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Fantasy Subgenres


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What is Fantastique?

The story of "once upon a time" does not exist in the sub-genre of the Fantastique. Fantastique does not tell stories that end with neat little bows and easy to understand messages about good and evil. Fantastique is a French term for a genre that includes the literary as well as the cinematic and the fine arts -- it has elements of fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and horror, and yet is none of these. It has roots dating back further than English language fantasy, but didn't start to take hold until the 19th century, and has continued to evolve with time.

The Fantastique is defined in large part by its peculiar ambiance. There is tension both within the narrative and within the reader. It is a literature that does not offer resolution, but instead unsettles the reader. At its core is the supernatural (or the unknown, or the impossible) and its intrusion upon the natural (reality, or what has been accepted as reality). The story brings readers to a hesitation point between the supernatural and the natural -- it is a story of ambiguity that takes place where perception can be altered. This is why so many Fantastique stories take place in similar settings like the dark or cemeteries -- places where surprise is easy to come by and writers can draw out the fears of the human psyche and thus create tension.


Other Features of Fantastique

  • Level of Magic

    Questionable. Fantastique is not Fantasy and it isn't going to have the advanced magic systems for which traditional fantasy is known. However, some Fantastique stories do incorporate magic. But, the magic is not simply accepted as a part of reality. There is a strangeness to the magic of the Fantastique and it is a strangeness that characters and readers are invited to question and investigate. Magic is not always present in every Fantastique story. Fantastique is primarily concerned with creating an atmosphere, a sense of the uncanny -- magic may be used to create this world, but not always.

  • Level of Grand Ideas/Social Implications

    High. The Fantastique is not defined by the ideas of its stories and social implications aren't necessarily pervasive in the sub-genre. However, the sub-genre is inherently incredulous and seems to be always to asking, "what is real?". Fantastique is different from Fantasy because there is a hesitation between the real and the unreal, between the supernatural and the natural, between the impossible and the possible -- there is no border in the Fantastique, there is always a question and a fuzzy grey area. The sub-genre's ambiguity is bound to make thoughtful readers of us all.

  • Level of Characterization

    Moderate. There is room for debate here, but there are some stock characters in the Fantastique sub-genre. For example, the hero whose impulse is almost always a reaction against the story's supernatural elements -- it's a rejection or a fear of the unknown. It's also worth noting that unreliable narrators are common.

  • Level of Plot Complexity

    Moderate. In a general sense, the plot of Fantastique stories follows a similar pattern: there is a supernatural event (or something magical, or seemingly impossible), this event seems to be both real and unreal -- there is no accepted definition for the event. The protagonist of the story seeks to an explanation for the event, and even if the protagonist can find an explanation, a bit of doubt will always remain. This is a very basic plot line, but it is one that is very effective at creating tension -- it can even make readers feel something (tension, incredulity, doubt, fear, disbelief, or a combination of emotions).

  • Level of Violence

    Variable. Bloodsucking vampires could be a part of a Fantastique story -- that can be graphic and grotesque. Or, the story can be about magical books. Sometimes there is violence, though it is not the focus of the story, and sometimes there isn't.

Related Fantasy Subgenres

  • Weird Fiction. Both sub-genres exist in the spaces between, embrace the impossible or the unexplained, and both use elements of other genres (i.e. Sci Fi and Horror).

  • Magic Realism. Fantastique is, in some ways, part of the transition away from magic realism. Both are filled with ambiance and the supernatural. They differ, in the simplest sense, in that in magic realism the supernatural or the unexplained is accepted as part of reality.

Fantastique isn't for you if...

If you don't like French literature (although, not all Fantastique is French, it is a part of that tradition), then Fantastique is not for you. If you like the world of the rational and don't like it being questioned then Fantastique is not for you. If you like stories that begin with "once upon a time" and end with resolution then Fantastique is not for you.

Popular Fantastique Books

  • Honoré de Balzac, The Magic Skin. The protagonist finds a magical shagreen, a piece of rawhide, that fulfills wishes -- but it has a cost.
  • Jacques Cazotte, The Devil in Love. One of the first writers of French fantasy stories. Incorporates elements of the Gothic tradition. It is a tale of demonic seduction.
  • Charles Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer. A frantic hero who makes a pact with the devil. It is a series of stories within stories.
  • Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Sand. The unnamed narrator comes into possession of an infinite book. Borges is a noteworthy influence on the Fantastique genre.
  • Jeffrey Ford, Crackpot Palace: Stories. A collection of stories is an open door to a darker and more fantastic realm of dream and memory.
  • E.T.A. Hoffman, The Devil's Elixirs. Hoffman is the quintessential example of the uncanny in literature, this novel is one example of his exciting, chaotic, and frenzied style.
  • Edgar Allan Poe, The Black Cat. The Gothic was a strong influence on the Fantastique and Poe is an example of the more literary side of Fantastique (as opposed to the popular). This tale is just one example of Poe's work, it is a story about a violent and flawed narrator and a cat that he can't seem to escape.
  • Jean Ray, Malpertuis. In an ancient house a dying warlock is trapped with the aging Gods of Olympus. Ray is a Belgian writer and an example of the popular and entertaining branch of Fantastique's evolution.
  • Julien Gracq, The Opposing Shore. This is a novel that is not concerned with story, but with a mysterious and out-of-time atmosphere. It is about immobility, isolation, silence, and uneasiness.
  • Marcel Béalu, The Experience of Night. This is an example of the surrealist influence on the Fantastique. It is a novel about vision, dreams, and reality.