In the opening sentence of his seminal 1927 essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, H.P. Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear.”
Decades later, in the Introduction to 1982’s Prime Evil anthology, Douglas E. Winter wrote, “Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion.”
In his posthumously released 1993 song “Thug Life,” 2Pac (Tupac Shakur) rapped, “Thinkin’ of dead niggas that I knew that died young. Is there a heaven for a nigga up to no good, or is it another fuckin’ hood?”
Three seemingly disparate quotes, connected only tenuously, and yet all speaking to one universal truth that is as old as humankind itself. Three quotes that serve to interpolate the work of the Upper Paleolithic era’s version of Stephen King—an artist known as Thurg.
Now, we already established in the previous chapter that I am not the smartest or most qualified person for this job, but I have access to Google, and therefore, I can tell you that the Upper Paleolithic era took place approximately 50,000 to 10,000 years ago. To be more specific, it is the late Stone Age, and humankind are beginning to figure things out. We’re still struggling with agriculture, and we’ve yet to invent computers or reality television or Hot Pockets, but we’ve mastered the hell out of fire, and we have learned hunting and fishing, and how to weave fibers to make things to carry our babies in, and the basics of building encampments and settlements either in caves or up against a cliff-face or outcropping of rock. More importantly, we’ve invented artistic expression, and we are using that artistic expression to decorate and adorn the walls of our encampments. Pictographs, petroglyphs, and the carving of bone and ivory into figurines are all commonplace.
Thurg expresses himself through those first two mediums. Pictographs involve painting things on the rockface or cave wall. Petroglyphs are made by carving into the rock itself—an early form of engraving. Instead of a typewriter or a computer or a pen, Thurg uses charcoal, chalk, egg yolk, clay, blood, urine, and other compounds to mix up black, white, and red paint. He then uses his fingers or a leaf to apply these colors to the rock. And thus, he tells stories. It’s not fiction. Not yet. It’s simply an accounting of their life and times. But Thurg is human, and thus, given to embellishment, as all human beings (particularly storytellers) are. So, no, while it’s not yet fiction, we may, in fact, consider Thurg’s cave art to be an early form of metafiction. Thurg depicts the life of he and his clanmates—the animals they hunt, the things they worship, and their life in the cave. He memorializes their hopes and fears.
If you’re just skimming this, let me put a fine point on that for you—their fears.
Anthropologist and geographer Yi-Fu Tuan once wrote, “In every study of the human individual and human society, fear is a theme.” That was as true 20,000 years ago as it is now.
Thurg is a horror writer. He is, in fact, the world’s first horror writer. By day, depending on what part of the world he lives in and the communal culture of his fellow cave-dwellers, Thurg might be a hunter, or a gatherer, or a shaman. But at night, when great furred beasts growl and scratch outside, and brutal winds howl, and the cold and the darkness seem to surround the flickering firelight, threatening to snuff it out, Thurg engages in a form of storytelling that depicts the anxieties of his time. He gives voice to those fears, so that the rest of his clan don’t have to. He tells about disease and drought and starvation, and about those great furred beasts lurking outside and the cold that comes with the wind. Thurg’s first mate left him for another cave-dweller who was able to provide more food, so Thurg talks about loss by depicting two figures going off together while a third stands apart and alone. Thurg is frightened by how much sway the shaman holds over the rest of the clan, so he expresses that fear, depicting a stick figure dressed in animal bones. Thurg’s best friend got stepped on by a wooly mammoth, and Thurg misses him, so he writes about that. He depicts a figure trampled beneath the foot of a stick-figure mammoth outlined in brown paint. Thurg wonders about his friend. Did he rot, his carcass picked apart by scavengers, or is there something after this—something Thurg can’t see? Did his friend go someplace better? Or did he simply go to another cave?
Thurg is wondering that at the end of the Stone Age.
2Pac is wondering the same thing in 1993.
And in between them, H.P. Lovecraft is opining that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
Thurg depicted the monsters and demons of his day, both real and imagined. So did many others like him. According to experts, the oldest date given to a figurative cave painting is at Timpuseng Cave in Indonesia, which dates to 35,400 years old. Similar figurative paintings are found all over the world, on all continents. And they may not be limited to Homo sapiens. Indeed, recent research and radiocarbon dating has suggested that Neanderthals may have been engaging in such artistic expression, as well.
No, our primitive ancestors didn’t have Wal-Mart or microfiber couches or craft beer, but they knew love, just as we do.
And they knew fear.
And always, there were some among them whose job it was to give voice to those fears, to depict them safely, so that the rest of the clan could confront those fears, exorcise those demons, and caution one another.
Which brings us to the world’s first horror novel, The Epic of Gilgamesh. Written around 2100 B.C., it has flesh-eating zombies, nightmares, scorpion-men, disasters, dimensional travel, a demon with a snake for a penis, and all sorts of other tropes familiar to any fan of the horror genre.
More on that, and other horror stories of that era, in my next column.
Brian Keene is the author of over fifty books, as well as hundreds of short stories and dozens of comic books. He also hosts the popular podcast The Horror Show with Brian Keene. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.