Neil Gaiman and Stephen King: The Power of Realism in Postmodern Fantasy
What would fiction be without at least a little fantasy? The world of storytelling is a diverse one that ranges from emotionally complex tales of tragedy, to carefully paced political satire, to gripping and immersive whodunnits with pointy-moustached detectives. But it is the fantasy novel in particular that has always captured a unique part of the imagination. Dwarves, dragons and djinn, heroes, hobbits and hags, goblins, ghosts and gods. It’s escapism at its best – entirely different worlds, with entirely different rules. Treasure troves of stories, full of beauty, epic adventure, and best of all, magic. The power of the impossible, the power to bend the elements to your will, the power to do what cannot be done.
Yet perhaps there is more to magic, more to fantasy, than simply escapism. Realistic elements to the genre are nothing new – Bilbo Baggins smoked a pipe and Thorin had his own racial prejudices in The Hobbit. The world of Harry Potter was a magical mirror of our own. In addition, complex politics have emerged as key devices in works such as Robin Hobb’s Farseer novels, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus sequence and of course George R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.
Despite these elements of realism, however, all these stories are firmly set apart from the real world – our world – in terms of setting and internal logic. The other side of the coin – the side that sticks closer to reality and adds a layer of the fantastic to stir things up – is magical realism, an intriguing category of literature that is often difficult to define because of the complexities surrounding it. The power of this sub-genre is its ability to achieve, in many ways, the exact opposite of fantasy’s escapism, by creating stories with both a degree of the entrancing, otherworldly qualities that make fantasy so fascinating, and a sharp edge of reality that can unsettle and provoke the reader in a unique and distinctly special way. And in the world of postmodern, contemporary literature, there are few writers who seem to be able to utilise this form as well as Neil Gaiman and Stephen King.
Long Nights, Dark Days: The Horror of Reality
Stephen King’s novella The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon is often overlooked as a great story in favour of more popular tales, and perhaps rightfully so. To those who have read King’s best works, it may seem comparatively ordinary and overly simple. Nonetheless, it is a great story – the journey of Trisha McFarland, a nine-year-old lost in the woods, is written with conviction and subtle observation, King’s insight into the mind of a child every bit as compelling as his narrative for Paul Sheldon in Misery. It’s described as psychological horror, but there are arguably elements of magical realism also present. The woods themselves are presented as sinister and almost intelligent, luring Trisha further from civilisation towards the God of the Lost, a creature she begins to believe is stalking her, waiting for her to inevitably lose her incredible willpower.
While this supernatural aspect of the novella certainly adds a level of suspense and tension, the true horror of the tale comes from the less fantastical ideas – ideas that are striking in their simplicity, and brutal in their realistic nature. The greatest threats to Trisha are not the nightmare beasts that lurk in the dark, but instead hunger, thirst, exhaustion, insects, fever and loneliness (and it is here that the psychological horror really kicks in), all described in grotesque, wince-inducing detail by King.
This lends the story a terrifyingly plausible edge, the character of Trisha responding to such challenges in a way that is at once devastatingly relatable and compellingly heroic – and because of this, every failure, every triumph, every stage of her journey has a powerful, unique impact on the reader. The genius of King’s writing here comes not from his ability to imagine complex kingdoms or repulsive creatures (although the latter certainly helps in places), but from his understanding of the very real terror of isolation and his character study of McFarland, a nine-year-old of wonderfully believable, wonderfully indomitable human spirit.
Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is in many ways a different beast altogether: a gothic fantasy chronicling the childhood of Nobody Owens (or “Bod”), a boy raised by ghosts following the murder of his family. This novel fits the fantasy category somewhat more appropriately – internal logic and laws, magic, ghosts and demons all play large roles in the book, as well as an age-old conflict between two powerful forces.
Yet Gaiman chooses to set the story – for the most part – firmly within our world. This is an intriguing decision that arguably pushes the work again into the realm of magical realism, or at least something resembling it. When reading the novel, the benefits of this choice are almost immediately apparent. The opening chapter introduces us to the villainous Jack, searching for the young Bod whilst clutching a knife. Gaiman’s elegant prose serves only to add to the unease, his allusions to Jack’s acts of murder sinister and gripping in equal measure. Once again, realism is used as a tool to increase horror as Gaiman describes the interior of the familiar, modern house where this has taken place – close to home in the frightening, disturbing sense.
The tales of The Graveyard Book range from character pieces, such as Bod’s first meeting with deceased witch Liza Hempstock, to high-end adventure in the graveyard and beyond. With a large cast of highly unusual characters and ideas including a secret ghoul-gate to a horrifying demonic underworld, a strange, whispering being that resides under a crypt, a Hound of God that works part-time as a nanny and, of course, the mysterious entity that is Bod’s guardian Silas, it’s often easy to class the novel as pure fantasy.
However, it could be argued that Gaiman never quite crosses this line entirely, instead repeatedly blending these elements with reality to produce a work that, by the time the last page is turned, is a satisfyingly dark coming-of-age story. The constant presence of the real world makes it especially potent, particularly for the character of Bod. The world from which he comes is by turns fascinating and appalling to him as he witnesses both the good and the bad of humanity. It is the recurring comparison and contrast of this – of us – with the world of the dead that makes him a unique, meaningful and memorable character. This is magical realism at it’s best: terrifying, captivating, entertaining and provocative.
American Gods and The Gunslinger: The Epics
Gaiman’s American Gods and King’s The Gunslinger are two further examples of reality and fantasy colliding, and as with the aforementioned works, they are at once strikingly similar and enormously different. Both stories include the heavy use of symbolism, both focus on the concept of a journey (though it could be argued this particular point could be applied to all fiction) and both use troubled protagonists as a means of exploring a flawed world full of relics long forgotten. The primary difference is as simple as this: where American Gods is a novel set in real, modern America with an edge of fantasy to it, The Gunslinger takes place in a fantastical land with an edge of America to it. Perhaps this is stretching the definition of magical realism a bit, but it’s hard to dispute that both novels use their strong ties to reality to sharpen their edges and increase their power.
American Gods could be summarised as the literary equivalent of a road movie, with added Gods, subplots and magic. The story of ex-convict Shadow Moon and his journey across a turbulent America where forgotten Gods secretly war with new deities, the primary thread follows him and the mysterious con artist Mr Wednesday as they explore this bizarre hidden world, all the while encountering new beings and seeking to avoid the organisation that hunts them. The fantastical plays a large part here – before the reader is even halfway through the novel, Shadow has encountered an ancient spider god, a being that feeds on people’s obsession with the media, a series of dark and mystical dreams, and so much more. As with The Graveyard Book, however, Gaiman’s talent here lies in blending fantasy with reality. In this case, he even blurs the line between the two, to the point where the magical elements seems harsh, dark and real and the real elements eerily magical and supernatural.
American Gods is, as anyone who has read it may tell you, a work of fiction that gets under the skin in a strange, unsettling manner. This is largely a result of Gaiman’s immense imagination combining with an observant look at the world around us to create distinct discomfort. This feeling is greatly enhanced by the novel’s ‘Coming to America’ sections – short interludes that deviate from the main storyline, telling tales of various characters from the past and the present, all tied by the common theme of worship and identity. These interruptions to the main story serve to add greater depth to Gaiman’s depiction of America, building on this strange world that is neither fantasy nor reality and searching deeper into the heart of ours in the process. The effect is as disturbing as it is captivating, and it is Gaiman’s talent for achieving this hypnotic yet unnerving reflection of ourselves that makes American Gods a disturbing and unforgettable read.
The Gunslinger, the first instalment in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower sequence, introduces the reader to a strange, broken world that – as the blurb puts it – ‘frighteningly echoes our own’. An adequate description – within the first few chapters of the book, it’s easy to assume that we are looking at tale of our own world following some kind of apocalypse. A vast, unforgiving desert where the world has ‘moved on’. Small towns where pianists play empty and soulless covers of ‘Hey Jude’. Hunger, thirst, desperation. It’s immediately apparent that the world of The Dark Tower is no traditional fantasy setting. Yet as we learn more of the mysterious man in black, and of the gunslinger’s own past, we begin to understand that the rules of this world are far from ordinary or logical. Magic exists only in the dark variety, in the form of curses, charms, prophecies and hungry, ensnaring traps laid for unwitting victims. King bridges the gap between these fantastical elements and the aforementioned areas of realism by making The Gunslinger essentially a western: a genre that falls almost perfectly between gritty authentic tale and legendary myth.
So what about the realism? Why does King choose to consistently link the world back to our own, through religious and cultural references and through the character of misplaced New-Yorker Jake? Perhaps it is for the same reason as Gaiman in American Gods – to hold a warped mirror to the face of the reader, resulting in an unpleasant sensation of familiarity that creates compelling contrast with the fantastical. One thing is for sure: although the conclusion of this first chapter is at once thrilling and oddly unsatisfying, as can be expected of the beginning of such a series, what the reader is really left with is a surreal sense of understanding.
The novel is not much longer than 200 pages – strikingly short considering the typical length of a fantasy book. Yet, similarly again to American Gods, it feels as though a journey has taken place that has changed our knowledge of this setting. It seems to make a bizarre kind of sense to us as inhabitants of our own odd world, and as such we fully accept it and the story. As with all good fantasy works, we are motivated to continue the journey through the connections we feel with the world and the characters. In this particular instance, however, it is the moments of bitter reality that, ironically, lend the story its magic.
A Credit to the Culture: The value of Gaiman and King
Both King and Gaiman are adept character writers with great talent in creating fully fleshed out and believable individuals with minds as complex as any real human being. Their imaginations allow them to range greatly in the scope and surreality of their writing and creations, distinguishing them as unique, inventive and terrifyingly observant authors in the modern world of literature.
Their works can be seen to demonstrate a special understanding of magical realism and its potential for creating a particularly powerful, poetic, frightening and above all lingering portrait of today’s world whilst still telling a wonderful, captivating story. Escapism? To an extent, yes, but then all fiction qualifies as escapism. It is this ability to capture the essence of our world in their writing, however, that sets them apart. They are pioneers of the postmodern, creating work that is original and imaginative but also uniquely personal and introspective to every reader. It is this that cements them as invaluable assets to a special kind of magical realism – the kind that gets under the skin and stays there.
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