GtPGKogPYT4p61R1biicqBXsUzo" /> Google+ Guest Post: Michael Williams - What is the Modern Fantastic? | I Smell Sheep

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Guest Post: Michael Williams - What is the Modern Fantastic?

I was asked to consider in a post how I would define the “Modern Fantastic”—this because I teach a course on the subject at the University of Louisville.

First of all, since the class is an upper-level undergraduate course—juniors, seniors, the occasional grad student—I give them a good deal of leeway. We acknowledge from the start that “the fantastic” is a fuzzy set, and each time I teach the class, it moves toward a slightly different shading of the term. Also, this is not a class in fiction alone: we look at film and the visual arts, sometimes poetry (and having been in Barcelona in late 2017, I’m thinking about whether some of the architecture of Antoni Gaudi might be in play). At any rate, we range widely over the arts, and I come to the table myself with generally a couple of things in mind:

1. To me, otherworld fantasy fiction is different from my understanding of the modern fantastic. Fiction such as Tolkien’s or Martin’s has its roots in the marvelous of the 19th century, where the tropes of folk and fairy tale linked up with the aesthetics of realism. I have heard people claim that James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) was the last great 19th-century novel, but I think you could almost make a case for Lord of the Rings. By no means is this saying that alternate-world fantasy is outmoded or a throwback—some of it can be quite contemporary in its issues and concerns—but that it is a genre, while I regard the fantastic as a mode, a way of expression.

2. To me, the modern fantastic has its roots in Surrealism, but also in the re-discovery of myth that took place in the early 20th century. What the fantastic does is depart from a kind of consensus reality—what we experience and expect to experience daily—and layer that everyday world with suggestions of different realms, all of which veer into myth, dream, reverie, and whole worlds we know or intuit are there, even when they aren’t readily available to our senses. Surrealism, magical realism, horror, and fantasy all employ the fantastic mode, but each shapes it differently, and each artist or writer uses these departures in different ways in their work: as metaphors, to create different feelings, to put words or images around psychological or spiritual states of being, or what have you.

Some representative figures I very often look to are artists such as Alfred Kubin (who also wrote The Other Side, a very useful piece of fiction). Giorgio di Chirico, or Rene Magritte. Writers such as Borges, Angela Carter, Italo Calvino, Robert Holdstock, Gene Wolfe, or China Mieville display a wide range of how the fantastic can enter the world of fiction and how it can be used toward different intentions. We might explore some great silent films from Weimar Germany, or later works, like those of Jean Cocteau, Fellini, Terry Gilliam, and Guillermo del Toro. It’s a varied list, and I’ve had students in the same class who emerge having “taken different courses,” in a sense, their idea of the modern fantastic still evolving but deeper (at least I hope) than when they first ventured into the classroom.

Of course, the subject interests me deeply as a writer. More and more, my work moves away from the fantasy fiction in which it first began, more toward the modern fantastic. My City Quartet—composed of Trajan’s Arch and Vine: An Urban Legend, of Dominic’s Ghosts and Tattered Men—is now in the process of being released: separate novels, each stand-alone and yet interwoven with the other three, where the fantastic makes conversation with the everyday real, and what seems bizarre in one book may end up entirely credible in another, when viewed through the eyes of another character or in the flow of another story. After all, the fantastic is a way of telling, capable of all the things that other telling can do, its particular strengths those of deepening and widening the way we understand the world.

Dominic's Ghosts (City Quartet)
by Michael Williams
August 17, 2018
528 pages
genre: metaphysical, visionary, literary fiction
Dominic’s Ghosts is a mythic novel set in the contemporary Midwest. Returning to the home town of his missing father on a search for his own origins, Dominic Rackett is swept up in a murky conspiracy involving a suspicious scholar, a Himalayan legend, and subliminal clues from a silent film festival. As those around him fall prey to rising fear and shrill fanaticism, he follows the branching trails of cinema monsters and figures from a very real past, as phantoms invade the streets of his once-familiar city and one of them, glimpsed in distorted shadows of alleys and urban parks, begins to look uncannily familiar.

About the Author:
Over the past 25 years, Michael Williams has written a number of strange novels, from the early Weasel’s Luck and Galen Beknighted in the best-selling DRAGONLANCE series to the more recent lyrical and experimental Arcady, singled out for praise by Locus and Asimov’s magazines. In Trajan’s Arch, his eleventh novel, stories fold into stories and a boy grows up with ghostly mentors, and the recently published Vine mingles Greek tragedy and urban legend, as a local dramatic production in a small city goes humorously, then horrifically, awry.

Trajan’s Arch and Vine are two of the books in Williams’s highly anticipated City Quartet, to be joined in 2018 by Dominic’s Ghosts and Tattered Men.

Williams was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and spent much of his childhood in the south central part of the state, the red-dirt gothic home of Appalachian foothills and stories of Confederate guerrillas. Through good luck and a roundabout journey he made his way through New England, New York, Wisconsin, Britain and Ireland, and has ended up less than thirty miles from where he began. He has a Ph.D. in Humanities, and teaches at the University of Louisville, where he focuses on the Modern Fantastic in fiction and film. He is married, and has two grown sons.

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2/13 Ravenous For Reads Author Interview
2/13 Breakeven Books Guest Post
2/14 Marian Allen, Author Lady Guest Post
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2/16 I Smell Sheep Guest Post
2/16 The Book Lover's Boudoir Review 
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