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The Shrinking Space

Arthur MachenLast weekend, my girlfriend and I went to Moses Gate Country Park near Bolton. Beautiful place, especially given the warm weather, but one thing marred the visit; a notice saying that after thirty-six years, the park’s six rangers were facing redundancy. Without them, the park would deteriorate, both as a recreation area and a wildlife reserve. There was to be a ‘consultation period’ in which locals could make their feelings known. And I’ll do so, but we all know that so-called ‘consultation periods’ are just another way for politicians to display their contempt for the people they claim to represent by making a big show of listening to them… and then carrying on and doing it anyway.

By this time next year, Moses Gate will probably be on its way to turning into a complete shithole, and likely won’t even be a particularly safe place to walk around.

Yes, you ask, all very sad, but what’s this got to do with horror?

Bear with me.

If you don’t know the name Arthur Machen, then I suggest you remedy the situation at your earliest convenience. His work’s a lot easier to get hold of now than it was when I first heard the name back in the late 1990s, by way of H.P. Lovecraft’s essay Supernatural Horror In Literature (NB: if you’re looking to acquaint yourselves with the ‘Classics’ when it comes to horror, using Lovecraft’s essay as a reading list is a great place to start).

Machen penned some of the stand-out tales of terror for his time: ‘The Great God Pan’, ‘The Inmost Light’, ‘The White People’, ‘The Novel of the Black Seal’, ‘The Novel of the White Powder’ and ‘The Terror’ are just a few of his best-known stories. And he also wrote a novel called The Hill Of Dreams.

Machen said he’d wanted to write ‘a Robinson Crusoe of the soul’, about a character as isolated and deprived of company as Crusoe ever was, but in the middle of a populated city. Lucian Taylor, his protagonist, is a gentle aesthete who craves beauty and peace and seeks to capture them through prose, but ends up living in a brutally industrialised part of London, surrounded by people who care only about satiating the basest and most venal of appetites.

Machen was writing in a time when there was little social mobility and for most people born too far down the social scale, there wasn’t much opportunity for anything but the base and venal. Times have allegedly changed, though social mobility now has probably fallen further than it has in years. Still, at least Machen’s workers went home at the end of their shift and could forget about their shitty job until the next day.

Times have certainly changed in that respect. Gone are the days when a job meant clocking in at nine, clocking out at five, doing some work in between and not fucking it up; now a job means an endless roundelay of ‘performance reviews’ and ‘1-2-1s’, always demanding that you find ways to do more, more, more. It’s no longer sufficient to simply be satisfactory and muddle through. You’re never good enough; just holding onto the job becomes a job in itself, eating into your spare time.

Work’s a trade where you sell your time in exchange for money. But today, as the pay gets lower and lower, more and more is demanded in return. God forbid that you should think your life outside work somehow belongs to you; companies now expect their employees to be ‘ambassadors’ for them, even out of hours, and seek to hold you accountable for what you might do in your own time.

All this adds up to an appalling, soulless existence for many of us – living to work, rather than working to live. How did we end up here?

Having a society that values only material gain might well have something to do with it, for which we can only thank our ex-Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, recently deceased.

The aftermath of Thatcher’s death was a good illustration of the darkness in the human soul – not in the street parties and celebrations that followed her passing, but in the official glorification of her poisonous philosophy of greed and selfishness, and the attempts to silence any criticism of it. At a time of mass unemployment caused by failed austerity measures, with the DWP and its ATOS attack dogs hounding the sick and disabled to death by stress and suicide at a rate of seventy-three a week, we’re told we can’t afford proper pensions for our elderly, legal advice or assistance for the least well off – but they can fork out millions for a state funeral, in all but name, for the leader who devastated entire communities and ruined countless lives. A final spit in the face to her victims.

And the current government continues to propagate Thatcher’s hateful ideology, turning everything they can lay their rancid, blatantly corrupt claws on into money-making machines for them and their puppet-masters – sorry, party donors – stripping away what few protections working people have, destroying the remains of the safety net for those who need help, privatising the NHS while smugly denying any such thing – all this, coupled with ever-crueller and more vicious attacks on the weakest and most vulnerable in society. Could any horror writer concoct a monster as cruel, sadistic and inhuman as Iain Duncan Smith? As many others have said before me, the Tories know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Amid all this, of course, there’ve always been those who seek, like Machen’s Lucian Taylor, to escape – to look for work which has a value beyond the purely monetary – working as a park ranger, for instance. Or teaching. Something, anything, to escape the constant grind. And most of them have been would-be writers, or other artists.

But even that is now being stripped away. As austerity bites, what place, what value, does a park have? If it doesn’t make money, it’s to be discarded. A teacher friend of mine is in near-despair, because her job, once about teaching special needs kids, has become ever more about constant management assessments and paperwork – and now, the teachers at her college are expected to sign ‘zero hour’ contracts – contracts offering no guaranteed hours of work, effectively casualising the teaching staff. You can’t, she insists, teach students, especially the ones like hers, that way: they need time given to them, individual attention. But that doesn’t matter anymore, teaching is a business now, like everything else; and like all businesses, it has to pay.

If these management culture bastards could just content themselves with their domination of society as a whole, but at least leave a few refuges for those who don’t share their values, it might be bearable, but no – in their pitiless and unrelenting greed, everything has to be theirs.

Perhaps we talking monkeys got too clever for our own good – when we thought God out of existence, did we have nothing to put in his place but material gain? Is the inevitable end result of dispensing with religion the rejection of any ideal above the gut or groin? I’d like to think otherwise. The Dalai Lama defined ‘spiritual’ qualities as being those that relate to feelings of love and compassion; I suspect my Christian friends (yes, I have some!) would say that those impulses lie at the heart of their faith, too. Albie Sachs, a secular Jew and ANC activist incarcerated under apartheid South Africa’s Ninety-Day Law, read the Bible in prison for the first time and noted the parallels between the Christian injunctions to ‘love thy neighbour’ and ‘worship not thyself’ and the basic tenets of humanism, or even socialism.

So, an ethical – even spiritual, if one accepts the Dalai Lama’s definition of the term – life is possible for the secularist. And yet we as a society have become as spiritually void as any of the inhabitants of Lucian Taylor’s London, in a world where the only certainties appear to be increased poverty, ecological catastrophe, and the haves living lives of decadent luxury while the have-nots lead ever-more desperate, miserable, precarious existences. A world blind to itself, its rulers unable to see the self-destructive folly of the course they’re steering it on, bombarding the population with constant injunctions to buy and acquire to fill the gap left by the lack of any real fulfilment, scapegoating someone, anyone – immigrants, asylum seekers, the disabled – to carry the can. Anyone but them.

Maybe such a world has to crash and burn in order for something better to rise from its ruins. Not an idea I welcome, but as Flannery O’Connor noted, “Truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”

So what has all this got to do with horror? It might be more accurate to say what hasn’t it got to do with horror? The uncertainties and dreads of the present, the true nature of good and evil, the prospect of apocalypse, fear – and hope – of what might exist beyond the quotidian and crudely material, the way the past poisons or guides the present… these are horror’s abiding and recurrent themes, its meat and drink; what other field of literature has the tools and flexibility to encompass them all? Those of us who write in this field have incalculable riches – of the non-material kind – at our fingertips; any other genre can be pressed into service to aid our cause. Too much horror consists of familiar, unambitious retreads; like our culture as a whole, it’s settled for less, for cheap gratification and easy results. And like us, it can be so much more, and perhaps – for all our sakes – it has to be.

SIMON BESTWICK

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4 comments

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  1. Julie Travis

    Nice to see that not everyone is re-writing history as far as Thatcher is concerned!

    I have – perhaps shamefully – never read Machin, although I have been urged to in recent times. Something to rectify.

  2. Jasper Bark

    Love Machen and it’s not unsurprising that I’ve been making the same points as you in my own column Simon. They are good points and need to be made over and over again.

  3. Rosanne

    A great post, Simon. Machen’s own politics left much to be desired – he was a bit of a Tory himself and apparently supported Franco in the Spanish Civil War – yet you nail how his literary legacy stands opposed to the ravages of contemporary Tories and neo-liberalism.
    I was thinking of reblogging this on my own site but don’t see a button for it. Am I missing something?

    1. ThisIsHorror

      Please feel free to post the first paragraph and link to the full article on This Is Horror.

      Cheers!

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