Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Thoughts On Fantasy

I decided to take photography because I've been using photographs as a basis for doing my Dada/Surrealism-influenced fantasy art for Swill. Unfortunately, I seem to be developing a taste for photography in itself. Great. Just what I need. A new form.

What next? If it's dance, I might have to kill myself.

Well, if you didn't think I was an overweening ass before, this might just change your mind. I've got a couple of hours before I have to leave for school and nothing pressing that I can actually do, so I thought I'd write a bit about my philosophy of fantasy, how it evolved, and how I apply it to my own work.

As a child, my introduction to fantasy came when my parents decided to read the Hobbit to me. My maternal grandmother, Jean Bishop, was one of those who fell in love with Tolkien's work as it was first published, and she passed that inheritance on to my mom.

The Hobbit obsessed me. It let me live in another world, one far more satisfying than my own. My life seemed -- how does it go? -- flat, stale, and unprofitable. More than his words, Tolkien's illustrations gave me a sense of uplift, of expanded life, a sense that there was (despite the fears and suffering he portrayed) a better place than mine.

I think that in many ways, the pleasure we take in stories of other times and places, of fantastic people, creatures, and events, derives from the same roots as the impulse motivating religious belief. For many, religion gives them the same thing Tolkien gave me -- an escape hatch.

So throughout my childhood and teen years, I searched out as much fantasy as I could -- and my criteria for approval was distance from conventional reality.

This eventually led to my explorations into religion, the occult, spirituality, Forteana, and so on. I wanted that imaginary escape hatch to be real, but the more I looked for it, the more I realized that it didn't exist. If I hadn't pursued the numinous with intellectual rigor, I'd probably still have a vague belief that there's a supernatural influence in life.

This led me to ignore many of the strongest virtues of much of my favorite fiction. Lord Dunsany --

A few words before we go on. Lord Dunsany is the single most influential figure in fantasy. The two main schools of twentieth-century fantasy are the Weird Tales writers and the later Inklings, who included both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. He was in many ways a better writer than those who followed him, more mature, more original, more humorous, more wise in the ways of the world.

Most of those who followed him were enchanted, as I was, by his use of words, the way he summoned up an atmosphere of other worlds. His writing, especially his early writing, was consciously influenced by the Bible. This added a strong whiff of the Orient (apologies for the use of an outdated term, but in our cultural history there's a difference between the Orient and Asia) to his work. He recognized that the Bible, however much it's influenced the Western world, was a work of Eastern folklore and folk history, one whose essential mindset is exotic to the West.

As an adult, when I read Dunsany I still appreciate that exoticism -- but more than that, I'm conscious of his sense of irony and satire. When appreciated in full, his escapism is grounded firmly in the reality of the human experience.

Dunsany's awareness of mythology is congruent with Tolkien's fascination with the folk literature of Northern Europe. What I'm saying is that fantasy has its deepest roots in religion and folklore -- in stories that people really believe in. It's that sense of conviction that allows us to experience escapism. I've always read myths and fairy tales and so on with the same mindset that I bring to fantasy.

As a kid I was distressed to hear the speculation that The Lord of the Rings was a parable for WWII, with Sauron playing the role of Hitler. It seemed to make the whole thing a cheat. But when I read more of Tolkien's personal history, it seemed to me that the War of the Rings drew more from his experiences during WWI, and that many of the emotional beats in that story seemed to come from Tolkien's life, I had the opposite reaction.

The connection with reality made the story deeper, richer, more personal.

Look, these days I find the Lord of the Rings absolutely unreadable. And I've tried. The first volume begins entertainingly, but by the end I wanted to beat the living shit of of Tom Bombadil, and I hit The Two Towers like a bullet hitting Lexan. But I still respect Tolkien and wish happiness to those who truly love his work. I just don't see this as a novel written with a readership in mind. It's intensely personal, clearly the product of a deep-rooted compulsion, and for most of us it's inaccessible.

My growing feeling that escapism functions best when firmly rooted to the human experience was reinforced by the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories of Fritz Leiber. Leiber is a highly variable writer; he's done some absolutely dreadful stuff but at his best? He's one of the best. Honestly, he should be recognized by the Literary Establishment. I will flat-out say that Our Lady of Darkness is one of the two most direct influences on my novel The Ghost Rockers. (The other would be Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The Ghost Rockers isn't that much like either of them, but the influence is there.)

My absolute favorite Fafhrd and Mouser story is the farce Lean Times in Lankhmar. It is fucking hilarious, the supernatural just barely peeks in through the window, the satire of religion is pitch perfect. And yet it's set in another world that's clearly realized to the point where you smell it, you taste it, you feel cobblestones under your ass as you sit and listen to Fafhrd sing.

Edward Eager was another strong influence for me, and later John Bellairs. They both specialized in the intrusion of the supernatural into daily life. In Eager's works, this led to comedy, and in Bellair's, this led to horror. As much as I loved works like the Oz books and The Phantom Tollbooth, the way the fantastic and realistic elements were neatly separated from one another disappointed me. Either there is an Oz or there isn't -- and if there is, Dorothy isn't going to be the only person or thing traveling between the two worlds. That sense of separation seemed to make the fantastic elements of the story into a dream.

Or a lie.

You may notice that I spend little time discussing current fantasy. The fantasy I love is the product of a singular and eccentric mind, and most of what was written after the clearly plagiarized Sword of Shannara has been product. I'm certain that much of it is good product but it just isn't what I'm interested in.

I suspect that Dungeons & Dragons has much to do with it. Hey, I was rolling polyhedral dice back when you had to buy them from TSR and they were made out of shitty plastic that made them look like a Transformer's venereal scabs. I still read RPGs even if I don't play them.

But they gave people a clear model for creating a fantasy, a series of methodical steps that lead to the production of a world, characters, and a narrative. And that's what this stuff looks like to me -- the product of a method. All perspiration and no inspiration.

So when I set out to write a fantasy, I had a number of clear goals in mind.

1) It should offer escapism -- it's my job to show you amazing things that you will never see anywhere else.

2) It needs to connect strongly with reality in a way that makes the real fantastic and the fantastic real. The world of daily life and the other world are the same fucking world, even if it takes a while for the characters and the reader to see this. You ever think that virtually all humans throughout history would regard the way you live as exotic, magical, fantastic?

3) It should be personal and honest. There is a longstanding tradition of writer's putting elements of themselves in their characters, especially in Sword and Sorcery fiction. There's a lot of Robert E. Howard in King Kull, a lot of Moorcock in Elric, a lot of Leiber in Fafhrd. And to be honest, I'm a hell of a good character. Early in my current drive to become a writer, my sister and brother-in-law told me that my best fiction was the stuff I wrote in my own voice, my conversational voice. "It makes me feel like I'm in the presence of an incredibly powerful mind that's totally devoted to not being a psycho killer," was what my brother-in-law said. I've kept that statement in mind while writing.

4) It should be true to my time, place, and culture. I want to write a piece of epic fantasy that relates to my people, and derives from current folk culture. So while I'm trying as hard as I can to write real literature, I am consciously drawing on everything from popular music to movies to comic books, along with the deeper well of world mythologies and religious traditions.

5) It should be absolutely convincing. I'm thinking of Lovecraft's dictum that a horror story should be as carefully planned and executed as a hoax. It is my goal to have the fantastic elements of the book be the kind of thing that some people might actually believe in, no matter how bizarre they might be. To have the supernatural elements ring true to a degree that would have allowed me to start a cult based on them if I hadn't used them in a novel.

6) Finally, and in many ways most importantly, I wanted make this something that was truly unique, a real one-of-a-kind, and so I turned to sources of inspiration outside the fields of genre fiction. I brought surrealistic techniques to bear, I used direct observations from life, I started out by writing completely intuitively before organizing the material into a cohesive narrative. Dreams and visions (I'm crazy -- I get visions) and music and art and even evolutionary science play more of a role in what shows up on the page than Tolkien and Howard do.


Sometimes I suspect that I think too much about this stuff.


Zach said...

Shit, I can't get twenty pages into Fellowship without starting to doze off. As much as I respect Tolkien for creating...really, a whole world apart from our own, those books would've been better split into not just three but maybe a dozen books. This is coming from somebody who thinks "Mountains of Madness" is crazy long.

I don't read much. Boooks, anyway. I'm on a classical literature stint right now. Just got through Dante's Inferno, and I'm jumping right into Purgatorio. Epic poetry is something you really have to work at to enjoy. Read the addendums, the notes, the footnotes, the introduction and analysis of form. But it's fucking awesome once you understand it.

Lovecraft will ALWAYS be my go-to guy for fantasy/horror/sci-fi because he just plain gets it. A few of his stories are ho-hum, but not a single one is "bad" or "boring." Thus my obsession with restoring his horrible monsters.

Have you read the Dark Horse comic treatment of Faferd and the Grey Mouser? It's illustrated by Mike Mignola, which is PERFECT, and it's very well written--basically an illustrated version of several of Leiber's stories.

Sean Craven said...

Hey, Zach!

As I mentioned in my post on the old gentleman's birthday, Lovecraft is my man.


I was once tempted by a seven-volume printing of LOTR; I'm glad I didn't buy it because I'd have never read it.

For someone who doesn't read many books, you've gone and jumped into the deep end. I've got a copy of a Dore-illustrated version of Dante that I've been intending to crack for a while now. Got to say, Paradisio looks a bit weak based on the illustrations -- the ones for Inferno are great, Purgatorio still good, but Paradisio is just a shitload of angels flying in formations. You can tell that Dore was really bored... Still, I will tackle it soon. You make it sound good.

I dig some narrative verse from time to time, but my tastes have been much lighter -- ever check out The Hunting of the Snark?

I've been tempted by the Chaykin/Mignola Fafhrd & Mouser stories, since I'm very fond of all the creators involved. I'm holding off, though. I've had the experience of running across illustrated, animated, or otherwise adapted versions of favorite stories only to find that the pictures in the adaption drove out the pictures I've had in my mind, which weakened my experience.

You know what sucks about writing? It's made it hard for me to read for pleasure -- I keep wanting to fix things. Ha!