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:
- Walter Hooper, ed., Of Other Worlds (1966)
- Roger Lancelyn Green, ed., Thirteen Uncanny Tales (1970)
- Walter Hooper, ed., The Dark Tower, and Other Stories (1977)
“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.”
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)”.