Abject Horror: The Gratuitous Honesty of Hanya Yanagihara and Stephen King

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I’m going to describe a book, and I’d like you to guess which one it is. This book features a close-knit friend group, all of whom were lonely and isolated until they found each other. These friends have known each other since they were young and poor, but they’ve each grown up to be massively successful in their respective fields. Each friend is haunted by the past, some more than others. By the end of the book, two of the friends will fall in love, some will die violently and one will commit suicide. Which book am I talking about?

If you guessed A Little Life, you were right. If you guessed IT…you were also right.

A few months ago, I developed a theory: IT and A Little Life are the same book. In case you’re not familiar: IT is Stephen King’s twice-adapted horror novel about a shape-shifting monster who drags children into sewers. A Little Life, the 2015 National Book Award finalist by Hanya Yanagihara, is about a group of friends trying to save one of their own from self-destruction. Don’t sound very similar, right? But they are. They totally are! Aside from the fact that both books are so long that they could literally be used as murder weapons, aside from the fact that their basic structures are nearly identical, they’re both horror novels.

In the case of It, that genre classification is pretty obvious. But A Little Life is also a horror story. Yanagihara pulls out all the old-school horror tropes — malicious authority figures, sexual violence, mutilation, everyone dying — and hides it under a thin layer of literary realism. And the similarities go even deeper. Both books are ultimately about entrenched, abiding systems of structural corruption and how these systems act on and eventually destroy individual people. They’re about secrets, the toxicity of secrets, and the pressure to be silent. Horror has always been a way of tackling the unspeakable. We transmute our sexual fear and longing into vampires (also, apparently, our fear of being buried alive). Zombie movies have a long history of addressing racial trauma. Ghosts are the secrets we can’t repress, no matter how desperately we try. Horror stories zero in on the moment when the valve blows and all your evil shit goes public. They’re also about the fact that no one’s shit stays public. At least, no one with any measure of power. Eventually, we forget and it happens all over again.

There’s also Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject. To condense something very, very complicated into a couple of sentences: the “abject” refers to anything that reminds us not only that we are going to die, but that we are going to decay. We have this deep, visceral urge to distance ourselves from things which are abject, because we don’t want to picture our own decomposition or accept that it’s already begun. Horror staples like blood, shit, and pus are all abject.

Stephen King loves the abject. A highlights reel of IT would include: a sink vomiting blood all over a teenage girl’s bathroom; a reanimated corpse sticking its fingers in a little boy’s mouth; a giant, winged leach landing in another boy’s mouth, drinking his blood, and then bursting all over his tongue (yep); and multiple instances of people wading through human waste. These scenes are viscerally upsetting, and King lingers in them. The fact that they all happen to children makes it worse. Even the most vicious bullies in IT are still children and therefore inherently vulnerable. There is a deep sense of injustice, watching this violence enacted on King’s characters, and the violence is made all the more stark by the fact that the adults surrounding them are often blind to it. When Beverly, the girl whose sink sends up a geyser of blood, tries to show her father what has happened, he can’t see what she sees.

Or at least, he claims not to see. Because here’s the thing about IT: none of the adults are trustworthy. Every single one is guilty of enacting physical, psychological, or emotional violence on their children. There’s no voice of sanity, no person with power and perspective for the children to trust. The adults in IT either perpetuate or enable the monster’s violence. So when Beverly’s father says he can’t see the blood, does he actually not see it, or is he gaslighting her? If he is gaslighting, to what end?

Like IT, A Little Life is told from multiple points of view. While King’s characters are linked by their efforts to defeat a monster, Yanagihara’s are linked by their desire to save their friend, Jude, from destroying himself. Jude is Yanagihara’s Gatsby: a charming, wildly accomplished, deeply kind person harboring a past he wants desperately to conceal. He’s the kind of character you can’t help loving, the adult equivalent of one of King’s blameless children. As the novel unfolds, we discover that he has survived a brutal childhood that has left him physically and emotionally scarred. Long after Jude has been rescued form his tormenters, he continues to enact abuse on himself, slicing into his arms until they’re nothing but scar tissue and, at one point, burning himself with hot oil. All of this is described in wrenching detail. Like King, Yanagihara is a master of the abject, and she won’t let you look away. Just when you’re reaching your limits of what you can take, she turns up the volume.

Yanagihara also explores the deep quiet that can surround violence. As a child, Jude is shuttled from one abusive situation to the next. In each case, the adults around him close ranks, protecting each other and framing their behavior as either a necessary form of discipline or an expression of love. As an adult, Jude is safe from his abusers (for the most part), but not himself. He stays quiet, wanting to appear normal to his new friends. And while his friends are able to guess at the outlines of his past and know for certain that he is self-harming, they also stay quiet. They want him to feel normal. They don’t know how to stop him from hurting himself.

This paralysis is so real. Who hasn’t been in this situation — knowing a friend is hurting deeply but doing nothing. You tell yourself that you’re wrong, or that it’s not as bad as you think. You hope this is true. You tell yourself that getting involved will only make things worse. That you will embarrass your friend. Or maybe you’re just exhausted. Whether we want to admit it or not, it’s hard to love someone in pain. Silence is enabling, but it is also deeply human. Silence is how we keep ourselves safe.

And there’s that other silence — the normalizing silence, the perpetuating silence. This is just how it is. You brought it on yourself. The silence of the abuser. The silence like a wall you can’t climb. The blood isn’t real, says Bev’s father. And maybe he’s said this so many times, he’s come to believe it, too. After all, that’s also how he keeps himself safe.

Of course this silence extends into literary fiction. So much of the writing world is predicated on decorum and politeness, and this politeness is inscribed in the art we make. Take the notion that, even when writing about massive suffering, literary fiction should be restrained or poetic. Pan away from the man bleeding to death and describe the clouds scuttling over the moon or the oak leaves flipping over to show their silver bellies. Make it beautiful and melancholy. Make it a metaphor.

Horror is a metaphor, too, but unlike literary fiction, it rarely pans away. This, more than anything, is why A Little Life feels like a horror novel. It’s also the thing that really gets me about both Yanagihara and King’s work, that draws me in and makes me bristle: their total embrace of the gratuitous. They cruise past literary convention with the windows down and Boss’s “I Don’t Give a Fuck” rattling the speakers. Gleefully, they speed right over the cliff’s edge and go sailing past melodrama into Grand Guinol. The moment you think, “There’s no way s/he’s going to that,” THAT happens. Their books revel in violence so over-the-top that you start wondering whether excessiveness is the whole point.

Horror stories might be the most honest way of addressing that weird meeting place between loud, sticky violence and the quiet that often surrounds it. At base, horror is about a lack of control, a public denial of danger and pain that we know in our hearts to be real. I’m not saying IT and A Little Life are perfect books (I have a lot of qualms about King’s work in general, and IT in particular), but I am saying that their lack of restraint takes us somewhere honest. Sometimes we feel terror or rage or horror that is so gargantuan that it feels like a geyser of blood no one else can see.

What if we started using horror as a model for literary fiction? Some people, including Yanaghihara, and, I would argue, Julie Orringer, are already doing this. I once had a teacher who advised me to “turn my work up to eleven.” The funny thing was, I thought I already had. I really thought I’d adequately destroyed my characters lives. But I was wrong. I was thinking (without realizing it) like a literary fiction writer. I should have been thinking like George Romero.

Which is to say, fuck restraint. The world is not restrained or polite, so why should our writing be either of those things? We don’t owe it to anyone to make our writing nice, or easy, or palatable. Maybe we should start asking ourselves who we’re protecting when we pan away, and why we’re protecting them.


Image: Follower of Hieronymus Bosch. “Christ’s Descent Into Hell.” Second quarter, sixteenth century. Oil on wood. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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