Magic Realists from the Genre Side of Things

This is a survey of whom I consider to be “magic realism” writers who came from the SF/F world rather than mainstream literature.

Jonathan Carroll

Carroll’s first novel was The Land of Laughs, a story about Thomas Abbey, who grew up idolizing the children’s author Marshall France. Abbey decides to write France’s biography, even though others had attempted and failed, mainly because of France’s daughter protective nature about her father. But she welcomes Abbey eagerly—almost too eagerly. Something about the situation is not what it seems. That’s when the dog at the end of the bed starts talking in his sleep.

Carroll’s breakthrough novel was Bones of the Moon. Cullen James meets the man of her dreams, but only after a previous relationship had gone sour. Everything seems perfect, until the dreams begin. The dreams are of a fantastical land named Rondua, where enormous animals the size of hot air balloons escort Cullen and an enigmatical child companion acorss places like the Plain of Forgotten Machines. And then the dreams of Rondua start crossing over into her everyday world.

While on holiday in Sardinia, Ian McGann goes to sleep one night—and meets Death in a dream. Death promises to answer any of McGann’s questions, but if McGann fails to understand the answers, he will have to pay with his life. That’s the premise (or, at least, the main plot) of From the Teeth of Angels.

I would recommend almost anything by Carroll. The other titles, wonderfully evocative in themselves, are After Silence (a personal favorite), A Child Across the Sky, Kissing the Beehive, Outside the Dog Museum, The Marriage of Sticks (the most recent one), Sleeping in Flame, and Voice of Our Shadow.

James Blaylock

These days Blaylock seems to write gothic novels set in California—quiet and subdued horror of people encountering ghosts, that recall Shirley Jackson in their intensity. But when he first started out, he had a bit of a lighter touch. My favorite is The Last Coin, about a certain thirty pieces of silver and a Jew doomed forever to wander the Earth. The lead character in this book seems to be eccentric, yet, after awhile, you start to see that he’s just like anybody else. And how can you fault a book where one of the defining moments comes when a group of people meet at midnight in the kitchen and eat breakfast cereal together?

Blaylock also wrote an interesting novel called The Digging Leviathan. It describes the preparations of a group of people to construct a machine that would dig through the Earth into the “hollow” world. The characters, like that of the protagonist in The Last Coin, are exceedingly quirky. And the book ends just as the machine starts whirring up.

James Morrow

Morrow is a satirist at heart. His first novels included a short one called City of Truth, where everyone is required at all times to tell the truth. Makes the advertising business a bit difficult. He also wrote a novel called Only Begotten Daughter, where the second coming of Christ is a woman, and there’s a question about that whole interpretation of what the second coming meant in the Bible, as well.

His last few books have been more of the Magic Realist persuasion. It started with Towing Jehovah, in which a dead God falls into the Atlantic and Rapheal enlists supertanker captain Anthony Van Horn to two the two-mile-long divine corpse to the Arctic in order to preserve Him from sharks and decomposition. Still satire, but in a more realistic, understated way than before.

Bradley Denton

Denton’s novel Lunatics is a Thorne Smith tale with a 90s sensibility (now that I think of it, Thorne Smith was a bit of a magic realist himself—Night Life of the Gods in particular). Each night, when the moon is full, Jack strips naked and waits outside for his lover, Lily, to show up. A woman with wings and feet like eagle’s talons, she is everything that Jack desires, but his friends have questions about this relationship and whether it is good for their friend in the long run.

Michael Bishop

Unicorn Mountain is the story of AIDS in a group of four people in the Colorado mountains. Yes, unicorns appear in it, and there is a plot point that depends on the saving of the unicorns, but the book treats all of it as a side issue, whereas the important sections deal with living with disease and coping with dying.

Robertson Davies

The least genre-oriented of the writers I’m listing, but I hate to not mention him. Davies often used elements of the fantastic in his fiction—a ghost tells the story in Murther and Walking Spirits, two angels trade quips in What’s Bred in the Bone, there’s a gypsy fortune teller who is always right in The Rebel Angels, and saints and magicians in Fifth Business. But even when Davies doesn’t have fantasy elements, his writing is fantastic. I have yet to find another writer who seems so erudite about, well, everything.

Others

I am surprised and annoyed that I haven’t listed any women. Most that I can think of haven’t written novels of magic realism, just short stories—women like Pat Murphy or Karen Joy Fowler (hmm, actually, her Sarah Canary is very close to this tradition, although I see it more of an SF work than a fantasy). Of course, there’s Angela Carter, but you likely are familiar with her.

[Finished 12 November 1999]

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