Christopher Fowler

Fantasy Schmantasy

I know it's my problem. I've tried so many times with fantasy novels, but there's only a very fine strand of them I can really appreciate. Those are the ones carrying the weight of reality with them, the ones that put humans ahead of invented creatures. I always loved the film 'Dragonslayer', partly for Ralph Richardson's speech explaining why the dragon is angry; he's old and every movement he makes causes him suffering, so he's embittered. When you look at the dragon again you see him in a new light. It's the real touches - an old wizard understanding his aged opponent - that stay in the mind. At around fourteen I tackled 'Lord Of The Rings' and got as far as Tom Bombadil before setting it aside. George RR Martin can be a superb writer (check out 'Fevre Dream') but all that fire and ice is not for me. I struggle with most declamatory speeches, people in robes standing very still while they explain universe-spanning concepts and react to news of impending calamity with aloof patience. I've rarely found a human reaction in those speeches. It took The Husband to explain the appeal of fantasy, accepting the rules, the stock characters, the status quo (and maintenance thereof) of different kingdoms. I understand it better now, but recognise that largely it's not for me - with the exception of Peter Jackson's LOTR films, which were enjoyable in the same way that serials of the 1930s were fun. My love of 'Gormenghast' is well-documented. Great vampire films, which deal in similar stock characters, can hypnotise me. I went to the cast & crew screening of the first 'Star Wars' without knowing anything about it, and became obsessed. So why can't I sit back and let elves, trolls and orcs take over my brain? Because I overthink everything. I've seen 'Brazil' perhaps 30 times, fishing new meanings out at each screening, but most of the public didn't. To be fair, overthinking is my job, and 'Brazil' is very much a writers' film. I see myself on the very outskirts of what are acceptable fiction narratives. A list of books and films that clicked with me would be impossible; I glance at a shelf; 'The Deadly Dowager', 'Mr Nobody', 'The Forever War', 'The Shanghai Surprise', 'Harvest Home', 'Blackwater' and 'The Land of Laughs'. After those it's hard to go back to 'normal'. It's a safe bet that my tastes sabotage my own sales, but many writers allow that to happen.

The Doctor Will Kill You Now

Scared of hospitals? No, not in a 'Sorry we left a teaspoon in your stomach' way but in a creepy supernatural way. There was Christianna Brand's 'Green for Danger' and Robin Cook's 'Coma' (both made into pretty good films), and the German-made 'Anatomie 1 & 2' films (both terrific). But then there was Lars Von Trier's 'The Kingdom', which knocked the memories of anything else aside. A hospital built on a dye works-cum-plague pit? Savant Down's Syndrome kitchen workers? Phantom night ambulances?  Scared patients roaming the corridors? A ten-foot baby? All present. A particularly disturbing scene has a patient sealed in an auditory testing lab who hears someone standing next to him... Two seasons, many surreal moments, some of which can be blamed on the influence of David Lynch. And now, after debuting at Venice, here comes a third, 18 years later. The reviews are intriguing. In the meantime we had Stephen King's version, 'The Hospital', which didn't seem to understand what the original was all about. I can't wait to be back in this Kingdom..  


Roger (not verified) Sun, 04/09/2022 - 10:34

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

More books to add to my reading list!
Have you come across The Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickinson, Admin? Not much like the film - fortunately - but an essay in what you could call hypothetical biology looking at how "real" dragons might have existed.

Anne Billson (not verified) Sun, 04/09/2022 - 11:26

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Fantasy worlds are SO not my thing. Barely managed to get through Season 1 of Game of Thrones. The new Rings of Boredom, Whatever-Minor-Character-From-Star-Wars-Is-Getting-Their-Own-Show-Now or Superhero Spin-Offs don't interest me at all (I've dipped into a couple, but rarely get beyond the first episode).

I am even getting bored with shows about the supernatural stuff I used to adore - vampires, ghosts, witches etc - because the treatment of them has become so plodding and formulaic. (Obviously I need to finish the sequel to Suckers pronto, not least because - according to an amazon user review "...Billson made vampire existence [out to be] shallow, carping, and empty with none of the rich and captivating drama that Anne Rice or L.J. Smith portrays." Well, DUH!)

But for some unfathomable reason, I LOVE Joe Abercrombie's gritty, funny fantasy novels. Devoured The First Law Trilogy, as well as his standalone novels that are set in the same world but approached from different generic angles - Best Served Cold (female revenge novel), The Heroes (war novel, featuring an absolutely bravura sequence in which the POV hops from character to character during a massive battle; a bit like the Native American attack at the start of Iñárritu's The Revenant) and Red Country (essentially a wagon train western).

I think he's started to repeat himself a bit now, but those first six books are a blast. Great characters, realistic violence, with just a smidgeon of the supernatural that doesn't detract from the overall realism, plus pretty good female characters who don't exist solely to be abducted and/or brutalised.

Christopher Fowler Sun, 04/09/2022 - 12:05

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I agree, Anne, although I do think 'Thor - Love and Thunder' managed to undermine future scenes with pontificating speechifiers just as much as MP & the Holy Grail did for medievalism.

BarbaraBoucke (not verified) Sun, 04/09/2022 - 13:08

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That is the beauty - the wonder - the etcetera of reading. There is no "one size fits all". Admin and many others who comment on this blog continually recommend books they've enjoyed and talk about books they haven't. This gives the rest of us new roads to travel if we want to. I just fininshed The Conjur-man Dies which Brooke spoke about. I would never have known about the book otherwise, and I would have missed reading a story I really enjoyed. And now back to the New York Times spelling bee puzzle, which is a whole other thing with words.

Brooke (not verified) Sun, 04/09/2022 - 13:28

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Would have loved to hear Pete's explanation and your replies.
There's another type of fantansy-- that of Philip K. Dick, S. Lem, Octavia Butler, etc. --exploring the theme, "This world is a fantasy and if you think this is bad, you should see some of the other possibilities." These works probably don't translate well into film but make damn good reading. An example is Labatut's "When We Cease to Understand the World," one of the few novels I bothered to read in the past 2 years. I've heard good things about Chung's "The Cursed Bunny," but saving it for a treat.

Otherwise, I definitely agree with Anne. No more stories, film/TV about "The Hordes of the Things."

David Ronaldson (not verified) Sun, 04/09/2022 - 14:50

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I read the Game of Thrones novels so I could tell anyone who'd listen they were better than the TV series. I'm now halfway through the TV, which is is way better than the novels (Tolkien is far better).

Christopher Fowler Sun, 04/09/2022 - 18:07

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I love Stuart Lee's summation, 'Harry Potter and the Tree of Nothing'.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Sun, 04/09/2022 - 19:42

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So supernatural isn't fantasy? I read Martin's Fevre Dream and mostly enjoyed it (except for the auction scene and its result and I understand why it's there) and have read the graphic novel version as well. I don't read vampire novels as a rule but I managed this one - twice - partly because it had those Mississippi river boats and partly because the characters were examples of reality extremes. (The title is the name of a river boat and Fevre is the name of a river.)
I don't much care for fantasy creatures unless they can be read as alternative humans where they are often extreme humans, exemplars of characteristics. Alternative universe sort of thing. I really don't like the supernatural much and superhumans give me a pain.
Isn't it a good thing we all like different things?

Christopher Fowler Sun, 04/09/2022 - 20:34

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

it's a sliding benchmark; I count fantasy as anything with an impossible element; my books are sometimes unlikely but not often impossible. Dragons are not real. Ghosts can be. Monsters of the id can be visualised as real creatures. The inexplicable is very real indeed.

snowy (not verified) Sun, 04/09/2022 - 23:03

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Why was The Deadly Dowager never filmed? It sounds like it would be an absolutely hoot and a brilliant part for an older actress, [*Thinks*... preferably one playing against type... but who?], instead we get barely microwaved versions of 'Blithe Spirit'.

I also struggle with Fantasy, all flowing riah, revealing costumes and unfeasibly prominent body parts; and that's just the boys!

[Terry Pratchett and Tom Holt got/get away with it because the fantasy elements are just a skin for something cleverer. Something of a double edged sword <b>[Absolutely blatant, you should be thoroughly ashamed! Ed.]</b> Fantasy fans don't penetrate deep enough to recognise the underlying narrative, Non-fantasy readers are put off by the silliness and miss out on a satire they might otherwise enjoy.]


"Obviously I need to finish the sequel to Suckers pronto..."; definitely, there is so much to explore in the 21stC and so many unanswered questions: Can vampires actually take a selfie? Can they get food supplies via Deliveroo? Is there a hook-up app called Nibblr?

Roger (not verified) Mon, 05/09/2022 - 00:32

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"Dragons are not real. Ghosts can be."

Horace Walpole asked Madame du Deffand (now there's a name-drop for you!) "Croyez vous aux fantômes?"
"Non, mais j’en ai peur!" she replied.

Paul+Graham (not verified) Mon, 05/09/2022 - 02:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Fever Dream is a favourite of mine too. Though have you noticed, the older George R.R. Martin looks like Abner Marsh, the riverboat captain?

Adam M (not verified) Mon, 05/09/2022 - 02:43

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Two horror films that I really like are Let the Right One In (the original) and It Follows. They both have multiple layers of storytelling going on and a kind of perpetual weariness to them that’s unforced, fantastic and relatable.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Mon, 05/09/2022 - 06:43

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Paul, or does Abner look like Martin? Note, too, that the boat's name is "Fevre Dream." That bothered me when I read the novel but the name does come from a river and that's where the packet company got its name.
I'm with Mme du Deffand. There are a number of things that are alleged not to exist but of which I am quite afraid. I don't think ghosts are one though because I don't think ghosts would be fearful in general and might well be kindly inclined.

Roger (not verified) Mon, 05/09/2022 - 07:01

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"my books are sometimes unlikely but not often impossible"

I'm willing to accept the impossible, but not the preposterous.

Brooke (not verified) Mon, 05/09/2022 - 11:03

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Dragons are real. Ask Beowulf. Also see Chinese Zodiac,

Roger (not verified) Mon, 05/09/2022 - 15:11

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We can't ask Beowulf, Brooke. A dragon - allegedly - killed him.

Sarah (not verified) Mon, 05/09/2022 - 23:13

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Long-time lurker here, but feel compelled to contribute to this chat. First, I'm so pleased to see "Land of Laughs" get a mention by Admin. Also, along with Brooke, let's not classify fantasy so narrowly please. I'm an old-time (and old) fangirl of most types of f&amp;sf; the genre subspecies referred to as "swords and sorcery" is basically what you are mostly talking about here. I don't much care for it myself, but there is a great deal else out there under the category heading of fantasy. And then again, an sf writer I used to work for maintained that all fiction is fantasy, which is hard to argue with.

snowy (not verified) Tue, 06/09/2022 - 00:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Those that doubt the existence of Dragons never encountered the dinner-ladies at my old school... [one was generally known as Fang, I was always too afraid to ask why.]

A gentle and timely reminder for UK readers that Heritage Open Days start Friday, some buildings normally closed to the public open to visitors, exhibitions pop up, tours are put on, you can visit a church without the need to wear a posh frock/ridiculous hat.

[Heritage Open Day (9-18 September 2022) is England’s largest grass roots heritage festival involving over 40,000 volunteers and 5,000 events, Search their website to see what is going on up by you].

Jo W (not verified) Tue, 06/09/2022 - 07:14

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

After this new political debacle, Chris, I’ll quote from Queen - “Is this the real life, is this just fantasy?”

Helen+Martin (not verified) Tue, 06/09/2022 - 20:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Snowy, I'm visiting the Open Days website to see how green I can make myself. Hmm, wonder if #10 Downing will have an open day - possibly with volunteer cabinet ministers to conduct tours. That would be fun.

snowy (not verified) Tue, 06/09/2022 - 23:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Helen, I think it's shut, the builders are going to be in there all weekend to scrape off all that revolting wallpaper.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Thu, 08/09/2022 - 16:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Snowy, the new tenant has been in to view so the scraping may well have commenced. Are we glad that if the Balmoral news is bad the response will not be from Boris?

Chris Erickson (not verified) Thu, 08/09/2022 - 21:17

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With all this talk of dragons I would like to recommend Kelly Barnhill's adult debut, When Women were Dragons. She has won the Newbery award for her children's literature and has knocked this new one out of the park. A kind of feminist manifesto set in a world eerily like our own, but not, because as the title suggests women were once dragons in a very literal sense. This is one that will definitely get you thinking! I also enjoyed Babel by Kuang if anyone tends to enjoy the dark academia. Thanks to everyone for all the great suggestions too.

Wayne Mook (not verified) Sun, 11/09/2022 - 04:05

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Brazil is splendid and puts paid to the idea of England being too inept to run a dystopian like 1984. The ineptitude would be part of the horror, what's slivering through your ducts? Not doing anything has been shown to be a way of dividing and conquering, the post code lottery, not as severe as the US redlining, but effective in dividing cities and areas when some areas just have less.

For me I do have genres I prefer but a wonderfully written book whatever the genre will work, it's just that in some genres well written to Ok is alright by me.


snowy (not verified) Sun, 11/09/2022 - 22:23

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Dear H, Heritage Open Day came and I went, to discover well over half had been cancelled due to the recent clog popping, but I still managed a Georgian Meeting house, a small exhibition of old photos and was given a personal one-to-one tour of Church graffiti from the 12th to 20thC [inc. Mary marks, demon catchers, pilgrim crosses and indoor sundials].

[I didn't get to see the priest's hole <del>he moved to fast</del> it was in one of the buildings that didn't open].