The Wilderness Within: John Claude Smith’s Horror of Psychedelia, Phenomenology and Self

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I’ve thought a lot about both the correspondences and differences between a “philosophy of horror” (consider Noël Carroll’s methodology and 1990 book of the same name) and a “horror of philosophy,” which Eugene Thacker studies extensively in his trilogy—In the Dust of this Planet (2011), Starry Speculative Corpse (2015) and Tentacles Longer Than Night (2015). Upon finishing John Claude Smith’s bizarre new novel The Wilderness Within (2017), it strikes me that he is also invested in this intersection.

Is The Wilderness Within a horror novel proper? Well, sort of. Smith quotes weird fiction scribe Algernon Blackwood in his opening epigraph, and his novel does carry the haunting residue of The Willows (1907). But he also quotes the great philosophical magic realist of Argentine literature, Jorge Luis Borges, and Philip K. Dick, legend of metaphysical sci-fi paranoia. To be sure, there are elements of dread in both Borges’ and Dick’s oeuvres, but it is philosophical inquiry above all that connects Smith’s novel with these three names.

This book sees Smith undergoing a deceptively simple exercise of content-in-form: two metal-head writer buddies take a trip into the woods, resulting in an eventual descent into freaky psychedelia. Smith charts this progression through narration and experimental style: what begins as a series of dialogues (largely steeped in theoretical interest) slips into a punctuation- and perspective-busting freak-out with its roots (pun partially intended) in the works of William S. Burroughs.

This is a very fun novel to read on the basis of plot and execution alone, but Smith distinguishes his story from straightforward genre fare by investing most intently in ideas. The author ends up addressing the aporia that results from any attempt to frame nature within human-centric models of phenomenology—this quality made me think of Dylan Trigg’s The Thing: A Phenomenology of Horror, but also of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (2008). Many of the (potentially horrifying) problems that Meillassoux engages on the level of philosophy, Smith conveys through the medium of magic realist horror.

To be specific, The Wilderness Within confronts the “thing-in-itself” in the form of a natural space with insidiously quasi-mystic attributes (think the pan-psychism of Blackwood’s The Willows, but somehow even quieter and less explicit). This brings me to Meillassoux, who grapples with the post-Kantian concept of “correlation”—“the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other”; or, more plainly, that “we can never grasp an object ‘in itself’, in isolation from its relation to the subject […] we can never grasp a subject that would not always-already be related to an object” (5). The object-subject relation unfolds in a sequence echoing the human-into-tree imprisonment of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590-96)… if only Spenser had had access to Salvinorin A and nihilistic industrial metal.

Smith demonstrates that one can build a horror narrative around ideas—that a prominently conceptual framework can suffice just as well as a narrative one. And this is not to say that Smith disregards plot—I see echoes of Stephen King’s rigorously designed The Dark Half (1989) just as clearly as I see the philosophical considerations. This is the first novel I’ve read from Smith, and I’m immediately impressed by his commitment to thinking through the unique possibilities and problems of horror. I’ve never encountered anything quite like it. It’s trippy, bullet-fast and madly cerebral.

Read it.

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