Hey there fellow humans *nudge-nudge, wink-wink* — as I’m no longer writing weekly-ish fiction to post on the blog, I’m transitioning into writing about process, theory, etc., as I work on non-blog projects. Today I’m writing about ghost towns, economics, and horror, as the post title suggests. Also, there will be a writing prompt at the end, for anyone who wants one.
Witness: The Ghost Towns All Around Us
The United States is littered with gutted towns and ex-cities and places of complete, desolate abandonment. This relates intimately with, surprise surprise, economic opportunity and geographical marketshares. That is to say: when Detroit was rich with middle-class jobs, Detroit was a metropolis, and when those jobs fell apart and vanished, well…what is Detroit famous for, today?
A personal anecdote: once upon a mid-day dreary, I found myself on the outskirts of what looked to be a vast stretch of empty and derelict buildings. I urged the man in the driver’s seat of the car to pull into the emptiness so I could take photos of the buildings in decline. As we drove down cracked, uneven streets and ogled block after block of ruined architecture, we slowly came to realize that the place was not, in fact, abandoned. In the center of the far-reaching desolation, we found an actual population. A white-haired man, shirtless, smoked a cigar in a lawn chair. A gas station had its hours painted in white on its front door; it was open three days a week. There was something that looked like a convenience store, where a handful of graying residents spent money primarily on canned goods. We discovered, just on the outskirts of this population center, a building with four brick walls, no floor, no ceiling, and no doors or windows. A bog had settled across its bottom. The fellow who came with me discovered that it was full of fire ants. He’d worn sandles that day. We fled after this discovery, leaving this haunted place in our rearview mirror.
The vacated properties suggested that thousands of people had once lived there. Now, it seemed, the population hovered somewhere in the low triple-digits at best.
Or, in 1986, in an introduction to Studs Terkel’s Hard Times:
Smokeless chimneys. No orange flashes in the sky. Empty parking lots. Not a Chevy or a Ford to be seen, not even for those with 20-20 vision. An occasional abandoned jalopy, yes, evoking another image of the thirties. Ours was the only moving vehicle for miles around. A stray dog; no humans. And it wasn’t that cold a day. In fact, the weather was unseasonably mild, accentuating the landscape’s bleakness.
Written about South Chicago, of course.
And places like these? They’re everywhere. I think the one I mentioned above was on the road between Pittsburgh, PA and Cincinnati, OH. But there were similar places en route to Louisville, KY, too. And I’ve seen smaller examples clustered around the Amtrak line between NYC and Rochester, NY. Everywhere.
Desolation and Cosmic Horror
Cosmic horror is making horror literature great again (AHEM). According to many literary critics and essayists, we are currently in the midst of a “horror renaissance,” and the horror genre is once again “good.” I roll my eyes every time I read this allegation, but I’ll save that reaction for a different blog entry. The real point is that the people who write book reviews and vote on awards and etc. seem to think that the horror being written today is better than the horror that was written 20 years ago. Why?
Well, cosmic horror is having a pretty big comeback. The list of well-respected and even well-known cosmic horror authors seems to be growing yearly, and hints of cosmic horror eddy around the edges of plenty of new urban fantasy and dark fiction, as well. The fear of the vast unknowable and, even moreso, of forces acting on us beyond our control of comprehension, seems to be scoring big points right now.
Gee, I wonder if these things are related.
Here we have towns and cities gutted and demolished and sundered by vast conceptual forces their denizens can’t control and almost nobody seems to completely understand. Would I relate globalization to Cthluhu? Would I relate the complex worldwide politico-economic system to Azathoth? Well, yes, of course I would. Huge, unstoppable forces that grind away at entire populations without seeming to care about or even notice them? Duh.
The anxiety of being destroyed by forces we can’t stop is, well, highly prevalent in today’s world. Whether it’s government, economics, war, poverty, terrorism–these vast, powerful concepts seem, from ground level, to be tearing us apart as if we were meat fed to a grinder. And how to combat them? Our mouths gape for answers, but we are silent. And all around us, miles of rusted sheet metal and slouching brick buildings shuttered by particle board.
What monsters lurk in the bones of our dead cities?
And So Your Editor Says “Use It”; Or: Fictionalizing Anxiety
Show somebody emptiness, and they will find a way to fill it. The night sky is mostly void, but we apply it a meaning that fits us. To some, awe; to others, anxiety. The same goes for abandoned factories, gutted warehouses, long tracts of empty suburbs, and eternally-unfinished housing developments.
Horror authors have long excelled at creating environments that, themselves, feel hostile. Whether it’s Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” or literally anything Laird Barron has ever written, hostile settings and landscapes cloaked in dread have been key facets of horror writing since forever. In olden tymes, when people read stories by candlelight and shifting shadows danced on their peripheries, authors tended to take it a bit too far (looking at you, Poe), but the tradition has always been there. And as cosmic horror becomes more popular and more acclaimed, it seems it always will be. At least for a while. If we survive that long.
Which brings me to the “process” part of today’s blog entry, and a “fun” writing prompt for anyone who cares to partake in it.
In my Oceanrest writings, soon to be expanded, I’ve created a fictional city in Maine that has suffered much the same fate as dozens of other towns and cities in the United States. Once, it was important; now, it wheezes on an iron lung. Boom town, bust. And while I’m not trying to write much cosmic horror in the vein of Lovecraft or Ligotti or Aickman or any other huge name in the genre, I enjoy the concept that my stories take place in a similar setting. That is: the setting is one of cosmic dread and unknowable forces, but people still have to pay the damned rent and that seems more important. And so I try to use words to express these inexpressible anxieties. In Oceanrest, economic depression is a monster eating the town from the outskirts inward. Its teeth are trees and its tongue is the ground itself breaking the streets into gravel. Squatters live between its fangs like plaque bacteria. To the wealthier people in city center, this is unnoticeable. To the poor people on the fringes, this is terrifying…but there are more pressing concerns. Like where to beg the next meal.
Of course, in this fictional world, there are also more literal eldritch deities squirming under the skin of reality, but that’s neither here nor there for the most part. They are a far less immediate issue than the very real poverty that is eroding the town of Oceanrest.
That’s that for this “process blog”-slash-“horror theory” entry.
Enjoy a writing prompt: write a page (at least) in which the setting, itself, is the monster and/or primary antagonist. Perhaps begin with Studs Terkel’s line, “Ours was the only moving vehicle for miles around.”