Sunday, October 23, 2022

C.S. Lewis's Forms of Things Unknown (1957-59)

Would you believe me if I said I'd found a Horror story written by C.S. Lewis?  Would you be even more incredulous if I told you it was set in outer space, of all places?  These are the type of questions that can sometimes be fascinating.  My reasons for enjoying these occasional, left field curve balls is because of what the responses to them can tell me about the mindset of the audience as a whole.  It might not sound like much, yet it can be sometimes be like hitting the jackpot for any professional critic dedicated to doing the job well.  A great majority of the audience might have no clue at all who or what I'm talking about.  The second response belongs to those who might have at least some passing familiarity with the author mentioned above.  Though they might be inclined to discount the idea that a guy like that would ever bother with something like outer space, or the Horror genre for that matter.  

Didn't he write something to do with a magical land behind some sort of locked door, or whatever?  There may be a few fuzzy childhood memories about reading, or having such a storybook told to you and your long-forgotten elementary school friends out loud when you were little, and that's about it as far as any grand awareness goes.  What I find so interesting about both sets of replies is what it can tell us about what might be termed the artistic awareness of the viewers and readers of stories

What it helps the critic to discover is the actual limits of pop-culture memory.  What I've found is that it's an often slippery slope, one in which even the greatest of artistic names can fall through the cracks of cultural awareness and literacy if you're not too careful.  Let's take one other example of what I mean, before moving on to the main subject.  Let's take the streak of Blockbuster Comedies that appeared during the 1980s.  Who do you associate most with those films?  My guess is that most people today would have trouble recalling the comedians who starred in those pictures, or what made them, for a time, a series of household names.  A few might be able to recall the likes of Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, or John Candy.  And yet sometimes its difficult to recall the exact details.  So here's the deal, if it's tough for most people at this time to remember even the basic plot of a film like Ghostbusters, what are the odds anyone's going to remember that time when an old children's author wrote a Cosmic Horror story?  I'd say odds are good no one would ever have a clue such a thing even existed.


This appears to be about as far as pop-culture is able to take anyone anywhere.  It's a rough gig, and  what's hip today may barely cast a glare in the rear-view mirror of tomorrow.  The funny thing is how a short attention span does little to erase the past.  It also can't stop a lot of old, obscure works of fiction from existing.  It's one of those cases where if you're enough of a bookworm, sooner or later you might kick over a metaphorical rock, and discover a rich load of undiscovered writings you never knew existed.  At least that's sort of the case with my finding out about the story under discussion today.  It's the kind of discovery I wasn't expecting to make when I fist picked up a simple book of short stories.  All that happened was I got hold of a collection with the unassuming title of 13 Uncanny Tales, Chosen and Edited by Roger Lancelyn Green.  He's another writer of forgotten children's books, and as I'd liked or enjoyed some of the stuff he's written before, this didn't seem like that much of an unnatural choice to make.  It also didn't hurt that this time Green was editing together a collection of Horror stories.

The truth is I've been a sucker for that type of writing since almost before I learned to read.  It was spotting a kid's Gothic novel by John Bellairs that made me want to pick up my first book.  I've been perusing through pages ever since.  So the idea of yet another anthology dedicated to the October Country genre was music to my ears, at least.  I picked up Green's book, leafed through the Table of Contents, and there it was.  Forms of Things Unknown, by C.S. Lewis.  I'd heard of the guy, of course.  The first time I recall ever hearing anything about him was once when I caught the preview of an old, animated TV special that was made from one of his books, on the Disney Channel.  A few years later, I had this same story read to me by one of my teachers way back in elementary school.  I suppose that's how a whole generation in the 80s and 90s grew up hearing about him.  It's like there was this brief span of time when Lewis was part of this informal group of writers that kids would either pick up on their own, or else they would come in contact with his work the way I did, by having adults read the stories out loud to us, either alone, or in a group.  That's how most us remember him, so far as we can.

As I've already said, though.  I wasn't expecting to run across him in a book of short stories dedicated to the Macabre.  Nor was I expecting this same guy to set his work in the great expanse of outer space.  In fact, I'm not sure I know of many people who would ever have expected him to do such a thing.  For most of us, he's just this half-remembered name on a list of a handful of literary babysitters we used to have when we were kids.  That list might have included the likes of Dr. Seuss and R.L. Stine, and not many others.  In that sense, it's kind of a wonder that at least 50% of the audience can still recall Lewis at all.  To discover that one of your old, nursery school teachers could have this other writing career, one you never even knew about, is interesting to say the least.  It's like discovering that one of your school teachers once tried a turn towards novel writing without telling anyone, thus creating this odd sense of confusion and intrigue.  That fact that one editor decided this work classified as Horror just went to sweeten the deal for me.  It's not what I expected, and yet it got my interest.  Enough of it, anyway, so that I wound up intrigued enough to want to know more about this left-field offering.


So far, the best bits of background information I've been able to dig up on this story boils down to just two sources.  The first and oldest is The Shorter Planetary Fiction of C.S. Lewis, by Bruce R. Johnson.  The second, and only other source I could find is Suzanne Bray's Close Encounters of the Mythical Kind.  It's in the latter essay that Bray comes closest to giving the average reader anything resembling an insight into where a story like this might have come from.  "When asked about how he wrote his fictional works, Lewis always asserted that these “began by seeing pictures in [his] head” (“It All Began” 79), sometimes pictures he had seen years before he started writing. For example, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, published in 1950, began “with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood” (79), which had been in Lewis’s mind since he was about sixteen. In the same way, “Forms of Things Unknown” probably started with a frightening dream Lewis described in a letter to his father in March 1927...

"I dreamed I was walking among the valleys of the moon—a world of pure white rock, all deep chasms and spidery crags, with a perfectly black sky overhead. Of course there was nothing living there, not even a bit of moss: pure mineral solitude. Then I saw, very far off, coming to meet me down a narrow ravine, a straight, tall figure, draped in black, face and all covered. One knew it would be nicer not to meet that person: but one never has any choice in a dream, and for what seemed about an hour I went on till this stranger was right beside me . . . it was the sense of being on the moon you know, the complete desolateness, which gave the extraordinary effect. (Letters 1 678).

"However, both this dream, and the later short story, may have been influenced by his reading of H.G. Wells’s novel The First Men in the Moon (1901), which Lewis particularly admired and which has, in places, an atmosphere similar to the one found in “Forms of Things Unknown.” Describing the novel to the Cambridge University English Club, Lewis stated: 'The first glimpse of the unveiled airless sky, the lunar landscape, the lunar levity, the incomparable solitude, then the growing terror, finally the overwhelming approach of the lunar night—it is for these things that the story. . . exists. (“Science Fiction” 86).  Lewis also asked his listeners in Cambridge whether any man is “such a dull clod that he can look at the moon through a good telescope without asking himself what it would be like to walk among those mountains under that black, crowed, sky” (85), implying that he himself had certainly done so (web)".  This scrap of useful information leaves a number of interesting thoughts in the readers mind.  For me, what's most fascinating about all this comes down to just two things.  The first would have to be this almost shared sens of surprise among the majority of the audience.  I doubt there are a great many people who would have expected someone like C.S. Lewis to enjoy the Solar System.

The second has to do with Lewis's skill in describing that eerie "picture" he saw in one of his dreams.  That being the image of what, to me, sounds like a basic sort of death's head figure making its slow way toward the viewer as it glides, ghost-like, over the rocky, bleached-out terrain of the Lunar surface.  There's just this odd sense of creepy power to the idea in Lewis's dreams.  There's this quality to it that might be described as a terrifying glamour.  It puts the proper sense of artistic fear into the reader, while at the same time being able to draw their attention towards it, with the extra addition of this weird (or perhaps wyrd is the more proper term) "fascination" the creative idea has about it, for lack of a better word.  A part of the draw for this creative picture can be put down to Lewis's skill and the already evident ease that he has with the elements of description.  This dream, or nightmare, appears to date from an early time, perhaps before he even published his first, tentative works.  If that's the case, then Bray has more than one good reason to showcase it in her essay.  The composer of these words is the type that already sounds like he might have a lot going for him.  Even if you never knew who was speaking, any good reader could tell these were the words of someone who could be a talented writer.

What makes this all sorts of interesting, for me at least, is that, once more, these words don't come from an obvious source.  Th image that's being painted suggests a fear of mortality in relation to the vast and boundless oceans of the cosmos.  It's the sort of image you expect to find within the correspondence of someone like H.P. Lovecraft, or Clark Ashton Smith.  Instead, the fact it comes from the pen of someone like Lewis just adds to the sense of intrigue.  It's like learning he has maybe not a Lovecraftian, though perhaps something near to a Bradbury like streak in him, one that never got as much attention as his current reputation testifies.  The final source of power for this early dream correspondence can all be found in the image itself.  The ultimate reason I can find for the strength of Lewis's descriptions is very simple, though perhaps also complex.  The short of it is that he seems to have encountered an archetype in his sleep.  It's just a case of the Imagination putting in a good night's work, in other words.  It's the sort of thing that happens to everybody, yet creative types like Lewis tend to notice it, or place a greater deal of importance on it, than the rest us.  However puzzling that may be.


Either way, the facts are discernible enough in this case.  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.  First there's just the surface of the Moon.  Then the dark figure appears at the top of a horizon.  A brief fade-cut, and then the figure is walking down the hill.  Another time stamp jump and the hooded thing keeps making its way closer until...That's when you begin to realize how at least some folk would maybe begin to wonder if its possible to find a story tucked away in the folds of that image.  For instance, what if the first ever explorers to arrive at the Sea of Tranquility got out of the Lander, only to find that same gaunt, imposing, personage coming right towards them.  It's the stuff that both nightmares and potentially good campfire yarns are made of.  The real surprise remains that Lewis appears to have been of roughly the same type of mind.  He must have been if he was able to tell a whole Tale of Terror out of it.  This, then, is an idea of just how it all goes.

The Story. 

(Note: the following transcriptions are taken verbatim from the volume known as 13 Uncanny Tales, with the exception of stage directions, and opening and closing monologues.  The latter come through the help and research work of author and critic David J. Schow.  All quotes are given proper citation).


Control Voice (v.o.): There is nothing wrong with your television set.  Do not attempt to adjust the picture.  We are controlling transmission.  We will control the horizontal.  We will control the vertical.  We can change the focus to a soft blur.  Or sharpen it to crystal clarity.  For the next hour, sit quietly, and we will control all that you see and here.  You are to participate in a great adventure.  You are about to experience the awe, and mystery, which reaches from the inner mind to...The Outer Limits (web)".

Cue Title Card: Forms of Things Unknown.  Fade Out Title Card.

Fade In On:

Ext: The Galaxy: The vast expanse of the heavens stretches away for miles, leagues and gulfs.  The stars and planets cluster to create islands of brilliant light as far as the eye can see.  The whole celestial menagerie looks almost as if it were ready to get up and dance.  There is a faint hint of song.

Control Voice (v.o.): "Here, in the bright, clustered loneliness of the billion, billion stars, loneliness can be an exciting, voluntary thing, unlike the loneliness Man suffers on Earth".

The camera begins to pan and traverse through the great cosmic field.

Control Voice (v.o. cont.): "Here, deep in the starry nowhere, a man can be as one with space and time; preoccupied, yet not indifferent; anxious and yet at peace (Schow, 104)".

We transition from the the galaxy to focus in on a shot of:

Ext: The Moon, Night.

As the narration continues, we begin with a close-up of our nearest cosmic neighbor.  Her face shines down clear, and visible, unhindered by clouds or light pollution.

Control Voice (v.o. cont.): "In Man's conquest of space, his own moon must be the first to surrender".

As narration continues, we pull back more and more from the Moon, until it is revealed to be hovering over the night sky of Cambridge, England.

Control Voice (v.o. cont.): "From here he will step his way across the heavens to the edge of infinity.  Each step will be as uncertain as the last, yet each will bring him closer to ultimate truth...".

We Transition Fade from the Moon hanging above the quiet, college town, and Fade In to:

Ext: Cambridge University, Observatory, Night.

The Observatory sits within the grounds of the famous University.  It's most notable feature being the domed, Astronomical Tower that houses the College's great telescope.  There is a light on in one of the Observatory windows.  The camera makes its way toward the lighted window as narration continues.

Control Voice: (v.o. cont.): "...Here a handful of brave scientists and technicians pave the way to the future.  Their mission: To collect information that will eventually enable Man to inhabit the Moon; to use the Moon as a springboard to the stars (Schow, 112)".

Cut to:

Int: Cambridge Observatory, Main Room, Night.

The Main Room housing the University's great telescope has been turned into a makeshift lecture hall.  A handful of students are seated, gathered round the looming hulk of the Astronomy Tower's spyglass.  The telescope itself takes up most of the room, surrounded by an elaborate, makeshift scaffolding.  At the main observation area of this scaffold, right in front of the great glass itself, stands the Observatory Administrator.  The elderly professor uses this vantage point as a lectern, addressing the students.

Administrator: "Before the class breaks up, gentlemen, I should like to make some reference to the fact which is known to some of you, but probably not to all.  High Command, I need not remind you, has asked for a volunteer for yet one more attempt on the Moon.  It will be the fourth.  You know the history of the previous three.  In each case the explorers landed unhurt; or at any rate alive.  We got their messages.  Every message short, some apparently interrupted.  And after that never a word, gentlemen.  I think the man who offers to make the fourth voyage has about as much courage as anyone I've heard of.  And it can't tell you how proud it makes me that he is one of my own pupils.  He is in this room at this moment.  We wish him every possible good fortune.  Gentlemen, I ask you to give three cheers for Lieutenant John Jenkin.'

"Then the class became a cheering crowd for two minutes; after that a hurrying, talkative crowd in the corridor".

Int: Cambridge Observatory, Hallway, Night.

We focus in on Jenkin as he makes his way out of the Observatory.  He's having some difficulty, as he keeps getting jostled by his fellow students, each wanting their turn at congratulations.  Remarks and commentary can be heard all around the Lieutenant.

The Knowing Man: "There's something behind all this". 

The Vermin: 'He always was a chap who'd do anything to get himself into the limelight.'

Various Students, and Classmates: 'Jolly good show, Jenkin'.  Best of luck up there, old boy.

Throughout, Jenkin maintains a look of stone-faced discomfort.  The only relief he shows is when a classmate named Ward, one of his few, actual friends, corrals him away and out of sight to:


Ext: Oxford, The Eagle and Child Pub, Night.

It is a simple, homely looking, public house, sequestered away within the confines of the City of Dreaming Spires.  A few stray cars, pedestrians, and bike riders make their collective way past.

Int: Eagle and Child Pub, Night.

The sense of Homely Virtues continues, as the interior of the pub is a cross between dim and well lit.  It's a quiet night, with just a handful of patrons at the bar, or tucked away in booths.  Jenkin and Ward have found a table for themselves, near a window looking out on the street outside.  Far off, in the distance, the pale, Harvest glow of the Moon can be seen towering above the spires.  As Jenkin and Ward take their seats, a waiter comes up to take their order. 

Ward: 'You kept this pretty dark.'  (Acknowledging waiter) 'What's yours?'  

Jenkin 'A pint of draught Bass.'

The waiter leaves to collect their drinks.  An awkward silence.  Jenkin lets his gaze wander off toward the woman looking down on him from the sky.

Close Up: The Moon, Jenkin's  POV.

Pale Luna appears to be staring right back at him.  Mysterious, inscrutable, uncertain.


Ward (off-screen) 'Do you want to talk about it.'

Int: Eagle and Child Pub, Night.

Jenkin turns his attention back to his surroundings, the drinks have come.  The two friends take their first sips, Jenkin still stone-faced.

Ward: 'I mean - if you won't think I'm butting in, it's not about that girl, is it?'

"That girl was a young woman who was thought to have treated Jenkin rather badly".

Jenkin (impassive, thoughtful): 'Well, I don't suppose I'd be going if she had married me.  But it's not a spectacular attempt at suicide or any rot of that sort.  I'm not depressed.  I don't feel anything particular about her.  Not much interested in women at all to tell you the truth.  Not now.  A bit petrified.'

Ward: 'What is it then?'

Jenkin: 'Sheer unbearable curiosity.  I've read those three little messages over and over till I know them by heart.  I've heard every theory there is about what interrupted them.  I've -

Ward: 'Is it certain they were all interrupted?  I thought one of them was supposed to be complete.'

Jenkin: 'You mean Traill and Henderson?  I think it was as incomplete as the others.  First there was Stafford.  He went alone, like me.'

Ward: 'Must you?  I'll come if you have me.'

"Jenkin shook his head".

 Jenkin: 'I know you would.  But you'll see in a moment why I don't want you to.  But to back to the messages.  Stafford's was obviously cut short by something.  It went Stafford within 50 miles of Point X0308 on the Moon.  My landing was excellent.  I have - then silence.  Then come Traill and Henderson.  We have landed.  We are perfectly well.  The ridge M392 is straight ahead of me as I speak.  Over.'

Ward: 'What do you make of Over?'

Jenkin: 'Not what you do.  You think it means finis - the message is over.  But who in the world, speaking to Earth from the Moon for the first time in all history, would have so little to say - if he could say any more?  As if he'd crossed to Calais and sent his grandmother a card to say, "Arrived safely".  The thing's ludicrous.'

Ward: 'Well, what do you make of Over?'

Jenkin: 'Wait a moment.  The last lot were Trevor, Woodford, and Fox.  It was Fox who sent the message.  Remember it?'


Ward: 'Probably not so accurately as you.'

Jenkin: 'Well, it was this.  This is Fox speaking.  All has gone wonderfully well.  A perfect landing.  You shot pretty well, for I'm on Point X0308 at this moment.  Ridge M392 straight ahead.  On my left, far away across the crater I see the big peaks.  On my right I see the Yerkes cleft.  Behind me....Got it?'

Ward: 'I don't see the point.'

Jenkin: 'Well, Fox was cut off the moment he said behind me.  Supposing Traill was cut off in the middle of saying, "Over my should I can see" or "Over behind me" or something like that?'

Ward: 'You mean...?'

Jenkin: 'All the evidence is consistent with the view that everything went well till the speaker looked behind him, then something got him.'

Ward (growing apprehensive): 'What sort of something?'

Jenkin: 'That's what I want to find out.  One idea in my head is this.  Might there be something on the Moon - or something psychological about the experience of landing on the Moon - which drives men fighting mad?'

Ward: 'I see.  You mean Fox looked round just in time to see Trevor and Woodford preparing to knock him on the head?'

Jenkin: 'Exactly.  And Traill - for it was Traill - just in time to see Henderson a split second before Henderson murdered him.  And that's why I'm not going to risk having a companion; least of all my best friend.;

Ward: 'That doesn't explain Stafford.'

Jenkin: No.  That's why I can't rule out the other hypothesis.'

Ward: 'What's it?'

Jenkin: "Oh", well..."

Jenkin seems to grow uncertain, deliberates with himself for a moment, makes a silent decision.  Goes back to addressing Ward, his voice and manner tentative, yet also solid and firm.

Jenkin: 'That whatever killed them all was something they found there.  Something lunar.'

A pregnant pause.  The two men stare at one another; Ward in blank disbelief, Jenkin with that same stone-faced look.  It's as if the two men have become statues.  Then Ward blinks, collects his thoughts.

Ward (incredulous): 'You're surely not going to suggest life on the Moon at this time of day?'

Jenkin: 'The word life always begs the question.  Because, of course, it suggests organization as we know it on Earth - with all the chemistry which organization involves.  Of course there could hardly be anything of that sort.  But there might be - I at any rate can't say there couldn't - be masses of matter capable of movements determined from within, determined, in fact, by intentions.'


Ward: 'Oh, Lord, Jenkin, that's nonsense.  Animated stones, no doubt!  That's mere science-fiction or mythology.'

Jenkin (shrugs): 'Going to the Moon at all was once science-fiction.  And as for mythology, haven't they found the Cretan labyrinth?'

A low, familiar, rumble starts in the background.

Ward: And all it really comes down to, is that no one has ever come back from the Moon, and no one, so far as we know, ever survived there for more than a few minutes.'

"Ward stared gloomily into his tankard".  We're given one final shot of the two friends seated opposite one another.  Ward somber, Jenkin meanwhile, allows his statue face to have just the faintest hint of a smile.  Meanwhile, the rumble has risen in volume until it takes on the familiar noise of a rocket.

Fade To:

Ext: Rocket Launch Pad, Night.

We are shown Jenkins rocket taking off, lifting slowly off the ground, and beginning to claw its way at G-Force speeds towards the trans-lunar barrier which separates Terra-Firma from the rest of the heavens.  As the rocket continues its ascent, we here the last of the two friends conversation.

Jenkin (cheerily, v.o.) 'Well.'; Somebody's got to go.  The whole human race isn't going to be licked by any blasted satellite.'

Ward: (rueful, v.o.) I might have known that was your real reason.

Ext: Outer Space, Central Standard No-Time At All.


The camera follows the rocket as it takes its first step into the greater cosmos, barreling Jenkin on his way toward an inevitable destination.  As we watch, the target comes into view, as the Moon begins to rise into the frame, and a dead-center trajectory for a meeting between Jenkins, Luna, and the unknown.

C.S. Lewis and the Haunted House in Outer Space: Some Notes on Context and Form.

One of the initial challenges of reviewing even a simple, bare bones short story like this lies in having to see if you can try and square it with or against the kind of popular perception all famous artists build up around themselves over time, and the particular artistic expectations that tend to accumulate around certain brand names as time goes on.  This goes back to what I tried to hint at in the beginning.  If a writer like C.S. Lewis has anything like a popular reputation, then it's mainly as an author of children's fantasies.  He's become this sort of go-to, comfort food provider.  Someone you can place in charge of the kids in order to keep them quiet while you try and survive the daily grind.  He's a bit didactic for some tastes, yet that's done little to put any notable dent in his popularity, from what I can see.  However, it is true that this same worldwide acclaim has locked him into a specific set of artistic expectations.  A lot of it comes from just how good he was at setting what's now considered a genre paradigm.  Lewis may not be the first author to send kids through a magic portal to another world.  Writers like Edith Nesbit and Lewis Carroll are more deserving of the pioneer label in that respect.

However, it does seem as if Lewis turned out to be the brand name that more or less helped give the paradigm its current incarnation, or sense of literary identity, for lack of a better world.  Because he was able to leave so much of an impact, there's very little fantasy out there that doesn't have perhaps at least one or two of his literary tropes in their DNA, even if no one sets out to deliberately copy him.  Even novels, such as Veronica Roth's Chosen Ones, which tries in part to be a critique of the modern quest fantasy paradigm, winds up imitating its overall structures and themes.  Such is the strange, elusive, and alluring power of the various strands of tradition that make up literary practices.  It didn't begin with Lewis.  It never even got started with mere editors like the Brothers Grimm, yet the fact remains it is names like those who are responsible for shaping the way we look at works of fantasy, or any story, for that matter, which can be described as "written in the fairy tale tradition".  I suppose this means one of the downsides of being too good at your chosen profession is that your audience won't be so forgiving if you wind up writing something that's considered way outside of the established set of norms.

I mean, like, who would expect one of the premier authors of whimsy and wonder to suddenly turn around and write anything like an actual Horror story?  Based on what Suzanne Bray details in her essay cited above, that's just the type of rocky reception history that Lewis's short story has received over the years.  It's even had its authenticity doubted at one point, and been hit with claims of literary forgery.  For my part, and long story short, that's a bit too spurious a claim for me to buy into.  Based on a simple reading of the text, I always get the impression I'm dealing with the genuine article.  This is indeed a story written by the creator of Narnia, and the irony is that right there might be the whole problem.  If you mention a name like C.S. Lewis, then the first thing that's going to spring to mind is the title of his most famous creation, the secondary world just mentioned above.  In truth, that's all he is, as far as the vast majority of the world will ever be concerned.  The die is cast, and the mold has been set in stone for ages now.  Because of this gradual development of expectations, it does seem like few, if any readers out there, even those who count themselves as fans, will ever believe that a guy like Lewis could ever harbor an interest in Science Fiction, much less write a Space Horror story.

This is something you can confirm for yourself.  Out of curiosity, I went scavenging around for whatever Reception History I could find on Lewis's short story.  Turns out there wasn't all that much to find.  Bray and Johnson are the two notable scholarly articles that have ever managed to turn up on it.  The rest was just two, three, or four minor notices in a few other amateur blog sites, same as this one.  Each of them treated this obscure effort in the same terms, for the most part.  They thought of Lewis's story as a novelty, and not much in the way of anything else.  With two exceptions, the short piece is considered a minor, late stage offering.  Not something that is deemed worthy of the usual spate of attention and spilled ink that's lavished upon all seven of his children's books.  He's become an author as victim of reputation, pure and simple.  The funny thing is how this can sometimes cloud the reader's ability to give a story like this the proper reception it deserves.  What would an honest look at it be like?


The first notable thing about Forms of Things Unknown, the one that jumps out at the seasoned genre reader, is its almost immediate sense of unexpected, yet somehow welcome, and cozy sense of familiarity.  The easy blending of the tropes associated with both Horror and Science Fiction is one of those ideas, or artistic practices that have long since become just another part of the common currency in the annals of popular fiction.  Even at the time Lewis was busy composing this work (the rough estimates place its beginning and completion somewhere between 1957 and 59) the concept of setting a Tale of Terror in the vast expanse of the New Galactic Frontier had already established itself as a trope.  The 1950s themselves wound up as something like a mini-golden age for what has now come to be known (both with affection and derision) as Buy-Eyed Monster Movies.  These were usually the type of low-budget schlock fests that were being churned out during the height of the Eisenhower era by poverty row companies that often started out with a generic marquee name, such as Brain Eaters from Planet X, and then just threw any old hoary cliche at the wall in the hope that it would stick to the title.

Let it be known, however, that while a lot of the product associated with 50s B-Movie schlock often serves as little better than a form of cinematic fertilizer, it was still capable of churning out the occasional, genuine diamond in the rough.  The best examples this era centric sub-genre had to offer includes the likes of The Thing From Another World and The Day the Earth Stood Still(each released in 1951), War of the Worlds (1953), It Came From Outer Space (whose screenplay was developed by some guy named Ray Bradbury, if that matters), 20.000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Forbidden Planet (all made in the banner year of 1956); along with the likes of such titles as The Blob and The Time Machine (1960)I'm also still willing to go to bat for the under-recognized artistry in the films of directors like Roger Corman.  The reason for bringing any of this up at all is because I'm convinced none of the content of Lewis's short story is ever going to make much sense unless its seen and read within its proper context, and the blended, pop-culture emergence of Science Fiction Horror during the 50s marks an integral ingredient in the story.  It's what gives this posthumous publication it's sense of easy, recognizable familiarity.

At it's core, what Lewis has written is the literary equivalent of one of those old schlock B-Pictures.  The kind of thing that little kids used to sneak out of their bedrooms at night to watch on the TV Late Show.  It comes complete with all the usual trappings, including a lone astronaut hero, a trip to another world, and it even has a decent surprise twist that wouldn't have been to out of place on an old episode of The Twilight Zone.  It's part of the reason why I formatted the plot synopses the way I did.  It helps locate the story in its proper milieu.  Another way the 50s Sci-Fi Monster Movie helps us gain a good reading on Lewis's narrative lies in the realization that it does have genuine literary predecessors.  In fact, at least six of the films listed above are notable for being adaptations of actual books, or short stories.  Taken together, writers like Bradbury, H.G. Wells, Jack Finney, or John W. Campbell share a collective responsibility for taking the genre of the stars, and infusing it with the ghouls, boggarts, and spirits of the more familiar, fog-bound Gothic landscape.  What each of them seems to have discovered is just how easy it is to place a haunted house in outer space.  Perhaps none of the authors listed realized this better than Bradbury, who went so far as to place Poe's House of Usher on the red sands of the planet Mars.  In this sense, Lewis can be described as writing in a tradition.


If Forms of Things Unknown shares a similarity with any of the big, influential names mentioned above, then it would have to be in terms of a somewhat ironic relation to the work of former SF luminary, John Campbell.  In particular, the closest literary story that bears anything like a possible similarity to Lewis's forgotten short work would have to be Campbell's 1938 novella, Who Goes There.  It's a rather simple story which acted as the inspiration for future films like The Thing and Alien.   

Considering that Mary Shelley published the original Frankenstein way back in 1818, it's perhaps a mistake to claim that what Campbell was doing with a novella like Who Goes There? amounts to anything revolutionary.  Even before then, Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had proven that the literatures of science and fear could work well together, provided there was any good story worth telling.  Campbell's main achievement is the fact he was able to take what writer's like Stevenson and Wells had done before in the Victorian Era, and then proved it was possible for Horror Scientifiction to have a voice in the world of cars, wireless, airplanes and electronic devices.

In that sense, Lewis's job was made easier by already having a template that he could work off from.  The other remarkable thing is that a writer such as Lewis would have any interest at all in a genre like Science Fiction.  Whatever such a claim might encounter, it does little to erase an entire essay Lewis devoted to the subject.  If it proves anything else, it's that the creator of Narnia was very literate in the same field that gave us such institutions as Starfleet, and the Galaxy Far Away.  However, it is with works like Campbell's novella, or Ridley Scott's reworking of the same idea, with which Lewis's efforts share the most in common.  Lewis's own story could almost be said to share the same basic plot setup.  


In each of the literature or films just described, the main plot centers around either a human being, or group of them making, or on a journey through space.  Once there, it doesn't take long for the cast to have an encounter with a deadly monster that proceeds to run amok, leaving the audience with just one single question.  Will the horror be bested, or will it feed?  Such an idea remains the simplest, and basic of narrative setups, one that has become so familiar over the years that even back in the 50s it makes sense to claim that all Lewis was doing is little more than working with an established form.  In each case, not only do the setting and plot beats often wind up being variations of one another.  When you get right down to it, even the Monster of the Week is little more than one of the ghoulies and long-legged beasties that used that used to haunt the corridors of old world folklore.  All that's really changed is the background or stage dressing.  The single novelty available in all this artistic development is the knowledge that an established children's author would want to try his hand at such a quirky format.

Lewis as Sci-Fi Horror Writer. 

All this context establishment brings us at last to the actual content of Lewis's story, and the question of how skilled he is at making it work?  In terms of the basic premise, the first thing that strikes a veteran reader of the Gothic genre, in any of its variants, is just how recognizable everything is.  We start in the mundane world of the collegiate setting of some unnamed university, and are given our first bit of information.  There's a space program aimed at landing on the moon, and so far, three attempts have been made.  Each of them appear to have been unsuccessful, yet the powers that be are trying again.  We're then given our protagonist for the evening, Lt. Jenkin.  The main character then proceeds to give the audience a very brief exposition dump filling us further in on the basic setup of the story.  From there, in just a few short pages, we've been blasted off, along with Jenkin, to the forbidding surface of the Moon.  Once there, the story wastes no time in giving us the solution to all the previous failed Moon missions, along with a good idea of the same price Jenkin will have to pay, along with all the rest.

The familiarity stems from the fact that most Horror fans have either read or watched this kind of story countless of times before.  It is just possible the form Lewis is working with here might be old enough that there may have been a long ago time when it might qualified as a folktale in some ancient variation, or another.  If there's nothing strictly original with this story, then the good new is that it doesn't have to be to accomplish its goals.  All that's required is that the right plot developments wind up on the page, and Lewis appears to have had the necessary writer's knack for digging up just the right story beat the moment its needed.  Another reason for why he's able to succeed so well might just be because of the second story element that jumps out at the reader.  Throughout its runtime, Lewis is able to display an uncanny sense of pacing and rhythm.  The story never lags, and the information given is limited strictly to those details which the narrative requires in order to create its proper, overall effect.

Suzanne Bray, however, is correct to note the trick packed into the tale.  Although the way Lewis constructs his narrative is Classical almost to the point of being downright Spartan, his reasons for doing so turn out to be more Romantic in nature.  In fact, there's a sense in which Bray almost accuses Lewis is mixing metaphors were he shouldn't.  Here is where I think she makes a mistake.  She notes the accumulation of detail that sounds realistic, and then appears to wander into a confusion in regard to what constitutes a legitimate dramatic purpose.  Her personal generic definition forces her to label the story as Fantasy, in distinction from Science Fiction.  However, as has been demonstrated already, this amounts to placing the genre under too shallow a definition.  The truth is that as time goes on, a greater number of critics are willing to break with the pretense of scientific factuality that earlier proponents of the field had tried to claim for it.  Instead, most are now willing to see and label it in a paradigm which even Lewis seems to have anticipated.  It's now being referred to as Science Fiction Fantasy as whole.

I'm in favor of this literary paradigm shift for a number of reasons.  Part of it is because of the way it helps force a greater degree of honesty in the genre's practitioners.  It gets rid of any claims to pretension, and forces writers to face the fact that the vast majority of their chosen profession has been no more realistic than Lord of the Rings.  The other reason for wanting a redefinition of Sci-Fi is because of how it will allow for a greater imaginative scope to its endeavors.  If a fan of the category wishes to go wherever their imaginations can take them, then this new understanding of the trope can help them realize its potential in new and exciting ways.  Beyond all this, I think what Bray overlooks is that someone else has achieved a better read on the nature of Lewis's short story.  Recall that I said, way back at the beginning, that I found this story in an old, used anthology collection.  What needs to be kept in mind is that it was a collection of Horror stories, and the editor was under the impression that Lewis's short text met the definition of both Fantasy, SF, and above all, the Gothic mode of writing.

That's why Roger Lancelyn Green included it in his 13 Uncanny Tales.  He even went so far as to provide his readers with a summary of the literary history that makes up the Tale of Terror.  He starts out with a quotation from The Pickwick Papers which allows him to note how the desire "to make your flesh creep...is an ambition as old as storytelling".  Green then makes some very useful observations:

"Doubtless cavemen told ghost stories as they sat round their fires, and certainly the native tribes of Australia and New Zealand were telling them - and believing them - when the first explorers and traders and missionaries from the western world settled in their countries and learnt their languages.


"Most of the fairy-tales began before the invention of writing, as stories 'all true, or just as good as true' told and handed down orally from generation to generation.  We do not know the age of the fairy-tales, nor can we tell when different incidents were added or various changes made.  Only when stories were written down and have survived in literary form can we say anything certain about the earliest uncanny tales.  The first one in this collection is about the oldest that can be found.  The ancient Egyptians seem to have accepted ghosts and other such marvels without question...(The) uncanny adventures with the magic Book of Thoth exist in a manuscript written about 3000 years ago, though this may be a copy of a much older manuscript...from 1290 to 1224 B.C.  At about the same time the Mycenaeans, the ancestors of the ancient Greeks, were telling ghost stories and including them in the minstrels' lays and songs which Homer used as the basis of the Iliad and the Odyssey a few hundred years later, and which also supplied most of the myths and legends preserved for us in Greek and Latin literature (xi-xii)".

Green's tracing of the written record of the Weird Tale can be useful for the way it throws another vantage point on what Lewis might be up to with Forms of Things Unknown.  A great deal of that assistance stems from the fact that Green is able to trace Fear Fiction's actual beginnings among the realm of myth and legend.  These are all the elements that now go together to make up the genre known as Fantasy.  This may be regarded as a curiosity of the history of literature, though it really shouldn't, especially if you take into account the idea of a gradual development of a genre.  Horror is all that happens whenever the storyteller's focus begins to shift from the main character's journey through enchanted realms, and instead concentrates more on the hero's encounter with the trolls or ghosts under the bridge.  All that's needed to pioneer Horror is for a story to be written or told, in which it is that element of fear that the idea of a boggart, goblin, or ghoul can inspire in both characters and audience, that is chosen as the main narrative focus

This is a fact that Green shows a careful awareness of, and it also appears to be a tradition that C.S. Lewis was drawing from in composing his own short work offering.  I said a moment ago that all a space alien in a Horror story amounts to is little more than the variation of a creature from ancient myth in a new coat of paint.  With Lewis's story, this simple observation is driven home and made the beating heart, and final O'Henry Twist of the narrative.  This is where Green's introduction helps to situate a better idea of what particular type of story that Lewis has written, and which the audience is reading.

"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)".


What we're dealing with amounts to little more or less than a riff on the same outer space haunted house approach that would later go on to make Ridely Scott famous.  Another interesting quirk is just how much Lewis's own efforts resembles that of the Alien director.  Both works are the results of artists used to be regarded as unlikely candidates to helm a Horror themed project.  In Lewis's case, the lack of recognition for this story of a Gorgon haunted Moon is a signal that few people probably even know of its existence.  That's kind of a shame, too.  Because the way Lewis constructs his entire narrative is surprising and maybe even gratifying by turns.  The short story displays none of the hallmarks of the first-time dabbler.  Instead, the level of skill in composition gives one the cozy, atmospheric sense that we're in the hands of a veteran Weird Tale scribe.  It makes the news of learning this was almost Lewis's single entry into the Scary Story format that much more of a shock.  Green's comments do provide at least one critical service.  With his information, the logic of Lewis's Lunar excursion becomes obvious.  All we're dealing with is little more than a story of Horrors Amongst the Stars.  Something tells me it's a mistake to claim Lewis's is writing in a Lovecraftian vein.  Instead, it's more the case of a seasoned pro trying to stretch his legs, and plying his hand at a another type of Science Fiction narrative.

Conclusion: An Unexpected, Yet Effective Satirical Space Age Horror

All this leaves us with is the quality of Lewis's story, and it's overarching themes.  In other words, is the whole story a lark, or was he trying to get at something?  Also, more important than anything else, does it work as a genuine entertainment?  The best answer I can give to that last question is a definitive yes.  Though a lot of that has to do with just how good a job the narrative does in signaling the kind of themes Lewis is concerned with.  At it's core, what Lewis has to tell us here is a story concerned with one man's final descent into total isolation and (in an ironic, literal sense) alienation.  It's not the sort of narrative you expect to find from an author who elsewhere writes about nymphs and dryads in another world.  The good news is that while the ideas Lewis winds up tackling might qualify as pretty heavy and heady, he's able to find all the right ways to keep a light, almost breezy tone to the affair.  He knows even a light story such as this needs to find that combined middle-ground between fun and serious.  The fact that he's able to identify the ways in which both terms can serve his efforts, and keep up that delicate narrative balancing act stands as a silent testimony to his strengths as a writing veteran.

The story itself might not classify as anything all the new or different.  The good news is that it doesn't have to be in order to do its job right.  All that's required for a hat trick like this is the ability to pile up one narrative detail after another until the final ingredient leaves the reader with a shock ending which produces a completed picture that looks different from where we started, and still emerges naturally from all that's gone before.  Even novice readers will reach the story's second page with the expectation that something is going to happen to Lt. "Jack"  Jenkin, thought just who or what he'll meet when he reaches the Moon is up for speculation until the very last line of prose.  When that happens, whether or not the story deserves to be called good or bad depends on how far the reader is willing to go with the idea of an ancient myth being given habitation on a long since charted planet.  This could be the one element that dates the story for some in the audience.  Ever since the actual Moon Landing, and the launch of various satellites, an unspoken rule of thumb for Sci-Fi is that if you want to make a First Contact tale, then the further away you set your story, the better the reader can suspend their disbelief.


I can kind of see the logic there.  However, it just doesn't bother my enjoyment of the story.  Lewis appears to know full well that sooner or later there will have to be this invisible cut-off point, where the sober, astronomical realism of his build-up will need to give way to the pure imaginative qualities of myth.  It's the reason for the delicate balance of factual detail interlaced with speculative fantasy.  Part of what allows him to succeed is because of how well he was able to bake the genuine science of his day into his Space Age folktale.  The right degree of accuracy means even though the ending is pure imagination, it never comes out of left field.  Instead, it works as the logical imaginative payoff it was meant to be, even for those of us who know that years of exploration has left no room open for intelligent life on the actual Moon.  That hasn't stopped us from peopling our world with phantoms, and sometimes even today, the Lunar Sea acts as a sometimes perfect haunted house setting.  In Lewis's case, the inhabitants of the house turns out to be a familiar, snake-headed creature from mythology.

Lewis's tale is "the story", as Bruce Johnson notes, "of the fourth of four manned voyages to the moon, all of which ended in disaster.  The reason for this - and the surprise ending to the story - is the presence of a Lunar Gorgon, whose hair of writhing snakes transforms each astronaut into stone as he turns to look backward (113)".  If the idea of an alien visitation on the Moon is a stretch for Science Fiction, even of the Gothic variety these days, then the concept of a run-in with a Gorgon might just leave more than a few readers scratching their heads.  The irony here is that this seems to be where Johnson's own essay on the short story proves to be helpful.  What it's able to highlight is the perhaps surprising extent to which Lewis was able to draw on what might be termed the astrological lore of the Moon.  These are the various, accumulative folk beliefs and traditions which have come to be associated with the planet through the course of centuries over all parts of the world.  Johnson highlights this significant detail.

"For ancient writers, Luna bordered the realm of mutability.  Her sphere is "the great frontier between air and aether," between Aristotle's ever changing "Nature" and never changing "Sky."  The lunar cycle itself appears more like corruptible earth than the eternal heavens.  Luna's influence on people was thought to be related to change.  Hence Lewis wrote, "In men she produces wandering, and that in two senses.  She may make them travelers...but she may also produce wandering of the wits."  Luna both charms and deceives, often hiding her true nature.  She "Enchants us - the cheat!'.  She is also associated with liquidity: Lewis waxes that Luna "Cruises monthly; with...drenches of dream, a drizzling glamour".  There are two things to be noted about this folklore.  The first is that it sounds far-fetched to a sizeable majority.  The second is that this hasn't prevented such "lore" from having its own space in daily life.  Such folk beliefs can still be seen in operation within the confines of any astrology/horoscope newspaper column or website.  The whole thing seems to count as little more than the modern day survival of much older traditions and ideas associated with legends of the great planets.


It is these accumulated folk beliefs that Lewis draws upon to tell his story.  In fact, even his choice for Monster of the Week might just have a bit more salience for the Voyage to Other Planets trope.  It was with genuine surprise that I was able to uncover the remarkable discovery that the Gorgon of Classical Myth was often associated with the Moon in the primitive ritual traditions which wound giving us legends of the Medusa.  In his book-length study on the subject, Stephen Wilk makes sure to note a scholarly theory about the myth of Medusa that connects the idea of the gorgon with that of the Moon.  "One theory, championed by E.R. Gaedechens in the last century and supported by E. Gerhard and others, is that that Gorgon is the moon, perhaps even the Man in the Moon.  Support from this position comes from Plutarch, who calls the face of the moon "hideous", and from the works of the early church father Clement of Alexandria, who noted that the cult of Orpheus in Greece called the moon Gorgoneion (95)".  This basic strand of ancient thought is confirmed as far back as Edwardian Times.

In a forgotten, 1908 study with the awkward, yet accurate title of The Judgement of Paris: And Some Other Legends Astronomically Considered, Emmaline Mary Plunket gives both reader and critic a piece of information that could very well explain just how Lewis uses the Moon in Things Unknown, along with his particular choice of petrifying aliens to inhabit it.  In this regard, Plunket lets her readers known that "the generally held opinion is that the three Gorgon sisters represented lunar phenomena.  This dreaded three, I now suggest, symbolized, when the Gorgon legend took rise, the threefold phases of the moon; not indeed at all seasons of the year, but at that of midwinter, a season to which Hesiod applies the epithets of "severe" and "baneful"...This legend...I would read...as depicting, under the guise of the Gorgon sisters, the threefold phases of the midwinter moon in ordinary years...

"The full moon of that month rides, as we know, higher in the sky than the full moon of any other season, and through the long hours of the longest night looks down in cruel loveliness on all beneath it; and, symbolized as the Gorgon's head, it might well have been imagined by poets and artists either as partaking of the grimness of the season, and therefore as hideous and boar-tusked, or, on the other hand, by those who sought to accentuate the surpassing brilliancy of the orb of the moon at that season, it could be imagined as of excelling but cold and repellent beauty.  Under either aspect the dreaded form was credited with the power of turning into stone those who gazed on it - and this, in the mythic language, describes, and scarcely with exaggeration, the freezing influence of the midwinter full moon on all life exposed to its rays (32-33)".   The result of these findings hints that maybe there was a greater sense of scholarship behind this story.  I'm left with two theories, neither of which is mutually exclusive.  The first is that either Green as editor, or Lewis as author is telling more than they know in the short story at a surface glance.  In fact, I'm inclined to the idea that Green's comment about Lewis "taking the myth to its logical conclusion" is a sign that both writers are familiar with the kind of scholarship that Wilk and Plunket are able to highlight in an academic, non-fiction setting.


All Lewis had to do then is take this mythology, and see if there was anything to be done with it.  The fact he got at least something out of his efforts must mean it wasn't a total waste. The main story itself sounds simplistic to the point of being cliche, yet it's the way Lewis fills in the format that helps it to stand out.  What winds up on the finished page is an interesting combination of a Horror TV late show episode, if it was written by a very literate English Major.  That's not to say Lewis classes things up too much.  Instead, it's more that he's got this surprising familiarity with the conventions of this type of story, and is able to find all the right ways to elevate them to the highest quality he can manage, without breaking what the story needs in order to work.  As Suzanne Bray notes, Lewis is able to make a lot out of an almost Spartan setup.  The whole thing is an interesting balance of situation and character.  When we start out, the character of Jenkin might seem like a puzzle to all of us.  Then, as the story goes along, we are at least able to sympathize with him enough so when the plot really gets going, the reader is able to experience that vital sense of  mounting dread that is the hallmark of all the best Weird Tales.

Its in these crucial moments of stage setting that Lewis is able to stun even his most ardent fans with his skill at stage setting and character building in just the space of a few, scant paragraphs.  Take a quick look, for instance, at the way Lewis describes Jenkin's voyage traveling through the depths of space.

"The take-off when it came was a relief.  But the voyage was worse than he had ever anticipated.  Not physically - on that side it was nothing worse than uncomfortable - but in the emotional experience.  He had dreamed all his life, with mingled terror and longing, of those eternal spaces; of being utterly 'outside', in the sky.  He wondered if the agoraphobia of that roofless and bottomless vacuity would overthrow his reason.  But the moment he had been shut into his ship there descended upon him the suffocating knowledge that the real danger of space-travel is claustrophobia.  You have been put in a little metal container; somewhat like a cupboard, very like a coffin.  You can't see out; you can only see things on the screen.  Space and the stars are just as remote as they were on the earth.  Where you are is always your world.  The sky is never where you are.  All you have done is to exchange a large world of earth and rock and water and clouds for a tiny world of metal (197-8)".  Ridley Scott eat your heart out.

By any standard, that simple bit of prose description has to be counted a success.  What few may ever realize is just how vital it was for the writer to nail that one paragraph out of all the others.  That's because it perhaps serves as the story's vital transition point.  The moment when a metaphorical (and somewhat literal) barrier gets crossed.  It's the moment when the main action of the narrative is meant to kick into high gear.  It's the make-or-break point where the author has to see if he's got whatever it takes in him to pull the necessary artistic effect of the story off.  If he can't manage that then it's not just the audience that can be cheated out of a good story.  The writer himself may have just revealed where his strengths end, and the weaknesses begin.  Lewis, to his credit, never drops so much as a single spinning plate.  Instead, he tackles the genre and its demands in the above passage like a pro who can speak the language, and knows all the lingo and terms like either a genre native, or at least someone whose had an extensive and positive acquaintance with the Gothic genre and its tropes as a true fan.


The result of this consummate professionalism is that it allows Lewis to accomplish several feats in just a handful of paragraph lines.  The first, and most important, is that he found the right way to transition his readers from the everyday worlds of university towns and pubs and out into an imaginary realm where his cosmic monsters can be granted free rein to carry the story to its most logical, EC Comics style conclusion.  From start to finish, Lewis places all the right details in the story that keeps the reader's disbelief suspended, even when we've left Terra-Firma and are stranded on the Moon's desolate beach and dunes.  This is because his skill at the art of narrative reveal is a masterclass at both the passing and doling out of plot information.  Each moment tells us something new about the story and its protagonist, and it is handled one at a time, like a well-made Rube Goldberg device, one with a pretty nasty trap for a conclusion.  All of the pieces of the story are laid out for us in a combination of quick pacing and minute skill that it never enters our minds to question just what type of story is is that we're reading.  Lewis has us all thinking its a straightforward chronicle of an accurate Lunar exploration.

That's the point at which the writer begins to slowly lower the lid of his literary trap device down onto the reader's head.  He does it by showing us the first out of the ordinary sight in the entire narrative.  It comes about when Jenkin takes his first step onto the alien soil of a distant, and other world: "The first thing that struck him was that his helmet had been too lightly tinted.  It was painful to look at all in the direction of the sun.  Even the rock - it was, after all, rock not dust (which disposed of one hypothesis) - was dazzling.  He put down the apparatus; tried to take in the scene.

"The surprising thing was how small it looked.  He thought he could account for this.  The lack of complete atmosphere forbade nearly all the effects that distance has on earth.  The serrated boundary of the crater was, he knew, about twenty-five miles away.  It looked as if you could have touched it. The peaks looked as if they were a few feet high.  The black sky with its inconceivable multitude and ferocity of stars, was like a cap forced down upon the crater; the stars only just out of his reach.  The impression of a stage-set in a toy theater, therefore of something arranged, therefore of something waiting for him, was at once disappointing and oppressive.  Whatever terrors there might be, here too agoraphobia would not be one of them.

"He took his bearings and the result was easy enough.  He was, like Fox and his friends, almost exactly on Point X0308.  But there was no trace of human remains.  If he could find any, he might have some clue as to how they died.  He began to hunt.  He went in each circle further from the ship.  There was no danger of losing it in a place like this (198-99)".

So far, so normal sounding.  Lewis here shows us his unusual skill at conveying an astronomically convincing picture of what an actual moonwalk turns out to be in real life.  However, even at this point, he doesn't allow his obvious fascination with the universe to cloud his goal, or understanding of the type of story he has to tell.  This is best seen in two minor details mentioned in passing.  The first is the idea of the Moon presenting itself to Jenkin like a stage set arranged in a toy theater.  By itself this is the type of plot information that could go either way, positive or negative.  It's when we read about how the main stage setting looks as if it is lying in wait for the astronaut that we can see Lewis tipping his hand to readers that something bad could happen here.  Sure enough, this is the next thing we read:


"Then he got his first real shock of fear.  Worse still, he could not tell what was frightening him.  He only knew that he was engulfed in a sickening unreality; seemed neither to be where he was nor doing what he did...He had now been alone on the Moon for perhaps thirty-five minutes.  It was then that he noticed the three strange things.  The sun's rays were roughly at right angles to his line of sight, so that each of the things had a bright side and a dark side; for each dark side a shadow like Indian ink lay out on the rock.  He thought they looked like Belisha beacons.  Then he thought they looked like huge apes.  They were about the height of a man.  They were indeed like clumsily shaped men.  Except - he resisted an impulse to vomit - that they had no heads (199)".  And just like that, Lafayette, we're there.

The transition from apparent realism to actual fantasy is now complete, and the Rubicon point is handled with a fine, seamless quality.  Lewis doesn't ask his audience to indulge in nonsense, yet he is urging us to make the imaginative leap that would allow us to regard this as entertaining, at the very least.  It's also here that the familiarity of the tropes in Lewis's narrative begin to come into better focus.  Like the countless, hapless space-farers that tried to tackle the stars in films The Creeping Unknown, or It, The Terror From Beyond Space, the astronaut at the center of this story finds himself confronted with the sort of mystery that doesn't take long to veer into the fast lane of all out terror.  Even when that happens, Lewis is still able to prove that he's able to take familiar territory and make it interesting.  The way he achieves this accomplishment is by using a dramatic strategy that locates where the real terror of the situation lies.  What's interesting is how much of the actual horror in the story is generated not just from the monster, yet also the main character to an important extent.  It's a storytelling approach that Lewis turns out to share in common with other big names in the genre, such as Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, or writers like the late and lamented Peter Straub.

What Forms of Things Unknown shares with a story like The Shining, or Sleepy Hollow, Jekyll and Hyde, or Something Wicked This Way Comes is the way in which a lot of the narrative tension, and hence the ultimate payoff for the horrors, stems from the choices made by various characters at crucial points of the narrative.  Robert Louis Stevenson's scientist, for instance, winds up inviting a lot of bad karma on himself by dredging up his own dark impulses, and giving them free reign.  Ichabod Crane, likewise, thinks he can control a vital figure of his new hometown, and instead winds up not being able to read the signs that lead him to becoming just another ghost.  I can't shake the idea that something very similar is going on with the figure of Lt. Jenkin in this forgotten space thriller.  There are clues that point to the astronaut's status as a classic (albeit overlooked) example of the Gothic overreacher.  


The reader is fed hints about this early on in the short story, and during that crucial moment of transition from Earth to the stars.  The description tells us of a frustrated "life-long desire" the main character has.  It's described as something Jenkin has dreamed about since he was a child.  It's a mingled terror of, and longing for "those eternal spaces; of being utterly "outside".  If this is a key plot point, then the way it's treated in the story tells us something crucial about the protagonist's goals.  On the one hand, this moment of childhood terror and wonder sounds like little more than the moments of inspiration that powered scientists like Einstein, Pythagoras, Arthur Eddington or Ada Lovelace throughout their entire, distinguished careers.  It sounds, in fact, like the kind of moment of joyful discovery that ignites a lifelong passion.  The funny thing here is that it almost sounds as if Lewis wants to slap a "For Proper Use Only" label on it in this case.  It's not the idea of being a scientist, or wanting to explore the Solar System that Lewis has a problem with.  Instead, the way Jenkin expresses this same desire in his own head carries this tell-tale "Weird" note about it.  In other words, something is off.

There may be nothing inherently negative about finding a moment joy in an experience of the universe itself.  However, what singles out Jenkin from the likes of Einstein is that one gets the sense that somehow his moment of epiphany never really lead to anything positive.  It doesn't seem to have strengthened his outlook in any meaningful way.  Rather than using that moment as an outlet to grow closer towards people, places, and things like the actual scientific community, for instance, it almost reads as if all Jenkin did was use that one, single moment of realization as an excuse to withdraw from others, instead.  It's an odd choice for anyone who's had any meaningful experience of the cosmos.  Someone like Pythagoras might wonder if he'd gone mad?  What the short story seems to be hinting at is that even before we meet him, and learn about his reasons for going to space, there's always been something just a little wrong about "Our Brave Hero", something off.  The key indicator for this comes from what the description tells us the galaxy means to the Lieutenant.  If someone like Pythagoras, Lovelace, or Euclid see it as an opportunity to understand all the possible worlds there are, then the only thing Jenkin seems concerned about is that it's an escape hatch of sorts.  A way to get "outside".

In other words, the astronaut is your classic Gothic protagonist.  He's troubled, distant, and fundamentally "not at home" with surroundings.  It is just possible with this figure that Lewis has put his spin on a modern stock type; the ultimate, alienated individualist.  He's distant to even his close friend, considers himself "petrified", and his entire arch calls into question the nature of his former relationship with "that girl".  Note, we never find out her real name, and the phrase itself belongs to the Lieutenant, and no one else.  All he seems to have ever wanted is to get "outside", i.e. away from other people, and the inherent necessity for connection that would entail.  He has therefore resorted to using the galaxy as his own, private, neurotic safe space.  That sounds like the worst place to send a guy who probably can't tell up from down.  It also gives Lewis the perfect character to cast in a Horror story.  The best thing about this whole set up is the way it allows him to bring out his knowledge of Classical planetary symbolism, and then find all the right ways of using it in the service of the narrative.  


It's as Bruce Johnson notes:

"All these lunar qualities are present in "Forms of Things Unknown."  Lieutenant Jenkin is wandering, cut adrift from a relationship with "that girl" (even her proper name was crossed out by Lewis in the original manuscript).  Jenkin has rejected the influence of Venus (love) and come under the influence of Luna (virginity).  He also distances himself from his friend Ward.  Ward offers to come along on the lunar voyage, but Jenkin insists on making the trip alone, believing isolation will keep him safe.  Of course Jenkin wanders physically - as far from home as humanly possible...and perhaps (Lewis, sic) meant this to be...a harbinger of upcoming madness.  In his lunar voyage, and as he walks on the Moon's surface, Jenkin struggles against lunacy and fear.  The prose is peppered with expressions like claustrophobia, agoraphobia, terror, terrors, terrifying, fear, and frightening.  Earlier on Jenkin speculates, "Might there be something on the Moon - or something psychological about the experience of landing on the Moon - which drives men fighting mad?"  Later he misquotes Pascal's line about "the silence of those eternal spaces," leaving off his closing point: it "frightens me."  Terror is approaching.

"Like Luna herself, the lunar Gorgon lulls the doomed astronaut into a false sense of euphoria.  For a few moments, he believes a race of lunar artisans has sculptured three life-like tributes to the astronauts who preceded him.  The truth is far different.  When on the moon the name of the previous astronaut, Fox, is mentioned three times, perhaps recalling the Teumessian fox which was changed into stone and set among the stars.  Jenkin's own fate is prefigured by prior appearances in the story of the words "petrified" and "animated stones."  In the last sentence, his doom is sealed: "His eyes met hers."  The story set on the Moon is appropriately lunar (113-114)'.

In all of this, Jenkin puts one in mind of a fictional lunatic known as Spender, from Bradbury's Martian Chronicles.  Both have in common this same strand hubristic alienation from their own species.  It's this sharpened warp of the mind that allows Bradbury's Lone Nut to imagine himself the last martian in all of existence.  This same mental twist appears to be responsible for Lt. Jenkin envisioning the stars as a cosmic blanket he can use to hide under from the rest of humanity, including his own sense of self.  It should be noted this is not all the two works share in common.  Each of them count as separate attempts to critique the kind of nationalistic, Cold War zeitgeist that looked up the great expanse as just another target for conquest.  Neither Bradbury nor Lewis seems to have taken kindly to the idea of treating the universe as just another small-minded excuse to draw new battle lines on the map.  The Martian from Waukeghan is the one who offers up the most well known example of Space Age satire, though Lewis seems to have tried to put in a good word of his own, as well, through such efforts as seen here.

In Lewis's case, he's able to apply Classical motifs such as mythology and astrology as a clever series of literary supports to his own satirical framework.  It leaves us with a story whose sophistication seems to be a lot more than what appears on the surface.  The real surprise is that Lewis doesn't seem content to let all this stand as mere set decoration.  Rather, he uses each of these symbols in a thematic way.  In doing so, he seems to have been allowing his own voice and efforts to be added as yet another strand in a slow-building, collective critique that was gaining ground in the Science Fiction of the time.  This is something Lewis shares in common not just with Bradbury, yet also a lot of other former genre giants and stalwarts within the former mid-century interplanetary fiction field.  This included a list of names that used to be considered a big deal in SF circles.  Among them were Philip K. Dick, Frederick Pohl, Clifford Simak, Horace Gold, Anthony Boucher, Frank Herbert, and Kurt Vonnegut.  What each of these differing authors all share in common is the ability to cast a more critical eye, not just on mankind's modern technical development, yet also the mindsets in which they are used.


These were genre enthusiasts who were nonetheless willing to be critical of the same storytelling format they enjoyed as lifelong fans.  What this brought about in practice was the collective conviction as that mentioned by David L. Rosheim in his book-length study of Galaxy Magazine.  Lewis's story was written at a time when "social science fiction found its true home".  The focus in this literary shift resulted in "stories not about scientists and engineers but about the ordinary people who were most often affected by scientific and technological change.  The emphasis of science fiction shifted from the scientific culture to society itself...In the...1950s" this shift of focus in the genre "provided a home for a different attitude towards science, technology, and the future, whipping up a kind of early "New Wave."  Many of the stories implied that the future may not turn out well...because humans are flawed (10)".  It was this mindset that allowed the likes of Bradbury, Herbert, and Vonnegut to pen stories which satirized the kind of limited mindset which saw the stars as objects of mere ownership, instead of considering them as subjects we can study and learn from.  In many ways, Lewis story is little more than another natural outgrowth of this paradigm shift within the genre.  He found himself expressing a widespread opinion in Sci-Fi circles.  In that sense, he can be said to have been in good company.

It's sort of funny, because the way things played out in real history wound up mimicking this cautious, skeptical stance towards a perceived drive towards the colonization, as opposed to any legitimate exploration of the universe.  This is something talked about in books like No Requiem for the Space Age, and Where the Wasteland Ends.  There is a shared conclusion between Matthew Tribbe and Theodore Roszak, and it has to do with the popular reception of humanity's first successful exploration of the cosmos.  As Tribbe explains it, the actual Space Program "revealed a more troubling side of America's cherished version of technological progress.  In fact, Apollo's positivist message ran up against a powerful shift in American culture that was beginning to push in the opposite direction, and which ultimately undermined the very premise and promise of the manned space program.  Contrary to popular belief, misgivings about the venture were fairly commonplace (4)".  These same misgivings show up in works like Bradbury's Here There By Tygers, or Night of the Living Dead.  Looked at from this perspective,  Lewis's own Space Horror offering becomes just another voice joining the choir. 

Meanwhile, Theodore Roszak compliments Tribbe's observations by pointing out in both Wasteland and The Making of the Counter-Culture that what powered this shift away from what he terms as technocracy was a social and cultural revitalization by the same type of Romanticism that powered the works of writers and poets such as William Blake, Henry Thoreau, and S.T. Coleridge back in the 19th century.  It's this renewed Romantic Spirit that accounts for the changes that rocked the world during the 1950s and 60s, the time when Lewis was composing what would turn out to be one of the last completed writings of his life.  The results of this rediscovery of Romanticism was best expressed by Lewis's fellow scientifictionist, Jack Finney, within the pages of his novel, Time and Again: 


"
I was, and knew it, an ordinary person who long after he was grown had retained the childhood assumption that the people who largely control our lives are somehow better informed than, and have judgment superior to the rest of us; that they are more intelligent.  Not until Vietnam did I finally realize that some of the most important decisions of all time can be made by men knowing really no more than, and who are not more intelligent than, most of the rest of us (464)".  The natural development of this mindset into the collective public consciousness lead over time to a very ironic, though perhaps telling result.  It's a Tribbe describes it in his own book.  "By the early 1970s, however, when NASA should have been celebrating its triumph and proudly counseling other ambitious programs and organizations on how to adapt its winning methods to myriad other causes and concerns, it instead found itself facing an increasingly antagonistic cultural environment in which growing numbers of Americans began to contest rather than embrace the values and vision of progress the space program embodied.  The moon landing, for all its glory, could do little to counter this trend (5)".  I think I know the reason for this.

By the time the world hit the year 1969, it had lived the with Cold War long enough to realize just how a great a detriment it was to not just societal, yet also planetary health.  It was a growth in understanding that allowed everyone to realize that the Space Program, at its core, was in danger of being used as a propaganda tool.  It wasn't about the curious and humble exploration of the stars, but rather just another excuse at pointless flag planting (the punchline here is that the light and radiation of space itself will eventually bleach the colors out of all flags, thus rendering the very of idea conquest a literal, cosmic joke).  It was as if a rare moment of maturity was reached, and most of the world decided it no longer cared to participate in any form of saber-rattling.  The strange thing to realize is how this note of cautious skepticism of technology in the wrong hands is in some ways prefigured in seed form within the pages of Lewis's own forgotten genre offering.  It's a mistake to claim he was single-handedly responsible for this anti nationalist backlash, yet it safe to say that he made a contributory effort.

I suppose if you want a good idea of how such concerns play out for us today, then the best allegorical picture I can come up with would be to place, say, Einstein and Elon Musk beside each other, and the contrast ought to be stark enough.  One of them dedicated his life to trying to plumb the mysteries of reality.  The other fancies himself mankind's divine ambassador to the stars because its good for business.  One of them personifies the spirit of discovery, while the other is in it for himself.  A character such as Lt. Jenkin could be considered a small time riff on whatever it is Musk thinks he's after.  The personalities change, yet the goal remains equally selfish no matter the rank.  It's true that a character like Jenkin the Astronaut has a greater deal of pathos to him.  However, the trick is that his character, and hence his overall narrative arc, is one of dissolution and consumption by the self.  It seems to be this same self-sabotaging fixation on the ego at the expense of others that colors any idea of a Space Race.  It was an outlook that Lewis appears to have been leery of, and odds are even if he ever had a chance to meet someone such as Elon Musk, he probably wouldn't like the guy all that much.  For C.S. Lewis, to approach the universe in a spirit conquest was a grave mistake.  In fact, that may be a partial explanation for his story's perfect Gothic image of a coffin floating through the heavens. 


The final, and most important question to answer in all this is how does the story work as an actual entertainment?  Let me give my reply by cribbing and paraphrasing a line from R.L. Stevenson.  I think that what Lewis has given his readers is nothing less than "a fine bogey tale" for the Space Age.  Maybe it helps if you have a taste for 20th Century era Sci-Fi, however I'd argue that there's enough quality in a work like this to make it worth digging up a copy.  It allows us a different, or at least unexplored window onto one of the few, longtime staples of childhood.  It de-familiarizes Lewis in a way that allows us to take a clearer look at his artistic strengths, and make them stand out with greater clarity.  His plotting is tight, his pacing is quick and sure-footed.  The plot meanwhile sounds like, and maybe even is a good example of the pure Pulp, mode of fiction writing.  For a good idea of what I mean by the term, a later entry such as Apollo 18 offers the same premise as Lewis's short story, albiet it with a more conventional, and overall schlocky execution.   However, in Lewis's case I'd have to argue that it is the same strengths of literary craftsmanship we've been unpacking throughout this essay which allows Lewis to elevate the tropes of the Pulp Tradition to a level of genuine artistic finesse that probably just doesn't get as much appreciation anymore as it used to back in the long ago days.

Perhaps the most shocking (and gratifying) aspect of this whole story is to discover just how good Lewis is as a writer of straight-up Horror.  Right from the start, he displays what has to be a near-intuitive grasp of the genre, and its demands.  He then goes on to meet them like a seasoned pro.  He starts by establishing the situation first, and then locating the proper point of narrative tension within it.  This being a Horror Sci-Fi story, the point that has to be emphasized is a proper sense of mounting dread.  It's the key note that Lewis has to find all the right ways to sound off on from start to finish.  To his credit, he doesn't just find the right notes, he then goes on to play them like a harp.  If you didn't know any better, it's tempting to think we're dealing with a surprise prodigy.  For a writer most often associated with the Fantasy genre, Lewis displays a remarkable, easy hand at making things go bump in the night,  He seems to have realized how "in space, no one can hear you scream", and he makes it work.  Perhaps this means its time we started to take Lewis's unheralded strengths as a Gothic writer seriously.  It would be an ironic, yet perhaps fitting addendum to a long, and varied career in the field of English Letters.  It also makes Forms of Things Unknown an easy recommendation.  It's an offering that can be enjoyed by both fans and newcomers, and it makes for a good, old-fashioned, October reading  If I had to arrive at anything like the sum of what the writer might have been trying to get at with this simple, yet effective piece of Space Age Gothic, then perhaps it might be summarized like this:

Ext: The Galaxy, The Moon's Surface, All Time.

We begin a slow pan up and away from the beautiful and haunted desolation of the Lunar landscape and begin to rise higher into the welcoming embrace of the growing lights from the stars.

Control Voice (v.o.): "Paradoxically, Man's endless search for knowledge has often plundered his courage and warped his vision, so that he has faced the unknown with terror rather than awe, and probed the darkness with a scream rather than a light (Schow, 267-8)".

The camera travels once more through the great, cosmic field.  Again, that strange, faint, hint of song.

Control Voice (v.o. cont.) "Hunger frightens and hurts, and it has many faces, and every man must sometimes face the terror of one of them.  Wouldn't it seem that a misery known and understood by all men would lead Man not to deception and murder, but to faith, and hope, and love (ibid, 165)"?


The light from stars continues to grow as we pan through the ultimate splendor of reality.

Control Voice (v.o. cont.): "The steps man takes across the heavens of his universe are as uncertain as those steps he takes across the room of his own life.  And yet if he walks with an open mind, those steps must lead him eventually to that most perfect of destinations, truth.

Fade To Black:

Control Voice (v.o.): "We now return control of your television set to you.  Until next week, at this same time.  When the Control Voice will take you to...The Outer Limits".

No comments:

Post a Comment