Sunday, July 19, 2009

Any Portal in a Storm

fantasy--a novel or story in which magical, supernatural, and preternatural elements are presented as though they were real; narratives in which alternate universes, mythic creatures, imaginary worlds, and extraordinary mental and physical abilities prevail; stories involving clashes of power between rival forces who have rival thematic agendas; stories built on the consequences of spells, curses, and charms.

Ever since Alice (of Wonderland fame) fell into the rabbit hole, fantasy writers have capitalized on the portal or entry way into worlds of their own creation, worlds where often enough there may be intended comparisons between individuals, institutions, and places in the real world. These are worlds where magic--abilities that extend beyond the boundaries of reality--flourishes, but just as contemporary pharmaceuticals do, the magic has a known list of side effects: spells do not last indefinitely, curses may exact a reaction onto the curse giver, and such desirable abilities as invisibility have strict time limits. Portals have led readers and, of course, characters to antique shops, restaurants, book stores, even pawn brokers. The consequence of such visits become manifest when the protagonist of the story attempts to return to the venue of the portal.

Fantasy worlds often parallel the real universe in most details except for those one or two of the author's choice. Thus in Rachel Maddux's short story, "Final Clearance," written during the days of Congressional hearings and loyalty oaths, the payoff comes in the form of a recently dead atomic scientist being denied actual death because of a failed security clearance.

In one form or another, fantasy has been with us since there was a spoken language; it plays a significant part in, for instance, Gilgamesh, which has fantasy themes revisited in The Iliad and even more so in The Odyssey, where it is often used as a metaphor. The contemporary writer, Ursula K. LeGuin, has written a short story, "Horse Camp," in which two sisters, Sal and Norah, along with a friend, Ev, go to horse camps during the summer and are transformed into equines. In yet another of her fantasies, "The Professor's Houses," there is a thematic counterpoint between the house where the Professor lives and a doll house he has made for his young daughter. LeGuin has done in her book, The Language of the Night, what Stephen King has done for horror in Danse Macabre.

Just as the historical story has done for the mixing of genera such as historical thriller, historical mystery, historical juvenile, etc, so too has fantasy become a pairing genre, often seen as magical realism (See any work by Alice Hoffman). This mixture easily extends to work that is by any account considered literature, Robertson Davies' The Rebel Angels being a significant example.

Hint: Check out via Google and Wikipedia the pulp fantasy magazine, Weird Tales. Also of seminal interest to fantasy writers as a source of inspiration, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, and the near-iconic Harry Potter books.

Additional hint: Start with a short story in the works, then add to it one magical element, keeping everything else as grounded in realistic detail as possible.

Yet another hint: Do not ever forget The Wizard of Oz, which is not only pure fantasy, it is a paradigm for the structure of a novel, so much so that Margaret Atwood uses it in an essay ("In the Heart of the Heartland" available on Google)in which she shows the connection between Richard Powers's literary tour de force, The Echo Maker, with The Wizard.

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