Earlier this week, Michael J. Martinez posted “Realism in SF/F” here in The Night Bazaar. His essay asserts that “stories need to make sense, to be told with authority, and to be relatable.”
I sort of agree with all of that. It’s the way I try to write most of my own stories. Still, that said…
When we writers discuss our craft, we tend to proclaim The Rules. If we didn’t, it would be difficult to address the subject clearly and succinctly.
Yet almost inevitably, what the giver of such advice is really providing is tips for writing the type of story he turns out himself, and a good thing, too. That’s what he has to share that’s apt to prove helpful to others.
But there are different types of fiction. Stories strive for differing effects and employ differing methods to achieve them. In the genre of the fantastic, we have tales, some of them masterpieces, that deliberately embrace the inexplicable and preposterous and eschew that which is relatable in any conventional sense.
We even see some of this in high fantasy. In The Lord of the Rings, Middle-Earth impresses the reader as credible because the setting mostly operates like the real world. Supernatural phenomena like magic spells and spectral Ringwraiths don’t stir our disbelief because Tolkien keeps them within bounds.
But in The Silmarillion, things are different. The author chronicles a time when the sun and moon did not yet exist, but the Earth did. It even supported a thriving population of Elves thanks to the two magical trees that lit things up.
Even postulating the reality of magic, that’s crazy on a whole other level from anything in Lord of the Rings. There’s really no way to sell it with internal logic and realistic detail. Yet we buy into it because it feels right that a primordial age is defined in mythic terms.
It’s horror, though, that exploits unresolved mystery, blatant absurdity, and the unfathomably strange to greatest effect, most famously, perhaps, in the tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. Lovecraft proposes that human reason and perception are incapable of comprehending the terrifying entities and forces lurking behind the façade of mundane existence. We can catch glimpses, perhaps in our hubris imagine we understand, but if we really get hip to even a little bit of What’s Out There, we’ll go as bananas as the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.
It’s a premise that largely frees authors from the constraints of plausibility because an assault on our common-sense notions of what’s possible is the point, and those who follow in Lovecraft’s footsteps continue to exploit it to eerie effect. In W. H. Pugmire’s stories of the Sequa Valley, certain mystical phenomena make the stars flit around in the sky like fireflies. Like Tolkien’s Two Trees doing the work of the sun and moon, this really ought to be make us cry, “Bullshit!” But served up in the proper style and context, it doesn’t.
The context doesn’t always have to be cosmic terror in the Lovecraft tradition. Some horror stories that dispense with realism work on a psychological or existential level. In “The Town Manager,” Thomas Ligotti doesn’t spend a word trying to convince us the events he describes are plausible. The resulting surrealism creates the feeling of nightmare.
Ligotti’s work also demonstrates the extent to which a fine writer can sometimes get away with a piece that isn’t relatable as the term is commonly understood. “The Red Tower” literally has no characters. It would be tough to get less relatable that that. But the story’s chilling.
You’ll notice I said “fine” and “sometimes.” That’s because it’s unquestionably easier for the average writer to create an effective story if he shoots for a realistic effect. Still, it’s worth knowing that the various components of realism are only some of the colors in our crayon boxes. From time to time, it may prove worthwhile to break out the others.