What Is Cosmic Horror?

Do humans see reality as it really is? This is a fundamental question behind cosmic horror and is one philosophers and deep thinkers still ponder today. If H.P. Lovecraft had been born 100 years later he’d be fascinated with theories such as proposed by Donald Hoffman that humans have evolved to see only a veneer of reality, not reality itself.

COSMIC HORROR: A SUBCATEGORY OF A SUBCATEGORY

fiction > fantasy > supernatural fantasy > gothic horror/fantasy > psychological horror > cosmic horror

Supernatural fantasy gathered steam around 1887.

Cosmic horror is a subgenre of Gothic narrative from this Golden Age of Supernatural Fiction. This Golden Age was drawing to a close by the start of the 1910s. Standout examples of supernatural fiction include:

  • The first volumes of M. R. James’s ghost stories
  • Algernon Blackwood short stories and novella such as “The Wendigo
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula
  • Arthur Machen’s “White People
  • Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw.

H.P. LOVECRAFT

The name most synonymous with cosmic horror is H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), with an entire literary movement named after him. But Lovecraft has one of those sad, starving artist biographies. He lived in poverty and died in obscurity at the young age of 47. He never lived to see how influential he’d become on 20th century literature and beyond. Lovecraft is best known for the following:

Cosmic horror was heavily influenced by the Golden Age of Supernatural Fiction. We know this for sure because Lovecraft himself said he was influenced by James, Machen and Blackwood.

Lovecraft was very interested in certain tropes. ‘Common human laws and emotions have no significance in the vast cosmos at large.’ Lovecraft also questioned his Christian background at a very young age, counting Jesus as mythological as Santa Clause. For his stories, Lovecraft became far more interested in ancient myth than in Bible stories.

H.P. Lovecraft was also influenced by the nineteenth century art of Gustave Doré.

One unfortunate aspect of Lovecraft was his enduring racism. Lovecraft saw people of colour as the monsters, no different from the unknowable cosmic horror villain. Lovecraft couldn’t understand people different from himself, and didn’t want to. Ironically, to Native Americans, white people were the cosmic horror. Yet Lovecraft put himself imaginatively in the shoes of the victims.

COSMIC HORROR AND LITERARY IMPRESSIONISM

The two movements share something big in common: It’s impossible for any single person to have a handle on veridical reality. There are techniques used by the literary Impressionists which emphasise this theme (e.g. parallactic viewpoints). Literary Impressionist art asks an audience to reconsider their own viewpoints, and accept that there’s always more to a story than our own individual point of view.

Cosmic horror kicks this aspect up to horror levels. It can be terrifying to realise you’ve been very, very wrong about the entire nature of being.

Both movements happened around the time people’s minds were starting to be expanded by big, mind-blowing advances in science. The more we know about the universe, the smaller we feel.

FEATURES OF COSMIC HORROR

The literary movement is known as ‘cosmicism’.

What makes cosmic horror ‘horror’? Cosmic horror typically makes lighter use of suspense techniques than other genres such as thriller and even other kinds of horror. What replaces suspense techniques to create narrative drive?

Well, cosmic horror traditionally makes use of its own kind of suspense, akin to the picture book technique of leaving the scary thing off the stage of the page, revealing to the viewer only an ominous shadow. To modern audiences, however, when a cosmic horror viewpoint character is so overwhelmed by what they’ve seen that they’re rendered speechless, this can feel like a cop out.

In cosmic horror, it’s all about the physiological response. Good horror creates a sensation known as ‘horripilation’ in its audience. This is the feeling that the hair on the back of your neck is standing on end. Cosmic horror achieves this by asking its audience to feel, if only for a moment, that there is way more out there than we can ever know. Humans are vulnerable, ignorant and at the mercy of greater forces. But how, then, is cosmic horror different from psychological horror more generally?

It’s partly in the themes. Thematically, cosmic horror exists to subvert matters of value. Whatever humans value is no longer valuable in the world of cosmic horror. Conversely, whatever humans ignore is actually the most important. (Also terrifying.) The message will be this: humans have got everything wrong.

For this reason the picture books of Shaun Tan count as cosmic horror. The Lost Thing is a perfect example of a weird world which exists just beyond the visible world of adults. Across children’s literature, children are able to see what the adults cannot, until they age out of it, or learn to harness their childlike view of reality, unencumbered by the slog of capitalism and consumerism.

He Paints What He Sees, illustration by Virgil Finlay
He Paints What He Sees, illustration by Virgil Finlay

Movies that have been called cosmic horror. In each of these examples, human order falls apart simply due to the existence of something much bigger than ourselves. In some plots the humans have gone looking for it; in others the ‘beast’ has been awoken. That said, if each of these films count as cosmic horror, the definition has been expanded, or the nature of modern cosmic horror has changed.

  • Alien
  • Annihilation
  • Cabin In The Woods
  • Event Horizon
  • The Ritual

Cosmic horror remains popular because we’re still dismounting from ‘The Great Chain Of Being’ notion that humans exist at the top of the animal hierarchy. If you’ve lived your whole life thinking God created the world for you, then it can be terrifying to ponder an alternative that no one gives a hoot about you. You are but a speck in the universe.

CHAIN OF BEING: An elaborate cosmological model of the universe common in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Great Chain of Being was a permanently fixed hierarchy with the Judeo-Christian God at the top of the chain and inanimate objects like stones and mud at the bottom. Intermediate beings and objects, such as angels, humans, animals, and plants, were arrayed in descending order of intelligence, authority, and capability between these two extremes. The Chain of Being was seen as designed by God. The idea of the Chain of Being resonates in art, politics, literature, cosmology, theology, and philosophy throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It takes on particular complexity because different parts of the Chain were thought to correspond to each other. 

Literary Terms and Definitions

Cosmic horror asks us to consider our own mortality, but also our own reason for being, and the futility of jostling for place in the human hierarchy.

A theme that runs through classic cosmic horror: cults. This is partly why modern commentators consider The Ritual an exampel of cosmic horror.

Dreams in the Witch House Artwork for the H. P. Lovecraft Story by Harry O. Morris, 1972
Dreams in the Witch House Artwork for the H. P. Lovecraft Story by Harry O. Morris, 1972

“Little Runmo” (2019) is an example of cosmic horror. The ‘life’ of a side-scrolling computer game is peak expendability.

You can find cosmic horror techniques in children’s literature. Take the following example from Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, a middle grade novel from the early 1970s. Two children have been sent from London to the country to provide safety during the war, Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe style. There’s a patch of woods which have a very druidy feeling about them. On the way to collect a goose one day:

She couldn’t explain it. It was such a strange feeling. As if there was something here, something waiting. Deep in the trees or deep in the earth. Not a ghost — nothing so simple. Whatever it was had no name. Something old and huge and nameless, Carrie thought, and started to tremble.

Carrie’s War, Nina Bawden

CHARACTER SHORTCOMING

In the character set up, the main character will have some kind of shortcoming and they will typically be wrong about something. In Cosmic Horror, ‘being wrong about something’ is central. There are monsters; the main character does not believe in monsters. Whatever the main character is wrong about equals what people in general are wrong about. Cosmic horror says, “The mundane will cloud your view of reality. Pay attention and you’ll see what’s really there.”

Aside from this, the main character of cosmic horror is the Every Man or (very rarely) the Every Woman. They function as a viewpoint character. They arrive to the stage (or page) in statu nascendi. Sometimes when writers create characters they want to make them as relatable as possible in a short space of time. They’ll be saving cats, suffering injustices, reacting in relatable ways. The viewpoint characters of cosmic horror aren’t written in this way. If they happen to be relatable it’s precisely because we know very little about them. The story uses human viewpoint characters as the story sees fit. (We don’t really want to fall in love with the viewpoint characters of cosmic horror because they may not live to see the story out…)

In cosmic horror, the world is more important than the character. In transgression horror the mask comes off the character; in cosmic horror the mask comes off the world.

By the way, in the early cosmic horror tales sometimes the viewpoint character would be one removed: This story happened to my friend. Now I’m visiting him in the lunatic asylum. He went mad and is unable to recount the story himself.

DESIRE

Whatever the viewpoint character thought they were going to be doing with their day gets rescheduled when they come across something even more horrifying than they’d imagined.

OPPONENT

The web of opponents works the same as in any horror there will probably be infighting between the humans, with all their different desires and weaknesses, and this infighting pales in comparison to whatever master force reigns supreme.

The big bad evil force is your typical horror villain pure evil. Much Western horror makes use of Christian symbolism and thought, with the rituals of Catholicism. Although rarely explicit, if we think about this, any evil manifested in human concepts of hell can’t have existed prior to religion.

This is where cosmic horror is a bit different. The big bad evil opponent in cosmic horror predates religion and even predates humans. It’s probably not even from this world, and may come from a different dimension entirely. Cosmic horror feels to me like an attempt to reject religion by writers who were nonetheless steeped in religious views of the world. As much as they try to nihilistically reject the gods, their fiction keeps coming back to godlike, omniscient, all-powerful… well… gods. Malevolent gods, but gods all the same. (The ancient gods weren’t all that great.)

In any case, the humans can’t fight back against this kind of villain. The villain is way too ancient and powerful, and we can’t even understand their motivations, so they’re impossible to foil.

Hannes Bok for "Pickman's Model", by H.P.Lovecraft
Hannes Bok for “Pickman’s Model” by H.P.Lovecraft

CTHULHU MYTHOS (also spelled Cthulu and Kutulu, pronounced various ways): Strongly influential in pulp science fiction and early twentieth-century horror stories, the Cthulhu mythos revolves around a pantheon of malign alien beings worshipped as gods by half-breed cultists. These aliens were invented and popularized by pulp fiction horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. The name Cthulhu comes from Lovecraft’s 1928 short story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” which introduces the creature Cthulhu as a gigantic, bat-winged, tentacled, green monstrosity who once ruled planet earth in prehistoric times. Currently in a death-like state of hibernation, it now awaits an opportunity to rise from the underwater city of R’lyeh and plunge the earth once more into darkness and terror. August Derleth later coined the term “Cthulhu mythos” to describe collectively the settings, themes, and alien beings first imagined by Lovecraft but later adapted by pulp fiction authors like Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, Henry Kuttner, and Brian Lumley. Some common elements, motifs, and characters of the mythos include the following:

  • The Great Old Ones,” an assortment of ancient, horrible, powerful (and often unpronounceable) deities/aliens including Cthulhu, Azathoth, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, Hastur, Dagon, and Yog-Sothoth.
  • The Elder Gods/Elder Things,” A term used interchangeably with “The Great Old Ones” by Lovecraft, but used by August Derleth to refer to a separate group of aliens at war with the evil “Great Old Ones.” They serve as a deus ex machina in several short stories of the Cthulhu mythos.
  • Servitor races, i.e., lesser alien species that worship and/or act as slaves to The Great Old Ones, including the shape-changing shoggoths, the intelligent fungus crabs (Mi-go) living on Pluto, the tentacled star-spawn, and the aquatic race of “Deep Ones” living near Devil’s Reef in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”
  • The imaginary town of Arkham, New England, used as a setting, along with nearby towns like Dunwich and Innsmouth along the Miskatonic river valley.
  • The theme of insanity (often protagonists suffer mental breakdowns merely by viewing one of the Old Ones).
  • The appearance of forbidden books of ancient and dangerous lore, such as the fictional NecronomiconThe Book of Eibon, and Unaussprechlichen Kulten.

from Literary Terms and Definitions

The Kraken is another well-known Lovecraftian opponent. The first description of a kraken (giant squid) reached England in 1755. According to newspapers, one washed up on the coast of Orkney in 1808.

N.C.-Wyeth-illustrations-from-The-Anthology-of-Childrens-Literature-Kraken-1940.-Golden-Age-Comic-Book-Stories
N.C. Wyeth. The Anthology of Children’s Literature, 1940. Golden Age Comic Book Stories.

PLAN

Once the viewpoint character realises there’s something fishy going on, they’ll want to find out more. So the plan will be around that.

STRUGGLE SEQUENCE

Spatial horror is a set of tricks storytellers use to make the audience feel bodily discomfort. As the terror progresses and enters the struggle phase the spatial horror intensifies.

Cosmic horror does not typically involve gore. Cosmic horror is a subcategory of psychological horror.

ANAGNORISIS

This has to be the scariest part of the story. The best of the best cosmic horror stories create a revelation in the reader as well as in the main character, and the reader should feel the whole world looks different, at least for a moment.

However, that poor sucker the viewpoint character doesn’t have the privilege of distance and rather than experiencing life-changing epiphany, goes crazy. The ‘going crazy’ part is a standard fixture of cosmic horror but think widely; they may lose their senses, they may (these days) suffer PTSD. In any case, the human mind isn’t equipped to process the experience.

NEW SITUATION

In many well-known tales of Cosmic Horror, the main character dies at the end. This is partly why you don’t want the audience getting too attached to them.

Who made this?

Cosmic horror is difficult to write because it’s hard to awe a modern audience with a completely new idea. However, the subgenre makes for excellent parody. (Horror and comedy are a great genre blend.) Welcome To Night-Vale is a popular parody of cosmic horror, released as a podcast in the format of local radio. The Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy can be considered parody of cosmic horror as well.

RELATED TERMS

Cosmic Irony: An alternative term for situational irony, especially when connected to a fatalistic or pessimistic take on life.

Cosmic Justice: A riff on ‘poetic justice’, in which natural consequences for an action take place in a story, in place of retributive justice meted out by humans, or gods.

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Episode 65 of the Our Opinions Are Correct podcast gives us all permission to skip Lovecraft. Really, you don’t need to read him unless you’re a completionist. We’re Officially Done with Lovecraft and Campbell

Retrospective and Prospective Adaptations

Helen Allingham - The Reading Lesson

When storytellers decide to adapt an old story for a new audience, they must make an important decision: Is this for audiences who already know the story, or will this story function as a standalone?

Adaptations are highly successful partly because when the audience already knows the setting and characters, the new take is easier to sink into. There’s less ‘orientation’ work on the part of the audience member.

I recently read The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow, a new story which extends Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, focusing on Mary. I enjoyed it immensely, and also wondered if someone brand new to Pride and Prejudice would have got as much out of it. Pride and Prejudice is so widely popular that I doubt many readers of The Other Bennet Sister will have neither read the book nor seen the miniseries nor the movie. Because this story is for an adult audience, and because the hypotext is so popular, Janice Hadlow was able to assume familiarity with Austen’s original.

But what if we are adapting an old story for a child audience? No matter how widely loved the story, we can never assume a three or ten year old child is familiar with the older version. This is how Disney operates:

For at least one generation of children, The Jungle Book is the 1967 Disney cartoon, not a collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling, even if the film opens with an image of the book.

Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation

Likewise, young audiences of Frozen don’t need to have heard any Snow Queen stories in order to appreciate it. Another Disney example: the Disney adaptation of Peter and Wendy. Readers of the book and viewers of the Disney film experience two separate stories, as described below:

“When students know Peter Pan through Disney, they know a pretty scrubbed version,” Smith says. “The characters in J.M. Barrie’s play don’t know if Peter’s adventures are real. In the novelized version, he often went out alone and they never knew whether he had had an adventure because he might have forgotten about it, and they would go outside and find a body. This is a very jarring moment for them. I ask what does Walt Disney’s adaptation of Peter Pan say about how we view childhood now, as opposed to how it was understood in the early 20th century when Peter Pan was popular on the stage? You can’t fight Disney. You have to let him in.”

Children’s Literature Not As Simple As It Seems

Retrospective and Prospective Adaptations

These two words come in handy when describing whether an adaptation serves a familiarised audience or a new one.

Retrospective adaptations reward audiences for any prior knowledge of the hypotext (or origin story). Retrospective adaptations offer a parallactic view of an older story. The audience sees the ‘same’ story through a different lens, or point of view.

There is a whole other, extra dimension that comes with knowing the adapted work, a dimension that makes the experience of reading a richly ‘palimpsestuous’ one, as we oscillate between the version of a story we already know and the one we are reading now.

Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation

Prospective adaptations can stand alone. Their relevance does not depend upon prior knowledge of earlier texts. Prospective adaptations can encourage audiences to investigate the hypotexts upon which they are based, but ‘full’ enjoyment of the adaptation does not depend on prior knowledge. Disney’s Aladdin is an example of a Prospective adaptation.

Highly successful adaptations work both Retrospectively and Prospectively, rewarding both a familiarised audience and a brand new one. When children’s stories get new adaptations, they are now able to work for a dual audience — with the adults already familiar with the older story, and with their children, who are not.

To paraphrase Karyn Keane, who writes specifically about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child:

Retrospectively, an adaptation can reward audiences who possess prior knowledge through enriching their experience.  The very same adaptations can also act Prospectively by making statements isolated from the hypertext and guiding newcomers to the original works. 

RELATED READING

What is a fractured fairy tale?

Header painting: Helen Allingham – The Reading Lesson

Difference between amulet and talisman

amulet talisman

The amulet and talisman are both charms worn on or near the body. They mean basically the same thing: Jewellery with magical significance particular to the owner or wearer. It might be something similarly portable, like a stone.

Charm powers fall into two main categories:

  1. brings luck (auspicious)
  2. averts evil (apotropaic)

Amulet comes from late 16th century Latin but talisman comes from an Arabic word meaning ‘magic picture‘.

For this reason, if a charm has a picture or an inscription on it, say, the names of the spirits, the Seal of Solomon or other mystical symbols, it’s more likely described as a ‘talisman’ than an ‘amulet’.

Amuletic and talismanic are the adjectives of amulet and talisman. Apotropaic is the adjective of ‘apotrope’.

Apotropes are specific kinds of amulets designed to ward off evil. The word comes from Greek and means ‘turn away’. This amulet features a protective symbol such as an eye. Eyes are thought to ward off the evil eye by staring right back at it. Or it might feature The Hand of Fatima.

Bigghes are ceremonial jewels worn by queens (the crown, garter, necklace, bracelet) and also witches. (See: Glossary of Witch Words)

The Bulla was a charm given to Roman babies. ‘Bulla’ means ‘bubble’ or ‘knob’. This was a sealed locket containing magic spells specific to the child e.g. symbols of protection or wishes for wealth. The Bulla was made out of leather or even gold, depending on the wealth of the family.

When Roman boys reached puberty they offered their bullae to the gods. Girls weren’t considered grown until the eve of their wedding, so kept it until then.

We can see a similar culture at play in a European fairytale such as Sleeping Beauty, in which the princess is given beauty at her birth (with a Deal With The Devil type trade off). Philip Pullman also uses a tangentially related concept in his Dark Materials series. In that case, the ‘charm’ is connected to a person’s character as well, forming its essence.

What does liminal mean?

Charles Harold Davis - Outside the Village 1883

Liminal is all about the concepts of transition and shifting ambiguities, categorised by disorientation and a loss of belonging. You might be in a liminal space right now.

Key questions:

  1. Do you feel a sense of belonging?
  2. Are you uncomfortable? Anxious? Feel a sense of dread?
  3. Did you choose to be here?

The days between Christmas and New Years are liminal spaces, much like airport layovers. They aren’t real. Nothing matters. Get high at 10am. Watch all 3 Lord of the Ringses. You are your own god

Kate Leth (@kateleth) December 28, 2019

Liminality is all about between-ness. If you find yourself anxiously on the threshold of something, you may be in a liminal space.

liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, waiting, and not knowing. Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, if we learn to wait and let it form us.

Liminal Space

betwixt or between…in a period of transition between states … [where individuals] are neither one thing nor another; or may be both; or neither here nor there; or may even be nowhere

Victor Turner, anthropologist

If you’re on one side of a boundary, you could be in a liminal space. You might even be straddling it. Not just boundaries, either: borders, frontiers, no-man’s-land, the out-of-bounds area of the school playground.

Perhaps it’s dawn or dusk — on the border between night and day.

You’re crossing a river by bridge or by boat.

John Clayton Adams - The reed cutter's family
John Clayton Adams – The reed cutter’s family

You’re in some kind of transition. You’re between schools, between jobs, between friendships. You’re engaged to be married but haven’t set a date. You have a new partner but haven’t changed your socials status. Doubly liminal if you’re both sitting where land meets sea, contemplating ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ with a flower.

Young Dreams 1887 James Clarke Hook 1819-1907
Young Dreams 1887 James Clarke Hook 1819-1907

You’re waiting for what’s to come.

You’re where land meets water. Dark water. You don’t know what’s down there. You almost feel you’re a part of it.

Jules-Alexis Muenier - The Vagabonds 1896
Jules-Alexis Muenier — The Vagabonds 1896

You live on a docked house boat.

You’re climbing a fence. Or thinking about climbing a fence — in the preliminal phase of climbing a fence. You don’t know what’s in that thicket of trees on the other side.

Henry Towneley Green - A Sussex Glade
Henry Towneley Green – A Sussex Glade
The book of wonder, a chronicle of little adventures at the edge of the world ca.1915 by Lord Dunsany illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime
The book of wonder, a chronicle of little adventures at the edge of the world ca.1915 by Lord Dunsany illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime

You’re on the edge of a village, trees are getting thicker. You’re about to enter the forest… or your dark subconscious.

You live in outer suburbia, betwixt urban and rural worlds. Shaun Tan made a picture book compilation about that particular liminal space. “‘It opened into another room altogether… an impossible room somewhere between the others.”

by Shaun Tan

You live between cultures — one subculture at home, another at school.

You’re no longer a kid but haven’t yet launched as an adult. You have your learner’s permit but can’t yet drive on your own. You’ve outgrown the little chairs but you sit at the kids’ table over Christmas dinner.

You are passing through a place ‘of transit, not of residence’ (theorist James Clifford).

You’re moving to a new house — a popular way to open a children’s book. Perhaps you live in a caravan park, and have this deep-seated feeling you’re living situation is something between permanent and temporary. You might be in a “hotel, a station, airport terminal, hospital and so on: somewhere you pass through, where the encounters are fleeting, arbitrary’ (Clifford).

You’re more likely to be in a liminal space if you’re in a children’s book and that children’s book is set in the city. In children’s stories, cities are often transitional spaces, of transit rather than of residence.

Examples of these places in children’s literature are numerous: Felice Holman’s Slake’s Limbo uses both the New York subway and the Commodore Hotel as central images; in Kay Thompson’s Eloise, the Plaza Hotel becomes its own imaginative sphere for its young protagonist; in E.L. Konigsberg’s The Mixed-Up-Files of Basil E. Frankweiler, the Metropolitan Museum in New York becomes the site for exploration. Cities themselves in the modern, literary imagination are places defined by transit, ambiguity, and arbitrary interactions between random individuals. Often, liminal urban places may be perceived as symbolic microcosms of the cities where they are located.

Naomi Hamer

You’ve done something wrong, the community is throwing you out. You’re becoming an outcast. Your deputy principal is filling in the paperwork and you’re about to get expelled. You’re the black sheep of your family.

You are in the realm of the “thrice-nine kingdom”, the land of the living dead. This liminal realm lies between the world of the living and the thrice-ten kingdom, the land of the truly dead. (You’ll know you’re there because you’ll find a house on chicken legs.)

You’re not rich enough to afford a skiing holiday most of your friends are going on. But the poor kids think you’re rich.

You’re too beautiful to be human yet not quite a goddess. (Psyche had this same issue.)

You’re emigrating. This ship is your temporary home. (You’ve even brought your bird, with the birdcage functioning as symbol of a fully-contained house, in which you imagine you have all you could ever need.)

John Charles Dollman - The Immigrant's Ship
John Charles Dollman – The Immigrant’s Ship

You’re having a rough time lately, alternating between hope and hopelessness.

You’re trying to read something interesting, but your mind keeps wandering as the text makes you think of related and tangential things. Things that upset you a little, or a lot.

You’re pregnant with your first baby. People are treating you like a mother but you’re not a mother yet. You actually have no idea how that’s going to feel.

You’re walking through fog.

You’re on an international flight and you haven’t readjusted your circadian rhythms yet and lunch arrives at a weird time. Between time zones, you’re neither here nor there. Doubly liminal if the world below is about to collapse due to an eco-crisis, as in this Helen Simpson short story.

You’re in the bathroom, standing in front of a mirror. You’ll never be able to touch one half of that space between you and your mirror-self. It creeps you out. Perhaps you’re a character in a horror movie.

You’re somewhere between wake and sleep, between consciousness and unconsciousness, fantasy and reality, or slipping from consensus reality to non-consensus reality. (You’re losing your grip.)

You’re flying high in the sky, where Heaven meets Earth. Perhaps you’re An Enormous Man With Enormous Wings in a magical realist short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

You exist between the sacred realm and the profane (non-sacred). Tricksters exist here, as mythic projections of the magician archetype.

You’re transgender, gender fluid, in a quasi-romantic relationship, intersex, gender non-binary, queer, androgynous or somehow betwixt and between.

You see fairies. Fairies take many forms. They exist at any point on the spectrum of morality. But they tend to appear in liminal spaces, the inbetween spaces, when you’re on the cusp of something: manhood, giving birth, death.

Fairies are also ‘inbetween’ because people from antiquity neither believe in them nor disbelieve. Fairies (and related fantasy creatures) stand for what can never be truly known.

You’re a character in a portal fantasy, going through the portal (which is a liminal space).

RELATED WORDS

  • Liminoid — Another similar adjective to liminal. The liminoid has the characteristics of the liminal. But liminoid experiences are optional and don’t involve some kind of personal crisis. Graduation ceremony: liminal. Rock concert: liminoid.
  • Preliminal, liminal, postliminal — the stages of transition
  • Limen — a threshold below which a stimulus is not perceived or is not distinguished from another e.g. existing in the limen between X and Y
  • Double liminality — Purgatory is a liminal space in its own right, but many people don’t believe in it, making it doubly liminal.
  • Paracosmic realm — that space behind the big red curtain where you like to read. (Your name is Jane Eyre.)

WHY DO WE NEED THE WORD ‘LIMINAL’?

Why not just say ‘between’ or ‘border’ or any number of similar words plucked out of a thesaurus?

For starters, liminality contains layers, e.g. the doubly liminal concept of Purgatory. It’s hard to convey this layered-ness using other, more concrete words.

The painting below might depict a doubly liminal space — a train transports passengers from one side to another and it is also sunset.

John Osborn Brown - Belah Viaduct
John Osborn Brown – Belah Viaduct

Not everything that seems liminal is necessarily so. In a story, a beach may be depicted as a liminal space or, in contrast, it might be a place where the characters have fun and feel a sense of belonging. In that case, the beach is not being used in a liminal way.

Liminal space is special.

Liminality is all about ambiguity, discomfort, anxiety. A liminal space or a liminal creature is both familiar and unfamiliar — uncanny. (The dead can also be described in this way.)

Liminal situations are fluid, malleable and multi-layered.

  1. Social hierarchies can reverse, as in a carnivalesque story.
  2. Something feels weird here, but it’s never seen, never named and never known. People wouldn’t believe you if you told them about it. This is the epitome of ‘liminal’.
  3. If you’re in a liminal space you’re basically facing a moral dilemma. Your circumstance allows you to question social constructs. Which world do you want to be a part of? Once you’re in that liminal space you can choose to progress or retract, to take hold of freedom or remain in a state of metaphorical slavery.
  4. In stories, this is the bit where the main character has a Anagnorisis, or makes a moral decision.

Liminal Times Of Year

In Early Modern English these times were known as the ‘reathes of the year’.

  • Hallowe’en or May Eve
  • Yuletide (the 12 days from Christmas to January 6th)
  • On the eve of any major feast
  • New Year’s Eve
  • The eve of your birthday

Liminal Stages of Life

The following are major social or physical transitions:

  • birth
  • adolescence
  • betrothal
  • defloration/copulation
  • death
  • burial

Four life stages are especially important for women. Notice that female writers such as Alice Munro and Carol Shields focus on main woman characters at the following junctures:

  • maturing from a girl into a woman
  • development of a sexual or intimate relationship with a partner, usually a man
  • entering into matrimony
  • conception and giving birth

Often at these liminal junctures main characters feel separated and develop a self-awareness about what they’re giving up. This makes use of crossroads symbolism; by taking one path, she cuts off others.

FURTHER READING

liminal deity is a god or goddess in mythology who presides over thresholds, gates, or doorways; “a crosser of boundaries”, from Wikipedia

Sheila Egoff writes about a genre of children’s literature known as enchanted realism (similar to magical realism/fabulism) in which the child character explores an arena which is neither part of the real world nor part of the fantasy world. This might be a garden (Tom’s Midnight Garden), a wood (Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood), an old house or similarly familiar space.

Header painting: Charles Harold Davis – Outside the Village 1883