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Isolation in Horror Fiction: John C Adams

One of the most terrifying things we can imagine is to be entirely alone, suddenly horribly isolated and without being able to call our fellow man for help.

Many narrators and main characters in horror fiction find themselves facing dire peril without any means of rescue at hand.

H P Lovecraft understood just how potent fear can be when we are distanced from all human help.

In 'The Whisperer In Darkness', the narrator befriends Henry Akeley, exchanges copious correspondence and then frantic telegrams, and finally travels at his friend's urgent summons 'through the wild domed hills of Vermont' to provide help.

Akeley has been tormented by a mysterious presence, his pack of ferocious guard dogs has been killed and terrifying things try to get near his house at night.

Akeley has been investigating local tales of inhuman shapes, crustaceous bodies with vast dorsal fins and wings, bloated up in the back of beyond.

Even allowing for the exaggeration of old legends, this seems very odd. But Akeley has evidence that 'monstrous things do indeed live in the woods on the high hills which nobody visits'.

Living in his isolated farmhouse, Akeley is intensely vulnerable to revenge when he seeks to broadcast the news of what he has found.

Lovecraft frequently associates weirdness with intense isolation; in his works, the backwoods, hidden valleys and unknown acres of rural New England are often described as harbouring unspeakable horrors.

However, even careful cultivation of the land by those who depend upon it for their living does not prevent terrible forces from attacking mankind or scaring them witless in Lovecraft's fiction.

Farming is by nature an isolated occupation, and Lovecraft exploits to the full the opportunities this presents for the weird tale in 'The Colour Out Of Space', when ghoulish light glows from the produce and livestock of Nahum Gardner's farm.

The animals waste away, and the family runs to madness while turning a ghastly grey colour as a result of eating their own harvest.

Their fields turn to a dusty grey desert. In another farming tale from Lovecraft, 'The Dunwich Horror', the Whateleys are their own source of the evil that destroys their family and livestock.

They have farmed their land for generations, but their isolation leads to 'overt viciousness and half-hidden murders, incest and deeds of almost unnamable violence and perversity'.

Horror stories drawing on the isolation of rural communities have formed into the modern genre of folk horror, a fertile and fascinating source of inspiration being provided by ancient customs and folklore, odd legends and tales, and folk horror continues to be immensely popular. As someone who lives in the country, I know how these legends abound in rural areas and form a deep-seated basis for the local sense of identity.

We have seen how rural communities can struggle in horror fiction, but what happens when cityfolk come to live in the middle of nowhere? The answer is generally even worse than those who've lived here all along! Many a ghost story features a city family or couple moving out into a rural area, buying an old house with a history at a low price that makes it affordable even for their stretched finances, only to then discover the bad news about exactly why it was so cheap.

The isolation up in the Scottish Highlands featured in James Herbert's novel 'Ash' is entirely deliberate, but here money is no object. The distant location, far from the eye of casual observers, is very intentionally chosen.

The moorlands have been selected for a uniquely discreet private nursing home where the world's collection of villains and oddities can find refuge from a world which would much rather forget they ever existed. And of course the nursing home denies all knowledge when asked if these former dictators or other sources of human evil are living there, or even still alive! It's an interesting concept that turns the traditional notion of rural horror fiction on its head.

Horror fiction continues to generate fascinating tales, both within the subgenre of folk horror and utilising more unusual approaches to terror deep in the country. I love them both!

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Isolation in Horror Fiction

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