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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, September 15, 2014


In ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS, my extended contemplation of my trope "exotic lands and customs," I wrote:

For a time I flirted with the notion that maybe the "jungle-adventure" film was unique in offering so many uncanny versions of its cultures, both real and imagined. Westerns, for example, are full of real and imagined "exotic" Native American cultures, but the majority are almost always naturalistic.

I've read very few western prose stories, so I'm far from an expert on that subject. But I've viewed a few hundred western films, and most of them, in my opinion, regularly take the same elements that are usually "uncanny" in jungle-stories and render them as "naturalistic."  In this essay I mentioned that the original Zorro story from 1919, "The Curse of Capistrano," was an exception to this rule, and I'm sure that there have been various others in all media. But my recent reading of an avowed prose western classic, Zane Grey's 1912 RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE, gives me an example of how westerns more often than not use tropes with uncanny potential in a thoroughly naturalistic manner.

I've mentioned before that a character's wearing of a concealing mask is not enough to confer an uncanny phenomenality-- that of the trope I term "outre outfits, skills and devices"-- upon a narrative.  RIDERS makes an excellent counter-example to figures like Zorro and the Durango Kid, in that the Grey novel also contains a "masked rider," and not just in the context of a commonplace holdup artist.  About a third of the way through the novel, Bern Venters-- a young hero who occupied a sort of "B-plot" next to the primary tale of hero Lassiter and his romantic partner Jane Withersteen-- encounters a masked rustler. Because no other rustlers go masked, the locals have dubbed this figure "Oldring's Masked Rider"-- that is, a member of a rustling-gang bossed by their leader, an owlhoot named Oldring. Venters comes across the masked rider and another rustler, whereupon the unnamed fellow tries to shoot Venters. Venters slaps lead, killing the second rustler but only wounding the masked rider-- whom he soon discovers is actually a female who has been passing herself off as a male bandit. Venters nurses the young woman back to health, and eventually learns that the woman, Bess by name, was explicitly masked so that no outsider to the gang would know that she was female.

This employment of a "masked rider" trope is thus entirely functional.  Bess wears a mask not to create an attitude of awe, as Zorro and the Durango Kid do, but only to camouflage her gender. (Since she is not known by any locals save the rustlers, the mask doesn't even serve to conceal her identity.)

RIDERS comes slightly closer to the domain of the uncanny in its creation of Surprise Valley. This valley is imbued with slight overtones of the Garden of Eden, particularly since it's the place where Venters nurses Bess and where they mutually fall in love, though neither ends up staying in the valley.  The entrance to Grey's Eden is metaphorically guarded not by an angel with a whirling sword, but Balancing Rock, a gigantic stone that nature has positioned at the valley's only passageway to the outside world. But though Balancing Rock serves an important role in the novel's conclusion of the Lassiter-Jane plot, it is not given any uncanny phenomenality whatsoever.

However, inside one of the valley's multitudinous rock formations is a cave-aperture which makes a bell-like sound when the wind rushes through it. Bess tells Venters that the superstitious rustlers call the sound "Oldring's Knell," claiming that it will sound when their boss Oldring meets his maker.  Under the right circumstances, this geographical peculiarity could assume an uncanny phenomenality. In Rider Haggard's 1885 novel KING SOLOMON'S MINES, Allan Quatermain's voyage to exotic Kukuanaland is presaged by his expedition's encounter with a pair of peaks called "Sheba's Breasts:"

These mountains placed thus, like the pillars of a gigantic gateway, are shaped after the fashion of a woman's breasts, and at times the mists and shadows beneath them take the form of a recumbent woman, veiled mysteriously in sleep. Their bases swell gently from the plain, looking at that distance perfectly round and smooth; and upon the top of each is a vast hillock covered with snow, exactly corresponding to the nipple on the female breast. 

Or, on a much less ambitious note, another wind-produced sound lends an uncanny tenor to the B-western RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING SKULL.

But Zane Grey, though he has created the opportunity for a spooky moment-- say, of having the wind create its "knell" through the caves just as the rustler Oldring perishes-- the author does not follow up on this narrative opportunity. Oldring does die in the novel, but he perishes in town, far from Surprise Valley. Thus I would conclude that the only reason Grey creates the Knell is a purely functional one: he wants to prepare readers for the inevitability of Oldring's death, just as the author uses a "masked rider" purely to conceal the gender-identity of the character Bess.

In closing I'll note that I'm using my terms "functionality" and "super-functionality" in a different manner than I did in A QUICK ASIDE ON FUNCTIONALITY. In that essay I said that a stereotype was merely functional because, unlike an archetype, it was a simple variable that could not garner more than very limited associations. This essay was concerned with the symbolic complexity extrinsic to narratives, not the intrinsic factors that determine a narrative's phenomenality.  When speaking of phenomenality, functionality applies rather to the idea of pure materialistic causality, in which every effect has but one cause, and so on, while "super-functionality" applies rather to the ways in which the phenomenalities of the uncanny and marvelous ally themselves to principles that oppose pure causality, i.e. "anti-intelligibility" and "anti-coherence."

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