Creativity and Darkness: Genius and Inspiration In Horror Fiction
Creativity is a complex thing, and horror often explores the darkness it can engender in the human soul. The very act of generating a book or film or TV show can itself be regarded as horrorful.
There has long been a sense among writers and other creative individuals that inspiration is a mystery, something that cannot wholly be explained. Its fruits should simply be accepted with gratitude and enjoyed.
This was certainly the view of poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, who were co-founders of the Romantic Movement. However, this is no doubt at times a foil for the more realistic assertion that genius stems from hard work via consistent and prolonged effort, or as the inventor Thomas Edison put it 'Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration'.
Romantic poets often affected an effortless aura of creative endeavour simply coming to them, either as a dream or emerging right out of nowhere or erupting via an opium-fuelled haze. Many other writers since have spoken of being a conduit for the voices of spirits long past or other dark forces that 'tell them what to write'.
With a mysterious process that no one seems likely to elucidate with certainty any time soon, it is hardly surprising that horror has leapt upon creativity as a subject matter.
In some cases, the narrative focuses on the writer, and other times it lingers long on the obsessive nature of the collector of literary works. Both are capable of inducing a sort of madness in the sufferer that provides fertile territory for horror writers.
Horror narratives often present themselves as witness statements or factual accounts, and this is particularly true of the works of HP Lovecraft. In several of his short stories, he creates a fictional narrator who is the author of a tale, and this narrator then expounds on the nature of their creative process. In short, he was quite postmodern at a time when most writers were still grappling with what it meant to be modern.
In 'The Very Old Folk', HP Lovecraft's narrator writes to an old friend that his reading of the Aeneid combined with thinking about witchcraft rites up on the hills on Halloween to cause him to dream 'a Roman dream of such supernal clearness and vividness, and such titanic adumbrations of hidden horror, that I verily believe I shall some day employ it in fiction'. Real life inspires the dream, which then in turn inspires the fiction. This interesting comment asserts both the rationality of creativity (something HP Lovecraft is very fond of with his insistence of chains of evidence and facts) and its mysterious, dreamlike quality.
In a similar vein, 'The Unnamable' features the narrator, who like most of Lovecraft's storytellers is emotionally and psychologically sensitive, sitting on a tomb with his friend late in the afternoon one autumn day in Arkham. Joel Manton, the friend, is pedestrian in his rationality and shares 'New England's self-satisfied deafness to the delicate overtones of life'.
Given what lives in the more isolated parts of New England in HP Lovecraft's stories, that makes Joel Manton fortunate indeed! He is the ultimate realist: 'It was his view that only our normal, objective experiences possess any aesthetic significance, and that it is the province of the artist not so much to rouse strong emotion by action, ecstasy, and astonishment, as to maintain a placid interest and appreciation by accurate, detailed transcripts of everyday affairs'.
The story develops out of the narrator's counter-assertion that some things are so odd and mysterious, so unclear in their origin and nature, that they are 'unnamable'. Any frequent reader of HP Lovecraft has no trouble agreeing with the narrator, having witnessed countless examples of eldritch horrors of uncertain provenance causing psychological melt down in other stories.
The narrator and Manton represent the two sides of HP Lovecraft's creative personality. On the one hand, as an author he is scrupulous in providing witness-style evidence and chains of facts to produce a narrative. On the other, what his narrators describe frequently is unnamable. The tension is resolved at the end of the story when Manton does encounter an unnamable being and rushes home to tell the narrator about it.
Both aspects of creativity remain an integral part of HP Lovecraft's work: the rationality of laying out evidence to prove the existence of a horror that belies description.
Cultural associations between the act of creativity and mental illness are of longstanding, and given horror's penchant for the asylum it is unsurprising that large numbers of horror stories connect the two. HP Lovecraft's 'History of the Necronomicon' describes how the book was composed by 'the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred'. Owning the book, which is banned and most copies of which were destroyed, generates problems aplenty and 'Reading leads to terrible consequences'.
The Necronomicon features in many of HP Lovecraft's tales, and the idea of a book that is 'gifted' to the writer by an unspeakable deity is a feature not just of Lovecraft but also of Ramsey Campbell's Great Old Ones Mythos (the Revelations of Gla'aki). If such fictional writers of books within books weren't insane before they received 'the word' they most certainly are by the end.
It isn't just in Lovecraftian fiction that creativity is linked to insanity. In 'Revelations in Black' by Carl Jacobi (a vampire story), the narrator discovers a deceptively lovely book in a dreary and forlorn antiques shop. It is covered in black velvet and each corner is protected by a triangle of ivory. However, 'A thousand times I have wished my eyes had never rested on that cover in black. What writhings of the soul, what terrors, what unrest, what madness would have been spared me!'
I love this passage: it's one that HP Lovecraft could easily have written. Here both writer (the shop owner's brother Alessandro Larla) and the subsequent reader of it (the narrator) are touched to madness by the book. It tells a story entitled 'Five Unicorns and A Pearl', and even reading just a few words of it in the shop causes a depression to fall upon the narrator.
It is in fact a cry for help because the 'pearl' with which Larla has fallen in love is a vampire, and subsequent volumes of his work chronicle his descent into madness until he is writing the book in what the narrator believes to be his own blood. Contact with the evil vampire with whom he has fallen in love has shattered his mind, and he writes a book to warn others and in the process provides the narrator with the information needed to track down and then drive a stake through Pearl's heart as she lies sleeping in a crypt.
If writing a book and reading it are both capable of generating madness in horror fiction, there is also the physical effect on someone who plagiarises the work of another. In IB Singer's tale 'The Plagiarist', Rabbi Kasriel Dan has naively shared his notes with a neighbour Shabsai Getsel, who then steals them and publishes them in a book to great acclaim and snatches the post of assistant rabbi earmarked for Dan's own son.
Dan struggles heroically with the temptation to hate or denounce the plagiarist, and like a good man of God partly wins the struggle, only to then curse the man and watch him die shortly afterwards. He is then subsumed with guilt at having done this dark deed.
Collecting books is also capable of causing insanity and dark obsession, often linked to the sort of mystical, dangerous book like the Necronomicon or the Revelations of Gla'aki. In Cold Print by Ramsey Campbell, Sam Strutt goes in search of hard-core sadistic pornography and is led to a bookshop down a side street by a tramp. He returns the next day to buy more, only to be trapped there by the owner and shown a copy of the Revelations of Gla'aki. He'll never leave: trapped in the back, being consumed by the minions of Gla'aki after the shopkeeper morphs into a terrifying 'towering naked figure'.
Horror is well placed to explore creativity, and the darkness of genius, because it is a profoundly postmodern form of literature. By placing a book centre stage, a horror tale yields a self-reflexive narrative. The physical book becomes the story, just as in 'Revelations in Black' where Larla's book acts as a guide to the narrator to tell him who he has to kill and how.
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If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my review of Watch the Girls by Jennifer Wolfe here. Or you might like to take a look at my article about eating and drinking in horror fiction (Food for Thought) here.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of Maurice by EM Forster here.