Thursday, August 25, 2011
The Roots of Spec-Fic Genres
The Summer 2011 issue of WEIRD TALES includes an essay on Weird Cinema, titled "Through the Lens Darkly." A large percentage of the article, however, discusses the theory of the "weird" in general and the conditions that stimulated the rise of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. The author, Robert W. Kowal, quotes Vivian Sobchack that "all three [genres] 'realize' the imagination," i.e., they make the products of imagination real. Sobchack is further quoted as saying, "Horror is the appalling idea given sudden flesh; science fiction is the improbable made possible within the confines of a technological age; and fantasy adventure and romance is the appealing and the impossible personal wish concretely and objectively fulfilled." Each one has roots in mythology and folklore, but the genres as they achieved their separate identities in the nineteenth century, according to Kowal, possessed the "unifying characteristic of the 'weird'." He further says the "weird" could not have existed before this period because that concept "is predicated on a common and corroborated understanding of reality."
I don't fully buy the implication that fantasy literature equals wish fulfillment. Surely there is plenty of fiction legitimately defined as fantasy that portrays grim, dystopian, or even frightening imaginary worlds without slipping over into horror. The rest of Kowal's thesis, however, strikes me as fascinatingly plausible. He maintains that the "weird" dimension of speculative fiction couldn't have developed before the rise of science in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries established "a uniform reference of reality." Imaginative fiction flourishes at the boundary between consensus reality and the impossible phenomena excluded by it.
I'm not sure I accept his premise that through most of human history, "One could sincerely believe almost anything." Even though a formal system of natural laws wasn't constructed before the emergence of science as we know it, that doesn't mean people had no notion of how the natural world customarily behaved. The very idea of a miracle implies that NOT "almost anything" can normally happen. As C. S. Lewis points out, St. Joseph didn't know about sperm cells and ova, but he certainly knew women didn't become pregnant without sexual intercourse and intended to repudiate Mary accordingly. A man walking on water wouldn't impress any spectator who didn't know human bodies usually sink when stepping onto the surface of a lake.
Aside from that reservation, though, I think Kowal has an excellent point. Strangeness can't exist without a concept of the normal to measure it against. Moreover, he seems to me right on the mark when he discusses what literary theorists would call the "liminal" (threshold) quality of the weird: The "familiar tropes" of the weird tale typically "reside in a limbo state between the real and the unreal," e.g. the living dead, such as zombies, ghosts, and vampires, or beast-human hybrids, such as werewolves. He also remarks that Robbie the Robot has dated in a way the horrifying images in NOSFERATU haven't. That observation agrees with my memory of numerous TWILIGHT ZONE episodes. The futuristic SF programs in the series suffer from the "technology marches on" effect. Episodes such as the vignette of a woman waking up from a nightmare only to find she's still asleep—over and over and over—remain permanently disturbing.
Margaret L. Carter
Posted by Margaret Carter at 9:00 AM