Unknown Fears

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Worse Things)

In the last section of Covalent I introduced a new threat, a river that congealed part of itself into thin strands, and then stretched those strands out to grasp and throttle all other forms of life. This created a sinister image of finger-like tendrils reaching through the soil, feeling for our heroes to snuff out their lives.

Of course, a couple chapters ago I had just introduced another enemy, this one was a tall beast, with a head and body like a giant clam shell, and four long, spindly legs extending from the back. This one had been large and imposing, but I feel like the dark river strands are more unnerving.

For worse than brute strength is the sinister unknown.

The Fear of the Unknown)

It is often said that the thing we fear the most is the unknown. I believe there is a lot of truth to that, but why? Why would the unknown evil be worse than the known one?

I would suggest it is because when something is unknown we tend to assume the worst. The vague, undefined form becomes a placeholder for all the things that we are most afraid of. When I hear something go bump in the middle of the night, I am not afraid because it is unknown, I am afraid because being unknown, I then jump to the assumption that it is a madman who has broken into our home and is coming for my children, the thing that I most fear.

Thus I could try to guess what your worst fear is, and then write exactly that into a story. But if I were wrong, then you would not be as frightened as you could be, and if I were right, then it would be the scariest story for you only until your worst fears changed. For as we grow, the things we love change, and the fear of losing them shifts as well.

And this is why I escalated from a clear and imposing threat to a more vague and mysterious one. What do those icy hands feel like when they grasp a human victim? Well, I’m not ever going to describe that. I’m going to leave that up to the imagination of each individual reader, to conjure up the most terrifying sensation that they are capable of.

Legends of Fear)

One of my favorite spooky stories, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, is very aware of this dread of the unknown. Throughout its tale there is a consuming obsession with the strange and the shrouded. Myths abound of ghosts and phantoms, who sometimes are there and sometimes aren’t, whose rules of operation are inconsistent and disputed. Most famous of all are the legends of the Headless Horseman, a decapitated soldier who still wages battle on moonlit nights.

Enthralled by all these stories is Ichabod Crane, the local schoolteacher and protagonist of the tale. He is also enthralled by the daughter of a wealthy farmer named Katrina Van Tassel, and spends much of his time trying to woo her. This brings him into competition with the Brom Bones, the rough-and-tumble hero of the county, who also has his eyes set on Katrina.

One fateful night, Ichabod Crane finds himself riding through the woods alone. He is full of tales of ghosts and goblins, and feeling extremely unnerved about his situation. He mistakes the wind blowing through the branches for a whistle, the rubbing of boughs for an ethereal moan, and a scar in the tree for some white, hanging phantom. As I mentioned before, he is perceiving these unknown sights and sounds, and they become placeholders for all his worst dreads.

But then, most terrifying of all, a huge and silent rider, enshrouded entirely in black comes up alongside him. He says not a word, his intentions he keeps to himself, and so the reader is left to imagine all manner of malice hiding within that rider’s cloak.

But then, one solitary detail of the rider is made abundantly clear. Ichabod notices that there is no head upon the person’s shoulders, rather he is holding it down at his waist! With that Ichabod bolts and an epic chase ensues! Ichabod making for a bridge that legend states the Headless Horseman cannot cross. By the skin of his teeth he makes the other side, but upon turning back he sees that the phantom has thrown his own head through the air, crashing it into Ichabod’s cranium!

And then…well…we never actually find out what happens. The next day the local townsfolk find Ichabod Crane’s horse wandering around by itself, and the schoolteacher’s belongings strewn about the road, and a pumpkin smashed to pieces off to the side. Ichabod, however, is never seen again.

The story states that Brom Bones seems suspiciously knowing of the events that night, but neither confirms or denies that he was actually involved. And so, at the the end, there are several possibilities for what transpired. Was Ichabod menaced by Brom Bones in disguise, or was it the actual Headless Horseman, or was it just his own overactive imagination? If one of the former two, was he run out of town, or was he actually killed by his foe?

All of the story’s unknown elements leave it up to the reader to assume their own, personal, worst-case scenario. Which idea frightens you most? Being driven from your home, going crazy, being murdered by a member of your own society, or being claimed by an actual phantom of the night? The story is a placeholder for whatever fate you dread most.

One final detail from the story: in its last paragraph in mentions that Ichabod Crane has, fittingly, becomes another part of the local legends, his story now being recounted at all of their social gatherings. There are those that even claim to have heard his old, familiar tunes being sung by a melancholic voice from the remains of his old schoolhouse. In the end has he become a part of the strange unknown.

Continuing Into the Dark)

As I continue with Covalent I will keep these principles firmly in my mind. I might unveil more of how the river’s strange, dark tendrils operate, but rather than provide a better understanding, each revelation will only serve to make the menace more of an enigma, a placeholder for the deepest fears of the reader.

A Big Something or Other

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Repeatedly asking the question “why” very quickly leads to things that cannot be explained. We can begin with the most grounded of subjects and the most basic of functions, but if we repeatedly ask why things are the way they are, things quickly venture into one of two domains:

  1. The metaphysical
  2. The unknown

Either the question doesn’t have an answer, or any answer exceeds our mortal comprehension. In either case, we have found the limits of our cognition.


Order and Chaos)

Now I have already discussed the ways in which stories have handled the metaphysical elements. I described how things like karma, fate, or God are often living characters within a story. They remain unseen, but they do have a very real influence on the characters in center stage. Thus they are not perceived, therefore, so much as felt, such as the karmic justice that drives the journey of Oedipus. And in some ways this makes a story feel more true. Many of us see patterns in the world around us, and by this believe that there are supreme forces maintaining a balance in our lives.

But what about that other domain? The pure unknown? Because while we see metaphysical order in life, we also perceive chaos and randomness. We don’t want to embody these forces, we want them to remain indescribable and formless, and yet they also need to have some sort of tangential effect on the narrative. As a result there are many stories where things “just happen.” Not really to move the narrative forward, not to center some cosmic balance, not for any discernible purpose whatsoever.

Consider the coin-tossing in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Here the two characters begin a game of flipping coins, and find that only Heads comes up. Over and over and over and over again, more than a hundred times. Guildenstern does begin to wonder about external cosmic forces: some form of karma, a trickster god, time itself having ceased, etc. But he finds no answers, and neither does the audience. It just happens…and then it does not.

In Cael: Darkness and Light, we have a massive void that is visually perceptible, insofar as it impinges upon the world that it is swallowing up. Why it is here, where it came from, and what it will become after swallowing the entire world are never answered. Because in that story there are no answers about that void. It just is.

In this way I am trying to use Cael to portray both the metaphysical and the unknowable in one. That void seems like an all-powerful and malevolent force of nature, one with a specific purpose to fulfill: to destroy. However the origin, reasons, and methods of it feel like random chaos. And it is this strange synergy of both order and chaos that I feel rings most true. Because as I said, in life we seem to perceive both forces of order and random chaos.


Unnecessary Origins)

Sometimes the unknown isn’t kept a secret for any philosophical reason, though. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter. Such as when we don’t fully explore a side-character’s backstory. We don’t need to know where the waiter was born and why he was so distracted as to spill coffee on our detective, all that matters is that it happened. Are these things knowable? Sure, we just don’t care.

Of course there are some things that the audience might think they want to know, but if they did the story would lose some of its magic. I had that experience when I tried to read The Silmarillion, an epic which gives the origin story of Middle Earth. Partway through I realized that really I didn’t want to know where elves came from, or how and why they built Rivendell. I preferred the magic of that city existing “just because.” I have never gone back to try to finish the book.

In some ways I feel that this selective exclusion also rings more true to life. The first time you visit a new city you always come to it in media res. It just exists, entirely outside of your understanding why. And while you could read up on its history and learn all about its origins, the actual experience of being in that city still only begins with the day you walked into it. For you, that will always be the origin.

I incorporated this sort of selective exclusion with Instructions Not Included. Here we have a box of strange objects with properties unlike anything else on earth. And while we eventually learn about the organization that planted the box, we do not ever learn how and why the objects came into being. Presumably it must have some point of origin, but knowing it would dispel the whole mystery at the center of the story. So I leave it unknown.


Beyond Register)

And sometimes we know what the thing is, but we lack the words to describe it. Not because we need a larger vocabulary, but because things that go “off-the-scale” will, by definition, defy any description. Sometimes you don’t just want to say that your character is angry, you want to say that he is so angry it cannot be fathomed. But if it cannot be fathomed, then the words cannot be written to properly detail it. Raging, fuming, frenzied…all these words fall short of describing an indescribable rage.

I have mentioned in a previous post how 2001: A Space Odyssey dealt with this exact problem. Here we had a constant escalation that needed to climax in a sequence that defied comprehension. David Bowman is supposed to be witnessing things that are beyond all understanding. The film handled this by showing strange, meaningless patterns and colors to the viewer, ones intended to be baffling. In the book it merely describes him seeing many diverse races and cultures, which makes for considerably less impact.

There is undoubtedly a paradox here. Visual and aural mediums are quite capable of creating experiences that cannot be  captured by words. But a written story, by definition, must be captured with words.

In Once Among the Clouds I decided to take a stab at this problem by way of metaphor. Throughout the tale I describe an escalating conflict and an abundance of violence and destruction. Then, at the very end, all is overwhelmed by a towering, dark rain cloud that washes everything away.

While I was able to describe the rain cloud in detail, I did not explicitly spell out that it was meant as an embodiment of all the hate and strife. I could have, but I expect that the reader’s subconscious will make that interpretation already, and that which is perceived subconsciously often feels more legendary to us. My hope is that this round-about form of expression will therefore make the magnitude of hate and violence seem inexpressibly deep to the reader. Whether or not I succeeded is a matter of opinion, but I found it interesting to try.


I would like to conclude this series with a short story that attempts to weave in all three of these types of monolithic entities. I will start with a creation of unknown origins, one that becomes a being of chaos, and by that chaos establishes a skewed sense of order, which contrast will hopefully imprint an idea on the reader that feels larger-than-life. It’s a tall order, and I’m very anxious to see how it goes. Come back on Thursday to see.

Mostly Familiar…Mostly

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So here we are with a new week and a new series! Today I thought I would talk about a pattern of storytelling that is so ubiquitous it can very easily be overlooked. The pattern goes like this: an author writes a story that takes place in a real-life setting. The world is populated them with life-like characters, and they all have real-life problems to deal with. Then, from that entirely ordinary foundation the world suddenly diverges into the fantastic!

From the Oracle’s prophecies in Oedipus to a simple, magical wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia, to the superpower effects of radiation in Spider-Man, we love to take our plain and mundane world and inject a little magic into it. Think about how this pattern applies to Harry Potter, Stranger Things, The Matrix, Midnight Special, Cloverfield, Men in Black, Field of Dreams, Back to the Future, E.T., A Wrinkle in Time, Escape to Witch Mountain, Flight of the Navigator, The Neverending Story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Five Children and It, War of the Worlds, Dracula, Gulliver’s Travels, Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan…I could go on for a while.

What is it about this formula that makes it so popular across all times and cultures of literature? Well, I can think of two elements.


To Explore)

First and foremost I believe that there is a thirst for fantasy and adventure baked into our very bones. Mankind was destined not only to live, but to thrive. We feel hunger and fatigue to ensure that our bodies will survive, but we also have wanderlust and fantasies to ensure that our spirits will, too.

Invention, exploration, creation…these are attributes inseparable from our history. We are where we are today only because of our unique ability to imagine a world different from our own. People conceived of steam power, printing presses, and sailing ships first as fantasies, and then they found ways to bring each of them to life.

But though every invention may have begun as a fantasy, it still had to somehow be grounded in reality, or else it could have never come to be. A great leap has to be launched into from the feet being firmly planted in the now. If you fantasize about the future world only in media res, with no thought for how you get to there from here, then it will never be anything real. To sail around the world you first must obtaining a ship.

How fitting, then, that all of the stories I listed above begin in the present, the familiar, the mundane, and then progress into the unknown. And where once Georges Méliès fantasized about everyday scientists building a rocket to go to the moon, now that that fantasy has become real it has been reimagined as a man being stranded on Mars in The Martian.

And that will ever be the pattern of things. People will never stop exploring, they will never cease to push further. Perhaps early man thought that if he only had a way to grow crops he and his family would be forever content. And then perhaps the medieval man thought all he needed was a way to light the streets at night. And then post-industrial era man simply wished for a way to fly through the sky.

The truth is it isn’t about having the food, the electricity, or the airplane, it is about taking what we have and making something more of it. As I said, it is baked into our bones. The inventors will continue to invent and the researchers continue to research. And as they do, the story-tellers will continue to weave tales of everyday people discovering new worlds.


To Find Truth)

The other reason why we love these stories is because they suggest that there are bigger truths out there than immediately meets the eye. Truths that most people are blind to, but once seen open up entire new worlds of possibilities. Mankind has a natural tendency to believe that there is something greater at play in our lives, whether it be God, Karma, nature, or something we do not even know the name of. Each of us hopes to be reached out to by that higher truth, and be taken from where we are now into a greater world.

So we seek out religion, civic office, or just being a nice person to those around us. We’re hoping to find a purpose, a calling, some great mystery that we were born to unravel. Skeptics may suggest that these are merely delusions of grandeur, but there is no denying that we come by these feelings naturally. They are in us, that is unavoidable, and we feel that there must be a reason for them. The author takes these feelings and paints them into a story.

Those stories tend to follow a fairly consistent pattern. First the main characters needs to be drawn into the fold, they need to pass through some sort of matrix or portal before they can witness the magic that they had previously been blind to. They are initiated into the truth, and then quickly discover their real self and purpose.

This new paradigm is not merely a side-venture for the hero, either. Where at first the magic was tucked away in a small corner where it could hardly be seen at all, eventually it will either overtake the natural world or else absorb the main character into its confines entirely. If the hero ever does go back to “ordinary life,” they will do so only as a permanently changed individual. The truth of that mystic world lives in them now, and will permeate through every moment hereafter.

Those that have felt called to something higher in real life will realize that these sorts of stories are not works of fiction at all. There may not be wizards or aliens or parallel worlds, but the themes behind them are as real as anything.


Perhaps these two reasons for why we tell stories that blend reality and fantasy are really just two sides of the same coin. Perhaps we explore to find truth, and perhaps we only find our true calling in exploration. In any case, these movements run deep within us and I suspect they always will. Never mind what summits we achieve, we will always find roots of the great unknown reaching through the familiar, calling us to follow.

On Thursday I’d like to expand to try my hand at a story that is set in a modern, realistic setting, but which bit-by-bit leads into the fantastic. And in this story I want to particularly focus on the sequential progression into greater and greater fantasy. I don’t want to start to tease the new world and then fully leap straight into it, I want it to bleed into our world more and more. Come on Thursday to see how it turns out.