Sometimes, for no particular reason, I think about the chair.
I’m talking about the chair in Iain M. Banks’s Use of Weapons. The one that haunts the story throughout its reverse narrative, culminating in a horrifying reveal about the main character, the personal demons he’s been running from, and the lengths people will go to inflict pain upon others.
It’s far from the most horrifying thing in a Culture novel; it’s not even the most horrifying thing in that Culture novel. (Isn’t that the one with the cannibal cult island?) But in a book and a series where civilizations clash for millennia and tens of millions of people are regularly wiped out as plots points, it’s this very personal, small-scale horror that really sticks with me.
Space is an excellent setting for horror stories; Emily Hughes has recently written about why that is. I don’t agree that all space stories are necessarily horror stories, but I absolutely agree that all space stories have a marvelous potential to be horror stories.
Horror can serve a lot of purposes in storytelling, aside from the obvious one of scaring our pants off for fun. It’s also a way to explore fears and anxieties, critique traditions and societies, and examine prejudices and assumptions. But one thing that makes horror especially powerful in space-based science fiction is this: it is one of the best ways we have to make personal, intimate, and immediate things which might otherwise feel too big, too strange, or too remote for intense emotional impact.
Space is infinite, but fear is small enough to fit in the pit of your stomach.
To be completely honest, I don’t think there is anything intrinsically terrifying about space. Space is very dangerous, but lots of places are very dangerous for soft, squishy humans in our soft, squishy bodies. Even aspects of the universe being wholly unknowable are not frightening to me, as there are lots of things that I do not know and will never know, and that’s fine. I may not be a scientist anymore, but I guess I’m still enough of one that the vast unknown mostly makes me think, “Fuck yeah! Weird shit!” rather than, “Oh no. Weird shit.”
But—there is always a but—it is entirely possible to make the vastness and strangeness of space not just frightening to me, but downright horrifying, and that’s by using it the same way one would use an earth-bound horror setting, such as a spooky forest or a haunted house. There is nothing inherently scary about a forest or a house; it’s what you put into those places that makes them scary. The threats lurking just out of sight, monsters hiding in the shadows, occurrences that cannot be explained by the normal rules of how the setting operates, these are the things that tip a perfectly ordinary place over into a horror setting.
The same is true of space. Maybe we don’t know what’s out there in space, but what makes it a good setting for horror is positing that we know just enough to know that something is out there, and that something is unsettling, unexpected, or strange. Think about Michael Myers lurking behind the hedge. That eerily un-dog-like dog racing across the Antarctic ice. The figures you see in the forest. The face you glimpse in the window. Space is big and dark and weird, but the feeling that you get when you first sense something is wrong—that small, visceral feeling that puts your instincts on alert—it’s very intimate and personal, regardless of the setting.
This is what happens in Ada Hoffman’s delightfully creepy The Outside, in which a physicist on the verge of a life-changing scientific breakthrough knows something is wrong with her work, but can’t pinpoint what it is. She’s very quickly proven right, but the catastrophe that follows from her initial suspicions is, alas, just an introduction to a wrongness much, much bigger than herself and her work—wrongness on a vast scale, affecting the very nature of reality, in the tradition of the very best cosmic horror. It’s also an element of Peter F. Hamilton’s sprawling Night’s Dawn trilogy, in which a whole host of characters come to realize one by one that while they might be living in a space opera world, they are about to be plunged into a ghost story and, man, the ghosts are pissed.
A sense of wrongness is intrinsic to horror, and I love when it intrudes upon a science fictional story, perhaps subtly at first, perhaps on a very small scale, beginning with just a bit of unease, so slight you might not even notice it building to dread, and finally to terror, until it’s too late.
The universe doesn’t care about you—but you desperately want it to.
I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian, but I have read enough science fiction to know that sci-fi writers love to grapple with the same ideas that captivate philosophers and theologians, and that science fiction, as a genre, is all the better for it. One aspect of this I find especially fascinating is the way science fiction deals with humanity’s seemingly never-ending quest for meaning. For importance. For proof that we matter. For a reason for our existence.
I don’t really understand this yearning on a personal level, as an atheist who tends to believe that petting cats and not being an asshole is reason enough for existence, so I am appreciative when science fiction offers up the answer nobody wants to hear: We don’t matter. We’re not important. The universe does not care.
That concept in itself is not necessarily horrifying, but the way it plays out in a story can be. Because, as always, horror comes from what the characters experience, and it is their emotional reaction that is going to establish the horror. Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series is one example I enjoy that plays with these themes on a tremendous scale, spanning the entire galaxy over millions of years. A core aspect of the whole series is that there is something out there—a threat lurking in the darkness—that can and will destroy entire space-faring civilizations to achieve a singular rational purpose that has absolutely nothing to do with what humans or anybody else wants. (And, just to make it worse, even that threat turns out to not matter in the end, because there’s another one growing, and it cares even less.)
Another example that plays out on a scale much more familiar to the horror genre is Peter Watts’s Blindsight, in which a group is sent to the outer reaches of the solar system to investigate a mysterious spacecraft. Things do not quite go according to plan—they never do, when you head out to investigate a mysterious spacecraft—but the real horror here is the development, for both the characters and the reader, of the idea that not only does the universe not have any answers to the questions humans ask about their existence, but that even asking those questions might be nothing more than a random oddity, a quirk of evolutionary chance, a shout into a void that is never going to answer. (Also there are vampires.)
You’re in the monster’s house.
The fundamental discomforts of cosmic scale and the existential questions of human existence aside, it is important to remember that sometimes horror really is just about monsters. Space horror is no different, of course; the first example everybody thinks of in the genre is Alien, which presents one of the world’s more revered storytelling tropes (woman + cat versus monster) (no, really, it’s in all your literature textbooks, I promise) in space.
Horror, as a genre, is very often about a great many things that are not explicit on page or screen, because horror is about fear, and people are afraid of so many things. Monsters are a way to make those fears physical and immediate, and a lot of monster horror set on Earth is about invasion: slugs, spiders, vampires, doppelgangers, doesn’t matter what, only that something monstrous is invading a place humans call home, making a previously safe place unsafe, threatening the things that people value.
But out there in space, the reverse is possible in the most delightfully upsetting ways. No matter where we go in space, no matter our reasons for exploration, we’re always going to be the outsiders. We’re the ones walking uninvited into the monster’s house.
Consider, for example, David Wellington’s The Last Astronaut, in which the classic Rendezvous With Rama-style scenario takes a spooky and grotesque turn once they get inside the strange spaceship. Or Caitlin Starling’s wonderful The Luminous Dead, in which the main character is delving deep into the darkness of another planet, where the monsters might not be as much of a threat as the lack of information she has about what, exactly, she’s supposed to be doing in those seemingly endless caves.
There is a monster at the center of Dan Simmons’ Canterbury Tales-in-space Hyperion books. It’s a pretty terrifying monster, with the apparent ability to appear in any time and any place, and a penchant for impaling people on a large spiky tree to suffer for all of eternity. The characters know the monster is out there; they’ve come to the monster’s house on purpose. But as is the case with many great horror tales, there are times when the Shrike pales in comparison to what the members of this planetary pilgrimage bring with them: their own selves, their own stories.
What I love about this sort of scenario is how it manages to be both claustrophobic and agoraphobic. Space is huge and empty—but we’re stuck in our own bodies and minds, in the haunted house. We’ll die if we step out the door—but we might die in here as well. These horrors might come to find us in our places of comfort—but we go looking for them too, boldly going without knowing what we might find, and now we’ve got to deal with the consequences.
Wherever you go, there you are.
Consequences are, of course, the bloody, beating heart of horror. Whatever happens, whatever monsters or madness a character encounters, the impact of horror lies in those events changing them in some irreversible way. Science fiction is a big playground, with room for the biggest stories and ideas, whereas horror, even cosmic horror, is intimate, because fear is so very intimate. You can endanger entire civilizations and destroy planets and warp the fabric of reality all you want—but, in the end, none of it will have any emotional impact unless it ruins somebody’s day.
You know who’s really good at ruining somebody’s day? People.
Which brings me full circle to another Iain M. Banks novel. Like all of the Culture books, Surface Detail is a massive, sprawling story with a cast of thousands, but there’s one plot thread that I still think about from time to time, whenever I am thinking about man-made horrors. In this far-flung future, people have the ability to live eternal virtual lives of their own choosing, with any utopian scenario they can imagine…so of course some people have decided to invent Hell. When the possibilities are literally limitless, they still choose to create outrageous, monstrous, eternal torments for the purposes of controlling others. Of course that’s what they do. Of course.
Don’t get me wrong: there is a lot more than just fear waiting out there in space. There is also awe and wonder, strangeness and mystery, curiosity and knowledge. People will bring all of that with them, and a yearning for more, everywhere they go. That’s a large part of what makes science fiction, especially the type of science fiction that imagines racing into the farthest reaches of space, so appealing.
But we will also bring a potential for horror. We can’t seem to help ourselves.
Kali Wallace studied geology and earned a PhD in geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. She is the author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels for children, teens, and adults, including the 2022 Philip K. Dick Award winner Dead Space. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s, Tor.com, and other speculative fiction magazines. Her newest novel is Hunters of the Lost City, a middle grade fantasy adventure out now from Quirk Books. Find her newsletter at kaliwallace.substack.com.