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Metaphors of The Ineffable and Fantastic Literature

“I once wrote an essay titled ‘In the Night, In the Dark: A Note on the Appreciation of Weird Fiction.’ Toward the end of this piece, I asserted: ‘By definition the weird story is based on an enigma that can never be dispelled….’ Semantics aside, the important thing to me in a so-called weird tale is an impenetrable mystery that generates the actions and manifestations in a narrative.” – Thomas Ligotti

“[T]he image of a literary work as a piece of disputed territory over which two or more parties have battled . . . has seemed particularly valid. But even this metaphor suppresses reference to the changing, growing, living quality of such works.” – Michael Hanne

Readers employ many different terminologies to delineate and make sense of texts, from genre writ large (prose varietals, poetry, etc.) to fine distinctions of structure and meaning. Some readers prefer basic categories while others find more enjoyment in complex and detailed descriptions, depending on their intentions and agenda for reading. There are two sorts of distinction that are usually made immediately: real versus unreal, and what “boundaries” the given text lies within, borders upon, and/or crosses. Employing these distinctions make it, on the surface, easy to portray a text in a codified way, to quickly communicate to someone else the essential qualities of a book: its relationship to the real and its location in the conceptual terrain of narratives. Genre-mapping, both in terms of marketing categories and tropic indicators, defines form and content quickly and efficiently, if often incompletely.

I hear this in the bookstore frequently: when not asking for a specific title, a patron will ask for a book based on one of these two characteristics. “Where is your literature/non-fiction/poetry?” “Do you have a science fiction section?” “Are romances in their own area?” When looking for a specific book, patrons assume its location in the store based on these two notions. For example, Charlaine Harris’ books are looked for in SF, Horror, Romance, Mystery, Literature and, more recently, in Media (Television). Some patrons are actually surprised to find them in Horror. When I ask why, the consensus is that they are not “about” horror. They are about relationships, about suspense, about “real stuff” as one patron told me last week.


I was a bit surprised by that characterization, given that the Sookie Stackhouse novels are about supernatural beings. But that thought reminded me that the considerations of readers do not always align with easy ideas of what is real and unreal. In fiction especially, the text is often far removed from representation of something “real.” This does not, however, mean that readers do not find something that feels real, that simulates an effect that we can with our imagination render as “real” at least affectively. What creates that is the discovery of something recognizable in the text that we can connect to our conceptions of what is real: human behavior, a physical object, sensory impressions. While the simple duality of “real/unreal” and common conceptions of genre are often the first step to making sense of a text and communicating about it with others, all readers animate those easy distinctions immediately and are well into the act of creation when they turn to the first page.

We do this through a continuation of the process of metaphorization that we pick up in our reading. We seek to understand every time we pick up a book or scan a computer screen, and we incorporate what we comprehend into our imagination. Readers continuously interpret, make connections, create and test associations, and accept, reject, or ambivalently set aside each representation while building something more encompassing from the information they take in. Reading is not just a process of making sense of a text, of symbolic recognition and reproduction; it is also an act of creation in our own minds. Our very notions of what fiction is frame our reading, and those basic distinctions become the template for understanding, shaping how we engage the narrative, most often through those mapping and bounding metaphors that Henne describes in his quotation above.

This activity is complicated when we come across a representation or pattern that resists interpretation or incorporation. Sometimes this occurs because of an inconsistency in the writing or a dissonance in interpretation, but sometimes this is intentional on the part of the writer. And here we come to a distinction that relates to the two already cited, but that is more difficult to codify and that is often marginalized or dismissed: that of the ineffable or unrecognizable word, meaning, or idea. This element of a fiction, which Ligotti is referring to in the quotation above (taken from an interview at the newly-launched Weird Fiction Review), resists both the dualism of real/unreal and attempts at genre-mapping, and has to be considered quite differently, even though every fiction contains some vestige of that element.

Ligotti uses two very stark metaphors for this element, that of “an enigma that can never be dispelled” and “an impenetrable mystery.” What he refers to, however, is something that is endemic to fiction, and which every narrative and text contains in some measure. Generally, narratives are designed to ameliorate and explain the ineffable and the inscrutable, but they can never completely succeed, unless the reader passes over the inconceivable and inscrutable or fills them in. In fantastika, this element becomes more central; the unknown and the recondite becoming sources of the narrative rather than obstacles to overcome. What Ligotti describes as fundamental for weird fiction is something that all fantastika has at its core, and it is often the metaphorization of the ineffable that transforms it into a positive condition for the understanding and enlivening of the text.

This is what Ligotti summarizes in the above quotation; the ineffable is not something to be ignored or placated, but is necessary for the story to create its particular meaning and process. Fantastic and weird stories explicitly eschew, to varying extents, the dualism of real/unreal and often genre-mapping as well. They utilize metaphors to contextualize the ineffable so that the unexplained and the unfathomable become a part of the story, not a distraction. This blurs the relation to “the real” and can also illustrate the limitations of genre-mapping, which is the opposite of the ineffable. Genre is part of what makes stories believable and definite, and by foreclosing ambiguity and creating associations with other texts, works against the ineffable.

Those easy associations themselves are fictions, are narrativizations. 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.

Next week, I will try to elaborate on this with examples from a few recent anthologies, including the massive The Weird.

1 Comment on Metaphors of The Ineffable and Fantastic Literature

  1. Hey, John

    I know you are the book guy, not the movie guy, but this post and the themes of metaphorization reminds me of a movie I think you might like–Tarseem Singh’s THE FALL.  

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