the atom bomb its King Pest…

Louis Janmot, Poem of the Soul, Nightmare (1854).

Louis Janmot, Poem of the Soul, Nightmare (1854).

While reading Andrew Sinclair’s novel about a man who believes he is the reincarnation of Edgar Allan Poe, The Facts in the Case of E.A. Poe, I came across an extraordinary passage. A brief explanation: Ernest Albert Pons is a Berlin-born Jew who fled Germany before the Holocaust, and lost much of his family to the camps. For much of his adult life, he has hidden, sublimated, and shoved grave-deep down this trauma, until he views Alain Resnais’ documentary Night and Fog. This is part of his response to the film.

So Pons tried to concentrate on Poe – and failed. The dead poet no longer stalked with quick, erect gait through the halls of Pons’ imagination, which were now hung with images from Night and Fog. What was the bedchamber of Lady Tremaine to the gas-chamber at Belsen? What was Ligeia’s raven hair to the countless tresses shorn off Jewish women and piled as high as the pyramids for stuffing pillows? What were Berenice’s small, white and ivory-looking teeth to the tens of millions pulled from the jaws of the camp victims for the gold in their fillings? What was one man’s sensitivity and suffering to the holocaust or to genocide?

Resnais was the Baudelaire of modern times – and Adolf Hitler was its Edgar Allan Poe – and Joseph Stalin its Red Death – and the atom bomb its King Pest. Horror now lay in the deliberate killing of the millions, not in the ticking of time or the creeping of decay or the scratching of obsession or the stealth of corruption in each one of us. Concentration camps were the maelstrom of our creation – nuclear dust our version of the plague. The gloomy fancies of Poe, like those of Hoffman and Grimm, should only frighten children now – not the creatures capable of a Final Solution to the whole human race.

This hits at the heart of a question that has skulked around in my mind for some time, unanswered (unanswerable?) and forlorn: What is the actual relation of horror fiction to reality? Is its function and duty to provide escapism with a coat of the macabre? Is it a memento mori, to remind us of the pain and suffering in life, a warning (to the curious) of the sort that Denton Welch wrote while wracked with the pains of his debilitating accident: “In the middle of the furnace inside me there was a clear thought like a text in cross-stitch. I wanted to warn the nurses, to tell them that nothing was real but torture. Nobody seemed to realize that this was the only thing on earth. People didn’t know that it was waiting for them, quietly, patiently.” Or is it some dialectical synthesis in between, or neither at all?

This passage will remind some horror readers of the work of Charles Birkin, a man known for his felicity and ferocity with the conte cruel. Several of his tales, such as the brain-searing “A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” were written about the Holocaust. One of them, I believe called “Waiting for Trains”, was directly drawn from his own experience as a British soldier in WWII dealing with a Nazi POW. What does this mean that a fiction can be spun about the Holocaust, and written not within the elevating folds of literary realism like Tadeusz Borowski or Imre Kertesz, but in the grimy, smoldering context of genre? A field of writing that, like it or not, is associated with pure entertainment? Is this okay, or is it just trivializing?

I have no answer for this question, still. But how horror fiction deals with life’s atrocities, not in the personal sense, but in the specifically political sense is a question of some importance. It would obviously be crude, crass, and even colonialistic for a French writer to set a horror tale in Rwanda circa the genocides, but what if a Rwandan writer did? How in the absolute hell can a form as old, constrained, and limited as horror deal with such a thing? Is there even a point to such a venture? I think this, but then the thought comes to me: This is a false privileging of genres. Literary fiction, realist fiction cannot deal with such hideousness either, and yet you do not interrogate its right to deal with such issues, even though it too is nothing but a wad of scummy tissue fluttering above the dirt of life’s landfill, a spindly dog barking at the slaughter of the highways. Yet I am drawn to the conclusion that horror is defeated by events of that kind of magnitude, rendered irrelevant and obsolete, much like how satire is said to be defeated at the hands of a reality so absurd exaggeration of it is impossible.

Albert Pons attempts to view such grandiose vileness through the lens of horror, but finds it a paltry, incommensurate view. Horror then, for Sinclair, is dwarfed by reality, and can never match its horribleness. Ernest Albert Pons uses the work of Poe in part to cope, but also to flee, to escape, to replace an intolerable suffering with a merely large one…

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