Depart too far from the norm of human experience and you bore the reader, who will no longer care what happens to your characters once they have stepped through a dozen dimensions of time and are consorting with twelve-sided green monsters somewhere in interstellar space. The true artist, who knows how to deal with elusive material, is more likely to work his tricks right in your living room, where the reality of familiar things lends strangeness to whatever he may conjure up.
-- Philip Van Doren
I love the Literary Fantastic in fiction. Yes, even to the extent of Tolkien’s hobbits, Adam's lunacy of space travel, Kafka’s human insect, and Carroll’s Wonderland, but much of the Fantastic that I am particularly attracted to is of the sort where human psychology goes very wrong, where the familiar becomes strange, where the world we live in somehow animates itself and turns upon us.
I have always been attracted to the Gothic and the Dark Romantic literary subgenres. Many of my mentors wrote with a Dark Romantic’s heavy hand: Poe, Lovecraft, Bataille, Kafka, Marquez, Ungar, even Shakespeare's tragedies ... the list could go on an on. Much of what strikes me about this style is the macabre and supernatural feel the stories have to them without necessarily being bona fide “horror” stories, which include supernatural creatures. In many of their works, the macabre and supernatural aspects of the story are firmly “grounded” in the human psyche. Man is the monster, and the natural world is the essence of supernatural. Write fiction with that logic and you cannot go wrong.
These authors have taken the vile aberrations of humanity and transformed them, some into allegory, some simply into a deeper look at the human psyche. Nevertheless, what all of these writers have in common is their ability to make the elusive not only tangible but relatable. These authors have been able to combine perfectly the ordinary and the extraordinary in such a way that we don’t question it. This goes back to my earlier discussion on subjective details. Fiction readers don’t necessarily want a state of the union, a “this is how things are” bricks and mortar view of the world. They want to feel the world through the characters. They want character perception, perception that is uniquely different than their own, and for that to happen, an author needs to provide detail which is fluid yet fully grounded in reality, is passionately associative and wildly dissociative, is sketchy yet vivid, and all the while, is plausible without a doubt. Tall order.
Yes, it is possible for an author to take great leaps of faith with credibility "if" they stay rooted in humanity. Kafka’s main character in The Metamorphosis awoke one morning and found he was a bug. Literally implausible but psychologically frightening because emotionally, it can happen. Another example is that the mirror is said to have two faces. How often do we struggle with our own reflection, and so Alice’s looking glass portal becomes very very real, and the philosophical conundrums she is presented with transcend the fantasy world. This type of transcendence is potent. So much so that we can sympathize with Dr. Jekyll’s struggle with his alter ego, Mr. Hyde.
There are many modern authors who have succeeded in this endeavour quite splendidly: Ellis' American Psycho, where the "status quo" has become surreal to the point of absurdity in that it not only creates the monster but allows the monster to "be" unrecognized and unnoticed; or Palahniuk's Fight Club, where the emasculated narrator feels alienated from prevailing social versimilitudes, ; or Johnson's Jesus' Son, where the nickname "fuckhead" defined the narrator's entire existence, and, more so than the heroin upon reflection, coloured his view of the world.
So, even straight literary fiction can benefit from the principles of the Literary Fantastic. When we struggle with humanity’s deep psychological, moral, and philosophical issues, we often find ourselves at odds with what is real or what we have naively perceived as being real. Nevertheless, we are innately capable of analysing our own "dream" logic. On a daily basis, when the world itself becomes dark and foreboding, when our fears manifest themselves, our personal perceptions of the world are often challenged, even negated. This is the realm of the fiction author. The realm where, with a little bit of prowess and a lot of finesse, the objective details can be manipulated and the truth can be exposed. This is the realm of the author who knows, as Clive Barker so eloquently put it, how to “tap the vein” no matter what genre you choose to write in.
Cheryl Anne Gardner