20 August 2009

“Two Kinds of Fantastic Fiction”?

In a foreword for the second collection of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, Clive Barker wrote:

May we open this celebration of the work in your hand by defining two kinds of fantastic fiction? One, the kind most often seen in horror novels and movies, offers up a reality that resembles our own, then postulates a second invading reality, which has to be accommodated or exiled by the status quo it is attempting to overtake.

Sometimes, as in any exorcism movie--and most horror movies are that, by other names--the alien thorn is successfully removed from the suppurating flank of the real. On other occasions the visitor becomes part of the fabric of “everyday” life. Superman is, after all, an alien lifeform. He’s simply the acceptable face of invading realities.

The second kind of fantastique is far more delirious. In these narratives, the whole world is haunted and mysterious. There is no solid status quo, only a series of relative realities, personal to each of the characters, any or all of whom are frail, and subject to eruptions from other states and conditions.

One of the finest writers in this second mode is Edgar Allen Poe, in whose fevered stories landscape, character--even architecture--become a function of the tormented, sexual anxious psyche of the author; in which anything is possible because the tales occur within the teller’s skull.

Is it perhaps freedom from critical and academic scrutiny that has made the medium of the comic book so rich an earth in which to nurture this second kind of fiction?
Barker goes on to praise Gaiman’s comics for achieving the latter effect, which is also what his own stories are known for.

I took a moment to consider Barker’s dichotomy and realized that I could think of at least three other types of fantastic fiction:
  • Our reality coexists with another, where fantastic or supernatural rules apply, but the two realms are largely separate. Often these stories are narratives of journey and return, as in Alice in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, or The Phantom Tollbooth.
  • Much of the setting seems like our reality, but there are magical elements. Unlike the situation in Barker’s first group, however, those supernatural elements are not part of “a second invading reality” to be rooted out, but a recognized part of life, as in the world of Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci or James and the Giant Peach.
  • The entire story takes place in another reality quite unlike our own, where magic or other forces apply, but that reality is as firmly grounded and consistent for the characters as this reality is to us. Examples include high fantasy of The Lord of the Rings.
And perhaps more as well.

I suspect Barker’s vision was narrowed by his experience writing horror, seeking to create “fantastic fiction” at its most frightening rather than exploring other emotional goals. But this was back in 1990, and since then he's stretched in many other approaches to fantastic fiction.

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