Jul 13 2010 6:12pm

ReaderCon Panel Recap: “New England, At Home to the Unheimlich”

The second panel at ReaderCon on Friday featured several authors from New England: Brett Cox, Elizabeth Hand, Caitlin Kiernan, Faye Ringel, Paul Tremblay and Catherynne Valente. A blog post that Valente wrote on the subject sums up the idea of the panel: “New England...is the natural home of horror. All these creaking old houses, these snaking trees, these hermetically sealed universities...to my child’s mind, in Seattle, and then in California where, oh, there is so much light, so much light nothing dark could ever hide, New England was where they kept the secrets.”

A lifelong New England resident, I can attest that there is something that certainly adds to the feeling of horror and gothic wonder that seems to have been a major influence for some of the seminal works in the genre, and ever since taking a class offered by Brett Cox, I have felt very differently about my state of Vermont, with a sense of wonder for the mountains, small towns, rivers, and the weather here.

The first major points that were brought up looked at establishing the differences between the west and east coasts on two levels: environmental and historical. As Valente noted, as someone who had grown up in California, there are major differences in the climate and landscape that really set the two apart, adding that she still marvels at the yearly snowfall. Brett Cox likewise noted that as someone who had grown up in the south, the north is rather dark, with a short summer and longer winter which takes its toll on people mentally and physically. The northeast, specifically New England, is not the only place that really inspires horror stories, but it does have its own particular imprint in the genre.

Beyond the environmental elements of the east coast is the history behind the region, which stretches back much further than most of the areas out in the west, simply because that is where the colonies laid down their first foundations and homes. Historically, the northeast has a longer tradition of horror and speculative writers, because of this earlier settlement, it would seem, and because of some of the natural environment that surrounds them. Authors ranging from Shirley Jackson to Nathanial Hawthorne to Edgar Allen Poe to H.P. Lovecraft have all lived in the area, helping to establish a bit of continuity in the region.

Someone on the panel said that New England is haunted by its writers. But, as Valente noted, some of the atmosphere is man-made as well, from older, decaying, and outright abandoned buildings to the building materials and isolated nature of some of the towns and settlements that populate the Northeast. Certainly, in Vermont, what I conceive of as cities and towns are decidedly not—they're small, insular communities that can be standoffish to outsiders and focused inward, which only helps to give a very different sense here. I have a certain amount of interest with the decay and abandonment of structures, and there are a number of good examples around central Vermont, where I now live.

Something that people mentioned a lot was their own pasts; most of the panelists were transplanted to New England from other parts of the country. Some were drawn to the nature of the area, while others were not, but something that I found interesting was how they all compared their own family trees and personal histories and related a fascination with the longer history of the area. I can’t help but wonder if there is an element of the roots of the country embedded in the mentality here, stretching back to Europe before the colonies were founded.

A trend that was noted was the element of the familiar and unfamiliar, and relating that to home. As colonists found new homes, they looked back to their own roots and brought over architecture and stories with them. These are roots that, while they aren’t unique to the Northeast, do define a lot of the regional character, which in turn helps to inform some of the gothic and speculative fiction that comes out of the area.

The general consensus seems to be that this comes in two parts. The general environment in which horror and gothic fiction is written up is a major element in shaping how we perceive a lot of the American fantasy and horror out there, while at the same time, it’s been happening for much longer than most everywhere else in the country. Thus, people gravitate towards the northeast section of the country when they think of horror, both for the ambiance and for the history that informs it.

Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer, historian and longtime science fiction fan. He currently holds a master’s degree in Military History from Norwich University, and has written for SF Signal and io9, as well as for his personal site, Worlds in a Grain of Sand. He currently lives in the green (or white, for most of the year) mountains of Vermont with a growing library of books and a girlfriend who tolerates them.

Tanya K.
1. Tanya K.
Nice writeup! My budget didn't allow me to make it to Readercon this year, so it's nice to vicariously see some of what went on there :)
Gabriele Campbell
2. G-Campbell
It's spelled 'unheimlich' - meaning: scary, frightening, eerie, sinister. The word is connected with 'Heim' (home) and the old-fashioned 'heimelig' (cosy). By adding un- it turned into the opposite: unheimelig > unheimlich.
Bridget McGovern
3. BMcGovern
@2 G-Campbell--thanks! We had originally edited the spelling to "unheimlich" until it was pointed out that the panel title was spelled as "unheinlich" throughout the ReaderCon program. I didn't make it up to Boston this year, either, so I wasn't sure if there was some explanation for the odd spelling, or if it was simply a typo. I'll switch it back--thanks for the expert opinion!
Tanya K.
4. gorbag
And there I was thinking the reason for all the horror being written or set in New England, was the New Englanders themselves ... those shambling monstrosities that Lovecraft so movingly and affectionately describes ... so help me, someone, I'm probably related to at least one of the earlier New England settler families, the Vickeries, extant in Boston by the time of the Revolution if not before - when do I become a shambling monstrosity? (It's a bit too late to become one for my twenty-first, sad to say :)
C Smith
5. C12VT
Actually, I think New England is the most "heimlich" place I know - nothing like being curled up in a nice warm house when it is cold and snowy out. Light without darkness just makes everything look washed out.

I think this region (I live in Vermont myself, hence the last two letters of my username) feels more real than other parts of the country because of the weight of history and how much remains of the past. Most of the western part of this country is just very new - and much of the more urban east coast areas have been inhabited for a long time, but keep being rebuilt. The town I live in probably has as many 1800s buildings as 1900s buildings, and I like that.

And I feel like people here really care about their history. The flip side to the insularity is that the communities are pretty tight-knit, with a lot of loyalty to place.

That's not to say that the ambiance doesn't lend itself to horror rather well... but I find that charming. Wouldn't want to live anywhere else.
Gabriele Campbell
6. G-Campbell
C12VT, 'heimlich' is another word, meaning 'secret, clandestine'. Originally, it meant 'belonging to the house' also 'hidden' (private, happening inside the house) and then developed into 'secret'. Only the latter meaning is active today. The matching noun is 'Geheimnis'.

'Ein heimeliges Heim kann doch unheimliche Geheimnisse bergen.' (...a homely home may still hide eerie secrets). :)
C Smith
7. C12VT
@ G-Campbell - thanks for that. What a fabulous word! That etymology makes me think about what a fine line there can be between the homey and the hidden.

I was wondering about horror and gothic fiction from non-American authors. Are there New England equivalents in other parts of the globe?

Does anyone have a link to the blog post mentioned? I'd love to read the whole thing.
Wesley Parish
8. Aladdin_Sane
C12VT @7, I don't know of any Australasian horror or gothic writers - in these parts of the wood, we tend to write good SF or (mostly) bad Fantasy, with the notable exceptions - to the best of my knowledge -, of Patricia Wrightson's The Nargun and the Stars, and of Maurice Gee's The Half-Men of O, The Priests of Ferris, and Motherstone.

There are of course some absolutely brilliant British horror and gothic writers, Machen being probably the all-round best.

I don't know about the rest of the English-speaking world, though the folklore of the Caribbean Sea and of English-speaking Africa cries out to be adapted to horror - though not to the gothic subgenre: that's a specifically European/neo-European genre, though it would be possible to turn colonial-era (error?) buildings into focuses of horror easily enough.

I think there's probably quite a lot of horror (and perhaps gothic) writers in many of the European languages, though the Iron Curtain didn't include either genre as permissible. On the other hand, the Western Europeans, I think, found both the scope and the incentive to write it in their recent history.

Just my 0.02c - don't spend it all at once, the banks are still robbing us blind ...

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