I love fantasy novels and comics. I talk about them a lot, probably not as much as I talk about horror or crime writing or punk rock, but I love it. It’s such a deep-rooted part of me, back to the beginnings of my love of reading. As I’ve said, before punk rock and horror, fantasy was there, and it’s always stuck around in some way in my life.
It’s kinda weird to find any these days though to me that I can genuinely enjoy because of how a lot of it, to me, comes across. So much of modern fantasy fiction seems to fall into one of two extreme camps these days, either being “A Game Of Thrones” grimdark or satirizing the genre in a humorous way, which bothers me. Here’s this great genre wish so much flexibility and muscle in it treated as either a bad video game or a joke about DnD.
I know that the good stuff, the groundbreaking work is coming out as we get new and fresh voices more and more unafraid to push boundaries (I’m trying hard to get to that work and get back in the loop), but I feel like signal-to-noise when it comes to what I grew up on VS what doesn’t interest me is overwhelming.
Maybe I just don’t look hard enough?
Which is…fine. It’s fine. I mean, a genre should be flexible, should be reaching to far ends of the spectrum its on in terms of attitudes and whatnot. To be bound to the absolute middle of the whole thing is a dangerous precedent that creates the limited and arguably conservative mindset that can ruin a literary genre and make it an unfunny and unfriendly sort of place. Fantasy (like a lot of genre work) already can be an unfriendly and conservative sort of place, so the pushing of those boundaries outwards is welcome.
Still (and I say this primarily as a person who knows the privileges of representation in his fiction and all that entails when he talks about enjoying more “classic” or traditional genre fiction), sometimes the work I see in fantasy these days is JUST at those two ends, with the middle being almost immediately dismissed as too conventional or conservative (something I’d wholeheartedly disagree with). There’s such a huge range that fantasy can and pull from (re-reading Raymond E. Feist’s “Serpentwar Saga” recently definitely made me think about fantasy fiction being used to discuss the impacts of war on non-“special hero” types and surrogate families coming together in really interesting ways), and that includes horror. Real deep bone-hungry horror, something from the edges of the world that you barely even knew one stalked the land you now lived in. So much fantasy is set in pre-industrial and historically-influenced settings, and I think those sorts of things can have amazing approaches to scary stories. It’s frustrating
Part of it is probably the critical literary desire to say that great work rises above the genre it’s in when in fact saying shit like that does a disservice to the work and to the genre itself. After all to act like something is “too good” for the conventions of genre (horror has the same issues) basically spits on the genre as well as making a lot of assumptions about the work of the author.
Anyway when I was in Canada a few weeks ago I bought this and recently got to read it finally. I read Becky Cloonan’s collection By Chance Or Providence, collecting her haunting and emotional historical fantasy comic shorts like “Wolves” and they’re so amazing while still easily-recognizable as “fantasy fiction”. Ancient gods and swords, but also the sweat of a man in a horror story, of a woman at the end of an unholy bargain. It’s horror, but also drama and doomed romance. And yet, those are all things that can be in the overall umbrella of “fantasy” and I don’t really know just how rare this is in fantasy. Arguably, a lot of Tolkien is almost Lovecraftian horror (his elves are eternal eldritch beings of frightening nightmares, no matter what anyone says about ethereal beauty and all that), but most of the time when horror and fantasy cross it tends to, again, go back to that “grimdark” viewpoint of horror (the literary equivalent of gorefests or torture porn, I guess), Cloonan’s work is more haunting that scary, in that it’s trying to evoke a sense of low constant dread.
Also, the balance of outright fantastical and grounded in her work, which yeah, feels very manga-influenced but is also working hard to humanize flawed and malleable characters (they feel like the flesh they’re made of, rather than the adamant we feel these types of characters sometimes seem to be), with dirty armor, notched sword blades, and fatalistic attitudes that don’t rely on heavy-handed and nihilistic life outlooks. There’s a weight to the world, to the stories, but it’s not an overbearing one.
A thing from my childhood that I loved, Marvel’s big black and white THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN THE BARBARIAN (hell, most Conan stories, actually) touched on something from fantasy that I don’t think, post-Tolkien, we really use much, which is the idea of worlds with no real overarching “mythology.” That is to say, places where there is no larger-scale of deities or curses or belief structures or myths tying it all together, simply a chaotic world full of monstrosities and nightmares held at bay, barely, by walls. Though the stories in this are obviously drawing on folklore and myth, the fact is that in the worlds where they happen, they JUST happen without too much (or really any) insistence on creating an elaborate and intricate mythology, is something I appreciate.
It’s very Howard-esque, basically, which is metal as all hell and very much up my alley. Despite Howard’s hack-heavy and hamfisted takes on writing (at times, arguably), his work and his impact on fantasy has always fascinated me, caring less about the complexity of the world’s mechanics and more on an immediate experience surrounding whatever the conflict or adventure he came up with for that particular point. Tolkien’s work is creation story, epic saga. Howard’s work is all forward action and motion, one immediate foot after another, sword or axe always at the ready to hack your way through a confusing and dangerous world that doesn’t care what you want to do, it just wants to kill you and eat you.
By Chance or Providence is a lot like that, in this overarching reminder that the world was ancient before we got here, and that under the surface of civilization, it’ll be here and ancient after we’re long-gone.