Darkness by John Saul, My Life In Horror 

Feb 8, 2024
Darkness by John Saul MY LIFE IN HORROR.jpg

Darkness by John Saul, My Life In Horror 

It was also through Darkness by John Saul that I began learning the basic rhythms of horror stories, the means by which writers establish setting, character, and situation, and the techniques of tension and playing with reader expectation. 

Genre specification and its concomitant parameters has never meant a great deal to me. Even as a child, the criteria by which books were categorised seemed inconsistent and arbitrary (at what point, for example, does H.G. Welles’s classic War of the Worlds stop being science fiction and become horror? By what standards is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein one or the other?). In my own work, I’ve never consciously considered stories to be this or that (the fact that I largely operate within small press and independent horror is largely one of circumstance). 

For my part, the debate is a navel-gazing and moribund one: It doesn’t matter to me in the least that this story is considered horror by that reader and science fiction by another. All that matters is that they serve to arouse and inspire. 

When such “debates” circulate around social media -as they tend to perennially-, I can but sigh, step back and get on with reading and/or writing whatever I like, regardless of assumptions or definitions of genre (given the highly idiosyncratic nature in which human beings consume and digest art, such discussions inevitably degenerate into assumptions and impositions of taste).

Even as a young boy, I’d already encountered many of the tropes, themes and subjects considered iconic of horror, though rarely within media specifically categorised as such: 

Comics, cartoons, children’s media of all types boasted numerous lampoons and parodies of those phenomena. Video games, meanwhile -still a medium in its infancy-, evinced various experimental forays into that forbidden territory (many of my earliest exposures to iconic horror imagery came through that medium). Even the toy franchises I enjoyed and obsessed over contained numerous references to Universal horror films (Dracula, Frankenstein etc), whereas others derived from decidedly adult material thanks to the proliferation of home-media (who can forget the excellent toy lines inspired by the likes of Robocop, Alien or Predator?). 

Fantasy literature -a genre I’ve loved since first learning to read via C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia novels- contained numerous set-pieces and scenarios that wouldn’t be out of place in horror literature (Edmund Pevensey’s approach to the White Witch’s castle in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the Nazgul’s attack on Weathertop and the flight through Shelob’s caverns in The Lord of The Rings etc). The factors by which writers and creators of all stripes cultivate tension, threat and drama are often tied up with what makes horror stories so emotive (where such factors are merely exaggerated or rendered more extreme). 

There are also the innate traumas and disturbances of being a young child that most adults tend to forget: 

Childhood, despite cultural prescription, is not some halcyon time of endless play and perpetual sunshine: In our earliest years, we haven’t yet determined the contexts and experiences by which to cultivate notions of “reality.” Therefore, just as every doorway is potentially one to the miraculous, it is also a potential portal to threat. To the young child, insistence that “monsters aren’t real” doesn’t mean very much, nor do demonstrations that there’s nothing in the shadows or under the bed: Whilst that may be true when demonstrated by the parent or teacher, there’s nothing to say it will be true all the time. 

As such, children operate in a demon-haunted world, a state where monsters and phantoms lurk in every shadow and behind every corner. Combine that with the fevered nature of the developing imagination, and you have a condition that the very best horror acknowledges or attempts to recall. 

Whether we know it or not, each and every one of us is intimately familiar with the tropes and subjects of horror before we actively come to or consume anything categorised as such: Our born conditions are horrific by nature, our most formative and inalienable experiences ones of profound disturbance (from the trauma of birth itself, which is so horrific we’ve evolved to forget it, save on the most subliminal level, to the first time we experience pain or see our own blood; the brushes with mortality that make us realise we are impermanent, and will someday cease to be). 

Beyond that, we are endlessly tormented by the limitations of our physical conditions; having developed the peculiar faculty of imagination, we can conceive of what it is to fly, shift shape, become smoke or fire or starlight without ever actually realising it. This existential trauma echoes throughout our whole lives, accruing and deepening as the mysteries and uncertainties of childhood fall away. We become angels imprisoned within rotting meat, creatures of the abstract forced to sustain in carcasses that we cannot escape or transcend, knowing that every day delivers us closer to the ineluctable disgraces of old age, decay, and dementia. 

Horror is, therefore, innate, inescapable, part and parcel of the human experience (and, indeed, of any halfway conscious entity). This is before we factor in the numerous irregularities, imperfections, idiosyncrasies and factors that alter our perceptions, and states of mind and make “reality” something of a ludicrous concept: 

Each and every one of us suffers the ultimate existential horror of being the butterfly trapped in the jar, a creature of potential effervescence bludgeoning itself against the bounds of its prison. This is innate to the human condition; we cannot escape it (insofar as we’re aware), and everyone born realises it on some level. 

What we call “horror” is merely a collective expression of that knowledge (even when the work itself doesn’t necessarily realise it). 

My first brushes with “horror” itself came at a very early age, thanks the rabid and precocious manner in which I consumed literature of all kinds: 

Whilst on a family holiday in Majorca, I finished all of the books I brought to read (in the days long, long before Kindle), leaving me somewhat bereft (then as now, books are a perpetual comfort; something I must have nearby in one form or another). My Mother, having packed a suitably capacious number of horror novels, lent me a large, hardback copy of a book entitled Darkness by John Saul (whom, interestingly, I would later discover is a fellow gay man). 

I simultaneously recall so much and so little of that experience, consuming “adult” prose for the first time, reading subject matter far beyond any thus far aimed at me. I dove into the world Saul painted with a child’s capacity for fantastical immersion, losing myself for hours and hours at a time, often not noticing when the day had become night, and it was time to head out to a local restaurant for dinner. 

Whilst spending our days by the pool or at the beach, I’d be immersed in murky Louisiana swamps and little towns where old superstitions were the stuff of culture, where ritual magic rubbed up against scientific scepticism, producing a species of demystified horror the like of which I was too young to understand. 

I can’t speak to the relative quality of Darkness by John Saul itself as an adult, not having read it again in all that time (30+ years). All I can comment on with any veracity are the impressions and ideas it planted in my developing imagination (most of which have undoubtedly been warped, altered and re-written by the changeling medium of memory): 

My most abiding impression is of place, a dense, sensual sense of environment that I’ve undoubtedly carried through to my own work: 

Ambient storytelling, establishing setting, mood, and ethos, is one of my favourite techniques in fiction and it can cultivate so much in terms of reader engagement and/or response. In Darkness, Saul paints the picture of existence on the fringes of society in environments that are barely habitable, almost inimical to humanity. The swamps and bayous become characters in themselves, a mythic presence that lours over the entire narrative. 

Another is of profound isolation; a classic trope in horror fiction, Saul isolates the protagonists from the world in which they operate, making them trespassers and desecrators in conditions they do not know and that actively reject them. That barbed sense of dislocation, of perpetual writhing like a worm on a hook, is a fantastic and time-honoured means of establishing tension and ensuring that neither protagonist nor reader are ever entirely safe. The sense of being an intruder in the book’s setting translates necessarily from protagonist to reader; we are as ignorant, presumptuous and condescending about the cultures and phenomena we encounter as they are and find ourselves drawn into mysteries that challenge our assumptions of reality. 

Whilst Darkness by John Saul includes phenomena that initially seem supernatural a pattern that Saul exhibits in a great deal of his work-by the story’s end, any mythology or mysticism has been deconstructed as the work of cynical and twisted frauds, grifters obsessed with power, authority and their own dubious ideologies. As a child, I was simultaneously disappointed and fascinated by this: 

Already in love with magic, monsters and all things mythic, I desperately anticipated whatever supernatural, eldritch horror would crawl from the swamps or manifest in the eponymous darkness. The fact that it never did stuck in my craw and irritated me like a speck of grit in an oyster shell. 

With the benefit of hindsight, I see how this juxtaposition between the seemingly supernatural and the entirely rational would influence my fascinations and perspectives in the years to come. The point at which the abstract and material intersect, flow into and inform one another is a powerful obsession in my own work (though I tend not to come down as strongly on a definite side as Saul). 

It was also through Darkness by John Saul that I began learning the basic rhythms of horror stories, the means by which writers establish setting, character, and situation, and the techniques of tension and playing with reader expectation. 

Whilst I can’t speak to the relative quality of Darkness by John Saul these days -it would certainly be a fascinating experiment seeking it out again-, it will always stand as the first step along a path that has led inexorably to this moment, this manifestation of myself (for better and worse). 

George Daniel Lea 19-09-2023

Darkness by John Saul

Darkness by John Saul

Terror awaits the Anderson family when they return to the menacing, hostile swamp town they left many years ago. Something has been waiting for them to return, something unbearably evil. Other work by the author includes “Second Child” and “Sleepwalk”.

The Heart and Soul of Horror Book Promotion Websites

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.