The Dark Fantastic: The Wild Lands of the Monstrous Other

Ever since I was a young my mother read to us from the lore and myths of those old tales of Lang and Grimm at night. And, of course, like many there were the humorous and fabulous, the marvelous and wondrous adventures of Aladdin and Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights to while away the hours, but it was  the darker worlds of ghosts, shadows, vampires, werewolves, doubles, partial selves, reflections (mirrors), enclosures, monsters, beasts, cannibals that sent shivers up my sister and my spines, those tales that both fascinated us and filled us with dread and terror that seemed to last into the nights and days, that seemed to haunt us long after the reading, and seemed at times to take on a life of their own; enter into our dreams and our day to day fantasy life, follow us like strange characters from another time, another world. This sense of being fascinated, bewitched, charmed and caught in a malevolent spell under the malicious sorcery of some strange force, some dark magick surrounding me in the invisible realms just outside my sight that draws me on as if something deep and uncanny within me seemed to belong there, live there, come from that space between things; some gap or void in the Real in which the dark ministrations of ancient powers seemed to exist just outside the veil of Reason and the comfort of home and the homely.

For Freud what is encountered in this uncanny realm, whether it is termed spirit, angel, devil, ghost, or monster, is nothing but an unconscious projection, projections being those ‘qualities, feelings, wishes, objects, which the subject refuses to recognize or rejects in himself [and which] are expelled from the self and located in another person or thing’.1 Through secularization, a religious sense of the numinous is transformed and reappears as a sense of the uncanny, but the psychological origins of both are identical. Literary fantasies, then, have a function corresponding to the mythical and magical products of other cultures. They return us to what Freud identifies as an animistic mode of perception, that thought process which characterizes primitive man at an evolutionary stage prior to his concession to a ‘reality principle’. Freud writes that we ‘attribute an “uncanny” quality to impressions that seek to confirm the omnipotence of thoughts and the animistic mode of thinking in general’ (Totem and Taboo, p.86).

Against Freud’s too positive reading of the uncanny from the side of reason, or his ‘reality principle’ is the work of Hélène Cixous who links a structural understanding of the uncanny as a mode of apprehending and associates fantasy to grotesque art: ‘The grotesque is a structure . . . it is the estranged world, our world which has been transformed’. The uncanny, however, removes structure. It empties the ‘real’ of its ‘meaning’, it leaves signs without significance. Cixous presents its unfamiliarity not as merely displaced sexual anxiety, but as a rehearsal of an encounter with death, which is pure absence. Death cannot be portrayed directly: it appears in literature either as figura (emblem) such as the medieval memento mori skeletons, or as mere space. This is materialized as a ghost: ‘the immediate figure of strangeness is the ghost. The ghost is the fiction of our relation to death made concrete.’ Das Unheimlich is at its purest here, where we dis-cover our latent deaths, our hidden lack of being, for ‘nothing is both better known and stranger to thought than mortality . . . “Death” has no shape in life. Our unconscious has no room for a representation of our mortality’. (Jackson, p. 68 see: Hélène Cixous. Fiction and Its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud’s Das Unheimliche (The”Uncanny”):New Literary History, Vol. 7, No. 3, Thinking in the Arts, Sciences, and Literature. (Spring, 1976))

Even as a child I remember one of my first dreams introduced me to that strange and uncanny dimension. I can still remember the terror I felt in waking up from a bad dream or nightmare in which I’d felt being overwhelmed by something other, something uncanny that was at the same time “old and familiar,” as if I had met a part of myself – my real self in that dream; but that in the moment of (mis)recognition, realizing it wasn’t me at all but rather some strange and monstrous thing – something at once daemonic and godlike – that sought to take my place and imprison me in the dark realms forever. It was at this gut wrenching moment that I awakened, sweating and crying out for help…

Strangely what terrorized me with such fear was this feeling that when I woke up I was no longer me, that I’d become this other thing, this other being; that it had taken my body and was even now taking over my life and mind – my very soul. Only later as I grew older would I hear of the notion of changeling. The notion of the double, of being replaced by some daemonic being, some dark and nefarious creature out of the nightmare lands. This notion that one was no longer one’s self, that one was an other would haunt me through my young childhood and into my adulthood. Of course my parents tried to soothe me, convince me it was all a bad dream, a nightmare, that I had seen a strange design on the closet door that reminded me of this bald man. That there are no worlds below ours, that the world is just as it is and will always be. Yet, I remained uncertain. It is this uncertainty that has remained with me to this day. What is reality, what dream? Who can be sure? Is it the mere caprice of daily worries as Freud suggest, a mere excess of an overwrought brain working out its own strange rhythms? Or, something else? That would lead me to explore those fantastic dreamworlds of the ancient and modern weird, those tales that seem to hint of darker worlds below our own, of places and spaces that hint of our actual life outside the work-a-day utilitarian reality of our cultural and social commitments: the realm of habit, custom, and sociality. Does it exist? Is it just a semblance, – a refraction of the brain’s twisted skein? Or something else? Something much darker and uncanny?

I don’t think we in the West are alone in this sense that just outside the sun lit worlds of our everyday gaze is something eerie, something strange and malevolent just below the threshold of existence, something lurking in the dark waiting, watching, calculating, monstrous. Of course we find these tales everywhere from China, India, Australia, Indonesia, Africa, the Middle-East, Russia, Europe and the Americas. One can spend years studying the anthropologists who wrote of both ancient and modern ritual and practices of past and present indigenous cultures around the world. We know that certain darker transgressive impulses were part of this uncanny world of our ancestral pool: incest, necrophilia, androgyny, cannibalism, recidivism, narcissism and ‘abnormal’ psychological states conventionally categorized as hallucination, dream, insanity, paranoia, were all part of the black light of this human heritage.

Magic, witchcraft, shamanism, voodoun practitioners, Oracles, devinarii, scyers, bone scravens, skinwalkers, vagrs, outlaws, dead, etc. who practiced various dark arts using natural substances, or what Richard Evans Schultes once termed the “Plants of the Gods”. The use of hallucinogenic or consciousness expanding plants has been a part of human experience for many millennia, yet modern Western societies have only recently become aware of the significance that these plants have had in shaping the history of primitive and even of advanced cultures. In fact, the past thirty years have witnessed a vertiginous growth of interest in the use and possible value of hallucinogens in our own modern, industrialized, and urbanized society.2 (9)

Michael A. Rinella in Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens would bring to light the impact of ancient drugs on early Greek Religion and Society. There had been many studies of the use of entheogens in the relation of religious and ceremonial practices of various cultures around the world but this one at the intersection of religion and what would become the beginnings of our origins in a Culture of Reason or philosopophia begin here where the Dionysian and Eleusinian Mysteries held sway. Rinella would suggest that the use of the term pharmakon by Plato and his mentor, Socrates, would be in direct competition and agon with its use in the Eleusinian Mysteries.3 He would follow the work of Carl A. P. Ruck whose work The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries spoke of the use of a pharmakon, the kykeion (i.e., Ancient Greek drink of various descriptions. Some were made mainly of water, barley and naturally occurring substances. Others were made with wine and grated cheese. It is widely believed that kykeon usually refers to a psychoactive compounded brew, as in the case of the Eleusian Mysteries.).

Plato on the other hand would demythologize the pharmakon, as well as the traditions of Empedocles, the Shaman priest who spoke of a literal metempsychosis or transmigrations of souls from body to body through which anamnesis and purifications techniques were to be applied to bring to remembrance one’s past lives and free one from the burdens of existence – much in the same manner as Buddha under the Bodhi Tree remembered all his own past lives, etc. Plato would abstract out of this religious practice a new secular and mundane practice of the ‘love of wisdom’ that would guide the young ephebe not to some knowledge of past lives, but rather to a knowledge of the eternal Forms, accessed not through some hallucinogenic pharmakon brew but rather through and initiation into the ways of Reason.

So began the long war between religion and reason, mystery and philosophy. Yet, even through its long history the darker worlds below the threshold of Reason never were completely expunged or expelled. Through two thousands years of Christian Civilization the dark forces of magic, witchcraft, the use of magical plants prevailed and with them much of the fear and terror of the unknown and forbidden lore of those times would become part of the vast fantasy life of our ancestral pool of fairy lore, mysteries, the occult, dark mysticism, hallucination, madness, the macabre, the grotesque, the tabooed realms of the irrational and the horrific. Yet, it remained…

Even Christiandom, the Jewish World, and the Muslim lands of the Middle-East and Castalian Spain would have their mystical and dark strains of heterological systems. From those strange realms of Gnosticism, Hermeticism, to Neoplatonic theurgy and the streams of various dualisms derived from the ancient Magi of Persia – the lore of Mani and the Magical. There has always been an underbelly to the world of Reason, a realm of the hidden and forbidden, a world of dark entities and outcast rogue thought. In the twentieth century the sciences would try to reduce reality to the physical and mathematical, to oust all other non-reductionist thought for once and all. It failed. All around us philosophy and the fringe worlds of thought are remerging from their silent exile in ways we cannot as of yet fully register. Hints of the old plant gods have once against been making forays into the very heart of Reason’s fortress, the Academy.

One wonders just what it is Reason fears? Is it the dark barbarism of all these monstrous children of the night that seem inevitably to be rising from some hinterland of our imaginaries? As Italo Calvino in his introduction to Fantastic Tales said

As it relates to our sensibility today, the supernatural element at the heart of these stories always appears freighted with meaning, like the revolt of the unconscious, the repressed, the forgotten, all that is distanced from our rational attention. In this we see the modern dimension of the fantastic, the reason for its triumphant resurgence in our times. We note that the fantastic says things that touch us intimately, even though we are less disposed than the readers of the last century to allow ourselves to be surprised by apparitions and phantasmagoria.4

And, yet, popular TV series such as Ghost Adventures or the Dead Files seem to have large followings. Why? Even as academics and philosophers, pundits and liberal secular and atheistic authors deride those who have fallen for various irrationalism’s and religions we discover that the majority of people in the world are and remain deeply rooted in ancient faiths and practices. After two centuries of the Enlightenment the atheistic outlook and philosophies are marginal at best, found only in the elite corp of the top tier of readers, thinkers, and secular pundits. For the rest of the various societies on there is the tried and true imprint of ancient ways. So why did the atheistic view of life with its expunging of gods and God, it’s command and control of reality by way of Reason fail to raise everyone on this planet into its world of light?

Yet, this is not the whole tale, no. Even now these vary same philosophers are lured into the darker corners of thought themselves. From the time of Kant onward there were limits set to what thinkers could and could not do: they termed it finitude. Reason had its limits beyond which it was taboo to go. That realm beyond which it was anathema to go was abstractly termed: the noumenal. A sort of empty placeholder for the great Unknown and Forbidden. Know one talked of it, know one dared. So philosophers stayed within the reasonable realms of the known and the visible, and let the dark and invisible realms shift for themselves. That is till modern sciences themselves came up against that limit and realized they would need to build tools to move beyond the barriers of human finitude. They did. They uncovered strange micro realms of quantum worlds where the known laws of Newton and Einstein no longer applied, where a strange and uncanny realm of mathematical entities lived and played by other rules, rules outside the strict limitations of our cause and effect reality. Einstein would call it madness, tell these other scientists that “God does not play with dice!” Period! Others would laugh and ask, eerily, “But what if he does?”

Tzvetan Todorov, in his Introduction to Fantastic Literature (1970), holds that what distinguishes “fantastic” narrative is precisely our perplexity in the face of an incredible fact, our indecision in choosing between a rational, realistic explanation and an acceptance of the supernatural. The character of the incredulous positivist who often appears in this kind of story, seen with compassion and irony because he must surrender when confronted by something he does not know how to explain, is not completely negated. According to Todorov, the incredible event the fantastic story tells must always allow for a rational explanation, unless it happens to be a hallucination or a dream (a fail-safe device that sanctions just about anything). (Calvino)

Yet, why should it be resolved by reason? What if there are anomalous events that should be left in that ‘in-between’ state between reason and its mystery, what if to reduce it to reasonable explanation is to destroy it, to kill its power, its potential for change and transformation. What if to make reasonable, to abstract out of the unknown a known is to turn it against itself, to make of it a utilitarian fact to be used rather than to allow the unknown to speak to us on its own terms without reaching after fact or reason?

Georges Bataille once believed that all genuine ecstasy is necessarily, and violently, negative. Bataille characterizes ecstasy as a laceration of the ego, a rupture that for a time dissolves the self-contained character of the individual as she exists in her everyday life. It is in the varieties of ecstatic experience—erotic fulminations, poetic effervescence, wrenching laughter, wracking sobs, and other excessive moments—that the self as defined and conditioned by the structures and strictures, the prohibitions and taboos, of profane, workaday life, is lost. Bataille’s writings are dramatic evidence of his relentless pursuit of the self-dissolving negative experience of ecstasy. They repeatedly reveal the sacrificial violence, the profound negativity, that haunts the always excessive moments that he deemed sacred.5 In one of his letters the poet Arthur Rimbaud would remark to his old teacher George Izambard,

Right now,  I’m beshitting myself as  much as  possible. Why?  I want to be a poet,  and  I ‘m working to turn myself into a seer: you won’t understand at all, and it’s unlikely that  I’ll be able to explain it to you. It has to do with making your way towards the unknown by a derangement of  all the senses. The  suffering is tremendous, but  one must bear up against it, to be born  a poet, and  I  know that’s what  I  am.  It’s  not  at  all  my fault.  It’s wrong to say I think: one  should say I am thought.  Forgive the  pun. I is someone else.6

This violent rending of the veil of reason, the ‘derangement of the senses’, this ecstatic realm of sex and violence – ‘erotic fulminations, poetic effervescence, wrenching laughter, wracking sobs, and other excessive moments’ – what is it that is happening here?

The Symbolic World of our Sociality

Some say that even as children we are still close to the ancient ways of seeing and doing, that only as we are transformed, modulated, enclosed and educated – educed into the social world where language, reason, myth, religion, philosophy etc. hold sway, the realm of our habitation – habitus, where habit and custom are grafted onto our neural circuits, and we take up the role of being the name we were named with by either parents or authorities of tribe or nation do we lose touch with the realm of the noumenal. Some never make the transition, some fall by the wayside into different forms of social and private madness between the extremes of various sociopathy or psychopathy. Some are born with obvious physical and biochemical ailments of the brain due to either malnutrition or abuse, or a number of genetic or other causal agents. Yet, the vast majority are not affected either by physical or mental defect or disease and grow up into a world that they belong, a society constructed out of symbolic exchange where various rituals and traditions are brought to bare upon the young to maintain social cohesion and relations among its members. When this is fractured, when the various rituals and cultural mores and norms are broken, when the civilization is slowly splintered into a myriad of sub-cultures like our own the world become topsy-turvy and there is no longer a center to hold things together.

We live in a world of mirrors, a realm of duplicitous and decaying forms of cultural life that seem day by day to be fracturing into new growths and worlds beyond the reasonable expectations of the Enlightenment project. Reason no longer rules our world. The Symbolic whole that once spun its chains of invisible thought around this civilization is coming undone, unraveling before our very eyes. Day by day different sub-cultures are wandering off into unknown zones, forbidden territory of the dark fantastic. The edge worlds of ghosts, shadows, vampires, werewolves, doubles, partial selves, reflections (hall of mirrors), enclosures, monsters, beasts, cannibals are arising in our midst once again like children’s tales that have been unloosened from their mental cages and released into the Unreal realms of our present world.

Through the imposition of prohibitions, and their lifting or suspension on clearly defined occasions, society effects an alteration from a state of individual, profane and utilitarian existence to a raised, higher or even ecstatic state of social or collective being. In these conditions being reaches it most intense states, not just of abandon but, simultaneously, of expenditure, joining or ‘intimacy’ with other beings, an intimacy usually occluded by the demands of individual, productive existence.7 Bataille sought something he termed the intimacy of others. For Bataille, influenced by Gnostic and Manichean dualism, the sacred and the profane are understood as two worlds, not as an opposition within a single ‘real’ or objective world. Notions of a ‘real’ world derive from the profane world, and appear solid and meaningful only on condition that they are not exposed to the sacred or heterological. Notions of ‘reality’ are, in a sense, inappropriate or irrelevant when considering the sacred world. (Pawlett, KL 759)

Yet, for Bataille the Sacred was divided again into a left and right hand path: a path of immanence and one of transcendence. Bataille took the left-hand path downward into the darkness of the abyss, and as the disciple of the monstrous, left sacred revels in “rupturing the highest elevation, and . . . has a share in the elaboration or decomposition of forms” attendant upon intoxication, madness, and artistic profusion. Excessive and
transgressive, the left sacred is that which escapes assimilation or systematization. In this way, like the chthonic god with which it is affiliated in Bataille’s thought, the left sacred is a “low value” that disrupts both the rational order of utility—the “real world,” conditioned by telic thought and dedicated to useful projects—as well as its divinized counterpart, the right sacred. It is at once activated by, and provokes the death of, the closed, individual self—the death that grants the experience of continuity. (Biles, 221)

In archaic times a person who stood outside the law, the culture, was considered ‘dead’ by ordinary people. In many instances the embodiment of these ‘dead’ was the bear or, even more importantly, the wolf. According to old Norse law and even much later, the wolf was deprived of protection of the law. In these barbarous lands of the old Norse the legends would speak of those vargr I veum, or ‘stranglers in the temple’ – outlaws who invaded the safe havens of ancient temples of the heathen gods for sacrifice and plunder. In the Lokisana or the Ragnarök, the ‘twilight of the gods,’ when all order ceased and things were turned upside down, the times of these times was called vargold “wolf’d time by the Voluspa. These dead, the outlaw and vagr, or wolf-men, the stranglers were banished persons became the monstrous breed of lore and legend, those without honor or who belonged to Odin, the god of death and war. The men of Odin were known as the ulfar, ‘wolves,’ or as Tacitus would speak of the hariers, the fighters of the Naharnawals, the black ones of death beyond the pale. These were men who lived outside the symbolic or social order, the lawless killers of fathers, or kin, the dark ones of the frozen underworlds.8

The key here is the separation of two worlds: the world of society and work, and the realm of the sacred outlaw and death. Duerr in his work speaks of it as those within the fence or hedge, separating the domain of wilderness from that of culture. At certain times this fence was, in fact, torn down. Those who wanted to live consciously within the fence, had to leave the enclosure at least once in their lives. They had to roam the forests as wolves, as outlaws and were beings – those touched by the Wyrd (i.e., the sisters of Fate). As Duerr puts it “they had to experience their animal nature” emptied of the symbolic order, the social bonds of shared systems of belief, habit, and custom. (64) For – as he suggests, their ‘cultural nature’ was only one side of their being which by destiny was inextricably bound to their animal fyligja, visible only to him who stepped across the dividing line, entrusting himself to his ‘second sight’ (65). In this sense the animal nature, the fyligja, is the side of a person that becomes available only when the cultural bonds of ones profane utilitarian self identity is relinquished, when one dies to one’s culture, one’s symbolic self and role as a member of society and becomes one who is dead, a vagr or outlaw.

As Duerr attests to speak of this other side, to speak of the fyliga, nagual, or chagri – the other I am is unintelligible to those within the fence of the symbolic world of culture; for them it is sheer madness and insanity, a realm of pure fright and demons where nothing is real. “The nagual,” says Don Juan Matus, “is the part of us for which there is no description – no words, no names, no feelings, no knowledge.” (70) Yet, to enter the wilderness is not to experience this other we are in the way of reason, one cannot speak it, or reduce it to this side of the hedge or fence of culture – one will immerse oneself in it, dissolve the everyday self into the other, and for a time become the other one is. Some speak of it was moving out of the womb of one’s protection and into the dangerous zones of the vastness, the abyss. One returns from such a realm changed, different. One is an other at all times, and without recourse to the former worlds of safety and poverty of imagination that those who do not know still cling to in fright and terror of the darkness outside the fence of civilized reason.

One could say that the authors of the weird, the fantastic, the bizarre hint at the truth of this state of affairs almost as those practitioners of zen koans do with their paradoxical riddles, they convey the pointers beyond the fence, and offer in their dark testimonies only a glimpse into the abysses where one becomes at once monstrous and alive, but only if one is willing to die to one’s utiliatarian world of safety and work. To be free is a terrible thing, nothing less that becoming other – beyond which there is no recourse or redress other than being reborn in the wild lands of the dangerous, decaying, and morbid sacred. To become other is to become monstrous – to absolve oneself of one’s cultural ties, to be reborn in the inhuman power of a universe where the human has no meaning and the only law is that of the jungle. One enters such realms at a cost, at the cost of one’s life, one’s sociality. One becomes a stranger to the others – a power, separate and alone; a daemonic presence among those who remain fixated with the defensive gestures of civilization and its symbolic order. A stranger, a foreigner, an outsider, a social deviant, anyone speaking in an unfamiliar language or acting in unfamiliar ways, anyone whose origins are unknown or who has extraordinary powers, tends to be set apart as other, as evil.

One of the namings of otherness has been as ‘demonic’ and it is important to recognize the semantic shifts of this term, since they indicate the progressive internalization of fantastic narrative in the post-Romantic period. J.A. Symonds saw all fantastic art as characterized by an obsession with the demonic. He referred to Shakespeare’s Caliban, Milton’s Death, and Goethe’s Mephistopheles as ‘products of fantastic art’, and in earlier fantasies it is easy to see that the demonic and the diabolic were more or less synonymous. The term demonic originally denoted a supernatural being, a ghost, or spirit, or genius, or devil and it usually connoted a malignant, destructive force at work.9

‘Otherness’ is all that threatens ‘this’ world, this ‘real’ world, with dissolution: and it is this opposition which lies behind the several myths which have developed in the modern fantastic. Behind the modern fantastic is both a spiritual and political struggle to replace cultural life with a total, absolute otherness, a completely alternative self-sustaining system. The sense that the global order within which humans live and work is a false order, a symbolic order that has them enslaved like zombies in a movie unable to do anything but consume more and more of the products of an illusionary world. The dark fantastic returns us to the hinterlands of freedom, of the wilderness outside the control of the prison keepers of the current global system. It hints at another realm where one can become one’s true self, one’s other more dangerous and non-utilitarian self, and an outlaw and renegade to the current Reality system of governance and control. Those who police the Reality Matrix hunt down those who seek escape and lock them away as insane or criminals of the civilized world. Yet, some ride that hedge, that fence between two-worlds like masters of chaos, and bring back out of the abyss images of freedom, bits of information that helps awaken the sleepers of Time from their long sleep. It is to these that the dark fantastic calls… to those willing to dare all, to follow their minds and hearts into the chaos just this side of madness… out there where one becomes one’s Other…


  1. Jackson, Dr Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (New Accents) (p. 66). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
  2. Richard Evans Schultes, Albert Hofmann, Christian Ratsch. Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Healing Arts Press; 2nd edition (November 1, 2001)
  3. Michael A. Rinella. Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens. Lexington Books; Reprint edition (June 5, 2010)
  4. Italo Calvino. Fantastic Tales (Kindle Locations 32-36). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  5. Jeremy Biles (Editor), Kent Brintnall (Editor). Negative Ecstasies: Georges Bataille and the Study of Religion.  Fordham University Press; 1 edition (August 3, 2015)
  6. Schmidt, Paul. Arthur Rimbaud: Complete Works. Harpercollins (June 1, 1976)
  7. Pawlett, William. Georges Bataille : The Sacred and Society (Kindle Locations 209-213). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
  8. Hans Peter Duerr. Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary Between Wilderness and Civilization. Blackwell Publishers (June 18, 1985)
  9. Jackson, Dr Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (New Accents) (p. 54). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

 

2 thoughts on “The Dark Fantastic: The Wild Lands of the Monstrous Other

  1. roughly speaking Wittgenstein’s critique of Freud wasn’t that he was making things up but rather that he sold these figures of speech as medical discoveries, a deadly sort of literalism for poetic-dwelling critters like us.

    Liked by 1 person

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