Weird Tales: Karen Heuler on Going Outside the Fence

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.

4 comments on “Weird Tales: Karen Heuler on Going Outside the Fence

  1. Idelis Sotomayor says:

    Karen Heuler has been one of my inspiring professors at the NYU. I learned a lot, in many senses, attending her course: Beauties, Beasts & Enchantments. Listening to her and other professors, I discovered many things about myself and my fellow humans. I found that besides going outside the fence of civilization, to meet the wildness repressed -mainly and equally- by religious oppression and materialist control, we can go inside other similarly wild, natural dimensions.

    So there are also inner fences inside everyone of us. And, in order to evolve spiritually and meet who we really are as human beings in the middle of a boundless cosmos, we too must go into what those inner fences encircle (fences that have been built up culturally throughout millennia.) Every culture has them. Why? Because of the borderlines created by sheer fear, the ignominious child of ignorance and the primitive stages of thinking, when spiritual reason -material reason’s counterpart- was not awakened yet.

    Today ruled by material technology and the frantic pursue of money, when spiritual reason still is the sleeping beauty cradled in our repressed spirituality, such borderlines are fixed even deeper due to habit, tradition and mostly: intellectual apathy, the inertia of the critical mind, that idle sin that weakens and make freethinking ill, enslaving us to any poisonous brainwashing. Those inner fences have signs that warn us: “Do not go beyond the beliefs of the holy creed or else…!” But I have started going through the inner fences, disobeying the old dictation, just using critical thinking, thus freeing my mind from any irrational dogma, and I have found that nothing on earth is more holy than life, that there are no such things as ‘holy books’, ‘holy entities’, ‘holy sites’, ‘holy tenets’, ‘holy images, relics, signals’, and so forth. Because every human being, animal, plant and flower, the planet itself and all forms of life within it, are the only holy things possible, actual, that ever existed and will exist.

    Going outside the fence of civilization -western culture in our case- is as daring as going inside our inner fences, a journey that I intend to promote in a novel I am writing currently, “The Untold Bible of Humanity…” Agreeing with Karen Heuler, one of my dear former professors, on the need or impulse to cross the fence that keeps what we know apart from what we don’t know, I make mine too these wise words of hers: “… 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.” Let us -all of us- go inside our inner fences, too!

    Idelis Sotomayor

  2. Eric A. Sredna says:

    I know about Karen Heuler and her refreshing work, always opening new views from forgotten thresholds. This recent subject of hers, Going Outside the Fence, thought to get us out of the urban dungeon and meet the Other, the Different One, therefore a way to grow more and so expand Oneself with no frontiers, is a profound way of feeling and rethinking life…

    She is a delightful soaring soul, one that I can picture as a daring seagull. Nonetheless, who is -professionally speaking- Idelis Sotomayor? Is she still a student at NYU? We know -from her submission- that she has been at Ms. Heuler’s literary workshop, but how come she expresses herself as a well rounded and polished pro?

    We do need more writers like Karen and this newcomer, Ms. Sotomayor. When the novel of Idelis, “The Untold Bible of Humanity…,” will be released? I want to read it the sooner possible. I got very curious from reading what she says about ‘going inside our inner fences,’ “… we too must go into what those inner fences encircle (fences that have been built up culturally throughout millennia).”

    Perhaps here, if Heuler, Sotomayor and the like agree with the idea of cultivating spirit-expanding tales and novels alternatively, is the respond to Jeff VanderMeer’s preoccupation concerning today’s necessity of more arresting and out-of-the-urban-detritus short fiction writers.


  3. Alicia Carr says:

    What an interesting blog is this one of Ann and Jeff Vandermeer! I love reading fairy tales and everything else from fantasy land. Karen Heuler’s idea concerning the vital importance -for our personal integrity & sanity- of knowing others different from us, makes me think about how much we miss when we disregard other peoples’ culture, habits and beliefs, just because we’re not familiar with any of those (also human) experiences taking place in our lifetime and connected to us -according to Carl Jung- in the collective unconsciousness.

    Moreover, what a previous contributor of the blog, Idelis Sotomayor -an exotic and elegant name in my opinion, says regarding “going inside our inner fences” as a complement to professor Heuler’s Going Outside the Fence, really strikes me deeply! There’s so much that we all keep inside and are afraid of looking at and confronting in a spiritual way.

    I’m convinced that humans are embodied souls, trapped in organic matter to accomplish many things we don’t dare do yet, simply because of religious and cultural repression. I’m talking about our inherent spiritual powers (to change this physical dimension, starting with health conditions) still not well developed, due to fear of being punished -from above!- for acting godlike.

    I’m looking forward to reading Sotomayor’s “The Untold Bible of Humanity…” and see what’s there for a hungry reader of fairy tales -and all fantasy themes- like me. You all keep up the excellent work, and have great holidays and a much better new year! Alicia Carr

  4. Vinnie Citto says:

    Levitation is true hot stuff. Maybe Karen has psychic faculties waiting to be used and enjoyed to the fullest as it should be.

    Out of body experience, near death experience, astral projection, psychokinesis and, in general, any extrasensory perception or psi processes, which are natural although uncommon phenomena that don’t follow accepted ideas taken as laws or scientific reality, constitute a little explored realm useful as inspiration for fairy tales and any fiction dealing with realities out of this procrustean civilization’s mind. Please check Procrustes or Damastes in any cultural dictionary or encyclopedia.

    After reading Heuler’s inspiring account and the clear-minded comments, I caught a vigorous wind of open-mindness that makes me feel optimistic about the future of short and long fiction in America. The mental computation of the obtuse ruling elites will never understand that people are in their inner self much more things and dimensions than what the habits, ideas and mores of the century tell them they are or should be.

    So I can see life from Karen’s, Idelis’, Eric’s and Alicia’s angle of view.

    I would like to exchange e-mail with Idelis Sotomayor, the preparing author of “The Untold Bible of Humanity…” My e-mail address is The already told “Bible of Christianity” -whether King James’ version or New International’s, New Revised Standard’s, Latin Vulgate’s, Vetus Latina’s, Septuagint’s, etc.- is one of the many books of canards that have been used as a revered tool to torture, murder, make war, practice genocide, exercise fierce control and perpetrate consummate brainwashing, so it’s about time to see what truths it might be told in “The Untold Bible of Humanity…” My kudos to this blog, its organizers and all the enlightening commentators.

    Vinnie Citto

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