The Speculative Horror Academy

By John Cunningham, 23 October 2013
Image: Film still from Street of Crocodiles by The Quay Brothers

A gothic ruin provides the heady setting for John Cunningham’s short story exploring horror as a condition for contemporary thought


The building is crumbling. Almost, but not quite, a ruin, its doorway leaning forward into the night time city as though it wants to swallow other streets and buildings. The dim light from its broken windows subtly distinct from more profane street lighting by virtue of its sickly yellow glow. Should a passer-by enter, out of the most unlikely curiosity, the building is visibly even more wrecked, weeds growing up through derelict stair wells, a cracked mosaic on the floor of the central hallway missing too many tiles to properly view whatever obscene diagram was once there, only the occasional trace of the equations of flesh and objects that used to adorn it. If the right angle is then taken through the hallway, then the correct doorway negotiated, since there are doorways here no one would wish to negotiate, leading to punitive debts even worse than those commonly incurred. Then the putative passer-by, or rather the one now known as the entrant, will step into an amphitheatre type room with wooden seats arranged in an ever ascending circle capable of inducing spatial nausea, the black sky breaking through the shattered, almost open, roof. And taking a seat near the front and close to the stage in the centre of the room the entrant will abruptly notice a sharp featured tall man with oddly languid limbs and eyes that resemble bright blue glass baubles, eyes that sharply offset his shabby black suit and also, except for the vague sickly yellow glow that surrounds him, do something to the general shadows of the room, somehow seeming to reset the room and blacken rather than lighten it.


The man with glass bauble like eyes then begins his lecture, his voice firm, unwavering and neutral as the affectless face and thin lips that utter it. The entrant is his only student:


Horror is often viewed as the kitsch screaming underside to supposedly serious forms of culture. This is despite few contemporary Booker prize winners being capable of the otherworldly imagery of a writer such as Thomas Ligotti wherein demonic ‘town managers’ and horrific novelty become a commentary on the absurd, political obscenities of the present and conjure with the ghosts of the dark modernism of Kafka. Still, as a genre it calls to mind pulp paperbacks, their covers replete with demonic skulls and derelict graveyards, or cinematic production that revels in grotesquery such as the experimentally conjoined mouth to anus bodies of the Human Centipede. While the latter could be viewed as an admittedly primitive image of much contemporary social reproduction – produce this, then eat that, though the cyclical labour of this will also consume mind and body – few cultural critics would be minded to admit as much.


However, horror cannot be confined to the genre it lends its name to, infecting other cultural forms – art, such as Mike Nelson’s ruined installation, To the Memory of H.P. Lovecraft, the ridiculous theatrics and claustrophobic sonic dread of noise music, ‘non-genre’ fiction such as Julio Cortazar’s House Taken Over – as well as existing as an affective actuality, a horror of, and in, the real encapsulated in all too many events and images.


The lecturer pauses and smiles, pale pink tongue complacently whetting sharp thin lips. Damp walls and peeling walls, broken windows and black open sky draw in to listen. The entrant freezes back in a chair furred over with mould unable to move as the lecturer continues:


This quality of infection can be taken as the first modality of an aesthetic of horror, in that it seeps into the most unlikely recipients, one of the most unlikely being philosophy. The conjoining of horror with philosophy seems unlikely, dribbling and bleeding cultural base matter sewn to the mouth of logos, discourse and truth but it is through this that object horror also becomes an object of speculative critique. The locus for this conjunction in the present lies in the gap between anthropomorphic pretensions and the irreducible indifference, or sheer otherness, of the universe that the diffuse body of thought termed ‘speculative realism’ has articulated.


Yet, for the entrant, this real horror spoken of; that eruptive form of flies flicking over dead lips, or the quieter transference of money into flesh and vice versa, the awful, immanent creep of death in the shape of the most mundane survival activities, such as working to eat and buy, that essential gap between the human and those other objects in the world, material goods such as commodities or that problematic entity termed nature, both within and without the human, dominating and dominated like a building crumbling into weeds, seems irreducibly distant from this performance of the sublime terror of thought. Perhaps, thinks the entrant, this real horror is encapsulated in the walls and crumbling brick of this odd educational institution. A ruin built with so many hands and limbs, she shudders. So many hands and limbs in order to realise real estate educational value, she shudders again. As though sensing that the entrant has begun to think critically, the lecturer abruptly stops stock till, previously languid limbs tensed, hands suddenly striated into claws more avian than hominid, head slanted on one shoulder, dead eyes peering intently at the entrant over a beak-like nose, and then voice dropping to a curiously arresting whisper. He continues to address the addressee, that is address the, by now, utterly cowed entrant:

‘Of course’, the lecturers’ body relaxes and his voice returns to its previous somewhat formal tone, body no longer tensed like a besuited bird of prey, a malign trader in the currency market of ideas, ‘such a conjunction should present a shock to thought, or at the very least to the human. The speculative realist unsettling of, what Quentin Meillassoux has termed, "correlationism" is what initially binds horror and contemporary thought together, an obscene mannequin clutching a worm-eaten calculus. "Correlationism" is the broad consensus in post-Kantian philosophy that there is a relational limit between thought and being or, put most simply, subject and object. What Kant termed "The-Thing-In-Itself", the inhuman essence of being and the point in any object or substance insensible to human senses and faculties that is unthinkable outside of this relation.’


Image: Dean Kenning, The Dulwich Horror, 2007

With each emphasis upon a word that voice recovers its sibilant whisper and that face contracts from its habitual blankness to a wrinkled, joyful menace, though always retaining a certain distance, thinks the entrant, like a mask that cannot be touched. The now, once again, languid lecturer continues:


For Meillassoux it is the ‘arche-fossil’, mathematical accumulations of data from dead stars and pre-human eras of the earth that present a challenge to the correlationist consensus. Since now it becomes possible to conceptualise modes of being absolutely anterior to the human. This disturbance of ‘correlationism’ captures the second modality of an aesthetic of horror, that of shock, the moment when something emerges or is summoned that upsets the limit, the common sense order of the world, subject and community. Not so overtly for Meillassoux, but for thinkers associated with speculative realism – Eugene Thacker, Graham Harman and Reza Negarestani, amongst others – the shock, the sensibility of horror has become something to be embraced in order to upset the tidy conventions of correlationism and to embrace the void of a materiality that winks back at the human as ultimately insignificant. Shock is also common to the most naïve forms of the contemporary horror genre, as when the resurrected corpse or supernatural loon appears in the midst of suburban normativity, even if such narratives usually end with an impetus towards restoring a happy domesticity. Horror as nothing but this shocking, grim pantomime of the norm with transgression as something to be feared or punished, caught between the violence of flesh eating corpses or psychopaths and their victims, would be the most domesticated of forms, encouraging non-thought as an adherence to ideological limits. However, horror as both a genre and as the breaching of a relational limit between human subject and world must become a condition for thought, however stricken it becomes by being filtered through such a prism.


At this point the lecturer seems to lose his poise, go silent, his body crumples almost to the floor, his mouth slackens and what might be saliva, or perhaps only the interminable accumulation of whatever mixture of fluids – shit, piss, cultural capital – keeps such odd creatures as this lecturer functioning in such educational establishments, and then the entrant realises she is actually uttering these words, even mirroring the lecturers sibilant whisper in the sudden silence of this creaking, rustling lecture theatre, and the lecture theatre, the entrant feels with increasing dread and vertigo, is beginning to increase this density of sound, like a silent city street that slowly fills from morning with garbage trucks, workers, shoppers, overhead flight paths, police sirens, laughter and shouts as the day goes on its way, the audible map of so many technologies of production and consumption, horror of everyday events, the repetitive shock of the automaton like movements we make at work and play, little mannequins piloted by outside forces much scarier than this loon in a lecturer's mask, thinks the entrant, that’s another modality – but with this, the entrants own whisper, the lecture resumes, the theatre settles into silence again and the lecturer regains his posture of certainty, or at least almost:


‘Ah, ahhh’, groans the lecturer, rearing up from shell like immobility with an alert, if protean gesture reminiscent of a crustacean clutching at a dangling limb, ‘it is the most undomesticated form of horror and the axis around which we might posit the most important conjunction between horror and speculative realism. This lies in the third modality, that of cosmic horror.’ And the entrant thinks she sees an infinite series of lecturers expounding upon horror, mouths gleefully clicking away, but in fact she doesn’t, this only being an acoustic effect, discourse echoing around the lecture theatre and gradually losing its efficacy in the nether regions of the hall. But then, horror has this tendency towards an ever recurring, repetitive spectacle, thinks the entrant. Whether in the form of media atrocity porn or the prosaic clichés of much genre horror, the corpse face emerging out of the darkness, the clutching talons of sub-proletarian zombies, a spectacular horror that can only affirm what is, whispers the entrant, only to be interrupted again by the lecturers suddenly ecstatic shift in tone and a turning of that lean face, mostly blankly malign, neutralised, now wretched with glee as the lecturer continues:


Picture a world wherein the human, what seems to be its notional subject, actor and centre of meaning is not only displaced by other events, substances and forces but is also prey to them. The contingency of this ruin rests upon no teleological meaning or anything as petty as a plan but is the possible outcome of nothing much at all, or rather the intrinsic not for us nature of a cosmos engendered in meaningless collections of atoms, falling side by side to randomly collide in an event, or just to continue falling until an ultimate cosmic implosion. It is not even accurate to speak of hostility in this universe since the destruction of civilisations and the extinction of species, including humanity, only register briefly as an element in the absolute materiality of the cosmos. Not just an absence of values such as good or evil, but no human measure of temperature or human dimension of time and geometry that has intrinsic significance, even if they can be occasionally measured through mathematical calculation. And occasionally a tentacled thing comes creeping out of a hole in so-called reality.


Except no tentacled things here, thinks the entrant, just horror as this strange stage for ultimate anthropomorphic insignificance. All of which, when the human and all of the wiles and absurdities associated with it are considered, is not entirely without reason. Anyone would want to displace such a subjectified creature with its class, gender, consumer, producer narcissism – enough to make even a demon puke. But then, what might be somewhat naively termed the anthropocentric or the human, thinks the entrant, is only ever the always already damaged remnant of a overdetermined process, an obscene symbiosis with the object, or rather the human as a commodity that works and plays. So the human is a myth anyway outside of the dumbest biological classification, and here the entrant notices in the dim light the amount of trash and debris littering the aisles and stairways of the lecture theatre – doll heads, bottles, broken laptops, swirls of old newspapers and magazines, here a natural disaster there a glimpse of a body part, a breast or rictus grin of celebrity skull, broken tools, mobile phones – a myth, not even meat puppets but trash puppets that work to reproduce a world of objects and themselves as objects. So that might be the real horror, a cosmic horror which might still be domesticated, claustrophobic in its supposed infinitude without recognising this, cultural pessimism masquerading as a minimal ontological truth, just another turn in thought to embrace a torturously unbearable world through valorising its most horrific and wondrous aspects, thinks the entrant, but then the lecturer continues, with a flourish of long fingers and a grin:


Of course, H.P. Lovecraft is paradigmatic in formulating this modality of cosmic horror. The eruption of the ‘weird’ in Lovecraft, whether in cities with non-Euclidean geometry or undead cosmic spawn, always points towards a world and reality that is not at all anthropocentric or for us, that is for the human. What gets dissolved in Lovecraft’s pulp fictions is the link between an everyday world of human agency and worlds upon worlds of the inhuman, the warping of space, time and materiality in hitherto unknown forms, the equivalent of an anti-correlationist sublime. This recognition of such an absolute and cosmic exteriority of reality to humanity enters into a proximity with forms of ‘realism’ and ‘materialism’ that are not shy of utilising what post-Kantian philosophy might have viewed as the ‘naïve’, empirical insights of mathematically based science or producing object-orientated ontologies that no longer privilege the human subject. Horror is an important appendage to the anti-correlationist arsenal of speculative realism and the axis around which an aesthetic of uncanny objects, bleak cosmology and the inhuman is developed. And this aesthetic of speculative horror is not confined to those most entranced by horror; while Meillassoux writes of the ‘wonder’ of breaking with correlationism, he is also conscious that the radical contingency of the non-correlationist absolute is: ‘[A] rather menacing power […] capable of destroying both things and worlds, of bringing forth monstrous absurdities, yet also of never doing anything… .’1 While it’s undoubtedly preferable that the former is the case...


A glass and wood grin, blue baubles glitter briefly, ‘...this passage suggests that speculative realism is a willing recipient of a viral aesthetic of horror.’

The lecturer hisses in triumph while simultaneously smiling and revealing yellow teeth of glass and wood as he leans forward towards the entrant in a strangely tentacular motion, causing the entrant to cower back into her seat, while expecting razor incisions from the grotesque radical contingencies of such a surgical jawbone.


Image: Dean Kenning, The Dulwich Horror, 2007


Except there is only the entrant and the lecturer while overhead the sheer darkness, the entrant whispers, of that atmospheric collection of gases quaintly called the sky, beyond that an ill understood combination of dark matter and energy, so of course, thinks the entrant, it would be sheer sophistry to deny the essential inhumanity of the real, whether encapsulated in this room, or through the abstractions of reason, mathematics or the autonomous convolutions, the entrant whispers, of ontological objects including the human that slips and slides between and within them, things coming to presence, receding, breaking, being at hand. Still, she thinks, there seems to be something missing here, some aspect of speculative horror that this lecturer, with his weird gestures and subtle shifts in form does not grasp through his all too precise language. Only the lecturer and myself, thinks the entrant and this derelict building, she autocorrects in a, by now, familiar whisper, as though prompted by the empty stairwells, dim yellow light, institutional furniture and dark element of the sky above.


‘And also’, the lecturer says in a more moderate but still triumphant tone as he withdraws his teeth and fixes a dead glare from those seemingly glass bauble eyes, ‘this conjunction of horror and thought, most revealed through the lens of a cosmic horror, does not simply reside in a repetitive spectacle’, the lecturer whispers, ‘of the purely cosmic dissolution of anthropomorphism.’ The entrant realises she is now in a dialogue with the lecturer, yet feels no language capable of speaking, as though the tongue were a limb immobilised in the aspic of philosophy, she is suddenly able to whisper as the lecturer continues:


‘The fourth modality of horror I will speak of is its misanthropic agenda’ and the lecturer’s pale pink tongue licks his lips as he hisses the words,


that is that the indulgence of horror always resides with an aversion to the human, a preference for anything but that collection of genetics, neurological patterns, consumer preferences, survival instincts, needs and desires that constitute all of the subjects crawling around on this planet. The eruption of any weird event, the awful inhuman wonder of an indifferent universe that might put an end to the banality of all those subjects crawling, working and eating has a violence to it within horror that can only mirror what already is, that is the subjection of what is quaintly termed the human to the indifferent mechanisms of profit and loss, the regulative relations formed through selling, buying and value.


The lecturer, conjures out of nowhere a piece of paper that he holds up to the dim yellow light and reads with a certain amount of relish,


That virtuoso of contemporary horror writes: ‘This market strategy would then go on until one day, among the world-wide ruins of derelict […] buildings, there stood only a single, shining, windowless structure with no entrance and no exit. Inside would be – will be – only a dense network of computers calculating profits. Outside will be tribes of savage vagrants with no comprehension of the nature or purpose of the shining, windowless structure. Perhaps they will worship it as a god. Perhaps they will try to destroy it… .’2 By inadvertently acknowledging this in it’s own eliminative frenzy of a flat plane of object-orientated ontology or the demystifying vectors of enlightened, abstract thought speculative realism displaces the human and discovers new resources in inhuman elements, much like those who imagine themselves as managers of the present.


The room, the trash, the objects in the room seems to rustle in appreciation. The sky darkens, lecturer takes a step forward as though to make a bow, but the entrant remains frozen, thinking or perhaps frozen in terror. Then she whispers ‘horror vacui’, and everything stops and quietens, the lecturer in mid-step, leg weirdly orientated as though double jointed, and the entrant speaks for the first time. Speaks of the myth, tendentiously attributed to Aristotle, that nature abhors a vacuum, hates the void, but how this might be inverted and the horror immanent to the present be seen as a plethora of objects, commodities, bodies, the everyday broken trash that is lived within. So, while an emphasis upon the inhuman grasps at a certain truth, up to and including the way the manifest image of this human, as autonomous arbiter of destiny confuses and obscures the way this supposed autonomy is bound within structures and relations, piloted by economic abstraction as much as an (un)natural history of the body or what we quaintly call the subject, entwined with tools, objects, commodities, technologies, discourses and language, something that an emphasis upon cosmic gaps in the world does itself obscure. Or, put another way, the entrant continues to address the, now silent, frozen lecturer and the entranced ruin and trash oddments. Conceptualising horror as immanent to the world, embracing it as an ontological condition which is not quite only symptomatic of economic structures and real abstractions but conceptualises through its own dark obscurity exactly this, even if also embracing it as a way out from the human for supposedly grand thought, but it also misses horrors own crazed hilarity, that loon in a rubber mask that knocks on the door, by attempting to efface it through reason and a discourse of philosophical mastery. Horror is also capable of freezing thought, an obscene image that can sometimes be best expressed through a non-philosophical language and the entrant begins to chant in her whisper so mimetic of the lecturers:


Real estate educational value, human worm-eaten calculus, unthinkable, shock limit, happy domesticity for thought, educational establishments everyday modality, undomesticated cosmic horror, repetitive spectacle, what is not for us, thing narcissism, obscene symbiosis a world of objects, for us an anti-correlationist sublime, a viral aesthetic of horror, sheer darkness, autonomous convolutions, this derelict building in a repetitive spectacle, the aspic of philosophy, misanthropic agenda, market strategy broken trash, inhuman elements, horror vacui, crazed hilarity.


And then, the entrant realised, everything stopped.



John Cunningham <coffeescience23 AT> is a writer and researcher based in London




1 Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, (trans. Ray Brassier), 2008.

2 Thomas Ligotti, My Work Is Not Yet Done, Virgin Books, 2009, p.43.