Fantasy, Horror, and Infinite Longing
It’s currently October, the spiritual heart of autumn, season of darkening skies and shivering shadows, when death and life, fantasy and reality, night and day, bleed briefly into each other to generate a sense of infinite vistas lying just beyond our ability to grasp. Or at least that’s how it unfolds in the Missouri Ozarks, my lifelong home until a couple of years ago. In 2008 my family and I relocated to Central Texas, and down here in my new native country, daytime temps are still climbing into the 80s. There’s nary a red or golden leaf in sight. The forecast for Halloween itself, the spiritual focal point of the whole month, calls for sunny skies and a high of 85. I don’t often quote Charles Schulz, but since he conceived of the Great Pumpkin, it seems appropriate under current circumstances: Rats.
Still, none of this means the season is failing to inspire its archetypal mood, a pungent emotional coloration composed of equal parts wistful longing, melancholy brooding, and shadowy fascination. And this has got me to reflecting seriously on the significance of this mood for the religion-spirituality-speculative fiction crossover arena that’s my focus here at Stained Glass Gothic. To cut to the chase: The archetypal mood that I and millions of other people have come to associate with autumn in general and October in particular touches on a peculiar emotional/spiritual upwelling that’s central to the concerns of fantasy and horror, and that I first began consciously experiencing as an early adolescent.
It makes itself known as a peculiar longing of an especially poignant and piercing sort. It comes over a person without warning, manifesting as a kind of heightened emotional intensity that feels like wonder, excitement, and nostalgia all mixed up, and mingled with the sense of some imminent revelation and/or the resurfacing of a tantalizingly lost memory whose content is vague, but whose import seems vast. For me personally, as indicated above, it’s often tangled up with the kaleidoscopic impressions accompanying the advent of autumn. Sometimes it happens in conjunction with certain scents, or with the soft feeling of the air on my skin on certain delicate days, or in conjunction with spontaneous memories of the past. But more often it’s triggered by visual images: sunsets and sunrises, cloudscapes, scenic vistas both pastoral and urban. Music can trigger it, too. So can certain books and movies.
Oddly, one of the surest triggers for me is the sight of huge metal electrical poles draped with cables and marching away toward the distant horizon. For some reason the sight of those latticed structures and clustered lines framed against the landscape and sky, and converging toward the vanishing point, makes me almost sick with yearning. Something about the perspective of it all, which calls out and underscores the eternal complementarity between my single-pointed, finite perspective and the never-seen possibilities that lie on the far side of the horizon, generates a palpable sense of delicious revelation and fulfillment lying barely, and perpetually, beyond my grasp.
I knew this experience for years, and vaguely knew that it was connected to my love for fantasy, horror, and some SF, before I finally found a name for it in the writings of C.S. Lewis. I was in my twenties when I discovered that Lewis, some of whose Narnia books I had read as a child, had in fact spent his adult life writing about precisely this experience of infinite longing. He borrowed the German word sehnsucht to refer to it, and described it in The Pilgrim’s Regress as an “intense longing” for “that unnamable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves. . . . [T]he mere wanting is found somehow to be a delight.” In what I soon came to recognize as a common development, I found that reading Lewis’s description of the whole thing actually served to evoke the longing itself.
Importantly, Lewis emphasized “the peculiar mystery of the object of this desire,” which always remains beyond our ability to clearly conceive or articulate. He wrote,
[I]f it comes to a child while he is looking at a far off hillside he at once thinks ‘if only I were there'; if it comes when he is remembering some event in the past, he thinks ‘if only I could go back to those days.’ If it comes (a little later) while he is reading a ‘romantic’ tale or poem of ‘perilous seas and faerie lands forlorn,’ he thinks he is wishing that such places really existed and that he could reach them.
None of these things, he points out, will actually satisfy the desire even if they’re attained, which leads to the strange and tantalizing realization that it’s as if the desire somehow comes through the objects that arouse it instead of being embodied in them.
When I read Lewis’s exposition of these things and realized that he was describing what I myself had experienced but been unable to explain, I immediately understood, for the first time, the clear link between this phenomenon and some of my favorite fantasy-horror writers. Lovecraft, for example, wrote repeatedly in his letters of finding himself overcome by aesthetic rapture and a sense of longing and “adventurous expectancy” at the sight of sunsets, cloudscapes, winding streets, rooftops angled in certain suggestive arrangements, and so on. As a fiction writer he threaded this emotional current through nearly all of his stories, alternately balancing himself on one side or the other of the divide between the transcendent rapture and cosmic horror that were, in his personal experience, equally embedded in this infinite yearning.
This comes through intensely in, for instance, his “Dreamland” stories, such as the epic, unpolished, astounding short novel of ethereal fantasy and cosmic horror The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, where the narrative opens with Lovecraft’s fictional alter ego, Randolph Carter, gazing downward in a dream upon a mystical golden city:
[A]s Carter stood breathless and expectant on that balustraded parapet there swept up to him the poignancy and suspense of almost-vanished memory, the pain of lost things and the maddening need to place again what once had had an awesome and momentous place. . . . [He was] sick with longing for those glittering sunset streets and cryptical hill lanes among ancient tiled roofs.
There’s no mistaking that kind of language. It fairly glitters with sehnsucht.
Lovecraft even went so far as to assert that this heightened emotional responsiveness to a scene of beauty that seems to hint at a transcendent world of absolute aesthetic fulfillment is the very warrant for literature itself:
[This is] the impulse which justifies authorship . . . . The time to begin writing is when the events of the world seem to suggest things larger than the world — strangenesses and patterns and rhythms and uniquities of combination which no one ever saw or heard before, but which are so vast and marvellous and beautiful that they absolutely demand proclamation with a fanfare of silver trumpets. Space and time become vitalised with literary significance when they begin to make us subtly homesick for something ‘out of space, out of time.’ . . . To find those other lives, other worlds, and other dreamlands, is the true author’s task. That is what literature is; and if any piece of writing is motivated by anything apart from this mystic and never-finished quest, it is base and unjustified imitation.
Over time, my ongoing reading about these matters turned up other seminal authors talking about the same thing. These included, naturally, the 19th-century Romantics, among whom this longing was well known. But what struck me as much as anything was its prevalence among writers who were oriented toward fantasy and horror — genres which, yes, were inheritors of Romanticism’s well-established gothic-fantastic strain.
In his monolithic The Occult, for example, Colin Wilson described an experience that had struck him in childhood, and that seemed to him pregnant with profound meaning. He wrote of it in words that echo Lewis’s description of the irreducible elusiveness of the object of sehnsucht:
Who has not experienced this strange frustration that comes in moments of pleasure and fulfilment? As a child, I had this feeling about water. If my parents took me on a bus excursion, I used to crane out of the window every time we went over a bridge; something about large sheets of water excited a painful desire that I found incomprehensible. For if I actually approached the water, what could I do to satisfy this feeling? Drink it? Swim in it?
Wilson viewed this as the effect of a latent human sense, specifically, “man’s evolutionary appetite, the drive to make contact with reality.” He dubbed it Faculty X and, like Lewis and Lovecraft, regarded it as pointing toward the infinite, the absolute, Reality with a capital “R.” Each of these writers took it as the emotional and philosophical foundation upon which to erect his life’s work, although Lovecraft differed from the other two with his view that the object of the longing is an illusion. This was in line with his overall view of reality, which he regarded as the blind, meaningless, and ultimately unfathomable fluctuations of a purely material cosmos. Lewis and Wilson, by contrast, viewed sehnsucht or Faculty X as really having an object, a possible eventual fulfillment in an experience of transcendent union between the knower and the known, in which the ontological primacy of mind over matter would be realized and revealed.
You don’t have to take sides in this issue to feel its resonance with what Stephen King so evocatively identified as the role of fantasy and horror writers in the penultimate “Last Waltz” section of his Danse Macabre: “The job of the fantasy writer, or the horror writer, is to bust the walls of [adult] tunnel vision wide for a little while; to provide a single powerful spectacle for that third eye. The job of the fantasy-horror writer is to make you, for a little while, a child again.”
You’ll note that this way of looking at the matter curls back to touch on what I said in this column’s inaugural entry about the raison d’être of our beloved field: Speculative fiction expands the human perspective by transforming literal, factual reality into imaginary reality. Not imaginary as in unreal, but imaginary as in remade by the human mind and spirit into something more, something visionary and spiritually magnetic. You don’t have to be religious, you don’t even have to consider yourself “spiritual” — but you don’t have to be irreligious or anti-spiritual, either — to recognize the valid use of these words as indicators of a real impact that speculative fiction really does have on the human spirit, or call it mind or psyche or whatever you prefer: the knowing self, you-as-conscious-subject.
Still further: If Lewis and Wilson are right (contra Lovecraft) — and many years of experiential and intellectual engagement in philosophical, religious, and spiritual explorations leave me, at least, with no doubt that they are — then this effect isn’t just a private emotional experience that has no meaning beyond the feeling of it, but a genuine window on a wider reality than most of usually recognize in our workaday mode. It literally expands our personal horizon. In other words, and in short, it’s possible to argue without hyperbole or silliness that the greatest works of fantasy, horror, and science fiction serve as religious or spiritual texts — not only, not even primarily, in terms of their specific content, but in terms of the potent effect they have on our outlook (and inlook), simply because they’re aimed at inflaming Faculty X and expanding the domain of our imaginings.
And now, having made such a claim, I hasten to add that I’m more than just a little curious: What do you think?
Filed under: Stained Glass Gothic
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