The end of World War Two seems to have helped affect a fundamental shift in horror fiction. Whereas pre-WW2, writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, and M.R. James were attempting to find the perfect form for their horrors, the most effective way to send shivers down the spine of their readers or to showcase otherworldly horrors in their fiction. It was a period of experimentation, with a focus on craft and form. After the war, horror fiction turned inward. Less concerned with matters of form and more concerned with the why we choose to read horror fiction. It turned more existential, it looked inward and thought about why it exists and what purpose it serves. Why are we attracted to horror fiction? Why do we write horror fiction? Authors like Richard Matheson, Rod Serling, and Shirley Jackson brought horror from desolate gothic landscapes and alien spheres and brought it to our own backyards. The subject matter was no longer what lurks out there in the dark, but what lurks in our own minds. In the postwar years, a vast gaping black hole was revealed to be laying in the heart of modern society, and notions of the basic goodness of humanity were brought into question. The horror genre was the best suited to explore the depth and width of that black hole.
In all of the metafictions and social commentaries to come out of this new wave of horror fiction, one of the most interesting and illuminating forms is the one that shows the horror writer as a spreader of contagion, a corrupting influence. Maybe the writing of horror is an evil act? And what compels readers to want to consume fiction that is actually harmful to them? In exploring this topic we will look at three samples of this trope, Fritz Leiber's Diary in the Snow, Karl Edward Wagner’s Sticks, and Mark Samuels’s Vrolyck.
Fritz Leiber’s story Diary in the Snow, published in his collection Night’s Black Agents in 1947, is one of the first works to use the horror author as contagion trope. Fritz Leiber was a master at showing the haunting and haunted nature of the modern world. From ghosts made of shoot and ash to sentient and scheming fossil fuels, Fritz Leiber almost single-handedly modernized the traditional ghost story. Diary in the Snow follows Thomas Alderman, a struggling writer, as he stays with a fellow writer, John Vendle, at an isolated cabin. Both have traveled there to try to get some writing done, and Thomas feels he is on the breakthrough of a major story. A fantastic science fiction story centering around a dead world orbiting around a dying sun, it is inhabited by these strange spider like beasts who are slowly dying from cold and hunger. They are desperate to escape their doomed world. Their sun is shrinking smaller and smaller and the world is trapped in a eternal night. These beings have developed tremendous psychic powers, and are attempting to use them to find a way out of their death spiral. John wants to have these creatures invade the Earth, and has many creepy scenes planned out for their eventual invasion. But he can not figure out how to get them from their dark world to the Earth. So he sits in the cabin, writing, trying to come up with a way. John realizes far too late that maybe his visions may be real.
In Diary in the Snow, the alien creatures use the author as a means to invade Earth, the protagonist being an unwitting victim of their scheme. He merely wanted to write a great horror science fiction story, but his visions of hideous spider things came to life. In this story, while the fiction may carry corruption, the author is an unwitting agent of this corruption. The next two stories we look at do not show horror fiction to be so innocent.
In Karl Edward Wagner’s story Sticks, published in his collection In a Lonely Place in 1983, we have one of the finest examples of a backwoods gothic in all of horror literature, taking place in the desolate woods of Upstate New York. An artist who specializes in horrific art, Colin Leverett, is taking a walk through the forests when he stumbled across these strange wooded lattices. Made of sticks and twine, they infest the inner woods. He is struck by how macabre this all is and quickly sets pen to paper, drawing them in his notepad. He then finds a house, long abandoned, and inside he discovers hundreds of diagrams for these insane stick lattices. He is intrigued by this house and sets to exploring it. Down in the shadow covered basement, he discovers something darker still, something nightmarish beyond even his darkest dreams. Something that leaves Colin a changed man, a haunted man.
Years later Colin comes back to his home after serving in the Great War. A quiet and antisocial man, Colin returns to drawing, hoping to get some gigs drawing book covers. But his work has taken a troubling turn, his work is too disturbing for most publishers. He has trouble finding work. Luckily a small press reaches out to Colin. They are publishing a major retrospective of the great horror author H. Kenneth Allard. They like Colin’s darker take and want to find a disturbing vision for the cover art that can match the cosmic horrors of H. Kenneth Allard. Colin plunges into this work with renewed vigor and returns back to his drawings of those stick structures he found in the woods many years ago. He had hidden away those sketches, not wanting to bring back the memory of that nightmare he lived through all those years ago. With these drawings, come fresh memories of the horrors he encountered in that abandoned house. But he funnels those feelings into his work, producing gloriously dark art for the covers. But strange events start occurring, friends dying in mysterious manners, and people coming back into his life that should be dead. In one of the great shock twist endings, H. Kenneth Allard is actually in league with the dark forces Colin encountered in the woods, and it turns out the stick lattices where actually a language to summon dark beings into our reality, and Colin’s work reproducing these for the covers, has finished the incantation, the final key to allowing these dark gods into our reality.
In Sticks, again we have horror as contagion, but while Colin may not have meant to bring about the apocalyptic events of the tale, it must be noted, he does seem to keep returning again and again to the horrors. While he may protest, maybe subconsciously Colin wanted the horrors, and to finally willfully succumb to them. In Sticks, we have the artist as a secret willing victim, and carrier, of horror.
Now we turn to Mark Samuels’s story Vrolyck, published in his collection The White Hands and Other Weird Tales in 2003, which is one of the great works of the current era of horror fiction. A mysterious writer who frequents an all-night cafe to find solitude and sit in his corner and write. One evening a young woman named Emily Curtis notices him and becomes intrigued by this solitary figure. She walks up to him and introduces herself. Seeing as how she is willful and not going to go away, he reluctantly allows her to sit with him. She is fascinated by his status as a writer of obscure horror fiction. She is also a lifelong fan of dark and pessimistic fiction. He offers to let her read a rough manuscript of a piece he is working on. She gladly accepts and he excuses himself to leave. They meet again, this time Emily is visibly disturbed from reading his work. She has been having strange visions and thoughts after reading his manuscript. She is both frightened and obsessed by what is happening to her. She wants more from Vrolyck, but he bars her from seeing him, making it clear that he is going to permanently separate himself from her. After a couple weeks he goes back to check on her, the corrupting text has done its work. Her mind and body are broken and ready for the next stage in his plan. It is revealed that Vrolyk is actually not human, the vanguard of an alien race drifting the cold abyss of space seeking to enter new bodies to continue their existence. Vrolyck’s writings are used to break down the reader's sanity, thereby allowing an alien force to enter and take over the minds and bodies of those who read his work. But the last horror is this story is saved for the writer, Vrolyk is trapped in this stinking, fluid-filled, ape-like body. Vrolyk is horrified at the human form it is forced to live in.
In Vrolyck, we have the full revelation that the other stories were only hinting at. Horror as a corrupting dark force, and the reader as willing victim. Maybe horror fiction is founded on masochistic drives. To show us the alien and bizarre, and for us to realize there is nothing more alien and bizarre than our own existences. The desire to corrupt, and be corrupted with this knowledge. To look at yourself in horror, and to make a poetry from this abjection.