A Thing of Forms Unknown: Thoughts on C.S. Lewis and Horror with Chris Calderon

Within a longer project on C.S. Lewis and the Ransom Cycle, I have outlined a chapter focussing on some instinctive horror elements in Lewis’ science fiction. I have written up the close readings for the piece, but am missing one element of the horror theory–a link I can’t quite name. Thus, when a horror-informed friend comes along, I have a series of questions for them. In a traditional vampyric vein, I am always looking to draw out the life of knowledge from others when they happen upon my path.

One of these knowledge donors is ChrisC, curator of The Scriblerus Club blog and sometimes conversation partner in the comments section of A Pilgrim in Narnia. Chris also provided an editorial note on a great find: “George Macdonald’s ‘The Princess and the Goblin’: The Animated Movie.”  Not only is Chris a prolific young critic, but we have corresponded from time to time on horror as a genre, and he has provided me with something like a primer on the genre. Intriguingly, ChrisC discovered C.S. Lewis not through Narnia or Screwtape, but as a lover of Gothic and horror fiction.

Today, on All Hallows’ Eve, I wanted to share ChrisC’s recent piece, “C.S. Lewis’s Form of Things Unknown (1957-59).” “Forms of Things Unknown” is a late 1950s science fiction short story by C.S. Lewis that was never (as far as we know) published during his life. This quick-moving first-planetary contact story was first published in anthologies:

“Forms of Things Unknown” is probably my favourite of C.S. Lewis’ remaining short stories. However, in terms of sheer enjoyment, I am not honestly a fan of Lewis’ brief tales. “The Man Born Blind” is an interesting philosophical tale, and Charlie Starr’s work with this story in Light: C.S. Lewis’s First and Final Short Story intensifies its meaning. The other two complete prose stories that remain are “The Shoddy Lands” and “Ministering Angels.” I loathe one of these tales and enjoy the other, and I have never been won over by those who want to vilify or exonerate Lewis for the sexism at different layers of the pieces.

This piece though, “Forms of Things Unknown,” is a literature-lovers classic SF tale. The piece could use an editor’s hand, even in the area of “atmosphere” where Lewis excels. Still, as ChrisC identifies, “Forms” is an atmospheric tale, evoking what he cleverly calls “The October Country Genre”–evoking Ray Bradbury‘s 1950s collection of his own dark tales. ChrisC writes:

“Lewis manages to capture a snapshot of this dream in his waking memory, and his latent artistic abilities as a wordsmith allowed him to make his readers see that veiled figure making its inexorable way toward the audience.  In my mind, it moves like a slow-motion time-lapse film.”

For anyone who enjoys classic science fiction tales but also appreciates a touch of haunting or a shiver of wonder, C.S. Lewis’ “Forms of Things Unknown” is worth a quarter of an hour’s reading.

And, going deeper, for those who want to explore Lewis’ ’50s tale, ChrisC’s blog post is really more like a book chapter offering a number of perspectives within a single argument. Here are some things readers might find in ChrisC’s “C.S. Lewis’s Form of Things Unknown (1957-59):

  • ChrisC’s story of discovering “Forms of Things Unknown”–and C.S. Lewis–when he found a story in an October Country story anthology by Roger Lancelyn Green
  • A creative rewriting of “Forms of Things Unknown” as a screenplay for the TV show, The Outer Limits
  • Contextual literary critical notes on mythic backgrounds and meaning, as well as important connections to SciFi and horror of the period
  • Some notes on the perspectival nature and atmospheric qualities of Lewis’ science fiction writing
  • A series of cool SF art pieces that work to enhance our enjoyment of the story
  • Engagement with some C.S. Lewis scholarship on “Forms of Things Unknown,” including Suzanne Bray and Bruce R. Johnson, as well as other bits of literary scholarship (myth, Gothic, horror, etc.)
  • A bit of warranted pushback on Lewis’ belief that only the first literary exploration of a planet works as a journey tale, and that real exploration of planets would ruin the storytelling potential for artistic tale-tellers

ChrisC also brings aspects of Roger Lancelyn Green‘s introduction to the Uncanny tales, with a prescient comment on Lewis’ “Forms of Things Unknown.” I would not have seen this piece otherwise, so I am grateful to ChrisC for it. However, I share it with two provisos.

First, don’t read ChrisC’s piece or the Green quote below if you haven’t read C.S. Lewis’ “Forms of Things Unknown,” but want to. Essential to enjoying “Forms of Things Unknown” is reading the story without any background, and then rereading it knowing how it is soaked in myth as it means the heart of humanity.

Second, go and enjoy ChrisC’s larger piece, “C.S. Lewis’s Form of Things Unknown (1957-59).”

Thus, in closing as the sun sets here on Hallowe’en, a note from Roger Lancelyn Green on C.S. Lewis’ October Country story, “Forms of Things Unknown”:

“Although not properly ghosts, many creatures even more uncanny haunted the world in the heroic age of ancient Greece.  What could be more gruesome than the Gorgons?  These three monstrous women had snakes growing out of their heads instead of hair, they had great tusks like wild boars, brazen hands and golden wings with which they flew.  Anyone who looked at them was immediately turned to stone; but Perseus, by looking only at her reflection in a polished shield, managed to cut off the head of Medusa, the only one of the Gorgons who was mortal.  Her sisters, Stheno and Euryale, were immortal; not only could no one kill them, but presumably, if one follows the legend to its logical conclusion as C.S. Lewis did, they would remain alive under any circumstances, even without air and in the extremes of heat and cold that they would encounter if either of them found herself outside the Earth’s atmosphere (xii)”.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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3 Responses to A Thing of Forms Unknown: Thoughts on C.S. Lewis and Horror with Chris Calderon

  1. ChrisC says:

    Prof. Dickieson,

    Well, so, yeah, um…this is just kinda totally insane. In a good way, I mean. I wasn’t expecting any response like this, and I think all that really can be said here is that this whole write-up is as humbling as it is gratifying. All of which is to say thanks, and much appreciation for the shout-out.

    One more thing to note. I must have given the wrong impression at the start of the essay. I found out about Lewis through Narnia, just like a lot of other former elementary school kids. In fact, the start of the work is kind of a recap of that experience in a way that matches how other readers come to know him.

    All I was doing there was trying to treat that personal experience as the collective phenomenon it often is for the vast majority of audiences, some of whom may (fingers crossed) grow up to be actual readers. The Green/”Uncanny” story is just the latest in a long time experience with Jack and his work. Sorry if that wasn’t made clear.

    Like

    • Hi ChrisC, it was great to find your piece.
      Perhaps I might adjust my comment above, because I may have been a hasty reader. However, although I read Narnia as a kid–and naturally returned to it as an adult, during my grad school time, actually–it was The Great Divorce, and then The Four Loves, and then Letters to an American Lady that really made me “find” Lewis. And then Screwtape was the lock, with the SciFi books. And then finding that Screwtape was part of the Ransom Cycle made me see the worlds differently. And knowing Lewis through this and the letters allowed me to receive Narnia as a new, fresh thing.
      Does that make sense?
      Should I change that above, I wonder?

      Like

      • ChrisC says:

        Prof. Dickieson,

        Hey, sorry for the late reply. Your own story about discovering Lewis is definitely interesting. I think your gateway text experiences are, maybe not super unique, or anything like that. However it probably does qualify as different from the normal way readers pick up on Lewis as a writer.

        For most out there, myself included, it was through the usual “Chronicles” series route that fans have ever had a clue about who Lewis was, or that he even existed. Like I implied in the essay, it was the publication of those seven kid’s books that pretty much set his reputation in stone. The interesting thing about it all for me is the way pop culture itself winds up framing an author’s reputation. Like, I wonder how many people will ever be aware of just how much of an actual literary scholar Lewis was. Doesn’t seem like it will ever be anything like a great majority who comes to understand this, say sorry.

        As for editing the article, well, if you want to go for the sake of critical accuracy route, then I guess I’d better say go ahead. I mean, it’s the truth, after all.

        To clarify, the first I ever heard of Lewis was from a preview of the Bill Melendez (of “Peanuts” fame) animated “Wardrobe” special (which is still the most accurate adaptation Lewis has had on any “screen”), however this was just a passing glance at the time. Yet it did plant this interesting book title in my head that I wondered about off and on occasion. It wasn’t until my elementary school years that a teacher there introduced me to the actual words and content of the book, along with the rest of the class. Later on, we learned about “Prince Caspian”. Further on, during the last of my teen years, out of a genuine curiosity, I picked up and became one of the few people who has actually managed to read “Miracles” from start to finish, and enjoy it.

        I’ve been a fan ever since then. It wasn’t my imagination, but rather my intellect that was baptized, if that makes any sense. This, then, is a basic outline of how I got into Lewis’s writings. I don’t think there’s any need to quote me verbatim, here. Aside from taking up too much space, it also comes off sounding less objective to me, for some reason. Less scholarly, if you can dig it. I’d also say you don’t have to quote the suggestion I’m about to give out. However, a good alternate way of saying it could go as something like: “While he discovered Lewis in the normal way, ChrisC has also found an interest in the “Narnia” author’s more obscure writings”.

        Does that help by any chance?

        Like

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