Writer: Karen Heuler
Weird Tales Story: Landscape, with Fish (Issue #348, Jan/Feb 2008)
Writer Bio: Karen Heuler’s latest novel is Journey to Bom Goody, the story of strange doings in the Amazon. She has a story in Bandersnatch as well as in Weird Tales, and upcoming in Cemetery Dance. She’s written tons of stories, on either side of the fence that divides literary and speculative, and she’s won an O. Henry award. She lives in New York with her dog, Booker Prize, and the cats, Nobel and Pulitzer.
I was levitated when I was 14. I was in Catholic high school, and it was gym class. Our teacher wanted to show us how to do it-it probably wasn’t billed as levitation, there was probably some more scientific explanation going on-and I volunteered. I lay down on my back on the gym floor and closed my eyes. Girls knelt down at each armpit and at my waist and ankles and the teacher gave a signal and something happened. I kept my closed eyes, and I was lifted. Six girls, with only their index fingers supporting me, lifted me up in a single graceful effortless gesture, and then they lifted me down.
It’s still a wonderful memory-a sense memory-for me. I wish there’d been a camera there so I could study it-had it really looked the way it felt?
I think that was the first fence I crossed over.
I teach a fairy tale writing course, and in my readings I came across an explanation of why so many heroes and heroines in fairy tales have to go to the forest, or to a magical world. They have go outside the fence, beyond civilization into wilderness, in order to accept the wildness, the innate animalness in themselves (hence also, stories about beasts and animal transformations) and incorporate that into their civilized selves.
I know that we are all on journeys, many of them surprising even to ourselves-and the fence seems intimately connected with the journey, especially in literature.
The fence isn’t just to protect us, to hem us in; it’s also there to define what’s outside us; it’s where we end and the Other begins. So, if you’re interested in the Other, there’s a simple way of getting there: pass beyond the fence.
But fences are metaphors, too; if you can imagine going past the fence, you’ve already done it, in a way; you can imagine a different order, a different scheme to things. I hope it also means that you can imagine the integrity of the Other-that even if they believe different things, they may still deserve respect. (And if we can’t respect what’s on the opposite side of our local fences, I have little hope for our planetary one.) The point of the journey in fairy tales, however, is to incorporate what’s learned on the other side of the fence, not to discard it.
Traveling to cultures that are dramatically different from our own is crossing the fence; and I’ve noticed (as have others) that even when you travel to get outside yourself-to escape yourself-you tend to reinvest yourself in your identity. If you go where no one knows you at all, you spend a lot of time reintroducing yourself. You go back to the pattern of yourself, and you seek out people who are most like the people you left behind. And you’re attracted to brands that remind you of home: if you have to buy aspirin in a local pharmacy, you’ll get the one that looks most familiar. That brand has never poisoned you before, so you’ll bypass the local brand that could, God knows, be something other than what you want. Because all the things outside the fence are capable of being somewhat more-or somewhat less-than the things familiar to you inside the fence. These new things are suspect and unpredictable.
Outside the fence, every object is questionable and every event suspicious or magical. Our experience of these things can bring our own journeys into register for us, or simply instill the belief that the Other contains possibilities for good and evil that surpass our own. We may believe that there is a cure for cancer in jungle medicine; that is possible because the Amazon is outside the fence. We may believe that there is immortality after death; certainly outside the fence. We may hope for greater intelligence beyond the stars or fear a greater enmity-because that fence, the outline of our own world, has limits beyond our experience.
Stories give us suggestions on how to survive the unknown. How we treat the giants and witches and alien reptiles out there is already set up in our tales, those journals of imaginary encounters. If we look quickly, we may find enemies, we may destroy them or they will destroy us, as our metaphors dictate. But if we prepare for the journey ahead of time-as stories of new worlds, outside or inside, do-then we leave ourselves open to exploring the details that are unfamiliar to us, of taking a chance that what is unreal may be as much a revelation as what is real.
I wish I had opened my eyes when they lifted me up: I wonder if I would have seen something new.