1816, The Year of Darkness

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The Year Without Summer, they called it. It sounds like a made-up name, a writer’s attempt to pique your interest, a term to be taken figuratively rather than literally.

It isn’t.

Across the planet, volcanic ash from 6 major eruptions over 5 years blotted out the sunlight, prompting hysteria over the end of the world. In May of that year, in New York, temperatures dipped below freezing every day. The ground froze solid in June. Famine hit northern Europe; hundreds of thousands died.

But this isn’t an agriculture site, nor does it deal with the weather. The horror of the body count perhaps comes close but no cigar. No, the Year Without Summer has seared a place for itself in Nightmares for what happened when three friends sequestered themselves indoors at a villa at Lake Geneva, Switzerland.

Sheltering from the incessant rain, Mary Shelley, John William Polidori and Lord Byron, across the space of a day, created or lay the seeds for Frankenstein, Dracula and the post-apocalyptic-world story.

While the first two are arguably the two best known characters in horror, Byron’s poem, Darkness, is less renowned. It recounts the tale of a world which has descended into chaos, mayhem, murder and cannibalism after the sun and the moon have disappeared.

Unending night has prompted the survivors to burn everything, all their possessions and even their homes, in an effort to stave off the encroaching gloom. War is a thing of the past, but only because it has been replaced by the disorganized anarchy of each man fighting for his own survival.

Birds fall out of the sky, snakes and wild animals tamed by their bewilderment seek solace with humans, only to be slaughtered for food. Dogs turn on their masters to sate their hunger.

The last two survivors chance upon each other in the smoldering wreck of a place formerly of prayer, but which has more recently been used for ‘unholy’ things. Byron uses the word ‘enemies’ to describe the two men but they work together to salvage a flame.

There is no happy ending or redemption of any sort. The horror of the sight of each other’s grotesque forms kills them both. Around them, there is no wind and the air putrefies in stillness, there are no waves and the oceans rot in stagnation.

Poems are not something I usually associate with horror. But this one by Byron, obviously motivated and fed fat by events actually unfolding in the world around him, appeals to me for its (accidental?) honesty.

Byron would have eaten his two writing buddies if it came down to it!

He visualized the act as they sat together in an opulent, candlelit room dressed in their fancy clothes in a dimming world as he wrote. That darkness of self-preservation is the real horror… because it’s in you and me.

Of the people you know and like and love, who would you spare?

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