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The Shack at the Edge of Town: A Reflection on the Horror Genre by Carlos Perona Calvete

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Essay

The Shack at the Edge of Town:
A Reflection on the Horror Genre

At the far end, beyond old man Martin’s property line. Over where the woods start. There used to be a shack there. It was small and barely, if at all, visible during the day. But at night there would be a strange glow coming from its small, thin, single pane windows. A red glow. And anyone walking nearby (not too near—nobody ever got too near) would hear strange, inhuman sounds coming from inside. 

At least that’s what all the neighbourhood kids remember. The adults swear there was never a shack over there. 

Someone must have told us a scary story about it—come to think of it, it was one of the older siblings of one of the kids in our group. Our imagination did the rest. 

One summer, we decided to go out there. Sure enough—nothing. 

We stayed a while, sat on the ground, threw rocks, leaned against trees after inspecting them for Satanic engravings, and made jokes until childhood dread gave way, exorcising the dirty little patch that had provided us with years of stories.

I remember one of those stories—towards the tail end of the non-existent shack’s mythic run—tried to explain why the adults kept saying there was no shack. This came right before we went over there and confirmed what they had been telling us. The story had it that whatever evil force had perched itself just outside town, watching, planning who-knows-what, was simply invisible to older people, or had entranced them into not being able to see its presence. Perhaps some adults did know, but had been corrupted, recruited into its scheme—again, whatever that might be. 

The day we went out and sat where the shack would have been, we briefly played with the thought that, maybe, we ourselves had just turned old enough to stop perceiving the thing. And maybe the reason why we couldn’t really, convincingly pin-down any specific memory of having seen it was that, after a certain age, those kinds of memories start to fade. And yet, we decided, even if this were the case (a highly suspect proposition, but never mind) surely the illusory shack and its illusory light and sounds were no great threat, no powerful foe. They were, in fact, the work of some local jinn, a spirit—perhaps malevolent, but probably just mischievous—whose abilities were more or less limited to putting on a somewhat frightening show for kids. And this never within the perimeter of our town proper, being unable to transgress the borders of human dwelling. 

This theory received a second wind many years later when a local twenty-something decided to take psilocybin mushrooms in the woods. It was a small dose—Terrence Mckenna would call it “un-heroic.” He said he saw the shack, fleetingly, and heard not altogether comforting voices, like people shouting at someone in pain, although he never made out any words, as though it were an alien language. 

A few years later childhood fears gave way to more adult ones. That part of town was still kind of sinister, but for other reasons. Old man Martin got cancer. One day, we heard that his daughter, who lived abroad, had come back. We were all off in college by then but we got together to visit him one summer. We brought food and sat around, hearing stories about what the town was like when he was young, and what it had been like to fight in the war. We hadn’t known it before, but he got a medal for having spent a year as a prisoner of war. It was a fun day. He died soon after.

The place became a party spot after that on account of Mr. Martin’s house going unoccupied. There was no one to complain about the noise. Seems whatever had been there moved out too, because a teenager experimented with psychedelics and no one ever talked about seeing the shack. 

Mr. Martin’s daughter was a lot older than us, so I never spoke to her much growing up. But I did run into her recently over Christmas. She was trying to get the old place in order before putting it up for sale. I mentioned the whole saga, wondering if her generation (she’s a Gen Xer, I’m a Millennial), told the same story about the shack. She looked at me strangely. Apparently, the day we had visited, her dad had kept reminiscing after we left. She told me how he had described the place where he had been imprisoned during the war. A shack with small, single pane windows. His captors even kept a red light on at night to keep him from falling asleep. She said after that, he had looked more at peace than she ever remembered seeing him, like he’d let go of something—and that she had felt closer to him than ever before. 

She finished up by telling me she was glad we had gotten the chance to talk—that she had always wanted to thank us for coming around that day, and to tell us her dad appreciated it. He had said knowing his guys were out there, that they would be going home, had comforted him when he thought he might die in that shack, and, in some way, seeing the town’s kids all grown up, coming around to visit him had reminded him of old comradery. She said she hoped I passed that along to the others. 

It turns out our coming-of-age horror story wasn’t really about us. It was about Martin, and Martin’s wounds, and his daughter and their relationship. But I like that we were the background to it, and that we helped it along. 

Horror polarises between the twin evils of chaos and control, the thing lurking outside town (or outside an American-style suburb), and the painful secrets inside. Often, as in Stephen King’s It, the inside’s authority figures (parents, teachers, bosses, government) have been hypnotised into not seeing the outside threat, or have even been recruited by it. 

Evil comes in pairs. It is cloven, as Blake says, double-horned. It swims with Leviathan under the waves and roams with Behemoth upon the land. It comes with both hands full, and will oscillate between offering us defeat and delusion: the diffusion of our energies, so that we allow ourselves to be overcome, and the acceptance of some easy, empty solution. 

It is to be appreciated, then, when horror avoids falling into either trap. 

When it refuses to end on a fatalistic note, faux depth and the defeat of its protagonist, as well as with a deus ex machina rescue. Shortcomings aside, King’s fiction often does just this. The “Good” appears neither as a masochistic acquiescence to evil, perhaps in hopes of some future, ever-deferred redemption, nor as the bursting force of unexpected agency, violating all intermediary elements of reality to end the threat and save the day. Rather, it is through the posse comitatus, the hunting party, the gang of chums, that Good manifests. 

Righteousness cannot always be present as a discrete entity: “I tell you the truth; it is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you” (John 16:7). It enters the world through an excruciatingly subtle doorway: the harmony between us when we relate to each other on the basis of love, “for where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).

Martin didn’t give up, even though he had his demons. He carried them around for a long time, but he lived a good life in spite of them, and in the end he shed their weight. It wasn’t dramatic, it was as banal as having his daughter back for the holidays, and facing death, and seeing us, and being able to tell his story. At its best, this is the mechanism by which the horror genre resolves its predicaments. 

Bands of friends. Bonds of love.

Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.

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