Monsters of the Human Soul
A transcription of my panel remarks at the 2022 World Fantasy Convention
Last weekend I spoke on a panel titled “Creating the Monsters of the Human Soul” at the World Fantasy Convention in New Orleans. My fellow panelists were Catriona Ward, Victor LaValle, and Nathan Ballingrud. Our moderator was Brenda Carre. The official description of our theme was this:
Philosophers of the past have said the worst monsters lurk within the human soul. Most keep them restrained, but there are those who unleash their inner demons. Our panelists will explore the ways they have created such characters in their own works and share their views of other authors who do it well.
I was pleased when the five of us managed to weave what felt like an engaging conversation that went deep and engaged both us and the audience. Though the recording of the event is available only to WFC members, I decided to go ahead and share my own portion of the panel here. Just be aware that the following paragraphs are missing the context of the living interaction with my fellow panelists, who were marvelously articulate and insightful. This transcript, which I have lightly edited to smooth out a few rough edges (while still leaving the conversational tone intact), is an excised, decontextualized portion of an organic five-way conversation. This also means the moderator’s questions and my responses usually aren’t paired directly together.
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How do you keep your characters restrained or unrestrained? Do they unleash their inner demons or not?
The fiction that I’ve written has characters, of course. Unless you’re Thomas Ligotti writing “The Red Tower,” you’re going to have characters. But my work is not actually character driven. It’s more idea driven. The thing I’ve focused on is the fusion of religion, horror, and the supernatural in cosmic horror fiction. So, as far as the relationship between my characters and the monsters that appear in my stories, most of which are metaphysical and ontological, and there’s a Lovecraftian crossover — it tends to be the case that in what you could call classic weird-cosmic horror fiction mode, the horror and the monsters, the monstrous, comes from the pulling aside of the veil and the recognition that reality is not exactly what you thought it was. So lots of my characters tend to meet these ends, these monstrous forces and entities, that are specific to them. It’s as if there was this revelation that was waiting for you, and this was what your life was all about, but you didn’t know it until it happened. So it’s like a special doom, just for you.
I’d like to explore this a little more, actually, the idea, the existentialism in the known and unknown of the monster, that there can be in novels a grimdark element, and there can be a noblebright element, but what if both were included in what I guess you could call your questionable character? Not necessarily the “villain.” Possibly the contagonist. Possibly even the protagonist.
[NOTE: In the course of the panel’s responses to this prompt, we began talking about the practice of incorporating real people from our personal lives into our stories, whether as highly processed interpretations, thinly disguised fictionalizations, or literal/direct portrayals. I spoke my words below as part of this subcurrent of our conversation.]
In only one story that I’ve written, I included pretty much a literal person from my life. It wasn’t even an interpretation. I just cast an actual person, a former boss of mine. The story didn’t really have an antagonist. The antagonist was hidden behind a stage flat in a rehearsal for some unstated play, and was probably God. But the guy who was in front of it, who was his spokesperson, was just a boss that I had had.
Other than that, my answer would just parallel Victor’s: Experience comes from life, you know, and you absorb what you absorb as a writer, or just as a human being. So characterizations and other things are going to be drawn from people that you know, and in my stories I can see layers of different people that I’ve known. But interestingly, not in any of the monsters. The monsters just tend to be outer forces that are completely inhuman. And so that’s the horror. It’s almost as if my characters, who are based on whatever I’ve taken in from life, are facing these things that have nothing to do with the human, and therefore that’s where the horror comes from.
I’m going to ask another question in terms of the monsters within our own heart, and to what extent the monsters in our own heart are reflected in our writing, and how you feel comfortable or uncomfortable about communicating that to your audience.
I have what might be a meta comment here: We each haunt ourselves. I have this long-running idea, I don’t know if you'd call it a theory, it’s just my experience of life, where it seems to me that each of us constitutes our own personal cosmos. There’s a horizon, a boundary between self and other, between your subjectivity and what appears to you as the objective world from the moment you open your eyes. There’s this mystery that puts so much beyond your ability to know. And in fact even within yourself, you have that same horizon. It’s like we as these conscious beings, these conscious presences, awarenesses, here in this very panel, there’s all this stuff outside that is not you. You know, you’re facing all these other people, this room, this microphone, all this. But sort of behind you, so to speak, within yourself, your id, your unconscious mind — I refer to the demon muse all the time as my creativity — the same thing is there, too. So, basically, this way [pointing a finger outward, at the audience] and this way [pointing a finger at myself, my face] is mystery, the whole way. Out there and in here, both are complete mystery.
“My characters tend to meet these ends, these monstrous forces and entities, that are specific to them. It’s as if there was this revelation waiting for you, and this was what your life was all about, but you didn’t know it until it happened. So it’s like a special doom, just for you.”
And anybody who writes a story, you’re acting like a little demiurge. You’re creating yet another consciousness, regardless of what point of view you’re writing from. And you’re asking readers to sort of do a mind meld with you, but also a mind meld with this new limited, bounded consciousness [of the story]. Various writers do it for various reasons. For writers who write horror or anything with horrific elements, I think we’re all writing from our own sense of disturbance and fear. And it’s personalized to us and the narratives that we write. But we’re inviting people to interrogate this with us. Like, “This is what scares me. These are the things maybe that came from inside me, or that I see as fearful outside.”
Like I said before, in my stories it’s like everybody has their own personal, private doom that’s meant just for them. I think that sense of being enveloped in mystery, and wanting to know what your life is about, and all these longings that you’re saddled with, and that sometimes come out in good ways and sometimes in bad ways — the ultimate answer is, you’re going to die. And this personal cosmos that is you is going to dissolve. And so it’s like we’re playing a game of chicken with that all the time, by the scary things that we come up with and what we write. That’s my sense of it, anyway.
Lovecraft of course wrote, among other things, his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, and in the opening section he famously said that the essence of supernatural horror and cosmic horror is this sense of great powers and forces existing beyond the rim of the known cosmos, and this sense of black wings beating there in the outer darkness, and claws scratching at the rim, and so on. I think every one of us has that experience every moment of every day. It’s just that some of us tend to frame it in those horrific terms. And those black wings are flapping and those claws are scratching on the inner rim of the cosmos as well, behind your conscious self. And that’s fascinating to me.
Who inspired you? What writing do you feel has really resonated with you in terms of characters and situations that we’ve been talking about?
My own influences in this area are pretty standard, I guess. There’s one dominant strand of weird horror fiction that was mistaken for the whole thing for a long time, and we’ve now kind of woken up from that dream. But H. P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, all that stuff, was sort of what I cut my teeth on, what formed my basic emotional reactions and my aesthetic understandings of what I was trying to get at in horror. And I read a lot of Stephen King when I was younger, a lot of mainstream horror, too. But it felt like this revelatory encounter with occult texts that were showing me hidden secrets when I first discovered Lovecraft and his kin. More recently, Thomas Ligotti knocked the top of my head off when I discovered him in 1997. A few years ago, a lot of people here would have been like, “Who?” That probably doesn’t happen much anymore in a crowd like this.
“Lovecraft said the essence of supernatural horror is this sense of great powers and forces existing beyond the rim of the known cosmos, and this sense of black wings beating there in the outer darkness, and claws scratching at the rim. Those black wings are flapping and those claws are scratching on the inner rim of the cosmos as well, behind your conscious self.”
I think it’s in The Conspiracy against the Human Race, Ligotti’s nonfiction opus about life as horror, where he says the essence of horror to him is the sense that, “This can’t be happening. This simply can’t be happening.” And as I think about that, I think A) yes, and B) I’m driven to notice how much comic books and other fusions of visual and textual media have influenced me. Anybody remember Secret Wars? Marvel Comics, Secret Wars, from the 1980s and 90s? You had Secret Wars I, Secret Wars II. The whole gimmick was that basically every character across the entire Marvel comics universe was involved in this limited series. It involved this character called the Beyonder, who was this omnipotent, omniscient god who took them all out of this world and put them elsewhere to do all kinds of stuff. In Secret Wars II, he comes to this world and takes a human body. So we’ve got kind of a Christ metaphor going on.
But there’s one point where he wanted to find out what it’s like to be mortal, and he makes himself mortal through some process, and he’s like, “This is kind of neat. I want to see what it’s like.” And then I think it’s Mephisto — if anybody knows Mephisto in the Marvel universe, he’s this devil character — he shows up and says, “Cool, I wanted to get you all along.” And now that this god is mortal, he can do it. And Mephisto starts putting him immediately through all these torments with, like, burning maggots all over him, all these Dantesque horror things.
And as a kid, I’m reading this, and the character who had never known suffering, he’s lying on the ground writhing in pain like in the depths of hell, and then he says the same line that, years later, Ligotti says is the essence of horror: “This can’t be happening.”1 And I was just marked, at about age 17, when I read that. I didn’t think at the time, “That’s the essence of horror! That’s the essence of the Stephen King stuff I like and the Lovecraft that I’m just discovering!” But all these years later, I think that whole monstrous scenario and that recognition was a defining moment in my life through horror, including as a horror writer who thinks the horror is not just in fiction but something that I sense in life as well.
A footnote in the interest of strict accuracy: When I looked this up to confirm my memory of it after the panel, since it has been more than 35 years since I read the comic book in question, I found that the Beyonder’s line was actually, “This can’t be real,” which is of course a distinction without a difference. I was also reminded that those biting maggots that attacked the Beyonder were vomited onto his body by Mephisto. Truly a horrifying scene, at least for teenaged me, who was marked by it.