The Horror of the Self
Updated: Dec 26, 2020
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays. From Paranoid Fairytales to the Familiar-Strange, here I review two collections of weird horror, ‘Sing Your Sadness Deep’ and ‘Broken on the Inside’. First published on August 9th, 2019.
why couldn’t the cure come from within her?
From the opening and titular story of Phil Sloman’s Broken on the Inside to its closing piece ‘Virtually Famous’, the play between the internal and the external defines the collection. Kira is haunted by ‘a hyperawareness to the biological abnormalities which arose within her far too frequently.’ The fast food that surrounds Rebecca voices unsettling accusations. The shut-in cuckold Paul cultivates a reciprocal relationship to urban fauna who then feed his romantic resentments. John becomes the butt of an old children’s nonsense song that taps into his paranoia about aging — the biological certainties of time as body horror. Chet is the victim of his own fame-seeking self-belief, but cannot fully grasp his predicament.
What these characters share, unifying Sloman’s book, is how they feel the imposition of the world as a threat they cannot master or evade, yet are always in fact more at the mercy of some obscured aspect of themselves over which they truly have no influence—in part because they have no awareness of this internal fault, whatever it happens to be. Only the reader is invited in on the crucial flaw (a paranoia, obsession, desire or fear), often in a way that is touched with a macabre, authorial humour.
Sloman’s blend of contemporary social commentary and the folkloric recalls Nikolai Gogol, Saki or the stranger, more grounded fairy tales collected by nineteenth century eccentrics. Indeed, this is very much a latter-day fairy tale collection as it is a work of contemporary horror, preoccupied as it is with the the most common concern of that genre — how we are undermined by our own obscured natures. In this way, as is generally the case with the fairy tale, in invites introspection.
Crass, somehow; surely even the universe itself ought to take pause, if only for a short while, to reflect upon the stupidity of mankind, and ask how a species so rich in intelligence could be so destitute in empathy.
With its uncanny growths, heats, discomfits and discolourations, there’s a ubiquitous sense in the prose of Laura Mauro’s Sing Your Sadness Deep of life blithely and painfully insisting on itself, outraged and erupting in excess; sometimes, this struggle is literalised in disease and illness, but usually it’s backgrounded in descriptions, in how ‘a jaundiced afternoon light casts the room in shades of faded bruise’ and the moon is ‘fat and proud, a globule of milk suspended in time.’ It is there as ‘a deep unease blossoms in my gut’ and how ‘a pleasant warmth leached in through her skin, slowly filling her veins like hot blood trickling through a slender needle.’ It is as if everything from shadows to celestial bodies are fully organic. The terrifyingly alive world of these stories then invites readers to observe a strangeness that is, paradoxically, all too familiar: the strangeness of nature and one’s ultimate inseparability from it.
Mauro distorts quaint divides between the inhuman and the human too; often a source of deep anxiety, but also of curiosity about ourselves unexpectedly exposed as alien, as always having been alien. There’s a depth of observation that looks acutely at a subject (a grief, doubt, longing, fear, often externalised) so that it becomes painful in its raw intimacy. It’s when things don’t operate as we expect that they become most visible, and this principle guides Mauro’s fiction—full of misfits and misfortunes. This horror thereby illuminates what is most vital: a daughter’s regard for her father, a siblings shared history, a fragile and longed-for creature encountered on the road, and most of all those relationships that are the basis for any sustained sense of selfhood.
There’s a depth of observation here that looks so acutely at a subject it becomes painful in its intimacy.
What emerges is a sensibility with all of horror’s characteristic tragedy, but most of its violences and shocks delivered with a not-so-characteristic restraint, even meditativeness. Stories such as ‘Sun Dogs’ and ‘When Charlie Sleeps’ — standing out in an outstanding collection — are more reflective than the monstrous subject matter by itself suggests. In the former, a rescued stranger is foreshadowed as enigmatic and therefore sinister, but the story subverts itself twice so that when ‘the sun rose, illuminating the truth of you’, we are left with a conclusion we might anticipate in its substance but not in its meaning. The latter story could be called a psychogeographical fable of London—it is almost a primordial origin myth for the city. Relationships are at the core of each of these narratives, as they are throughout Sing Your Sadness Deep. Characters are often entirely encapsulated in their relative differences to one another: ‘He is not a magpie like his daughter, nor a hoarder of treasures like his father.’
The need for relationships — sustaining the old or nurturing the new , questioning the false or interrogating the genuine—progresses the stories , and these precarious and desperate ties are inseparably woven into explorations of identity. This is as true for Mauro’s mythic creatures such as Vetehinen in ‘Obsidian’ as it is for a grieving sibling like Sara Di Girolamo in ‘The Looking Glass Girl’. In this dynamic especially, the line separating humanity from everything that encroaches on it is intentionally broken down. If much horror is populated by characters paranoid about losing their humanity, Mauro’s characters are almost always happy to renounce theirs if it means forming or retaining a meaningful bond, protecting someone or something. For these characters, retaining their identities often means sacrificing some shallow notion of humanity.
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