This semester I’ve been teaching a freshman Honors English class at Temple University entitled “The Uncanny in Horror Literature.” Overall it’s been a delight; the kids are sharp and lively, and getting to design my own syllabus for a reading-intensive class means I’ve been able to teach writers I love and that I might not get a chance to teach again: Lovecraft, for example, and also Shirley Jackson. But it’s also brought up interesting questions concerning my own work, and about the delineation between “horror” and so-called “literary fiction.”
We started the semester with Poe: “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “William Wilson.” The former most people know, the latter is probably less familiar (though no less interesting). Teaching them, I was struck by how experimental they are, how relatively unburdened by the necessities of realism (which makes sense, considering Poe was writing before the French-inspired doctrines of naturalism started to take hold in the States). I was also struck with how dark and pessimistic they are, and I’m not just talking about the sort of dark comedy or gothic inflections you might find in a well-crafted “literary” novel like the Virgin Suicides; I’m talking about a total denial of the power of self, of the breakdown of personality.
For example, “William Wilson” is about a boy named William Wilson who is tormented by the appearance, at his boarding school, of a student with the exact same name and physical features as his own – but it’s more complicated than that, because at first the original William Wilson enjoys having his double around; he’s been lonely at school, and feels himself superior to other students, so the emergence of someone he can relate to has a sort of perverse attraction. That is, until all hell breaks loose, and the double becomes malignant and unbearable.
This thread – the self under siege, doubled or distorted or outright attacked – runs through all of the writers I assigned this semester, without me even realizing it, and as we’ve worked through the texts together the students have picked up on it, too. In Lovecraft, it’s the sense of containing an Other inside of you, as in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” where the narrator slowly realizes he carries the blood of an alien race of fish-people in his veins. In Shirley Jackson, the barrier between the self and others is so permeable that Eleanor, the protagonist of “The Haunting of Hill House,” is always trying to take on aspects of other characters for her own, until the haunted house she is supposed to be studying possesses her mind and destroys her.
After a day of teaching this literature, I often find myself feeling drained, less because the class is difficult than that the literature – if you pay attention – invokes such a dark side of human experience. And when I sit down to write, I find that the work I’m producing is similarly concerned with the divisions of self, and the ways in which personality is always under siege. Funny how much “literary” fiction, for all of its linguistic investigation, is really concerned with reifying the individual: making personality seem consistent and round, applying an arc to human experience which is satisfying and even moral. (Of course, in the best “literary” fiction, like Woolf or Proust or even Flaubert, the act of trying to complete the self is a difficult, painful project, which complicates my dichotomy.)
What’s delightful about horror fiction, at its best, is its complete lack of concern with such a project, and although this sense of personal nihilism can be hard to face from time to time, its also a bracing corrective to the assumptions of a great deal of our literature. I wonder – is the legacy of American horror (or “weird” fiction) a sort of counter-tradition, an oft-neglected strand of 19th/20th century American writing?