Notes on Reading The Barrow: Sex & Horror

Notes on Reading The Barrow: Sex & Horror

  • date
  • June 5, 2014

In reading reviews from critics, bloggers, and readers (and as an author I do read reviews; any author who claims not to read reviews is either a liar or a moron), I’ve noted a number of comments about the sexual content of The Barrow. This was not entirely unexpected. I suppose there is always some danger in authors responding directly to critics and reviewers; but I suppose if I were entirely averse to danger I would have written a different book. There was, certainly, an “easy” and “safe” version of The Barrow, where Stjepan is a straight (white) male hero, there’s no sex in it (certainly nothing questionable or gay or explicit), and the rough edges are smoothed over; though that’s a book someone else gets to write, as it wouldn’t strike me as worth the effort. Easy, safe things rarely are. I was also asked some pointed questions about the sexual content of the book in a couple of recent interviews (with Nathan at Fantasy Review Barn, and with Wendy at the Bibliosanctum), and I thought I’d offer a few notes of context here as well, expanding in a general way on some of the specifics discussed in the interviews with Nathan and Wendy.

Freud_The_UncannyThe Barrow is several different kinds of narrative: it’s an epic fantasy quest narrative, certainly, though I suppose more of an anti-quest narrative than the traditional quest story readers might be expecting; it’s a horror story; and it’s an undercover detective story (more on that last bit in a later essay). I’ve always felt that fantasy and horror are closely related as genres, and have the now-vague recollection of reading a photocopy of Freud’s study of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s works back in a German comparative lit class in college, expanding on the use of the term the “uncanny” by Ernst Jentsch to describe the literature of fantasy and horror—that notion of a journey over uncertain terrain, where our buried id and desires are being projected out upon the world around us. The monstrous, the fantastical—these ultimately reflect something deeply repressed within us (at least according to Freud’s analysis), which is what makes them so unsettling and frightening (but this also, particularly in fantasy, provides for the possibility of the reward of triumph, as the uncanny is vanquished).

Most modern psychology, at least as I understand it, doesn’t really pay much attention to Freud and his talk of id-ego-superego and the oedipal complex and his particular fascinations, but regardless of what one might think of the specifics of Freud’s theory (that the uncanny is all about the id and the encounter with the forbidden), I think there’s always been a close, shared stage between the fantasy and horror genres, a grounding in the same fertile parts of the imagination.

Romeo_and_JulietI’ve heard it suggested in the study of Shakespearean literature that the difference between comedy and tragedy is that in a tragedy the story cycle is interrupted before you get to the happy ending (not that kind of happy ending, it’s usually a wedding, in Shakespeare’s case; though I suppose that is kind of the sex part, come to think of it). The same events tend to occur in both types of plays: an outcome (often a marriage) is desired, but before it can happen the world goes out of whack, and along come complications, misidentifications, obstacles. In a tragedy the complications overwhelm the characters and the result is usually a lot of people dying, while in a comedy you get past the complications, the world is restored, you reach the wedding and everyone lives happily ever after (and has sex). By this theory Romeo & Juliet is, in effect, essentially a failed comedy that ends in tragedy before the two lovers can be reunited; I would argue that’s mostly because Romeo is a cad, he’s the wrong hero (here’s a fun recent opinion piece discussing the question of how to perceive our dear departed Romeo).

I sometimes think of fantasy and horror in the same way; you tend to encounter the same elements in both genres (madmen, witches, ghosts, spirits, the undead, monsters, demons, occult magics, terrifying gods). But in a fantasy the force of arms or magic or willpower alone allows you to vanquish the forces of the uncanny, complete the story cycle (the hero monomyth, if you will), and reach your reward: hence, the fantasy as comedy. Meanwhile in a horror story you are more likely to wind up being overwhelmed by the uncanny and fall short of completing the cycle, into death or the Lovecraftian descent into madness: hence the horror story as tragedy. 

Campbell_Hero_JourneyThe Barrow might be a fantasy story, but it flirts very closely and perhaps even crosses over into a horror ending, as the story is about a kind of failure (the failure to complete the monomyth cycle). To help create a sense of uncertainty in the reader, to make the reader unsettled—ideally in the uncanny sense—I tried to use a few different strategies, one of which is the sexual material that’s in the book. I don’t believe that most American readers are, at this point, truly frightened by or look upon physical death and the dismemberment of the body with anything resembling existential dread. We’ve had a long and bizarre love affair with violence, and when you’ve reached a point as a culture where you can watch beheading videos on the internet then chances are that violence and torture and death (at least when it is narratively expected) are not going to scare anyone. The torture-porn genre and the zombie genre—now entering its bloated, corpulent epic comedy blockbuster phase—seem to have pretty much sucked the life out of whatever was left of body horror; countless hours of death and destruction in video games, film, and television have left us numb to the threat of physical violence.

Sex, however, still seems to frighten the living shit out of most Americans. Despite—or perhaps because of—the widespread availability of pornography (and its deleterious effects on the expectations and behavior of its consumers, particularly when combined with the purposeful undermining of sex education), Americans seem mired in our culture’s Puritan roots, and we have an enormously hard time looking past sex to see anything else. It’s a bright, distracting bauble for all of us. We tend to argue that sex is a single thing, with a single purpose: procreation for some, pleasure for others, love for still more. But it’s really all those things and more, with as many different reasons and motivations to have sex as there are people to have it, to talk about it, to show it.

So the sex scenes in The Barrow aren’t really there (just?) to titillate the reader; their main purpose is to frighten you as the reader, to knock you off your game by delving deep into things forbidden. And, indeed, the Nameless Cults of the Forbidden Gods (an obvious reference, I would think, to Unaussprechlichen Kulten, which I think of as the second-most-famous Lovecraft book after the Necronomicon) are the hidden focus of the text: which of the characters that you are following are from amongst the Nameless? The sexual scenes in the book are meant to be clues to who the characters are, the world they’re in, the kind of narrative they are participating in; if you can see past the “bright baubles,” that is.

9 Comments on Notes on Reading The Barrow: Sex & Horror

  • John R. Fultz says:
    June 5, 2014 at 10:05 pm


    Excellent points, all! I think I “got” this on a subliminal level when I read the book–as the sex is far more shocking than the violence. And I agree completely that this is the kind of thing that makes people UNEASY in a way that fictional violence doesn’t. It also makes the bad guys seem REALLY bad, and the good guys seem FAR more human. The sexual themes in THE BARROW are one of the things that make it stand out from most fantasies. Some people aren’t going to be into that, but that’s okay–they can read less sexual fantasies by the score. However, I think you made the exact right choice by sticking to your creative guns and not “de-sexing” the novel. Thanks for writing this piece, which sheds some serious light on your motivations and choices as an author. And, although I’ve said it before: BRAVO.


    • Mark Smylie says:
      June 6, 2014 at 12:07 am

      Hi, John! Thanks very much. I guess part of the reason I’m writing these essays is to confirm for readers that yes, some of the things that they think they’re detecting in the text (or subtext, as it were) are indeed there on purpose. I do think some readers/viewers are still shocked by violence, particularly when it’s the death of a character they are following (witness the reactions to character death in Martin’s work, both in the books themselves and the HBO adaptation), but the goal of The Barrow was more the sense of “unease,” even of dread, that you mention, and not just an effort to shock people (though I suppose I won’t deny that I think that can serve a purpose as well). Fangodrel certainly begins his story in Seven Princes in an uneasy way as well; what kind of feedback did you get from readers about that?


  • Jon Johnson (Sir) says:
    June 5, 2014 at 10:41 pm

    Jeebus, you just took all the fun out of the sex. Seriously. I think you hammered home your point with a literary nail that would bore even Freud, the old perv. Lighten up a bit, would you?


    • Mark Smylie says:
      June 6, 2014 at 12:11 am

      Sir Jon: It’s a commentary. It’s supposed to be boring.


      • Jon Johnson (Sir) says:
        June 6, 2014 at 7:46 pm

        O, that’s not true.


  • Basiliea says:
    June 6, 2014 at 2:53 am

    I understand that sex is meant to be enjoyable, though ASD puts it rather beyond my comprehension (I skimmed the sex scenes in the comics because they weren’t of interest); if people are enjoying themselves without hurting others or damaging their own health, then I don’t see what the fuss is about.


    • Mark Smylie says:
      June 6, 2014 at 2:16 pm

      Basiliea: The sex scenes in The Barrow have a much broader range of motivations and character purposes behind them, not all of them pleasant and some of them quite destructive. I think that’s where the fuss is coming from. The sex scenes in Artesia are very different, more “sex-positive” in the current parlance. If you don’t mind me asking, ASD = Autism Spectral Disorder?


  • MaM says:
    September 23, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    Dear Mark
    Another thing about sex in our society, is that it makes people feel guilty, or dirty, or uneasy. Even though we all think about sex, and we know everyone else thinks about sex, we still don’t want anyone to know that we think about sex.
    Including sex in your comics and novels makes them much more “forbidden” than death or torture. Ridiculously enough I sometimes find myself looking over my shoulder to make sure nobody is reading what I’m reading.
    And at the same time your stories are great.
    I appreciate the uneasiness and unsettledness as something I can’t get anywhere else.
    Keep it up.

    As a long time fan, I can’t help asking if there’s any chance we’ll see any more Artesia in the near future.


    • Mark Smylie says:
      September 24, 2014 at 12:57 pm

      MaM: A return to art on Artesia is at least a year or two off. I first have to finish the sequels to The Barrow, and then sort out if I can return to art full-time again. My apologies for the delay!


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