“Introduction: Fear and Fantasy”
“I must not fear,’ chants Paul Atreides to himself in Frank Herbert’s Dune, “Fear is the mind killer” (8). One of the narrative mainsprings that fiction writers install in their work to keep it ticking is fear. It’s a reliable source of suspense, conflict, and reader identification—everybody is afraid of something. Only in one branch of the fantastic, however, is fear so central that it (or one of its emotional cousins) names the genre: horror. I don’t want to get into the niceties of definition here—how horror differs from psychological terror and how both are related to dread, loathing, the shivers, trepidation, or abhorrence. I am thinking of the uses of fear and the way it seems to have replaced thought and hope in various forms of popular discourse.
Walk around your local video store. How many yards of shelving are occupied by DVD boxes adorned by chains and axes, dripping with blood? How many Fridays the 13th occur in a century, anyway? Hasn’t every alien and predator and terminator already crossed over into the universe of every other? When did we start outsourcing our horror to Japan and Korea? When I’m not composing rhetorical questions like these, I frequently find myself wondering who supports this industry or watching with my own brand of horror the sight of families with small children snapping up these grim and violent films.
Equally disturbing is the role of fear in political rhetoric. Politicians have discovered that the best way to court money and votes is to raise the fright index. Too many elections are decided, and too many bills passed, simply because people are afraid of losing status or wealth or cultural dominance—or their lives. We have left the era of “The only thing to fear is fear itself” and entered one of “Be afraid, be very afraid.” Like the movies, political speeches and warning signs in airports tell us a story, and it is a story of invasion, loss, and danger in various shades of red, orange, and purple. This kind of fear can be a mind killer. It supplants thought, prevents reasoned discussion, blocks positive action.
It may be evident by now that horror fiction is not my first choice for reading, yet I sometimes find myself captivated by a work of genuine creepiness: a story by Algernon Blackwood or Shirley Jackson or Peter Straub. And I have to recognize that some of my favorite fantasy is wound up by that same mainspring of fear. The Lord of the Rings is full of scenes that would fit equally well in a story by H. P. Lovecraft (with some pumping up of the prose). Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore is a story about the fear of death—about how timor mortis conturbat me, as the medieval hymn put it: “the fear of death unhinges me” (to translate loosely). The folk narratives on which most modern fantasy is based—myth and legend and tale and ballad—hardly avoid raising fears. Ballads are full of violent murder and hair-raising eeriness, such as the ghostly visitation of the widow’s sons in “The Wife of Usher’s Well.” Folktales present ogres and vengeful relatives (sometimes in the same person). Supernatural legends offer black beasts and pale glowing hounds, shapeshifting bloodsuckers, banshees and corpse brides. And myths—well, it’s hard to imagine a more terrifying scene than that of Actaeon the hunter, transformed into a stag by the angry Artemis, pulled down and torn to pieces by his own hounds.
There is a difference, however, between these uses of fear and what many people term the “pornography of violence”—scenes of torture and dismemberment that function only to stimulate the senses and rouse violent emotions. In a fairy tale, the hero is expected to face fear but not to be overwhelmed by it. There is a folktale, tale-type number 326 in the Antti Aarne/Stith Thompson catalogue, whose entire point seems to be learning to be afraid. In the end, though, the fearless (and slightly clueless) hero of “The Boy Who Went Forth to Learn Fear,” the Grimms’ version of the tale, learns only the appearance of fear. He does learn how to shiver, after defeating various ghosts and monsters, when his new bride empties a bucket of fish down his back. The story invokes fear only to dispel it. It is the listener who really learns how to deal with fright: how to incorporate one’s own fear into an act of courage and to send it off afterward with a round of laughter.
John Clute suggests, echoing similar claims from Northrop Frye and Joseph Campbell, that horror fiction tells only half a story (338–39). It takes us down into the darkness and then leaves us there, whereas a full narrative arc ends with a return to daylight and sanity. I suspect that enthusiastic readers of horror enact the full arc themselves: part of the experience is finding their own way back from the abyss after closing the book, and they seem to find the journey aesthetically pleasing and emotionally cathartic. We are all better at reading some genres than others. I am just not very good at performing horror fiction or film. I’m happy to leave it to others to do so. But I do appreciate reports of their reading experiences: I like to find out what it is they see in the texts that I am only half-aware of, and to discover connections in and applications of, the stories that I do not have sufficient generic knowledge to find for myself. Several of the articles in this issue of the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts demonstrate ways of incorporating fear into more complex and productive responses to a dangerous and unpredictable world.
Fred Porcheddu takes up a writer best known for horror (and terror, and the gross-out), Stephen King. In one of King’s short stories, fear is countered by wonder, and the story’s genre shifts from the horrific to the pastoral. King calls the new direction a shortcut, but it may really be a full circle, at least in narrative structural terms. Along the way, Porcheddu also addresses a fear shared by many literary scholars: that of facing the writer’s scorn for misreading or overreading a text.
Shiloh Carroll writes about a novelist, Sheri S. Tepper, who is herself not a fearful writer—her more characteristic stances include outrage and satire. Nonetheless, in one of her best-known works, The Gate to Women’s Country, Tepper examines the uses of fear: to rouse male aggression, to encourage submission to authority, to enlist the downtrodden as collaborators in their own victimization. Carroll’s essay is explicitly about patriarchy, but in the context of this issue, it becomes evident how much of patriarchal authority is based in various forms of fear.
One way of overcoming fear is to find some form of transcendence. Suparno Banerjee looks at how two very different artists—Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick—dealt with transcendental themes and symbols in their parallel texts: Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey and Clarke’s novel, adapted from his and Kubrick’s film script. The novel is often read as a mere appendage to the film, but Banerjee sees it as another story entirely, built from the same symbolic materials but constructing a different meaning from them.
Larrie Dudenhoeffer’s essay on another film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, traces its indebtedness to the classic horror films of the 1930s. According to Dudenhoeffer’s intertextual reading, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 movie—like those films but unlike some of the slasher movies I criticized at the beginning of this introduction—interrogates the fears of its day, including fear of the counterculture and the outcast. Its monsters are uncanny versions of the people around us; even their monstrosity is oddly familiar due to Hooper’s references to the earlier films. The deepest fear one feels when watching Frankenstein or The Wolf Man—and perhaps also The Texas Chain Saw Massacre—is of becoming the terrible monster one sees on the screen.
Emily Auger approaches one of the most canonical fantasy texts—The Lord of the Rings—through another version of intertextuality. Using the visual texts (illustration is too passive a term for them) created by Alan Lee for a 1991 reissue of Lord of the Rings, Auger demonstrates that Lee’s work enhances a structural feature already present in the written text. This is the Medieval pattern known as interlace. I am hard pressed to force a connection with my theme of fear, except to say that the interlaced structure of Tolkien’s fantasy may play an important part in its ability to transform fears into solace.
Finally, Marek Oziewicz looks at a work that hovers between (or interlaces) horror and fantasy, danger and wonder. Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood and its sequels are fantasias on fear and desire. In his haunted Ryhope Wood (bigger on the inside than the outside, like the Tardis of Doctor Who), we encounter the things we most desire and the things we most dread, and they turn out, as often as not, to be the same things. The beautiful woman is also the monster; the hero is also his own shadow. The only difference is the way we respond to them. Some characters are paralyzed with fear; others feel a call to action. Holdstock indicates that these archetypal patterns, mythagos as he calls them, can be put together into many different kinds of story. They mean what the story says they mean.
The end of Paul Atreides’s litany says that “Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain” (8). But that isn’t exactly true. Only I and my story remain. And I have a choice of stories.
Clute, John. “Fantasy.” The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. Ed. John Clute and John Grant. New York: St. Martins, 1997. 337–39.
Herbert, Frank. Dune. 1965. New York: Berkley, 1977.
“Mrs. Todd’s (Pastoral) Shortcut”
“Both Sides of the Gate: Patriarchy in Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country”
“2001: A Space Odyssey: A Transcendental Trans-locution”
“Monster Mishmash: Iconicity and Intertextuality in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”
“The Lord of the Rings‘ Interlace: Tolkien’s Narrative and Lee’s Illustrations”
Emily E. Auger
“Profusion Sublime and Fantastic: Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood”
Lincoln Geraghty’s Living with Star Trek: American Culture and the Star Trek Universe
Rev. by Karen Hellekson
Gail Turley Houston’s From Dickens to Dracula: Gothic, Economics, and Victorian Fiction
Rev. by Rebecca Janicker
Anna Powell’s Deleuze and Horror Film
Rev. by K. A. Laity
Gary Westfahl’s Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction
Rev. by Farah Mendlesohn
Tom Moylan and Raffaella Baccolini’s Utopia Method Vision: The Use Value of Social Dreaming
Rev. by Robert von der Osten
Jane Chance and Alfred K. Siewers’s Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages
Rev. by W. A. Senior
Gary Westfahl’s Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction
Rev. by Curtis S. Shumaker
Jules Verne’s The Begum’s Millions
Rev. by Sherryl Vint
Jessica Bomarito’s Gothic Literature: A Gale Critical Companion
Rev. by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock
Jeffrey Weinstock’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Rev. by D. Harlan Wilson