The Unreal, and Why I Love It, Part 2: Surprise

Ah, Othello. The classic Shakespearean tragedy. As a play, it has it all—deep and unsettling themes, motiveless evil, the crippling and corrupting power of jealousy, and a man using tales of weird man-monsters to win a girl’s heart.

Sorry, what?

No really, Othello tells us how he wooed his beautiful wife, Desdemona, with tales of his exploits:

“Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field…
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders. This to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline.”

Yes, ladies and gentlemen—Othello won the girl by recounting a life story that sounds less like the victories of a heroic general and more a rundown of his Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Hope for us geeks the world over, then. Shame about the murder.

In all seriousness, though, it isn’t surprising that this technique worked. Desdemona had lived a sheltered life, Othello had seen the world—obviously the most attractive of his stories would be those which were the furthest from her own experience.

And really, isn’t that one of the most appealing things about fiction? The chance to go on holiday through another’s mind? In this series about the unreal, I’ve already talked about the anticipation of exploring a new world. But in some fantasy, this joy can be taken to extraordinary lengths, into the realms of the truly surprising, and truly weird.

It’s easy to understand why we might enjoy a classic, fantasy castle, or the sight of a spaceship slipping through the starry void. These are images that “fit” with our world—we’ve all seen people enjoying grand houses and luxurious travel, and can appreciate them on a larger scale. But where, in all our experience, can you find the equivalent of fighting against shadows of creatures that never evolved, or being chased by a living, insane suffix? (Yes, really, not a typo… ah, the wonderful world of Doctor Who audio dramas.) Why do I rub my hands with glee when a story relies on a concept that requires three flow-charts and a degree in theoretical physics to really understand?

There was once a famous thought experiment, where volunteers were encouraged to think what it would be like to be a bat. The point of the experiment, in psychological terms, was to prove that we couldn’t—that ultimately, all we could imagine was being a bat with a human brain. Without having always had a bat’s body, and senses, and thought structure, all we could do was to compare it to our own condition. However vast our imagination, there is a point where we cannot go any further without ceasing to be human. But in fantasy fiction, we can open our minds to the very furthest point, and feel exhilarated by the weirdness of it all. Why else would some of our most famous monsters be acquisitive lizards, aliens with unusually keen medical interests, or corpses with stylish taste in evening dress?

Because in all our analysis, never forget the most important thing of all—weirdness is fun.

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch

Yeah… your guess is as good as mine…

Just look at Alice in Wonderland, or at almost every cartoon produced in the silent era. Tables dance, flowers sing, plow horses unhitch themselves, stand up and join in the revelry. Daffy Duck’s most lauded cartoon, Duck Amuck, features him in a constant battle with his own sadistic animator. In Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse transforms a group of innocent animals into instruments, and they keep on smiling. Fun and unsettling in one happy package.

When trying to explain my favourite works to friends who are more familiar with the mainstream, I’ve been just as guilty as anyone of playing down the surreal—of pointing to character dynamics and interesting storytelling structures rather than saying, more honestly: “It’s a show about a boy on golden rollerskates conjured up by mass hysteria who attacks people on the verge of mental breakdown—and it’s awesome.” But really, that does the fantastic a disservice. A moment of shock, as the whole world twists, can sometimes be more effective than a hundred pages of careful philosophising.

In Robert Heinlein’s novella, The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, the main characters investigate a man who is plagued by amnesia, but only from 9 AM to 5 PM. The explanation for what he really does (I couldn’t bear to spoil it) is so bizarre, so completely unexpected that it almost verges on the funny. Until, that is, he reveals that in order to defeat the villains, he will have to make a few adjustments to the world. He suggests that the couple drive away from their town, and not to open the windows on their car.

Yeah, it really wasn’t very likely they were going to obey that instruction, was it? A few miles away, looking out on a sunny, happy scene, and seeing a policeman, they roll down a window—and freeze.

Outside the open window was no sunlight, no cops, no kids—nothing. Nothing but a grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life. They could see nothing of the city through it, not because it was too dense but because it was—empty.

One of them rolls up the window again, the sunny scene is restored, and they drive on. No more explanation. No comfort at all.

The truly weird can be many things—surprising, delightful, fascinating. But it isn’t safe. When presented with something beyond our comprehension, it is only a matter of time before the mystery begins to unnerve us. What will it do? Is it a threat?

Should we, in fact, be afraid?

But that’s a story for next time. 

David Whitley is 26, and lives in the green and pleasant land of Britain. He wouldn’t be frightened by that much fog—that’s just a typical summer’s day here. He is the author of The Midnight Charter and its sequel, The Children of the Lost, which is out in the U.S. on January 18th.


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