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The Secret History of Fantasy
edited by Peter S. Beagle
Tachyon Publications, 384 pages

The Secret History of Fantasy
Peter S. Beagle
Born in New York in 1939, Peter S. Beagle graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1959. His works include the novels A Fine and Private Place, The Last Unicorn and The Folk of the Air, as well as non-fiction books and the screenplay for the animated film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. The Last Unicorn became an animated film in 1982. He lives in Davis, California.

Peter S. Beagle Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Return
SF Site Review: Mirror Kingdoms
SF Site Review: We Never Talk About My Brother
SF Site Review: A Fine and Private Place
SF Site Review: The Line Between
SF Site Review: Giant Bones
SF Site Review: A Dance For Emilia
SF Site Review: Tamsin
SF Site Review: Giant Bones

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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When The Secret History of Science Fiction, the companion volume to this book, came out it had a fairly clear remit. It looked at the cross-fertilisation between science fiction and the mainstream that has been going on under the radar over the last 30 or 40 years. I wasn't entirely persuaded by the basis of their argument, but at least the point they wanted to make was clear.

Like that earlier collection, The Secret History of Fantasy offers a superb selection of stories -- there is not one piece in this book that I would not strenuously urge you to read -- but its raison d'être is far muddier than in the earlier volume, and I am even less persuaded by its argument.

Stated as baldly as possible, it is argued that, over the last 30 or 40 years, the genre of fantasy has come to be identified with a bunch of multi-volume Tolkien clones that follow an overly-familiar trajectory. Although the formula is not specified within this book, we all know how it goes: a youth (almost always male) is unexpectedly revealed to have a special skill or be a long-lost prince and must then embark on a quest to recover various plot tokens before finally defeating the forces of evil. It's a format that accounts for an awful lot of what appears on the fantasy shelves of our bookshops, from The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks to the Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling. The format may be safe and comfortable, but it represents only a very tiny proportion of what fantasy can do, and this volume therefore purports to present the forms of fantasy that have been hidden by these megaworks.

Simplistically, by gut instinct, this is an accurate assessment, it is the identikit volumes (good and bad) that seem to represent the bulk of genre publishing these days. But the closer you look, the less convincing it seems. Partly this is because this volume doesn't really argue the case consistently. There is no attempt to define fantasy, to say what it is capable of achieving; that part of the argument rests entirely on the selection of stories offered, and I'll come to those in a moment. The problem is that where there is an argument, which is about the damage that has been done to fantasy, it is inconsistent. The editor, Peter Beagle, leaves this portion of the task to two previously published essays. One, "The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists" by Ursula K. Le Guin, insists that the damage was done by academic critics who maintained that only realist fiction is worthy of serious attention. This is a partial truth at best, but it isn't helped that the second essay, "The Making of the American Fantasy Genre" by David G. Hartwell, insists that the damage was done by publishers and the commodification of fantasy. Now these are not necessarily contradictory positions, but since there is no attempt to unify them into a coherent whole we are left trying to use the stories contained here to identify what exactly is the secret history of fantasy, and how it contrasts with the not-so-secret history.

Except that what is included here isn't exactly secret. At least, I would hesitate to call Stephen King a little known writer, or one known only to a small circle of cognoscenti. His tale, "Mrs Todd's Shortcut," itself not an entirely unknown story, is representative of what he does best: a setting in rural Maine, a conversation between two old locals, the slow accumulation of impossible events told so as to make them seem perfectly possible, the hesitation over whether what is on offer is a blessing or a threat, until finally one character takes the offering. It is beautifully done, we accept the unreal as part of our natural landscape, it occupies that subtle area where the mainstream and the fantastic merge one into the other. Is this the secret history we have been promised: the presentation, as in The Secret History of Science Fiction, of genre and mainstream as interchangeable?

Going through the contents list, it is possible to construct an argument that both secret histories are doing exactly the same job, that the hidden but (presumably) better part of fantasy is where genre and mainstream merge. Thus we have representative mainstream writers such as T.C. Boyle, Steven Millhauser and Jonathan Lethem, all curiously featured in the science fiction volume, and none of them ever identified solely with the mainstream (though Boyle's "We Are Norsemen," about off-course Viking raiders briefly reaching America isn't necessarily fantastic; while Lethem's "Super Goat Man" is a satiric riff on the comic book culture he has already played with in novels like The Fortress of Solitude). There's also "The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company," a predictable play on memory that is one of the weaker stories in the collection by Yann Martel, who won the Mann Booker Prize for a novel about talking animals, so he, also, would seem to count as neither secret nor straightforwardly mainstream.

Or perhaps we are meant to assume that these forms of the fantastic are unknown to most readers of the fantastic. Though that is hard to sustain when we realize that the generic fantasy authors include multiple award winners such as Susanna Clarke whose first novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, was not only a mainstream bestseller but also a winner of the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Her story here, "John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner," appears to be a humorous subversion of genre conventions while actually conforming quite strictly to them. Or there's Patricia A. McKillip, who may be something of a secret to non-genre readers but is hardly so among fantasy readers, whose "Lady of the Skulls" concerns knights on a quest and the mysterious lady whose riddles they must unravel if they are to survive the quest. Even more than Clarke's story this takes formulaic elements (it could easily be an episode taken straight from an Arthurian tale) and then twists it to satiric effect. Both these stories depend on an understanding of the types of fantasy to which this volume is supposedly offering a counter, and subversion of a type hardly counts as offering a completely different approach to the genre.

Similarly "Snow, Glass, Apples" by Neil Gaiman (hardly an unknown quantity to either fantasy or mainstream readers) takes a familiar fairy tale, "The Sleeping Beauty," and turns it on its head by making the wicked witch into a tragic heroine. It is a very good story, but in terms of structure it is not doing anything that hasn't been commonplace in genre fantasy for a good couple of decades. It is the same approach that Gregory Maguire takes, not only in a string of successful novels but also in the story included here, "Scarecrow," which essentially retells a key moment in The Wizard of Oz from the point of view of the Scarecrow, though without otherwise doing any noticeable damage to the original. Revisiting highly familiar works, and being respectful rather than revisionist to the original, is one of the common things that fantasy does, it hardly makes this a secret strand of the genre.

But for all that I think the argument of the book is ill-formed, there is still something valuable in the collection. The tricky problem is the word "secret" in the title, since it is hard to determine from the contents what on earth is meant by secret. All the authors are well-known (Maureen F. McHugh, Terry Bisson, Aimee Bender, Michael Swanwick, Octavia Butler, Peter Beagle), several are best-sellers (King, Clarke, Gaiman, Martel), many of them are significant award winners (both genre awards such as the Hugo, World Fantasy, BSFA and British Fantasy Awards, and non-genre awards, including the Booker and the Pulitzer); so there is little that might be considered esoteric in this selection. Most of the stories are doing things that fit within a familiar pattern of fantasy. This is not the thick-headed heroic fantasy that has been churned out by the yard for 30 years or more, but it is still not unfamiliar to most people who have ever read within the genre.

The difference, I think, can best be identified by looking at what I consider to be the two best and most interesting stories in the collection: "Mythago Wood" by Robert Holdstock and "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" by Kij Johnson. Johnson's story, short and sharp, told in brief numbered passages, concerns a tawdry sideshow act which climaxes with the troop of 26 monkeys climbing into an old bathtub and disappearing. They are transported elsewhere by means that are never understood, and make their way back to their trailer in the hours following each performance. This eruption of the mysterious into the everyday reflects on the woman who runs the show, and in particular upon her relationships with her boyfriend and with the oldest of the monkeys. In the end, she simply sells the show to someone else, in a sense seeking the mundane, but the mystery is unresolved and disturbing. There is a similar lack of resolution in Holdstock's novella, which would eventually grow into a long novel sequence. In a sense, what we know of and from these later novels makes the nature of Ryhope Wood familiar, but the intent and effect of this first story is defamiliarization. It is set very specifically in the period just after the Second World War, our narrator was injured and in his return to a rural corner of England reflects the injured land, each seeking a form of healing by behaving as if everything is back to normal. But there is nothing normal in the literally broken family to which Stephen Huxley returns: his cold and remote father has recently died and his brother, Christian, immediately disappears into the wild woodland, while strange and threatening figures start to emerge from the forest. The myth-imagoes, the crude raw material of familiar myths, hardly feature in the story, but their influence infuses every word, unsettling the comfort and familiarity of home, of memory, of myth.

And that is the key point that is nowhere spelled out in this collection but that underlines everything within it. There are two strands of fantasy. The commodified fantasy is familiar, safe, comforting. It conforms to an identikit pattern, it reassures us that the hero and the good will win out, its thrills are artificial because there is no real threat. This is the strand of fantasy that this collection rails against; it is still omnipresent on our bookshop shelves, though I do not think it is any longer as dominant in our impressions of fantasy as it once was. Against this is set not a secret history, because many examples of this strand are popular, many practitioners are successful, but a different strand of fantasy that is perhaps less readily identifiable because it has no unifying feature (you could not hope to find two more diverse stories than the Holdstock and the Johnson, but both belong firmly in this strand). This is because this strand of fantasy is broad and varied, far more wide-ranging than the heroic quest, much more diverse in its literary influences than the so-called mainstream. It is this variety that gives such fantasy its strength but that also makes it perhaps less obvious than its more simply structured sibling. And where the one form comforts, the other form discomforts, unsettles, makes us think. These are stories that exercise our minds rather than soothing them, and there is nothing secret about that.

Copyright © 2011 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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