Letter from the Editor: Fear Itself
By Rob Carroll
First Published in the 2021 Halloween Special Issue of Dark Matter Magazine, October 2021
Frank Herbert famously wrote in his masterwork of science fiction, Dune, that “fear is the mind-killer.” This quote even appears in the background of the cover art for Dark Matter Magazine Issue 001—the words crudely painted on the wall beyond the image’s blind subject in the foreground, the message put there like an Easter egg in plain sight by the very talented cover artist, Richard Wagner, and approved with a smile by me. But for as much as I love the quote, I also feel it oversimplifies what fear is and the functions the emotion serves. For example, Shakespeare had Julius Caesar say something similar, and we all know how well it ended for him.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the main biological function of fear is “to act as a signal of danger, threat, or motivational conflict, and to trigger appropriate adaptive responses.” Without that signal, I’m not sure having a clear mind will matter if it fails to see the danger before it strikes. In this regard, a mind without fear is actually more reactionary than a mind that learns to respectfully listen to and temper the emotion. Conversely, a mind governed too greatly by fear sees danger everywhere and creates conflict where there otherwise wouldn’t be any. This is a mind that has become too precautionary, and can often itself become dangerous. Suppression versus overexpression. Both are a denial of reality.
A healthy brain respects the biological signals that make up fear, and it also knows how to interpret those signals correctly. It knows how to identify danger while also empathizing with all that is incorrectly deemed as dangerous. It recognizes its own dark impulses as threats, and acknowledges that the story it tells itself can sometimes be unreliable and in need of external support to make sense. So, in essence, a healthy brain is one that approaches fear with a keen understanding of its many facets, a knowledge of its various forms, and the wisdom to see itself in both.
And with that, I present to you a preview of the stories contained within this issue, all of which explore fear in at least one of the ways outlined above. Within these stories, fear is not the mind-killer; it is the mind-awakener.
“Annihilate Mankind and Impress Your Friends: A Correspondence Course,” by Matt Andrew, shows us just how dangerous a mind without empathy can be. “Freehold,” by Josh Pearce, deftly wonders the opposite: Can a mind with too much empathy be a danger to itself? “The Devil’s Travel Agency,” by Alex Sobel, takes a calm look at man’s existential search for meaning and the underlying fear that no meaning exists, neither in life nor death. “Queen of the Cloven Heart,” by Hailey Piper, takes us on a quest against evil, but ends with us feeling defeated, having been left to ponder the many ways we mindlessly create a world where such an evil can be allowed to flourish. “Potato,” by Ken Altabef, is cosmic horror of the weirdest order, and I love it for this. The story also explores how easily the mind can be turned against itself in the total absence of fear. “Fluff & Fold,” by Lituo Huang, toys with our ability to discern good from bad, and shows how affected our discernment is by preconceived notions. “Lady of the Dullahan,” by Anna Madden, wonders if in a deeply corrupt society, any man can claim to be innocent, even if he desires to be atoned. “Jodie,” by Mark Joslyn, says that innocent people do exist in a corrupted world, but that in a corrupted world, innocence is what is to be feared—a tainted society won’t come to the defense of its most vulnerable. “Purple Spiders,” by Taylor Gianfrancisco, makes us recoil in fear at the possibility that death isn’t the end of tragedy, but rather its second act. “Master of the House,” by Michael Adam Robson is the second cosmic horror story in this issue, and like its genre forebears, curls into the fetal position and shivers with fright at the unknowable complexity of all the dark and mysterious forces that surround us. “A Place for the Dead and the Dying,” by P. T. Corwin, explores the mind of a man wronged, and shows how a worst fear realized can transform someone in the most horrible of ways. “Caroline,” by Aeryn Rudel, examines the terrible burden of grief and how the refusal to accept life’s unfair tragedies can lead to worser fates. And finally, “The Last Science Fiction Story,” by Alan Vincent Michaels, injects the issue with a much-needed dose of humor by presenting to us a man at odds with himself and the world, both with how it is, and with how he always wanted it to be.
© 2021, Rob Carroll