Sublime Terror

The summer before my freshman year of high school, I made a deliberate decision to stop playing videogames and collecting comic books. “You’ll be in highschool now,” I told myself, “and you need to grow up.” My self-denial was motivated by a move to a new school where I knew no one; the possibility of being shunned and friendless terrified me.

I shed horror, science fiction, and alternative rock too, at least outwardly. If adolescence is a series of frequently shifting identities, my first shift was to become passably blank. While I blew through the Dune series, Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy, and everything by Stephen King, I stopped being an avowed fan of anything that might be construed as dorky even if I absolutely loved it.


Despite the pop culture ascendance of sci-fi, horror, videogames, and especially comic books, I’ve returned to them all with the kind of healthy skepticism that only twenty years away can produce. For the most part, I’ve moved on. I have too little time for videogames, and most of the comics I’ve read recently bore me. I tried reading some science fiction, but the only writers who really turn me on are Ursula Le Guin and J.G. Ballard (sorry Neal Stephenson and PKD).

Horror, however, still excites me. It took Joyce Carol Oates to remind me that being creeped out could be incredibly fun, and from there I returned to Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft. Most contemporary horror writers agree that Lovecraft was a potently influential source, despite his stylistic foibles, and Lovecraftian fiction exists as a vibrant subgenre.


Terror, by definition, is awesome. It combines dread, wonder, and reverence. Thomas Ligotti, writing in his preface to Noctuary about the cosmic terror characteristic of weird fiction, claims that it “seeks not to place before us the routine procedures most of our kind follow on the way to the grave, but to recover some of the amazement we sometimes feel, and should probably feel more often, at existence in its essential aspect. To reclaim this sense of amazement at the monumentally macabre unreality of life is to awaken to the weird…which allows the fictional protagonist to truly see. And perhaps, if only for that moment of artificial terror that weird fiction affords, so can the rest of us.”

Fear is the beginning of wisdom. A biblical scholar might simply insert “of the Lord” after the word fear.

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