A Glossary of Genie and Djinn Words

Abu Al-Jann — Father of the Jann.

Aforetime — God said he created the djinn ‘aforetime’. Stories of the djinn predate the Quran. The concept of the djinn is ancient.

Aladdin — Disney’s Aladdin is a presentation of a stereotypical genie as we view them in the West. Aladd in is only loosely based on the folklore of the djinn. Like “Ali Baba”, “Aladdin” is a French-Syrian tale dating from the start of the 1700s. “Aladdin” is such a popular and widespread story that it forms its own tale type (ATU 561). There’s a simpler version known as a Magic Ring tale (ATU 560). In these tables a poor young man with the help of a magic object builds a palace more beautiful than the king’s. He marries a princess. But he loses his palace and princess due to a second magic object. He recovers everything lost.

Continue reading “A Glossary of Genie and Djinn Words”

Defamiliarisation and the Estrangement Effect in Literature

The Mystery of the Strange Messages

WHAT IS DEFAMILIARISATION?

[Defamiliarisation is] taking something and trying to see it anew and then noticing what you might not have seen before.

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen

To defamiliarise is to make the familiar seem unfamiliar. Defamiliarisation is one of the writing techniques in the Modernist’s toolkit. By presenting something as unfamiliar to an audience, storytellers and artists require the audience to look at it afresh. Defamiliarisation challenges the audience.

It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.

Anais Nin (1968)

The term “defemiliarisation” was coined by Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky in his essay “Art as Device” (1917). He called it “ostranenie“, which may also translate to “making it strange”.

HOW IS IT DONE?

MAKE USE OF POETIC LANGUAGE

Storytellers sometimes write in everyday prose, but at the other end of the spectrum we have highly poetic language. Highly poetic language defamiliarises.

‘Multivocality’ is another language related defamiliarisation technique. When a single work contains a multitude of ‘voices’ (dialects, idiolects, familects etc.).

The more foreign the language, the more defamilising it’ll be. (Peak ‘foreign’ is when the storyteller uses actual foreign language.)

SWITCH TO AN UNUSUAL POINT OF VIEW

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (1877) was written it in the last years of Sewell’s life ‘to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses’. The story is written from the horse’s first ‘person’ point of view. In fact, Black Beauty was the last of the great first person narratives in the Listen-to-my-life series. Readers were used to reading about horses from the point of view of humans — by imagining what it’s like to be a horse, Sewell successfully defamiliarised her readership. The book Black Beauty laid the foundation for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

This form of defamiliarisation is not limited to children’s books; Tolstoy also wrote a book from the point of view of a horse (Kholstomer).

Sticking to horses for a minute, BoJack Horseman says a lot of new things about contemporary life (depression, asexuality and so on) by making use of a horse as main character, surrounded by other animal characters. There are many reasons storytellers make use of animals instead of humans in stories, and can seem odd when the ‘animals’ are 100% anthropomorophised (animal only in form).

Defamiliarisation is one reason a storyteller may choose animals as main characters.

Futurama makes use of aliens to defamiliarise.

Some stories focus on the ‘oddballs’ of society — social outcasts who enable the Normals to see their unquestioned customs from a new/satirical point of view. Eleanor Oliphant is an excellent example. A similar but Japanese example is the main character of Convenience Store Woman. These two characters see the world differently than most. They are the sort of people many would shun in real life. But the novels require us to empathise with them, and as we better understand their worldview, perhaps we become more tolerant of difference ourselves. The other useful function of the oddball main character: We see the ridiculousness of everyday life.

TV and film offers less opportunity for interiority than the written word, but the character of Doc Martin is another example of the defamiliarised oddball, shining a light on human foibles as they commonly emerge at the local doctor’s surgery.

UTILISE AN UNUSUAL SETTING

Setting, likewise, exists on a continuum between realistic and total fantasy. Fantasy exists partly to defamiliarise our own environments, requiring us to critique what we had previously taken for granted. In this way, fantasy is really about the real world.

Another major defemiliarisation technique: Don’t let the audience forget they are watching fiction. Don’t encourage them to become fully absorbed in the story. We have a word for this: metafiction.

UTILISE THE CARNIVALESQUE

Carnivalization‘ is a means to achieve a distance from cruel aspects of reality.

An example of ‘carnivalization’ common in fiction for younger readers is use of allegorical names for people and places, which would never occur in real life, but which say something meaningful about the story at hand. (Gogol and Evelyn Waugh do this also.)

An example of an author for adult readers who has perfected the use of carnivalization is Franz Kafka. The technique is strangely accepted in the work of Kafka, but is often questioned by critics when the same thing appears in children’s books. (The children! The children! Won’t somebody think of the children!)

JUXTAPOSE

There are various ways storytellers can juxtapose.

Bathos is one kind of juxtaposition:

Bathos is a story-telling technique that follows serious ideas with the commonplace or ludicrous. The juxtaposition of these ideas creates humor.

TV Tropes

Here’s a fairly complete list of them.

MAKING IT META: THE ESTRANGEMENT EFFECT

Based on the Viktor Shklovsky’s ideas about defamliarisation, you’ll hear some similar terms.

Not surprising, perhaps, German language has a word which means “making strange something that is known or familiar”: Verfremdung.

Verfremdungseffekt = Estrangement effect.

This German term was coined by German playwright Bertolt Brecht and defined later by Gerhard P. Knapp, University of Utah in the article Verfremdungseffekt (2006). Knapp’s paper helped the word catch on.

Some people translate Verfremdungseffekt into English as “alienation effect”. “Alienation” isn’t a great translation due to its connotation of being “put off”. Storytellers who make use of these effects are not aiming to put audiences off. (What storyteller wants to do that?) Instead they are aiming to get audiences thinking critically about the work.

Since the original German is a bit of a challenge to remember and spell, many shorten it to “V-effekt”. As you can see, it’s a fairly recent term. Before 2006, English speakers used a different translation — in 1964 John Willett translated Bertolt Brecht’s term as “distancing effect”. Both “estrangement effect” and “distancing effect” are different translations of the same German word.

But what is it, and how is it different from Viktor Shklovsky notion of defamiliarisation?

Verfremdungseffekt” is used to describe storytelling techniques which deliberately ask an audience discard the idea that the ‘reality’ of the stage is a true representation of reality.

These days, plays and film have different basic functions: Plays make use of all sorts of distancing techniques, whereas the proximity of the camera to character, combined with editing techniques, means modern film is better suited than the stage to creating immersive verisimilitude.

Basically, V-effekts refers to the techniques which make a fictional work meta. V-effekts include:

  • breaking the fourth wall by having a character talk directly to an audience
  • reminding a theatre-goer that they are sitting in a theatre, perhaps by using minimal backdrops
  • stories within stories (moving through diegetic levels)
  • prologues

The point of metafiction and the V-effekts which create it: Audiences are not meant to feel overwhelmingly emotionally invested in the story. Rather, we are meant to sit at a distance and consider the moral questions/dilemmas/politics/ideologies of the story in a more intellectual way.

FOR DISCUSSION

Bertolt Brecht was a little suspicious about stories (specifically plays) which drew their audience in and made them feel things deeply. He considered such plays manipulative. He felt that if an audience was sucked in to a story, this lulled them into a dull, unthinking, zombie-like state. This state could switch off the critical faculties.

Brecht (1898 – 1956) had good reason to think people needed to switch on their critical faculties and keep them switched on. He lived in a time which required Germans to either go with or actively resist Nazism. Too many failed to resist. Brecht saw how emotion (e.g. fear) can be dangerously contagious. Also, someone who strongly empathises emotionally is not necessarily good in understanding another’s perspective. (They’re too busy feeling and don’t have the spoons to understand.)

It’s useful to make a distinction between types of empathy. Brecht wanted his audiences to feel cognitive empathy for his characters, but not necessarily affective empathy: He wanted audiences to understand the plight of characters, but not to feel their plights deeply.

  1. ‘Manipulative’ has negative connotations. Is it ‘manipulative’ for a work of fiction to create real emotion in an audience?
  2. Can you think of examples of stories which made you feel deeply and also made you think about real world issues?
  3. Think about your favourite stories. Do they make use of V-effekts? Or do you prefer stories which aim to immerse you fully inside a fictional world?
  4. Can you think of any fully immersive stories which succeed in conveying a hugely problematic ideology, made worse by the very fact that the stories themselves are so good?
  5. As much as Brecht despised fully immersive stories, he tried his darndest to write an intellectually engaging play in Mother Courage and Her Children. Audiences loved the play, but Brecht accidentally created a highly empathetic character in the stubborn old woman. Is it even possible to write a good story without requiring the audience to immerse themselves in it, and align themselves with the fictional characters?

CONTRAST WITH

The modern writerly ideal of full immersion is exemplified in the definition of fictional dream, below:

Fictional dream. The illusion that there is no filter between reader and events, that the reader is actually experiencing what [they are] reading. The stronger the fictional dream, the more immediate the story. Disrupting the fictional dream is usually bad. Pointless digressions, expository lumps, lists, turgid prose, unrealistic characters, or a premise with holes in it, all disrupt the fictional dream. (John Gardner)

A Glossary of Terms Useful When Critiquing Science Fiction

Dischism, False Interiorization, White Room Syndrome

Dischism: Intrusion of author’s physical surroundings or mental state into the narrative. 

The term ‘dischism’ comes from American science fiction author and poet, Thomas M. Disch, who pointed this writing pitfall out. Others call the same thing ‘Authorism’. 

COMMON EXAMPLES OF DISCHISM OR AUTHORISM

  • A character lights a cigarette whenever the author does,
  • A character wishes they hadn’t quit smoking, because the author has.
  • Characters complain that they’re confused and don’t know what to do, when this is actually the author’s condition.

I’m pretty sure Stieg Larsson was a heavy coffee drinker, due to the number of coffee breaks in his Dragon Tattoo novels. Ian MacEwan almost certainly drinks wine in the evening after a day’s writing, and I imagine Haruki Murakami has a cat or two, and it probably walks across his keyboard.

May also apply to: 

  • Napping
  • Snacking
  • Going for runs/walks

Authors may notice in hindsight when they’ve succumbed to Dischism themselves. Below, Jeremy Bloustein describes his experience of translating the computer game Metal Gear Solid from Japanese into English:

The job had me on edge to the point that I was taking diazepam — commonly known as Valium — to handle the stress.

Ironically, that’s the same drug that Snake takes in the game to keep his shooting hand from shaking. I was also smoking heavily like Snake, which is why lines like “you don’t know how good a cigarette tastes in the morning” ended up in the American release, even though it wasn’t based on text from the Japanese version of the game. It was just something that was getting me through the experience, and I imagined Snake was dealing with stress in a similar way.

The bizarre, true story of Metal Gear Solid’s English translation

FALSE INTERIORIZATION

False Interiorization is related to Dischism in that both derive from either laziness or ‘placeholding’ (which sometimes makes it into the final product by accident). Instead of taking the time to imagine and describe the storyworld, an author inflicts the viewpoint character with space sickness, a blindfold, etc. to avoid having to deal with it.

WHITE ROOM SYNDROME

Related to False Interiorization, “white room syndrome” can also occur if the writer hasn’t sufficiently described a storyworld. The reader may feel as if the viewpoint character is floating in space somewhere. This makes for a discombobulating, dissatisfying reading experience.

It commonly happens by mistake even when the writer has a solid idea of their storyworld, because the writer has simply forgotten to give the reader a little setting detail before launching into interiority, dialogue or action. This is easily remedied in revision.

Curing White Room Syndrome: How To Ground Your Reader from Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers has some good tips.

The Difference Between Story and Discourse

What Is Discourse?

‘Discourse’ is a conveniently loose term, and can refer to:

1. Linguistic Discourse — generally refers to specific discourse types such as the discourse of parent-child conversations, boss-employee conversations, dinner table conversations versus schoolyard conversations…

2. Narratological Discourse — the means by which a story and its significance are communicated. Aspects such as temporal sequencing, focalization, narrator’s relation to the story and audience come up when talking about this kind of discourse.

The Difference Between Story and Discourse

Focusing now on ‘narratological’ discourse (related to storytelling), I’ll offer explanations from several sources. See which one best makes sense.

EXPLANATION ONE

Whereas ‘story’ comprises what we might roughly think of as ‘what certain characters do in a certain place at a certain time,’ the word ‘discourse’ comprises the complex process of encoding that story which involves:

  • choices of vocabulary
  • syntax
  • order of presentation
  • how the narrating voice is to be orientated towards what is narrated and towards the implied audience
  • etc
EXPLANATION TWO

Story = the ‘what’ of the narrative.

Discourse = the ‘way’.

Seymour Chatman
EXPLANATION THREE

The theory of narrative requires a distinction between what I shall call ‘story’ — a sequence of actions or events, conceived as independent of their manifestation in discourse — and what I shall call ‘discourse’, the discursive presentation or narration of events

Jonathan Culler
EXPLANATION FOUR

Let’s take an example of a common plot. Well, this plot was super common 150 years ago, not so much now: The Harlot’s Progress narrative.

In the Harlot’s Progress narrative, the sequencing of ‘story’ goes like this:

  1. Girl loses chastity
  2. Falls into deeper and deeper vice
  3. Eventually dies.

That’s the story. But if we’re talking about the ‘discourse’ of the Harlot’s Progress narrative we’ll be talking about things like this:

  • The amount of narrative time between story elements (“boundaries of duration”)
  • How the narrative might open up at the point of death, at which point the narrator returns to memories of an innocent time many years before then finish by narrating the heroine’s fall into vice.
  • How closely the narrator’s voice emulates the girl’s voice
  • Whether the girl is viewed from other characters’ point of view (focalisation)

RELATED

FABULA AND SJUZHET

Terms ‘fabula’ and ‘sjuzhet’ are similar to ‘story’ and ‘discourse’. These terms were used by the Russian Formalists.

Fabula refers to the chronological sequence of events in a narrative. 

Sjuzhet is the re-presentation of those events (through narration, metaphor, camera angles, the re-ordering of the temporal sequence, and so on). 

The difference between story and plot.

What is delayed decoding?

Delayed decoding is a technique used by the Literary Impressionists and writers who came after. The term was coined by Ian Watt in a 1972 lecture Pink Toads and Yellow Curs: An Impressionist Narrative Device in Lord Jim. Joseph Conrad is well-known for using this technique. Lord Jim was published in 1899, but many modern lyrical writers keep it in their toolbox. It is also great for building suspense in the reader. Writers can also use this technique to create a sense of fatalism, a la American writer Annie Proulx.

A Definition of Delayed Decoding

A writer tells a story in such a way that the reader won’t understand the full extent of the situation until after reading the entire story. 

Short story writers make much use of it. This is why short stories need to be read twice.

[Delayed decoding serves] mainly to put the reader in the position of being an immediate witness in each step of the process whereby the semantic gap between the sensations aroused in the individual by an object or event, and their actual cause or meaning, was closed in their consciousness. This technique is based on the pretence that the reader’s understanding is limited to the consciousness of the fictional observer.

Literary Lexicon

American writer Annie Proulx is well-known for making use of delayed decoding. Here is Aliki Varvogli explaining the concept of delayed decoding in a book about Annie Proulx’s writing:

In Heart Songs Proulx also introduces a technique that she has used to great effect in most of her writing. She very often presents the readers with the effect long before she reveals the cause, so that various elements in each story appear inexplicable until the moment of revelation. A similar technique was used to great effect by Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, and following Conrad scholar Ian Watt, I will be referring to it as “delayed decoding”. Delayed decoding is a realistic narrative device to the extent that it mirrors the way in which we may be aware of things whose causes we have yet to discover. As such, it creates both suspense and a sense of bewilderment when used in narrative. At the same time, however, it is also an indication of the fact that the author has control over her creation, and chooses to manipulate her material in such a way as to suggest that characters’ lives are unfolding in front of our eyes, when the truth is that their fate had been decided before the author began to write. Delayed decoding may assert the author’s power, but…it also allows the reader to interpret the text more freely.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli

Delayed decoding mirrors the way in which readers may be aware of things whose causes we have yet to discover. I believe the term ‘delayed decoding’ includes the writing technique known by all writers: ‘foreshadowing’. However, ‘foreshadowing’ focuses on a writer’s technique, whereas ‘delayed decoding’ focuses on the experience of the reader. I think it’s best described as ‘extreme foreshadowing’ — an entire paragraph or scene may not make sense on first reading. We’re not talking about brief mentions of guns here. It’s usually far more subtle than a Chekhov’s gun.

Delayed decoding describes the experience of reading a story twice and then thinking, Oh, okay, now I know why the author did that. When done well, the symbolism now fits together into a web. We see how the symbols serve the theme. Whereas the Chekhov’s Gun technique is to do with the sequence of events (the plot), audience decoding might be delayed in any aspect as determined by the author: on a symbolic level, plot level (sure), a character level, an imagic level and so on.

Stories employing this technique do require more work from the reader. When the reader is invited to ‘interpret the text more freely’, we are invited to participate in the creation of the story ourselves.

EXAMPLE: JOSEPH CONRAD

Well-known examples I’ve seen mentioned:

  • In Heart of Darkness (1899) Marlow sees ‘sticks’ which he soon views as arrows.
  • In “Youth” Marlow is blown up.
  • In “The Idiots” the cliff moves from under Susan Bacadou’s feet.

These are all examples of Joseph Conrad avoiding a narration of events, instead forcing the reader into the narrator’s place. The effect: Readers experience phenomena as the narrator does, and the experience feels simultaneous.

EXAMPLE: “RUNAWAY”

Alice Munro delays our decoding of “Runaway” in relation to the character of Clark.

On my second reading of “Runaway” by Alice Munro it’snow clear that Clark is abusing the animals. He neglects the boarding horses, but is taking his frustration out on the goat, who in Carla’s dream has a hurt leg. But is the dream based on fear and on reality? When I first read it, it’s just a dream. (In short stories especially, dreams are never ‘just dreams’.) We are given another clue to the abuse when the goat likes Clark at first then attaches itself to Carla, henceforth less skittish. By the time Carla wonders if Clark has killed the goat, we know it to be true. Looking back on the story, or re-reading it, we know we were being told all along. We weren’t able to decode the full story at first. Our full understanding was delayed.

Here is a reader describing delayed decoding in a review of “Runaway”, by comparing it to the master chessplayer’s technique of making endgame studies:

After some thought, I find a metaphor which sums up my own feelings [about “Runaway”]. It’s true that a Munro story can seem just a little too perfect. Everything fits together so elegantly; there is nothing wasted. A non-chessplayer might compare it to a chess game. But for someone who does play chess, the image doesn’t work. A normal chess game is like a novel. It’s a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, where things often go in unexpected directions and painfully have to be put back on track. Novelists can never quite control their characters (Proust somehow ended up putting in a couple more books than he had originally intended), and chessplayers have an even harder time controlling their pieces. 

There is a small group of people in the chess world, however, who do something which feels more rewarding to them than playing games; they compose endgame studies. A study is a chess idea expressed in its purest form. Every piece is necessary, and there is only one sequence of moves that achieves the desired result, given best defence. If White’s task is to win, then he has only one way to win, and if it is to draw, then he only has one way to draw. The composer has a key position in mind, which possesses some unusual or beautiful property. At first, the arrangement of the pieces appears pointless; but finally the solver realizes that in just this case a knight is worth more than a queen, or the king finds itself miraculously stalemated in the middle of the board, and they see what the composer is doing.

A Munro story feels to me rather like a study. There is a small group of people and a set of relationships between them. Nothing seems out of the ordinary. But somehow, as the story unfolds, a logical but completely unexpected scene arises. A woman with psychic powers, baking little dough mice in an institution; or a child, with a winter coat over her pyjamas, standing shivering in a snowdrift and helping scatter ashes. You suddenly understand that this is what the story was about.

Very few chessplayers are able to create worthwhile studies. I think Munro’s gift is similar, and just as rare.

Manny at Goodreads

EXAMPLE: THE PIANO (FILM)

In an early scene of Jane Campion’s The Piano, Flora unwittingly gossips about her own mother to the neighbourhood busybody and her adult (but naive) daughter. “That’s a very strong opinion,” says Aunt Morag, a Mrs Lynde archetype, who has the potential to be either an ally or an opponent to Ada. “I know,” replies little Flora, thinking herself one of the grown-ups, “It’s unholy.”

At the time, the audience will be amused by this conversation for its earnest precocity. (Aunt Morag and her daughter are also comedic archetypes — gossiping village wives.) But this scene is a storytelling example of delayed decoding: Only in hindsight do we understand its significance. Despite their very close mother-daughter relationship, this was Campion showing us that Flora was always capable of selling her mother out.

EXAMPLE: “NEGATIVES”

Let’s return to Annie Proulx. Near the end of Proulx’s short story “Negatives“, at the part of the story where characters (or readers) undergo some kind of self-revelation, readers learn the reason Buck can suddenly see (literally, through binoculars) what Walter is like is because the land between his rich house and the poor house has been newly cleared. Now we know why Proulx told us, as a part of all her beautiful scenery descriptions, why all those loggers had come into town. The following detail was planted for a plot purpose, not just to flesh out the scenery:

Through binoculars Buck watched loggers clear-cut the mountain’s slope, and Albina Muth slept in the Mercedes every night.

Readers didn’t understand the significance of that sentence until reaching the end of the story, in a beautiful example of delayed decoding.

EXAMPLE: “THE SHAWL”

Sometimes the decoding is so delayed it only happens if the reader continues on to the sequel. “The Shawl” is a Holocaust short story by Cynthia Ozick seems to be about a mother and two daughters. Only after reading the sequel short story “Rosa”, published three years later, do we learn that this is a story of a mother, her baby and fourteen-year-old niece, and that the baby is a result of a rape by a German soldier.

In this case, the writer can’t assume every reader will go on to the sequel, so the story has to stand on its own, and the writer has to be content with the reader decoding the story as it appears in its partial form, while also making it feel complete.

Words to Describe Landscapes, Landforms, Water and Construction

Chalk Paths by Eric Revilious, 1935

(Includes bodies of water.) You may be after a full glossary of landforms, in which case the Wikipedia article is comprehensive: Full list of landforms at Wikipedia. This post skews literary.

Arroyo — (colloquial: southwestern United States) The channel of a flat-floored, ephemeral
stream, commonly with very steep to vertical banks cut in unconsolidated material;
sometimes called a wash. It is usually dry but can be transformed into a temporary
watercourse or short-lived torrent after heavy rain within the watershed. Where arroyos
intersect zones of ground-water discharge, they are more properly classed as intermittent
stream channels.

Ash field — A land area covered by a relatively thick or distinctive, surficial deposit of
volcanic ash (air fall) that can be traced to a specific source and has well defined boundaries. An ash field can be distinguished from adjacent landforms or land areas based on ash thickness, mineral composition, and physical characteristics. Soils within an ash field form solely or predominantly within the ash deposit.

Aspect — The direction toward which a slope faces with respect to the compass or to the
rays of the Sun; also called slope aspect.

Atoll — A coral reef appearing in plan view as roughly circular, and surmounted by a chain
of closely spaced, low coral islets that encircle or nearly encircle a shallow lagoon in which
there is no land or islands of non-coral origin; the reef is surrounded by open sea.

Backshore — The upper or inner, usually dry, zone of the shore or beach, lying between the
high-water line of mean spring tides and the upper limit of shore-zone processes; it is acted
upon by waves or covered by water only during exceptionally severe storms or unusually
high tides. It is essentially horizontal or slopes gently landward, and is divided from the
foreshore by the crest of the most seaward berm.

Backslope — The hillslope profile position that forms the steepest and generally linear,
middle portion of the slope. In profile, backslopes are commonly bounded by a convex
shoulder above and a concave footslope below. They may or may not include cliff segments
(i.e., free faces). Backslopes are commonly erosional forms produced by mass movement,
colluvial action, and running water. Compare – summit, shoulder, footslope, toeslope.

Backswamp — A flood-plain landform. Extensive, marshy or swampy, depressed areas of
flood plains between natural levees and valley sides or terraces. Compare – valley flat

Badlands — A landscape that is intricately dissected and characterized by a very fine
drainage network with high drainage densities and short, steep slopes with narrow interfluves. Badlands develop on surfaces with little or no vegetative cover, overlying unconsolidated or poorly cemented materials.

Bay — a recessed, coastal body of water that directly connects to a larger main body of water, such as an ocean, a lake, or another bay. A large bay is usually called a gulf, sea, sound, or bight. A fjord is a particularly steep bay shaped by glacial activity. See: At The Bay by Katherine Mansfield.

Beck — (Northern English) a stream

Berm — Berms are mounded hills of soil that are often constructed to serve a purpose in a landscaped area. They can be used for aesthetics, excess rainwater drainage, separating different areas of the garden, accent walkways, and as foundations for privacy screens.

Boreen — (Irish) a narrow country road

Bower — a pleasant shady place under trees or climbing plants in a garden or wood

Buffalo wallow — A buffalo wallow or bison wallow is a natural topographical depression in the flat prairie land that holds rain water and runoff. Originally this would have served as a temporary watering hole for wildlife, including the American bison.

Canal — an artificial waterway constructed to allow the passage of boats or ships inland or to convey water for irrigation.

The Trekvliet Shipping Canal near Rijswijk, known as the ‘View near the Geest Bridge’, Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch, 1868
The Trekvliet Shipping Canal near Rijswijk, known as the ‘View near the Geest Bridge’, Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch, 1868
Josephine Haswell Miller (1890-1975) The House on the Canal
Josephine Haswell Miller (1890-1975) The House on the Canal
Louis Aston Knight - Sunny Afternoon on the Canal
Louis Aston Knight – Sunny Afternoon on the Canal

Canyon — A deep cleft (gorge), between escarpments or cliffs resulting from weathering and the erosive activity of a river over geologic time scales. Typically a canyon has a river flowing through it. See “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “The People Across The Canyon” for two short stories in which the canyon comes to the fore.

Cliff — a vertical, or nearly vertical, rock exposure. Cliffs are formed as erosion landforms by the processes of weathering and erosion. Cliffs are common on coasts, in mountainous areas, escarpments and along rivers. Cliffs are usually formed by rock that is resistant to weathering and erosion. Sedimentary rocks most likely to form cliffs include sandstone, limestone, chalk, and dolomite. Igneous rocks such as granite and basalt also often form cliffs.

LE PONT (1981) Henri Galeron
LE PONT (1981) Henri Galeron
John Brett - Carthillon Cliffs
John Brett – Carthillon Cliffs
William Henry Walker (American painter, illustrator and cartoonist) 1892 - 1937, Girl In A Red Dress On A Cliff, ink and watercolour
William Henry Walker (American painter, illustrator and cartoonist) 1892 – 1937, Girl In A Red Dress On A Cliff, ink and watercolour

Col — the lowest point on a mountain ridge between two peaks (of hills rather than mountains). A drainage divide.

Colonnade — a row or evenly spaced trees

Conurbation — a city surrounded by many urban areas

Coteau — uplands; higher ground of a region

Coulée — a steep and dry gully

Couloir — gully

Counterscarp — narrow earth band on the outer wall of a defensive ditch

Cove — a small type of bay or coastal inlet. Coves usually have narrow, restricted entrances, are often circular or oval, and are often situated within a larger bay. Think cove, think ‘sheltered’.

Kobliha František,  Fairy Tales and Legends, 1917
Kobliha František, Fairy Tales and Legends, 1917
Tibor Gergely painted this in Pigeon Cove, Cape Ann in the summer of 1945
Tibor Gergely painted this in Pigeon Cove, Cape Ann in the summer of 1945

Crest — the top of a mountain or hill. Also used as a verb e.g. ‘Crest the rise’. This word is used to mean the hillslope component summit, but geologists don’t approve of that usage. When geologists say ‘crest’ they specifically mean the narrow top of a ridge, hill or mountain.

Crevasse — A wide breach or crack in the bank of a river or canal. A crevasse can naturally occur or it can be created artificially (e.g. in the bank of the lower Mississippi River.) Also refers to a wide, deep break or fissure in the earth that appears after an earthquake. When talking about glaciers, a crevasse is a deep, nearly vertical fissure, crack or break in the mass of land ice.

Crista — ridge or fold resembling a crest

Cutbank — In everyday usage cutbank refers to a small cliff on an otherwise flattish surface which will injure you or your horse if you don’t see it, but probably isn’t big enough to kill you outright. Larry McMurtry frequently makes use of this word in his cowboy novels. Geologists don’t use cutbank to mean this. In geology, a cutbank is a slope or wall portion of a cut excavated into unconsolidated material or bedrock, as in a borrow pit.

Dale — “up hill and down dale”. A dale is a valley, especially in northern England (e.g. The Yorkshire Dales.) A valley can feel closed in, but a dale is a wide, open area that stretches between hills. (Dale comes from the Old English word for “valley,” dæl.)

Debris — Any surficial accumulation of loose material detached from rock masses by
chemical and mechanical means, as by decay and disintegration. It consists of rock clastic
material of any size and sometimes organic matter.

Delta — A body of alluvium, nearly flat and fan-shaped, deposited at or near the mouth of a
river or stream where it enters a body of relatively quiet water, usually a sea or lake.

Delta plain — The level or nearly level surface composing the land-ward part of a large
delta; strictly, a flood plain characterized by repeated channel bifurcation and divergence,
multiple distributary channels, and interdistributary flood basins.

Deposit — Either consolidated or unconsolidated material of any type that has accumulated by natural processes or by human activity.

Depression — Any relatively sunken part of the earth’s surface; especially a low-lying area
surrounded by higher ground. A closed depression has no natural outlet for surface drainage (e.g., a sinkhole). An open depression has a natural outlet for surface drainage. You can get closed depressions and open depressions.

Desert pavement — A natural, residual concentration or layer of wind-polished, closely
packed gravel, boulders, and other rock fragments, mantling a desert surface. It is formed
where wind action and sheetwash have removed all smaller particles or where rock fragments have migrated upward through sediments to the surface. It usually protects the underlying, finer-grained material from further deflation.

Detritus — A collective term for rock and mineral fragments occurring in sediments, that are detached or removed by mechanical means (e.g., disintegration, abrasion) and derived from preexisting rocks and moved from their place of origin.

Dell — a small valley, usually among trees. ‘There’s a sort of dell down here in front of us, where the ground seems all hilly and humpy and hummocky.’ (The Wind In The Willows)

Dike — A tabular igneous intrusion that cuts across the bedding or foliation of the country rock. Cf. sill.

Dip — A geomorphic component (characteristic piece) of flat plains (e.g. lake
plain, low coastal plain, low-relief till plain) consisting of a shallow and typically closed
depression that tends to be an area of focused groundwater recharge but not a permanent
water body and that lies slightly lower and is wetter than the adjacent talf (flat part), and favors the accumulation of fine sediments and organic materials.

Dip slope — A slope of the land surface, roughly determined by and approximately
conforming to the dip of underlying bedded rocks; (i.e., the long, gently inclined surface of a
cuesta). Cf. scarp slope.

Ditch — a landform created by running water. Smaller than a gully, which is smaller than a ravine.

Jan van Goyen (1596 - 1656) Winter Landscape with Farmhouses along a Ditch, 1627
Jan van Goyen (1596 – 1656) Winter Landscape with Farmhouses along a Ditch, 1627

Draw — (US). a terrain feature formed by two parallel ridges or spurs with low ground in between them. The area of low ground itself is the draw, and it is defined by the spurs surrounding it. Draws are similar to valleys on a smaller scale; however, while valleys are by nature parallel to a ridgeline, a draw is perpendicular to the ridge, and rises with the surrounding ground, disappearing up-slope. A draw is usually etched in a hillside by water flow, is usually dry, but many contain an ephemeral stream or loose rocks from eroded rockfall. A draw may be described as ‘deep’ or ‘shallow’.

Embankment — ‘a railway embankment’ (the little hill which elevates a railway line)

Escarpment — a long, steep slope, especially one at the edge of a plateau or separating areas of land at different heights. Commonly formed by faulting or fracturing of the earth’s crust. (Compare scarp)

Flat —An area of low level ground, especially near water. e.g. “the shingle flats of the lake”

Freshet — the flood of a river from heavy rain or melted snow

Fold — sheep walked up the lane and into the fold

Gap — a low point or opening between hills or mountains or in a ridge or mountain range. It may be called a col, notch, pass, saddle, water gap, or wind gap, and geomorphologically are most often carved by water erosion from a freshet, stream or a river.

Everyone knows Bone Gap is full of gaps—gaps to trip you up, gaps to slide through so you can disappear forever. So when young, beautiful Roza went missing, the people of Bone Gap weren’t surprised.

Grange — (British) a country house with farm buildings attached. (Historical) an outlying farm with tithe barns belonging to a monastery or feudal lord

Sidney Richard Percy - Grange Over Sands, Cumbria 1874
Sidney Richard Percy – Grange Over Sands, Cumbria 1874

Gulch — a narrow and steep-sided ravine marking the course of a fast stream. ‘…two men who were then hanging from the boughs of a sycamore in the gulch…’ (“The Outcasts of Poker Flat”)

Gully — a landform created by running water, eroding sharply into soil, typically on a hillside. Gullies resemble large ditches or small valleys, but are metres to tens of metres in depth and width.

Edward Gorey Illustrates Little Red Riding Hood and Other Classic Children's Stories
Edward Gorey Illustrates Little Red Riding Hood and Other Classic Children’s Stories

Heath — (British) an area of open uncultivated land, typically on acid sandy soil, with characteristic vegetation of heather, gorse, and coarse grasses.

On the Heath near Laren, Anton Mauve, 1887
On the Heath near Laren, Anton Mauve, 1887

Hill — A hill is a landform that extends above the surrounding terrain. It often has a distinct summit.

Hollow — Another name for a valley. In literature, functions similarly to words like ‘gap’, symbolically/metaphorically suggesting an absence of something. See: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk. A very small dale (a British term) is sometimes called a “hollow,” pronounced “holler” in American rural Appalachia.

Howard W. Thomas 'Nauvoo Hollow', Wisconsin Artist Calendar, 1938
Howard W. Thomas ‘Nauvoo Hollow’, Wisconsin Artist Calendar, 1938

Hummock — a hump or ridge in an ice field. (US) a piece of forested ground rising above a marsh.

Isthmus — a narrow strip of land with sea on either side, forming a link between two larger areas of land.

Jungle — An area of land overgrown with dense forest and tangled vegetation, typically in the tropics. See: The Storybook Jungle for visual representations of jungles as they tend to appear in storybooks. Jungles are best suited to tree-dwelling apes, because food is found high off the ground (compared to the savanna).

Knob — a prominent round hill.

Winter landscape by Stanley Roy Badwin (1906 - 1989)
Winter landscape by Stanley Roy Badwin (1906 – 1989).

Lagoon — a stretch of salt water separated from the sea by a low sandbank or coral reef. In mythology and storytelling, lagoons tend to be associated with mermaids.

Mermaid Lagoon from Peter & Wendy-J.M.Barrie ~1911~ illustration by Francis D Bedford, 1911 lagoon
Mermaid Lagoon from Peter & Wendy-J.M.Barrie ~1911~ illustration by Francis D Bedford, 1911 lagoon

Lane — a narrow road, especially in a rural area

John Constable - Fen Lane, East Bergholt
John Constable – Fen Lane, East Bergholt

Moor —  a tract of open uncultivated upland, typically covered with heather. Think Wuthering Heights. Mary Lennox’s uncle in The Secret Garden lives in the Yorkshire Moors. The word ‘wutherin’ is used there, too: “Listen to th’ wind wutherin’ round the house”. (Yorkshire dialect.) When trees are cleared from the uplands, heavy rain washes soil off the hills and into the valleys below, leaving a much reduced mineral fertility and turning the uplands into sodden bleak moors that resist the return of woodland. Moors therefore include the feeling of saudade (something missing, something which was once here but is no longer).

after each breakfast she gazed out of the window across to the huge moor, which seemed to spread out on all sides and climb up to the sky

The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

Mound — a heaped pile of earth, gravel, sand, rocks, or debris. Most commonly, mounds are earthen formations such as hills and mountains, particularly if they appear artificial. A mound may be any rounded area of topographically higher elevation on any surface. Artificial mounds have been created for a variety of reasons throughout history, including ceremonial, burial (tumulus), and commemorative purposes.

Mountain — A mountain is a large landform that rises above the surrounding land in a limited area, usually in the form of a peak. A mountain is generally considered to be steeper than a hill.

Mountain Pass — A mountain pass is a navigable route through a mountain range or over a ridge. Since many of the world’s mountain ranges have presented formidable barriers to travel, passes have played a key role in trade, war, and both human and animal migration throughout history.

Karikachi Mountain Pass, 1927, Kawase Hasui; 1883-1957
Karikachi Mountain Pass, 1927, Kawase Hasui; 1883-1957

Notch — a rugged and forbidding col (for mountains rather than hills)

Outcrop — a rock formation. Somewhere like New Mexico is well-known for rocky outcrops.

New Mexico cloudscape illustrated by Eric Sloane (1905-1985) for the booklet Celebrating the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, 1976
New Mexico cloudscape illustrated by Eric Sloane (1905-1985) for the booklet Celebrating the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, 1976

Peninsula — a landform surrounded by water on the majority of its border while being connected to a mainland it juts out from. Peninsulas can also be named: a headland, cape, island promontory, bill, point, fork, or spit. A river which courses through a very tight meander is also sometimes said to form a “peninsula” within the loop of water.

Sir David Murray - My Love has Gone a-Sailing 1883
My Love has Gone a-Sailing exhibited 1883 Sir David Murray 1849-1933

Plateau — In geology and physical geography, a plateau, also called a high plain or a tableland, is an area of a highland consisting of flat terrain, that is raised sharply above the surrounding area on at least one side.

Point — a narrow piece of land jutting out into the sea. A point is generally considered a tapering piece of land projecting into a body of water that is less prominent than a cape.

Paul Landacre, California Hills and Other Wood Engravings, 'Point Sur' landform
Paul Landacre, California Hills and Other Wood Engravings, ‘Point Sur’

Ravine — a deep, narrow gorge with steep sides

Re-entrant — the international word for a ‘draw’. 

Ridge — a geological feature consisting of a chain of mountains or hills that form a continuous elevated crest for some distance. The sides of the ridge slope away from narrow top on either side. Ridges are usually termed hills or mountains as well, depending on size.

Ridge line — The line along the crest formed by the highest points, with the terrain dropping down on either side, is called the ridgeline.

Saddle — the lowest area between two highlands. 

Sand berm — In coastal systems, a berm is a raised ridge of pebbles or sand found at high tide or storm tide marks on a beach. In snow removal, a berm or windrow refers to the linear accumulation of snow cast aside by a plow.

Savanna — A wide, open, mostly flat landscape. Of all the geographical arenas, savannas contain the highest amount of protein per square kilometer. We can therefore deduce that this is humans’ natural landscape, where we largely evolved, and where we thrive. (Savannas were where we lived when we became meat eaters.) We find our meat at ground level, unlike in jungles, which are better suited to apes who can swing through the trees. Humans are attracted to the savanna in art, though the ideal ‘savanna’ is undulating, probably because high areas afford us a good vantage point, good for safety and hunting.

Scarp — a very steep bank or slope; an escarpment. “The north face is a very steep scarp.”

Shore/Shoreline — the fringe of land at the edge of a large body of water, such as an ocean, sea, or lake. In physical oceanography, a shore is the wider fringe that is geologically modified by the action of the body of water past and present, while the beach is at the edge of the shore, representing the intertidal zone where there is one. In contrast to a coast, a shore can border any body of water, while the coast must border an ocean; in that sense a coast is a type of shore; however, coast often refers to an area far wider than the shore, often stretching miles into the interior.

Sinkhole — A sinkhole, also known as a cenote, sink, sink-hole, swallet, swallow hole, or doline (the different terms for sinkholes are often used interchangeably), is a depression or hole in the ground caused by some form of collapse of the surface layer.

Warwik Reynolds (British, 1880-1926). Kittens by Svend Fleuron, 1922
Warwik Reynolds (British, 1880-1926). Kittens by Svend Fleuron, 1922

Spur — A spur is a lateral ridge or tongue of land descending from a hill, mountain or main crest of a ridge.

Stream — a small, narrow river

Myles Birket Foster - Children Paddling In A Stream
Myles Birket Foster – Children Paddling In A Stream

Tarn — A mountain pool that forms in a hollow scooped out by a glacier is called a tarn. Officially, tarns are smaller than lakes. The word tarn comes from the Old Norse tjörn, “small mountain lake with no tributaries.”

Natural Environment - The Mountain - Corriere dei Piccoli Centerfold by G.B. Bertelli, 1967
Natural Environment – The Mountain – Corriere dei Piccoli Centerfold by G.B. Bertelli, 1967

Turlough — (in Ireland) a low-lying area on limestone which becomes flooded in wet weather through the welling up of groundwater from the rock

Valley — a low area between hills or mountains typically with a river running through it. In geology, a valley or dale is a depression that is longer than it is wide. The terms U-shaped and V-shaped are descriptive terms of geography to characterize the form of valleys. Most valleys belong to one of these two main types or a mixture of them, at least with respect to the cross section of the slopes or hillsides.

Volcano — a rupture in the crust of a planetary-mass object, such as Earth, that allows hot lava, volcanic ash, and gases to escape from a magma chamber below the surface.

Ponies of Mykillengi (1966) by Lonzo Anderson, art by Adrienne Adams volcano
Ponies of Mykillengi (1966) by Lonzo Anderson, art by Adrienne Adams

Wind gap — another name for a notch

Header painting: Chalk Paths by Eric Revilious, 1935

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” (Audio version: Part One, Part Two)
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula
  • Arthur Machen’s “White People
  • Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw is still popular with modern audiences due to over 30 TV adaptations, most recently The Turning and The Haunting Of Bly Manor. Before that the best known was probably The Innocents (1961), starring Deborah Kerr, a screenplay by Truman Capote and John Mortimer.

“The ambiguity of The Turn of the Screw goes way beyond ‘are the ghosts real or not?’,”  says Dara Downey, a lecturer in English at Trinity College Dublin and editor of The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies. “Once you start reading it, you realise that nothing in it is really clear – who the governess is, where she’s writing from, what she sees, why she thinks what she thinks about the children, what happens at the end, what we’re meant to take from the story, what those men in the room hearing the story think of it, and so on. 

Neil Armstrong, BBC

I have heard writers say the descriptor ‘American Gothic’ is pretty much useless because it seems to describe everything literary written in the American South, ever, and Armstrong seems to be using it here to describe an American strain of cosmic horror:

“In the 1908 Preface to the New York edition, James says that he wants to make the reader ‘think the evil, make him think it for himself’. So, in other words, he never tells us what the ghosts might be doing or saying to the children, or what happened in the house before the governess got there, so we project our own worst nightmares onto it. The fact that James was writing around the same time as Freud makes it so tempting to read something sexual into it, but really it could be anything. The book is part of a long tradition of American gothic from the 16th Century, building on the Puritans’ fears of devils, the unknown, their own sins, witchcraft, possession, ‘Indians’ in the woods, and so on. I think this makes the book perfect for continual reimagining – each era will emphasise what it most fears.”

Neil Armstrong, BBC

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. See: Go Mad From The Revelation at TV Tropes.

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.

The overwhelming force of Cosmic Horror is sometimes called an ‘Eldritch Abomination‘. Eldritch is an English word used to describe something otherworldly, weird, ghostly, or uncanny. In contemporary culture, the term is closely associated with the Lovecraftian horror.

This is where cosmic horror is a bit different from other types of stories. The Eldritch Abomination 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.) Of all the ancient forces, they are quire like the Djinn, who have been around for far longer than humans have. The Djinn can even fly between solar systems, so their arena is way more massive than ours, as well.

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

DER ROTE VOGEL FELIX (1975) Marie Sarraz fantasy landscape with snail and tentacles
DER ROTE VOGEL FELIX (1975) Marie Sarraz fantasy landscape with snail and tentacles. Anything with tentacles tends to attract the descriptor ‘Lovecraftian’.

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 Parts Of A Home

The parts of a home which connect to the outside are traditionally thought to be entry points for unwanted spirits and demons: windows, doors and chimneys.

Byron Crabbe - Concept Art For King Kong, 1933
Byron Crabbe – Concept Art For King Kong, 1933. Even in modern stories, the fear of liminal spaces of the home is evident.

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