The Secret History of Fantasy
Peter S. Beagle, ed., Tachyon, 377pp, pb
To title an anthology The Secret History of Fantasy is a bold move, not least because I am not convinced that the history of fantasy is so much secret as obscure; this is a fine distinction, but there is a difference nonetheless. In part, it is obscure because fantasy is so difficult to define. It is easy enough to point to a work of science fiction and label it as such, even when sf comes in so many forms. The science fiction genre almost invariably retains distinct edges; they may become vague in places, a little scuffed or trampled down, but it is still possible to draw a working division between what is science fiction and what is not.
With fantasy, the task is not so easily accomplished. Is it fantasy if the story remains within ‘our’ world, or must the story be set in a secondary world? Can there be free traffic between this world and that, or does that undermine the veracity of the fantasy? Magical realism? Interstitial? The definitions and distinctions pile up but never really satisfy, and the arguments continue. Perhaps, and this is the other reason why I believe the history of fantasy is obscure rather than actually secret, we should recognise that there is no single evolutionary chronology of fantasy. Instead, it is as though we are engaged in an endless process of rediscovering stories that have always been there, along with a continual redefining of those stories; to the best of my knowledge, urban fantasy has been reinvented at least three times during the last forty years, and looks very different to how I remember it in the 1980s, while the slipstream/interstitial tango continues to provoke argument. And over all this argument looms the spectre of Tolkien, whose extraordinary narrative, The Lord of the Rings, accidentally created a genre
People either forget or indeed never knew that there was a very rich seam of the overtly fantastic present in mainstream fiction before Tolkien began publishing. After The Lord of the Rings became widely available in paperback editions, publishers were keen to exploit this new reading market. Ian Ballantine, in partnership with the irrepressible Lin Carter, began the Adult Fantasy series, which brought an eclectic range of material from the likes of E.R. Eddison, William Morris and Lord Dunsany back into print, while introducing new authors such as Katherine Kurtz and Peter S. Beagle. They were marked as being ‘like Tolkien’, which they were insofar as they also contained elements of fantasy.
The Adult Fantasy series was ideal for the experimental reader, but as Peter S. Beagle notes, in the introduction to The Secret History of Fantasy, there were who simply wanted more Tolkien rather than more like Tolkien. He tells the chilling story of how Judy-Lynn Del Rey gave him the manuscript of The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, hoping he would say a few appreciative words about it. Beagle quickly realised that Brooks’ novel was a blatant rip-off of Lord of the Rings which Del Rey acknowledged, saying ‘This one’s for people who’ve read the Tolkien book forty times, and can’t quite get it up for the forty-first – but they still want the mixture as before.’ At this point, Beagle suggests, fantasy writing was transformed into systematic production, and irrevocably changed.
The Secret History of Fantasy stands as a reminder that while fantasy is now a commodity, some writers still write stories which do not fit the generic template, though the markets remain limited. The acknowledgements page shows that while half of these stories were published in genre magazines, the others appeared in a variety of markets, reflecting the former eclecticism of mainstream publications where fantasy was concerned.
This collection avoids becoming an exercise in nostalgia because the stories are presented without much in the way of historical or theoretical positioning. Context, such as it is, comes from articles by Ursula K. Le Guin and David Hartwell, recapitulating the history of fantasy publishing, and the critical reception of fantasy by mainstream critics. This is familiar ground and both essays seem slightly detached, perhaps because they are reprinted from elsewhere. I would have preferred a more direct engagement between stories and commentary, something to develop the argument.
Likewise, we learn nothing about the authors other than their names. Most have published in genre markets; those, like Yann Martel, Aimee Bender and T.C. Boyle, who are published in the mainstream are recognised for their offbeat stories. The stories do indeed remind us that there is a greater variety to fantasy than many suppose but there are no surprises for the wide-ranging reader. The stories offer a wide range of subjects and settings, yet there are certain similarities. Something fantastically unquantifiable irrupts in the contemporary world (Stephen King’s ‘Mrs Todd’s Shortcut’ falls into this category, as does Kij Johnson’s ’26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss’) or else a fairytale trope is vigorously reworked (Francesca Lia Block’s ‘Bones’ and Neil Gaiman’s ‘ Snow, Glass, Apples’ are two examples). What all these stories have in common is a distinctive ‘tone’. The narration is generally measured; the stories themselves are deeply layered and open-ended. The reader is given a series of story pieces (sometimes blatantly, as in Steven Millhauser’s ‘The Barnum Museum’, with its distinctly postmodernist assembling of observations; sometimes more subtly, as in Terry Bisson’s ‘Bears Discover Fire’) which they must put together to produce a story. The narrative spreads far beyond the visible words on the page. Some may suggest that we are now talking about ‘literary’ fiction, the place where fantasy goes for respectability but that is an argument for another day.
In the end, The Secret History of Fantasy is nothing more or less than a showcase for a particular kind of fantasy, which is neither secret nor historical, just not immediately visible if you don’t know where to look. To me, reading the collection was rather like catching up with a much-valued friend. I enjoyed it immensely, and it is well worth reading, but it confirmed my tastes rather than challenging them. I hope other readers may find it eye-opening, inspiring even, but I remain obscurely disappointed.