252 is enough to keep you up at night.

The people who inhabit these places are sketches. The real central characters are buildings. What’s important to Cram isn’t so much what’s haunting these places–we never learn exactly what’s going on at No. 252, or in the Dead Valley–as the places themselves.