Sunday, July 18, 2010

Ethics and the After-Shudder in Horror Writing

By Helen Marshall

For the past four days, medievalists from around the world have been gathering in Siena, Italy to drink chianti and discuss literature, history, and the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. As a Ph. D student at the University of Toronto, I've had the great pleasure of joining them I'd like to recount one event in particular that really struck me.

Siena has been going through a nasty heat wave, and to cope a number of us graduate students spent Friday night drinking prosecco in our pool twenty kilometers from the city centre surrounded by the Tuscan countryside (hard work, I know!). Come Saturday, we discovered to our horror that all the air conditioning had been shut off. Sweltering in my first panel -- a distressingly packed classroom where we were all breathing too-warm recycled air, nursing hangovers, and trying to focus on what the smart people at the front of the room were trying to say -- I found myself in one of those dozy, dream-like states. Bruce Holsinger stood up to speak, and he began by recounting the recent work on parchment genetics, where scientists were analyzing the genetic make-up of parchment for dating purposes and to track herd changes. (Before the rise of the printing press in England, all books including ones of literature were written by hand on parchment or vellum, that is, the skin of sheep or cows.) He then told us that his colleagues had discovered something remarkable indeed -- all the books of Geoffrey Chaucer had been written on human skin.

As I said, I was drowsy and it took me some time to process this. Human skin? I was shocked, horrified. The stuff that I had spent the last two months research in archives, touching, smelling, handling, studying -- it was the skin of people! It was only once the wave of tired laughter rippled across the audience of academics that I realized this was a ploy, a brilliant rhetorical move. I had bought it hook, line and sinker.

His point was that, ultimately, there exists a whole history of animal genocide beneath the production of literature at its earliest stages in English history. The point that registered most deeply for me was that he had to use a story to get his point across.  Dry scholarship wasn't enough to produce an ethical inquiry, even if it was only a personal one, to the fact that a single book could require up to five hundred dead sheep to produce.  In many ways, it is monstrous.  And he begged us to consider -- was it worth it? Was (one of) the formative moments in English literary history worth the slaughter of so many animals?

Holsinger's paper sent a shudder down my spine, a genuine one, and it was something that never would have happened without the fiction he presented.  But what was that shudder? How did it happen? Aranye Fradenburg gave a brilliant plenary lecture which introduced the concept of mirror neurons: mirror neurons fire, she argued, when we see a familiar action and automatically emulate it. Chimpanzees watching other chimpanzees cracking nuts fire off neurons that mimic the actions in their own brains. Fradenburg suggested that not only was this the basis of human empathy, it was also the basis of literature, for descriptive passages were just as effective at causing mirror neurons to fire.

It is an old adage that horror is an emotion not a genre; it is the shudder, the cold sweat, the puckering of skin and the raising of hair. What Holsinger did was to tell a horror story, and for me, a terribly effective one. That horror came because I could suddenly perceive the blank subject of my research -- the parchment of manuscripts -- as my own skin. The genocide of sheep and cows was vividly revealed, even if it was only for a moment before the laugh dispelled the image, as something real and personal.

My point is that there can be a kind of ethics to horror writing, because horror -- more than any other genre -- is about the human, the psychological, the affective.  The point of horror writing should not just be to produce the shudder -- that's the first step, certainly -- but to use it, to make it do something. This is why, despite being a self -professed hater of horror, I still love the books put out by ChiZine Publications. Great horror -- the work of Ramsay Campbell, Tim Lebbon and Robert Shearman; David Nickle, Claude Lalumière and Brett Alexander Savory -- takes that next step and shows that the genre is about more than just a shudder; it is the after-shudder, the moment of truth that occurs when the boundaries of civilization and flesh break down, when you look at the figure in fiction and say, "That is me -- one day that will be me. I am mortal. I will die. Now what?"


Helen Marshall spends the majority of her time pursuing a Ph. D. in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto where she gets to travel across England to examine fourteenth-century manuscripts. Of course, her fascination with the making and writing of books extends well into the present. Her poetry has been published in ChiZine, NFG and the Ontarion Arts Supplement. "Mist and Shadows," published originally in Star*Line, appeared in The 2006 Rhysling Anthology: The Best Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Poetry of 2005." "The Gypsy" and "Crossroads and Gateways" both received honourable mentions in the 2009 Rannu Fund Contest, while four other poems were short-listed. She also works as an editor and slush reader for ChiZine Publications.


  1. Thanks for this, Helen. I, too think I don't like Horror (don't read it; don't write it), but I'm through 2 stories in David Nickle's "Monstrous Affections" and remain fascinated. I've recently become a fan of Simon Unsworth's short fiction (also Horror). As I ask myself - "What's up with that?" - I come across this blog entry. A whole new discussion. I like it!!

    This last Wednesday, I did a 5 minute story for the local Story Slam. I didn't think it was Horror, perhaps it wasn't, but several young people from the university crowd liked it, calling it wonderfully creepy. They wanted to know if I had more stories like it. I don't. Will I? I don't know, but it's going to be intriguing to find out.

  2. Same thing for me about horror. Make me shudder, but make it worthwhile: make me also feel and think and discover!