Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation. . . [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from “reality” as it exists in the common opinion. . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we say that the works belong to another genre; the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (41).Whatever one may think about Todorov’s theory of the fantastic, he or she would likely admit that the philosopher does a good job, for the most part, in defining his terms. The fantastic is either the supernatural or the apparently supernatural, depending upon whether it is resolved as explicable in terms of “‘reality’ as it exists in the common opinion” (that is, as the “uncanny,” or “supernatural explained”) or it remains inexplicable (that is, “marvelous”).
Indeed we distinguish, within the literary Gothic, two tendencies: that of the supernatural explained (the “uncanny”). . . and that of the supernatural accepted (the “marvelous”) (41-42).
-- Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre
One of the terms that is not as explicitly defined is “‘reality’ as it exists in the common opinion.” This term is more vague, although, within the context of the other terms’ definitions, its meaning is fairly clear, referring, it seems, to the scientific world view in which the universe is synonymous with nature, cause-and-effect relationships govern all events, knowledge is obtained through the application of the scientific method, and the results of this method of inquiry are codified in theoretical principles often called “laws of nature,” “laws of thermodynamics,” “laws of physics,” and so forth. It is “reality” in this sense upon which the fantastic itself is predicated, Todorov says, and which the fantastic actually supports:
The reader and the hero, as we have seen, must decide if a certain event or phenomenon belongs to reality or the imagination, that is, must determine whether or not it is real. It is therefore the category of the real which has furnished a basis for our definition of the fantastic.
. . . Far from being a praise of the imaginary. . . the literature of the fantastic posits the majority of a text as belonging to reality--or, more specifically, as provoked by reality (167-168).It is also for this reason that the literature of the fantastic ultimately reaches its end, or, as Todorov declares:
Today, we can no longer believe in an immutable, external reality, nor in a literature which is merely the transcription of such a reality. . . . Fantastic literature itself--which on every page subverts linguistic categorizations--has received a fatal blow from these very categorizations (168).In short, as I myself suggest in “Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?”:
The prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.However, in general, individuals follow, rather than lead, developments in cultural and theoretical paradigm shifts. The cultural Weltanschauung changes, usually centuries before, the individual’s world view, and what is accepted among the elite of specialized communities such as those of academics, scientists, and philosophers usually becomes accepted much more slowly, often centuries later, in fact, if ever, by the general public. For this reason, outmoded views of the “reality” of which Todorov speaks continue to inform and to direct, if not determine, their thoughts, behavior, and, to a lesser degree, perhaps, their feelings. For them, such divisions as those listed below will continue, more o less, to hold sway:
The Fantastic (or what might be called the “supernatural undecided”): The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, The Shining (film version; directed by Stanley Kubrick), The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (Stephen King), The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson).
The Uncanny (“supernatural explained”): “The Red Room” (H. G. Wells), The Island of Dr. Moreau (H. G. Wells), The Food of the Gods (H. G. Wells), The Invisible Man (H. G. Wells), Hide and Seek (film, directed by Ari Schlossberg), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne), Frankenstein (Mary Shelley), King Kong (film, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack), Subterranean (James Rollins), Relic (Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child), Watchers (Dean Koontz), The Tommyknockers (Stephen King), Swan’s Song (Robert McCammon), The Funhouse (film, directed by Tobe Hooper).
The Marvelous ("supernatural accepted" as such): “1408” (Stephen King), “Dracula’s Guest” (Bram Stoker), “A Christmas Carol” (Charles Dickens), It (Stephen King), ‘Salem’s Lot (Stephen King), Carrie (Stephen King), Desperation (Stephen King), The Taking (Dean Koontz), Summer of Night (Dan Simmons), Fires of Eden (Dan Simmons), The Green Mile (Stephen King), Silver Bullet (Stephen King), The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty), Dracula (Bram Stoker), The University (Bentley Little).
Such a division also has the benefit of allowing authors, critics, and readers the ability to discern, in short order, whether a writer’s oeuvre tends more toward the fantastic, the uncanny, or the marvelous.