The Darkening Garden: Thickening

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 fifth entry of several from The Darkening Garden to be reprinted on this site over the course of 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

Image © Adam Grano

Thickening begins after the uncanny afflatus of Sighting begins to fade, and the future adumbrated in the terrorizing flash of Sighting begins to come true. In the prescriptive four-seasons model of the narrative structure of Horror which governs most of the entries in this lexicon, Thickening comes second: the full model comprises Sighting, Thickening, Revel and Aftermath; the moment of Sighting may be conveyed in a sentence, but the process of Thickening normally occupies most of any text being considered. Thickening, taken alone, can of course be thought of as simply another way of pointing to the kind of plot-complicating common to much fiction; but even here, if Thickening is focused on deeply, an effect similar to that of Horror — unresolved Horror — may be felt: the greatest novel focused on Thickening alone may be Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa; Or, the History of a Young Lady: Comprehending the Most Important Concerns of Private Life (1748), a tale of extraordinary and suffocating intensity (but whose subtitle marks it off from Horror as understood here).

As part of the four-part model, the process of Thickening will normally be felt as a cumulative movement towards a further stage: betrayals and mysterious absences (or presences) and keys that do not open and trains that do not come clot the mise en scene, force protagonists down paths they do not wish to tread; nothing adds up; confusion reigns; life is inherently impeded: there seems no exit from the suffocating tangle of plot; the atmosphere  of things literally thickens; it is hard to breathe; in the end there has been a progressive unmapping of the paths within the world, which increasingly shuts in one’s face, so that protagonists have no choice available to them except that of obedience to the pull of gravity, the Hook that will expose them to the Revel: this all takes time to convey.

And all of it is false. Thickening may point to some truth which the moment of Revel may reveal, similar to the “metonomy contagion” familiar to readers of the Gothic, a process by which that which lies below becomes identified with seductive bits of the surface, a knocking of the truth from underneath manifested as gear, visages, veils, fetishes in shop windows, grotesques, salads of sorts. Partly through an accumulation of these metonymies, the phenomenal world is increasingly revealed as a rind that, once peeled, exposes the vacancies within the false consciousness of “normal” life, and the imposture of the history of the world: which we are taught to think of as a story which justifies our lives, not a sentence which convicts us. So the rind of the world, whose haecceity or thingness is mockingly focused upon through the various narrative ingenuities of Thickening in the hands of a competent author, is a rind of lies: as is the assemblage of evasions, the scar tissue over the unendurable past, which comprises the Hooked self: the face worn outdoors by the careerists (that is, you and me) who profit from obeying the rules of daylight “reality”: who breed and thrive, who consume upon the sinking deck. Look into the mirror, Dr Jekyll, and you will see rind.

But in terms of Horror, a further entanglement binds writers and readers; within 21st century Horror texts, it also tends to bind protagonists recursively familiar with the prior stories that are telling them again: that entanglement being the accumulated mass of precedent and conversation contained in everything already written and read. Ghosts and parodies out of this shared past haunt and encumber what we write and read today. Most of us do understand that characters in books are fictions, but there is some sense in which we share their experiences, as Ghosts and Parodies, out of a very similar shared past, haunt and encumber them as well. An essential part of the 21st century experience of Thickening — where most of the icons are resurrected and told again, where most of the assumptions Horror makes about the world are iterated and reiterated at length — is therefore an experience of deja vu; the past inhabits our present, doubles the stories being told. Recursiveness slows the course of story, embrambles the path with echoes. For better and for worse, it Thickens our passage.

The second effect of the past record of written Horror may be more important: it is a sense that the stories of the past 250 years are somehow testamentary, and that the world they testify to is continuous with our own. When we re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus (1818), and recognize the “monster’s” estrangement and his longing to surface upwards into the world, we recognize the echo of his fate within every Double in the literature of Horror, as he stalks the surface twin who has Sighted him and who flees uselessly from him through the Thickening world (see Followed); but we also recognize, in the life of the “monster”, an exposure of history itself: the underclass exposed by the speed of change; the working-class man who learns to read and threatens to become dictator; the lubricious otherness of the breeds without the law who sue to join the golf club; the sense that the world now changes faster than its thrones can be inherited: to succeed in the 21st century world we must be made to do so. This incessant texturing of the storyable world irradiates almost any 21st century Horror novel; some shudder to a halt under the burden. But if the contemporary Horror novel is genuinely transgressive, it is not so through any discovery of new fluxes of affect. It is transgressive because it continues to tell us that Baron Frankenstein is the true monster, that we who are the owners of the world are the devourers of the world.

Were we wrong to have eaten
it all in just one century? No.We were
the true suicide bombers, and Paradise
was our reward. We will have left nothing behind
but the memory of our movie stars.

Prayer of Thanksgiving” (2006) by Tom Disch. The truth of things wells up….

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