The horror of memory loss
(Plus, why horror protagonists typically lack curiosity)
This week, I found a weirdly specific trope among horror shorts from last year, uncovered a key element of science fiction horror, and found some great inspiration for creative work. I also found an example of dystopian body modification in the last place you’d expect it.
The hot horror trope of 2020: forgetting that your loved ones exist
I recently read The Best Horror of 2020 anthology (ed. Ellen Datlow), and two of the stories featured a plot element where the main characters were erased from their loved ones’ memories or had loved ones wiped from their memory. Essentially, disappearance without recognizing something is missing.
It’s a compelling horror element that I’ve only seen once: in Things We Lost in the Fire by Argentinian writer Mariana Enriquez.
There’s an interesting connection here: Enriquez’s anthology grapples with the real political horror experienced by Argentinian workers under the right-wing Videla regime in the late 1970s. An estimated 15,000 to 30,000 Argentinians were kidnapped by unnamed government enforcers, never to be seen again. People would reportedly yell their full names while they were being snatched in the hopes that someone was in earshot and the victim's loved ones would find out what happened to them.
In one account, a groom was dragged away in front of the bride and guests.
So, the trope about losing your loved ones—no closure, no goodbye, no chance to grieve—was born out of that collective political memory. But why did it show up in US horror fiction in 2021? Best guess: there have been one million US deaths due to COVID. Neither political party nor the mainstream media have fully acknowledged this loss of life—the absolute society-shifting number of people we’ve lost.
The US lost one million people, and the leading voices in our country have tried to convince us that this is negligible. It’s in their favor that our brains can’t even conceive of a loss that enormous, but it remains a loss that we haven’t fully reckoned with.
Loss is tragic, but it’s human. It’s within the scope of most people to understand and metabolize. But loss that you can’t truly grieve, loss that you’re not even aware even occurred? That’s a nightmare.
Novel update: realization about curiosity and horror
I’m outlining my first novel (working title: The Bloom), the elevator pitch for which is below:
The evolutionary botanist who created The Bloom, a terraforming project in Arizona gone horrifyingly wrong, seeks absolution for her failure when circumstances force her to re-enter the rapidly spreading toxic jungle. With only days until the Bloom reaches the Pacific and infects the planet, she joins an expedition to stop it once and for all. But that means discovering the truth of what caused it to go wrong in the first place…a truth that will change everything she knows about the planet and herself.
There’s going to be body horror and climate horror all at once. I’m stoked as hell on it (which tells you that I’m not very far in this process).
Anyway, one of the key themes of the story is the protagonist's quest for absolution. She enters the Bloom wanting to kill it because that’s what she believes will allow her to forgive herself, but her journey will require her to be investigative and open in order to understand the real horror she’s up against. In other words, she has to choose curiosity over judgment.
The issue with that (which I’ll be documenting in The Working Writer) is that science fiction horror typically punishes curiosity, all the way back to its founding story: Frankenstein. Horror can be weirdly regressive in that the genre’s tropes caution against ambition, curiosity, or exploration. However, there are just as many horror stories that reward a willingness to be intellectually flexible, to accept what we can’t yet process because that’s what’s necessary to survive.
Because I’m writing a horror story that rewards a quality the most famous horror fiction punishes, I’ll need to be particularly alert to what I’m communicating in my story. If I’m not paying attention, I can send a mixed message about the virtues of being curious.
Three bits of creative inspo and one horrifying fact
First, the inspiration:
- This sketchbook flipthrough by Mattias Adolfsson immediately made me want to draft some exploratory writing. His precise, almost architectural landscapes remind me of Where’s Waldo, while his doodles remind me that it’s okay to just fuck around in your work whenever you want—and that, in fact, fucking around is a great practice.
- Vulture recently published "An Oral History of ‘Contact’ the Movie" that’s worth checking out. I love oral histories in general, but I had no idea that the sci-fi film Contact (which I first watched on TNT in like 2004) was written in part by Carl Sagan. Cosmic Mr. Rogers himself! Anyway, reading Jodie Foster and Robert Zemeckis discuss their process is a joy.
- Jason Mott doesn’t think writer’s block exists, and I’m inclined to agree with him.
Now, the dystopian body modification:
- Wealthy New Yorkers are getting a body modification to get something called “the Hampton bladder,” which is an operation to make them not have to pee so often so they can (I shit you not) avoid making bathroom breaks on the drive to the Hamptons. Women can't get abortions and trans kids can’t get treatment for gender dysmorphia (or even get the haircut they want), but wealthy Manhattanites can get an operation to make their drive to the Hamptons more comfortable. Cool society we’ve got here.
Anyway, this feels like a sufficiently long issue of The Working Writer. If you enjoyed this, feel free to share with a friend; maybe let them know to subscribe. And let me know if you've seen any weird billionaire body modifications in the news—I figure that money has to be going somewhere.