Editor’s Introduction: Happy Anniversaries
The 2018 International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts was devoted to the theme of “200 Years of the Fantastic: Celebrating Frankenstein and Mary Shelley.” Depending on one’s beliefs about boundaries and definitions, it might have commemorated the bicentennial of the genre of science fiction. I’m perfectly happy to let Shelley be the Founding Mother, especially since I believe, as John Crowley puts it in his Ægypt cycle, that there is more than one history of the world. Frankenstein is science fiction; it’s also a ghost story and a Godwinesque philosophical gothic and a Romantic prose poem on guilt and innocence. It’s the first and also the fifth or twenty-fifth thing of its kind: the numbers don’t really matter any more than it matters who was the “first white child born in Washington County,” as many a local historical museum boasts. Like its Creature, Shelley’s novel is both new and old, wonderful and terrible.
To celebrate its publication, the Conference featured panels, papers, flash plays, and theory roundtables related to Frankenstein and its legacies. Three talks by Guests of Honor ably represented the multiple lenses with which we view the protean text. Distinguished Gothic scholar Fred Botting spoke on “Humanism to Trashhumanism: Frankenstein (Mary Shelley) in Frankenstein (Bernard Rose),” looking at shifting perspectives on the monstrous and the human from Shelley’s time to 2015, when Rose’s film adaptation was released. Botting is represented in this issue by a slightly different take on contemporary uses of the Frankenstein mythos: Ahmed Saadawi’s novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, first published in 2013 and translated into English in 2018. As Botting says in his essay, “In a global context monstrosity assumes multiple, divergent, and polarizing functions,” which means that Shelley’s story interacts with contemporary politics to produce new meanings, new ways to think about creation and destruction and self and other. So long as writers and readers find new ways to interact with the text, as filmmakers and poets and graphic artists and novelists have been doing for 200 years, Shelley’s novel continues to shift and grow and unnerve us in unforeseen ways. “It’s alive!” as the not-so-good doctor says in James Whale’s cinematic version.
Our next guest, Australian writer Nike Sulway, is one of those who has breathed new life into the Frankenstein narrative with her novel Rupetta, winner of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. In her powerful talk, titled “Pursuit, Willfulness, and the Strangeness of Strangers,” Sulway went back to the beginning, when a teenaged, unwed mother defied convention and produced a masterpiece. Sulway spoke of how her own journey was guided by Shelley’s, from her first encounter with Frankenstein as another willful and resilient teenager to her creation of an artificial life form in her own novel. Rupetta offers another look at the politics of Frankenstein, especially the politics of gender: Sulway’s splendid monster and its maker are both female.
John Kessel’s Pride and Prometheus offers yet another fresh reading of, or interaction with, Shelley’s novel. A blurb summary of Kessel’s novel might make it sound like a gimmick on the order of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, although it is nothing of the kind, but rather a powerful and poignant piece of what Henry Wessels and Wendy Walker have termed “Critical Fiction.” Quoting Wessels and Walker’s definition of critical fiction as “a literary mode that takes as its subject another literary work and treats of that work’s construction, obsessions, and sources in narrative in poetic, rather than expository/critical terms,” Kessel talked of the interactions among “Mary, Jane, and Me” that produced the novel, in which not only the Creature but also Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice finally get some respect and romantic satisfaction.
Not everything at the 2018 Conference was about Frankenstein, and likewise, not every essay in this issue deals with Shelley’s tale. I won’t try to find traces of Frankenstein in every article, although probably with a little forcing I could do so. The first article, however, is Conference-related, since it is a revision of Kelli Shermeyer’s “The Future is Fey: Toward a Posthuman Dramaturgy with Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker,” which was the 2018 winner of the Conference’s David G. Hartwell Emerging Scholar Award. We are pleased to publish Shermeyer’s study of a play that uses the fantastic to investigate the relationship between humans and the environment. Drawing on the eerie beings of British folklore, Churchill constructs what Shermeyer calls a “dramaturgy of the posthuman.” Though creatures like the Skriker might seem to represent a rural past, Churchill uses them to depict a posthuman in which humanity might not survive its own blind destructiveness and greed.
Interestingly, both Shermeyer and our next writer, Shana MacDonald, employ the phrase “feminist killjoy,” a term coined by Sara Ahmed to claim and repurpose a common anti-feminist slur. Some joys deserve to be killed, lest they kill us, and some killing might produce joy. At least Churchill’s Skriker and the comic book hero Jessica Jones would invite us to think so. MacDonald focuses on the Netflix adaptation of the Marvel comic, looking at Jessica Jones as an anti-hero of the “me too” era: someone who survives abuse and remakes herself from victim to vigilante. She progresses from avenging herself on her abuser to attacking the system that allows and endorses his actions, and, as MacDonald suggests, the turning point comes when she refuses to smile on command.
The final essay looks at a writer who was less interested in killing toxic pleasures than in finding joy in a darkening world. In “An Account of a Lost Geography: ‘Of Beleriand and Its Realms,’” Cami D. Agan teases out some of the complexities that J. R. R. Tolkien built into his Middle-earth, exploring one of the narrative threads that make up the prehistory of The Lord of the Rings, a text incorporated into the published version of The Silmarillion. Less a narrative than a geographical description with map, “Of Beleriand” nonetheless carries forward some of Tolkien’s central themes: the cultural significance of “place” as opposed to mere “space” (in humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan’s terms) and the possibility of affirmation in the face of the inevitability of loss.
The fact that a single journal can encompass studies of theater, comics, science fiction, and classic fantasy is a sign of the impact ICFA has had on the academy. This issue marks the beginning of the 30th year of the Journal of the Fantastic, spun off from the Conference in 1989. The Journal, like the Conference itself, arose from a desire for a venue for discussion of a body of texts that the literary establishment didn’t know how to read or value. At the time JFA was founded, no journal devoted itself to the fantastic in all its variety and splendor. There were a couple of journals that focused on science fiction, Extrapolation and Science Fiction Studies, and a few others such as Mosaic had devoted occasional special issues to the broader fantastic, but with the advent of ICFA and JFA, we suddenly had not only an outlet but also a community. I am writing this introduction on my next-to-last day in Scotland, where I have been serving for half a year as Leverhulme Visiting Professor of Fantasy at the University of Glasgow. It has been a pleasure and privilege to work with students and colleagues in the M. Litt. Program here and to venture out to other parts of the United (for now) Kingdom and meet other people working toward greater understanding of what John Clute calls Fantastika. I am glad my being here has helped to expand our community and its vision: one mark of that expansion is the addition of Robert Maslen, Dimitra Fimi, and, most recently, Adam Roberts to our Editorial Board. We may not last for two centuries, as Frankenstein has, but I hope we prove as adaptable and as willful as that ever-changing book.
Introduction: Happy Anniversaries
Fred Botting: An Introduction
Infinite Monstrosity: Justice, Terror, and Trauma in
Frankenstein in Baghdad
John Kessel: A Biased Introduction
Mary, Jane, and Me
Nike Sulway: An Introduction
Pursuit, Willfulness, and the Strangeness of
The Future is Fey: Toward a Posthuman Dramaturgy with
Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker
Refusing to Smile for the Patriarchy: Jessica Jones as
An Account of a Lost Geography: “Of Beleriand and
Cami D. Agan
Sarah Juliet Lauro’s Zombie Theory: A Reader
Rev. by Samirah Alkassim
Sean Guynes and Dan Hassler-Forest’s Star Wars
and the History of Transmedia Storytelling
Rev. by Jason W. Ellis
Erika Haber’s Oz Behind the Iron Curtain:
Aleksandr Volkov and His Magic Land Series
Rev. by Sean Ferrier-Watson
Petra Schoenenberger’s Transformations of the
Supernatural:Problems of Representation in the Work of Daniel Defoe
Rev. by James Hamby
Steffen Hantke’s Monsters in the Machine: Science
Fiction and the Militarization of America After World War II
Rev. by Rob Latham
Mathias Clasen’s Why Horror Seduces
Rev. by Sean Moreland
Misty Urban, Deva F. Kemmis, and Melissa R. Elmes’s Melusine’s
Footprint: Tracing the Legacy of a Medieval Myth
Rev. by Sylvia Veronica Morin
James Gifford’s A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism,
Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic
Rev. by Benjamin J. Robertson
Amy Amendt-Raduege’s “The Sweet and the Bitter”:
Death and Dying in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
Rev. by Mark Scroggins
Chera Kee’s Not Your Average Zombie: Rehumanizing
the Undead from Voodoo to Zombie Walks
Rev. by T. May Stone