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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...

Friday, March 23, 2018


The subject matter of LUNATIC LAWMEN got me thinking once more about the elements of artifice that I've said are responsible for propelling a narrative from the naturalistic world of affects-- one where all affects are dominated by either fear or admiration-- to the uncanny world of affects, dominated by dread or by fascination.

Once more, here's one of my most recent statement on "artifice" as a principle in ARCHETYPE AND ARTIFICE PT. 4:

I may have on occasion connected "affective freedom" with the author's ability to generate discourses of symbolic complexity, but if I have done so, this would be a mistake. "Affective freedom," rather, stems from the author's intention to privilege the tropes from the domain of literary artifice over tropes that signify adherence to worldly verisimilitude, and that freedom can be found in any uncanny or marvelous work, regardless of its symbolic complexity, a.k.a. "mythicity." Indeed, I have rated both EYES OF A STRANGER and NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY as "poor" in terms of their mythicity, but the former is uncanny specifically because its author(s) show a greater appreciation for the culturally transmitted tropes of slasher-fiction, while the authors of LADY do not.
Once again, I started thinking about what makes "Psycho A" dreadful and "Psycho B" merely fearsome, and somehow I also started thinking about another of my phenomenality-tropes, the "phantasmal figuration," probably because I'd just reread what I said about that trope having influence upon the conceptual domain of Shakespeare's HAMLET.

Then it struck me that the salient difference that I perceived in Psycho A and Psycho B had much to do with what I called "the eerie vibe" in M FOR EFFORT: 

The "eerie vibe" I look for in uncanny works with the "phantasmal figuration" trope is produced when some agent within the story has managed to produce a phantasmal effect-- but only through some sustained effort. That effort might be fairly compared to the effort that the story's author must sustain in order to produce that effect within the story proper-- which may in future need further exploration in tune with my concept of artifice

This suggests to me that there's a threshold-crossing 'effort" involved in the villain who creates the titular deception of Doyle's THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, while there is no such effort in, say 2009's ONDINE. It's significant to me that though I reviewed ONDINE in 2014, before I'd formally conceived the principle of "effort," I stated that Ondine the phony mermaid was of a naturalistic phenomenality because she didn't really try to be anything else:

Ondine herself does little to build up her mythic persona; both Syracuse and Annie want to believe it, perhaps to escape their own mortality and limits. However, in the end it's revealed that Ondine's name is the only thing mythical about her. She is in reality a Romanian drug-mule who lost her last shipment. She fled to Ireland to escape her vengeful bosses, but the stranger in town spots her and brings in his confederates, resulting in a fight between the drug-runners and Syracuse.

In similar wise, the "uncanny psycho's" physical acts may be identical to those of the "naturalistic psycho"-- but what the former has, and the latter lacks, is that the former has a deeper investment in the insane rules of his world, rather than being determined by the "physiological factors" that dominate the latter's world. I return to C.S, Lewis, who manifestly did not believe that "dread" was simply an extrapolation from "fear:"

Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told ‘There is a ghost in the next room’, and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is ‘uncanny’ rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread.

Building on Lewis's comment, then, Psycho A is dreadful because the viewer sees more of "what he is," through the culturally tropes of psycho-fiction. Thus he, like Lewis's ghost, is dreadful because of what he is, and not what he can do.

Further, Psycho A projects his twisted vision of the world in defiance of the "real world," just as the instigator of a "phantasmal figuration" does-- or for that matter, any agent of any of the other eight "uncanny" story-tropes I've identified. I won't go down the list at this time, but an equally relevant trope is that of "delirious dreams and fallacious figments." Leaving aside the "figments" part of the equation for a possible later essay, "uncanny dreams" also require much more "effort" on the part of their diegetic dreamer than "naturalistic dreams" do from their creators.

For instance, in my review of THE STILL OF THE NIGHT, I noted that Roy Scheider's dreams were almost totally derivative of experienced reality:

However, though the imagery is creepy-- a weird little girl with a teddy beat, for instance-- the images are clearly straightforward representations of things the dreamer has seen in real life, which marks STILL as being strongly influenced by Sir Alfred's SPELLBOUND. 

Contrast this to the way the dreamer of FRIDAY THE 13TH foretells the recrudescence of Jason Voorhees, even though her conscious mind knows that "his" crimes were committed by Jason's now-dead mother:

What's fascinating about this sequence is that even though Alice, like all of her friends, is fundamentally innocent, on some level she accepts and internalizes the guilt of Mrs. Voorhees.  Even though she wakes from the dream, she ends the film telling the surrouding officials, with an unshakable conviction, that Jason is "still down there," under the lake, haunting it with his unquiet spirit.  

The dreamer in an uncanny film, just like his uncanny brethren the psycho and the phantasm-maker, is always fully invested in the larger-than-life artifice of his world, making a consistent effort to embody those tropes rather than allowing them to be banished by the clear light of day.

ADDENDUM: Though "the uncanny" as I've defined it can only exist within the sphere of narrative literature, I will note that there have been incidents in the real world in which living persons attempted to take on the aura of something uncanny. I mentioned one such example, the real-life "Jack the Ripper," in A MOVABLE HELLFEAST.

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