"Why do you read that stuff?" many of us are asked. Those who don't read fantasy often don't understand why we would want to read about places that don't exist, populated with creatures that can't exist, doing things that can't happen. We might struggle with an answer, mentioning how exciting fantasy is, how it allows us to use our imagination, how in fantasy anything can happen. Or, if we've faced this attitude too many times before, we might simply shrug and walk away. But whatever our response, it often seems to be lacking something, to be inadequate to describe the true appeal of fantasy. And that's because it's very hard even for us to articulate why, exactly, we are so drawn to fantasy fiction.
In his essay "On Fairy-Stories," J.R.R. Tolkien says that fantasy deals with "the adventures of men in the Perilous Realm." This "Perilous Realm" is a place he calls Faerie, the location where a fantasy takes place, an enchanted land that cannot be described directly: "Faerie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable."
By Faerie, Tolkien does not mean some sort of pretty fairyland, with little pink sprites flying from flower to flower singing songs. He means something more powerful, more elemental. But what, exactly? If it can't be described in words, how the heck can I explain to my husband why I want to visit this place instead of cleaning the house?
While most authors and critics shy away from an exact definition of Faerie, most agree that this land must contain two elements: beauty and terror.
Beauty seems pretty easy to explain. Who wouldn't want to take a vacation to a beautiful place, to see the sunset-tinted heights of a mountain range or experience the peaceful beauty of a still mountain lake? And the beauty of Faerie is even greater. Again, we should not mistake cuteness for beauty. Faerie is not the land where the Smurfs live. The beauty of Faerie is a beauty that transcends our world. It is something we can only experience in our minds (which may explain the failure of most fantasy movies).
But why must Faerie contain terror? And if it does, why do we want to visit this Perilous Realm? Excitement? Perhaps. But I think there's more to it than that. If the beauty we see truly is transcendent, greater than anything we've experienced, sublime, then it will create in us a feeling of awe, that overwhelming sense of mixed wonder and dread we feel in the face of greatness that surpasses our understanding. And I think this is the emotion we all wish to feel when we read a fantasy.
Awe is a powerful emotion; equal parts wonder and terror, and it is a signal to us that we have reached Faerie, that we have reached the truly unknown, the truly fantastical, the truly imagined. Awe strikes us and overwhelms us, and it runs deep into our hearts with an intensity few emotions have.
One of the reasons awe is so powerful and so desirable is because it works on the deepest level in which a work of art--a story, in this case--can affect us. A truly great work of art causes a reaction in us called "artistic arrest." This term is used most often with paintings and sculpture, but it is equally valid in a discussion of stories. Artistic arrest occurs when the art seizes and holds you. It's that moment when your mind engages the story and you enter into the creative process, recreating the artist's images in your own mind; the moment of revelation when you say, "A-ha!"; the moment when you feel the same emotions that the artist felt, and those emotions are so overwhelming that you are literally stopped. Arrested. I can think of no better description of awe, or of the distinctive pleasure associated with reading fantasy.
This suggests an intimate bond between fantasy and art. Not only can a fantasy story be great art; the entire genre of fantasy stories is in some sense focused on creating the essence of great art, through the emotion of awe and its resulting artistic arrest. And we, as readers of fantasy, are searching for great art, and for that transcendent experience it provides.
So the next time someone asks you, "Why do you read that stuff?" you might try answering, "To experience beauty, terror, and artistic arrest." This still won't get you out of cleaning the house, but it may make your questioner start to wonder what he's missing.
Most voracious readers make their regular visits to the bookstore to visit their favorite sections, check out all the new releases, pick through the older titles, and search for new works by favorite authors. Yet most of us never stop to consider why the various publishers have chosen these particular few books, out of all the thousands of works submitted to them each year, to publish. Some of us have a vague idea that the publishers pick the "best" manuscripts to publish. But quality is not the main factor that governs a publisher's decision to publish a particular book.
Before I discuss the most important factor in a publisher's decision, let me stress that quality is a factor in every good publisher's decisions. Editors and publishers want to produce a good quality "product" just like any other manufacturer. Their job, especially in the fantasy field, is to entertain, and if their products are not entertaining, readers will get their products elsewhere.
If quality is important, then are editors simply looking for any good manuscript to publish? No. Publishers specialize in certain types of books, just like clothing stores specialize in certain styles of clothes and cater to certain types of people. A manuscript might be great, but if it doesn't fit into the type of books the publisher specializes in, then that publisher will not publish it. For example, if an author submits the best biography of Abraham Lincoln ever written to a fiction publisher, that publisher won't want to take on the book. They don't have the expertise and the contacts developed to sell this type of book; it's not where their strength lies.
The publisher does not simply publish a random collection of "good books" each month; they publish books that fit into the various categories in which they specialize. For example, Hobbit Publishing may publish ten paperback books a month: one lead, two fantasies, three science fiction, two romances, one mystery, one health. (The lead book is the one expected to sell the most copies and would most likely be by a best-selling author. It might be in any of the categories Hobbit publishes.) So you can see that if you send Hobbit a biography, or a Western they're not going to be interested. This list of categories published by Hobbit is called their "list" (if you've ever submitted a novel to a publisher, you may have received the infamous rejection, "this manuscript is not suitable for our list at this time").
The list may be even more specific than this. For example, those two fantasies published by Hobbit may be broken down into one Medieval-style fantasy and one game tie-in fantasy. Similarly, the three science fiction titles per month could be one military SF, one near-future SF, and one sociological SF. If a manuscript doesn't fit into one of these categories, then chances are good it won't be published by Hobbit.
So why do publishers limit themselves to only certain types of books? Well, these are the books that in the past have "worked" for the publisher, meaning they've sold well and made the publisher a profit. This means the publisher knows how to publish this kind of book: they know the type of books in this category that interest and entertain the consumer, the right covers to draw attention, the best marketing techniques to spread the word to this audience. And they probably have built a good reputation with readers of this category. If a category stops being profitable, then it's eliminated from the list. Hobbit would constantly reevaluate its various categories and chart their sales. Categories can be added as well. If another publisher, say Orc Books, has great success with a Western, Hobbit may decide to try adding a Western category. Publishers constantly keep an eye on trends and on how the competition is doing to make sure they're not missing out on anything.
While the composition of the list is the major element underlying every decision the publisher makes, other factors influence the publisher as well. The sales of an author's previous books, the amount of money the author wants for a manuscript, the expense in production of certain books (like full color, illustrated, or very long books), and changes in the marketplace all affect publishers when they are deciding whether or not to take on a specific book. So next time you go into a bookstore and see all those shiny new releases, think about the decisions that have shaped the selection of books offered to you. And then, using your own selection process, pick the one you're going to take home with you.
For this guest editorial I'd like to share a theory I have on fantasy's dark side--supernatural horror. A few months ago, I moved from New York City, where I'd been an editor at Dell Publishing, to New Hampshire, where I'm a freelance editor and college professor. A strange thing happened after I'd spent a few days in the little house in the woods where I now live. I started imagining Evil Dead entities rushing through the woods toward me, imagining bogeymen outside coming to get me. These are thoughts I hadn't had for years. Mind you, in New York City I was scared of someone coming to get me, but it wasn't the bogeyman; it was the guy who'd broken into the apartment downstairs and tied up the two women living there while he spent all night going through their costume jewelry piece by piece. But I didn't spend much energy worrying about supernatural entities. Now it's not necessary that you worry about these things in order to enjoy horror. In New York I edited and enjoyed many horror novels. But in New Hampshire I felt my imagination opening, exploring the dark side of the fantasy spectrum with a terrific thrill. In fact, I spent most of my first night in this house awake, cowering under the blankets, certain that something was trying to get in.
As the founder of the Abyss horror line of books, I've often been asked if I think the downturn in horror book sales over the past seven years signals that horror is dead. I've heard many people say that our world today contains such horrors in it that it's impossible to imagine anything scarier than reality. Well, I don't buy that. I don't know about you, but in the middle of the night I can imagine some pretty hair-raising stuff.
I believe that reading horror is, in one sense, a type of play. The thrill of hide-and-seek with the stakes raised. The thrill of tickling your friend until she screams, or being tickled until you scream. But if you play hide-and-seek for a living (say between the subway and your apartment), it isn't much fun to play it in your free time. And if your skin is constantly crawling with sensations, tickling won't do much for you. It's not that reality is more frightening than anything we can imagine, but that reality constantly elicits minor fears that limit and control the way we think. To escape from their fear, people want to feel the opposite, to feel safe and secure. While as a child I went to dusk-to-dawn horrorthon drive-ins with my mom (free packet of green blood with admission), today's kids want Barney or The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Where once The Omen and Rosemary's Baby had us enthralled by the devil, people today only want to read about angels. Even the holiday of Halloween has been overshadowed by fear. Kids up here go trick-or-treating in the afternoon, in broad daylight, with all their treats checked for tampering. Many people are afraid of so many things, they don't want to play anymore. Imagining that slavering, soul-sucking monster in the closet just isn't the fun it used to be.
And so our imaginations can become constricted, limited. We live so much among people, in a world shaped and regulated by people, it's hard to imagine any non-human force having a significant impact. Up here in the woods, if I look at some trees and imagine what's behind them, I'm free to imagine an eight-tentacled green vampire-creature. Back in the city, if I look down an alley and imagine what's hiding there, I'm going to have to work through a lot of more realistic possibilities--a mugger, a rapist, a psycho--before I can get to the good stuff.
So back to New Hampshire. People are still killed, robbed, stabbed every day. But I'm just not too worried about any of these things happening to me (these people leave their doors unlocked ). I'm more open to the idea of playing with things that go bump in the night, more hungry for eerie, terrifying experiences.
Does that mean supernatural horror is doomed? No. Many of us are intrepid souls who will seek out the horrors no matter what real life fears we live with. But I think our numbers will grow, and we will all be freer to play, to revel in the dark, when we find some respite in the real world.
Children of the Vampire: The Diaries of the Family Dracul;
by Jeanne Kalogridis; Dell, NY; 368 pp.; mass market paperback; $5.99
The Diaries of the Family Dracul trilogy attempts a very difficult task: to create a backstory for Bram Stoker's Dracula that deepens and increases our enjoyment of that classic. And it succeeds. Children of the Vampire, the second book in the trilogy, takes place in the years approaching the events in Dracula, and tells the story of Dracula and his descendants. If you've ever wondered why Dracula is immortal, you'll get your answer here, and it will haunt you. It seems that when, as a mortal, Dracula sensed he was going to die, he made a pact with the devil: if Dracula (also known as Vlad Tsepesh) could corrupt the eldest son of each Tsepesh generation, the devil would allow him to continue to live.
In the first book, Dracula faces his greatest problem with Arkady, the eldest son of the current Tsepesh generation, who is a good man and will not be corrupted. If he dies before his soul is corrupted, Dracula's pact with the devil will be broken, and Dracula will die. We left Arkady at the end of the first book near death. Unable to corrupt him, Dracula takes a desperate step. He bites Arkady, transforming him into a vampire. Arkady has not been corrupted, but he has been trapped between life and death, so technically Dracula has not failed. He has bought himself time to corrupt Arkady's son, Stefan.
Arkady is a fascinating character. A devoted husband and father, haunted by the sins of his family, he now finds himself to be the same type of monster as the one he so despises. Only by embracing the vampire life and learning its secrets can he grow strong enough to one day defeat Dracula. We see him torn between the bloodlust of vampirism, the bitterness that drives his desire for revenge, and the love for his family.
Mary, Arkady's wife, believes he is dead and marries another man, Jan Van Helsing. After some years Jan dies, leaving Mary with two sons now in their twenties: Stefan, Arkady's son, and Abraham, an adopted son. When Stefan is kidnapped by one of Dracula's minions, Arkady rescues him and explains Stefan's heritage to him, warning him of Dracula's intentions. But Dracula will not be stopped and soon kidnaps Stefan successfully. Arkady tells Abraham it is now up to him to rescue his brother and kill Dracula. The vampire can only be killed by the hand of a human.
In the tradition of Dracula, this is a story of forbidden passions. Stefan is in love with Abraham's wife, which drives a wedge between the two brothers. And Arkady must struggle to control the constant underlying presence of the bloodlust, which at times overwhelms him. Children of the Vampire is also a story of true evil, as Dracula toys with, tortures, and murders his victims.
Each character in the novel is well drawn, compelling, and each evolves over the course of the story, changing sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.
But the strongest element is the plot. Kalogridis skillfully weaves her narrative with Stoker's, adding new layers of resonance to the story and amazingly, providing us with surprise after surprise in territory that we all know--or we all think we know--very well. The result is a brilliant, terrifying, compelling story that provides a significant addition to this fascinating myth.
The Merlin Chronicles;
edited by Mike Ashley; Carroll C. Graf, NY; 464 pp.; Paperback; $12.95.
The character of Merlin has fascinated man since the appearance of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Prophecies of Merlin in 1134 and even before. As part of the Arthurian legend, he has been one of the most written-about characters in literature. And of the characters that are part of the Arthurian legend, Merlin is the most mysterious. The Merlin Chronicles is an anthology of stories about this most fascinating of personalities, and it presents a wide variety of interpretations and treatments. The danger with this type of anthology is that by the time you reach the end, you'll know more about the character than you ever wanted to know, and you'll be sick to death of the subject. But The Merlin Chronicles manages to feed your hunger for knowledge about Merlin, while simultaneously leaving you hungry for more. A trick worthy of Merlin. The mystery of Merlin only grows as you read.
Mike Ashley provides a good introduction to the origins of Merlin and his appearances in literature over the ages. This will get you up to speed and give you a full appreciation of the references in the stories to come. The stories cover the full range of Merlin's life and loves.
In "Dream Reader," Jane Yolen provides an enchanting story of Merillin's (Merlin's) boyhood, following the orphan as he is adopted by a traveling mage, Ambrosius, and a bard, Viviane. Merillin at this point is innocent and good, but his life seems precarious, haunted by a growing sense of danger. We can feel the forces beginning to work which will eventually spell his doom.
Tanith Lee, in "King's Mage," paints a bittersweet portrait of Merlinus in old age. His magic is fake, but it has earned him the respect, reverence, and even love of King Arthur and his subjects. In return, Merlinus gives them, through some wine doctored with mushrooms, a vision of ultimate beauty and hope, a vision of the Grail.
In "Merlin Dreams in the Mondream Wood," Charles de Lint gives us another view of Merlin in old age, imprisoned in a tree in which only a young girl can see him. This poetic story dramatizes the difference between the way an adult sees nature and the way a child sees it, as Wordsworth says, with "the glory and the freshness of a dream."
We also learn more about the characters who surround Merlin. Marion Zimmer Bradley, for example, reworks a section of The Mists of Avalon to create "The Pledged Word," the intriguing story of the childhood of Nimue, whose life will later intertwine with Merlin's.
Other contributors, including Robert Holdstock, Jennifer Roberson, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Esther Friesner, and Darrell Schweitzer, provide a range of stories from the traditional to the bizarre, providing tantalizing glimpses of different facets of Merlin's character. Yet like the magician that he is, Merlin manages to keep his true essence, the one image that unites them all, just beyond our sight, keeping the mystery of Merlin alive and vital. And this many-faceted personality is only appropriate for one whose origins combine so many influences and sources, from myth, legend, and history, yet underneath come from just one place: man's inmost self.