When I was writing my novel, A Cosmology of Monsters, there were two words that I used as a North Star for the project: Dark Wonder. And yes, in my head both words were capitalized. It’s the feeling you get when you see the derelict spacecraft in Alien for the first time, or when the monster grabs Frodo in its tentacles in the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s what you feel the first time you see Frank the Bunny in Donnie Darko, or when the monster jumps out behind the diner in Mulholland Drive (although that one also qualifies as a jump scare). It’s what H.P. Lovecraft conjured in his best work, what Laird Barron gradually reveals across the course of the title story of his first collection, The Imago Sequence.
Dark Wonder is a crucial piece of horror that often gets overlooked in favor of jump scares, violence, and gore. It’s more than mood (although mood is a part of it). It’s the feeling of the world widening, revealing itself to be much larger and stranger than you could ever have suspected. This is the feeling I chased throughout the composition of my own novel (and the one I continue to chase in the book I’m writing now). I chased it so exclusively, in fact, that some readers complain that Cosmology isn’t a horror novel at all (shrug emoji).
Since we’re edging into Halloween, the time of year when the whole world celebrates the dark delights of the horror genre, and since 2020 has been a painful, stressful, dramatic year, I thought I might provide a mixed media list of some of my favorite examples of Dark Wonder. I’ve refrained from recommending novels here, because I know many readers are having trouble concentrating on longer works these days. Instead I’m focusing on bite-sized prose, or screen media.
Okay, disclaimers and explanations out of the way now. Everyone have your flashlights? Fantastic. Let’s follow the obsidian-brick road and see where it takes us:
“The Skins of the Father,” Clive Barker
This novelette from Barker’s Books of Blood Volume 2 tells the story of a small town that witnesses a parade of monsters march in from the desert. The visitors have come to claim something that belongs to them. What follows is a lot of sound and fury, but also, in the grand Clive Barker tradition, it’s the passages of genuine beauty that linger in the mind even after the bloodshed is done.
Batman: Arkham Asylum – A Serious House on a Serious Earth, Grant Morrison & Dave McKean
In this 1989 graphic novel, the inmates of Arkham Asylum have taken the staff hostage. Their one demand: Batman must come to visit. What follows is a dreamlike journey which strips the Dark Knight to his psychological core. It’s one of the rare instances where script and art work in perfect lockstep to create a work of art that transcends its four-color pulpy origins. This is the story Tim Burton’s Batman wishes it was.
“At the Edge of Ellensburg,” Livia Llewellyn
This short story, from Llewellyn’s collection Engines of Desire starts with a narrator, a self-described “skinny, red-headed bitch,” finding a scale of falling sunlight, and then seems to shift into a relatively realistic story about erotic obsession and rough sex. Be warned, this is a deeply upsetting read, and features a graphic depiction of sexual violence, but for those willing to make the journey, the return to the story’s dark wonder roots—the flake of sunlight—results in one of the most incredibly rendered and satisfying climaxes I’ve ever read.
“The Glamour,” Thomas Ligotti
This short story is almost impossible to describe without ruining, but I’ll give it a try: a nameless man wanders into the world’s creepiest movie theater, and the show is… well, you’ll have to read for yourself.
What do you do when you create one of the seminal cult movies of the early 2000s? If you’re Richard Kelly, director of Donnie Darko, you attempt an even more ambitious and batshit project—a mash-up of Bush-era political satire, time travel, celebrity culture, and violence. It’s a story so complicated that it opens with several minutes of expository voiceover, and ends with a musical number at the end of the world. It doesn’t all work, but it’s a film that rewards the patient viewer and becomes more than the sum of its parts—an example of the transcendence Dark Wonder can offer us, even (especially?) in these dark days.