The Darkening Garden: Sighting

The following is an entry reprinted from The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror, written by the World Fantasy Convention 2012 Encyclopedist Guest of Honor, John Clute. This is the third entry of several from The Darkening Garden to be reprinted on this site over the course of ten days. Some formatting has been changed from the original published form of the text. Bolded items within this entry can be found within The Darkening Garden as additional / complementary entries. – The Editors

Image © Dirk Fowler

Sighting is a glimpse of terror to come; it is uncanny to experience (see below), and it tells us that something worse than what we just sighted is in the offing: like the first glimpse of the child who will become devouringly the protagonist’s son in Thomas M Disch’s “The Asian Shore” (in Orbit 6, anth 1970, ed Damon Knight), or the first flash of red in Nicholas Roeg’s film version (1973) of Daphne du Maurier’s “Don’t Look Now” (1966), or the protagonist’s friend’s eyes, which “glisten like wet marbles in the gathering twilight” in Rick Hautala’s “Worst Fears” (in Gothic Ghosts, anth 1997, ed Wendy Webb and Charles Grant), telling us that she, and the city, and all else, are dead. Sighting is therefore more than an initial experience of horror (see Affect Horror), whose effects may be exhausted in the seeing, for it is central to Affect Horror that what you see is what you get. Sighting predicts; it is an aliquot sample of what is to come; an Infection of the next. It is the first “sentence” in an argument whose outcome will be an unpeeling of the true world (see Bound Fantastic). Sighting is directly analogous to the sense of wrongness that initiates most fantasy tales set in a secondary world (see Free Fantastic). They are both transitive: they convey us to the next thing.

In terms of the prescriptive four-seasons model of the narrative structure of Horror which governs most of the entries in this lexicon, Sighting, the first stage in that model, signals the moment when the protagonist (or the narrative voice of the story) begins to recognize a Thickening (which is the second stage) in the texture of the world, just as Wrongness (stage one in the equivalent Fantasy model) is an augur of the Thinning (stage two) of the old world into a condition of desert Amnesia. Sighting is the first sign that we are going to be unmapped or unhouseled from the normal world — “normal world” being a term simply designating a world that we are accustomed to, a world which we may indeed discover to have been unreal. In terms of the model used here, what Horror unmaps — from the first Sighting — is exactly not the real world, though it may be the world we desperately prefer, but the worldrind of civilized usage, the world-lie we use to repress the worldstory, the cover up which coats over the Horror beneath: that being the true history of our times: the universal Vastation that attends true sight of our species and its riven planet.

Sighting clearly signals a release of material that in any psychological reading of Horror is likely to have been repressed, though a wholly expressionist reading of the dynamic between the prior world, and the world Sighting exposes to view, does unduly restrict the range of meanings intended here. It is still surely the case that something like the return of the repressed — the re-emergence into sight of that which “ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light”, as Sigmund Freud describes the Uncanny in his famous essay “Das Unheimlich” (1919) — does characterize Sighting. But for Freud the Uncanny is not simply (or not only) an exposure of the horrific unfamiliar within the familiar: it is far more slippery than that, as Susan Bernstein argues in “It Walks — The Ambulatory Uncanny” (MLN, vol 118, #5, December 2003): for Freud the Uncanny is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. Moreover, the Uncanny (passing beyond “Das Unheimlich”, but doing so insecurely, because Freud is cleverer than his readers) is not a term adequately restricted to the experience of an individual psyche in distress as the individual past wells up from within; the Uncanny. certainly in terms of the arguments being sketched here, is a pun of the world.

The Uncanny — which is to say Sighting — is a trompe l’oeil which the world generates. It is the familiar, which is the false, and the unfamiliar, which is the true, in one aspect. Because it is both the same and not the same, it affects the protagonist who bears witness as both sacred and profane: which it is. A Sighting is often first experienced, therefore, in a Mirror; the first glimpse of a double or twin also constitutes — almost invariably in modern Horror — a Sighting. Its slipperiness is both chthonic and horrific, a doubling common in myth, and common once again after 1800. It is the wit of Terror, and makes the heart of the protagonist (and of the identifying reader) thump in the breast, though not for joy of the joke; and it is all more terrible in that the heart now beats to the rhythm of the world to come. Having experienced this pun of the world, and walking now to its beat, the protagonist (and the reader) may now attempt to escape their Sighting, but to run away in Horror is to be Followed; to run away is to make an Appointment in Samarra. Once a Sighting has been made, there is no return. Alternatively, protagonists may respond proactively, they may set out on what they claim is a quest for the unknown: but there is no such thing as a genuine quest in Horror, for the unknown has already taken them; they are already hooked. (What is quest in Fantasy is Hook in Horror.) Sighting is the beginning of the end of things. Sighting is a flash of the future.

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