Hemingway and Horror

He has never written about ghosts or vampires or werewolves. Unlike fellow American literary heavyweight William Faulkner, he does not adopt an overt Gothic mode. Nonetheless, Ernest Hemingway in many respects can be viewed as a horror writer.

Committed to the clear examination of the human condition, Hemingway is a writer who inevitably peers into dark places. His typical thematic concerns, such as masculinity-attacking fear (“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”) and the confrontation of mortality (“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”) and his recurrent subjects (bullfighting’s spectacular tragedy; warfare’s mass cruelties and casualties) are perfectly geared toward the horrific. Macabre imagery haunts Hemingway’s work. Greek evacuees in “On the Quai at Smyrna” cling to six-days-dead babies and hobble their baggage animals before dumping them in the harbor’s shallow waters to drown. The misleadingly titled “An Alpine Idyll” paints a mordant picture worthy of Tales from the Crypt: a husband is forced to store his wife’s rigid corpse in the woodshed until the spring thaw melts the snow on the ground, and he ends up marring the woman’s features by hanging a lantern from her conveniently gaping mouth while working in the shed.

Hemingway’s work is marked by the eruption of gruesome violence. To continue to draw illustrative example from the short stories: a husband in “Indian Camp” savagely slices his own throat with a razor–either in grief over his wife’s labor pains or in shame at having been cuckolded by a white man. Self-mutilation with a razor also proves terribly central to “God Rest You Merry, Gentleman,” in which a young zealot seeking to purge himself of lustful urge botches the attempted amputation of his own genitalia. In arguably the grisliest moment in the Hemingway canon, a bar brawler in “A Man of the World” suffers a gouging and then has his dangling eye bitten off his cheek “just like it was a grape.”

The horror in Hemingway’s fiction, though, is not merely rooted in the graphic and the grotesque. A quieter, but no less frightful, type of horror also operates, as can be seen in the classic story “The Killers.” Hemingway’s fictional stand-in Nick Adams is utterly shaken by the awful sight of an ex-prizefighter’s resignation to assassination by a pair of Chicago hitmen: “Ole Andreson with all his clothes on, lying on bed looking at the wall.” A sense of existential dread riddles another Nick Adams piece, “Now I Lay Me.” Traumatized by his wartime wounding, Nick desperately tries to keep his thoughts occupied and keep himself from falling asleep in the dark, for fear that his soul will vacate his convalescing body if no nightlight is shining.

Hemingway confronts the horrors of warfare most extensively (leaving aside novels such as A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls) in “A Natural History of the Dead.” Terrestrial hellscapes that “called for a Goya to depict them” are explicitly presented, such as the grim scene left by the explosion of a munitions factory in Milan (the narrator recounts having to pick fragments of female bodies from barbed-wire fencing). Determined study of the dead strewn across battlefields leads to a catalogue of bloating and blackening corpses, of mouth holes rife with “a half-pint of maggots.” Throughout the narrative, the (uncharacteristic) archness of tone accentuates the starkness of the subject, and verges on an almost-hysterical reaction to wartime atrocity. There’s nothing natural about “A Natural History of the Dead,” which closes with an anecdote concerning a grievously wounded soldier who is hastily interred with corpses set within a mountainside cavern. Despite its repeated reporting from the Italian front, Hemingway’s narrative ends up closer to Poe (cf. “The Premature Burial,” which similarly opens as a seeming scientific essay before sequeing into dark fiction in the climax) than the Po.

As a major American writer who frequently focused on death and violence, Hemingway unsurprisingly inspired later horror writers. Genre giant Dan Simmons includes Hemingway as a central character in the roman a clef The Crook Factory (admittedly, though, the book qualifies as a spy thriller more than category horror). Mort Castle cleverly mixes Hemingway biography and bibliography with war-born zombies in “The Old Man and the Dead.” Castle’s tale prefigures one of my own–“The Last Generation” (anthologized in The Zombie Feed, Vol. 1), a post-apocalyptic riff on The Sun Also Rises in which the ostensible survivors consciously adopt the character names and desperate hedonism of Hemingway’s novelistic cast.

But no reflection upon Hemingway and horror would be complete without consideration of the career of Jack Ketchum. Ketchum (a pseudonym of Dallas Mayr) echoes Hemingway’s final residence in his chosen name, just as his story “Father and Son” recalls the Hemingway title “Fathers and Sons.” The figure of Hemingway himself is invoked in the absinthe-makes-the-brain-grow-crazier piece “Papa.” Anyone who has ever read a Ketchum story like “The Rifle” or his novel Red (whose opening chapter is especially representative) will be hard-pressed to deny Hemingway’s stylistic influence. Ketchum’s predominantly non-supernatural brand of horror (which frequently draws on real-life incident) offers an unflinching exploration, in unaffected prose, of the direst acts that humans commit all too often. Thanks to Ketchum’s impressive body of work, Hemingway’s status as a foundational figure for the horror genre is forever cemented.


(Note: for further discussion of Hemingway’s connection to horror, check out Jason Ray Carney’s short essay, “Hemingway, Lovecraft, and the Ubiquity of Fear.”)

Quotations for my blog article are taken from The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition.

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