I Doubt, I Fear

Outburst of Fear, Paul Klee (PD-US-not renewed, 1939)

After reading some Fantastic and Uncanny genre fiction over the summer, I can’t help but wonder what elements of fiction prompt the greatest fears in me. I think of the psychological power of fear that certain writers like E.T.A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Guy de Maupassant, and Dostoevsky evoke in their works. The common denominator is their ability to jostle one element of reality or another just enough to pose doubt or ambiguity.

I’m a firm believer in the notion that the more convincingly real the fiction feels, the greater the fear payout (see Dictum # 11 for a variation on the theme). Why is this so? In his essay “The Fantastic,” Tzvetan Todorov explains how uncertainty is at the core of our fears. We doubt an absurd idea or uncanny event up to the edge of being convinced, but hold ourselves over that edge by a taut filament of hesitancy. As Todorov explains, ‘“I nearly reached the point of believing”  it is hesitation which sustains its life.’ That hesitation is cause for rational instability. Instability makes us uncomfortable and is what drives our fear. As long as the hesitation persists, so does our fear.

In “The Uncanny,” Sigmund Freud connects our fears to even the faint suggestion of ambiguity.  “One of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty […] and to do it in such a way that his attention is not directly focused upon his uncertainty.” Freud believes that in fiction, fear manifests itself in uncertainties that are grounded somewhere in our forgotten childhood.

One exciting and convincing aspect of uncanny fear comes from one of my favorite writers, Vladimir Nabokov. In Ralph Ciancio’s Nabokov and the Verbal Mode of the Grotesque, Nabokov argues that Nature itself is uncertain. Ciancio suggests that Nabokov’s Nature is the agent for the uncanny experiences we face from things like déjà vu to the aspects of Kayser’s “cosmic It:”

The mimicry of Nature is  “miraculous coincidence,” a form of magic, an intricate game of enchantment and deception […] both dense and transparent, at once real and unreal, a multifaceted entity with shimmering surfaces and shifting depths prohibiting our categorical knowledge of it.

Is Nabokov right about the phenomenal experiences for which we have no explanation? He always looks for ways to challenge constructs of reality. If we accept Nabokov’s theory, it isn’t fiction but rather reality itself that’s destabilized. I suppose that such theories can play themselves out in sightings of UFOs, Bigfoot, ghosts, or other monsters, for example. We are apt to read into fiction the possibility that uncanny situations, as improbable as they seem, force us to hesitate just enough to believe that the uncanny is possible. Hence the fear in us continues to linger beyond a story’s last words.

Look soon for my next short story about fear, “Night of the Pantagruel,” an account of a man’s uncanny encounter with a monster in the heart of contemporary New York City.


“The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre” by Tzvetan Todorov

“The Uncanny (1919)” by Sigmund Freud

“Nabokov and the Verbal Mode of the Grotesque” by Ralph A. Ciancio in Contemporary Literature  Vol 18, No 4 (Autumn, 1977)

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