The Darkening Garden, John Clute

Payseur & Schmidt, 2006, 162 pages, C$40.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-9789114-0-9

In the world of SF criticism, John Clute is the alpha dog: Few others have been able to re-shape the language by which we’re able to discuss genre fiction. For that matter, few people have their names on two genre-defining encyclopedias and three volumes of collected reviews. Clute has introduced a number of genre-specific critical concepts (“real year”, “thinning”, “polder”, etc.) and established a solid framework through which we can consider genre fiction. His work has become an essential part of how we discuss speculative fiction.

Having settled the matter of science-fiction and fantasy, Clute has now turned his cool intellect to the issue of horror. The Darkening Garden is the first articulation of this interest. It’s not an “Encyclopedia of Horror”, though that may follow eventually, nor is it a definitive statement on the subject. It’s a bunch of notes in progress, a first attempt at articulating the nature of the genre put out there for discussion. Typically for Clute, some entries are brilliant, some entries are baffling, and most entries are both at the same time.

It’s also as much an object than it is a book. Published by a small press with a first print run of only 500 signed and numbered copies (I’ve got 190), The Darkening Garden is the kind of cute book that is to be admired as much for its design than for its content. Indeed, each of the thirty entries in this very short lexicon is illustrated, with a variety of artists each showing up once. The outside design is simple: a small, self-effacing black hardcover with a band announcing the title. Inside, the text is laid out with a judicious choice of font and margins, all reinforcing the impression of a small jewel-book carefully set to highlight the content. This is not a mass-market book (it even lacks those ubiquitous bar-codes for easy retail scanning), which is fitting for content that is not for mass consumption either.

Let’s open the book at a random entry and transcribe just one sentence, shall we? Here it is, from “Strange Stories”: “The examples given are not entirely heterogeneous, for the inner creative bent of most of those who have used the term is toward the writing of tales of estrangement rather than AFFECT HORROR as such.” [P.138] Well, actually, that’s not too bad. Clute has often been derided for the complexity of his language and The Darkening Garden is no exception. This is not a book for easy reading; it’s meant to build arguments, map out new territories and stretch minds in new critical directions.

The overarching thesis of the book is a model for horror fiction as a whole. It’s an inversion of Clute’s well-established pattern for fantasy: Whereas that goes from WRONGNESS to THINNING to RECOGNITION to RETURN, Horror (argues Clute) goes from SIGHTING to THICKENING to REVEL to AFTERMATH. (With a side order of VASTATION.) This argument forms the the backbone of the book, and what remains from a first read.

I may lack the critical tools and depth of knowledge required to make sense of it, but at first glance it does seem to make sense. The stereotypical horror film, for instance, signals something wrong with the world during an initial SIGHTING, gets more unnerving as the presence of the supernatural THICKENS, attains a paroxysm of sorts during the REVEL when characters are plunged deep into the new logic of the wrong world, and finally ends with an AFTERMATH where bodies are counted and the evil may or may not return. It’s not a bad model (albeit one would be careful to hammer an entire genre in it), and the best thing about The Darkening Garden is how it offers the theory for evaluation, daring other reviewers to make use of it if it pleases them. (Or criticize it if it makes them even happier.)

I’m not so sure about the other, more tangential elements of the lexicon. (Did we really need an entry on “Picture books”?) Another of Clute’s developing theories is the sense that genre fiction exists at a particular point in human history, that it only became possible as we started making sense of humanity as a story to be told (or understood? I’m not sure about that myself.) That’s where the lexicon brings in the Holocaust and tremendous vastation. I’ll refrain from judgement, except for noting that Clute is growing older, and that as with many people on the wrong side of fifty, he’s more and more apt to say that some things will not outlive him —such as Science Fiction, said to have died years ago.

Casual readers won’t get much out of The Darkening Garden except for a headache and the sense of an unfinished argument. But serious students of genre (and there are more than enough hooks here to link Clute’s arguments about horror to SF and fantasy) will enjoy a new theory of horror. Clute fans owe it to themselves to get a copy of this book, but other shouldn’t worry if they let all 500 copies sell out: I’m sure that this material will pop up again, revised and expanded, in some future Clute encyclopedia or another.

[October 2007: My web server tools detect a vast and cold wind blowing over this site. What could it be? Yes, John Clute sees this review and mentions it on his blog. There are no comments, but my embarassment is considerable. I resist the urge to change the review or replace it with a series of apologies.]

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