The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror by John Clute

Payseur & Schmidt, 2006, 162pp
reviewed in Vector 252, May-June 2007

There was a time when it seemed likely there might be a third monumental encyclopedia to join those on Science Fiction and Fantasy co-edited by John Clute. The Encyclopedia of Horror never came to pass. But the theme entries, or some of them at least, seem to have been prepared, because that is essentially what we have gathered in this slim, stylish volume. At least, the thirty short essays here are crowded with cross references not only to other entries in the lexicon but also to entries in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy and to entries in an encyclopedia that does not appear to exist

The theme entries, particularly in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, were the critical heart of the work, setting out a framework by which fantasy might be discussed. Above all, they laid out a contentious structure for fantasy: Wrongness, Thinning, Recognition, Return. In this lexicon of horror, Clute very deliberately sets out a parallel structure: Sighting, Thickening, Revel, Aftermath. That this is a conscious echoing of the fantasy structure is made explicit in the entry on Horror in which he sets the two structures side by side: fantasy he likens to a progression from Autumn (Wrongness) to Summer (Return), while horror takes us from Spring (Sighting) to Winter (Aftermath). In other words, on this model horror is a drear cousin of fantasy.

To my mind, wrongness, thinning, recognition and return provide a recognisable model for only a limited sub-set of what I would consider fantasy (it describes The Lord of the Rings and its offshoots perfectly, but bears no relationship that I can perceive to Little, Big or Mythago Wood or most of the stories by Borges, or any of a host of key texts in contemporary fantasy). So I find the new structure, so artfully duplicating its predecessor, similarly unconvincing. At its best it fits a certain archetype of supernatural fantasy (there is, curiously, no entry for ‘supernatural’ here) in which something vile enters the world (sighting), its first disturbing effects are explored (thickening), horror is let loose (revel), and finally it is either banished or rules (aftermath). But I am far from certain that all horror literature fits this model, and therefore I am far from certain what it is meant to tell us about horror literature as a whole.

Which is not to say that this book does not provide a valuable resource for any critical discussion of horror. The problem is that like the other literatures of the fantastic, fantasy and science fiction, horror is easy to recognise and difficult, if not impossible, to define. And because we know, or think we know, what it is we are pointing to when we say science fiction, or fantasy, or horror, it is easy to dismiss the genre as no more than a succession of tropes and traits. Horror, by this count, is simply a literature that instils in the reader a sensation of horror, but such a sensationalist definition (‘affect horror’ in this lexicon) allows no room to go beyond feeling into serious critical analysis. The inestimable value of this book is that it does provide a language for talking about horror that takes us beyond mere sensation. I may not agree with some of the terms and some of the analysis presented here, but I suspect that all critical discussion of horror from this point on will make use of this vocabulary. The downside of this, of course, is that we are therefore saddled with Clute’s linguistic idiosyncracy (as the discussion of fantasy now has to contend with terms like ‘wainscotting’). Revel, for instance, here acquires a reference at odds with familiar usage of the term. A clearer explanation of how and why certain of these terms were arrived at would have expanded the book somewhat, but would have been welcome for all that. Clarity, however, is only rarely a by-product of Clute’s lexicographical precision, even sentences that appear to be in plain English are loaded with so many allusions that it becomes difficult if not impossible to untangle the entire intended meaning of any statement. At one point, for example, he casually uses the word ‘prestige’ in the sense coined by Christopher Priest, so no dictionary will help explicate that particular sentence.

Having said at the beginning of this review that the lexicon appears to be the theme entries extracted from a putative Encyclopedia of Horror, I should point out that there are sufficient clues to suggest that this is a recent work, perhaps even a work in progress. I am not just referring to the frequent citing of books and stories from 2005 and 2006. It is notable, for instance, that throughout the book Clute repeatedly and casually calls science fiction a mode of fantastic literature. This is a radical new departure in the thinking of a critic who has, hitherto, stoutly maintained that science fiction is a form of realist fiction. I can only assume that this sea change is a recent phenomenon, and it does inform the whole book.

Finally, and briefly, I should note that each essay is accompanied by a full page black and white illustration by a different artist. Some are crude, some are complex, some seem to capture the unsettling tone of the subject matter, some seem comic, but taken together they mean that this is not only a valuable, perhaps an essential work of criticism, it is also an extraordinarily handsome volume.