On Things Unsettling: A Polemic

As long as there are men, there will be monsters.

It is not my intention to distract you.

In many the need for horror is a chemical romance, little more than the release of endorphins through the casual excitation of our atrophied sense of flight or fight. Sitting comfortably at home, with friends and with food, with the door locked, we are safe to play games with our primal terrors. Like a dancing bear with a ring through its jaw, we laugh at its discomfort. This is the most commonly sought after sensation of fear; it is also the least interesting.

What I seek is something much closer to the uncanny. Limitations of genre and the harsh mistress marketing have demanded a hitherto broad definition of horror to conform to common perceptions. Speculative fiction relaxes this grip, but along with it also gives up any attempt to understand the discreet psychological responses that accompany different forms of narrative. There is at present no suitable vocabulary to describe and detail the myriad forms of expression that tap into this elusive constituent of human experience. Few have thought to reflect deeply on the seeming paradox of attraction and repulsion that truly uncanny horror can elicit. At best it has been pathologized as the allure of the forbidden. There are, however, always exceptions, two of them being the writers H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.

While Lovecraft’s famous maxim hits on the primordial force of this fascination, it does nothing to clarify its paradoxical element of attraction. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”[1]. Yet how could fear, with its fight or flight, fully account for its opposite? With the exception of the fear junkies, who paw and dig at the carpet of civil security like hounds taking merriment in expressing some deep seeded, now frustrated drive, the attractions of the uncanny are a much more sublimated set of phenomena. If we are to begin to account for this fascination it is productive to turn instead to an equally ancient experience of which fear is only a component, with analogies throughout the living world, but which manifest itself in subtle and nuanced ways within those organisms who possess more complicated nervous systems.

The principle property that separates matter into living and unliving is how it creates and maintains a distinction between itself and its environment. Life is, in many ways, defined by homeostasis. Human beings, like all living things, constantly seek out certain key stimuli in their environments, for nothing that lives can ever be simply passive, accepting anything and everything that comes its way. The most effective homeostats are those that sift through the silt of perception for the salient features of their environments, ever exploring for all that is vital to sustaining an internal condition, and beyond that, those things capable of opening up new possibilities, and give them cause to thrive. In order to maintain a balanced system in nature, organisms must, in fact, find ways to grow and develop and change in order to maintain this very constancy of their inner organization. It is thus a dynamic equilibrium.

Where our attention goes, then, is of vital importance, not only for survival, but for growth and the overcoming of present limitations. There is reason to believe that the human psyche evolved as a complement to this homeostatic principle. Indeed, that the very origin of the nervous system, from mollusk to human, ultimately serves this dual functions of preservation and development. Base fear, while serving one of these functions, is not broad enough to account for the both of them. The wellspring of the uncanny traces its subterranean roots to the crossroads of these forces and this is the source of its heady fascination.

Clark Ashton Smith comes closer to the point than Lovecraft when attempting to understand the power evident in this form of narrative.

[I]t evinces a desire—perhaps a deep-lying spiritual need—to transcend the common limitations of time, space, and matter. It might be argued that this craving is not, as many shallow modernists suppose, a desire to escape from reality, but an impulse to penetrate the verities which lie beneath the surface of things; to grapple with, and to dominate, the awful mysteries of mortal existence. The attitude of those who would reprehend a liking for horror and eeriness and would dismiss it as morbid and unhealthy, is simply ludicrous. The true morbidity, the true unhealthiness, lies on the other side[2].

If Smith is correct not fear, but awe, rests at the heart of the weird tale that grasps the mind, and holding fast, moves it elsewhere, where it wills. These “awful mysteries of mortal existence” are not a passing product of the modern world, for they are evident, like the bleached bones of long dead giants looming high, but quite unnoticed, on the far horizon. They can yet be laid bare through an archeological study of the expressions of fear and fascination organically developed and refined over the centuries.

Consider first the word awe itself: a feeling of respect mixed with fear and wonder, perhaps of a religious nature. Historically, royalty has possessed something uncanny, god-touched, and awful about it. Looking to dread for inspiration, this also follows from it, coming, as it does from an archaic, Old High German word for awe. Even fear itself, and its partner reverence, stands in a similar relation. Fear comes from the old English faeran, which likewise maintains the ambiguity of fright and worship. Reverence is a derivative of the Latin vereri to fear, with its intensifier re-. Going back to the Greeks, Phobia and Pan serve in turn as inspirations for the double meaning of awe, giving us panic and phobias from the thrones of their godhead. Where these terms fail to reference the ambiguity of awe, they instead point to a more spatial relationship. Horror and trepidation both originate in trembling, disquiet, disturb, strange, unease and even the more colloquial creepy come from some sense of unrest or distance.

And truly, something is moving here.

The concept of the uncanny has come to dominate our understanding of this relationship. Yet there are really two related, but distinct connotations of the word: English and Scottish. The English understanding is prevalent: a state of un-knowing, or a matter of ambiguous and uncertain knowledge. More than anything else, it is to this that we owe the origin of the modern translation of “uncanny” for the German Unheimlich. Yet trust the English to take a visceral, overwhelming emotive reaction and make it into an exclusive question of knowledge, which is at best a secondary phenomenon, or afterthought to animal existence. The anglophile, Lovecraft, seems to have drawn from this interpretation. Yet the old Scottish understanding, in fact, is much closer in kind to the German Unheimlich, for it preserves something about the home in itself, an understanding of what is “canny” as that which is pleasing, placed, comfortable, and familiar. Like its German counterpart, a contrary usage has coalesced through time as it became that which repels, and that which attracts.

Sigmund Freud in his 1919 essay “Das Unheimlich“ commented on the limitations of some languages to find a way of articulating the phenomena he was attempting to describe, in particular the commonly understood English term. He lamented that the only way to translate an unheimliches Heim into English would be as a haunted house, which missed so much of the original idea. Uncanny was settled upon as a translation, but the difficulties involved in ascertaining the veracity of the interpretation should have made later commentators more suspicious.

And indeed it did.

Like Freud’s painstaking etymological quest for the origin of das Unheimlich, his English inheritors have followed in the master’s footsteps. As Nicholas Royle suggests for contemporary English explorers of the uncanny: “Let us, like Freud, seek cover in dictionaries”[3]. After elucidating the relationship between the uncanny’s Scottish and English origins, Royle comments on Freud’s vain efforts to enumerate all of its various manifestations. Invariably they are difficult to pin down. They oscillate, like the spatial roots of the language of horror, for by definition they transgress boundaries and with them any attempt at an exhaustive classification.

At best we can insinuate.

While often touched upon in literary theory, it is hard to identify any definitive corpus or coherent system of interpretation for the uncanny. Freud, to be sure, opened up the concept to a wider audience and shaped the psychological nature of the debate. Lovecraft, while providing a much needed reflection on the role of its spiritual feeling, nevertheless did not provide any concerted literary following, and is still considered today to be something of an aberration in more respected academic circles. Clark Ashton Smith is virtually unknown, and while his insights are perhaps the most penetrating, they are also the most fragmentary.

So while we began with the notion of horror as a genre, we have come to the inextricable association of fear and attraction in the experience of awe and the sense of uncertain, perhaps expanding, or collapsing spatial relationships. Lurking beneath all of it, the concept of homeostasis slumbers like a benthic reminder of our connection to the rest of the living world, but also of the ways in which we have sublimated this very same connection into something deeper still. While this is very similar to the concept of das Unheimlich as articulated by Freud, we need not be Freudians about it. We are free to reject both the commonly overemphasized origin of the uncanny as a matter of uncertain knowledge, and at the same time to incorporate into it the element of spiritual feeling that Freud would have discredited as so much “black mud”. Nor does admitting this element of spiritualism restrict us to a mystified or fuzzy understanding, for we cannot otherwise explain the attractive power and the frequent coexistence of spiritual experiences with the uncanny or unsettling without recourse to their common origin within the human psyche.

Like any other drive however, not everyone encounters this experience to the same degree. Both Lovecraft and Freud spoke of a “sensitivity” which is undoubtedly involved. It is not learning or the lack of learning which determines this sensitivity, that much is certain, but something much more elusive and personal. More like the ancient notion of initiation. Just because both men’s insights came from the austere, acetic domain of science at the beginning of the twentieth century, this does not negate the spiritual dimension, but only shows its omnipresence and continuity. Lovecraft, at least, seemed to be keenly aware of this:

the sensitive are always with us, and sometimes a curious streak of fancy invades an obscure corner of the very hardest head; so that no amount of rationalisation, reform, or Freudian analysis can quite annul the thrill of the chimney-corner whisper or the lonely wood. There is here involved a psychological pattern or tradition as real and as deeply grounded in mental experience as any other pattern or tradition of mankind; coeval with the religious feeling and closely related to many aspects of it, and too much a part of our innermost biological heritage to lose keen potency over a very important, though not numerically great, minority of our species[4].

The burning bush, the pillar of fire, the god of the Israelites was an uncanny God, who expressed himself outside of nature, and who demanded fear as a companion to his worship. Those who wandered in the wilderness and found him searched through haunted landscapes and places of beautiful dread.

It is easy to imagine how these were the first temples.

Often, it seems to me, the English language has devised ways to regulate what is in fact primary and most primal with prefixes that render it merely derivative. The known and the unknown, rational and irrational, man and woman[5], finite and infinite, each of these concepts stand like crude handrails marking off the treacherous and steep path past society’s deepest insecurities; more emotional divides to help sooth the mind along its way than actual bulwarks against the peril of any potential fall. It is the liberating and terrifying insinuation that our world is merely derivative, limited, though with boundaries that are uncertain, and perhaps permeable, that helps to lend an unsettling story its narrative drive and haunting undertones. Up until quite recently it was the purview of religion to channel and reconcile these powerful drives within the human psyche, to bring them to the surface, and then let them sink again into some new configuration, refreshed. This was a way of perpetuating the dynamic equilibrium of the spiritual homeostat. Modern cynicism aside, confession was a catholic stroke of genius that the increasingly protestant-minded world again demanded in the form of the emerging art of psychoanalysis.

Yet a great deal of what most people today consider to be the history of psychology as a science actually constitutes the enshrouding of its unscientific origins. Far more likely, what the emergence of professional psychology shows is the appropriation by the acetic culture of science of previous religious, moralistic, romantic, gothic and occult trends, which had hitherto defined themselves as something outside of the scientific order[6]. The ravings of an E.T.A. Hoffmann could be treated as subjects of study only when they had first been tamed by making them “psychological” entities, instead of as diagnoses in their own right. The sheer number of mythological and fantastical terms employed in early psychology can attest to this movement from letters and literature to specialized science.

Freud acknowledged this debt. Musing in 1901, he poignantly observed that “[the theme of the ring] leaves one once again with the impression of how hard it is for a psychoanalyst to discover anything new that has not been known before by some creative writer”[7]. Today the same ability of professional psychology to understand and address the needs and longing of the individual has been questioned by figures such as Noam Chomsky when he commented that: “it is quite possible–overwhelmingly probable, one might guess–that we will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology”[8].

Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that Fyodor Dostoyevsky was the only person to teach him anything about psychology, while Freud, himself not unaffected by Nietzsche’s work, praised the philosopher for his degree of self-knowledge. The hinted themes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897 and the much less veiled allusions in Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play Spring Awakening, are other important literary examples of profound psychological insights that predate the psycho-sexual revolution. Before Freud could write his essay on the uncanny, he had to first go through the door of romantic literature to find in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann a discreet psychological concept already, or almost already formed.

The choice of literature was far from accidental.

The question is then: who was leading who?

A concept “isolated” by early psychologists had to be in many ways established, even if only vaguely formulated, before an author could begin to take pen to paper and build a narrative around it. When writers have tried to express something insightful about the activities of human life and thought, they are driven by a much greater need to their understanding and depiction of mental phenomenon than the scientific psychology that follows after them. A psychologist performing a study among his colleagues is less subject to the powerful whims at play in the world of our communal psyche by the insulating effects of his institutional context. A writer lives and dies by her ability to capture as broad a swath of sentiments as possible, or else somehow enliven the minds of a dedicated group of interested individuals that will resonate enough with her work to preserve it. Thus no way is barred to this vanguard of human self-understanding and growth, every taboo, every complex or simple phenomenon from the most discreet to the most nebulous, must come into play: method is malleable, theme and subject matter, inexhaustible, the audience, indefinite, but always assumed to be present no matter what the product, for there is no policing a matter of taste like there is a professional association. The scientific alternative has been invaluable in determining physiological principles, no doubt, but the dangerous, scandalous path has been cleared by the epistemologically lower caste of creative individuals.

This subsuming of the aesthetic and spiritual by the professional was timely and in some respects very important, but also terribly misconceived. This misconception is the fulcrum of the so-called conflict between science and religion that has stood out so painfully in the past century. And yet through it all, the uncanny remains recalcitrant, demanding the attention of observers on both sides of the imagined divide, for it was in the spiritual life that people first began to learn psychology, and have some insight into the powers that move us. It is a commonplace observation that the very origin of the term psychology comes from the study of the soul, or intangible breath of life.

However, there are branches missing from this family tree.

From Abraham whence Freud? From Freud, whence our contemporary derangements?

Aesthetics, what some would call morality, provides a potential bridge between one patriarch and the other –to the future, and to the deep past, belong the matriarchs, of which I cannot speak. The French revolution, that time when the promises of European enlightenment exploded into the violent birth of the nineteenth century set much of the stage. Before the French Revolution A.G. Baumgarten’s efforts to understand and systemizes “matters of taste” was the enlightenment’s abortive attempt to place the most slippery elements of the human psyche under the domain of natural reason. In contrast, after the revolution, Friedrich Schiller’s Aesthetic Education of Man would positively cry out that a new way of organizing these “matters of taste” was necessary for the humane, sane, development of human civilization. What we might today call scientific reasoning was not sufficient for understanding either ourselves or others, for it had already torn the world asunder once in its attempt to put it back together again.

Professionalization was a project of the nineteenth century, yet psychology as a discipline owed just as much to public negotiations in the periodical press as it did to the work of specialists, and even more to the dedicated explorers of the uncanny who made up the occult community of the age. In the correspondence of Alfred Russell Wallace and Frederic Myers we see ways in which the concept of spiritual possession became re-envisioned into the shadowy notion of a subliminal, or second-self. Even Freud, in his youth, was not immune to this occult fascination.

Writing to politely decline the invitation to coedit a periodical dedicated to the study of the occult in 1921, he observed: “If I had my life to live over again I should devote myself to psychical research rather than to psychoanalysis.”[9] However, this interest and source of inspiration would be subdued as he forged psychoanalysis into a scientifically acceptable and regimented discipline, which brooked no contradiction. Carl Jung, who saw in the spiritual drive not a pathology, but a powerful wellspring of self-development, commented on Freud’s distaste later in his life.

I can still recall vividly how Freud said to me, ‘My dear Jung, promise me never to abandon the sexual theory. That is the most essential thing of all. You see, we must make a dogma of it, an unshakable bulwark’ … In some astonishment I asked him, ‘A bulwark-against what?’ To which he replied, ‘Against the black tide of mud’—and here he hesitated for a moment, then added—’of occultism’. [10]

Jung was in touch with the connection between uncanny literature, belief (both religious and scientific) and the potential for a deeper understanding of the self, but it was the Freudians who ultimately won, in the short term, the power struggle by marginalizing their opponents as unscientific charlatans. Despite drawing on so many mythic icons, and providing one of the most famous studies of the uncanny in the western world, Freud’s ultimately legacy was to retard our ability to interact with this vital aspect of the life of the mind.

Could this be true? Could the understanding of the uncanny through myth and literature achieved at the end of the nineteenth century have been so derailed in western culture by the misgivings of one particular profession, when it continued to find proponents and explorers throughout the world?

Yes, because something else was offered up instead.

The mundane needs of daily life were given, with the help of psychologists, all the arresting qualities of the uncanny, without any of its revitalizing powers of self-understanding.

We must never forget the profound impact of Edward Louis Bernays on the modern spirit. Sigmund Freud’s nephew, who popularized Freudian psychology in North America, has done more to shape the cultural understanding of ourselves than all of the artists and geniuses of the past hundred years. His way of envisioning the individual, more specifically, the lack of an individual in light of the mass, has become the defining feature against which most modern art has set itself.

And nevertheless, his spirit still holds sway.

Bernays’s Propaganda and The Engineering of Consent are considered the founding documents of modern public relations, and both the Americans and the Germans extensively used his theories of crowd control during the Second World War. Synthesizing the theories of his uncle with Pavlovian and crowd psychology, he was the one who first associated smoking with women’s liberation in America, to sell more cigarettes. No part of life was safe from his attempts at intervention. Something as seemingly basic as the idea that bacon and eggs make a good breakfast to the strategies the Chiquita Banana company employed to overthrow the government of Guatemala were decisively influenced by his attempt to raise the profits of the corporations that employed him. Believing that groups, not individuals, were the core of society, and that that core was fundamentally irrational and dangerous, and thus in need of subtle control in its every action, Bernays held that the only democratic system could be one in which the consent of the public was manufactured, and that we demonstrated our knowledge of the mind primarily through our ability to control it.

Before considering this the stuff of conspiracy theories, first ask yourself the question: where is the application of psychology most prevalent in our daily lives? How do we breathe it, consume it along with our bread and drink it to quench our lingering thirsts? For all the well meaning and curative virtues developed by individual psychologists and psychiatrists, the overall cultural effect has been much overstated. There are no fewer depressives, no fewer suicides, but only a seemingly growing legion of clinical conditions, and ever more subtle advertisements.

What I call the mundane is the ability of psychologists and marketers to reproduce the uncanny effects of awe, and the ambiguity of place in their efforts to force a kind of fascination in the minds of individuals, to vie for our attention. For there is something akin to the ways that an advertisement, or advertizing strategy takes hold of the mind, and how the uncanny influences the psyche. A similar paradox of repulsion, attraction, place and possibility fuel both, but where the uncanny has no set goal, and forces the individual to delve into themselves for some resolution, the mundane hijacks a similar channel to force an external will upon it.

As anyone knows who has ever tried to dismantle something, which it was beyond his abilities to repair, it takes far less knowledge to break a thing than it does to fix it. And yet that is just it. Unlike in other sciences, the success of psychology cannot be demonstrated through simply controlling the phenomena that it purports to study, for in this case the demonstration itself can only throw doubt on the very existence of the subject. Yet this is exactly the goal of modern advertizing and public relations, the crown jewels and collected wisdom of over a century of searching for the human soul. They are the blood diamonds of Edward Bernays and the troubled history of the APA[11].

Rather than being at the vanguard of psychological wholeness and collective self-realization, the APA has throughout its hundred and seventeen year history raised its arms in the rearguard of professional interests and disciplinary authority. It lagged far behind the literary world in its understanding of homosexuality, only declaring it non-pathological in 1973, compared to the implicit conclusions in Frank Wedekind’s masterful 1891 play. In the run up to the second world war, the APA’s support of eugenics and intelligence testing likewise represents a gross misunderstanding of its own medicinal contentions, just as the recent invention of Orthorexia Nervosa, what amounts to a “Healthy Eating Disorder”, displays its allegiance to some other code of conduct totally alien to general human wellbeing. The recent role of the APA in the development of American torture techniques, whose inherent logic was only acting through, and not despite, the actions of James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, is indicative of this trend. On a more specious level, the APA’s support and rewarding of the status quo has had similar effects. Effects such as those of the Psychologically Healthy Workplace program, whose focus on employee involvement, work-life balance, employee growth and development, and employee recognition, has as its ultimate end not health, but mechanical efficiency. Human beings are organic creatures, and any efficiency they can aspire to will always be an organic efficiency, that is to say, a successful and strangely charmed kind of squandering.

Disciplinary and bureaucratic interests are ill equipped to handle the shifting terrain of individual human consciousness. Furthermore, by setting themselves apart from their fellows in the very act of specialization they often grow only further away from the subject of their searching. Change, the dynamic life of the mind, slows to a crawl inside the confines of any insular practice.

And what is the result of this professionalization?

When a person in a state of distress checks into a mental health center for the first time, what might they experience? A passionless triage given by one healthcare worker. Then an escort into a dimly lit room with other critical cases. The door locks behind you. You are told to ignore the others around you. They may be violent. They may be self-destructive. You are told that they are none of your concern. You then go to another healthcare provider and try to explain what is causing you such trouble. This second provider relays your information to a third, and things may or may not get lost or added to in the retelling. Depending upon your situation the third provider will probably record that you are having trouble adjusting to life, stress the fact that you are sick and should be taking expensive medication that is difficult to wean yourself off of, and prepare the way for you to see a fourth provider for follow up. While you wait you are not getting better. The fourth is often a councilor. These people tend to be as passionless as the triage supervisors. They are not interested in helping you, but only in assessing how much of a danger you are to society or yourself. Despite being employed to listen, they are often exceptionally poor listeners. Then, at last, you see a psychiatrist, who gives you a list of other psychiatrists, again makes sure you’re not a danger to yourself or society, and sends you on your way.

Who does this benefit?

It is often claimed that psychologists are members of a new priestly class, and that it seems that they too have come to serve the “secular”, which now is to say, political powers. Whether or not this is in fact the case, it seems that they are still less well equipped to deal with individuals’ lives and concerns than their much disparaged ancestors. Indeed, they have done little to calm conflicts of belief, and have helped to add only a new one, commercialism, to the fray. The dominance of the mundane rests in an inflexibility of the symbolic content of our daily experience, advertisements, guided by an external will, advertiser or psychologist, towards a very narrow range of possible interpretations.

Nothing is moving here.

Literature, for good and for ill, is a kind of guerrilla psychology. The most piercing studies of madness, and other internal conditions of mind and patterns of personality have invariably emerged from the great imaginations of world culture, or from those psychologists most closely in tune with their methodologies and insights.

While we live in a planned society, it is not a unified plan. The conscious, external control exerted by various groups makes it a highly heterogeneous, chaotic conglomeration of parts vying for influence and entry into our individual psyches. The regimented and disciplinary aspect of professionalization does nothing to prevent this psychic dissonance. Indeed, it seems only to add to it.

Where are the explorers who have thought to cure a convalescent with the words: “I proscribe Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life followed by chapters from Dante’s Inferno, read them and call me in the morning. Let us discuss them, and let us discuss you.” Most shy away from such prescriptions because they fear they’ve expired. Despite this, it is my contention that uncanny narratives in particular (though perhaps not exclusively) allow for a reorganization of the self, instead of the fracturing and want induced by advertizing. In the uncanny we find a particular kind of paradox that allows for a loosening of the strings of consciousness, to allows for a multiplicity of unsettling reorganizations, reflections and rebirths to take root within the mind. This is in marked contrast to the mundane, which hijacks many of the same principles, but which instead of allowing the troubled contents of the psyche to resettle, as they will, wrenches them this way and then that in an attempt to shape the focus of our human desires.

Most medicines have side effects, and so too will these. All panaceas are poisons, even when they cure. Yet even these ill effects must be brought to bear on the health and well-being of the convalescent, or else what will be achieved will only lead to a greater weakness in the end. In the case of uncanny literature the danger exists that the individual will become unhinged, lost in a hall of mirrors within the self, he begins to compulsively seek out ever more outré engagements with mythic thought in an immoderate effort to remedy his growing unbalance, loosing touch with the narrative of his own existence in the world. The best preventative to this reaction is community, not the larger, law-binding structure that makes so many demands upon the psyche, but something much more intimate and accepting. For in the company of friends the explorations of the self enacted through the uncanny can find some safe harbour once again within the external world, and we can test, but with a careful pressure, the solidity of the ground beneath our feet.

With these considerations I hope to have shown how the engagement with a particular kind of art often understood as “horror” can be used as a powerful principle for the growth of the individual human psyche. Treating the psyche itself as a homeostat, whose processes are in many ways analogous to those of every living thing, we can see the value of the fascinating power of the uncanny. With an understanding of the ancestry of fear founded in the awe and sense of motion inherent in this force we can see how the exploration of the psyche that began with religion, and moved throughout morality, aesthetics and psychology can find its bearings once again in the realm of the aesthetic. For unlike the disciplinary dogmas and demands of organized commercialism, religion or science, aesthetics does not enforce a strict goal or external teleology on our mental activity, so much as it provides a space in which to settle, or unsettle and reconstruct, the makeup of our various tastes and inclinations. Strictly disciplinary, instead of individual interests cannot accomplish this, since they too serve as a homeostatic balance with harshly delineated features demarcating them from the larger functioning of the culture in which they are embedded.

Invariably, they come to serve their own ends.

In the realm of narrative, there are many forms of literature, each producing its own effect, and answering its own needs. I simply take the uncanny to be primary because of its impurity and potential power, the way in which it both stabilizes and expands the human psyche’s understanding of its own limitations.

As research into the uncanny may some day show, the uncanny is both a vital cultural construct, with its own history and numerous negotiations, as well as part of a system of psychological and physiological responses that characterize us as living beings, and whose essential features will persist until humans become other than what they are. Indeed, it will no doubt have a definite role to play in this very process. And this allows us to return from whence we came:

It is not my intention to distract you.

As long as there are men, there will be monsters.

[1] Lovecraft, H.P. “Supernatural Horror in Literature”. In At the Mountains of Madness. (New York: The Modern Library, 2005) 103.

[2] Smith, Clark Ashton. The Psychology of the Horror Story. Accessed at The Eldritch Dark. October 18th 2010. <http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/nonfiction/29/the-psychology-of-the-horror-story&gt;

[3] Royle, Nicholas. The Uncanny: An Introduction. (New York: Routledge, 2003) 9.

[4] Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, 105.

[5] Anyone who doubts the primacy of woman in nature needs to consider the case of the Anglerfish, upon which the atrophied male exists as a parasitic attachment whose only use is as an organ of reproduction. Likewise, when Charles Darwin turned his attention to barnacles, he found several that he first thought to be hermaphrodites before realizing that what he had previously taken to be a primary parasite was in fact the male of the species. Yet even here, primacy is not supremacy.

[6] Owen, Alex. The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

[7] Freud, Sigmund. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Trans. Alan Tyson. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989) 264.

[8] Chomsky, Noam. Language and Problems of Knowledge: the Managua Lectures. (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 1988) 159.

[9] Freud, Sigmund. As in Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880-1920. By Pamela Thurschwell. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 1.

[10] Jung, Carl. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. (New York: Random House, 1965), 147-8.

[11] American Psychological Association.

Laurie Lipton and Her Skeletons

The shocking, yet playful take on the theme of memento mori in Laurie Lipton’s work is unmistakable. There are no lack of skeletons in Lipton’s closets, dance halls, funerals, school photos, subways and doll houses, and indeed, every other place common in life.

In stark black and white tones we see a group of officials standing around ruins, looking quite satisfied with themselves in “Collateral Damage”, reminding us that there is more than one kind of death in life.

The only living people in her pictures that I’ve seen so far, aside from the officials, tend to be old women, missing teeth and exuberant, people looking death in the face, or the recently deceased. In this way she plays games with life, and while the macabre element is undeniable, I feel a great yearning for life in these works.

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Nature’s Unnaturals and the Visage of the Pit

The alien worlds and demonic vistas of Wayne Barlowe were another serendipitous internet find of mine in recent months. Barlowe’s dedication to depicting bizarre lifeforms and nightmares spans an impressive career path from the demonology of the Grimoire of Honorius, to Babylon 5, Hellboy, Harry Potter, Avatar and the Discovery Channel.

Despite the surreal quality to much of his work, there is also the delightful element of realism that seems to originate, at least in part, in the artistic inspiration provided to him by his parents, both of whom were artists interested in the forms and figures of natural history. For instance, “Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials” reads much like a field guide for naturalists, and his “Expedition: Being an Account in Words and Artwork of the 2358 A.D. Voyage to Darwin IV” is an aesthetic tour de force uniting a conservationist theme with studies of fantastical ecologies and creature. In doing so, it nevertheless manages to treat its subject with an exacting, evolutionary care and attention to detail.

When not looking through the kaleidoscope that takes the place of the naturalist’s binoculars, Barlowe’s demonic imagery strikes me as having much in common with the Russian artist Serge Sunne, particularly in the disturbing play on questions of identity that are manifested therein. Faces are everywhere, it seems, except where they should be, and when they do acquiesce to something like the human form, there always seems to be something so off kilter as to make them even stranger than the others.

I look forward to seeing more from him.

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Among the Obelisks 1

Here is the first installment of my second “mural” piece. The actual story features footnotes and a brief introduction by the translator. I’ve been told that this was necessary otherwise the audience would have no idea what I was talking about. This assessment maybe fair, but there is something about inviting your readers to look things up that I think has been generally under-appreciated in contemporary writing, particularly since the advent of the internet has made this so easy. For the audio version I decided to skip these asides since it would be too jarring on the continuity of the piece, and I hope the atmosphere nevertheless shines through.

Clark Ashton Smith

Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) was a self educated poet, sculptor, painter and writer who spent almost the entirety of his life living in a small cabin in Auburn, California. While supporting himself by picking fruit and cutting wood, Smith taught himself French and Spanish, and read encyclopedias and dictionaries to expand his knowledge of a world he seldom traveled in.

It’s hard finding Smiths writing in most bookstores, but the website The Eldritch Dark has done a wonderful job of presenting his creative output. I have long admired Smith’s works and contribution to uncanny literature, and would not have known anything about him if it wasn’t for this delightful find.

Of course, not everyone would agree with me. Smith was in conscious opposition to the realist litterature of his day, and often expressed frustration when critics would chastize his work for not being another reproduction of Hemingway. His fantastical worlds, their ambivalent moralities and cosmic scope, his enjoyment of concepts of reincarnation, mysticism, the evil or indifference of higher intellects and the ultimate finitude of human activity won him few friends in the polite society of letters in 20th century American literature.

But that does not seem to be what he was really after anyway.

My own story, The Gray Men of the Desert of Dust, was originally written as an homage to the first work by Smith that I ever read. The Abominations of Yondo, while not Smith’s finest work, captured my imagination with its arcane use of language and atmospheric qualities. Indeed, readers looking for character-driven plots may be disappointed by his style. His protagonists tend to be archetypal, and his female characters too often find themselves in the old duality of the maiden or the witch. Yet I prefer to treat each work as an exquisite painting, and am little troubled by this.

For new readers I would certainly recommend The City of the Singing Flame, The Empire of the Necromancers, The Disinterment of Venus, The Chain of Aforgomon and The Ghoul to get a feel for what Smith was all about.

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The Grey Men

The Grey Men of the Desert of Dust 1:

The Grey Men of the Desert of Dust 2:

The Grey Men of the Desert of Dust is one of my few “Mural” pieces. The narrative of the story is driven more by an archetypal series of images and concepts than by characterization, creating an effect of a long, perplexing mural.

I’ve been told that works like this are almost unpublishable in the current reading environment because of the nonexistent use of character driven plots. That probably won’t stop me from writing them though, and I have some hopes, some day of writing an entire book in this mode.

It would be my own Sistine Chapel of the weird. It would also be an attempt to take the “weird” or “uncanny” story and do something with it that I do not think has been successfully done to date. It is a characteristic of these kinds of stories that they start to flounder past a certain size. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath always seemed to fall a little flat of my expectations, and I have yet to find a truly “weird” novel.

I might record and post another one of the mural pieces at some point.