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Monday, October 15, 2018

31 Days of Horror: Day 15 Why I Love [Literary] Horror by Erik T. Johnson

One of the best things about attending any conference is making new friends, and the very first time I went to StokerCon back in 2017, when I barely knew anyone, I met Erik T. Johnson, and boy am I glad I did. He is one of the most interesting and genuine people I met through StokerCon. He is kind, fun, smart, and a great writer. Plus, he has introduced me to a few other great people since then. 

Who is Erik T. Johnson? Well he is someone you need to know about. First, here is his bio:
Erik T. Johnson has appeared in numerous periodicals and award-winning anthologies, including the #1 Amazon bestseller, I Can Taste the Blood . Erik’s short fiction collection, Yes Trespassing, was called “electric” by Josh Malerman, international best-selling author of Bird Box and Unbury Carol; THIS IS HORROR UK wrote: "One of the best, most beautifully written collections of this or any other year. Erik T. Johnson is writing at a level that all authors, new and veteran alike, should aspire to. Because what Johnson has achieved with Yes Trespassing is nothing less than absolute greatness." Visit Erik at for frequent updates on his work and apperances, and to follow him on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. 

Speaking of Josh Malerman, one of the reasons you need to know about Erik now, is because soon you will know about him anyway, so why not get ahead of the game. Erik and Josh are going to be at StokerCon Librarians Day 2019 to talk about a collaboration they are doing right now. Details on how you can be there to see them live here.

The other reason I asked Erik to participate in my "Why I Love Horror" series is because Erik writes and ponders literary horror. Many of you, my library worker readers, don't always think about horror as a literary genre, but in the hands of writers like Johnson, it truly is. Not only is he an author you need to know about on his own merit, but also, in his post today, you will learn much about the genre, it's history, and its appeal to all types of readers, especially the most literary of the bunch.

He also gives you a perfect list of literary horror authors toward the end of his post.

Finally, I love how this essay accurately captures Erik'c personality. It made me smile to read it, happy I will see him in May.

Thank you to Erik and here is his post.


The Writers & Readers of Saturn: Erik T. Johnson on Literary Horror
“Oh, life! 'tis in an hour like this, with soul beat down and held to knowledge,— as wild, untutored things are forced to feed—Oh, life! 'tis now that I do feel the latent horror in thee!”
          —Herman Melville, Moby Dick: or, the White Whale
How Ya Doing?
How ya doing? I’m Erik T. Johnson. If you like this post, you can learn almost everything about me and my work in this extensive interview at Kendall Reviews.
I worship 26 deities from the pantheon called Alphabet. Each day and night, without fail, I do my best to make offerings worthy of their might and magic. That includes this post about why I write literary horror, and the reasons people read it. 
But first, some prefatory explorations into horror as epistemology and the curious thrall of one god not in my pantheon of 26—because he rules the gatherings of all deities, pantheon be damned.  
Sure it sounds strange, but, well, see, I am strange and refuse to be anyone but me. I left talking B.S. behind at my last full-time job.   
Literary Horror as Numinous Knowledge

Our modern English word horror was both born from, and remains twin to, the Latin word horror. The Romans folded several meanings into this word, including “dread” and “religious awe.”
That the present-day and ancient versions of this term point to the same “dread” is obvious. But literary horror fiction’s ability to engender insight into the numinous is generally overlooked (I distinguish “literary” from “genre” horror fiction by the former’s ability to initiate one into unique knowledge through the rites of reading and writing). 
Awe is a special kind of knowledge—terrible, overpowering, too much. A result of experiencing events that transgress a person’s preconceived limits of reality. Awe is a stunned knowledge—a knowing that’s had its head smashed with a giant’s fist, leaving a functional but irrevocably cratered brain in its unforgettable wake. Frequently it’s expressed as a mute scream in the face of actualities fathomable in only the most liminal of senses. I’m thinking of the countless manifestations of evil (an elusive word, slippery as an unctuous tentacle), the amoral or cosmic horrific, and that omnipresent, perilous uncertainty that permeates all life. 
Sure, it can be joyful. But as Rilke writes in The Duino Elegies:
 “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terrorwhich we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so,because it serenely disdains to destroy us.Every angel is terrible.”
Good literary horror fiction uses the enigmatic nature of evil against itself. It transmutes this mysterious darkness into an entertaining, thoughtful, and goosefleshy illusion, giving it stability and resolution via skillfully executed narrative (Served straight up, truth can taste a bit like Socrates’ hemlock).
 It also presents knowledge most would rather ignore. It reveals an abyss. Yet many of us are irresistibly pulled toward the awe of its shuddering spirit and unpleasant revelations. We delve as deeply as possible into the terrifying pages. But as I’ll explain, horror’s deep-see diving doesn’t always end in drowning, but the sort of illumination that delights the sun-basking beachgoer.   
The God of Horrible Knowledge

One of Goya’s most horrific paintings: Saturn Devouring His Son. Damn but this is Night of the Living DeadGodzilla, and Repulsion all-in-one—psychological and physical violence and collapse; cannibalism, decerebration, gigantism, rabid hunger, senility, and insanity—seen in the exaggerated, glazed eyes and disheveled aura of Saturn. Even I find it hard to look at for too long. The sexual connotations of the two naked figures are a brass band of distress. Yet there’s no denying it’s an amazing work of art—and horror. 
This terrible, awe-inspiring image was inspired by a tale related in Hesiod’s Theogony (I paraphrase):  
Kronos (ancient Greek for Saturn) was King of All. His wife Rhea was to bear him five gods for children. But before their births, Earth and starry Heaven let Kronos know (on the QT), that he was destined to be tossed from his throne by his own son-to-be, Zeus. So when it was time for Rhea to give birth, he got down between her thighs and devoured each child as they emerged from her vagina, one after the other.  
 In The Iliad, Homer describes Saturn as a chthonic god, driven “underneath the earth and barren water.”(Book 14, lines 202-204 in Richard Lattimore’s translation). In Saturn and Melancholy, R. Kilbansky, E. Panofsky, and F. Saxl wrote that he was “the devourer of children, eater of raw flesh, the consumer of all, who [. . .] exacted human sacrifice; [. . .] he castrated his father Uranus with [. . .] a sickle.” 
But there was more to Saturn than malfeasance and destruction. Although those aspects weren’t forgotten, in Hellenic times Saturn was simultaneously associated with initiation into profound mysteries and the attainment of knowledge far beyond the ken of your average slob. Marcus Manilius, in his Astronomica, held that since the seventh planet faced the sun but was positioned at the other end of Earth’s axis, people influenced by Saturn possessed deeper knowledge because they could see the world illuminated by the sun and as its other face, hidden to the majority (just like skilled literary horror writers and readers). 
This identification of Saturn with extraordinary insight into reality is emphasized by Dante in his Paradiso, where the poet locates the representatives of the contemplative life in the Seventh Heaven—the Sphere of Saturn (Canto 21). 
From my point of view, a myth/belief-system regarding Saturn developed over thousands of years into a firmly established tradition:
That of horror as signifier for experiences of extremely dark events, during which those bold enough to keep their eyes open and wits about them are initiated into a state of uncommonly deep knowledge of what we call “reality.”
This tradition continues today in the form of literary horror fiction.   
I Write Literary Horror
I was long ago initiated into Saturn’s brutal mysteries and will go nanners if I can’t express my knowledge, transmute it into art, and share it with those who get it. 
I need to challenge myself to end a story of suffering without destroying hope.
Nothing is more honest than the stop of a beating heart.
Flight from danger resembles chasing too much for my comfort; prey mirroring the movement of the hunter racing behind it.
I want to entertain you and make you think, Hey, I never looked at that in that way before.
I need to challenge myself to end a story of suffering without destroying hope.
I’m too aware that my body is the scene of my time, the one moving increasingly slow and unstable as the other runs far from my grasp, faster and faster. 
I suspect that a more accurate term for my life is my penultimate death. 
I don’t want to die feeling guilty for doing nothing good with what I’ve lived and learned. 
I fear:
That the body is the puppet to a ghost, and all speech ventriloquism performed for reasons other than communication. 
Growing up is a euphemism for shutting down.
And that I’ve orphaned my child to impending adulthood. 
Saturn’s Readers 
Readers who crave literary horror are not your average aficionados of fiction—or poetry (Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, anyone?). Like literary horror writers, they seek to know the truth, the whole truth, and more than the truth—the truth of the truth, even if that means finding that there’s no such thing. Their reading excursions take them through depths that transgress the everyday to such an extent that they ascend. Their love of reading literary horror lets them enjoy the initiation into profound knowledge of broken, unpredictable, vicious realities—and feel good about it. Pretty remarkable “genre” if you ask me. 
Not all literary horror stories and novels need end in despair. Some of the best such fictions take you through a harrowing journey, but close with a sense that things will be all right—despite a heavy dose of almost painful poignance. To quote the late, great, Lou Reed, you can “pass through the fire to the light.”
Where to start? So many choices! 
Some of my favorites: 
Angela Carter (The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann); Josh Malerman (Unbury Carol); Michael Bailey (Palindrome Hannah); John F.D. Taff (The End in All Beginnings); J. Daniel Stone (Blood Kiss); Shirley Jackson (We Have Always Lived in the Castle); Brian Kirk (We are Monsters); Michael Rowe (Wild Fell); Victor LaValle (The Changeling); Autumn Christian (Crooked God Machine). 
See Ya!
Horror’s knowledge penetrates the falsity of truth itself—journeys from the Sun to Saturn and back—illuminates even as it inks. For those brave enough, it does so with irresistible tension and release. 
“Release from what?” you might ask.
Just look around and behind you . . . Glance at the headlines. Better still, don’t. 
Pick up one of my recommendations instead. 
And enjoy!

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