Essay

Comedy of Terrors

Aase Berg’s poetry combines horror and kitsch.
Illustration of Cthulhu monster holding a chainsaw.

In his 1927 essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” the influential horror writer H.P. Lovecraft declares that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.” The contemporary Swedish poet Aase Berg invites readers to not resist the unknown but to dwell, and even revel, in it. Johannes Göransson, who has translated four of Berg’s collections into English, writes that her work “has been deeply influenced by horror: horror movies, b-movies, and H.P. Lovecraft (whose work she’s been translating for years). All of these influences can be seen in the violent, grotesque, intense imagery and ecriture-feminine-like linguistic deformation zones of her first two books.” Indeed, reading Berg can feel like the literary equivalent of the fairy tale dare to spend the night in a haunted house: threatening but giddy at the same time.

Born in Stockholm in 1967 and raised in the suburb of Tensta, Berg was a founding member of the Stockholm Surrealist Group, established in 1986, in which loosely affiliated writers produced literary journals through the late 1990s. Members have since gone on to other, frequently more mainstream, pursuits. Berg, for instance, edited the prestigious Swedish literary journal Bonniers Litterära Magasin and is a critic for the newspaper Expressen. In 2011, she received the esteemed Aftonbladets Litteraturpris, awarded to Sweden’s most exceptional poets.

To date, Berg has published seven books of poetry in Swedish, four of which have been translated into English. Of interest to this essay are the three that play with horror tropes (publication dates are for the English editions): With Deer (2009), Dark Matter (2013), and Hackers (2017). Though the books differ somewhat in their subjects, they demonstrate a cohesive set of concerns and a consistent approach; each blends irrational impulses—sex, violence, misogyny, speciesism—with the ostensibly more rational disciplines of geology, life sciences, meteorology, and climatology.

Thematically, With Deer emphasizes the filth of being an organic body and reminds readers that all transcendental experiences—being in love, for instance—have an embodied biological correlative. As its title suggests, Dark Matter extends an even darker treatment of these themes. Its fragmented narrative is set in an ambiguous, quaking landscape that seems simultaneously post-apocalyptic and primordial. And Hackers continues Berg’s overarching project of using acerbic humor to “hack” through structural and institutional inequalities.

Berg’s work is distinguished by its cosmic horror (indicating her link to Lovecraft), its grindhouse kitsch, and its grotesquerie. She questions, with often garish lyricism, humans' role in technology, biology, capitalism, mass extinction, global warming, and patriarchy. And she pushes her language to the limit of its capacity to contend with such colossal phenomena. Meanwhile, the smaller agents in her poems—humans and plants, rodents and bees, all of which are placed on an essentially equal plane—feel absurd and pathetic by comparison.

In his short philosophy of the horror genre, In the Dust of This Planet (2011), Eugene Thacker argues that “the world is increasingly unthinkable—a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil-drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction. ... To confront this idea is to confront an absolute limit to our ability to adequately understand the world at all—an idea that has been a central motif of the horror genre for some time.” How does one articulate that which eclipses understanding? Berg reframes this question and its attendant anxieties throughout her books, partly by corrupting familiar syntactical patterns. As Göransson has explained, “Berg amplifies certain features of the Swedish language … to a degree that makes me feel the way a foreigner might feel trying to learn Swedish." For example, the title "Körtelmörkret," from Dark Matter, is a neologism that compounds gland and darkness, which Göransson translates as "gland-darkness.” Part and parcel of her horrific subject matter, Berg defamiliarizes the Swedish, and Göransson's translation continues this corrosive procedure, as in Hackers when the damaged speaker writes of being “cat-soft from / toxoplasma / schizosex” and asserts that “Endorpphoria / never kills / its host world.”

Berg engenders an amorphousness—not unlike that of Lovecraft’s many-tentacled, transdimensional monsters—that exceeds the boundaries of more conventional poetic practice. The poems in Dark Matter, for example, fluctuate between stanzagraphs, pools of lyrical detritus, and skeletal quatrains. In a place “where houses and farms have collapsed into foam” and “dimensions drift aimlessly amongst us,” Berg's poems jump-cut between primal and future sludge. “The black hole here attracts time" and "ions get sucked loose," she writes in “The Urdar Hole.” The black hole seems to crumple and contort the temporal cohesion of the poem and incites a montage of fractal images. The mining machines both "break" and "gnaw in the mountain" and are interspliced with shots of "deep-green metallic lizards," sopranos singing from the mountain, and "basalt streams." These entities should not logically belong together, yet here they endure, constituting a hostile land between times. 

“We of this species had always had an inner capsize,” Berg writes in the untitled first poem of Dark Matter. “This species” refers to a barrage of interchangeable metaphors early in the poem that link wound, gene, and deformity to self-consciousness. Humanity, as she renders it, finds no reassurance in the viscous, time-ambiguous landscapes of this collection. In the molten stews of matter that persist in the last days of life on Earth, human flesh can’t be distinguished from that of animals and plants. In “Life Form,” she writes, “I haul my long veils, layers of elastic cartilage, or flippery, shimmering membranes, chlorophyll. The gills shudder and glow deep down in this chasm of tissue."

Berg’s work also suggests that the horrifying is in close proximity to the ridiculous. Her poetry illustrates the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s point that “the life of every individual, viewed as a whole and in general, and when only its most significant features are emphasized, is really a tragedy; but gone through in detail it has the character of a comedy.” In “The Gristle Day,” from With Deer, Berg writes, "We are born out of sewers, out of horrifying dough beyond good and evil. It smells like ghosts, it smells of slop flesh, it smells of placenta and uranium. Black blood is coming. Marsh gas and diarrheas bubble.” This proclamation is the climax of an image sequence of holes, enclosures, and squirrels that burn and scream. Her poems collapse categories, including formal generic ones, by blurring the line between poetry and prose. They also blur tonal categories by mixing horror with humor.

In an interview with the online journal Double Room, Berg describes her books as “almost sickeningly kitschy.” That’s an apt description given how she also collapses distinctions between high and low art. She draws with equal facility on the horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Aniara (1956), Swedish Nobel Laureate Harry Martinson’s sci-fi parable about the destruction of Earth.

“In Reactor,” from Dark Matter, contains a startling cameo that represents this intermingling of high and low. “Come Leatherface, my love,” Berg writes, referring to the villain from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, who wears a mask of human skin, “glide into the face of the secret’s bestial longing.” Leatherface is significant in the history of exploitation cinema as one of the first antagonists to pursue his mayhem and dismemberment not for any “reason”—Freudian childhood trauma, perverse sexual gratification, revenge, et cetera—but rather out of pure, inscrutable, and ungovernable madness.

Both Leatherface and Berg are pastiche artists of their respective wastelands. The former fashions sculptures and costumes out of human flesh, emboldened by the slaughterhouse ethos of his corner of industrial Texas, where human life is no more sacrosanct than that of cows or pigs. The latter creates literary collages from imagery of organic debris. Leatherface's role in Dark Matter transgresses the “grainboundaryskin,” as Berg calls it, of artistic mediums and invokes a horror aesthetic that is as cheap and vulgar as a slasher flick. Moreover, the aesthetic is mind-numbing, like the economic conditions that spawn both exploitation films and exploitation itself—of animals as food sources, of humans as dehumanized capitalist subjects. 

Berg similarly renders the mundane as intense grotesquerie. “Jam,” from With Deer, describes a wasp bite like this: “A wasp bends over the soft-skinned front breast to puke up jam. At the same time, it lancets pump poison into the wound.” The description is at odds with how most people experience a wasp bite but is perhaps more faithful to how such bites occur in nature. Berg's linguistic gestures toward what exists outside human consciousness remind readers that they cannot escape the limits of their subjectivity. This reminder further implies that people have little to no authority over their own experience.

In his introduction to the 1926 German edition of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Thomas Mann writes that “the striking feature of modern art is that it has ceased to recognize the categories of tragic and comic, or the dramatic classifications, tragedy and comedy. It sees life as tragicomedy with the result that the grotesque is its genuine style.” This style proves useful in acknowledging the terrible ambience of contemporary existence because “the grotesque is the genuine anti-bourgeois style.”

The word grotesque first appeared as a noun in the 1560s, from the Italian grottesco, meaning “of a cave,” and most likely originated as a way to describe the paintings discovered on the walls of excavated Roman ruins. Fittingly, Berg sets “In the Guinea Pig Cave,” one of the earliest poems in With Deer, in an actual cave: “There lay the guinea pigs. There lay the guinea pigs and they waited with blood around their mouths like my sister. There lay the guinea pigs and they smelled bad in the cave. There lay my sister and she swelled and ached and throbbed. There lay the guinea pigs and they ached all over.” Claustrophobic and repetitive, the language becomes ever more depraved until the poem concludes, “And I was tired in my whole stomach from meat dough and guinea pig loaf and I knew that they would take revenge on me.” That the aching guinea pigs are on equal footing with the speaker’s sister is both terrible and darkly funny.

Like much grotesque work, Berg’s poetry evokes a curious blend of empathy and disgust. This mélange of emotions is perhaps sharpest in Hackers, with its emphasis on the horror show that is the patriarchy and Berg’s adaptation of the archetypal (yet all too real) figure of the Young Girl Kidnapped and Held Captive by the Masculine Monster. The tone of “This Is a Threat,” which opens the book, is comic but also legitimately threatening: “We are the woman trap. We are the hostess animal, hooked up to slop-fleshed parasites, such as lazy men and manipulative fuck-addicts and spoiled morons who act like pets.” The collection then draws on the real-life ordeal of Natasha Kampusch, an Austrian woman kidnapped in 1998, when she was 10 years old, and held captive in a secret cellar for more than eight years. In these passages, Berg uses the name Bibiana for Natasha, who selected the name Bibuane from a calendar of saints when her captor forced her to choose a new name. In the section “Hyperparasites,” Berg writes from Bibiana’s perspective: “At night I dreamt that I belonged to a basement-flock of girls just as terrified and feverish as me. We could communicate with each other by knocking on the walls.” The section “Stalkers” begins, “Wanting to get close to one’s abuser is no sickness. Wanting to create a cocoon of normalcy when one is subjected to a crime is no syndrome,” alluding to criticism that Kampusch suffered from Stockholm syndrome. At the beginning of “The Art of Speaking with Horses,” Bibiana says, “In the end he must have understood that he not only had chained my life to his life, he had at the same time chained his life to mine.” Later in that section, she wonders

Who owns the woman trap?
Is it she who is caught or is it he?
Who shuts it?

The bars are re-sharpened
into a vagina with teeth.

Who is who?

The pathos and horrifying comedy with which Berg writes about both Bibiana and her captor in Hackers and the guinea pigs in With Deer dredge up questions about how to articulate that which exceeds human cognitive capacities, be it the hyperobject of patriarchy or the hyperobject of climate change. She restates this Gordian knot of a problem in “Strong Bodyfault’s Orbit” from Dark Matter: “The world's language horror / It can be heard in the world’s language horror: / the tongue is death cold.” On her death site, the unnamed speaker writes

you will see me break loose
the black shell now
the snail flesh remains
pale and abandoned now

and I will hover alone into
the black shell.

This death-obsessed narcissism is at the heart of humanity’s “inner capsize,” and Berg envisions a movement, forced by impending and inescapable ecological catastrophe, toward nonverbal being in response to the cosmic horrors to which we are all yoked.

This is what happens in “In the Heart of the Guinea Pig Darkness,” from With Deer, as the speaker reenters “the gorge is swarming with guinea pigs.” The speaker exclaims, “Here they come and get us!”—an exclamation whose grisly comedy encapsulates Berg’s signature conflation of the cute and the terrifying. “Now they're opening us up,” she continues, “now they're swallowing us with their pink flesh organs. ... my beautiful traitor, and the guinea pigs swarm all the way into the depth of your treacherous guinea pig organism.”

No longer a solipsistic, selfish human, “you lean back and let your skin grow into the stinking cell plasma of the guinea pig wall.” Humanity is undermined as Berg forces you to become more like the guinea pigs, indistinguishable from the herd. You pass through hegemony's self-reflexive, dominant language and arrive in radical togetherness with the world. You are the “traitor” that mutates and becomes one with the guinea pigs, that collective, swarming organism.

In his essay, Lovecraft writes that “the one test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.” Berg goes so far as to suggest that there is no “outside,” no rim to the universe but rather that we are all inevitably and unavoidably subject to contact with the unknown all the time.

For Berg, existence at the end of the world mirrors that of the beginning. Regardless of our tragic, particular existences, matter redistributes into the ground and into the ozone, rendering humanity indistinguishable from plants and animals, all admixed in the molten goo. Berg's poetry presents this meat parfait as the inevitable end for all organic life. The effect is at once dazzling and disorienting: a danse macabre, hilarity on the edge of the apocalypse.

Originally Published: October 29th, 2018

Logan Berry is a writer and performer. He works the graveyard shift at a residential treatment facility for youth. He lives in Chicago.

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...