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Upon The Nature Of Horror

October 30, 2022
by the gentle author

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I believe I was born with a medieval imagination. It is the only way I can explain the explicit gothic terrors of my childhood. Even lying in my cradle, I recall observing the monstrous face that emerged from the ceiling lampshade once the light was turned out. This all-seeing creature, peering at me from above, grew more pervasive as years passed, occupying the shadows at the edges of my vision and assuming more concrete manifestations. An unexpected sound in my dark room revealed its presence, causing me to lie still and hold my breath, as if through my petrified silence I could avert the attention of the devil leaning over my bedside.

When I first became aware of gargoyles carved upon churches and illustrated in manuscripts, I recognised these creatures from my own imagination and I made my own paintings of these scaled, clawed, horned, winged beasts, which were as familiar as animals in the natural world. I interpreted any indeterminate sound or movement from the dark as indicating their physical presence in my temporal existence. Consequently, darkness, shadow and gloom were an inescapable source of fear to me on account of the nameless threat they harboured, always lurking there just waiting to pounce. At this time of year, when the dusk glimmers earlier in the day, their power grew as if these creatures of the shades might overrun the earth.

Nothing could have persuaded me to walk into a dark house alone. One teenage summer, I looked after an old cottage while the residents were on their holiday and, returning after work at night, I had to walk a long road that led through a deep wood without street lighting. As I wheeled my bicycle up the steep hill among the trees in dread, it seemed to me they were alive with monsters and any movement of the branches confirmed their teeming presence.

Yet I discovered a love of ghost stories and collected anthologies of tales of the supernatural, which I accepted as real because they extended and explained the uncanny notions of my own imagination. In an attempt to normalise my fears, I made a study of mythical beasts and learnt to distinguish between a griffin and a wyvern. When I discovered the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Breughel, I grew fascinated and strangely reassured that they had seen the apocalyptic visions which haunted the recesses of my own mind.

I made the mistake of going to see Ridley Scott’s The Alien alone and experienced ninety minutes transfixed with terror, unable to move, because – unlike the characters in the drama – I was already familiar with this beast who had been pursuing me my whole life. In retrospect, I recognise the equivocal nature of this experience, because I also sought a screening of The Exorcist with similar results. Perhaps I sought consolation in having my worst fears realised, even if I regretted it too?

Once, walking through a side street at night, I peered into the window of an empty printshop and leapt six feet back when a dark figure rose up from among the machines to confront my face in the glass. My companions found this reaction to my own shadow highly amusing and it was a troubling reminder of the degree to which I was at the mercy of these irrational fears even as an adult.

I woke in the night sometimes, shaking with fear and convinced there were venomous snakes in the foot of my bed. The only solution was to unmake the bed and remake it again before I could climb back in. Imagine my surprise when I visited the aquarium in Berlin and decided to explore the upper floor where I was confronted with glass cases of live tropical snakes. Even as I sprinted away down the street, I felt the need to keep a distance from cars in case a serpent might be lurking underneath. This particular terror reached its nadir when I was walking in the Pyrenees, and stood to bathe beneath a waterfall and cool myself on a hot day. A green snake of several feet in length fell wriggling from above, hit me, bounced off into the pool and swam away, leaving me frozen in shock.

Somewhere all these fears dissolved. I do not know where or when exactly. I no longer read ghost stories or watch horror films and equally I do not seek out dark places or reptile houses. None of these things have purchase upon my psyche or even hold any interest anymore. Those scaly beasts have retreated from the world. For me, the shadows are not inhabited by the spectral and the unfathomable darkness is empty.

Bereavement entered my life and it dispelled these fears which haunted me for so long. My mother and father who used to turn out the light and leave me to sleep in my childhood room at the mercy of medieval phantasms are gone, and I have to live in the knowledge that they can no longer protect me. Once I witnessed the moment of death with my own eyes, it held no mystery for me. The demons became redundant and fled. Now they have lost their power over me, I miss them – or rather, perhaps, I miss the person I used to be – yet I am happy to live a life without supernatural agency.

Fourteenth century carvings from St Katherine’s Chapel, Limehouse

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8 Responses leave one →
  1. Miss Stephanie Watson permalink
    October 30, 2022

    Beautifully written, and very evocative of the transformation of horror as we age, from the supernatural to the natural. Great photos too.

  2. Paul Loften permalink
    October 30, 2022

    A while ago I lived opposite the entrance to Abney Park Cemetery. On the night of Halloween you could see ghouls in white shrouds running through the cemetery. I don’t know if they still appear it was a long time ago and they may have since been exorcised by the local priest . It was pretty scary I can tell you . I can recommend it to anyone in need of a good fright .
    However the GA has provided us with enough frights and scares in todays blog so I will stay at home with it by my bedside to read once more , along with a cup of tea to comfort me.

  3. Victoria permalink
    October 30, 2022

    Much understood.

  4. David Harrison permalink
    October 30, 2022

    A beautiful and honest piece.

  5. October 30, 2022

    I will always associate Halloween with a special personal landmark: my first kiss.
    Our gang of neighborhood kids had concluded our evening of carousing and candy-collecting.
    I felt restless and adventurous, and decided to follow the path up through the woods behind our house, to the nearby cemetery. During daytime hours, this was a favorite place to walk, sit, sketch, dream. I had never visited there during the nighttime hours — and in theory a graveyard at night “should” have been a scary place. But, to me, it was familiar and welcoming. Go figure.
    I placed my unwieldy bag of Halloween candy near a tree where I would find it later, and walked through the darkness, swinging my arms and “gathering” the night air. Buoyant and happy.
    I heard footsteps behind me, and the boy’s hand slipped into mine. Again — I suppose all this should have seemed alarming. But it wasn’t. We turned to each other, and kissed.
    A treasured happy memory.

  6. October 30, 2022

    Excellent writing on the power of the imagination, our imagination. Brilliantly hair raising. More than enough for me, this ‘season’ of horror. Thank you GA!

  7. Marcia Howard permalink
    October 30, 2022

    My childhood was plagued with nightmare dreams. And I thought it was only me!

  8. Bill Cahill permalink
    October 30, 2022

    Bravo! Bravo!!

    An agonistic invitation to probe through the mind of the Gentle Author, with my horrificically ragged and blackened fingernails pulling apart the soft tissues of gruesome memory!


    Happy Halloween, my chicks!

    Happy Halloween.


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