Contemporary horrorists

On eldritch terrors from beyond and their Twitter accounts


Staring into the abyss for fun. I do enjoy a bit of horror fiction, especially with a political inflection.

I am interested in examining some trends in recent horror writers (who I will call horrorists to save a syllable). I do not really do that examination here; here is a lightly decorated listicle of trends and thoughts I may get around to packaging up into a real essay later.

Some of the writers on this list share a red-pill motif, in the sense of the feeling of horror arising from seeing painful truths that the snowflakes can’t handle. And the painful truth is that the horror is other people. Probably, in fact, other people who look different than the imagined audience. Maybe black people, if you believe you are talking to white people. Or women. Your quasi-biological-class-determinist Houellebecq and your Deep-State-is-Cthulhu-Actually Zero HP Lovecraft, could serve as waypoints along a red-piller’s path to the endimming. Indeed, a dark enlightenment progenitor, Nick Land a.k.a. The Whiteness Out Of Space, is a horror writer.

A recurring theme (Houellebecq, Tacos, Zero HP Lovecraft) is pluralistic ignorance, i.e. the real horror is that we are all surviving in a vicious social norm that we individually secretly hate but publicly endorse for fear of censure. In this twist on the Cassandra myth, the protagonists can see the truth but cannot say it for fear being being pilloried by other Cassandras. They are locked in a dilemma of collective action, with tentacles. The author, in these cases, is the real Cassandra who dares to speak the forbidden truths but will not be believed by society at large.

This particular horror fails to land for me personally, because it does not tally with an experience I have had. Maybe I am that one person who is happy with the social norm, and by enforcing it ruining it for everyone else? The kind of awful inescapable horror I more often fear is the moral maze, where we can all see and acknowlege that the situation is not ideal but our local incentives mean that we nonetheless cannot escape.

In stylised examples, if you talk about things in a pluralistic-ignorance-kind of horror, the imagined risk if approbation of other patsies. “Maybe this thing that most people think is bad is actually bad” you say, and all the other bad-thing-haters punish you for stepping out of line. Probably on twitter. In a moral-maze-kind, the horror is more that we all know we are in it together but are still doomed. “Oh no, would it not be great if we were not all part of the problem?” you ask, “Yes, but how can we get there? My kids have to eat.” your colleages answer, then your kids end up stabbing each other in the streets. This is the kind that, e.g. Peter Watts writes, where we are all turned into monsters by going down a path where at every step we chose the least monstrous option. Which type of horror lands for you depends possibly upon experiences, and attachment styles etc.

The incomprehensible dread of the mediated digital world is another thread through these. Consider the conspiracy mania sweeping the internet, which is taking an occult turn. Or the uncanniness of the internet itself. Margot Harrison:

That old aesthetic term for creeping dread, famously dissected by Freud, is typically now applied to disturbing specimens of digital animation said to reside in the “uncanny valley.”

[…] The dead live on in their videos and social media feeds. Thanks to targeted advertising, a pair of boots we put in our cart months ago stalks us at every turn. The notion that a single utterance can turn a random citizen into an influencer might have sounded to Freud like magical thinking. We see it happen every day.

Or consider the uncanny motif of the double, which has inspired writers of dread from Dostoyevsky to Tana French. The fear of having our identity appropriated by a look-alike doesn’t seem atavistic in the era of catfishing and deepfakes. We all lead parallel lives in which presence is absence and reality is malleable.

But I think there are more uncanny and dangerous systems we are aware of than the merely digital. Economist Bryan Caplan is briefly and provocatively a horrorist in this excellent metaphor about minimum wage:

I honestly wonder if we’d have better luck explaining economics if we used the metaphor of a terrifying and incomprehensible alien deity that is kept barely contained by a complicated and humanly meaningless ritual, and that if somebody upsets the ritual prices then It will break loose and all the electrical plants will simultaneously catch fire. Because that probably is the closest translation of the math we believe into a native human ontology.

Want to help the bottom 30%? Don’t scribble over the mad inscriptions that are closest to them, trying to prettify the blood-drawn curves. Mess with any other numbers than those, move money around in any other way than that, because It is standing very near to them already.

There is something deep going on here. (Although I disagree of his characterisation of why I support minimum wages, but that is an essay under a different heading.)

There are diverse abysses to gaze into here. Gaze on. There is also a goodreads list. See also Nightmare Fuel.

Something like scpwiki makes a horror fan fiction of reality. See, e.g. [Infinite IKEA](infinite IKEA.

Peter Watts

Everything this former marine biologist touches turns into posthuman ooze. Gritty depictions of a future in which humans are cockroaches in the diverse biome of posthuman life and which eradicates them in incomprehensible ways. Recommended: The Firefall series, in which the superior post-humans that rule the future rarely stop to explain their fears to humans about the even more superior aliens that pop by.

Charlie Stross

In Laundry Files, a series gradually sliding from public-service/dotcom office snark into dark tech Sleeper-in-the-Pyramid weirdness. The density of the puns is decreasing as their magnitude increases throughout the series.

Heide Goody and Iain Grant

The Odd Jobs series is Birmingham comedy civil service horror. The monsters from beyond have a flavour of Brexit-climate-change-with-tentacles. I find it satisfying and cathartic and relatable in a prim medium-density-urban kind of way. The upwardly-mobile god monsters send their kids to private schools and worry about landscaping in between sucking out souls.

Zero H.P. Lovecraft

This guy (?) can turn an arresting phrase and a horrific image, in e.g., God-Shaped Hole, a tale of an augmented reality future in which our wistfully unsocialised protagonist and his PUA AI dating assistant encounter the spammy post-human dark sex gods arisen from Generative Amorous Networks, which is an excellent logic bomb / cheezy pun of doom.

Aside: I think Zero leans neoreactionary based on his (?) tweets, which makes me wonder vaguely if I have missed some of the layers of horror a conservative would experience in his stuff. Maybe there would be still more if I was terrorised as well as titillated by all the hot queer robot sex motifs. 🤷‍♂ There is still enough macabre to go around regardless and slick social media future extrapolation. Recommended.

Michel Houellebecq

He wrote a biography of H.P. Lovecraft and Atomised is full of a certain type of biological horror so I’ll count him. His later books seem to be more things-that-scare-baby-boomers-horror, (“booror?”) which has not grabbed me so much.

Delicious Tacos

Another marginal entrant in this classification. The pseudonymous Delicious Tacos writes books with (appropriately) complicated exploitative relationship to the complicated and exploitative PUA community. Has the Houellebecq aura of speaking painful truths except maybe funnier? Interview excerpt that gives the flavour:

Part of the plot involves weaponized blackmail, with personal data being leveraged by a terrorist cell. In the wake of the Ashley Madison dump and so many instances of doxing, it’s an eerily plausible scenario — and of course this ties in with our increasing technological dependence. Maybe there’s not a nuclear holocaust at the end of the chain, but do you see things coming to a head?

The good version of this would be: everyone’s innermost secrets are revealed. We all realize that we’re all racist, horny, greedy, hateful. We all jerk off to unspeakable things. We all hate our husbands, wives, children etc. Everyone’s secrets come out at once and no secret has leverage over another.

This is that aforementioned pluralistic ignorance theme. Since I believe that we all harbour varying degrees of racist horny greedy impulses and I thought we all believed that and chatted about it reasonably regularly and reasonably openly, perhaps I am the fool. Or maybe Delicious Taco’s family would benefit from some group therapy and/or MDMA idk.

Jeff VanderMeer

The lauded Southern Reach series has many fans and a movie adaptation of the first book Annihilation. I am AFAICT the only person in the world who did not like Annihilation. The components here are body horror/weird trippy cut sequences/bureaucratic authoritarian satire framed as a found-footage 1984 with talking psilocybe. I dunno, maybe if it were the first time I had tasted such a combination it might have blown me away, but as it is, that is a description of my dietary staples and my jaded palate found nothing here. This book to me has the flavour of a bunch of separately tasty ingredients stirred together into an undifferentiated mess. Also, cardinal sin in my narrative preferences: lack of narrative payoff. The payoff is not so much a plot twist as a perpetual plot wringing.

Further, I prefer my horror connected to my lived experience by stronger sinews than this; there is no horrifyingly plausible version of my future in here, or alternative take on my present but rather some suggestive parable about a world which I clearly cannot visit and in which I have no pen-pals.

Recommended for lovers of numinous fungus.

Ahn, Woo-Young, Kenneth T. Kishida, Xiaosi Gu, Terry Lohrenz, Ann Harvey, John R. Alford, Kevin B. Smith, et al. 2014. “Nonpolitical Images Evoke Neural Predictors of Political Ideology.” Current Biology 24 (22): 2693–9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.09.050.

Boers, Elroy, Mohammad H. Afzali, and Patricia Conrod. 2019. “Temporal Associations of Screen Time and Anxiety Symptoms Among Adolescents.” The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, November, 0706743719885486. https://doi.org/10.1177/0706743719885486.

Giggs, Rebecca A. n.d. “Fictions for Strange Weather,” 363.

VanderMeer, Jeff. 2014. Annihilation. First Edition. Southern Reach Trilogy 1. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.