This September marked my return to the University of Southampton, where I have finally enrolled on a part-time doctorate degree. This is something that I have wanted to do for a number of years now, and certainly it marks the next step in my continuing education (don’t make me stop!) but for a number of mundane reasons it has taken this long to begin. I am not bitter about this; there is no rush where learning is concerned, and nothing could have spoiled my excitement at actually returning to the University, registering and commencing my studies in those first few weeks.
I know that a lot of people don’t particularly enjoy learning. I’m not really sure why I feel differently. I know that in my brief stints between higher education I felt as though I was stagnating. Perhaps this is telling of a need for guidance, structure, a visible goal towards which I can direct my efforts. Perhaps this is a good thing, perhaps not. All I do know for sure is that I am never happier than when working at a long-term project. I love having a task to which I can apply myself and focus on. It informs me, it drives me and it provides me with perspective; a lens through which I can view the world around me.
The degree is a Creative Writing project. There is much controversy surrounding the subject of Creative Writing degrees, namely whether or not it is truly possible to teach a person how to write. I think it is possible to teach someone the technicalities of writing. I also think it is possible to point them towards good writing, whether this comes in the form of majestic classics, sweeping epics, the late-night scribblings of a lonely man, or the diary of the woman living in the flat below him, who could not tell you the first thing about punctuation or grammar but knows her heart and how best to express it in the A5 pages on her bedside table. Can creativity be taught? I am not so sure. But this is a subject for another day.
My chosen subject is the exploration of the relationship between horror literature and the sublime. A month into what could amount to four years of research or more, I am only dipping my toes into the water, but already I am fascinated by what I am reading. Long before I had first heard of the sublime or actively read literary theory, I found myself indescribably moved by certain passages in horror fiction beyond the mere fear that I had expected to experience. This was undeniably horror, but not as I had encountered it before. At its simplest, the sublime “refers to the moment when the ability to apprehend, to know, and to express a thought or sensation is defeated.” And yet, “through this very defeat, the mind gets a feeling for that which lies beyond thought or language.”
It is a difficult concept to grasp. By its definition, the sublime is undefinable. It has evolved many times over the centuries, depending on its context and applications, but the concept of sublimity as unfathomable is always key. One of the best examples I can currently give is Barker’s short story ‘In the Hills, the Cities’, in which our protagonists, holidaying in Eastern Europe, find themselves witness to a traditional battle fought in the hills between two neighbouring cities. Sublimity begins when readers and protagonists alike realise that this battle is not fought with armies but with two titanic effigies; the entire populace of each city bound together with harnesses and straps into the figure of a vast, organic giant, striding across the hills to do ritual battle with its twin. I cannot do the story justice here, or hope to begin to recreate the conditions necessary to suggest the sublime, but try to imagine – really imagine – a giant made up of thousands of men, women and children joined together by leather and metal, its skin seething, rippling with faces and limbs as it marches on human feet, head in the clouds, screaming with the choral voice of a city stretched to breaking point –
This is horror fiction at its most poignant, its most powerful and affecting. I am spell-bound and horrified and moved to wonder with every reading. (Interestingly, so are the story’s protagonists.)
Throughout the course of my studies I intend to blog about places I have visited or books I have read. My thesis will take the form of a short story collection and a critical component, so perhaps I will share thoughts surrounding these as they develop. I won’t bombard you with updates, but they will come when I feel suitably inspired.
I have picked a subject that will keep me busy for a few years, at least.