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Fear Is The Liberator: The Emotional Challenge of ‘Weird’ Fantastika

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” – Paul Muad’Dib, Dune

“Death and disaster; nightmares and phobias; new killing technologies; treacherous bodies – a seemingly endless range of terrifying trials and tribulations seemed to face people in the twentieth-century. Worse- there were times when all of history seemed to be reciting a tragic script,devoid of answers or ‘sense.’ On these occasions people’s terror was so overwhelming that their most fundamental identities were in danger of being engulfed. It took some time to notice the astounding creativity with which these men, women, and children made sense of their predicament and remade their world in the wake of the crippling energy of fear. Looking at our society’s fears, in both their past and present manifestations, enables us to meditate on the future. It is a future of our choosing” – Joanna Bourke

This column’s going to be weird, so bear with me…

If there is one emotional experience that all humans share, that is inevitable, it is fear. Happiness, love, hate, etc., are not guaranteed experiences in human life. But from birth, humans come to know fear almost immediately and quite intimately. I remember when my daughter was born, not shrieking, but rather quiet due to a difficult birth, and was rushed into a doctor’s arms to make sure she was breathing clearly. At that moment, as she passed into his hands, she seemed to shrink and with a cough began to wail and flail her tiny arms. In that moment, she felt fear as she realized she was not in the comfortable place she had known all of her short life; in effect, she faced the first challenge in her life, that transition into the world. And as she coughed some more and struggled a bit to breathe, I felt a flash of fear too, and we became briefly connected by it. In that fear of transition, of her struggle to breathe and my realization that this new person was my responsibility, our relationship was born.

My daughter’s birth was heralded by the fantastic. We played the Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog soundtrack endlessly during labor and delivery, much to the amusement of the nurses and the midwife. One of them commented on what seemed to be the combination of strange and despondent, and somewhat psychotic, lyrics: “Is that music for bringing a baby into the world?” I just nodded, and did not explain. It was not that we were playing it because of those qualities, but for the fact that the music was about the struggle with fear, and the consequences of dealing with it. It was incongruously melodic and funny, and such humor made the long process of birth easier to deal with. More precisely, it was the weirdness, the disjuncture that it brought to the process, that helped us deal with our own anxieties and fears in a significant, embodied moment of change.

This reflective disjunctiveness is one of the qualities of fantastika, and more specifically the variations of “weird” that are a part of it, that I find most challenging and revitalizing. I find it in its greatest depth in the strange and obstinate texts often described as “New Weird,” “slipstream,” and other contemporary formulations. Jeff VanderMeer recently characterized “The Weird” as “the kind of supernatural stories that don’t fit into easy classifications, and which may produce more of a sense of unease than of outright horror.” His discussion highlights the adaptive quality of such literature; while variations of this approach to literature have been around for quite a long time, its increasing prominence in fantastic literature, and its concomitant destabilization of notions of formal genre reflect, for me, not just cultural and social transformations, but an undercurrent of life in our postmodern times.

Fear, as Joanna Bourke noted, is prevalent in contemporary life. This is not some novel observation; Norbert Elias in The Civilizing Process asserted that “[f]ears form one of the channels – and one of the most important – through which the structures of society are transmitted to individual psychological functions.” The rise of “literature” as a formalized, demarcated sphere of communication and understanding has, among other functions, tried to deal with the specific fears generated by the cultural, political, and economic structures that we reproduce and perform as social creatures. Fear is a powerful factor in our collective decision-making as well as our conduct of everyday life.

I bring this up because I think that the role of fear, not just in the literature but in the reader’s reception, is rarely addressed in fantastika. There are many ways to approach fantastic literature,and while there is a rich tradition of horror criticism in fantastic literature, I have not found an extensive examination of the role fear plays in it, either in the texts or in the engagement and response of readers. As I read more and more “weird,” surreal, and highly fantastic literature I have found that fear arises not just in the text, but in my own emotions as I read. I don’t mean that I am afraid of the text, or of what is happening, but that a rich vein of fear often opens up, frequently in unexpected and intense ways.

This is not about horror, it is about the essential emotion that we feel almost every day,sometimes in fleeting moments, sometimes in extended periods of paralysis. When I looked at the etymology of the word fear (as a noun), I found something fascinating: that the root of the word means “to try, risk, come over, go through.” To feel fear (as opposed to being afraid) can be a deep, conflicted, yet dynamic feeling. It can signal not just a feeling of unease, peril, or revulsion, but a feeling of risk, of a moment of truth, of a critical intersection. Horror fiction usually works to unnerve and scare the reader, but weird fiction often layers additional strata of meanings onto the narrative, to not just provoke a shock, a thrill, or a lingering emotional response, but to instigate a more ruptured, potentially productive psychological and aesthetic response.

For example, I recently read J. M. McDermott’s Never Knew Another, which is billed as a secondary world fantasy, but is also suffused with a number of other tropic traditions and inspirations, and possesses a deeply weird vibe. It is a book that is about fear, but is concerned with all of its effects, from interpersonal to the ontological. As I read it, I initially felt befuddled (a common first reaction when I read McDermott), and then felt a growing fear: for some of the characters, and also for my own ideas about humaneness, empathy, and the cost of survival. Fear is used in the text to constantly keep the reader alert, not to titillate or distract. When I finished the novel, I realized that the feeling of fear lingered, but as a lens more than as a sensation. I came away from the book thinking about how hard life is, and felt very grounded by the feeling, a reminder that fear often signals something that needs your attention, and that our struggle to live in the face of death is something that we all share.

Certainly fear of death is a powerful element in fantasy, but while a primal fear, it is not the only one. Other fears, of insignificance, of diminution, and more, also arise in weird literature. When I read Clark Ashton Smith’s Return of the Sorcerer, I was simultaneously surprised by his ability to inculcate dread in me, while also bemused that some of these attempts seemed so passé. Here, the fear is less pervasive, more implicated in the contortions of his language, an effect less of the situation than in his description of it, in the luring of your eyes deeper into the story. It is more philosophical, sometimes abstract, sometimes visceral, complex not in the feeling but in how it builds in the reader’s mind. You confront the construction of fear in Smith’s best stories, in its ineffable inevitability, in its pervasiveness in the universe.

Weird literature, from the oldest Gothic tales to the latest absurdist explorations, ask the reader to accept a challenge not so different from that of the Bene Gesserit’s box: to test their humanity (just with less actual pain, ideally). But fear in this situation is not “the mind killer” so long as the emotion is released. Whether sensational, cryptic, or bizarre, these works demand that you go through the process of understanding, and turn your inner eye to see what path your fears and anxieties take when your assumptions are questioned, when things don’t make sense, or perhaps suddenly make a sort of sense you had not anticipated. Weirdness, after all, is about a turning, a becoming, a change in perception, a shift in the conditions of actuality. When readers complain about this quality in weird works, I often scratch my head, because engaging the strange, the not-real, is what fantastika is all about. That feeling of destabilization, and the confusion and fear that often come with it, is why fantastic literature is so powerful and potentially eye-opening. I don’t think that people shy away from difficult or disorienting literature because they are afraid of it. They step back from it partly due to taste, to assumptions, and to the habit of reading protocols. But they also step back, I believe, because they are not ready to grab the tail of fear and follow it down into the depths of a story.

While fear is a part of our lives, I think that we need to confront it, not just in an adversarial manner, but in a critical way that works through the emotion to its core and effects. Literature, particularly the weird and fantastic, can provide contexts that are provocative or safe or disorienting or profound for recognizing and processing fears. This is what I think the literature and allied media are important, and why it made so much sense to play Dr. Horrible at my daughter’s birth. I don’t want my daughter to be apprehensive about the world, or to think that she can be free of fear. I don’t want to be free of fear, because to think that is possible is truly a fantasy. But I think we can try to comprehend fear, see it as the word’s very root, as that thing to overcome, to move through, to the other side where we can watch it recede and see it’s path, to what brought it to us in the first place. Fear is the realization that a different outcome is possible, and we should whenever possible accept its challenge and see if we can bring about something weird and precipitous, even of the slightest sort. This is the potential of engaging the fantastic.

3 Comments on Fear Is The Liberator: The Emotional Challenge of ‘Weird’ Fantastika

  1. Alas, so much of fantasy literature still stews in the soup of bold heros, immune to fear and so much the poorer for it. One of the joys of VanderMeer’s fiction in particular is the touch of the unknowable. It’s impossible not to fear what you know is there but can never understand or subjegate. The Ambergris cycle is filled with these little terrors and are the very picture of unsettling story.

    Fear and paranoia are in the toolkits of authors who attack humanity with a more complete understanding. It is sad, though, that so many others weild those fragile concepts haphazardly if at all. 

  2. I wonder, John, if Fear is a keystone of what makes a certain strain of Fantasy into Horror.  I’m trying to think of strains of horror that do not contain Fear at the core, and I am coming up empty.  

  3. Mr. Tobias:

    That is a very compelling counterpoint to examine regarding heroic fantasy (in some strains). Fear is shoved aside quite often and not really dealt with. That’s why I like James Enge’s Morlock stuff: he certainly feels apprehension and some fear in the more fatalistic tradition of the genre. I like heroes who are taken aback by fear, but deal with it, and not just by waving an oversized blade around.

    I agree that richer stories bring in fear, uncertainty, and conflicting emotions, and give us more understanding. I think Jeff does that, and JM McDermott does it too in Never Knew Another. Caitlin R. Kiernan’s works swirls around a core of fears quite often. There are a lot of examples of that in weird fiction that I don’t see as well-rendered in more generic work. Part of my own attraction to “difficult” writing is that when it is done well it punches a hole in the darkness between us and gives us a little light to better see how others feel their way through life.



    I think the Fear is a keystone, but that the idea of Fear needs more unpacking first, and then perhaps we can better see how it arises in particular works, such as those that seem to bridge the gap between fantasy and horror genre traditions. Fear is a central emotion in horror but what criticism I have read so far (and it’s not a lot) deals more with the generation of terror, revulsion, and moral reversal than the root feeling of fear.  I mean, when does anxiety become fear, or fear horror? What distinctions can we make, and what use do they have in helping us understand the emotion and the energy it gives to fiction?

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