This morning I read my daughter a story featuring dragons, a wizard, and (inexplicably) three musketeers. While I’m typing this, my son is reading yet another volume in an ongoing saga about intelligent wolves. Fairly typical kid stuff, really. But their book choices lead me to ask again a question I’ve posed more than once before in different ways on Message in a Bottle: Why don’t most adults include fantasy as one of the colors on their literary palette?
Almost all children are unfazed by tales of ghosts, talking animals, and magic spells, but most of us put that sort of thing aside as we age. That wasn’t always the case—the folk stories collected by Aesop, Charles Perrault, and the Brothers Grimm were originally intended for a primarily adult audience, who must have found a great deal of entertainment and enlightenment in them as they were handed down over hundreds of years. It seems to have been the rise of the so-called realistic novel in the 18th and 19th centuries that pushed fantasy and adventure to the margins, as readers began to crave the kind of insight into human nature that comes from examining individual characters rather than archetypal figures.
Now, I’m a grownup who appreciates the drama of everyday life as much as the next guy, and who understands that basic human emotions are just about the most powerful forces at work in the world. I don’t want my fiction populated by cardboard cutouts who wave tinfoil swords at each other while Evil Casts Its Mighty Shadow Across The Land. I also don’t want to read about people who live in houses just like mine and drive cars just like I do and never confront any problem that I might not encounter on any given day. Ideally, I want a writer who can stretch my imagination and show me the unexpected, but do it in a convincing, grounded way. Fortunately, we’re in something of a golden age where authors like that are concerned.
Graham Joyce is a perfect example. His most recent novel, Some Kind of Fairy Tale, kicks off with the surprising reappearance in a family’s life of the daughter who vanished twenty years before. From the reactions of her emotionally withered parents, who don’t seem able to cope except by treating her as the teen she was two decades earlier, to the responses of her ex-boyfriend, whose life was ruined by police suspicions, the devastating effects of her loss and the shocks induced by her return are beautifully rendered. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more potent, accurate depiction of the different ways trauma can affect those left behind. Even more unsettling, though, is the explanation for her absence that slowly emerges. Can she really have been spirited away by fairies? The girl herself admits the ridiculousness of the idea, and freely submits to the ministrations of a psychologist, but why would she invent such a story? And why does she seem so much younger than she should? It would be more of a crime than usual to spoil a plot such as this, but suffice it to say that the impossible comes to seem merely implausible, and perhaps even inevitable, as Joyce spins out his pages. Whether the answers are ultimately realistic or fantastical doesn’t matter by the end, since every character’s every action is so believable.
Joyce’s prior novel, The Silent Land, is a similar combination of truth and mystery that I think is even better. In it, a married couple takes a ski vacation in France and gets caught up in an avalanche. When they struggle off the mountain and back to their lodge, they find the town completely depopulated. As they await rescue after this apparent evacuation, strange events occur that call their entire lives into question. The suspense of their situation is formidable, but what makes the book work as well as it does is the portrait of the marriage at its heart. Joyce hasn’t created this pair simply to put them through the wringer of his plot, he’s done the reverse and engineered events to illuminate their humanity. There’s a real sense of history that the two share, and the imperfections they reveal make their relationship all the richer. An extreme scenario such as this is exactly what is meant by the phrase “a test of character,” and reading The Silent Land even in the heat of summer, you’ll feel the chill of their crisis because of the warmth they share.
Joyce is not alone in his ability to balance reality and fantasy, of course. The most famous name in this category is probably Stephen King, whose finest work has this quality in spades, but there’s also Jonathan Carroll, whose directness and simplicity lend his fiction authority even when he’s at his most bizarre, describing talking dogs who help save the world from apocalypse. He’s like a guy on the next bar stool who tells unbelievable yarns—you know they can’t be true, but his details are specific and his grasp of human behavior is strong, and he doesn’t seem to care whether you’re impressed or not, so maybe they’re true after all? One seat over in that same saloon, you might find Jeffrey Ford, author of The Shadow Year and the forthcoming story collection Crackpot Palace, who has an equally wild imagination and an equally assured, no-bull tone. The very best of the lot, though, may be Kelly Link, whose collections Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners, and Pretty Monsters are must reading for anyone who wants to see how psychological acuity and flights of fancy can come together in marvelously productive ways. She’ll be appearing in Seattle on July 17th as part of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, helping to nurture the next generation of creative cross-genre authors. Go see her if you can.