Heresy Against Fantasy Lit

You know, I’m just really, really tired of anything that smacks of what most people take for fantasy and horror. The gothic horror romance makes a lot of us want to weep. The elf and a wizard meet up at a nearby town and plan to enter a dungeon thing has become a joke. I used to get submissions sometimes to MYTHOLOG that contained not-so-subtle character lines like “Hi, I’m a phouka,” or “Actually, I’m a wizard,” or “Yes, I’m a fairy” (which at least was culturally ambiguous enough to smirk at). Most of the stuff being put out at an amateur level (nothing wrong with being an amateur) is so much drek, even if it has a glossy cover or is for sale on amazon. Most of this stuff is to the original stuff by Edisson (The Worm Ourobouros) or Fritz Leiber what top-40 country is to folk music. It’s not drawing, except in the most superficial of ways, on any real mythic tradition. And forgive me, but Harry Potter, the holy grail of book sales, isn’t helping.

I wish!

At MYTHOLOG, we used to require pieces to draw on mythic themes – that was the point of the magazine – but we didn’t care if it was set in an office boardroom and didn’t have a single instance of magic at all. It’s the whole bawdlerized Grimm’s fairy tale effect. We get this cleaned up Victorian crap calling itself fairy tales, but it’s just so Disney. The original tales were primordial, dark, sexual and, more importantly, drew on universal themes that were part of the folk tradition. They were the original wives tales, when wives gathered at the bonfire to tell them. It was Woody Guthrie not Kenny Chesney. It was Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, not Mitt Romney or Joe Biden. It was dinner, not McDonalds. With a name like MYTHOLOG, we got a lot of the stuff that had fairies and such, and that was fine too, if it touched the universal trunk, the one great tree of human story that crosses merely cultural boundaries and aspires to the universal.

This is why I like the Bordertown series so much, and the urban fantasy stuff Emma Bull puts out. It’s why interstitial literature was interesting before it too became a “genre”. And I suppose it’s why I turned to more interesting versions of horror like the stuff Stephen King writes sometimes, which is merely horrible, but in a good way, and not standard “horror” like Netflix is so rife with in film. Some of it uses traditional horror memes, like vampirism, but it’s about as far from Twilight as something gets. Hearts in Atlantis, aside from the stellar film, is an enormously powerful novel about heartbreak and the bewilderment of the Viet Nam era, with the movie comprising one of the stories, but not even the one it’s titled for. No problem there, but the point is the book is a tremendous work of real literature. And there is such a thing. I’m sorry to sound like a bigot, but not so very sorry. Not repentant.

So much of the vampire shite and sword and sorcery or fairy crap being put out now is becoming is crass and annoying. The writing style gives it away. When you pick up a story and it’s using fake archaisms, bad pseudo-Old English, and the preposition “for” instead of since or because, or just starting a new damned sentence (“for a wizard can only find his wand if…”, “for the king was angry with the people…”)… In fact, I tire of kings at all – kings, and freaking princesses, and this godawful obsession with royalty and feudalism. Even the English are over it, mostly. Seriously, can we get past some inauthentic rip off of the Middle Ages, a chivalry that didn’t even exist in the imagination of the religious orders of knights that would have torched this drek after the first chapter. It ain’t Chretien de Troyes or Wolfram von Eschenbach, or even Mallory for chrissakes!

And The Hobbit movie is just one more example. Might as well have been the Muppet Movie. This wasn’t The Hobbit. And I’m not wigging out over just faithfulness to the book, of which there was little, but the entire principle, ethos, and atittude of the original work was obliterated in this showy genrephile’s orgy of bad fantasy puns. I don’t care if you liked it. There’s a responsibility there when touching a great man’s work that a lot of us counted on when we were younger, that we chose to live in. Yeah, I’ve heard the argument of taking the movie as distinct from the book. It *is* distinct from the book. That’s not my point. It’s not objectivity to ignore the demolition of key themes in favor of canned effects. It’s objectivity to prefer art over Vegas glitz, which is what Jackson’s latest abomination is. You may disagree – fine – but this is also an opinion that’s based on something, and it’s not just fealty to a semio-linguistic and artistic grand master of epic proportions (again, screw the Middle Ages), it’s fidelity to the underlying semiotics Tolkien gave us in literature that the film deleted like so many nutrients from a Happy Meal. I was not happy. I sat through it in disgust. You might sell out JRR, you might sell out his story, and you might sell out his choices of plot device, but selling out his fundamental themes is a sin. And if you didn’t get the books, or love the books, I don’t mean as in “oh, I really love that” – I mean love as in care about what is essential in a thing – then I really think we can’t have a meaningful conversation about it anyway.

I’m at the point of f*ck fantasy. And even sci-fi, most of which now is an attempt to option movie rights at the expense of taste. I’m still interested in transcendent themes, in universal elements in a story, but if you have to dress it up in a spandex tunic, like some Mediaeval Fair snack bar staff, or put it up against one more set of alien invaders (haven’t we had enough Galaga?) then I’m kind of out. This is why I think Orson Scott Card’s Shadow of the Giant series (focusing on geopolitics) and the original Ender series (focusing on cultural anthropology) is such wonderful fresh air. It’s why I love Guy Gavriel Kay’s romances, which have fantasy settings, but are anything but gothic suburban porn. And it’s why I dig so much that King writes. Check out The Long Walk, for instance. It makes no pretensions to profundity, but it makes Hunger Games look like chick lit. And no, he didn’t rip off Battle Royale.

I don’t know exactly where I’m going with my own milieu, but I know what’ll make me vomit and I’m not taking another drink from that bottle. Personally, I think this is why so many writers are doing flash fic. It’s not just that it’s easier, faster, and gives you quick gratification – return on your nightly writing session. It’s also, I suspect, that they’re in search of a genre and not really happy with what’s available and already seems overdone. I know a lot of the short fiction is the same set of tropes, but I also notice a lot of attempts to touch the ancient, universal themes with modern references and fantastical elements, and I dig that stuff pretty well – more like relating to a community of people trying to define itself after its nation was invaded and left desolate by cretins. Like the Native Americans after Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt, looking up and their world is populated with theme parks and KOA stations, and national forests protected from forest fires by a crying white guy in Eagle feathers while Tonto helps pull the Lone Ranger out of trouble every afternoon. Or the internet after AOL, which had been a community of creative thinkers, but soon was handed over to the spammers and the corporations and, in some cases, to governments and regulators. Read the FAQ, dammit, you cretin! Check out Net.Wars by Wendy Grossman if you want the history on that.

What do you do when there are no more dragons who haven’t been plundered in every conceivable way? What do you do when the thought of including a dragon makes you want to shove a sharpie into your ear canal until you bleed? A hell of a lot of people are still sitting down to their computers and deciding, “tonight I think I want to write a story about a dragon”. It’s going to be shite. It’s going to be awful. Seriously. Don’t do it. Not if that’s all you’ve got. Not if there’s not a better theme at work, an underlying theme, of some sort. Not if you don’t have a real point, not just a cool beast – we have video games for that. I’m not giving writing advice, which as you know I abhor, I’m giving “don’t write it” advice. Better not to write it at all. We’ve had enough.

Gazillions of churchwardens being bought by 20-somethings who want to smoke a “hobbit pipe” at their local coffee shop, because of the movie, and that’s not even what a churchwarden is for! You smoke it at home, or you leave it in the pub where it’s communally shared, if it’s the clay variety, with each patron breaking off a bit of the stem until, eventually, it’s as short as a cigarette and has to be disposed of mercifully. I don’t care much about abusing pipe smoking tradition, as much as I’ve written about that subject, in one form or another, but it illustrates the principle. You don’t have to remake every decent song the 80s ever put out as “R&B” which current R&B isn’t, by the way. And why is it done? Because they’re out of ideas. Just like a good deal more than half of the “fantasy writers” if they’re capable of writing something that touches the actual tradition in the first place. Most fantasy now is to actual fantasy what Fifty Shades of Grey is to BDSM. It’s appallingly camp and that’d be OK, if it actually intended to be (like those kids in The Lost Boys), and not asking us to take it seriously. Seriously.

OK, that’s my rant, and no doubt someone is offended, but I’ve got two things going for me. The likelihood of many people reading this is pretty slim. What, about 200 people are connected by Facebook? So it’s not going to get me a call from JK Rowling asking me WTF was I thinking? And also, a lot of you are going to feel like “finally, somebody said it” because you’re just as pissed off about it as I am.

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