So t’other day, more or less on a whim, I picked “Eyes of the Dragon” by Stephen King off my shelf, and re-read it. (I can re-read books happily, which is a good thing, ‘cos the book budget would otherwise exceed my car payment.) I enjoyed it thoroughly, of course, but after I finished it, and while contemplating whether to try tackling “The Dark Tower” trilogy, or just to go re-read “The Talisman,” I started thinking about the difference between fantasy written by fantasy writers, and fantasy written by horror writers.
There’s a difference. I’m pretty sure of it. I’ve read a LOT of fantasy, much of it dreadful, the majority of it mediocre, some of it brilliant. And generally there’s a sort’ve feel to it. And then I’ve read fantasy written by people who generally write horror, like “Eyes of the Dragon” and “Talisman” and Barker’s “Imajica” and I suppose “Weaveworld” would fall in here too, and some stuff by Koontz. And oddly enough, while these books feel different from standard fantasy, they seem to share a lot in common with each other. Even things like “Stardust” by Gaiman (which we can chalk up as a Dunsanian tribute, and which I quite enjoyed, and understood–some days I wanna paint like Maxfield Parrish. I assume it’s the same urge.) have the same feel.
To be fair, of course, the line between supernatural horror and, say, urban fantasy is so narrow and wiggly that you couldn’t make a cut down it without vivisecting Charles de Lint. But nevertheless, there’s a difference of feel for me.
To try and get at what I mean, take Little Red Riding Hood.
In a fantasy novel written by a fantasy writer, the Big Bad Wolf is (in classic heroic fantasy) a pack of starving, gaunt snow-wolves that attack the hero and provide a welcome break from his moody contemplation of his mighty thews, or (in the more wiccafied modern stuff) Biggs Bhaddvulf, prince/shaman/magic-guy of a group of eco-friendly shapeshifters from the north, or (in the really really PC stuff) a friendly telepathic wolf who will become Little Red Riding Hood’s familiar and help her defeat the evil totalitarian forces of Big Grandma.
L.R.R.H. in these books is usually either either a buxom priestess on her way to the sacrificial rock, a tough warrior priestess taking an offering to the Crone Goddess to avert famine (clad, of course, in the sacred crimson garments representing menstrual blood), or a plucky farm girl who will, too, make something of herself and overcome What Everyone Expects Of Her through native pluckiness and being one of the .0000001% of literate peasants.
In fantasy written by horror writers, the Big Bad Wolf is the Big Bad Wolf, the only wolf that ever needs to exist, and Little Red Riding Hood is you.*
I think the difference may be a sort’ve world-building one. Much fantasy is about world-building. Someone creates this really cool world and then they want to share it with you, and to keep your disbelief in suspension, they treat everything as if it’s totally normal. Flying dragons? Sure, they’re all over, they come in the following flavors, easily color-coded so that you know who’s good and who’s evil. Elves? Yeah, they live in tribes organized under the following heirarchies corresponding to the following elements. Wizards? Here’s a guidebook. Many fantasy writers write as if, by taking their world for granted, you will too.
And of course they’re right. This method works, and is effective, and is probably the reason that if you changed out the dragons in the Pern books for X-wings with individual intelligent AI units, you wouldn’t have to alter the plot to any significant degree. Fantasy writers often seem almost obsessive that there be an internal consistency to the world in question (obviously there are exceptions to every genre, but hopefully you know what I mean.) There’s never ONE of anything. Heroes meet a god, not God. There are the following half-dozen elven territories, not the singular Fairyland. Heroes slay a reddish-purple puddle dragon of the subspecies Draconis vulgaris ichorus not The Dragon. Everything is “a” not “The.”
Horror, on t’other hand, doesn’t want you to take everything for granted, because if you ho-hum the axe-wielding maniac in the closet, the book has failed. So I think horror winds up being closer to that feeling of fairy tales, where everything can be archetypal. There’s only one Big Bad Wolf. There only needs to be one. Sure, maybe somewhere there are ordinary wolves snacking on caribou, but they’re not germane to the plot, our wolf is The Wolf. There’s only one Witch Queen, (or maybe three, but definitely not twenty.) Horror writers, in a weird sort of way, seem to have more freedom in writing fantasy because they don’t need create an entire internally consistent world in which one could run a D&D campaign. They can cheerfully break the laws of physics to make the palace at the top of the city extra-creepy and hanging sideways, and get away with it. If most fantasy writers tried that, they’d need to build an entire extant magic system leading up to the point where you can hang buildings sideways. Nobody builds worlds with too many things that seem out-and-out ludicrous, for fear of losing the disbelief. (That’s part of why I like China Mieville’s stuff, because a lot of it is so demented, like the beetle-headed women, that you get the feeling he just doesn’t care about your suspension of disbelief. This is how it is–take it or leave it.)
So, what I’m getting at, and probably saying badly, is that it seems like fantasy as a genre has gotten away from the fairy tale. Not in the sense that fairy tales aren’t retold–they are, (and by the way, “Fitcher’s Brides” is a great version of Bluebeard) but they’re told as a story about A girl and A wolf and A grandma, not The Wolf and The Girl and…you get the picture. (“King Rat” for example was about THE King of Rats, and THE Pied Piper. And that was cool, even if the book otherwise had a number of flaws.) We’ve sort’ve buried the archetypal qualities under these layers of worlds where there’s never just one of anything. And yet the fairy tale feel pops up again, weirdly enough, often in the fantasy stuff written by horror writers.
And I don’t know why that is. But it’s interesting.
*Or at least you get to sleep with her.