JFA 23.2 (2012)

Editor’s Introduction

“Introduction: Fictional Modes and Cultural Energy”
Brian Attebery

At any historical moment, certain ways of writing fiction particularly catch people’s attention. While writers might be working with a whole range of plots, themes, or genres, a few of those will seem more interesting, more important, more urgent than all the rest. Two novels may be equal in inventiveness and craft, but one will get the buzz. Sometimes the other will emerge later on, as society discovers its significance: a good example is Kate Chopin’s 1899 The Awakening, buried in sales in its day by Edward Noyes Westcott’s horse-trading novel David Harum. More often, the more famous work will continue to dominate discussions of its era and will attract more writers to its central problem or vision. Edward Bellamy’s best-selling novel Looking Backward (1887) led to a rash of similar utopian romances. Evidently conditions were right at the end of the nineteenth century for questioning economic systems and social norms: the sorts of things that utopian fiction can do. Social anxiety creates social energy, and the stories that best articulate the tension of the moment will create the greatest stir.

Right now among the many modes of fantastic literature, there is a lot of social energy in the idea of the past as something less than fixed. I have been reading a number of fascinating explorations of time travel and alternate history, stories in which humans find themselves facing an unlivable future and can only go forward by returning to the past to alter it. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo and Kathleen Ann Goonan’s paired novels In War Times and This Shared Dream are standout examples. They straddle genres—historical fiction, alternate history, futuristic sf, and utopian fiction—because the thing they seek to do cannot be encompassed within any one of those genres. Underlying their vision is the idea that history is malleable. It is not so much that the events of the past can be changed, though that happens in the novels, but that collective memory is, like individual memory, continually reworked and reinterpreted.

Historians know this. There is no final word on something like the Industrial Revolution. Every time a historian approaches a topic with new data, a new theoretical perspective, or a new focus on previously unconsidered participants (women, minorities, workers, children, etc.), the past rearranges itself. Nothing is as it seemed; nothing means what we thought it did. And because society, like every member of it, is the product of its memories, the present isn’t what we thought it was either, nor is it headed toward the future that once seemed inevitable. Goonan is especially adept at showing how past and future are interdependent. Both are also necessary fictions; we cannot touch either one directly, but without them both, there is no meaningful present.

As certain futures promised us by science fiction become increasingly problematic or unreachable, maybe it is necessary to retreat and regroup. To go ahead, we need to go back, as Goonan and Robinson have done. As Karen Hellekson points out, the genre of alternate history can incorporate insights from postmodern philosophers and metahistorians: history is not the past: it is a story we tell about the past, and “the historian is complicit in this storytelling, not an objective, impartial recorder of events” (25). Thus, our narrowing vision of the future is counterbalanced by an increasingly unstable past. Alternate history seems to be one way to free the imagination. By going back and finding a new past, writers can, as it were, draw the bowstring back and thereby give time’s arrow a new trajectory. No wonder there is energy in such stories.

With a little stretching, all the articles in this issue might be said to deal with alternative pasts:

Alf Seegert, in “The Mistress of Sp[l]ices: Technovirtual Liaisons in Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel,” examines a 1940 novel that not only revises literary history—retelling H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau—but also dramatizes the changeability of the historical record. The novel’s protagonist finds himself interacting with images preserved in a substantial, three-dimensional form by an extrapolated successor of the movie camera. In love with one of those recorded phantoms, he can only find happiness by rewriting the recorded past.

Kate Macdonald’s article, “Witchcraft and Non-conformity in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willows and John Buchan’s Witch Wood,” reads two novels from the 1920s that use Margaret Murray’s now-discredited history of European witchcraft to challenge contemporary mores. Though Murray was wrong in many of her claims about a widespread witch cult, her version of history proves to be a usable past for both Warner, attempting to construct a new feminist identity for her heroine, and Buchan, investigating contemporary issues of conformity, corruption, and responsibility projected back into the seventeenth century.

In Paula Brown’s “Gnostic Magic in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” the radically altered, magical past of Susanna Clarke’s novel allows the author to explore a number of still-relevant issues, including the uses and misuses of knowledge. Brown argues that the central philosophy of the novel is a Romantic version of gnosticism, in which knowledge of the universe is intertwined with understanding of the self, and the latter is dependent on giving up a false knowledge of separateness from and superiority to other beings and the universe. The novel’s characters must unlearn many things, including their own history, in order to move forward.

Finally, in “Spells Out The Word of Itself, and Then Dispelling Itself”: The Chaotics of Memory and The Ghost of the Novel in Jeff Noon’s Falling out of Cars,”Andrew Wenaus considers Jeff Noon’s 2002 novel as an experiment in narrative “remixing”: its haunted protagonist learns to sample and rearrange her own troubled and noise-corrupted history in order to move forward. Wenaus argues that Noon is doing the same thing to literary history: transforming narrative into a chaotic but open-ended version of itself in order to move literature into a post-structuralist, post-historical future.

Work Cited

Hellekson, Karen. The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time. Kent: Kent State UP, 2001. Print.


The Mistress of Sp[l]ices: Technovirtual Liaisons in Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel
Alf Seegert

Witchcraft and Non-conformity in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (1926) and John Buchan’s Witch Wood (1927)
Kate Macdonald

Gnostic Magic in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
Paula Brown

“Spells Out The Word of Itself, and Then Dispelling Itself”: The Chaotics of Memory and the Ghost of the Novel in Jeff Noon’s Falling out of Cars
Andrew Wenaus

Review Essay

Whose History?
Paul Kincaid


George Kovacs and C. W. Marshall’s Classics and Comics
Rev. by Claire Burrows

Mary Y. Hallab’s Vampire God: The Allure of the Undead in Western Culture
Rev. by Patrick R. Casey

Susannah Clements’s The Vampire Defanged, How the Embodiment of Evil Became a Romantic Hero
Rev. by Catherine Coker

Seo-Young Chu’s Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation
Rev. by Samuel Gerald Collins

David R. Castillo’s Baroque Horrors: Roots of the Fantastic in the Age of Curiosities
Rev. by Cary Elza

Gregory Waller’s The Living and the Undead: Slaying Vampires, Exterminating Zombies
Rev. by Adryan Glasgow

Masood Ashraf Raja, Jason W. Ellis, and Swaralipi Nandi’s The Postnational Fantasy: Essays on Postcolonialism, Cosmopolitics and Science Fiction
Rev. by Adam Guzkowski

Regina Hansen’s Roman Catholicism in Fantastic Film: Essays on Belief, Spectacle, Ritual and Imagery
Rev. by Kate S. Kelley

John Edgar Browning and Caroline Joan Picart’s Draculas, Vampires, and Other Undead Forms: Essays on Gender, Race, and Culture
Rev. by Mark R. McCarthy

Annette Hill’s Paranormal Media: Audiences, Spirits and Magic in Popular Culture
Rev. by Jules Odendahl-James

Theresa Bane’s Encyclopedia of Vampire Mythology
Rev. by Janice Odom

Thomas Honegger and Fanfan Chen’s Fastitocalon. Studies in Fantasticism Ancient to Modern: Immortals and the Undead 1.2
Rev. by Vibeke Rützou Petersen

Daniel Illger, Jacek Rzeszotnik, and Lars Schmeink’s Zeitschrift für Fantastikforschung [ZFF] 1.
Rev. by Vibeke Rützou Petersen

Diana Wallace and Andrew Smith’s The Female Gothic: New Directions
Rev. by Daryl Ritchot

Wheeler Winston Dixon’s A History of Horror
Rev. by Kjetil Rodje

Phyllis M. Betz’s The Lesbian Fantastic: A Critical Study of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Paranormal and Gothic Writings
Rev. by Roxanne Samer

Julian Hanich’s Cinematic Emotions in Horror Films and Thrillers: The Aesthetic Paradox of Pleasurable Fear
Rev. by Hans Staats

Karen Morton’s A Life Marketed as Fiction: An Analysis of the Works of Eliza Parsons
Rev. by Joel T. Terranova

Kristen Lacefield’s The Scary Screen: Media Anxiety in The Ring
Rev. by Emanuelle Wessels

Julián Daniel Gutiérrez-Albilla’s Queering Buñuel: Sexual Dissidence and Psychoanalysis in His Mexican and Spanish Cinema
Rev. by Stephenie A. Young