The International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts is an unusual conference. It is largely academic in nature, with scholarly papers offered on the literature, language, and theories of the fantastic (science fiction, fantasy, horror) in all media (television, movies, books, poetry, paintings, games, and just about anything else you can thing of). The papers have titles like “Dialectical Progression in Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy” and “The Inflicted ‘Self’ in Robin McKinley’s Deerskin: Implanted Memories, Fragmented Bodies, and Re-envisioned Identities,” which might make you think that you wandered into a meeting of the Modern Language Association.
But ICFA is different from purely academic conferences in several ways. Most importantly, this conference is populated by authors as well as academics. While it honors a scholar each year, it also has several author guests — this year, China Miéville and Kelly Link — and such perennial attendees as Peter Straub, Joe Haldeman and Ellen Datlow. Second, the conference welcomes independent scholars, that is, those of us who aren’t employed in academe but who love to think deeply about books and dabble in literary criticism. Third, from what I’ve heard from the academics who attend, this conference is a whole hell of a lot more fun than most academic conferences, from the gatherings at the pool bar to the late night horror films to the outings to haunted cemeteries.
I was first introduced to ICFA in 1999 by the man who would a few years later become my beloved husband. He was presenting a paper on the surrealist art of Rene Magritte that year. I was awestruck by the writers in attendance, and could barely squeak out more than, “I love your books!” But I fell in love with the conference then, and gathered my courage a few years later — with my then-husband’s strong encouragement — to present my first paper. This year I presented my fourth, which I finished writing at 3:00 a.m. the night before I presented it at 10:30 a.m. — but more about that later.
The conference takes place at the airport Marriott in Orlando, Florida, each year during most the time colleges and universities are on spring break, usually about the third weekend in March. This year it was warmer than usual, which made sitting by the pond outside the hotel and looking for the resident alligator all the more pleasant (and he did make a showing, swimming along the outside bar, smiling mightily).
My conference was hindered by job-related demands on my time, so I heard fewer panels and participated in fewer activities than I would have liked. But I made time for what was most important to me, and that started with China Miéville’s guest of honor talk on the first full day of the conference. Miéville is scary-smart, a polymath educated in economics who also is well-versed in literary criticism and turns out a strikingly original novel almost every year. In keeping with the theme of the conference (“The Monstrous Fantastic”), he spoke on “Nine or More (Monstrous) Not-Cannies,” using the Freudian/Kristevan term “canny” to describe the fantastical monster. That is, it was his theme that monsters are uncanny because they are beyond our ken, being impossible yet inventive manifestations of the not-canny. He spoke of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” as an example of the canny, with its low, dull, rhythmic sound permeating the story. On the other hand, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos is the quintessential uncanny, something that emerges from the Gothic but is not of it, that which cannot be described and whose monsters are the opposite of clear. This sort of weirdness, Miéville said, is explicitly counter to the ontological, is categorically “other,” is and always will be unknowable. Authors who write weird fiction stare into the sublime mingled with horror and come back with a bad newness, something that is casually apocalyptic.
Miéville went on to talk about different types of “uncanny” for different types of monsters, half tongue-in-cheek, half seriously. Teratological representations of the unknown that evoke disgust should be described as the “abcanny,” a relative of the abnormal. Monsters that live beneath the surface of the water, but that we know exist, are the “subcanny.” And then things started getting as weird as a Miéville novel, as he started throwing out different versions of “uncanny” for anything he could think of — the “post-canny” for that which we no longer understand; the “precanny” that we feel when we look at the fossil of a trilobite; and so on. Miéville summed up by noting that this sort of taxonomy is great fun, but that we risk destroying that which we love with criticism. It was a tour de force of a speech, and I enjoyed it very much.