Last week I wrote about the idea of the ineffable and how it relates to fantastic stories. This week I want to attempt to demonstrate what I meant by looking at some stories and trying to tease out their metaphorization of the ineffable and the effects of its presence and/or absence. At the end of my last column I concluded:
“Determining the relationship of a story to reality tells a tale in itself; deciding on the most fitting spatial metaphor to “bound” a text inserts it into a narrative. We understand fiction through other fictions; we use prior experience, assumptions, preconceptions, and our skills as readers and cultural creatures to make sense of texts, and we do that by not just engaging the selves and structures we uncover in the text, but by creating another story in our own minds. In order to do that we must somehow incorporate what does not make sense, either by dismissal, reinterpretation, or by acknowledging that the ineffable is a presence that cannot be encompassed and that alters our reception of the text. Metaphors of obscurity, mystery, and the indecipherable facilitate this, intensify the experience, and sometimes derail the process of understanding, but their presence is necessary or neither the fiction upon the page or the one in the reader’s mind will cohere.”
We often think of “coherence” rather narrowly, in structural or progressive terms. Weird and fantastic stories often require more than such a strict following; coherence comes from readers filling in gaps, setting aside judgments, and inserting other stories and their own conceptions and desires into their interpretation of the text. That brings a significant level of subjectivity into play, which I think is precisely why some people love weird and fantastic fiction so much, why challenging and difficult fiction has such appeal for some readers. I hope that this little critical/exegetic exercise will demonstrate one person’s perspective on that appeal.
Such appeal emerges in many ways. Let us first look at Reza Negarestani’s entry in The Weird anthology, “Dust Enforcer,” which is a selection from his book Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. The piece, at first glance, is not a story at all, but rather a sort of encyclopedia entry discussing the Pazazu demon and appended to that is something called “Excursus VI (Xeno-agents and the Assyrian Axis of Evil-against-Evil),” which is a treatise on, essentially, demonic possession. A combination of matter-of-factness, academic detachment, theoretical jargon, and a complex physics of esoteric phenomena are woven together to produce this fiction, whose story only reveals itself with repeated readings. The piece has a very experiential quality and requires the reader to not just accept a storyworld, but to learn about it from a highly knowledgeable source whose language and assumptions are difficult to decipher.
This is where the ineffable seeps in. Negarestani relies on a number of subverted metaphors of the real and a combination of technical vocabularies to seduce us with things that are, in the end, possibly beyond our understanding. We can never fully apprehend what is going on in this piece because we do not have sufficient information and do not have the conceptual or otherworldly context to unpack all of the ideas that Negarestani inflicts on the reader. He also uses metaphors of both brutality and sensuality to undermine our attempts to find interpretive anchorage in the narrative. At one point he states that
“Modern criminology refuses to acknowledge the presence of demons, in the same way that secular disbelief condemns the inanity of a demon possessing a helpless human: if demons exist and are that powerful then why would they possess a wretched anthropian? Such an objection misunderstands the mechanisms involved in the communication between xeno-agents and the human security system.”
Negarestani reveals and conceals with each “explanation.” His terminology makes immediate sense, but further meaning is lost in the intricacies of his language and his invocations of techniques and postulates that have little or no basis on our own world. Here, demons not only exist, but they are part of a greater battle that is not just about “good versus evil” but about Evil-Against-Evil, about the terrors of openness, about the grounding of paranoia and the rootedness of madness. Metaphors abound, from his notions of “overkill” and “butchery” in regards to possession to his off-hand invocations of things such as “Foucauldian psychoanalysis.” We are constantly reminded that we do not understand this intense, frightening world that is being so calmly described and the reader must scramble not just to make sense of this world, but to ameliorate their responses to the ideas put forth and the way they are expressed. Disquiet and confusion suffuse the text, not in its writing but in its effects on the reader. In trying to comprehend this demon, this theory of possession, the reader struggles with issues and ideas that may not be understandable to humans – even though human language is used – ideas that falter and actually obfuscate attempt sto codify them.
Contrast this with Joanna Russ’ “Little Dirty Girl.” This is structurally a more conventional story, an epistolary fiction based in realist prose. It begins in a mainstream literary vein, and soon begins to veer, with increasing intensity, into strange territory, bursting out of that vein and into a place that may be magical realism, or hallucination, or a psychologically-based supernaturalism. The girl of the title is a mystery that the protagonist is constantly struggling to understand, and whose presence she metaphorizes at different times as “ghost,” “demon,” “a little mask of Medusa.” The child’s maturity, corporeality, and ability to profoundly influence the narrator emotionally stem from an enigmatic source, and the main character struggles with the mystery even as her life is changed by her interactions with “L.D.G.”
The world and setting are very recognizable, very realistic. The “impenetrable mystery” as Ligotti might call it is L.D.G. herself , but her mystery is one mediated by her behavior and by the protagonist’s responses to her. The reader never discovers the full origin of L.D.G., but there are certain clues that can allow a ready to make one up. What ends up being important is not the mystery, but what the mystery creates. For the narrator, the girl seems to be a symbol, perhaps a memory or a dream, yet her physicality, never cloaked or in question, takes her out of the realm of concept or myth, even though we are unsure of who or what she is until the very end of the story (which is, to a degree, predictable). Even then, we still have questions; the mystery is not dispelled for us, even if there is some resolution.
Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” cultivates its mysteries in a manner both more straightforward and more cumulative. This long tale sets a slow, perhaps ponderous pace to arrive at its horrifying destination, and is more obvious in both its articulation and its concealment of elements to build the uncanny tempo of the story and growing levels of disquiet in the reader. In some ways, the techniques used are ones that today we might find less effective than those used by Negarestani or Russ, but the precision of their construction and deployment is both delightful and still effective.
Here, two companions on a canoeing trip down the Danube are marooned on a small island being overcome by the rising river. They soon realize that they are not alone on the island, and that they are being prepared for something. The building feeling of anxiety and fear in the main character creates a context for normal details to take on new meaning, but Blackwood also uses descriptions to extend those feelings to the reader:
“When common objects in this way become charged with the suggestion of horror, they stimulate the imagination far more than things of unusual appearance; and these bushes, crowding huddled about us, assumed for me in the darkness a bizarre grotesquerie of appearance that lent to them somehow the aspect of purposeful and living creatures. Their very ordinariness, I felt, masked what was malignant and hostile to us.”
The masking power of the ordinary to conceal something that the two men incompletely understand, but that they feel is out to get them, comes up repeatedly in this story. Blackwood directs the reader again and again to see the world in this way to heighten the sensation of dread and abnormality. The characters add to this feeling through their combination of increasing terror and their “sensitivity” to the supernatural forces that seem to be hunting them. Without any exceptional evidence to rely upon they overlay their assumptions onto what is happening around them, and the reader may even wonder if it is just paranoia or excessive imagining that is the problem. Again, the mystery is not solved categorically; even with the level of explicit guidance that Blackwood provides, the reader has doubts, to some extent, about what is going on.
As the Swede notes in Blackwood’s tale, “‘It’s the deliberate, calculating purpose that reduces one’s courage to zero. . . .” This could be each writer’s credo for these stories. Through the enigmas, the unrealness, and the feelings of apprehension, distress, and disturbance each creates, all three proceed with deliberate calculation to undo the reader’s reading of their story. This might seem like a contrary statement for Russ and Blackwood, but their particular techniques for creating doubt and dissonance are designed to not just lead the reader through the narrative, but to make that textual path an arduous one that requires an investment from the reader to gain satisfaction. Russ’ unlikable, demanding child is unlike the children she meets at the start of the story, and L.D.G changes the narrator through a combination of exasperation, childish demands, and the conundrums of her very existence, to a point that is both revelatory and a little unsettling, which those same children sense at the end. The narrator’s world has changed, she has changed, for reasons that are not easily discovered and pieced together.
Blackwood’s obvious guidance of the reader is designed to create not just concern and doubt, but an interrogation of what is real and not in the story. Despite a constant reiteration of inevitability within the prose, the ending is a surprise, and is not really an ending. Resolution is partial; we gain a sort of proof of the men’s fears, but this is contrasted with a metaphor that intentionally creates questions about what they have seen before, and what lies ahead for them. Simple descriptions reappear as significant metaphors that epitomize and cloak the ineffable simultaneously, teasing the reader and the hapless protagonists with knowledge that may or may not be real, despite the author’s leading statements. This cultivated, dialectical agony of not knowing what is real, of what the future holds, is to me the wonderful essence of the weird, and of the fantastic more broadly. Each of these stories bears that essence and asks us to engage with it, grapple with it, and come to not just the place the author wants us to end up, but to a territory of our own imagining too.