The following is an entry reprinted from The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror, written by the World Fantasy Convention 2012 Encyclopedist Guest of Honor, John Clute. This is the tenth and final entry of several from The Darkening Garden that have been reprinted on this site over the past ten days. Some formatting has been changed from the original published form of the text. Bolded items within this entry can be found within The Darkening Garden as additional / complementary entries. – The Editors
At the very heart of the moment of Aftermath lies an awareness that the story is done. This moment — which prefigures a world incapable of change, a world no longer storyable — terminates the four-seasons model of the narrative structure for horror laid down in this lexicon, the other stages being Sighting, Thickening and Revel. The passage through these stages will have been taxing — the greater novels of Horror are almost certainly the most exhausting of all popular books to experience; and the passage out of Revel — out of the moment of transvaluation of all values into a fixated awareness that the world so exposed is in fact the real world — may be so swift, and the ending of the tale may come so soon, that the desiccating torpor of Aftermath may be no more than glimpsed, a surreal echo of the flash of Sighting which has earlier announced that the end is nigh. This is almost inevitable. The central sense conveyed by Aftermath, after all, is that there is nothing to be done, that there is no cure to hand, no more story to tell, no deus ex machina, no statement that It Was All a Dream: “Son, ‘This ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing’” (Bob Dylan, “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” in Street Legal, 1978 album). (The dozen or so greatest songs from the later career of Bob Dylan comprise — in their surreal, profoundly-worn desertedness — a visceral mapping of the gut dislocation that marks Aftermath.) A structurally similar awareness of terminus pervades our understanding of return in fantasy, though in this case the end of Story constitutes an pastoral arrival in Eden: there is no Story to tell because there is no problem. But Aftermath is all problem, like muskeg: problem without solution, a geography without watershed.
The term Aftermath itself is of course highly weighted. It has been most frequently used to characterize the world and literatures of the societies of Europe after the vast Revel of world war one, when the survivors of that conflict began dazedly to reiterate after the fact wisdoms adumbrated by so many central European intellects in the years before 1914. Two literary forms of interest in the context of this lexicon — they are not in fact comparable terms — were born during the years of Revel: Modernism, which we do not focus upon here (though the famous invocation of “silence, exile, and cunning” which concludes James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man  is a mantra for surviving Aftermath); and Fantasy, which was gestated not only by J R R Tolkien but at least a dozen other central figures who took their sense of the wrongness of the world from the trenches, often literally.) To choose the term Aftermath in consciousness of its historical use is of course deliberately to foreground the argument (made throughout this lexicon) that the body of texts comprising Horror is best understood in relation to the world. The choice implies a further claim: that Horror, which as a formal enterprise is a creation of the Western World, ends where the buck stops for Western humanity: in the Waste Land we have created. The true conspectus and habitation of Horror is the desolate world proleptically glimpsed by Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1899 Blackwood’s Magazine); it is the most famous use of the word Horror in all literature, and the truest to the case: “The horror, the horror!” exclaims Kurtz, on being vouchsafed one final dying gaze upon the world, which is also the world to come.
Though they anatomize the future for our species, Horror novels properly tend to unpack their message within the frame of the present tense of things; only in the spasm of Aftermath — which may seem an eternity — are the lineaments of the future likely to come clear. A single example can demonstrate the case, and provide an exception to the rule that Aftermath is a “prestige” of the flaccid relaxation of the tale into death. Perhaps the most striking single novel of Horror set in World War One is The Cross of Carl: an Allegory (1931) by Walter Owen (1884−1953). It is a short novel, with no real compass for expressions of Sighting or Thickening; it properly begins at the Battle of the Somme (see Revel for description), and continues into an apotheosis of Aftermath that occupies more than half the book. After Carl has undergone the danse macabre of the battle, he is left for dead on the shattered ground: as dead as Europa seems then. He awakens some time later on a railway siding, bound into a faggot of corpses from the battleground; he is shunted into the adjoining warehouse-like “utilization” factory, where the dead are rendered into swill for pigs (see Serpent’s Egg). Owen is of course not literally prophesizing Auschwitz here: but he is certainly delineating a paradigm for Europe into which Auschwitz slides like grease. As for Carl, he escapes the factory and is shot dead, while lying the shallow grave he has constructed for himself, by two powerful bemedaled gentlemen who represent the obscenity of the powers-to-be in the world to come. To construct — or to witness — such paradigms is an essential function of Horror: a flash of such a paradigm perhaps constitutes the central extra-textual or para-textual function of Aftermath, beyond its central role in terminating the story at hand: to flash-freeze the future is the final gift of Horror.