A man visits a haunted house…
A man visits a mansion on the top of a hill. He has not been invited, but he finds the door unlocked. For an instant, he hesitates at the doorstep. His friends in Buenos Aires have told him there is a new resident in the great house in the country, a resident no one has seen, though strange sounds and lights come from the house at night. But it is raining torrents, and that decides him; swiftly, he ducks inside the house.
Once inside, passing from one room to the next, he begins to tremble. Nothing he sees makes sense. There is furniture, but he can’t describe it. An armchair implies a human body, but these furnishings imply things he cannot imagine. It is quiet in the house, except for the wild lashing of the rain against the windows. He becomes increasingly certain that the new resident—whom he assumes is out—has not moved here from some other earthly home. The resident is alien.
At last, shaking from revulsion and horror, he enters a last room up a long ramp and discovers inside it something with a recognizable shape: a ladder! He is relieved. Here, at last, is something he understands. He grips the rungs and scampers up, only to find himself entering an upper story whose furnishings are more alien even than those below. Shivering, he wonders:
What must the inhabitant of this house be like? What must it be seeking here, on this planet, which must have been no less horrible to it than it to us? From what secret regions of astronomy or time, from what ancient and now incalculable twilight, had it reached this South American suburb and this precise night?
— Jorge Luis Borges
With a start, he realizes suddenly that the rain has stopped; droplets still cling to the window panes, but there is utter silence. Glancing at his watch, he realizes it is 2 a.m., as if he has spent hours exploring and lost in thought, or as if time operates differently inside the house than outside it. He resolves to leave, quickly, before the unseen inhabitant can return. Hardly daring to breathe, he hurries back down the ladder to the rooms below. At that point in the story, Jorge Luis Borges ends his fiction “There Are More Things”:
My feet were just touching the next to last rung when I heard something coming up the ramp—something heavy and slow and plural. Curiosity got the better of fear, and I did not close my eyes.
— Jorge Luis Borges
“I did not close my eyes”
This is one of my favorite science fiction stories, because of that final line: I did not close my eyes. To me, that is the essence and function of speculative fiction. The best science fiction and fantasy confronts us with characters or apparitions that appear to us to be monsters or marvels and then whispers to us, Do not close your eyes. All our lives, so many of us flee from encounters with difference. Speculative fiction invites the encounter, welcomes it, sometimes with a shiver, sometimes with delight, sometimes just with a spirit of wild adventure and the embracing of unforeseen possibilities.
Borges’ title, “There Are More Things,” is from a line in Hamlet, when the Prince of Denmark tells his skeptical friend Horatio, upon encountering a spirit that might be his father’s Ghost:
There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
What is one to do when one encounters a marvel, when the unexpected invades one’s philosophy, one’s preconceptions and biases, one’s perspective on life and community and the world, coming on unasked, uninvited, like a shock? As the Ghost approaches in its chains, many of the soldiers of Denmark quail and fall back and wish to flee. Hamlet does not. Whether the Ghost will present him with “aught of woe or wonder,” he will speak to it. He will face the Ghost. He will not close his eyes.
Fear or wonder?
Woe or wonder: these are two reactions human beings can have to the encounter with the unexpected and the strange. Fear or wonder. In real life, when you run into something or someone who is different from you, someone who speaks differently or believes differently or looks different, or a place or culture or organism you don’t fully understand, you have a mix of instinctive responses. You have a mix of wonder and fear. One of those two reactions is going to take priority.
If fear takes priority, you are driven to increase the distance between you and what’s different from you. There are different ways to seek or enforce such distance. You can pick up an axe and smash the other who frightens you in the head. You can run away. You can freeze in stark terror, like a character in a weird fiction tale confronted by a mass of tentacles and eyeballs slithering near. Or you can take what’s different and put it in a cage, confine it and control it so that it stays where you want it while you move about. That’s the fear response.
But fear is not the only response to the strange and unexpected other. The hero of Borges’ tale does not close his eyes, does not flee and hide; he faces the being who is coming up the ramp, accepting the encounter and the offer of adventure that it implies. Hamlet rushes out into the dark forest to speak with the Ghost, his wonder and his curiosity overpowering all fear. Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, says that wonder is the beginning of all knowledge, all science, all knowing, because wonder provokes us to draw near rather than away, to give ourselves to the marvelous encounter. To ask questions. You and I, we are human. It is ours to wonder at the world and at each other, not to cower and tremble and fear.
Children know this, I think. While they are still small enough, everything seems to them a wonder, something to draw near and touch. It is only by our wounds, by the lick of flame at our fingers or the bite of a wild creature, or the tumble down the scree where we were seeking to pull out a brightly colored rock—it is only by our pain that we learn fear. Fear is not our natural condition. Consider this passage that I read as a youth, in Mary Renault’s beautiful novel, The King Must Die. In it, young Theseus, as a boy of seven, catches sight of the most magnificent horse:
Poseidon, as I knew, can look like a man or like a horse, whichever he chooses. In his man shape, it was said, he had begotten me. But there were songs in which he had horse sons too, swift as the north wind, and immortal. The King Horse, who was his own, must surely be one of these. It seemed clear to me, therefore, that we ought to meet. I had heard he was only five years old. “So,” I thought, “though he is the bigger, I am the elder. It is for me to speak first.”
…Then I saw him, standing by himself on a little knoll, watching the end of the pasture where they were choosing colts. I went nearer, thinking, as every child thinks once for the first time, “Here is beauty.”
He had heard me, and turned to look. I held out my hand, as I did in the stables, and called, “Son of Poseidon!” On this he came trotting up to me, just as the stable horses did. I had brought a lump of salt, and held it out to him.
There was some commotion behind me. The groom bawled out, and looking round I saw the Horse Master beating him. My turn would be next, I thought; men were waving at me from the railings, and cursing each other. I felt safer where I was. The King Horse was so near that I could see the lashes of his dark eyes. His forelock fell between them like a white waterfall between shining stones. His teeth were as big as ivory plates upon a war helm; but his lip, when he licked the salt out of my palm, felt softer than my mother’s breast. When the salt was finished, he brushed my cheek with his, and snuffed at my hair. Then he trotted back to his hillock, whisking his long tail. His feet, with which as I learned later he had killed a mountain lion, sounded neat on the meadow, like a dancer’s.
— Mary Renault, The King Must Die
As children, we want to see the King Horse. We want to stand beside him and feel his breath warm on our cheek, feel him lick the salt from our hand, and laugh as he dances over the grass. Fear is not our natural condition. Nor is it unnecessary; the function of fear is to keep us safe. But fear is a survival mechanism, and where our very survival is not at stake, it has no place. Where our survival is not at stake, our response can be wonder. That is what we forget when we get a little older than Theseus at the stable. It is a thing that we could unforget.
That is what Borges writes into the end of his story. Dedicated “to the memory of H. P. Lovecraft,” the story also serves as a colleague’s gentle rebuke of Lovecraft. Borges seems to say, Like you, my friend, I, too, can imagine cosmic horrors, strange life that fits no earthly shape. Yet I have enough imagination to consider that our planet would be, at first glance, “no less horrible to it than it to us.” I have enough imagination to consider that there might be conversation between minds that appear at first glance incompatible. I imagine that this creature has occupied a human house; I could choose to regard it as cuckoo in the nest or as invader in the homeland, but I could also choose to regard it as a guest, one seeking welcome, one seeking to know us, one setting aside its own fear and horror in order to draw close and look us in the eye. Lovecraft, for all the grandeur and wild beauty of your fiction, your tales of cosmic horror and woe deny their characters and their readers the gift of choice. Faced with difference, you were able to imagine only flight, only fear. I will choose to imagine wonder. Faced with difference, I choose not to close my eyes.
The gift of wonder
Stories give us opportunities to explore our instinctive responses to the other; vicariously, we discover opportunities to either welcome or reject the marvelous encounter with the other. Which we choose is then a matter of how limited or expansive our imagination might be. Like Lovecraft, we might stop at fear, or like Borges, we might hold all possibilities in magnificent tension, open our eyes, and say, Well met by moonlight, stranger.
That is a gift—one of seven gifts that speculative fiction has for us in this dark hour. Often sold at bookstores as “science fiction and fantasy,” sometimes as horror, sometimes snuck into the shelves of “literary” fiction, speculative fiction simply means wonder stories. Fiction that speculates, that asks improbable questions, that indulges curiosity, that climbs back down the ladder to look at the strange thing that is approaching from behind, to face it without fear, to face it like Theseus facing the King Horse, holding out a lump of salt. These are the stories we need right now, and I want to talk with you about why, and what healing and opening of our hearts and imaginations might be possible if we allow it. We live in a time when we are being asked to accept stories told by people whose hearts are famished and grinchlike, stories that make us smaller; we are in such need of stories that make us bigger, stories that empower us to imagine larger worlds than the cages we have been constructing for ourselves. Stories that help us imagine that the fence between us and the King Horse is no insurmountable barrier, and that all the fences and all the walls between us and our many kindred on this earth are unworthy of our respect, that we needn’t heed them, that it is better to break them, or tumble them, or clamber over them with a lump of salt in our hand or a canteen of water, with a blanket to offer warmth, with ears ready to hear another’s story.
As I write this [in 2020], we are enduring the long night. Our people are ill and dying of a new disease. Our societies, at home and abroad, are beset by fascism—a shadow that, like Sauron’s in Mordor, has found new opportunity to take shape and grow again. Climate change sends devastating heat waves, forest fires, and hurricanes to our shores. At every hour, faces on television and voices on Twitter are telling us to fear, fear, fear, like the drumbeat of our heart going too fast. And tragically, because death or extinction is too terrifying, because disease and ecological disaster are too frightful, we turn our fears on each other instead. Those others, they are what we must fear, our leaders and too many of our storytellers insist.
Against that drumbeat of fear, I write this book—as a love letter to science fiction and fantasy and as a letter of hope to you, dear readers, and I am writing it in 2020. It has been a long night. A cold night. I am in search of stories to warm us, eager to share stories that warm us. How we make it through this long night together will be dependent on the stories we tell and the stories we are willing to hear. Facing each other across the fire with our backs to the long dark, we need to share and hear wonder stories. And we need to hear them well, understanding the gifts of hope tucked inside these tales like trinkets or treasures tucked inside nested Russian dolls. Here, I’ll show you what I mean. Come closer to the fire. Let’s talk. Let me share with you these gifts.
— Stant Litore
This is the first chapter of the book On the Other Side of the Night: How Science Fiction and Fantasy Can Help Us Through Our Dark Hour by Stant Litore. Come read this love letter to science fiction and fantasy.
Over the next few months, I will be reading this book to you, chapter by chapter, in video segments, on Patreon. Come join me!
The cover art is by Lauren K. Cannon. Discover her art here.