JFA 19.3 (2008)

Editor’s Introduction

“Introduction: ‘More Fantasy Crap,’ or, Why We Fight”
Brian Attebery

One of my rituals, every time I begin a major project, is to submit a proposal for a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It’s a harmless pastime, rather like the one Mark Twain described in arid Nevada: “One of the pleasantest and most invigorating exercises one can contrive is to run and jump across the Humbolt River till he is overheated, and then drink it dry” (159). My periodic jumps across the Fellowship Application are useful for several reasons. They force me to muster my scattered thoughts and articulate vaguely formed concepts. They make me commit myself: yes, I am really going to undertake this impossible task. I have to assemble stacks of book and papers into a working bibliography. I have to round up referees, which is a good way to keep in contact with friends and colleagues.

When, inevitably, the proposal is rejected, I get a boost of indignant energy. How could they have turned that one down? What was the review committee thinking? I’ll show them! This energizing has already resulted in a couple of books and several substantial articles. It is also useful to have one of the reviewers express doubts about the workability of the endeavor. It reassures me that I’m really onto something new. If everyone saw my project as a reasonable and manageable task, I’d probably give it up as derivative, old hat. So, although I can’t say thank you to the Endowment for funding my work, I can give them a tip of the hat for giving me incentive to keep going.

In my most recent go-round with the NEH, however, I had a new and decidedly less positive interaction. One reviewer gave the proposal the lowest possible rating. The entire justification was a single phrase: “More fantasy crap.”

This, of course, made me curious about a lot of things. How did this idiot get chosen for a panel of “experts”? Does the NEH staff have no control over the discussions? Would anyone get away with turning down a proposal on Renaissance drama with a comment like “More tragedy crap”?

The experience also reminded me of why we do what we do. The academic world is much more open to a range of forms and styles than it used to be, but the snobs are still in charge in too many places—people who mistake their own inability to read certain genres for superior taste. I had almost forgotten. In my own institution, my persistence and a certain amount of faculty turnover have created an almost entirely fantasy-friendly space. I tend to hang out in equally hospitable zones: the ICFA, the Science Fiction Research Association and Popular Culture Association, children’s literature gatherings, online discussion groups, this and other genre-focused journals. I generally avoid the MLA and read selectively in the New York Times Book Review. Now I am thinking that I have made a mistake. The fight is not yet over. We have consolidated our forces; now it is time to venture out into the field.

I suggest that all of us who value fantastic literature start an outreach program. Let us speak up in all sorts of venues: public lectures, classrooms, book reviews in local newspapers, letters to the Times. Let’s submit articles to American Literature and PMLA as well as Extrapolation and The New York Review of Science Fiction (and, of course, JFA). Let’s bombard the NEH with grant applications unapologetically focusing on the fantastic in any and all arts, till the anonymous reviewer throws up his hands and says, “There’s nothing here but fantasy crap. I give up.” Though the Endowment is now as dry as the Humbolt, there may be a spring flood someday.

In the meantime, we can rejoice in the fact that we have a few hospitable spaces where we can share enthusiasms and insights, where we can consolidate our forces before sallying forth. I invite you to draw strength and inspiration—and ammunition—from the contents of this issue.

Many dismissals of fantasy claim to be on aesthetic grounds: the form as a whole is aesthetically defective, lacking the complexity and nuance of representative art. In our leading essay, Vivian Ralickas takes on the idea of aesthetics as seen through the lens of H. P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction. Lovecraft, says Ralickas, sees art in terms of the viewer’s situation. His characters’ responses to beauty cannot be separated from their immersion in scenarios of danger and disintegration. Nor can the formal properties of a work of art be divorced from its pragmatic function: in this case, to prepare the viewer for his role as victim of demonic forces. Though I suspect that some critics suspect all fantasy of doing the same, I would suggest a different application of Ralickas’s thesis: that all art serves pragmatic functions, and all aesthetic responses are similarly governed by the viewer’s position, identity, and habits of perception. There are no objective grounds for judging art: no way of claiming one form superior to another. One can, however, point to the fact that Lovecraft’s fantastic frameworks allow him to explore such aesthetic questions in ways not accessible to the realist writer.

The next essay in this issue also looks at interactions between fantastic literature and other art forms: in this case, illustrations based on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and used as symbols in a Tarot deck. This would seem to be a clear case of pragmatic function replacing aesthetic value: putting Tolkien’s images to work in reading characters or telling fortunes. However, Emily Auger argues that the visual artist’s responses to Tolkien’s characters and scenes represent a modern instance of a very old technique: the Medieval practice of interlace. Auger’s essay in the previous issue of this journal took up the idea of interlace as an organizing principle in Tolkien’s own narrative; now she examines the way two parallel texts operate in tandem to create another sort of interlace. Because both the Tarot deck and Tolkien’s fantasy represent modern responses to the Medieval quest narrative and its mythic and symbolic underpinnings, the cards function as a sort of alternative pathway through Tolkien’s text. The battle over Tolkien’s epic is largely over: it has entered the twentieth-century canon despite the sneers of the Great Traditionalists and High Modernists. It is another matter, however, to give serious critical attention to various offshoots and responses, which can range from expensive illustrated editions to action figures, and from literary homages to fan fiction. Augur makes a case for not limiting the meaning of a work even to its own textual boundaries.

Derek Thiess takes up a different sort of exclusion in his examination of James Blish’s science fiction novel A Case of Conscience. Thiess looks at the collusion between church and state, and the collaboration of science with both, in creating a category of the monstrous Other and in placing the alien Lithians within that category. Such a category of the excluded outsider helps to maintain social order within the system. Perhaps fantasy fulfills that same function for the literary establishment. They need us to be the pagan barbarians in order to uphold their claims of civilization.

In “Technophobia and the Cyborg Menace,” Kyle Bishop explores paranoid systems of exclusion and “othering” as those are directed toward technology and its products, especially the post-human cyborg in season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Television shows in general, and science fiction or fantasy series in particular, are excluded from serious discussion in many critical journals. We are pleased to be able to include scholarship on all relevant genres and formats as part of our call to be an interdisciplinary journal of the fantastic in the arts. We can learn much from Buffy and her friends, including not only how to stand up against evil of all sorts (including academic arrogance) but also how to draw on the strengths of the enemy, as Bishop says the team does in combating the technologized demon Adam.

Eric White’s “Insects and Automata in Hoffmann, Balzac, Carter, and del Toro” mostly sticks to canonical literary texts, such as E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman,” but examines those in conjunction with a recent fantasy film: Pan’s Labyrinth. The juxtaposition helps uncover patterns in the earlier literary works and to bring them into the twenty-first century as exemplars of stillrelevant psychological processes. Hoffmann’s tale is, of course, Exhibit A in Freud’s theory of the Uncanny; White suggests that del Toro’s film and Angela Carter’s novels show the Uncanny still at work in a scientific and technological age, with the insect now standing in for the clockwork mannequin as a disturbing figure of our uneasy position as living mechanisms. Transfigured humans are, as always, our own worst nightmares.

Finally, John C. Tibbetts reminds us of another expression of paranoia, the Cold War-era science fiction series Tales of Tomorrow. Tibbetts focuses on episodes of this anthology series in which the television medium revealed its own control over its viewers. When we watch, we are also watched—literally, in the plots of the episodes; symbolically through its ability to impose internalized monitors that channel our speech and behavior into socially acceptable modes. Only by becoming aware that “they are watching us” can we resist the power of the panopticon, the internalized self-censoring that is more tyrannical than any exterior force. Only the imagination can combat such regulation. And that is why we continue to fight.


“Art, Cosmic Horror, and the Fetishizing Gaze in the Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft”
Vivian Ralickas

The Lord of the Rings‘ Interlace: From Tolkien to Tarot”
Emily E. Auger

“Religion, Monstrosity, and the Sovereign Decision in Blish’s A Case of Conscience
Derek Thiess

“Technophobia and the Cyborg Menace: Buffy Summers as Neo-Human Avatar”
Kyle Bishop

“Insects and Automata in Hoffmann, Balzac, Carter, and del Toro”
Eric White

“The Watchers: Tales of Tomorrow on Television”
John Tibbetts

Review Essay

“The Proliferating Undead”
Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock


Paul Kincaid’s What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction
Rev. by Brian Attebery

Jason Mark Harris’s Folklore and the Fantastic in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction
Rev. by Timothy H. Evans

Cesar Silva and Marcello Simão Branco’s Anuário Brasileiro de Literatura Fantástica: Ficção científica, fantasia e horror no Brasil em 2005 [Directory of Brazilian Fantastic Literature: Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror in Brazil in 2005]
Rev. by Rachel Haywood Ferreira

Christopher Boston, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., and Takayuki Tatsumi’s Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime
Rev. by Stefan Hall

Leslie Klinger’s The New Annotated Dracula
Rev. by Jim Holte

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles
Rev. by Edward James

Kristin Thompson’s The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood
Rev. by Carol A. Leibiger

Rogelio Miñana’s Monstruos que hablan: el discurso de la monstruosidad en Cervantes [Monsters that Speak: The Discourse of the Monstrous in Cervantes]
Rev. by Javier Lorenzo

Reynold Humphries’s The Hollywood Horror Film, 1931–1941: Madness in a Social Landscape
Rev. by Ronald C. Thomas, Jr.

Sue Chaplin’s The Gothic and the Rule of Law, 1764–1820
Rev. by Nadia van der Westhuizen

Marleen Barr’s Afro-future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New-Wave Trajectory
Rev. by Monty Vierra