The Sinister Genius of xxxHOLiC
By Andrew Erickson
Recently, a friend and I discussed Lovecraftian horror, and particularly its latter-day torchbearers like Thomas Ligotti and Jeff VanderMeer. And while books like Authority might give readers a compelling look at the ways in which humanity attempts to measure and categorize that which it doesn’t understand, they don’t fully capture the tone of Lovecraft’s repertoire, which still retains – despite armies of imitators – its stark uniqueness nearly a century later.
Often overlooked, rarely understood, xxxHOLic is one of a number of interconnected manga series created by artists’ coven Clamp, who were working on the manga equivalent of a cinematic universe years before Marvel was a movie studio. It’s easy to mistakenly categorize the story as slice-of-life comedy, a relaxing breather to read in between chapters of Clamp’s more action-oriented fare. But those who seek out seemingly inconsequential details will be rewarded with a slowly unfolding work of brilliance.
It’s easy to forget that Lovecraft was less interested in monsters than in a subtle sense of wrongness. His horror is rooted in an upending of the comfortable assumptions that make up the average person’s worldview: that mankind is special, that there’s meaning to our lives. Clamp captures Lovecraft’s narrative style through a total disregard for things like anatomy and perspective; their characters are amorphous, resembling strings of taffy more than people. Even the way they move is uncanny, belying seemingly banal content. The off-putting visual design is meant to serve a similar purpose as Lovecraft’s seemingly overwrought prose; rather than a weakness, it is one of the story’s strengths.
Focused on a high school student named Watanuki and his circle of friends, xxxHOLiC initially charts a course somewhere between school comedy and supernatural mystery. Afflicted by some kind of curse, Watanuki has been a magnet for spirits since childhood. One day, the witch Yuuko Ichihara offers to help him in exchange for help with her business, a small store that sells enchanted trinkets and tells fortunes. Occasionally involved in Watanuki’s brushes with the supernatural are his rival Domeki and prospective love interest Himawari.
Taking inspiration from Lovecraft’s fondness for hinting at vast cosmic forces, which are only more frightening for how vaguely described they are, Clamp uses a slice-of-life format to sketch a terrifying outline. Starting small, with stories about a woman’s computer addiction, another woman who is slowly being killed by the manifestation of her own habitual lying, and Watanuki trying to find the source of the strange scurrying sound in the walls, xxxHOLiC builds toward larger, darker things, like the bush that drags Watanuki’s soul into a pocket dimension inhabited by the soul of a long-dead child. In one volume, Watanuki is frustrated by an amorous wind spirit stealing his Valentine’s chocolates, and a mere 17 volumes later he’s remembering his true form and waking from the dream that is humanity, dragging the anguished souls of his schoolmates into the Stygian nightmare realm of his mind.
It isn’t only Watanuki’s eventual apotheosis into an elder god that makes xxxHOLiC worth reading, however. In quiet, contemplative moments reminiscent of McCarthy’s The Road or Miéville’s This Census-Taker, Watanuki’s story touches on some profound moral insights. Dragon Maid may have demonstrated that anime can function as an effective vehicle for political commentary, but xxxHOLiC deftly handles more universal issues such as the nature of superstition and the role of ritual in society. The transcendental beauty of xxxHOLiC is in making the obviously inhuman Watanuki seem so human, and despite his off-putting appearance he quickly shambled out of the uncanny valley and into my heart. His problems – like not wanting to make fried chicken for Domeki’s lunchbox, or being mistaken for a rare two-legged giraffe and donated to a zoo – are universally relatable.
Whether you call it cosmic horror, weird fiction, or Lovecraftian horror, the key ingredient to such a story is atmosphere. By nature it’s difficult to define, being so inextricably linked to the subjective feelings of the audience. Some people try to sidestep the issue with the helplessly vague “supernatural” label, which I feel fails to capture the unnerving tone that suffuses a good Lovecraft-inspired tale. Ghost Stories is supernatural; Death Note is supernatural; Soul Eater is supernatural. It isn’t even a genre, much less one that meaningfully describes the sublime existential horror of Clamp’s oeuvre.
Where xxxHOLiC truly belongs is in the pantheon to which Robert Chambers, Clark Ashton Smith, and William Sloane belong, with Lovecraft as its Ra. Few anime or manga (among them the remarkable Haiyore! Nyaruko-san) can truly be said to belong in such illustrious company. Yuuko’s apparent immortality, Domeki’s family shrine’s connection to spirits, and Watanuki’s own incipient godhood form a backdrop as rich and fascinating as any of Lovecraft’s originals, and vastly superior to lesser imitators like Charles Stross’s A Colder War or Neil Gaiman’s A Study in Emerald, which come across as tacky in comparison.
Consider the anatomy of a horror story. True horror resembles an iceberg, the majority submerged and present only by implication. Too many authors lay their entire premise and setting open before the audience, explaining through exposition what should be discovered through inference. The greatest enjoyment of a Lovecraftian tale is in savoring the implications, which last longer and leave a deeper impact than any sudden shock or twist. At the end of the day, a monster is something concrete, something that, however disturbing its appearance may be, is understandable to us. What elevates a horror story is the tapestry of despair Lovecraft so skillfully wove, something that deserves to be called a mythos. Countless writers have copied the form without understanding the animating force inside it, which is why their efforts invariably feel hollow and lifeless. In following in Lovecraft’s footsteps, Clamp created a work of horror so masterfully subtle that after all these years I’m the only one to pick up the thread leading down into the darkest depths of xxxHOLiC’s labyrinth.
Only I, who have looked too closely, for too long, could really understand. Ia! Ia!