Update, August 2014

John Clute has let his site lapse these several years. Now he has a transient assistant in me, Judith Clute, and I shall make a start with a few words about his new book: STAY. Like the recent books, Scores, Canary Fever, and Pardon the Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm – it is published by Beccon Publication:   books@beccon.org.   And for STAY there will be a launch party on Saturday, the 16th of August at Loncon3 2014. In STAY are reviews and stories and a republication of The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror. Here is the cover:
















Physics for Amnesia: Horror Motifs in SF

“Physics for Amnesia: Horror Motifs in SF”
a talk given Thursday 8 May 2008
The Gresham College Symposium
“Science Fiction as a Literary Genre”

The remit I have been asked to address is broad, and I’m going to narrow it. I am going to eliminate from this discussion of “Horror Motifs in SF” any reference to that heavily populated category of tales in which supernatural figures or devices traditionally deemed horrific — vampires, werewolves, rings cursed by Egyptians, lamias, Liliths, Shes, Arks of the Covenant, ghosts, ravenous old gods — are translated into sf by some form of scientific explanation of their nature and origin. Over and above the convenience of eliminating at one stroke perhaps 90% of all sf stories that might be thought to contain some element of horror, there is a further consideration. If horror is to be described as the conveying of overwhelming affect, or (preferably) as an epiphany in which the true nature of things is grasped or recalled, then almost no traditional horror motif that has been coordinated into an sf frame will generate stories that could really be described as horror.

To rationalize horror is to tolerate it.

To explain vampirism, for instance, as an ancient mutation on human stock (or human stock as a mutation on the vampire) is to substitute history for revelation, dietary requirements for the desanguination of the soul. Good stories — good sequels, good sagas — can be written in this mode: but I think they are not horror.

So. Is there any form of horror capable of surviving exposure to forgiveness?

We need to get a running start. I would to like focus therefore on an sf novel published in the first decades of the last century. Like most sf novels, it is set in the future, and like most sf it displays the stigmata of the era in which it was written, a time when the trauma of World War One had intensified the ambivalence felt by many writers about the modernizing of the world. I do not believe this book has ever been described as horror.

We are in the year 2151, a century after the Second World War — fought between Germany and the Brotherhood of Man — has locked into a paralyzed stalemate which has persisted, entropically, ever since. A young chemist named Lyman de Forrest leads a team into a potash mine in Europe near the vast steel-coated impregnable city of Berlin, which continues to defy the rest of civilization. The mine itself had been subject a century earlier to a German gas attack, and is still shunned because of the poison which continues to seep from it and which has turned the surrounding region into “a valley of pestilence and death”. De Forrest hopes to dissipate this miasma with a device he has invented which applies “certain high-frequency electrical discharges” to the corrupt air. This sf solution seems to work. At the very lowest level of the now-accessible mine, however, De Forrest and his team discover a borehole out of which poison gas continues to seep from even further below. Beneath their feet, they can hear the sound of machinery. They neutralize the gas and drill downwards through the rock towards the sound. Eighty eighty metres down, the drill breaks through into a huge lower level. Gutteral shouts can be heard, so De Forrest and his team “heave . . . gas bombs” into the vacancy.

After two days, assuming nothing can remain alive down there, De Forrest descends the shaft alone; but the cable holding him snaps, and he falls several metres into the abysm, knocking himself unconscious. He awakens eventually in a huge and desolate cavern. It is dead silent in the bowels of the earth. The air is unnaturally cold. He must move or die, and forces himself to crawl through passage after passage, until he comes to a strange underworld barracks full of human corpses, great bulking creatures, all identical, their faces uniformly blanched. At the far end of this chamber he sees a desk, and a dead man in finery.
“The body was frozen. As I tumbled it stiffly back it fell from the chair exposing a ghastly face. I drew away in a creepy horror, for as I looked at the face of the corpse I suffered a sort of waking nightmare in which I imagined that I was gazing at my own dead countenance.”

In a kind of daze, De Forrest dresses himself in his Double’s strange clothing, which is woven from “cellulose silk”. He then discovers a document in German which identifies him in highly bureaucratic detail as a chemist named Armstadt, in the Imperial Office of Chemical Engineers. Fortunately, De Forrest speaks German with dreamlike fluency, and when troops finally arrive — it is at this point that the proto-Lovecraftian horror that has infused the tale changes into something else — he is able to impersonates Armstadt by faking a state of dazed amnesia. He is taken through a labyrinth of enclosed passages to a hospital, which is also underground, or far from the sun, and is soon released into the vast claustrophobic sunless hive of fortress Berlin. No one suspects him. No one in fact seems to know anyone else personally. He moves into his double’s flat, where he soon finds a map detailing the 60 levels of the catacombs, buried beneath the world, in which he has been imprisoned. He now explores the endless corridors of this termitarium, which contains nearly three hundred million inhabitants but seems infected by silence, by an uncanny vacancy. Every face he sees is blanched and blank and male.

“I now passed by miles of sleeping dormitories,” he tells us, “and, strikingly incongruous with the atmosphere of the place, huge assembly rooms which were labelled ‘Free Speech Halls’.”

But he is forbidden entry to these Halls, learning later that only memorized slogans can be spoken there, in unison. The population as a whole is divided into several physical types, running from huge Percheron-like workers with small brains up to slender intellectuals like Armstadt, with larger craniums. All members of each class are essentially identical. Workers — for whom the Free Speech Halls are intended — almost invariably speak in unison.

“I was walking in Utopia,” De Forrest concludes, “a nightmare at the end of man’s long dream — Utopia — Black Utopia — City of Endless Night. . . ”

De Forrest continues for some time his covert role of visitor to Utopia, in the course of which he learns that women are chattels segregated into two classes: breeders, who service those declared fit for paternity according to eugenic precepts; and painted whores, with names like Bertha 34 R 6, who occupy the Weimar-like Level of Free Women — another Orwellian tag, as their only freedom is to charge for sex. All life in Berlin is ordered according to the demands of a rigid hierarchy; information is strictly controlled; there are almost no books in the entire world (except for the Bible); non-blond races are deemed subhuman. The only hint of sun comes at an annual event featuring the current monarch, the mildly Caligula-like scion of two centuries of Hohenzollern rule; he is a living God, according to the Bible, which has been rewritten to incorporate this claim. In a scene of frozen grotesquerie, the living God celebrates his birthday under the pale fire of a fake but blinding sunbeam that for an instant pierces the endless night that shrouds the 300,000,000 walking dead.

The novelty of City of Endless Night, by the American writer Milo Hastings — first published in True Story Magazine in 1919, and in book form by Dodd, Mead (1920) — resides in its first 150 pages, as De Forrest discovers the nature of the world within Berlin. Though told in a style that — except for the introductory sequence — lacks most of the instruments that most traditional horror writers employ to convey a sense of immanent abomination, De Forrest’s narrative more than adequately conveys the message that Berlin is a perversion of the utopian principle, with its lightless catacombs choked to the brim by vacant-eyed monsters, its governance exercised by the kind of bureaucracy which would soon come to be described as Kafkaesque, and the top of the political hierarchy occupied by a mad godling who rules by virtue of a kind of Necronomicon. Nor is it possible to avoid thinking of De Forrest himself — a man whose human impulses are palsied by priggishness — as an impostor in a dead face. A traditional horror tale — a story devoted to the exposure of some pre-existing terrible truth about its protagonist — might sooner or later rip De Forrest’s false face off, force him fatally to recognize that he and Berlin are identically vacant; and City of Endless Night might conclude with the implosion of the false Berlin, like the Fall of an enormous House of Usher, upon the doppelganger within.

But Hastings moves away from any dread isomorphy of the outer and the inner life, away as well from the line H P Lovecraft might have taken a few years later, with Berlin replaced by the house of Cthulhu. The second half of City of Endless Night segues fairly tamely into an adventure thriller with a princess and derring-do and gnashing teeth and a magic submarine and a Great Escape and, after the good guys split, the routine collapse, like a house of cards, of a Berlin no longer capable of fomenting its deadly dream of modernization. The tiresome conventionality of this climax may have contributed to the book’s subsequent obscurity, and I do not know if any other twentieth century writer of note ever actually read or was directly influenced by City of Endless Night. But all the same Hastings’s novel does vividly prefigure two forms of the argued fantastic, or sf, which flourished during the twentieth century; I would like here to treat both of these categories — non-exclusively — in terms of horror.

The first category is the dystopia, a term which did not come into common use until J Max Patrick, whose seminal Utopia course I remember taking at New York University, re-coined it in 1952. City of Endless Night seems to be the first extended negative utopia to appear in English after the end of World War One, and it therefore stands at the head of the parade of aftermath dystopias which has so heavily marked the past hundred years. Prefigurations in this nightmare tale of Evgeny Zamiatin’s We (written 1920), of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), are obvious enough not to need underlining here, though I might emphasis a similarity in the telling of the Hastings and the Orwell texts — over and above the astonishing Free Thought Halls. The first 150 pages of the Hastings, as we’ve suggested, and the whole of the Orwell, are told in a heightened, suffocated, heated narrative voice whose primary effect, beyond intensifying the tale, is to create a sense of almost weird apprehension that some terrible revelation is about to shatter our hearts. As we’ve seen, Hastings eventually shies away from deep immurement in his world, though Orwell, as we know, certainly does not: but perhaps we should note the specific element they do both share: that both can be read as terror, that form of horror which anticipates things to come: that both hint at some deadly sublimity within the workings of their tales, some devastation to the grammar of the world.

The second category is the Hitler Wins tale, Hitler Wins being a descriptive rubric first used in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction in 1993. The glaring sans-serif monumentalism of Hastings’s Berlin clearly prefigures Fascist dreams of urban planning of the sort partially enacted by Albert Speer, and the racial and eugenic theories held by the Germans are conspicuously proto-Nazi, as is the bureaucratic exactitude with which these theories are imposed. Moreover, remarkably, City of Endless Night prefigures three central motifs dominant in the first genuine Hitler Wins novel to reach print, the nightmarish and terrifying Swastika Night (1937) by Katherine Burdekin writing as Murray Constantine: 1) the treatment of women as whore/ breeders; 2) the hellish duration of the regime, for in both novels the horror seems to stop time dead for centuries; and 3) the deification of the Fuhrer in terms specifically parodic of the Christian god.

Texts like Nineteen Eighty-Four or Swastika Night clearly express deep unease about the nature of change in recent history, change which Orwell and Burdekin narrate in modes it is fair to describe in terns of horror or terror; their texts are central to our understanding of how to grasp the history of our times. Milo Hastings (1884-1957), on the other hand, could not be described as a significant figure in his own right; he is of interest partly because he comes so early in twentieth century sf, and partly because his seeming ignorance of any inconsistencies or ambivalences in his work only exposes them the more clearly.

In 1910, Hastings was an enthusiastic modernizer in cahoots with Thomas Alva Edison, and eagerly publicized a proposal fathered by the eccentric urban planner Edgar Chambless to construct a web of great Linear Cities. These “Roadtowns” — continuous structures hundreds of miles long but only as broad as two shops placed side by side — would be built over monorail lines, and each individual Roadtown would connect with its mates at ganglion-like intersections, creating a spiderweb utopia capable of lacing the whole of America into one endless suburb with shops; only malcontents could possibly demur, Roadtown’s supporters, like Hastings, claimed. Less than a decade later, of course, he was describing a not entirely dissimilar dream of modernization as “a world of rigid mechanistic automatism”, a world he could only conceive of entering through proto-Lovecraftian passages of horror.

But the ambivalences soon surface. Any negative analysis of the new world is restricted in City of Endless Night to an accusation that the morally deficient rulers of Berlin have engaged in the wrong kind of modernization. The horrific and universal incessancy of the principles that transform Berlin, an incessancy Hastings conveys with very vividly in the first 150 pages, is personalized into Hohenzollern arrogance. Once Berlin is destroyed, as Hastings makes clear, the rest of the world is freed from paralysis, and becomes a paradise subject to endless transformation at the hands of men like his hero, the modernizer De Forrest, a figure readers a century later are likely to think of as monstrous, as a man who gasses unseen foes on a whim; as a moralizing prig responsible, in the end, for the cleansing of Berlin at a cost in lives Hastings leaves primly untold; as a developer.

But Hastings built better than perhaps he could possibly know. His terror at the face of the fully modern world (a terror he cannot properly narrate) is too vivid to forget, too saliently emblematic to ignore. In its inescapable concreteness, his image of the poisonous incessancy of Berlin provides us with a very early example of the Serpent’s Egg, a term only really useful when the planet is in view; it may roughly be defined as an image which condenses the future. I take the term from Ingmar Bergman’s underappreciated sf horror film of 1977, The Serpent’s Egg, which is also set in Berlin, and which also focuses on the sighting of a diseased destiny. Hastings’s and Bergman’s images of Berlin are aliquot samples of things to come, proleptic visions of planetary terror.

They are, I believe, good physics for amnesia.

“Genres,” Jonathan Lethem tells us in his introduction to The Vintage Book of Amnesia (2000), are like “false oases, only visible in the middle distance.” He then reveals his discovery of a brand new one, which he has uncovered in the course of assembling his anthology: the genre of “fiction that, more than presenting a character who’d suffered memory loss, enter[s] into an amnesiac state at some level of the narrative itself.” Lethem is clearly having fun here; but I think we should keep in mind something he obviously knows, that genres (or oases) are indeed useful devices if you keep your distance; that they are only false if you think they are real; that they are tools for seeing, but that they are not what we ultimately see.

Lethem’s own new found genre is a convenient heuristic tool, a light to read his selection of tales by, from the proper distance. I make the same claim about my own use of genre vocabularies; and would only add that my own preferred description of twenty-first century horror (or terror), as a form of wrestling with the amnesias that characterize our era, points exactly to the kind of amnesia fiction that Lethem properly excludes from his remit, as he is interested mainly in bodily horror, in stories about the cavitation of individual souls. After instancing the counter-examples of Orwell, Huxley and Zamiatin, he excludes from consideration any “version of amnesia” that “points to theories of social or institutional knowing and forgetting, to theorists and critics like Michel Foucault, Marshall McLuhan, Frederic Jameson, Alan Bloom, and G W S Trow.” I would add, to this short list of thinkers who have shaped my own intuitions, the name of Marshall Berman, author of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (1982); any hints I may drop that I understand the modernizing of the world over the past two centuries, in terms that Goethe, Marx and Baudelaire may have used to articulate that process, are coloured by a recent reading of his unfailingly intelligent study.

My understanding of the literatures of the fantastic in general — what I like to call fantastika, for reasons of concision and point — is built from an assumption many of us share: that they begin to take on conscious and subversive shape somewhere between 1750 and 1800, a span of time during which the inhabitants of the West begin to understand that the world is in fact a planet, and begin almost immediately to develop the planet they have grasped. The world we who are their children can no longer affirm may have been sacred; the planet we have come to inhabit is a site.

The various genres of fantastika — gothic, supernatural, sf, fantasy, horror — dance attendance upon this brave new world, for it is inescapable. Sf can be seen as a set of melodramatic enactments of the transformation of the matter of things into manipulable information. Fantasy may be seen as a set of enraged enactments of the dream that the holy land can be recovered. Horror, the blanket term I started with, can be seen as a set of insider enactments of the fear that sooner or later we’re going to be fragged by the souls we have left behind. “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe is perhaps therefore the paradigm horror story. I think the term may currently best describe the work of a writer like Stephen King, whose main subject is the encased soul, and whose stories test to the uttermost the blood body.

The central distinction for me between horror so described and contemporary terror is that, in the latter, the planet replaces the body. A paradigm tale of terror would therefore be something like “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” (1972) by James Tiptree Jr. Terror, as I’ve been using the term here, dramatizes the struggle to remember ourselves and our history in a planet whose meaning for humans has been evacuated by the engines of incessant transformation. Terror is about the planetary amnesias that are disappearing our home. It is what City of Endless Night shies from embracing. It informs the dystopia, and the Hitler Wins story, and the tale of apocalypse or post-apocalypse or Ruined Earth, and any story written since the year 2000 or so which is set in the near future.

Physics? Or placebos?

A wrestling with planetary amnesia — whether or not articulated in such cartoonish terms — marks a recent novel like W G Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001), which I described at some length in a talk I gave last year called “Fantastika and the World Storm” (a version of this talk can be seen at www.johnclute.co.uk, and a final version has been printed in Foundation  #102). In this tale about the psychic suicide of Europe after the Zero Hour of 1945, two protagonists search through edifice after edifice — prisons, castles, encampments, spas, rail termini, state libraries — in their search for a central epiphanic onrush of memory, some madeleine cake of anamnesis, which will recoup the true story of their lives as Europeans. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the edifice they are seeking within all the other edifices is Auschwitz. More interesting perhaps is the fact that the labyrinthine heart of each vast construction they visit is in fact a monument or tomb for something which is not there: Europe remembering itself through monuments whose exteriors proclaim sacred meanings but whose insides are empty of memory. The increasing terror they feel in their traversal of a Europe thus transformed into cenotaphs, a Europe built to lock absence from view, is a terror of amnesia we should be able to share whenever we enter a shopping mall, or read about Josef Fritzl.

A list of recent novels which evoke the cenotaph at the heart of planetary terror might include David Britton’s Lord Horror (1989) and its sequels, J G Ballard’s Super-Cannes (2000), William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003), Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, or The Book of Dave by Will Self, or Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island (all 2006); or Brian Aldiss’s HARM –almost a tale of body horror in its description of the British government’s torture of an innocent Muslim — or Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe, or The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall (all 2007); or David Herter’s The Luminous Depths (2008), which sees the fate of Europe in 1942 as so terminal that the spiritus mundi cannot face continuing that far up the century.

These novels are haunted by and wrestle to make us perceive the meaning of our time: malls, monuments, Millennium Domes, motorways circling the husks of evacuated cities, war memorials to unfound soldiers, marriotts, camps, monitors: darkening gardens from which the salitter has drifted, salitter being a term that designates something like the quintessence of the salt of the earth, God-salt, the divine substance of God as expressed through the entities of the world. It is a word Cormac McCarthy uses in a stunning passage from The Road (2005), an sf tale of terminal planetary terror set in a world which is entirely cenotaphic; his protagonist sees

“Something imponderable shifting out there in the dark. The earth itself contracting with the cold. It did not come again. What time of year? What age the child? . . . The silence. The salitter drying from the earth. The mudstained shapes of flooded cities burned to the waterline. At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering. No sound but the wind. . . . He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt..”

But no one comes, of course. The silence of salitter drying from the earth condenses the future into one sight. There is no home. The mouth is sealed with dirt. Though the story wrestles with the void, there is no physic here.

The Serpent’s Egg of terror in 2008 is the cenotaph.

Darkening Garden Review

Christian Sauve’s review of The Darkening Garden is online here.

Fantastika in the World Storm


Centre for the Future presents
Cultural Landscapes/Fiction Without Borders

Amercan Center
20 September 2007

Here is what I’m going to do: I’m going to argue that story tellers and readers have seen our planet — ever since it first became visible around 1750 — primarily through the huge range of tales of the fantastic that I’m here calling fantastika. I will then draw some conclusions, and end up here in Prague.

Part One will argue that it is possible to describe fantastika as the necessary form of planetary fiction since 1750.

Part Two will outline the narrative grammars that I find most useful when I write about the three main forms fantastika now takes: Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror (which I’d prefer to call Terror, but it’s too late now). I think these grammars reveal something of the nature of story which speaks to the difficulties we all face as we try not only to conceive a better world, which is easy, but also to live in one, which is not.

Part Three deals further with the relation of story to world. If the models I’m suggesting make any sense at all, Horror (or Terror) is the most relevant of the three genres when it comes to adumbrating the dilemmas we face in 2007: because Horror is about our resistance to the truth: a resistance which lasts until we are left naked in the real world: which is where the story ends.

And what do we do then?

There is a kind of Part Four as well, I guess, consisting of two questions that surface as soon as we mention Fiction and Landscape — the two discourses which draw us to together here — in one breath. First: How can a genuine storyteller, given the obvious fact that only bad worlds are storyable, possibly contrive to talk about a Landscape which is a place to stay? Second: Who among us trying to create sustainable worlds could possibly care about stories, which never depict them?

Some answers come to mind immediately.

At least two of the authors here in Prague have written works which contradict any easy assumption that a world which is sustainable is a world which is beyond story. Pamela Zoline expects to publish next year a version of her long-meditated novel, Occam’s Beard, which is devoted not only to the story of the achievement of peace but the greater project of describing peace as life not closure. John Crowley’s vast four-part novel Aegypt (1987-2007) seems for much of its length to search of an inner grammar of story of the world by which the world can be endlessly transformed. (One of these transformations climaxes heartbreakingly, in 1620, in a Prague that could never happen, though the Prague of 2007 seems to remember that Prague.) But in the end (like Prospero casting down his wand) Aegypt sinks into an exquisitely described civil silence beyond story, a gravid silence in the soil of things, and only after two hundred pages do we awaken again into Time, out here again, in this place we must try — against the odds? — to heal.

Part One:Fantastika and the World Storm

I will start by defining fantastika in a way which may seem obvious, but is not: Fantastika consists of that wide range of fictional works whose contents are understood to be fantastic. We know of course that myths and legends, folklore and fairy tales, beast fables and fantastic journeys, supernatural romances and utopian speculations, ghost stories and god stories have been integral to the long narrative of Western Civilization from the very start: but no example of any of these forms of story laid down before the eighteenth century was ever I think given a name which calved it off from the mainstream of culture.

Up until about 1700, in other words, we did not categorize works of art according to their use of (or failure to use) material that might be deemed unreal. After that point, in English literature — please forgive my sticking to what I know — a fault line was drawn between mimetic work, which accorded with the rational Enlightenment values then beginning to dominate, and the great cauldron of irrational myth and story, which we now claimed to have outgrown, and which was now primarily suitable for children (the concept of childhood having been invented around this time as a disposal unit to dump abandoned versions of human nature into).

This cleansing of the cauldron led of course to huge misprisions of the past — it was during the eighteenth century that William Shakespeare was reconceived as a child-like genius, an idiot savant, partly because he broke the rules of Tragedy, but also because he wrote his plays prior to any cultural consensus that informative obedience to ascertainable reality ultimately told us more about our human experience of the world we inhabited than any myth or fairy tale or fabulation could possibly do. If The Tempest (*1611*) had been written a century later, it would not have been staged. Prospero could not have cast down a wand in 1750 which was simultaneously a walking stick and a magic staff: because the two were not commensurate: moreover, it was perfectly ascertainable that a stick is a stick, and that there is no such thing as a magic staff. QED.

But it is not only Sigmund Freud who tells us that what is repressed will come back; the ancient tale of Antaeus, who returns redoubled in strength every time Heracles casts him to the Earth, says much the same thing. There is a beauty in the eighteenth century Enlightenment, but it is an Apollonian beauty, the beauty of the intensely described, a beauty achieved through refusal and exclusion and measure and argument. It makes forward planning possible, but also garden suburbs; it engineers the rise of Western Civilization over the past four centuries, but it also blueprints the gulag. And after 1750 or so, as might be expected, a consciously subversive reaction sets in.

Stories begin to surface which subvert the ordered world above; which contradict the closed mundanity of the work produced during the Apollonian Ascendancy; which say there is more to the world than the dressage of proper measure. These stories re-import all the old material, the irrational, the impossible, the nightmare, the inevitable, the haunted, the storyable, the magic walking stick, the curse; and through these reborn forms and strategies we sight, like stigmata surfacing through porcelain, the gross bodily parts of Dionysos, the repressed Twin or Doppelganger who mocks Apollo in his toga: just as fantastika itself apes and mocks and tells the terrible true understory of the world we of the West have entered.

An author like Horace Walpole — whose The Castle of Otranto (*1764*) is the first mature British Gothic — was obviously aware that the form he had created made merciless fun of the harmony of the old world. But it is not just mockery: the exorbitant transgressive rambunctiousness of Otranto, and of the five thousand further Gothics published in Britain before 1820, say something else too. In every blatantly disharmonious passage they tell us that it is inherently difficult to understand the world: they tell us that the world is too difficult for Apollo, that reality escapes the ruler. This is of course the message of Aesop. It is also the message of the cruelest of all nineteenth century writers of fantastika, Hans Christian Andersen.

Andersen is of course a great author; but I mention him here in particular because of the characteristic panic hurry of his tales, which marks him as a paradigm of fantastika over the last two and a half centuries. Andersen writes as though the ground was not safe beneath the feet, and that if we don’t keep moving something is going to catch up with us. He hardly ever mentions Twins or Doppelgangers (I think because the thought of them frightened him so much) but when he does he speaks as directly to our condition in 2007 as does Franz Kafka, or Vladimir Nabokov, or W G Sebald.

This brings us to the world storm.

1750 is not only the year in which fantastika began to be written as a weapon against the owners; it also marks the point when Western Civilization begins to understand that we do not inhabit a world but a planet. It is from this point that science — astronomy, physics, geology, biology — begins to shape our understanding that we are a species on a rolling ball, that the past is deeper than we can conceive and that the future is going to rip us apart. (Science fiction does not begin in the discovery of Space, but in the discovery of Time: terroristic meditations on the conjoining of Ruins and Futurity dominate the first decades of the genre.) So science takes the ground from underneath our feet; and fantastika, with its heated and cartoon immediacy of response to instability and threat, responds instantly to the vertigo of this new knowledge. Fantastika vibrates to the planet. It is the planetary form of story.

Something else begins to happen around 1750 as well: the engines of change represented by the scientific and industrial revolutions begin palpably to increase the speed of history, until it races. The planet begins to shake in the storm; change burns the soles of the residents; things alter so fast that we in the matured West are no longer able to sort our lives, which begin to haunt us. Amnesias — both like and unlike those that blinded Oedipus or Leontes — begin to haunt the residents of the planet and their gated communities; it is no accident that Twins and Doubles and Doppelgangers begin to nurse their injuries throughout fantastika: because the Twin is what we leave behind when life is so fast we cannot remember where we come from. This is the guilt of Apollo.

Part Two: Model Instructions

Each of the three main modes of written fantastika in the twenty-first century — Fantasy; Science Fiction; and Horror — is badly named, in English at least, which is part of the reason I’ve begun to prefer the term fantastika, though we’re probably stuck with the names we’ve got. The three narrative grammars that I’ve worked out over the past fifteen years were intended to loosen the lockjaw of this bad nomenclature, to make it easier to track some of the movements of story I think are typical of these three large long-lived changing modes. I’ve described some of this modelling before — most conspicuously in a number of connected essay/entries in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (*1997*), and in The Darkening Garden: a Short Lexicon of Horror (*2006*) — and will try to be brief here.

I should note that these models are iterations of story, not architectural layouts of the visible shape that one might think each mode should adhere to. I should also add that they are themselves narrative: they read consecutively, and they are designed to gain as swiftly as possible the goal that stories themselves all share: the last And Then which ends the tale. Each model is divided into four parts, and each model can be laid over its siblings, like a palimpsest.

*Fantasy*. Many of the great fantasy writers of the last century were shaped by the experience of World War One; the attitude of J R R Tolkien to the world storm of his time is anguish and anger; he and other great fantasy writers turn away from the world to shame it. Here are the four phases:
1) Wrongness. Some small desiccating hint that the world has lost its wholeness.
2) Thinning. The diminution of the old ways; amnesia of the hero and of the king; the harvest fails, the Land dries up; diversion of story into useless noise; battle after battle.
3) Recognition. The key in the gate; the escape from prison; amnesia dissipates like mist, the hero remembers his true name, the Fisher King walks, the Land greens. The locus classicus of Recognition is Leontes’s cry at the end of The Winter’s Tale (*1610*) on seeing Hermione reborn: “O she’s warm.”
4) Return. The folk come back to their old lives and try to live them.

*Science Fiction*. The basic premise is that the world depicted has an arguable relation to the history of the real world. The underlying impulse of twentieth century SF has been to view the world in this manner in order to see what’s wrong; and then fixing it. SF is the most optimisitc of genres. SF bronco-busts the world. It rides the world storm. I’ve cobbled a narrative model for SF out of other writers’ work. Though it uses a different terminology, this model closely resembles an earlier model constructed by Farah Mendlesohn for similar reasons in her essay, “Is There Any Such a Thing as Children’s Fiction: A Position Piece” (2004).:
1) Novum. Darko Suvin’s term for that aspect of the SF world which differs measurably from our given world.
2) Cognitive Estrangement. Suvin’s term — modified from Vikor Shklovsky and Bertolt Brecht — for arguable and therefore structured defamiliarization of the world, which derives in part from the fact of Novum, and which allows the defectiveness of the ruling paradigm to be seen whole.
3) Conceptual Breakthrough. Peter Nicholls’s term, from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (*1979*), for the thrust of release when a defective paradigm collapses and the new world — the true world — is revealed. A sense of wonder is often felt, sometimes in spaceships.
4) Topia (U- or Dys-). The Jerusalem whose gates have been opened by conceptual breakthrough for those who have won through. From this point life is going to be led in accordance with the truths discovered.

*Horror* may be the purest response of fantastika to the world storm: because the true sound of any great story in the genre — like Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1899), or Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (*1912*), or Gustav Meyrink’s Walpurgisnacht (*1917*), or Stephen King’s The Shining (*1977*), or D M Thomas’s The White Hotel (*1981*), or W G Sebald’s Austerlitz (*2001*) — is the sound of History leaving Eden. When Kurtz cries out “The horror, the horror!” in “Heart of Darkness” it is because he sees the history of the new world entire, it is because he stands in the eye of the world storm. But he does not look away. The four iterations of Horror are:
1) Sighting. Some small sour lesion in the world is suddenly visible, even in daylight.
2) Thickening. The protagonist is mired deeper and deeper in the falseness of the world. The plot literally thickens around him. Fatally, he may think he understands himself, but in fact every move he makes deepens his amnesia, which coils through Thickening like fog; intensifies his resistance, his golem-like rigidity at the threat of change. It is a Gnostic phase: the truth is occluded, which allows us to lie to ourselves constantly.
3) Revel. The story saves us. The rind of the world is peeled off, we see our true face in the mirror, carnival rules, what we see is what we get, the high are made low: where we belong. There is an almost infernal glee in learning the simple dreadful monistic clarity of the truth. Compared to the foggy parsimonious Marlow, Kurtz is pure glee.
4) Aftermath. Tolkien looked up from the trenches and called it shame. Those unable to escape from prison call it the world.

That’s twelve terms in all, which is a lot, even though they’re suggestions not laws. So I’m going to take thirty seconds more and tabulate them, which is how they come together in my mind’s eye:
1) is Wrongness, or Novum, or Sighting.
2) is Thinning, or Cognitive Estrangement, or Thickening.
3) is Recognition, or Conceptual Breaktrhough, or Revel.
4) is Return, or Topia, or Aftermath.

Laid out like that, as permututions of one Ur Story, like three snakes mutually entwined, each snake undergoing the same morphological transforms, something I hinted at earlier may seem more obvious: that the first three phases make up a progress of story; but that the fourth represents places Story can only point at, like Moses. The implications of this gap between telling and living will shape the final paragraphs of this talk.

Part Three: The Cunning of Amnesia

A man in deep middle age, a German-born academic who never gives his name, tells his story. He has found himself, after a period of profound depression, severed from his life. He travels away from England, where he has lodged for many years, and wanders through contemporary Europe, where he visits dozens of famous edifices — train stations, prisons, zoos, fortresses, spas, museums, colosseums, libraries — which somehow do him harm. Indeed, long before the end of the book — Austerlitz, W G Sebald’s final novel — these whited sepulchres of the official Europe have thickened in his mind’s eye into one great prison-like edifice, a house of the dead whose story resists exposure, a house of amnesia. In his wanderings through this thickening world, he soon meets Jacques Austerlitz, a man so similarly occluded from the story of his own life that the two seem twins. Austerlitz has also been visiting sepulchres that seem blinded — stiff mute effigies of the performance culture of old Europe, a culture that both men feel died half a century earlier. Nothing has cleared the air in Austerlitz. There has been no Revel out of fantastika in this Europe: no gaze of Kurtz upon some harrowing truth: no remembering.

The plot of the novel is simple. The edifice whose unspeakable function has somehow polluted the sepulchres of postwar Europe is an extermination camp north of Prague that the Germans called Theresienstadt. Austerlitz’s mother has died there, his father in another camp; and his long amnesia begins on the day he is evacuated to Wales, in 1939, as a small child. The novel circles through decades up to the year 2000: and only after many years does Austerlitz tell the narrator that, against the greatest of resistance, he has caught a glimpse of his real life; the novel does not tell us if he long survives the exposure. Most of the novel is spent detailing the terrible ingenuity of the amnesia whose resistance has kept Austerlitz from his past; but the deepest insight of the book — effected with an intense non-metaphorical literalism only available to an author of fantastika — lies in its inexorable linking of Austerlitz’s personal traumas to the sepulchral amnesia which has rendered the Apollonian “utopia” of Europe in 2000, which apes but cannot remember, so profoundly silent.

The deep secret of amnesia is that its victims can talk all they want: but we cannot remember what we are saying. Nothing can be learned, or recovered. The abattoir that cut us in two awaits us. The final message of Austerlitz is that here in the heart of the storm of the new century the panaceas we brandish simply proclaim what we cannot remember proclaiming before, that in truth we are waving ghost limbs in a thickening dusk: for we do not know who we are, or where we live.

There is that one small moment of Revel for Austerlitz all the same, in Prague, one small bracing glimpse of pure gleeful truth: he meets an old survivor who is as continuous with his childhood as Prague is continuous with the past of Europe; and she remembers him, just as Prague — a pantomime city which is never silent — seems to remember Europe. But the engines that govern Austerlitz are too powerful, and he is soon gone from her. And it is here, out of the heart of this most terrifing book, that the lesson surfaces: that the active principle that must be dealt with in any modern novel set in the world storm today is amnesia, not recovery. This may not seem good cheer: but it is good to know your enemy.

Recovery is not part of the story of fantastika. It is what happens when the story is told. When we Return to the Land; when we enter the Topia that we have earned; when we learn to breathe the air of Aftermath through our mask: it is then we that we enter the region of Recovery, where we must try to live.

The greatest danger we face there is peace that feels good, because in any human being an internal peace that takes it easy — that does not constantly wrest clarity from the magma and nightmare of the souls within us — that fails to negotiate faithfully with the wronged Twins we leave behind — is exactly amnesia. It is the peace that Sigmund Freud — in Civilisation and its Discontents (*1929*) — associated with the kind of tension reduction offered by Adolf Hitler, or Stalin. For the sake of that peace which a citizen of the Third Reich in 1934 might well have called Recovery, we would in fact abandon any chance of Recovery. We would abandon the kind of world John Crowley created at the end of Aegypt. We would
abandon civilisation.

What the great texts of fantastika offer is what Freud offered: the message that civlization costs, that the truth that makes us free is not identical to self-forgiveness; that civilisation is a constant wrestling with our longing to forget.

That is the best plowshare I know how to figure.


“Seasons of Horror – John Clute Interviewed about Darkening Garden”
Interview with Iain Emsley
Yatterings (8 September 2007)

Locus Online Discussion

This discussion took place at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, March 16-17, 2007 in Ft. Lauderdale. Link to Locus Website with excerpts of the conversation here. The full discussion is published in the May 2007 issue of Locus Magazine.

The Darkening Garden in UKSF Book News

The Darkenng Garden is examined on the UKSF Book News site. Link here.

Lost Interzone Column

This column below was delivered late to Interzone at the beginning of February 2007, but Andy Cox said he was going to put it online as part of the magazine’s promotion campaign. Problem for me is that I haven’t been able to find it in the echolalia of the aether, so I thought it might be an idea to lay it down here, especially as it gives favourable notice to Mary Rickert’s superb first collection, Map of Dreams, which should be bought and read soonest.


John Clute
column for Interzone
for Andy Cox
February 2007

*Philip Reeve*
Larklight: Or, The Revenge of the White Spiders!: Or, To Saturn’s Rings and Back!
London:Bloomsbury Publishing

*Robert Charles Wilson*
Julian* *A Christmas Story
Hornsea, Yorkshire: PS Publishing
£10.00 pb

*M Rickert*
Map of Dreams
Urbana, Illinois: Golden Gryphon Press

Already 2006 is ago, and the books on review are all dated then. But maybe they’re not quite history yet. Philip Reeve’s spiffy and entrancing Larklight was part of last year’s Christmas spate for kids, and most of us almost certainly missed it in the spray; Robert Charles Wilson’s stealth-quiet Julian, a Christmas book from Peter Crowther’s PS Publishing, also slid pretty invisibly into the darkest days; and Mary Rickert’s Map of Dreams, also from the end of 2006 is a first collection (from a small house without much UK distribution) that I found as exciting as Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts, which slid similarly into the end of 2005 and caught fire partly because it was superb and partly because Hill was outed as Stephen King’s son: I think Map of Dreams is as worthy of awards as Hill’s (which got a few): it shouldn’t be missed.

Philip Reeve is best known to date for his *Hungry City Chronicles*, starting with Mortal Engines (*2001*) and closing with the marginally overlong A Darkling Plain (*2006*), and after four volumes of grappling with the perils of the Ruined Earth it might be said that his latest tale is a bit of a lark. The binding and presentation and elaborated title channel the 19th century shilling shocker via Lemony Snicket’s *Series of Unfortunate Events*, which is maybe too uncloseted a marketing ploy for real comfort; but Reeve is a very different writer than Daniel Handler in Snicket clothing. We may begin snicketly with mouthy children whose father has become vacantly screwloose after his wife and their mother had seemingly died, and ingenious ruthless (and rather mouthy) villains may cast them almost immediately into outer darkness; but after a few pages of this the tale unpacks itself into a steampunk revel whose engines never seize up as Reeve’s alternate history takes off. We are inhabiting a 19th century in which the solar system is dominated by a British Empire fueled through Isaac Newton’s discovery of the aether that fills space and how to exploit it; Larklight is the cast’s home but it is also a spaceship (and maybe a lot more); their mother may not be dead at all, but piracies and abductions and feats in gaslit London and a great deal more must intervene before we reach the end of what reads very much like Part One of maybe a trilogy or more. The genial contrivances of plot and language never fail to mesh; the setpieces are simultaneouskt plot-enhancing and joyous in their own right; and the children become quite a lot less offensive as we get to know them, especially the boy narrator’s prude sister Myrtle (though one does rather wish male story tellers would stop doing teenaged female prudes: an easy target but a false one: because, throughout history, it is the boys and men who are the true prudes). David Wyatt’s numerous illustrations seem initially like competent pastiche — I thought I noticed Albert Robida and Chris Riddell in the mix — until you get used to his way of seeing story, and begin to trust it: he is very good indeed.

It’s all fizz. But it’s fizz with legs.

There is not much to say yet about Robert Charles Wilson’s novella, because it is palpably the first section of what may turn out to be a classic Ruined Earth tale, set in an America governed and/or threatened — as in so many post-catastrophe tales from Poul Anderson’s Vault of the Ages (*1952*) on — by theocracies whose misogyny and Despite of the evidential world mark them as either Christian or (tactfully) something identical by another name. But this time we may be going somewhere else. There are pre-echoes of Gore Vidal’s Messiah (*1954*) in the opening passages of this tale, as the narrator begins to tell the story of Julian Comstock, part of the family that rules America, and who may turn out to be an apostate in the faith-riddled body politic; but it is too soon to know how Wilson, who finally won a Hugo last year for the latest of his steely novels, all of which are Silent Running but churn the stomach with the smell of ineradicable change and loss, will turn his tale. Julian*: *A Christmas Story — the subtitle is one of Wilson’s deadly whispers of warning — could go anywhere. Whatever is to happen, though, is well begun here.

Mary Rickert signs herself M Rickert, and this seems right. She can surely be found within her tales, almost all of which to date have now been assembled in Map of Dreams, but the lock must be picked; though we must be chaste about presuming that in attempting to listen to the real author (Mary) at work we are not disobeying her clear intent to be read as nothing but an M. of no gender. The gap between the implied narrators of these tales (that is, the author we construct out of the words on the page) and their actual author is, in other words, more than usually opaque. But the tonal intensities, the reiterated character types, and the sense that some abyssal understory shapes these tales of family romance and tragedy: everything provides the reader with a rhetoric of transfiguration: something unendurable being transfigured into art.

It may seem presumptuous or merely vulgar to suggest this — why not in all decency just leave the author alone and read the work — except for one additional and inescapable uttering out of this play of concealment and exposure. The title novella, first published here, is Rickert’s fullest presentation to date of the primal trauma that her best work radiates out of: in this case, nakedly, “Map of Dreams” takes its incipit in a mother’s inability to accept the death of a child, and climaxes in her still-anguished but no longer pathological awareness that she can do nothing to change the past. In “Map of Dreams” her name is Annie Merchant; her first-person narrative transacts the torture of her fate very fully. After the death of her son, shot down by a random sniper, she abandons her previous life, essentially because those with whom she has spent that life fail to heed her intransigent adherence to her state of denial. She begins to stalk a writer named Max von Feehler, whose wife had also been killed in the same massacre, because she believes (rightly) that he has discovered a way to travel through time (her description of this resembles J W Dunne, but in the end it moves elsewhere). She follows him to an island off the coast of southern Australia, where he has undertaken forays into the dreamtime of the aboriginals who suffered genocide at the hands of the people who now occupy their land: he has, in other words, travelled back through time to a world in which they are still alive, an experience which afflicts him savagely. (There are a few echoes here perhaps of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood [*1984*].) She follows him into the dark abysm, where she witnesses the utterly intolerable sadness of the last aborigenes as we rape and destroy them. She also discovers — basing her reticence, I think, on the assumption that her readers will know what she’s doing here, Rickert does not make this explicit — that any attempt to change the past is an Appointment in Samarra, that it is the actual presence of Annie and von Feehler at the scene of the massacre that in fact causes it. The depth of their passion to save constitutes a complicity in the coils of time with the loss they cannot live with: until they do. By the end of the long tale, Annie is fragilely home in the present again. She will live. She begins to write stories down, out of the dream time and out of her life. And here’s the point.

The rest of Map of Dreams, which in “reality” comprises M Rickert’s work from her first publication in 1999 to now, is here presented as the set of those stories written down by Merchant. There is a deep and rather strange game being played here. Are we to take Rickert’s life’s work as coming out of Annie Merchant’s recovery from the tragedy of “Map of Dreams”? Is Map of Dreams a kind of game of Twelve Step? Maybe, maybe not; maybe so what? My personal interest, as reader, focuses mainly on the fact that an intricate game is being offered by M Rickert here in terms she does not seem to wish us to be able to refuse. My impulse is to play the game up to the point where it threatens to become more than a game of art; and to stop there. But where does this leave us?

It leaves me, for one, with a body of stories two or three of which seem masterful, and several of which seem disembodied. At times the hummingbird hovering of her presentation of register generates a tale like the superb “Cold Fires” (2004), in which a married couple — locked literally in estranging ice as a cold cold winter traps them in the house of their failed marriage — tell each other tales of supernal severing out of their own lives. The story is like a monad of many colours, hovering weightless but infinitely grave in the mind’s eye. “Anyway” (2005) is a word-perfect harrowing of America in the time of plague of Iraq, a multitude of stories — and exquisitely distinguished characters — in one levitated voice of telling hard as diamond. At other times, though, in a tale like “A Very Little Madness Goes a Long Way” (2006), Annie Merchant (or whoever) begins to pound the eyes with the staccatos inherent in her chosen radical of assertion, and I lose headway, and wish to stop.

But always to return. Rickert is as good as anyone I’ve read in recent years at first paragraphs, which means she has a genius for knowing where to start. Her best stories build from that thrust of beginning like James Tiptree Jr in her pomp. And in good stories and less good alike, there is a density and swift grasping rightness in Rickert’s verbing, and a nakedness of passionate intensity that needs not utter itself, which reminded me strongly of Emily Dickinson, who burns you when you see her face on. But then we know that, in our hearts: we know that the highest art, the level of art which Rickert clearly aims to attain, is a heavenly hurt to mortals.

The Darkening Garden Reviewed

At Strange Horizons. Link here.


I think I drafted the piece printed below in 1995 for Maura McHugh, who was (I think) editing the programme book for that year’s Octagon, which I attended with Anna Russell. But that’s all guesswork on my part, as I have no record of ever having seen or received a published version of this short commentary on the non-genre UK press’s response to Robert Harris’s Fatherland. The draft I’ve just found in my files is palpably rough. So I’ve tweaked it a bit here.


It’s hard to believe it was the same book. If you read only what the extraordinary savants (whom God defend) of the establishment press in the UK have said about Robert Harris’s Fatherland (*1992*), you could be forgiven for assuming that their pal — Harris is a journalist of some stature — had deciphered Linear B, and for the first time too. You might well have assumed that his novel — which was based on the familiar thought-experiment assumption that, in some Alternate Version of History, Hitler had won World War Two — was a work of astonishing originality. Not mere sci-fi at all (as at least one reviewer deposed), but a Serious Look at the stresses and fissures marking Western humanity’s response to the terrible events of this 20th century, the first century we can claim real responsibility for, given the boasts. . . sort of thing.

As a working sf reviewer, I (and several others like me) also covered Robert Harris’s Fatherland. It was as though we’d reviewed entirely different books. My notice was pubished in Interzone (June 1992). Here is how it starts: “It is not a new thought that Nazi Germany will live forever, and Robert Harris has not had a new thought in Fatherland. As with most alternate histories of the 20th century, he has worked out an hypothesis or two — in his case a few mild twitches at events in 1942 — which allows Hitler to win World War Two . . . ” and so on. I then instanced “a victorious Reich, a corrupt but highly photogenic obergruppenfuhrerlederhosenfabrikengesellschaft, and architecture by Albert Speer”, and went on to mention various similar visions from the net of interwoven associations and memories that makes up the genre of sf. I mentioned Sarban, and Philip K. Dick, and Keith Roberts, and Len Deighton. I could have mentioned a dozen more — and indeed have done so, in a moderately long entry called HITLER WINS in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (*1993*), which I co-edited, and where I cited Fatherland, in the centre of a large paragraph citing similar texts. To close the review, I repeated my contention that Robert Harris had contributed little or nothing to the conversation of sf on the matter.

As most of us may know, Fatherland sold hugely, and Harris’s next novel, a dangerously unoriginal-sounding rehash of World War Two material, has been touted in the quality press, and its author widely interviewed in the role of grave mentor. This may make guttersnipes like myself feel wry, but that’s not what’s mainly amiss here. I would put forward two related contestations:
1) That literary critics who attempt to understand a work of genre — and make no mistake, Harris’s Fatherland is pure (though not very good) sf — without attempting to understand something of the complex dance of precedent that governs works written in any genre (and which governs “pure” mimetic novels too, by the way), are not literary critics at all. They are gum in the grammar of discourse. A stillicidium in the words we live by.
2) That a literary establishment which shuddersomely eschews whole branches of the written word — while simultaneously valorizing clubbable crap because it was written by someone who occupies a position within that establishment’s horizon of expectation — should not be called a literary establishment, a term which implies some earned merit, and maybe even a moderate openness to change, over time. It might better be called a freemasonry, and book reviews generated by its membership recognized for what they are: signage of the secret handshake.