Detectives as Exorcists, and SF as a Locked Room Mystery

For the past few weeks, I’ve been reading John C. Tibbetts’s The Gothic Imagination: Conversations on Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction in the Media. As the title suggests, Tibbetts one of those critics that see twentieth-century SF as part of a long Gothic tradition that blurs the lines between the real, the weird and uncanny, and the horrific and sublime. In The Gothic Imagination he’s assembled an exceptionally wide-ranging series of interviews to cover everything from the Castle of Otranto and H.P. Lovecraft to 1950s serials like Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and contemporary SF writers Gregory Benford and Greg Bear. Probably the most interesting interview in the whole book is one with true crime writer and American literature professor Harold Schechter, who runs through a list of twenty or so SF movies laying out which folkloric archetypes they pick up (Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Plant Causes Magic Forgetfulness; The Fly: The Monster in the Bridal Chamber; The Brain that Wouldn’t Die: The Severed-Yet-Living Head; Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Bloody Chamber).

I tend to be skeptical of the argument that SF is a type of Gothic. It seems to me that while there’s a shared genealogy, science fiction is far more invested in the idea of a rational, progressive (or at least changing) universe. Still, a lot of what Tibbetts’s interviewees talked about struck a chord. One comment in particular, though, stood out. Talking about John Dickson Carr’s locked room mysteries, Douglas Greene says

“I think he liked them primarily because he never was quite certain in his own mind if the universe was rational or chaotic. He introduced elements that suggested that no, the pit is open, there is no rationality, the Dionysian element rules. Carr really feared that, I think. So his way of working that through was to have his detectives act almost as exorcists, bidding the demons to go back, affirming, yes the world is rational, yes the world makes sense.”

It’s a comment that makes a great deal of sense to me, and helps explain why Isaac Asimov was such a prolific writer of both science fiction and locked room mysteries (like the Black Widowers) – not to mention science fiction stories that were also locked room mysteries (including many of the stories in I, Robot). For Asimov I don’t think it was a fear, just a belief that the world works in these ways. The universe was vast, but it was also logical – a vast locked room – and so the same rules of storytelling fundamentally applied to both.

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