Mysterious Stranger

Tagged: Theme

The first Mysterious Stranger in the Western Canon may be the Serpent in the Garden of Eden (see Adam and Eve). The second may be Odysseus, the protagonist of Homer's Odyssey (circa 700 BCE), which is perhaps the first, and almost certainly the greatest, nostos or Drama of Return in the literature of that Canon. As understood here, the nostos – a term etymologically linked to "nostalgia" – is inherently a double story: there is a protagonist's tale, like Odysseus's Fantastic Voyage; and there is an unpacking of the effect of this Mysterious Stranger's return on the members of the family or community whose freehold over home or territory can suddenly be understood as usurpation. In the Odyssey, though it is primarily through Odysseus's eyes that the auditor or reader experiences the return to Ithaka and his disruption of the corrupt claustrophobic world created by Penelope's ravenous suitors, the suitors' behaviour and Penelope's heroism has already been conveyed through more than one point of view, including that of an omniscient narrator (who seems at times almost to be channelling Pallas Athene) (see Book 20, lines 338-370). We experience Odysseus's irruption from within the walls.

At the same time, moreover, The Odyssey anticipates another desideratum of the Mysterious Stranger story type: not only is Odysseus is returning to a place upon which he may have some sort of prior claim, but he does so in disguise, powerfully confirming a sense that something uncanny is taking place, as Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) describes the sensation in "Das Unheimlich" ["The Uncanny"] (1919 Orion; translated variously): he is a Stranger, but he is simultaneously recognized: a doubleness at the very heart of the sensation. His irruption arouses in the usurpers as well a sense deeply characteristic of the uncanny that this doubling entity somehow embodies some secret about the past unknown to or perhaps denied by the world intruded upon; but his presence also arouses fear of the future, because – as in almost any story in the Western Canon that deals, as do so many, with conquest and insecure tenure – visitors are likely to presage change, under a sign of retribution. By portraying a figure who simultaneously awakens a denied past and adumbrates the fire to come, Homer created almost en passant a paradigm drama for the Invasion-haunted Western World, a drama perhaps more relevant in the twenty-first century than the expansionist "adventurer" mythos some Westerners have taken the Odyssey as espousing, for it is a drama of return which reaches its climax in perhaps the first of the Western World's literary habitations to be haunted by a previous owner.

The third Mysterious Stranger may be Jesus Christ, who may be taken as a literal manifestation of Old Testament typology. The fourth may be the Wandering Jew, who is always in disguise. Certainly the habitations of the West have ever since these early instances been intruded upon by revenants and revanchists (see Gothic SF; Imperialism); barbarian breeds and revengeful women (see Race in SF; Women in SF; Yellow Peril; etc); Monsters and Supernatural Creatures in general, from the Pied Piper and William Shakespeare's Caliban and the Ghost in Hamlet, onward through Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818); and more recently representatives of Forerunner civilizations who may or may not be preparing to claim back their old home, certainly if Uplift has created Monsters (which is to say us): all these modes finding a welcome home in the doubleness-ridden guilt-lit landscape of modern Fantastika.

In Enter, Mysterious Stranger: American Cloistral Fiction (1979), Roy R Male (1919-2005) defines the story type in terms more restricted than will be used here, though his clarity is exemplary:

Into an isolated setting intrudes one or more mysterious strangers who are potential saviours, potential destroyers, or ambiguous combinations of both. There then occurs some form of ... testing or transformation of the insiders by the intruder(s) [, usually] a physical or emotional or rhetorical duel[, frequently couched in terms of] a bargaining session of some sort; and the transformation may involve the effort of the insider to break out[, or] his displacement by the intruder.

Male's exclusion from his definition of any tale of return of the repressed in sheep's clothing seems coercive, and damagingly scants perennial American nightmares about just ownership; as does his refusal to deal with structurally complex tales whose ostensible protagonist may indeed be the Mysterious Stranger in question, but which centrally focus on how he affects the invaded territory. One effect of these exclusions is a dismissal of the central importance of a climactic anagnorisis or Recognition [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] that allows some release of the tensions inherent in the story type, as in Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte-Cristo (1844-1845), much of whose narrative focuses on the responses of a dysfunctional group of families – at whose heart lurks the poisonous Villefort clan – to the incursion of the incognito Count; and whose several climaxes are climaxes of Recognition which, though announced by Edmund Dantès, are experienced by his prey. Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination (1957) and Gwyneth Jones's Spirit (2008), both of which are based on the Dumas novel, varyingly honour its long-meditated exposure of a diseased micro-world by the protagonist of the tale. (Very unusually, and probably in order deliberately to expose the patriarchal assumptions inherent in the Mysterious Stranger tale about the recovery of stolen property, Jones's version of the story type features a female protagonist.)

Though the Western World may with justice be perceived as a loose assemblage of invasive cultures clawing anxiously to the edges of Greater Asia, there is little direct demonstration in the outward-looking forms of early Proto SF of much interest in the inherent instability of the worlds depicted. The Utopias and Fantastic Voyages that dominate the proto sf field (a field visible, of course, only in retrospect) are far more happily viewed as reflecting the first period of European expansion, from the beginning of the sixteenth century until the beginning of the nineteenth, a period which may now seem curiously and inattentively self-confident. Only in the nineteenth century do early examples of Fantastika begin to show evidence of those central anxieties about the safety of the world arena, and about our place in it, that have increasingly marked the planetary genres. The Mysterious Stranger story, though never common, seems to capture much of this pattern of anxiety. The Apes as Human form, excluding the many Fantastic Voyage examples whose protagonists discover human-like creatures in other lands, seems to evoke a range of concerns not very expressed before the nineteenth century. Tales in which an ape or monkey, usually alone, visits us – a very early example being Thomas Love Peacock's Melincourt; Or, Sir Oran Haut-on (1817 3vols) – inherently put to gaze the world intruded upon, though Sir Haut-on's presence in Westminster as an Member of Parliament fails sadly to transform that institution. On the other hand, the intruding ape in "Der Affe als Mensch" ["The Ape as Man", variously translated] (1827) by Wilhelm Hauff [for Hauff see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] clearly perturbs the aristocratic world whose pretensions he exposes. There are further examples; but with the introduction of Evolution as an underlying concern after 1859, the Apes as Human topos tends to focus on more general species anxieties, on locales generally larger in scale than those typical of the Mysterious Stranger story, which tends to focus centripetally on intimate venues or microworlds, with actors often linked by family ties, known or to be revealed.

In nineteenth-century America, a frontier land occupied by waves of usurping immigrants, dis-ease about just tenure permeates the work of significant authors, including most of those whose reputations have best survived until now. Mysterious Stranger stories by Edgar Allan Poe include "The Devil in the Belfry" (18 May 1839 Saturday Chronicle), in which chaos destabilizes the village of Vondervotteimittiss, and "The Sphinx" (January 1846 Arthur's Ladies' Magazine) whose protagonist escapes a plague devastating New York only to find his sanctuary visited by a Monster from the despoiled world he'd hoped to abandon. The box-within-box generational family drama of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables (1851) includes several Mysterious Stranger episodes verging on the supernatural, though the final revelation – of an Native American deed to the land concealed behind the portrait of a murderous patriarch – is a more straightforward exposure of the nightmare within the American Dream. The eponymous Stranger's refusal to service machines in Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" (1853 Putnam's Monthly) exposes the new age of business as nonsense; more savagely, the Shapeshifter who visits the Ship of Fools Mississippi River steamboat in The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857) exposes his victims to the realization that they neither own nor understand their world, their past, or themselves, all of which the multi-named intruder exposes as a Comic Inferno, rather as the uncannily elusive picaro Burlingame in John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) indicts colonial America; and in Melville's last tale, the nonfantastic Billy Budd, Foretopman (written circa 1890; 1924), a holy innocent serves as the Stranger: but in this tragic iteration of the story type, his innocence, as might be expected, kills him. The visitor in William Dean Howells's Altruria sequence, beginning with A Traveler from Altruria (1894), focuses a distressing mirror on a middle-class world shamed by his descriptions of his homeland. Huck Finn responds to (rather than affects) the archipelago of exemplary societies he encounters in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) is again narrated by the intruder. But in a late story, "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" (December 1899 Harper's New Monthly Magazine), a town whose inhabitants claim to be incorruptible is exposed and transformed by the stranger they have insulted; and the disruption to the medieval microworld generated in The Mysterious Stranger (written over previous decades; 1916; full texts 1969) clearly marks this tale as a model of its type: as indicated by the use of its title to designate the form.

From before the end of the nineteenth century, the Mysterious Stranger story type had on a basis of relatively few iterations become a convention: perhaps because it is easy to grasp and hard to forget once presented, an example being Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island (1874), the Mysterious Stranger in this case being Captain Nemo in disruptive concealment. None of Robert Louis Stevenson's novels are straightforward examples, though the Doppelganger-intense usurpations inflicted by Mr Hyde in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), and by the Master upon his brother and ex-wife in The Master of Ballantrae (1889), convey with intimate terror a sense of psychic invasion of the home territory. H G Wells published at least three versions of the type: The Invisible Man (1897), where the intrusion of the eponymous invader is both psychic and physical; The Sea Lady: A Tissue of Moonshine (1902), whose narrator tries vainly to tamp down the challenge posed by a mermaid to the self-esteem of English society; and The Camford Visitation (1937 chap), where an invisible voice puts to mock the Groves of Academe. George du Maurier's The Martian (1897), whose visitor is female, is a mildly feeble Scientific Romance, a form particularly open to discourses upon the effects of contemplating human society from distant perspectives, a more shapely example of the form being The Inheritors (1901) by Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, and a more sharply clearcut example being E V Odle's The Clockwork Man (1923).

From the first years of the twentieth century, it has probably been the case that the genres most associated with Mysterious Stranger elements are classic nonfantastic detective fictions and policiers, where the visiting investigator – perhaps most remarkably Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret – disrupts communities in order to heal them. But works of this sort are not within the remit of this encyclopedia. It is also wise to assume that a Mysterious Stranger may feature in any drama set in a boarding house or stately home, though relatively few examples remain unforgotten, most of these invoking the supernatural. They include the successful (and at least twice filmed) The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1907) by Jerome K Jerome (1859-1927), as dramatized from his own short story (19 November 1904 Saturday Evening Post); J B Priestley's exemplary An Inspector Calls (performed 1945 Moscow; 1947 chap); The Iceman Cometh (performed 9 October 1946 Martin Beck Theatre, New York; 1946) by Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953), where the name of the returning salesman may be known to the regulars at the bar he visits, but nothing more – his disruption of this enclave being almost supernaturally intense; and The Weir (performed 4 July 1997 The Royal Court Theatre, London) by Conor MacPherson (1971-    ), where a female Mysterious Stranger elicits a damning round of ghost stories from regulars of the pub she has visited.

The stage aside, effective renderings of the complex have appeared intermittently but persistently over the past century or so, both as prose fictions and in the sf Cinema, examples of the latter including The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951); Forbidden Planet (1956), in which Caliban finally exercises his due sway; The Man who Fell to Earth (1976), with David Bowie as a paradigm exemplar of the Stranger, in a reading consistent with the original novel by Walter Tevis; Alien (1979), though Horror in SF effects may drown out any lessons offered about the micro-society of the ship; and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). The protagonist of Under the Skin (2013) is adequately mysterious, but she remains undetected, and her impact invisible. The film Western – like most prose Westerns – generally eschews the fantastic in its frequent evocations of the form, though figures like the Lone Ranger hover on the safe side of supernatural readings. Perhaps the most famous American example, Shane (1953) directed by George Stevens (1904-1975), lacks any fantastic element, though more than one of the several Mysterious Stranger films starring and/or made by Clint Eastwood (1930-    ) convey a sense that the intruder's origin is supernatural origin; the most successful of these is probably Pale Rider (1985), directed by Eastwood. Almost any Western whose hero is masked – indeed almost any film in general whose hero is masked – is likely to incorporate Mysterious Stranger elements. And any Superhero film whose hero is masked clearly evokes the story type, though it is very rarely indeed that any of these figures in any sense unmasks the world they occupy, and in this sense films and fictions about superheroes fulfil a different task: they do not ask us to look into the mirror, but assiduously forgive us from that morally daunting task.

In both sf and fantasy modes, tales in which a circus visits a small town almost necessarily incorporate some aspects of the Mysterious Stranger model, though in many cases the carnival vortex serves as a magnet for escape, often for adolescents; less often is the invaded town itself illuminated. Central examples include Charles G Finney's The Circus of Dr Lao (1935) and Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962); there are others, including at least one implicitly fantastic play, The Music Man (first performed 19 December 1957 Majestic Theatre, New York; 1958) by Meredith Willson (1902-1984). Some Time Travel stories, particularly those involving visitors from the future, utilize the model; a well-known example is C L Moore's Vintage Season (September 1946 Astounding; 1990 chap), and the romance awakened in John Rowe Townsend's The Xanadu Manuscript (1977) explicitly incorporates as well an element of exogamous longing, shared alike by visitors and visited. Exogamy motifs are in fact detectable, though usually submerged, throughout the history of the Mysterious Stranger.

Relatively few Pocket Universe or Generation Starship tales evoke the model, perhaps because sf stories of this sort have traditionally focused on their protagonists' experience of Conceptual Breakthrough; and it would be unwise to suggest that the "victims" or subjects of a Mysterious Stranger intrusion enjoy anything as bracing as a Conceptual Breakthrough. Their moment of revelation is more likely to give a sense that something has been confessed to rather than experienced for the first time. Some Space Operas feature mysterious passengers, a very strong example of this being John Brunner's Sanctuary in Space (1960), in which a vast Starship used as a Space Habitat is taken back by a native of old Earth, the world responsible for its construction. Algis Budrys's Who? (1958) plays sophisticatedly on problems of Identity that underlie, sometimes tacitly, most iterations of the form, in that the masked disruptive intruder of the tale may or may not be the person he claims to be; the first third of Robert A Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) adheres loosely to the model; John Crowley's The Deep (1979) complexly introduces a Mysterious Stranger Android into the tight society occupying a discworld manufactured, it seems, by the android's own maker. Other sf novels using the general story type include Pamela Sargent's The Alien Upstairs (1983), Barry Faville's The Return (1987), Alton Gansky's Angel (2007). Many of Gene Wolfe's novels invoke Mysterious Strangers, but almost always within narrative structures so intricate as to preclude any assertion that any one of them is an unquestionable example of the type. Among recent fantasies of note, in Joyce Carol Oates's Middle Age: A Romance (2001) the suicide of the pastless artist protagonist transformingly haunts a small town. Parodies of the Mysterious Stranger story are not often found, Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire (1962) being a rare example.

The initially disguised Odysseus who intrudes dangerously into Dan Simmons's Ilium (2003) may be seen as a return to the first Mysterious Stranger to shiver the bones of the Western World, reminding us that we may be less real than the parents we have attempted to disinherit. It should perhaps be noted that the stranger described in this entry bears little or no resemblance to the victim and/or anonymous stranger whose eventual welcome into (or sad exclusion from) normal life features in many mimetic novels, as described by Gage McWeeny [see citation below]. [JC]

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