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The Speculative Genres of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction (Part 2)

In the previous part, Marco Fraga da Silva presented a few interesting comments about the origin of some speculative genres and their subgenres, picking some Portuguese projects to detail about the genre in Portugal. In this second part, he focuses mainly on horror and fantasy.

(part 1)

Horror

American filmmaker and scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon said, in his book A History of Horror (2010), that horror can be traced back to the beginning of our species when primitive men told his myths and stories around the fire. In literature, he establishes the origin of the genre with the Epic of Gilgamesh (no known author), and the Odyssey, authored by the ‘Greek’ legendary author Homer [34]. The American author Stephen King said, in his non-fiction book Danse Macabre (1981), that the best place to start is with the epic poem Beowulf (no known author), where the eponymous hero fights and defeats (over a long period of time) Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon. For Stephen King there are two types of horror: 1) one more graphic, explicit, and gory; 2) and another more psychological, scary, connected to our deepest phobias, and prone to be considered art [35].

Our fears and phobias are the base or rough materials that help build good horror stories. The American author H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) has a magnificent quote in his text Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927), that I have to share here: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” [36]. Lovecraft has become such an important reference to many contemporary speculative fiction authors that the lovecraftian adjective is commonly used.

Cuban researcher Emilio Lira y Lopez defined six phases to what he called the Progressive Phases of the Emotional Cycle of Fear in his book Quatro Gigantes da Alma: O Medo, a Ira, o Amor, o Dever (loosely translate as Four Giants of the Soul: Fear, Wrath, Love, and Duty): 1) prudence (when a person searches for logical reasons for what is happening); 2) concentration (when a person appears to be serene and accumulates courage); 3) alarm (when a person no longer controls his anxiety); 4) anguish (emotions become uncontainable); 5) panic (when a person is very confused and doesn’t know what to think); 6) and terror (the climax, when a person experiences extreme disorientation) [37]. The American author and editor Douglas E. Winter said, in the anthology Prime Evil: New Stories by the Masters of Modern Horror (1988): “Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion.” [38]

Horror subgenres

Horror, like science fiction, has many subgenres. To limit the scope of this chapter I have decided to mention just a few subgenres, addressed in James H. Shimkus glossary with key terms for teachers, in his 2012 Ph.D. thesis: dark fantasy, docu-horror, kaiju, and splatterpunk [39].

Dark fantasy is a complicated subgenre that was linked to serial killers, anti-heroic and monsters point-of-view stories. Modern vampire movies fit in this subgenre, but James H. Shimkus describes Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (the books) as a notable example for this supernatural category. For docu-horror, that Shimkus describes as “found-footage films”, he presents The Blair Witch Project (1999) as “the most successful and well-known example”. He also presents a small list of more recent projects from which I’ll mention Cloverfield (2008). Kaiju, or “monster movies”, is a kind of film where a giant monster, or kaiju (translated as the mysterious beast), attacks and destroys human populations. The many Godzilla movies are a good example. This horror subgenre is as much science fiction as it is horror. The splatterpunk movement, from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s intended to revitalize the horror genre. This extremely gory kind of films frequently featured zombies. The zombie films and TV series have been produced in spades in the last few years.

I would like to add two subgenres that, once more, blur the lines between the main speculative fiction genres. Weird fiction and the new weird are surrealist fantastical narratives that explore the uncanny, the grotesque, and the weird in a comical way (dark humor). They are hybrids, mixing fantasy, science fiction, and horror [40].

Fantasy

The definition of fantasy was approached at the beginning of this article when confronting this genre with science fiction. Fantasy usually features magic and mythical beings, therefore, it’s important to understand and define magic and myth to better understand the fantasy genre.

Magic, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary online, is a supernatural power that allows, by using charms and spells, control over natural forces [41]. Reinforcing the similarities between fantasy and science fiction the third of Clarke’s Laws states that “[a]ny sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” [42].

In magical systems, what you control and how you do it can be described and named in different ways. George R. R. Martin, in his opus magnum A Song of Ice and Fire, created the word warging, which basically describes the control of a direwolf by a skinchanger: the ability to use the direwolves’ body as an avatar is supernatural. In the movie Avatar (2009) the ability to use the alien’s body is justified by pseudo-science and the magical element is not present. An interesting separation in fantasy and SF terminology is the distinction between pyrokinesis and pyromancy: both are related with the controlled use of fire with your mind, but the first is justified with psi powers (science) and the second is supernatural and magical in nature [43].

In the Merriam-Webster dictionary online there are a few interesting definitions: myth is usually considered a traditional story that presents the worldview of a people, a set of beliefs, or natural phenomenon; myths can be told as parables and allegories or can be stories around something or someone, a public figure or a fictional one that embodies special ideals; the word myth has also come to signify something false [44].

Lauri Honko, in his paper The Problem of Defining Myth, published in 1972, gave us an approach to the problem and a detailed definition of myth with the main goal of drawing attention to the complexity of the term. He enumerated three factors that are influential in the difficulty for a consensus in defining myth: demythologization, ancient definitions, and modern theories. For Lauri Honko, myth is a story or a religious account that explains the origin of the world or presents the deeds of important role models providing patterns of behavior, values, and morality. The actions or behaviors are to be replicated by ritual ceremonies that defend the world order and preserve the values of a society [45].

The American author Christopher Vogler, in his book The Writer’s Journey (1992), presented several archetypes that have been adapted from myths, fairy tales, and dreams. These archetypes are recurring character types such as the questing hero, the herald, the wise old man/woman (the mentor), the threshold guardians, the shapeshifter, the shadowy antagonist, the trickster, and the allies [46]. Archetypes are present in all stories, but the fantasy genre has a propensity to myth and dream-like narratives that make them fertile ground for these universal symbols. For the American author Orson Scott Card the speculative genres of fantasy and science fiction are the genres that more often deliver to the public the archetypes and myths that people enjoy and crave for. In the author’s opinion, science fiction has as much mythic traces as fantasy, and fantasy is no less rigorous than science fiction [47].

Fantasy subgenres

As in the previous speculative genres of science fiction and horror, only a few subgenres will be addressed in this chapter. I opted for high fantasy, sword and sorcery, magical realism, and urban fantasy. For the first three I will use the James H. Shimkus thesis as a reference but each of these subgenres could be addressed in single articles due to their richness.

High fantasy, or epic fantasy, usually takes place in secondary worlds such as the Middle-Earth in Tolkien’s work. The hero, as James H. Shimkus describes, is “often meant for great things”. Sword and sorcery, as implied by the name will involve violence and magic: the antihero Conan the Barbarian, created by the American author Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), is a good example. Magical realism or, what the American author Gene Wolf (1931-2019) described as “fantasy written by people who speak Spanish”, is usually centered in realistic narratives where an unexplained element with fantastical nuances is introduced [48]. Urban fantasy usually takes place in modern cities where mythical and magical elements and characters interact with the contemporary world. In the Merriam-Webster dictionary online, urban fantasy is defined as “a genre of imaginative fiction featuring supernatural characters or elements in an urban setting” [49]. The fact that this fantasy subgenre is already in this dictionary shows that it is well disseminated and popular.

References:

[34] A History of Horror (2010), by Wheeler Winston Dixon.

[35] Danse Macabre (1981), by Stephen King.

[36] Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927), by H. P. Lovecraft.

[37] O Horror no Cinema: A Construção da Sensação de Medo em “O Exorcista”, by Ricardo Stabolito Junior.

[38] Prime Evil: New Stories by the Masters of Modern Horror (1988), by Douglas E. Winter.

[39] https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/english_diss/95/

[40] www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/new_weird

[41] www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/magic

[42] www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/clarkes_laws

[43] www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/telekinesis

[44] www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/myth

[45] The Problem of Defining Myth (1972), by Lauri Honko.

[46] The Writer’s Journey (1992), by Christopher Vogler.

[47] How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (1990), by Orson Scott Card.

[48] https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/english_diss/95/

[49] www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/urban fantasy

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