Every year, Radiolab puts out a number of podcasts, some of which find their way into thematic episodes and some of which don’t. Recently, they published a piece on the phenomenal presence of Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet, a fairly dense and academic look at the connection between the horror genre and existentialism. The Radiolab episode starts out strong, but ends up concluding that many of the propagators of the Dust phenomenon are attracted by the menacing, suggestive title and the stark cover graphics, and haven’t actually read the book.
I haven’t read it either.
However, I have read the Google Books preview which runs to roughly twenty-five pages. The excerpt concerns demonology, and the ways in which humans relate to the non-human world through the figure of a sometimes-malevolent spirit. To summarize, there is a tension in human understanding in which we are aware of a world outside of our selves, but the act of attempting to understand this world renders it intelligible only as a human phenomenon, which necessarily means failing to capture the alien-ness of the outsideness. The actual non-human world retreats beyond this colonization of outsideness, without ever being domesticated in the process. I would specify further that humans attempt to “understand” the world outside ourselves by rendering it into that most human of basic conceptual structures, the narrative story.
Thus, there are various ages of demons described in the excerpt. The classical Greeks, who lived in a universe in which the gods were numerous and ill-behaved, believed in demons (daimonion) who offered words, thoughts, urges, impulses from outside the recognized self. These weren’t necessarily evil, though obviously some “demonic” influences would be culturally sanctioned. Thacker traces the evolution of demons through a biblical section I don’t understand to the medieval concept of a malevolent spirit that “possesses” individuals to do evil things, and finally to the modern psychological idea of an objectified neurosis driving behavior. All of these represent recuperations of the non-human world as humanizable elements, whether as motivated spirits or as conceptualizable diseases. All of these ultimately fail to describe the world, and all are, eventually, perceived as misguided superstition.
Thacker places horror literature and movies at the expanding boundary of the world outside ourselves. Accordingly, the postmodern demon is a force of unknowability. We do not fear people (or gods, or nature, or demons) want to hurt us for understandable reasons, but rather a universe in which the suffering of humans occurs without reason, or outside of narrative, outside of the thinkable. Horror is the unthinkable, the thing that does not care, that will not join our narrative as an embodied character or mechanism. Horror is the predatory alien, the ineluctable disease, the unstinting force of a hurricane. The postmodern demon does not monologue, does not seek, does not prosper, it only is, and remains, beyond our comprehension.
I haven’t, as I said above, read the rest of the book, so I can’t say how Thacker relates this to the horror genre, but this concept of thinkability does seem german to a book I have read: Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home, widely credited, including on wikipedia as the inspiration for Stephen King’s Children of the Corn.
Why Harvest Home is Totally Different From Children of the Corn
I am going to assume that you have read both stories, and include as many spoilers as I have to in order to make my point. So don’t complain.
Thinking critically, it is actually hard to see how the two could ever be considered similar, except that both deal with isolated corn-growing towns where people die for reasons that outsiders have trouble understanding. Children is a story about a couple on a road trip who find malevolent teenagers worshipping a magical demon, Harvest Home has no demons, no magic, and in fact no supernatural elements whatsoever. In Children the initial horror- of hitting a child with a car- is quite understandable, but the further you get into the story, the sillier it becomes. When He Who Walks Behind The Rows finally shows up, its just a bogeyman in a funny outfit. Or might as well be. Eek run! Can’t run! Eek monster! HWWBTR gets mad about poor performance on the part of the titular children, and imposes a totally human penance; essentially HWWBTR is just a nasty killer person with human motivations who reproduces, in outsized and parodic form, the lethal relationships between subjects and hostile authorities. Bo-ring.
There are two much more sinister threats in Harvest Home. First is the frustration of an outsider unable to understand society- this is a common thread in a lot of modern literature, and probably some very smart person has written it up as alienation somewhere. Ned, the narrator, spends much of the book trying to figure out exactly what underlies the festivals and fairs the people of Cornwall Coombe celebrate. The further he pursues the mystery, the further it retreats, as he realizes that 1) he isn’t just misinformed, but in fact is being deliberately kept in the dark and 2) all men, in fact, are being kept at least partly in the dark by the women of the town. Even the sexton who digs Grace Everdeen’s grave, it turns out, is unaware that he is burying a box of corn and not a body. Ned is aware early on that missteps within this dance of protocols can lead to death, or blinding, or de-tonguing (which is so common in literature that I’m surprised there’s no English word for it), but even so he can’t quite see where to put his feet. By the end, you realize that the only way he could have avoided his ultimate punishment was to live his life without understanding, not merely to accept the existence of mysteries on faith, but to actively turn away from them, to blind himself intellectually lest the mysteries blind him literally.
The second sinister threat in Harvest Home is extinction. The farmer, we are told, fears death as a painful, undignified, but ultimately unavoidable fact of life. Beyond death, however, stands the far more terrifying risk of barrenness- the possibility that everything will be laid to Waste, the crops will fail, one’s children will be destroyed, and the continuity of life will end suddenly when we do. The fertility of this cult is not the hedonistic celebration of humping (though there’s some of that- this was a 70’s novel after all) but the anxious, ritualistic staving-off of a dry and lifeless eternity; a charm against the dread understanding that our grip on the future is always tenuous, and that dying might not be the worst that could happen. It is this ever-death that justifies the sacrifices of Harvest Home, and the fact that nothing ever happens to suggest that the town is justified in believing their rituals have any effect (there is no red-eyed demon in this book) makes it more, rather than less frightening.
Barrenness and the Gender Politics of Harvest Home
As mentioned, the mysterion of Cornwall Coombe is the sole province of its womenfolk. Thus, it is natural to ask- is this another shitty misogynist crap-pile? Oddly, the answer seems to be no, though there is one badly written and completely unnecessary rape scene. The book easily passes the Bechdel Test, for instance. Much of the in-genre fan criticism of the book today focuses on the extremely slow pace of the horror elements of the story- we have no blood until the end of part three (of four) and even then it is only a body glimpsed through a drunken bonfire. Instead, Tryon fills that time with an almost-meditative exploration of the rationale for human sacrifice, and why it might continue in the absence of a material glowing-eyed monster demanding more. By the time we reach the harvest ritual, we have seen our comfortable expectation of a benign future revealed for what it is- a modern aberration, a papering over a thousand generations of anxiety, a disposable faith in a distant god.
That said, there are some uncomfortable gender politics on display in the books, and they can’t quite be approached without first recognizing that Tryon’s marriage, entered at the age of 29, ended three years later in divorce. His subsequent relationships, with men, were both more durable and more evanescent, and seem mired in a pre-Stonewall gay sensibility that never quite released itself from self-conscious tragedy. The anxiety of having to work out from scratch the rules by which society functions are just the beginning of Tryon’s visible sense of alienation. The central figure in the book, the absent Grace Everdeen, is a once-beautiful young thing afflicted with a disease (acromegaly, one of many medical appropriations that don’t quite work) that slowly renders her masculine and ugly. It is her unrequited teenage love for the Harvest Lord- for whom she demonstrates her strength, her speed, her skill at wrestling, all to no avail- that brings the Waste on the town and leads to her murder by the jealous and almost campy Tamar. Her body- later her skeleton- are then suspended in a tree where she must watch the (sexual) rites of non-“diseased” men and women forever. When Ned the narrator (and Tryon, and the reader) finally witness the Harvest Ritual, it is by taking, literally, Grace’s place in the tree. The identification couldn’t be any stronger, or more painful.
Furthermore, the tension between heterosexual and homosocial relationships is a singular driver of the plot here. Two of the three shocking betrayals in the book- when friendly neighbor Maggie is revealed to be complicit in the punitive blinding of her own husband, and when Beth is discovered to be the replacement Corn Maiden- are instances where women are more loyal to their gender than to their partners. This is where Tryon’s scrupulous pacing pays off- thanks to the slow, quiet explanation of the town’s ways, we can see these acts as free of malice. Neither woman wishes harm or seeks personal gain, both are simply acting in accordance with a demanding, and unmerciful world that allows no dispensations for intimacy. Tryon spoke throughout his life of a dream-lover, a man on whom he modeled his leading male characters, all of whom suffered gruesomely in his stories. Harvest Home the book, like the ritual, seems like a tragic accommodation of a pitiless, postmodern horror- a hopeless, powerless, meaningless, yet necessary appeasement of the harshness of the world. A thing that must be enacted, despite itself. Perhaps today, Tryon would have saved his dream lover or Maggie would have told her husband what it was he must not gaze upon. Perhaps in a world in which gay rights are a thing, in which mid-range talents can publish endlessly online, perhaps Tryon would have found some comfort and trust in the future, but in 1973 he did not, and he was brave enough to face his demons in print.
In Harvest Home it is the world itself that is the demon.
Stephen King, whom I respect as someone who has kept his dignity as a public citizen despite absolutely unbelievable success as an author, has sold a third of a billion books. Harvest Home has been out of print for years, except for the ebook edition. I can’t, in my mind, separate this difference from King’s indulgence of his audience’s need for human-like appeasable demons and human insanity, a pre-modern and modern indulgence Tryon scrupulously avoids. Tryon died in 1991 a largely forgotten actor and an unsuccessful author, a gay man who never quite integrated his writing with the post-Stonewall gay movement. This raises the question- do horror readers actually want to imagine horrors? In a world of climate change and Ebola, is a Stephen-King-esque red-eyed monster perhaps a comforting escape from true horror? I am not sure what Thacker thinks, but I wonder if perhaps we need Tryon’s vision more- the vision not of opposition but of an indifferent possibility of annihilation, not evil but chaos, not moral failing but the incapacity to save ourselves.