A Horror So Sublime: from Poe to The Elephant Man by Alistair Rey

“To transform perceptions of ordinary life into an infinite source of nightmares is the wild hope of every writer of weird fiction.” The verdict belongs to Michel Houellebecq, although it is in reference to the work of H. P. Lovecraft. What can we take from such a judgement? It would seem Houellebecq sees the author of weird fiction—and perhaps horror in general one might add—as a type of alchemist who transmutes the raw experience of the ordinary into the strange and terrifying. Yet this conclusion begs the question what in particular is the source of the nightmarish? What is it that truly horrifies us and why?

Of course, we could turn to a fellow Frenchmen for some guidance. Houellebecq was, whether he realized it or not, perpetuating a French tradition of sorts in his critique of Lovecraft. In the 1850s, Charles Baudelaire saw fit to evaluate another American author—this time Edgar Allan Poe—in his analysis of those precise elements essential to “effecting terror,” as he put it. For Baudelaire, the genius of Poe was akin to a similar alchemy in which the “imagination” transformed human life and nature into something unrecognizable, alien and exceptional. “The absurd taking over the intellect and governing it with a frightful logic,” “hysteria usurping the will”: these were the qualities that defined Poe as a master of his craft and illuminated the aesthetic of terror he perfected. Whether emphasizing the nightmarish or absurd, Houellebecq and Baudelaire agree that terror begins when the familiar evades us, when the ordinary becomes the strange and uncanny.

Neither Lovecraft nor Poe were intellectual lightweights. Their preference for the grotesque and bizarre over the beautiful was a conscious choice, and one intended to inspire a specific emotional response in their readers. While we can recognize the beautiful and provide reasons for why we find something appealing, aversion and fear are more intractable beasts to confront. In their midst, we are left speechless or aghast. We are commonly at “a loss for words” or experience “shock.” We gasp rather than articulate. These are visceral reactions that in their very nature suggest an inability to describe, a failure of language. It is when we can no longer seek comfort in the familiarity of words or translate experience into language that perceptions of the ordinary become the nightmarish and absurd. This is precisely why Lovecraft’s stories are replete with references to “unspeakable horror,” “nameless terrors” and characters who are left reluctant or unable to speak. Herein lies the “frightful logic” remarked upon by Baudelaire: the utterly affective nature of the horrific.

In the late nineteenth century, Victorian audiences were captivated with Joseph Merrick, the infamous “elephant man.” Night after night, spectators showed up at the penny gaff exhibition in Whitechapel to cast their eyes on this “most disgusting specimen of humanity.” Commentators noted the audience’s horrified expressions and revulsion at the sight of Merrick’s deformed body and grotesquely disfigured face. As an icon of popular culture then as now, Joseph Merrick exercises a powerful influence on the imagination, whether as a “freak of nature” or a symbol of the monstrous cruelty of which humanity is capable. Yet it is not simply a fascination with human deformity that elevated Merrick to the status of Victorian legend. He was one of many notorious side-show attractions that drew audiences throughout the century. It was the reputed “horror” that he evoked in spectators that has provided the substance of legend.

Merrick embodied many ambiguities. As the “elephant man” he blurred the boundaries between opposing concepts, both assuming and rejecting the conditions of one or the other. The ugly compound “elephant-man” was telling as viewers attempted to make sense of a monstrosity and apply familiar concepts to a body that inherently resisted them. Hence, the horror and aversion that Merrick inspired in audiences. It was not revulsion for what they saw, but for what they could not permit themselves to imagine or comprehend.

And yet audiences came, night after night, to lay eyes on the famed elephant man, to imbibe in this horror. Why?

“Pure imagination,” Poe once wrote, assembled its subject from “either beauty or deformity” so that “the two elements result in something that has nothing of the qualities of either.” If we can find fascination in the deformed, we can also find in it a certain type of beauty and attraction that leaves us unsettled just as much as fulfilled. It was this “sublimity” that Poe endeavored to capture in his own writing. He wanted to manufacture “beauty” from the “deformities” that disturb us most and fill us with dread.

In his treatise on The Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Edmund Burke remarked that fear elicits an emotional gratification in us distinct from pleasure or desire. What he called “the sublime” fills us with dread as we contemplate the sheer vastness and power of something we cannot otherwise comprehend or put accurately into words. Immanuel Kant subsequently elaborated upon this concept, claiming the sublime was a “formless object” that leaves us unable to fathom its very being. And because we cannot fathom it, it imbues us with a sense of wondrous terror “surpassing every standard of sense.”

One need not read Enlightenment philosophers to appreciate this sensation of dizzying and wondrous dread. It is the same sentiment that Houellebecq found in Lovecraft’s transformation of the ordinary or that Baudelaire discovered in Poe’s stories and poetry. The best horror writing inspires us with a sense of dread that is at once horrifying and mesmerizing. It is the elephant man we return to night after night, that “formless object” that transports us to the nightmarish depths without completely untethering us from the ordinary world we inhabit on a daily basis. Horror is truly a sublime art.



At various points in his life, Alistair Rey has been an author, rare book dealer and writer of political propaganda. His work has appeared in The Berkeley Fiction Review, The Lowestoft Chronicle and Juked, among other publications. He presently resides in the United Kingdom.


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