The Wind From A Distant Storm

This is a subject that I have touched on in this blog before, but I’d like to specifically discuss it in terms of the 21st Century Thrilling Adventure project.

I consider the Exotic an indispensable element of the kind of stories that I am looking for. In a fine post on the subject, Rampant Coyote uses the phrase “lurid spectacle”, which I believe he got from Lester Dent.

To sum up a surprisingly deep concept in as few words as I can manage, the Exotic is That Which Does Not Belong Here.  (I am using Here in the sense of “in this story”–frequently it is the setting which is Exotic, so actually it’s the characters who do not belong there.)

The critical linchpin of the Exotic in the sense that I mean it, as opposed to simply being strange for the sake of being strange is that there must be a clear sense that the other things do belong. There has to be an established zeitgeist, characters who are suited to the metaphysic of the story universe, objects that fit into this world, an expected course of events.  Without establishing the reader’s understanding of what is right, there is no shock in encountering what is wrong.

The Exotic need not be supernatural or otherwise counterfactual, but it is intrinsically unnatural–that is to say, against the natural order of things. This presupposes a metaphysical authority–which doesn’t mean a theological authority (much less a God), simply a self-evident standard of right and wrong which the protagonist believes and the reader is willing to accept at least for the duration of the story.

Nor is the Exotic necessarily evil in an objective moral sense. It is dangerous, and the intrusion of the unnatural into the character’s world should be the conflict that drives the story, but the Exotic element may be entirely amoral, like a storm or a virus.

This may sound confusing (it’s clearer in my head than the words I’m getting down) so let me try some examples.

The hero is a cab driver.  He picks up a woman who has been injured and is being pursued.  If her pursuers are ordinary criminals that wouldn’t be Exotic in my sense (criminals are an unpleasant but real part of the natural order). An Exotic pursuer would be outside of the driver’s ordinary frame of reference–a cult that believes the escaping woman to be an alien spy, for example, or the woman’s formerly conjoined twin who wishes to kidnap her sister in order to sow them back together.

The hero is a cop in a small seaside town.  During a hurricane he becomes involved in a struggle with criminals.  That in itself wouldn’t be Exotic, what would make it so is if they were the descendants of a group of Japanese soldiers who went into hiding during World War Two and are intending to invade the US mainland for the Emperor.

The hero is a private detective investigating the theft of jewelry for an insurance company. He finds that the policyholder faked the theft–not Exotic in itself, but it would become so if the policyholder was hypnotized to steal her own jewelry and give it to the hypnotist.

These are examples just off the top of my head, and I’m still not sure that I have a handle on what I mean.  I invite discussion on this topic–that would help me to clarify my thoughts.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Writing, pulp revival and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Wind From A Distant Storm

  1. Nathan says:

    Considering how anything from other worlds to chinoiserie or even America “back yonder” was used in the pulps for a sense of the exotic, perhaps it is the idea of the unfamiliar instead of the unnatural that describes the exotic. But unfamiliar or unnatural, the exotic must still be consistent.

  2. Dominika says:

    The distinction between Unnatural and Unfamiliar strikes me as fitting in with something that also came to mind and that is the source of authority for what sets the standard for right and wrong.

    Unnatural suggests metaphysical while Unfamiliar suggests societal authority. Within a particular society (i.e. American society), exploring societies that are separate and unknown creates a cognitive analysis where ‘right’ becomes what is known by either the readers, protagonist/characters, or both and ‘wrong’ is what is unknown to them – but well known by the author and perhaps antagonist/characters depending on setting. Perhaps similar to a sense of knowing which way is Up-and-Down instead of being All-Turned-Around? Reminds me of the phrase “it felt right” or “it felt wrong” often used as a subjective perspective on something being observed.

    The examples suggested seem illustrated by adding complexity that wouldn’t be easily expected by readers; creating details here and there that take something otherwise mundane and make it perilous or unusual.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      “Creating details here and there that take something otherwise mundane and make it perilous or unusual.”
      Yes, exactly!
      I do think that in the Pulp era unfamiliar cultures could take on an air of the unnatural that isn’t really possible in today’s interconnected world. In 1930 Japan might as well have been Mars, today I correspond with people who live in Japan on a regular basis.

      • Dominika says:

        I agree that the world is mostly interconnected or cultures are well-understood on a global basis due to the research of the internet. It makes me wonder if that sense of pulp era ‘unfamiliar cultures’ can only be found in Sci-Fi and Fantasy anymore. Even tribes living in jungles have documentaries following their lives… but does that make the documentary exotic or the fact of their existence mundane?
        Or does that leave any exotic settings for the modern world to be something that doesn’t actually exist in reality (but written to suggest that it might)? For instance, making up a culture/society in a pocket of wilderness where nothing actually exists like Antartica or random spots in various continents.

      • MishaBurnett says:

        There are different kinds of isolation. Stephen King’s “Children Of The Corn” (the original short story, anyway–never saw the movies) posited an unfamiliar and hostile culture in Midwestern America. T E D Klein’s “Children Of The Kingdom” was about a subterranean alien civilization under the streets of New York City. Karl Edward Wagner’s “Where Summer Ends” imagined an undiscovered hominid species living under the kudzu in the American south. There are numerous stories about cults and subcultures of people living in plain sight and meeting in secret.

  3. I think I can manage that in my writing… or at least I’m trying. It’s just that I’m writing about an alternate 20th century, or a projected 22nd century, or who-knows when in a pocket universe setting. Although basically what I’m doing so far is genre & sub-genre mashups: two-fisted detective + retro SF; prehistoric adventure + aliens; etc.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Writing in a non-present day Earth setting requires, I think, some setting of the baseline for the characters. What would be Exotic to the readers might well be mundane for your characters, and vice versa.

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