presence and absence

Zombie from The Dark Mod

Anthronaut delightedly used that old vernacular in telling me that he nearly shat his pants when he read when hell is full for the first time. That was exactly the anticipated effect, my intention as author. KerLeone was delighted by the story as well and even linked to it from his weblog—an honest thanks for that, it’s an honour to get a link from such a widely read blog like mosaikum. But KerLeone’s blog-entry on my story is kind of a spoiler—at least within the German-speaking world. “Kind” of a spoiler because it doesn’t reveal information from within the story, but information from beyond the story, which I told him face-to-face. KerLeone wrote: “Zephyrin’s encounter with a drunkard …”

The empirical truth—in this context: roughly what you would have observed if you had been present and an eye-witness—is that, when I stepped back and said aloud “Fuck me sideways” (in fact a German equivalent), the man finally woke up. He indeed was stone-drunk, couldn’t tell me who he was, but had a vague idea of where he lived. And he knew that he had to take the last tram. The latter arrived just in time and I placed him inside. The tramdriver had to take care of him, as he can not leave people sitting inside the car when he drives it back to the depot. So, that was my way out.

All right, it was a living drunkard and not a dead corpse I encountered. But that is not the point. The point is my internal state of mind in the very moment when the man slowly slid to the side, apparently lifeless, and during the moments right after that. Deep down inside me I suddenly felt the presence of death. Just as I had felt it before several times. I have seen dead people before, and I have seen people die before. Now I felt exactly the same. The presence of death. But death as something that can be present is an abstract idea, a concept, an imagination. What is irritating us is rather the absence of a human mind while the human body still is present.

This very irritation I wanted to mediate by my little story. To accomplish this task I decided to use a subterfuge which is close kin to Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov’s decisive criterium for fiction being fantastic literature, which he described in his “The fantastic: A structural approach to a literary genre” (1973 [1970]).

In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know … there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination—and the laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality—but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us (Todorov 1973 [1970]: 25)

The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty … The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event. (Todorov 1973 [1970]: 25)

The fantastic requires the fulfillment of three conditions. First, the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural or supernatural explanation of the events described. Second, this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader’s role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work—in the case of naive reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character. Third, the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as “poetic” interpretations. (Todorov 1973 [1970]: 33)

Todorov’s literary theory is quite controversial—see e.g. Stanislav Lem‘s take on it: “Todorov’s fantastic theory of literature” (1974)—but I embrace his core idea of the fantastic, leaving the reader uncertain if he read about something supernatural or not. In horror fiction it has been an established strategy already for a long time, to build up and perpetuate suspense by not telling what is knocking on the door. If it is never told, but we shit our pants nevertheless, then I guess the particular piece of horror fiction borders on Todorov’s definition of the fantastic. In his excellent “On Writing” Stephen King takes up the cudgels for telling what is knocking on the door, for opening the door and letting the uncanny pass the threshold. Mr. King’s body of work is ample proof for that strategy working as well—I especially admire vast parts of his short fiction … and of course his two non-fiction books “Danse Macabre” (1993 [1981]) and “On Writing”. But telling that I “only” had encountered a drunkard could not have done justice to my subjective perception of the situation.

My entry wasn’t meant as a piece of horror fiction or even the fantastic, I just wanted to uphold the uncertainty about wether I had found a dead man or not. Let the reader hang in limbo, I thought. Let particular information stay absent. Hopefully this will evoke irritation. And hopefully this irritation comes close to my irritation when I felt the presence of death, the absence of a human mind.

the waiting bench

The picture at the beginning of this entry shows a character model from
The Dark Mod, a “Doom 3” (ID Software 2004) total conversion. “Doom 3” itself is a perfect example of letting the things which go bumb in the night pass the threshold. During the first chapters everything possible by the tremendous resources the computergame medium offers is done to install and ambience and mood of threatening but yet unseen horror. And I did shit my pants. Then the door crashes open and the player literally encounters zombies, the undead and all kinds of monsters. From that point on the game falls flat in my opinion. The beautiful lighting and the meticuously designed and rendered architecture and characters can’t help anymore. The second picture I took several nights ago. It shows the waiting bench where I found the man—he was sitting at the far left chair. Now he’s absent.
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