Saturday, September 1, 2012

Fritz Leiber and the Problem of the Weird Tale-Part 3

So I have concluded the first two parts of this article with the same question, namely: How does the writer carry the weird tale--essentially a Medieval genre--into the modern age? I have tried to show so far that weird fiction has its origins in the Middle Ages, what Fritz Leiber called "the era of cottage and castle." (1) The genre took two routes to get here. One was through folk culture and its tales of vampires, werewolves, witches, and ghosts. The other was through high culture and its reaction to reason, technology, and the academy. I think that almost every sub-genre of fantasy has taken one of these two paths. (2)

In his book of the same name, Carl Sagan described the pre-scientific world as a "demon-haunted world" and science as "a candle in the dark." What was that demon-haunted world like? We can hardly imagine a culture in which few ventured far from home and everyone was fixed in his or her predetermined place in the world. There was little mobility and little privacy. Psychological isolation and alienation may well have been rarities. It was primarily a rural culture and lit only by sun, moon, stars, and its own small fires. It was one in which machines were simple and powered only by people, animals, wind, and water. When night fell, the world would have been dark and quiet beyond our imagining. Most importantly, the Middle Ages were a time in which spiritual and theological concerns were paramount. The supernatural was part of the fabric of everyday life. The demon, the undead, and the monster were not simply bits of fiction. They were real and frightening. They were afoot in the world, lurking on the edge of the firelight, in forest and fen, in the swamps and the depths of the sea, in distant terra incognita, and in the dark, gloomy ruins of previous civilizations.

That world was brought to its own ruin by the forces of modernity: science, reason, humanism, democracy, urbanization, mechanization, industrialization. Those same forces slew all the supernatural beings that inhabited the Medieval world. Ghosts, demons, and other Medieval creatures survive only in tales that give us the shivers but are soon forgotten as we nod off to sleep and awaken to our daily lives. Those inventions of the Medieval European imagination "can't take root in the new environment," as Fritz Leiber wrote. Brownies, fairies, pixies, and gnomes; trolls, giants, unicorns, and chimerae; ghosts, angels, demons, and the undead--none has gained much of a place in the American mind. We have created our own folklore to be sure, populating it with creatures from tall tales, pranks, hoaxes, and commercial schemes. Scooby-Doo! may be more significant than we think. Even then, we haven't taken our own creations very seriously. (3) We're too practical and worldly, too busy in the hustle and bustle of our lives. Nagging questions remain, though: Where do monsters come from? Is there a need for them somehow? In the movie Forbidden Planet, Morbius, played by Walter Pidgeon, offers one answer: Monsters come from our subconscious minds. Every era breeds its own monsters because people will forever be plagued by fear and anxiety, by dread and despair. The Middle Ages may have come to an end, but fear and anxiety will always be with us. You might say that they have only proliferated in the modern world now that the certainties of the Middle Ages have been extinguished. "Each culture creates its own ghosts," as Fritz Leiber claimed. So what are the ghosts of the twentieth century? I'll write more about that in Part 4 of "Fritz Leiber and the Problem of the Weird Tale."

Notes
(1) From "The Hound" (Weird Tales, Nov. 1942).
(2) Some exceptions: classical myth, tales of the Orient, and maybe science fiction. There are probably others. I welcome comments and other opinions.
(3) More exceptions: The supernatural creature of Medieval Europe has been supplanted in the United States by the "natural," biological creature that falls within the purview of science. Bigfoot or Sasquatch is said to be an identifiable and describable species of hominid, studied by university professors of anthropology. Aliens from space are also said to be biological or technological in origin. Nevermind that they serve more or less the same function as the angels, demons, and little people of Medieval Europe. Perhaps the most distinctly American monster is the psychopath, the only true monster. In the Middle Ages, he would have been called a werewolf or a vampire. Today he is a person suffering from errant brain chemistry, genetic mishap, or psychological trauma. All of these uniquely American monsters find their origins in science, pseudoscience, or science fiction.

Copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley

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