Monday, November 5, 2012

The Great Travelling Fantasy Guest Blog Circus

And here's my contrib. to the Table's Second Turn, Second Month: fantasy/horror crossovers was the topic, remember?
When I think of horror, SF and Fantasy together as genres, I tend to see a big bog between two slippery hillsides. You can’t get straight from one hill to the other - SF and fantasy usually don’t mix: their license to suspend disbelief comes from mutually opposed sources, science and magic. But both genres can slide down into the bog, representing the horror genre, as fast as you can say “demon” – or “alien.”
The big difference between hills and bog is that the hill genres have the bog as an option – or in more common terms, they can offer the reader wonder as well as horror. The bog doesn’t do wonder. Even if treasure is buried there, the emphasis is on the dead men’s bones accompanying it. Comedy there may be, and entertainingly black, too, but wonder, no.
This doesn’t mean that the bog is any worse than either hill genre, or that such traffic should be prevented by border guards. Indeed, where would the hill genres be without the darkness option? Someone like Nietzsche once remarked, either of Homer or Greek mythology, that, in paraphrase, the greater the light, the blacker the shadows it casts – you’ll excuse the vagueness, I haven’t turned up the quote for years, and it’s too long to resort to Google, even if I cd. remember it right. Nevertheless, the idea rings true to me. The greater the wonder a fantasy text can evoke, the greater the horror it MAY evoke. And a fantasy text with unrelenting light and wonder wd. be somewhat like a medieval Christian heaven: great if you’re immortal, but if you’re still under the sun, eventually conducive to eyestrain and headaches rather than alleluias.
This assumes that the writer of such a roller-coaster story is “in control” – well, intentionally sliding up and down the hill, because who of us is ever “in control” of a story as we write? But unintentional slides can produce awkwardness, bathos, and at worst, audience hilarity when you wanted shudders. I recall a local Hamlet where the ghost walked a “battlement” above and behind the stage. Fine, except that ghost shd. be uncanny, inhuman, silent, unconnected to earth. As this one walked, the audience cd. see his feet shuttling below his robe. They cracked up, and the performance never recovered.
Evoking the spookiness of wonder’s dark side is not easy, either.  It helps to recall the dictum of Old Gothic best-seller Mrs. Radcliffe: “terror and horror are so far opposite that the first . . . awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them . . .” And for Radcliffe, terror’s power lies in “obscurity and uncertainty.” That is, let the reader imagine horrors and outdo your efforts, rather than present the monster full frontal and fail to raise a shiver.
 I recall a classic example in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary – the first time the male lead enters the monster’s swamp, he and his guide hear a strange noise “like loons laughing.” That’s all. But it chilled my neck much more than the eventual revelation of the Winnebago, yellow eyes, clawing hands and all.
Successful chills, though, can slide a fantasy story into the bog faster than you expect. “Slick," my first published short story, was intended as a wry SF/fantasy form of water erotica. (Much later, I realized it’s actually a modern Bunyip tale.) In one scene, the narrator has a close encounter with the unknown in broad daylight. By a waterhole, in a breathless, sultry midday, with a horse that starts cracking its nostrils as if in panic, and yet there’s nothing to see. I only intended to foreshadow the actual encounter, which is not horrific, but the accepting editor (blessings remain on his name) commented that he expected a monster, either there or at the final revelation. Hmmmn. I had slid further into the bog than was meant.
Peake's sketch of Flay
Examples of bog-tripping abound in fantasy, but for me the Grandaddy of bog-skaters remains Mervyn Peake, in his truly epic cycle, Gormenghast. Peake’s language reeks of the bog in its old Gothic form, though  his characters‘ names – Steerpike the villain kitchen boy, Abiatha Swelter the chef, Doctor Prunesquallor, Titus Groan himself – shout the vitality of Dickens’ or Poe’s caricatures.
It’s this vitality and the language it sparks that consistently whips Peake up from the bog and across the hills of fantasy, into moments of wonder the fiercer for the surrounding dark. Here’s a piece that’s stuck in my mind for 40 years, from the x-pages struggle of  Swelter the chef and his mortal foe Flay, fought with cleaver and sword in “The Hall of Spiders” among the heights of Castle Gormenghast. As Flay watches Swelter’s death-throes in a temporary lake of rain-water on the roofs:
[he] turned his eyes and found them staring into a face – a face that smiled in silver light from the depths of the Hall beyond. Its eyes were circular and its mouth was opening, and as the lunar silence came down as though for ever in a vast white sheet, the long-drawn screech of a death-owl tore it, as though it had been calico, from end to end. (Titus Groan, *Blood at Midnight* chapter)
It’s literally horrific, though the terror is in not knowing what or who the face is; yet simultaneously, the depiction of moonlight is Other and beautiful enough to invoke wonder as well.

Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia, and writes fantasy and SF set mostly in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published six fantasy novels, two of which were finalists for best fantasy novel of the year in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards, and some short stories in Australian and US anthologies. Her latest short story, “At Sunset” is in Luna Station Quarterly for September 2012.

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