“That Didn’t Scare Me”: Thoughts on Horror Fiction

“Horror is not a genre like the mystery or science fiction or the western
. . . Horror is an emotion.” – Douglas E. Winter

“That didn’t scare me.” This level of criticism grates my sensibilities. That didn’t scare me. It’s the sort of comment you overhear when leaving the cinema or that you might witness among a torrent of social-media posts, not generally known for their insight or elucidation in the first place. It’s not even the brevity of this comment that bothers me, but rather that this grunt seems to convey a shallow understanding of horror: “That didn’t scare me.”

As a life-long connoisseur of horror, I seldom experience genuine “fear” while reading (or viewing)—that adrenaline-fuelled dread termed “art-horror” by Noel Carroll in The Philosophy of Horror. It does happen to me on occasion though, this sense of frisson: I remember the worrying, childhood anxiety of the doomsday clock in John Bellairs’s The House with a Clock in Its Walls, that horrible cosmic grandeur I experienced the first time I turned the pages of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, or the overbearing sense of inexorable supernatural fate in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

But if invoking this feeling of fear is such a rare experience—a sort of holy grail of reader reaction—then you might rightly wonder why I carry on exploring this particular section of the library? Am I not effectively one among the crowd, professing with a sneer, that didn’t scare me? It’s a reasonable question. Put another way: If horror doesn’t get you scared, then what are you getting?

In his introduction to the anthology Prime Evil (1988), editor Douglas E. Winter makes an observation, often repeated, what he calls “an important bit of heresy”: “Horror is not a genre like the mystery or science fiction or the western . . . Horror is an emotion.” This is a good place to start: horror is an emotion, and so the success or failure of horror literature is predicated on eliciting an emotional sensation in the reader. Similar to how a joke might be deemed a success or failure depending on the laughs. But there’s got to be more to it than that.

Consider a grand piano, onyx black, appropriately festooned with cobwebs and candelabra bedecked with dripping red candles. Imagine being allowed to play only one note, probably down the far left end of the instrument where the theme from Jaws is usually played. Now imagine that the sole way to enhance the effectiveness of this note is to hammer that one key harder and harder. For many, this is horror. Hammering that single key. Lots of people love that one pounding note too, and feel cheated if they don’t get that adrenaline rush; that didn’t scare me. Sure, that single note might be novel for a moment, sometimes even effective in a particular context, as the musician changes speed or intensity. But you’ll forgive me if I tend to feel overwhelmingly bored with this sort of concert.

Uncertainties 4, painting by B. Catling

“Horror is an emotion,” Douglas E. Winter tells us. I would respectfully like to amend that assertion. Horror is a range of emotions. And each of these moods, if they are to be successful, must be cultivated differently. We know that good horror is rarely just a single note. There are far more keys on that piano—and they’re all elegantly tuned. To borrow the subtitle of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, the genre is eine Symphonie des Grauens—a symphony of horrors.

There seems to have been a proliferation of horror-related literary descriptors in the early- to mid-twentieth century (or at least an increasingly formalised awareness of them): cosmic, weird, numinous, uncanny, strange, among others. I believe these words are of merit, not because they define sub-genres, but because they reflect attempts to describe particular nuances of affect (emotional responses) to be found in the “ghost story”—the dominant mode of horror in the late nineteenth century, itself rooted in the gothic tradition. Despite the common trope of the wailing bedsheet, the ghost story has always been quite diverse and adaptable. As is occasionally observed, the “ghosts” in the works of M. R. James are often not ghosts at all, but demons and other such denizens; while the stories of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and Henry James practically beg for the qualifier “psychological” so as to set them apart from the less imaginative chain-rattling fare. And yet, even though Algernon Blackwood himself called “The Willows” a ghost story, that attribution would seem a wholly inadequate description for the troubling sentiments that masterful tale evokes. Who can blame Lovecraft for writing an entire treatise pondering the aesthetics of the weird or Robert Aickman for labouring the strange?

This attempt to describe dominant effects found in horror storytelling continues apace; sometimes these descriptions are celebrated, other times they’re inelegantly stated, occasionally there’s some sort of backlash. Current nomenclature includes “quiet horror” or “elevated horror”, “horror adjacent”, “new horror”, and the ostensibly respectable “thriller”. But surely horror means horror. It doesn’t need your fancy terms. Perhaps the worry is that defining a “sub-genre” will limit creativity, possibly that it’s just a marketing ploy, or, worse still, a declaration of vogueishness, a demonstration of an otherwise unspoken desire to be au courant. Or maybe outsiders discovering good horror ruin the mystique of the insular and supposedly marginalised horror geek who has been reading Thomas Ligotti this whole time anyway.

As someone who thinks often about the mechanics of horror storytelling, it makes sense to me that we recognise and try to describe the wide-ranging nuances of emotional sensations available to writers of horror. I believe understanding this diversity makes horror literature a stronger, richer, and more enjoyable pursuit.

Over the years I’ve written down some words that I’ve come to associate with the various emotional resonances found in horror literature. Take a moment to read through them. Think about stories you’ve read that evoke these sensations to varying degrees of success, and how these ideas differ from one another:

Strange
Weird
Dread
Uncanny
Eerie
Wonder
Awe
Decadence
Terror
Occult
Despair
Numinous
Epiphany
Nihilistic
Cosmic
Psychical
Mysterious
Gothic
Melancholy
Unreal
Surreal
Disquietude
Morbid
Oneiric
Mystical
Supernatural
Sublime
Grotesque
Unease
Paranoia
Revulsion

I have not attempted to arrange these words in any sort of order. I’m not sure I would know how. Nor would I feel confident to state that this list is complete; no doubt you can think of more. Call these words what you’d like—sub-genres, modes, atmospheres, moods, sensibilities—but they all describe, directly or indirectly, discreet emotional sensations that a skilled writer can elicit from a reader. It also stands to reason that this variety of effects requires a broad range of appreciative sensibilities—though I understand that not everyone will respond equally to each of these words. Still, there are plenty of emotional sensations available to the skilled writer, the adrenaline rush of fear being only one of them. And this sensation alone is insufficient to judge the vast scope of horror. So much for “That didn’t scare me”.

Numerous essayists over the centuries have attempted to define some of these modes, to delineate their core attributes and limits. Anne Radcliffe made an early attempt at that classic bifurcation, differentiating terror and horror: “the first expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them”; to these twin poles, Stephen King added revulsion (the “gross-out”, he called it). Thomas Burke gives us the sublime, when “the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it”; while Freud sets out a reasonable starting point for the uncanny (“that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar”).

Though the weird is often associated with Lovecraft’s examination of supernatural horror in literature, I like Mark Fisher’s more recent philosophical definition in The Weird and the Eerie: “that which does not belong”; and of the eerie: the “failure of absence” or the “failure of presence”. (Fisher also helpfully tells us that the weird and the eerie need not necessarily be aligned with fear either, thank you very much.) The well-known rules for the ghost story proper were set out by M. R. James; so too does Edith Wharton give insight in her preface to Ghosts: “What the ghost really needs is continuity and silence”—although she also notes, “the more one thinks the question over, the more one perceives the impossibility of defining supernatural events”.

It’s true that many have tried to put words to these nuanced facets of horror. Certainly, some overlap or work in tandem, while others command entirely recognisable sub-genres on their own. We can look to Arthur Machen for the mystical (“Omnia exeunt in mysterium”), to Aickman for the strange (“it must open a door where no one had previously noticed a door to exist”), or to Joyce Carol Oates for the grotesque (“a blunt physicality that no amount of epistemological exegesis can exorcise”). There are whole books written on the subject by Dorothy Scarborough, Montague Summers, Peter Penzoldt, Devendra P. Varma, Julia Briggs, Jack Sullivan, Glen Cavaliero, S. T. Joshi—you may not always agree with their conclusions (isn’t that half the fun anyway?), but all are attempting to give names to the various effects a “horror” story can elicit.

Which brings us to the present volume, the fifth in a series of unsettling tales. Believe it or not, Uncertainties is a themed anthology. The remit was nothing so superficial as vampires or zombies or folk horror or Cthulhu (only in dustbowl Oklahoma this time), but rather to exhibit horror’s myriad nuances, to open up strange vistas of unsettling possibilities and other-worldly ideas, to commune with intrusions from the outside and those disquieting gestations from within. “Ghost stories,” as Elizabeth Bowen observed, “are not easy to write—least easy now, for they involve more than they did.” But these twelve writers take up the challenge, each in their own way, with expert awareness of the genre’s limitless possibilities.

Algernon Blackwood put it well in “The Willows”, a story that’s caused me many sleepless nights in terrible awe of the unknown: “ ‘There are things about us, I’m sure, that make for disorder, disintegration, destruction, our destruction,’ he said once, while the fire blazed between us. ‘We’ve strayed out of a safe line somewhere.’ ”

So you can call these stories whatever you’d like: weird, strange, eerie, uncanny . . . I call them Uncertainties.

Brian J. Showers
Rathmines, Dublin
24 February 2021

If you liked this essay and want to show
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Buy a copy of Uncertainties 5.


Brian J. Showers is originally from Madison, Wisconsin. He has written short stories, articles, and reviews for magazines such as Rue Morgue, Ghosts & Scholars, and Supernatural Tales. His short story collection, The Bleeding Horse, won the Children of the Night Award in 2008. He is also the author of Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin (2006), the co-editor of Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu (2011), and the editor of The Green Book. Showers also edited the first two volumes of Uncertainties, and co-edited with Jim Rockhill, the Ghost Story Award-winning anthology Dreams of Shadow and Smoke. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.


Previous volumes of Uncertainties are also available:

Uncertainties Volume 4, edited by Timothy J. Jarvis

Uncertainties Volume 3, edited by Lynda E. Rucker

Uncertainties Volume 2, edited by Brian J. Showers

Uncertainties Volume 1, edited by Brian J. Showers

“That Didn’t Scare Me”: Thoughts on Horror Fiction

Uncertainties 4: A Chat with Timothy J. Jarvis

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Conducted by Lynda E. Rucker

Timothy J. Jarvis is a writer and scholar with an interest in the antic, the weird, the strange. His first novel, The Wanderer, was published by Perfect Edge Books in 2014. His short fiction has appeared in The Flower Book, The Shadow Booth Volume 1, The Scarlet Soul, The Far TowerMurder Ballads, and Uncertainties 1, among other places. He also writes criticism and reviews, and is co-editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen.


 

Lynda: E. Rucker: First, I want to say how much I enjoyed this volume of Uncertainties! I love the direction you took the series in here.

 In your introduction, you write about how it’s less the traditional ghost that’s disconcerting to you as a reader these days then the bizarre juxtaposition of certain settings and events. Even more than any particular contemporary writer, I associate this with the filmmaker David Lynch. It also makes me think of something I come back to often, Arthur Machen’s definition of “sin”, as described by Cosgrove in “The White People”: “What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror . . . And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?” Can you say a little more about this approach to storytelling and how the stories in Uncertainties 4 achieve this unsettling affect (either individually or as a whole)?

28535979_10212960569946601_193795878_nTimothy J. Jarvis: Thanks Lynda! It was somewhat intimidating to follow the powerful set of stories you assembled for Volume 3. I loved the work in that anthology, and sought more tales that contained those “little slips of the veil” you discuss in your introduction. That notion — that our general sense of reality is complacent, needs undermining if we are to see more clearly — is one I think really important.

And I completely agree — I also think first of Lynch’s work in relation to this kind of aesthetic. There’s something compelling and unique about the filmic language he’s developed. It’s often called surreal, and it does, it’s true, tap into that same rich vein the surrealists found when mining dreams in the early twentieth century. But I think there’s something else going on too . . . The surrealists used free-associative techniques drawn from psychoanalysis to quarry the startling imagery of works like Un Chien Andalou or Story of the Eye. But it seems to me the twentieth century has to an extent defanged the strange of the inner life of the mind — partly because we are now so familiar with it, due to the prevalence of psychiatric and therapeutic discourse in everyday life, but mostly because culture has pumped the collective unconscious full of banality — ecstatic dream states feel very far away just now. Lynch uses transcendental meditation, a technique ostensibly similar to the automatism of the surrealists, to trawl for the fish swimming in the abyssal depths of consciousness, but the result somehow opens our collective eyes once more (if we let it). This is partly, I feel, because he brings tawdry and plain dull aspects of contemporary culture into his work, and not as parody or détournement, but without any ironic distance, something that gives rise to juxtapositions which produce extraordinary effects. The everyday is estranged, the strange made commonplace. His series of web films, Rabbits, sections of which appear nightmarishly in Inland Empire, perfectly demonstrates this. Actors wearing rabbit-head masks and dressed in ’50s-style suits or housecoats pace about an impersonal living-room or sit on its red-leather couch. The camera is static. The presentation is remarkably close to a sitcom, and as such feels very familiar. There is even canned applause and laughter, though the reactions of the ersatz audience bear little relation to what’s happening on set. The characters talk in banalities, non sequiturs, and gnomic utterances. The soundtrack is ominous industrial drone, thunder, and train horns that sound like mournful whale song. There is singing and moments of demonic intensity. It is very very wrong. A particular kind of wrongness that opens the modern viewer up to something very much like that which the surrealists found when prospecting in the unconscious. Or, for that matter, like the proximity to the numinous medieval mystics felt when in the throes of a visionary experience. It was this kind of affect I was looking for when soliciting stories for the anthology.

Rabbits-lynch

Arthur Machen is a writer whose work is really important to me. His worldview, with its mixture of the esoteric and neoplatonist, is all about the search for an ecstatic that is both outside and within the quotidian. I’m fascinated by that definition of sin from “The White People” and I think must have been unconsciously applying it to my editorial approach. And Machen’s emphasis on the ecstatic in art, which he outlines in his literary treatise Hieroglyphics, was also a significant influence — the idea that contact with a strange outside might not necessarily involve horror. A lot of the tales in Uncertainties IV do evoke dread, but not all. Camilla Grudova’s “ ‘A Novel (or Poem) About Fan’ or ‘The Zoo’ “ and Nadia Bulkin’s “Some Girls Wander By Mistake” are among the stories that evoke much more the melancholy that a haunting can give rise to, a sense of loss become almost cosmic.

LER: Your casting of this approach as a twentieth and particularly twenty-first century phenomenon, and your choice of an epigram — “We live in Gothic times” — made me think of J. G. Ballard’s assertion in the 1970s that science fiction is the only form of fiction that is truly relevant, that can describe the world as it is. Do you think the weird/strange story or the Gothic are especially relevant modes for contemporary times, and if so, why?

UncertaintiesVol3_DJ_CoveronlyTJJ: I do think the strange story, through the Machenian ecstatic, offers a particularly incisive way of flensing the mundane from the weird heart of things, and especially now, at this historical moment. What I particularly like about that Angela Carter quote is the idea that fiction is a means by which we can interrogate the world, and that we need, as writers, to ensure our tools are fit and honed for the task. I believe that when, in the western world, left-brain, rational modes of thinking became the predominant means of asking important questions, sometime in the seventeenth century, something was lost. There is always something that escapes reason, always something ineffable, but we tend now to ignore it. Kant divided the world into the realms of the phenomenal and noumenal and humankind choose to live in the former, in our heads, in the realm of the senses. Realist fiction is largely tied to this empirical mode, but the fantastic, the Gothic, connects more to the right-brain, to the imagination, and can offer us glimpses of the inaccessible real world out there. John Clute puts in brilliantly when he writes, in The Darkening Garden, “The Fantastic is the Enlightenment’s dark, mocking Twin . . . Bound to the world, the Fantastic exposes the lie that we own the world to which we are bound.”

Till recently there was still good faith on the empirical side and the imagination was allowed its demesne, but in our post-truth, post-facts world, things are a deal more confusing . . . The imagination seems now to be actively supressed, to be seen as dangerous. I think, therefore, it’s more important than ever that the Fantastic expose that lie.

I think this kind of investigation works across all the modes that are descended from the Gothic, and there are stories in Uncertainties IV that are recognisably science fiction — Marian Womack’s “At the Museum” and Aliya Whiteley’s “Reflection, Refraction, Dispersion” — which use that mode to open up to the nebulous and weird. There are stories which powerfully use the strange to crowbar open the mundane and show us its horrors, stories such as Gary Budden’s “We Pass Under” and Anna Tambour’s “Hand Out”. In other tales, intimate hauntings spiral into terrifying brutality, as in Lucie McKnight Hardy’s “The Birds of Nagasaki” and Charles Wilkinson’s “These Words, Rising From Stone”. And in yet others, the weird irrupts into the everyday to disconcert and derange, as it does in Brian Evenson’s “Myling Kommer”, D. P. Watt’s “Primal”, and Claire Dean’s “Feeding the Peat”.

LER: Since you assembled the anthology and it was published, times have taken a turn for the very strange indeed as we, along with much of the rest of the world, are locked down during a global pandemic. More than ever, it feels very much like a backdrop for an Uncertainties setting! Any thoughts on how destabilizing this sudden change is for us and how it might affect the fiction we write and read?

TJJ: This ongoing season of the plague definitely feels like something drawn from stranger fringes of supernatural fiction, perhaps from Eric Basso’s “The Beak Doctor”, Tanith Lee’s Paradys books M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, or M. John Harrison’s In Viriconium. There is something of that weird apocalyptic mood, on the intimate scale of short fiction, in Uncertainties IV — in tales such as Rebecca Lloyd’s “I Seen Her”, Kristine Ong Muslim’s “The Pit”, and John Darnielle’s “I Serve the Lambdon Worm”. It’s a tone I like very much, though its real world counterpart feels very bleak.

130780I think the pandemic can be seen as the world out there, that Kantian noumenal, reasserting itself, reacting against a particularly venal geopolitics. It forces us to encounter the vainglory of our anthropocentric perspective. In this way, the weird tale has a particular affinity for the current moment — this is something it’s been doing all the way back to, and beyond, Algernon Blackwood’s stories such as “The Willows” and “The Wendigo” and William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land. I think fiction generally has been getting odder for a time, and will continue to do so — and the strange story is in the vanguard of this movement.

LER: Your table of contents is exciting — I can’t think of a better word. It’s because of both the writers you’ve chosen and the juxtaposition of writers — some we might anticipate seeing in an anthology like this, like D. P. Watt or Nadia Bulkin, some are very new voices, like Lucie McKnight Hardy, and still others might be new to readers of this type of fiction, like Claire Dean. How did you select the authors that you did for inclusion?

TJJ: When Brian J. Showers at Swan River invited me to edit Uncertainties IV, I was thrilled. I’d loved the previous volumes, and the series’ unconventional approach to the supernatural tale anthology was one that really appealed. So when I was soliciting and reading stories, I wished to do justice to that unique take on the ghost story. I also had in mind a particular mood that I wanted. There are incredible anthologies that have a diverse array of kinds of tales, but I felt I wanted a consistent tone for Uncertainties IV. My choices tended to be driven by this aesthetic. I wanted stories that were dark, yet not necessarily conventionally horrifying, and I wanted to see an experimental, risk-taking approach to prose. Speculative narrative and innovative writing can be uneasy bedfellows, but I was looking for authors and stories that brought them together naturally. I think this has meant the anthology is on the borders of a number of different literary modes, and hopefully will introduce readers to writers new to them. In this approach, I was influenced by the excellent Nightjar Press series of chapbooks (which is where I first read both Lucie and Claire) where what might be termed a more literary sensibility (though I personally dislike the use of “literary” in this way) coexists with themes more usually found in genre work. I do find this really exciting, and, of course, I was really fortunate that some of my very favourite writers in the field sent through such powerful stories.

LER: One thing that struck me is that most of the writers you chose are those who have risen to prominence during the last decade. Was that a deliberate choice, and if so, why?

Not especially — it was largely coincidence, really. But Brian and I wanted to bring some new authors to the press, so that partly guided the choices — none of the writers whose stories appear in Uncertainties IV have appeared in any other volumes of the anthology. And, as I mentioned earlier, I was really keen to include writers not perhaps that well known to readers of weird tales, but whose voices I found compelling. So it ended up being a mixture of authors in the field who’ve not appeared in Uncertainties before, and writers whose work might not be known to genre readers. Outside of the consistent tone, I wanted to be eclectic, and have my choices guided by stories I loved. It was great to be able to bring a slightly different set of voices to the strange tale anthology; writers like Camilla Grudova, whose sui generis fictions sit on the fringes of genre, but whose style nestled in nicely with the other stories here, and John Darnielle, who is best known for two powerful novels, that mix realism and genre fiction, and his elegant and poignant songwriting with the Mountain Goats. It was great to have John, whose work I’d been a fan of for many years, give me a disconcerting flash fiction for this — I discovered he was a lover of small-press supernatural tales when I hosted a Q&A with him on the release of his novel, Universal Harvester.

LER: While reading this particular incarnation of Uncertainties, I kept thinking of the brilliant anthology Black Water edited by Alberto Manguel. To me, this feels very much like a worthy successor in that vein (albeit about 700 pages shorter!) Was this on your mind as an influence as you assembled this? Were any other anthologies an inspiration or influence?

51dZ3jMujFLTJJ: The eclecticism of that mammoth tone, along with that of Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Silvina Ocampo’s Anthology of Fantastic Literature, and that of their modern day successor, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, which is such a wonderful treasure trove, was definitely an influence. But I also wanted that consistent mood I mentioned before, and in that I was influenced by the previous volumes in the Uncertainties series, having really admired what you and Brian had done with those, and also by the wonderful flourishing of small press anthologies there has been of late — other titles from Swan River Press, and from Egaeus, Tartarus, Zagava, and Undertow, to name only a few. I think we’re currently in the midst of a really great era for the experimental supernatural tale anthology.

LER: Is there anything else you want to say to potential readers to encourage them to order a copy of Uncertainties IV?

TJJ: Uncertainties IV is an anthology of haunted stories, but traditional revenants do not appear (there are ghosts in some of the tales, but, like wilful poltergeists, they overturn the conventions). Instead, the volume is haunted by a sense of disquiet. Within its pages, what you’ll find is irresolution and ambiguity, the strange or eerie or ecstatic, and beautiful, risk-taking prose. These stories play on the flickering inkling that what is present to your senses is perhaps not all there is, and they will put you into tremulous contact with something unknowable, hidden out in the world or buried within yourself.

Buy a copy of Uncertainties IV


Lynda E. Rucker has sold more than three dozen short stories to various magazines and anthologies, won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Short Story, and is a regular columnist for UK horror magazine Black Static. Her first collection, The Moon Will Look Strange, was released in 2013 from Karoshi Books; and her second, You’ll Know When You Get There, was published by Swan River Press in 2016, for whom she also edited Uncertainties III.

Uncertainties 4: A Chat with Timothy J. Jarvis

Thoughts on Uncertainties 4

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Uncertainties is an anthology series — featuring authors from Britain, America, Canada, Australia, and the Philippines — each exploring the concept of increasingly fragmented senses of reality. These types of short stories were termed “strange tales” by Robert Aickman, called “tales of the unexpected” by Roald Dahl, and known to Shakespeare’s ill-fated Prince Mamillius as “winter’s tales”. But these are no mere ghost stories. These tales of the uncanny grapple with existential epiphanies of the modern day, when otherwise familiar landscapes become sinister and something decidedly less than certain . . .


Over the last year or so, I’ve been working on putting together the fourth in Swan River Press’s series of contemporary supernatural and strange tale anthologies, Uncertainties. It’s the first time I’ve edited a fiction anthology and it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in writing. It’s been great seeing the thing take shape — as it started to come together, it began to take on a life of its own. Brian J. Showers at Swan River was incredibly helpful throughout the process, sharing his wealth of experience. He pretty much gave me free rein, his only brief being that I bring in some writers who hadn’t featured in the series before, and who might be new to the press. It has long been my feeling that innovative writing can enhance the uncanniness of a supernatural tale, so I solicited contributions from writers who I thought would be playful and experimental with their tales. And as cohesion was really important to me from the outset, I also asked writers whose work I thought would share points of similarity. As the pieces came in, I saw this had worked better than I’d dared hope and that there were lots of potent synchronicities between the stories. But there was also a lot of variety, so I starting thinking about how certain juxtapositions might work and also how to ensure an overall flow. The tales are all experimental in some way, but run the gamut from melancholia, to outright horror, to comedy. I wanted to balance and shift between tones in a hopefully satisfying way. It took me back to the days of making mixtapes for friends, and thinking about flow, moving between moods, and setting up a kind of loose overall narrative from disparate parts.

This was an incredibly satisfying process. It was also really satisfying to work with the talented Swan River team of Meggan Kehrli, Ken Mackenzie, and Jim Rockhill, whose design and editing skills ensured the finished article looks superb. And it was a real privilege to have for the cover a powerful piece of art by modern surrealist, Brian Catling, from a series of paintings inspired by the writing of M.R. James — it mingles the ghostly and the bizarre in much the same way as the tales within.

The section below is taken from my introduction to the volume. I wanted to try to give a flavour of the stories and illustrate my thesis about the contemporary supernatural tale, and did so by relating a couple of incidents that had been much in my thoughts, and which seemed to me to show what I conceived to be the difference between the traditional ghost story and the tale of uncertainty.

Timothy J. Jarvis B&WI have twice, in the last year, visited a supposedly haunted site not far from where I live in rural Bedfordshire: Old St Mary’s, a derelict fourteenth-century church on a hill above Clophill, a picturesque village about thirteen miles to the north of Luton. Old St Mary’s gained a sinister reputation in the 1960s following a spate of desecrations — over a period of several weeks, on moonless nights, graves were broken open and bones disinterred, and the ruins were daubed with disturbing graffiti. It was thought to be mostly aimless vandalism, the work of bored young people aping, but the original violation apparently bore clear signs of a knowledge of the occult and of the practices of dark rites. That time, the skeleton had not been just scattered but deliberately laid out inside the ruin in a pattern associated with the Black Mass, and a Maltese Cross had been daubed on the floor in what was thought, from feathers found strewn about, to have been cockerel’s blood. Afterwards the place became a bugbear for locals, with teenagers from Luton daring each other to visit it at night. Now it is a heritage site and well maintained, but it still has a charge.

The first time I went up to the church, it was dusk, following a grey late autumn day. There were two of us out walking. As my friend and I approached the ruins they were thrown into stark relief when the sun, setting behind them, a ball of orange fissured with red, like the blood-threaded yolk of an egg, dropped below the cowl of cloud. The effect was Gothic. My friend and I wandered about the churchyard for a time, took in the views, then went back down the path towards Clophill. Between Old St Mary’s and the village, the path passes through copse, and as we walked under the canopy of reddening leaves, where all was gloom, my friend and I saw, out of the corners of our eyes, a hand reaching between us. We startled, looked round, but there was of course no one there.

The second time I climbed up to Old St Mary’s, there was a group of us. It was a warm summer’s afternoon, the sun bright and high in a clear sky, the only clouds frothy white streaks, like cuckoo spit. As we approached the top of the hill, a blue van towing a low trailer heaped with junk drove past and pulled up in front of the gates to the churchyard. Two nondescript men, one balding, the other tall, both middle aged and dressed fairly smartly in chinos and linen jackets, like stockbrokers in weekend attire, got out of the cab, leaving the engine idling, and began circling the vehicle. After some moments stretching their legs they wandered off among the graves.

As we neared the van — which spluttered on, the smell of diesel exhaust acrid in the air — we saw, atop the pile of broken things in the trailer, an old cathode ray television, screen smashed, with, in the body of the set, a Murano glass sculpture of a clown, of the kind popular in the ’70s, which now, as the generation that bought and cherished such things dies off, floods charity shops. The clown was set there in that wrecked TV like statues of the Virgin are in roadside niches in southern Europe.

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Rounding the van, we saw that the men who’d got out of it were cavorting strangely in the churchyard. The balding was flailing his limbs in some kind of jerky dance and the tall was darting hither and yon. Then he stopped running about and stood before a headstone. We realized a moment later that he was pissing against it. The other kept on dancing. We decided then, without a word between us, not go on up to the church. We were halfway back to the village again, just emerging from the copse, when we heard the van’s engine revving behind us, and it careered past, kicking up clouds of dust, forcing us into the ditch. As the trailer went by, I could swear the glass clown turned its head to look at me and grinned.

I’ve exaggerated some of the details here for effect (though not actually by very much). Two incidents that gave rise to the uncanny. But the first, closer in tenor to the classic Victorian ghost story, was far less disconcerting than the second, which has more in common with the stories of uncertainty found in this volume. We almost expect to see ghostly hands at haunted sites — there’s no real ontological rift. Preternaturally animated Murano glass clowns, we do not anticipate. The other key difference is that in the second story, the actual moment of the supernatural is not as important in creating the effect as the bizarreness of what led up to it — tales of uncertainty often show us a world always already off-kilter.

Buy a copy of Uncertainties 4.



Timothy J. Jarvis is a writer and scholar with an interest in the antic, the weird, the strange. His first novel, The Wanderer, was published by Perfect Edge Books in 2014. His short fiction has appeared in The Flower Book, The Shadow Booth Vol. 1, The Scarlet Soul, Murder Ballads, and Uncertainties I, among other places. He also writes criticism and reviews, and is co-editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen.

Thoughts on Uncertainties 4