October 29 | Penn Social
And do not reply on the fact that in your life,
circumscribed, regulated, and prosaic,
there are no such spectacular and horrifying things.
— C.P. Cavafy, “Theodotus,” translated by Rae Dalven
Horror is our oldest form of written narrative, beginning with Gilgamesh and proceeding to Euripides’s The Bacchae and Medea and Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex — ancient Greek works that, if written today, probably would be classified as horror rather than tragedy — to Beowulf, the Śūrangama Sūtra, and the Poetic Edda’s Völuspá, a sibyl’s apocalyptic vision that foreshadows our own climatological endtime:
“the foreshore [filled] with dead men … black was sunshine
the summer after,
the weather unsafe.
Understand ye yet, or what?”
Understand ye yet? I don’t think so. Millennia and countless tales later, and despite a looming planetary calamity, we still can’t gaze face-on at the King of Terrors, Death.
That’s why horror will never go out of fashion. It’s the little black dress of literature. You can deconstruct it, reconstruct it, add or subtract whatever accents you want — political, cultural, religious, scientific, satirical — and it always remains relevant. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, celebrating its bicentennial this year and widely considered the first modern horror novel, addressed the terrors of maternity, scientific experimentation, and slavery. Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan exposes the Victorian patriarchy’s terror of female sexuality in a tale of a young working class woman who
is subjected to a lobotomy that turns her into a ravening succubus.
Two years later, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper critiqued that era’s misogyny with its depiction of a woman driven mad by her physician husband’s insistence on her helplessness. Later, Shirley Jackson, Ira Levin, and William Peter Blatty, to name just a few, explored 20th century anxieties, including the domestic oppression of women, conformity, and the fear that the counterculture had turned your teenager into a child of Satan. By that century’s end, an often disparaged genre had begun to earn critical as well as commercial success, as writers like Stephen King, Peter Straub, Joyce Carol Oates, Octavia Butler, J.G. Ballard and Clive Barker blurred the lines between so-called popular and conventionally mimetic (unpopular?) fiction.
More recently, millennials have colonized websites like creepypasta with horror micro-fiction, much of it fueled by urban legends and what the Australian writer Jack Nicholls calls anxiety horror, the sense that no place, however mundane, is safe. 21st century horror has also grown increasingly diverse, with established and emerging writers of color such as Tananarive Due, Victor LaValle, N.K. Jemisin, Colson Whitehead, Craig Gidney, Stephen Graham-Jones, Usman Malik, and Helen Oyemi, and queer authors like Poppy Z. Brite, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Nicola Griffith, Steve Berman, Sarah Waters, and Mats Strandberg. It’s also worth noting that Kelly Link, a renowned practitioner of contemporary horror, recently received a MacArthur Fellowship.
The featured writers tonight — Dan Chaon, Mark Danielewski, and Brian Evenson — are among our most celebrated modern authors, writers who have exploded notions not just of the nature of horror, but of fiction itself. Their work derives its power from a bone-deep understanding that our greatest fears aren’t embodied by imaginary constructs — zombies, vampires, changelings and the like — but by the real and the numbingly familiar. Lovers, spouses, children, pets; whatever domicile we call home, be it a sagging double-wide, restored Victorian, or abandoned motel; and, especially, our own sense of who or what we are — none of these can be trusted. The abyss can open within a closet or a parent’s face; it’s yawning open right now, within your smartphone, inside that car pulling up alongside yours and beneath the polar ice shelves, in a hospital waiting room or a placid beach. Sooner or later, these writers remind us, we will all be alone in the dark.
Dan Chaon’s most recent book is Ill Will, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews, and Publishers Weekly. Other works include the short story collection Stay Awake (2012), a finalist for the Story Prize; the national bestseller Await Your Reply; and Among the Missing, a finalist for the National Book Award. Chaon’s fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize Anthologies, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. He has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award in Fiction, the Shirley Jackson Award, and he is the recipient of an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Chaon lives in Ohio.
Mark Z. Danielewski
Mark Z. Danielewski was born in New York City and lives in Los Angeles. He is the author of the award-winning and bestselling novel House of Leaves, National Book Award finalist Only Revolutions, and the novella The Fifty Year Sword, which was performed on Halloween three years in a row at REDCAT. His books have been translated into multiple languages, and his work has been the focus of university classes and literary events. In 2015, Danielewski’s THROWN, a reflection on Matthew Barney’s CREMASTER 2, was displayed at the Guggenheim Museum during its Storylines exhibition. Between 2015- 2017, Pantheon released five volumes of The Familiar, each an 880-page installment about a 12-year-old girl who finds a kitten and sets off a chain reaction with global consequences. With the release of the series, the New York Times declared Danielewski “America’s foremost literary Magus.” Learn more about Danielewski’s latest project and how you can be a part of it at markzdanielewski.com.
Brian Evenson is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, three O. Henry Prizes and has been a finalist for the Edgar Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the World Fantasy Award. He is also the winner of the International Horror Guild Award and the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel, and his work has been named in Time Out New York’s top books.
Elizabeth Hand is the bestselling author of thirteen genre-spanning novels and five collections of short fiction and essays. Her work has received multiple Shirley Jackson, World Fantasy and Nebula Awards, among other honors, and several of her books have been New York Times and Washington Post Notable Books. Her recent, critically acclaimed novels featuring Cass Neary, “one of literature’s great noir anti-heroes” [Katherine Dunn] — Generation Loss, Available Dark, Hard Light, and the forthcoming The Book of Lamps and Banners— have been compared to those of Patricia Highsmith and have been optioned for a TV series. She is a longtime reviewer, critic and essayist for the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, among many others, and for twenty years has written a book review column for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Much of her fiction focuses on on artists, particularly those outside the mainstream, as well as on the world-altering effects of climate change. Her novel, Curious Toys, inspired by the artist Henry Darger and a true crime in 1915 Chicago, will be published in 2019 by Mullholland Books/Little, Brown. She is on the faculty of the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing, and divides her time between the coast of Maine and North London.