I’ve been spending a lot of my time trying to figure out what to call the sort of stuff I like to write — stories set in the modern world that use the supernatural as symbols to explore the psychological and emotional states of the protagonists. Though many of the stories are dark and some cross over into horror, I wouldn’t say that “horror” is a good umbrella term for this style in general. “Urban fantasy” is usually the term given to fantasy stories set in the modern world, and I find it’s a little too general for my taste. It tells nothing of the ambiance of the story, which matters more to me than the story’s physical trappings. The type of fantasy I’m going for are the deeper realities, the common ground of the stories of Algernon Blackwood and Jorge Luis Borges, and the comics of David B and Junji Ito. I needed to find some term that encapsulates works such as these and demonstrates how I feel about my own writing.
One may ask why it is so important to define what kind of thing you’re writing. Shouldn’t you just write what matters to you without thinking about how to classify it? Isn’t it limiting to give it a label? There’s certainly validity in that stance. However, I became especially intrigued about how to classify what I like to write when I decided to enter the UBC program because I realized that if I get a better sense of what, then that can help me figure out why, and if I can understand why I write, then that can help me in directing my work going forward.
I realized that for me it’s less important whether a story has anything literally magical than that it feels like magic. In exploring these psychological states, I want to produce a sublime sense of awe in the reader, what it would feel like to touch some deeper reality, some unnatural, sublime presence beyond their kin. I got a far truer taste of this kind of “fantasy” in Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novel Sword at Sunset, whose protagonists feel like pawns of fate playing out some mythic tale, than in Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance Chronicles, a story of wizards & dragons far more prosaically told. I then realized that there is an obvious word to describe this experience of an unnatural presence beyond our comprehension — “occult.”
The word “occult” comes from the Latin “occultus,” which means “hidden, concealed, secret.” In English, it can be used to mean something generally hidden or mysterious (“occult matters such as nuclear physics”) or more commonly used to mean something related to the supernatural, often with somewhat sinister overtones (“he joined an occult secret society dedicated to demon summoning”). This linguistic linking of “secret” and “supernatural” intrigued me, and I realized that it was able to really define what sort of stories are fascinating to me. Stories about the uncovering of spiritual secrets, the moments when someone discovers something profound that forces them to reevaluate their relationship to the universe, for good or ill. It’s the vision of Heaven or Hell that alters someone’s relationship to God, the ghost that forces them to confront their mortality, the magic spell that causes their reality to warp. It’s about feeling like you’ve reached the edge of your conventional view of things, and your next step will take you beyond the fields you know. It’s about that sublime uncertainty more than about any actual specific fantasy images. That sublimity is what fascinates me.
Such a story doesn’t need to have the literal supernatural. The brilliant movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind is incredibly occult in my definition of the term, as it’s all about how the coming of aliens transforms everyone’s views of reality and forces them to confront the wider universe. Robertson Davies’ psychoanalytical novels such as The Manticore are also occult as their explorations into Jungian symbolism force the characters to uncover the secrets of their psyches, which transform their relationship to the universe and themselves. They’re both about the feeling of touching some great truth, one so transformative that it almost feels supernatural. Now, most of my own occult stories are explicitly supernatural, but I’d like to think that they have more in common with Close Encounters of the Third Kind or The Manticore than they do with Harry Potter. I certainly want to capture that numinous feeling. I want my readers to feel like they’re peeling off a level of reality and encountering something hidden and profound underneath.
In short, “occult fiction” is what I like to write.