A Manifesto for Neo-Fantasy

When people ask what I write, I usually say “fantasy.” From there, people ask if it’s like Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, and I would go “Ehh, kind of.” I can name some of the books that influenced me, like Mountains of Madness or Wizard of Earthsea, but they aren’t good comparisons to what I write now. So I’m coining a new phrase: “neo-fantasy.”

I use the term “neo-fantasy” because nothing else seems to fit. The stories I’m writing are mythopoeic, but the label ‘high fantasy’ doesn’t work because these are the stories of individuals, not of empires, quests, or battles between good and evil. Dark themes like cannibalism, murder, and even outright horror appear in my writing, but don’t define it, like dark fantasy. Moral ambiguity and grittiness are often present, but my stories don’t rely heavily on them, like grimdark. Slipstream’s blending of science fiction, fantasy, and literary elements seems right, but the emphasis on cognitive dissonance and confrontations with reality doesn’t.

“Neo-fantasy,” as I see it, is a kind of hybrid between mythopoeic fantasy, literary fiction, and something like cyberpunk. These are some of the characteristics:

  1. Comprehensive worldbuilding. It is set in a secondary world with a fully developed history, cultures, magic, and setting. The realism, depth, and verisimilitude of each of these elements is especially important—the worldbuilding must be thorough and comprehensive.
  2. Magic is crucial. The use of magic is usually connected to the conflict of the story, and is often its solution. Magic is generally handled in a systematic, analytical way comparable to computer programming, but has a metaphysical dimension to it: magic usually represents a conduit to meaning, truth, or a greater reality. It is not reducible to a ‘science’, however.
  3. The conflicts in neo-fantasy always have a personal element. Emphasis is placed on internal struggles and an exploration of the characters.
  4. Neo-fantasy is essentially humanist. Humans are empowered to shape their lives and the world around them, and there are no limits to the power or understanding that humans may achieve. There are beings more powerful than humans, but they are either derived from humans or able to be surpassed.
  5. Neo-fantasy’s primary goal is to explore the sublime. ‘The sublime’ represents the extremes of wonder and terror within life. Reverence, awe, and despair are also key themes.

My short story The Crownless King is a good example of neo-fantasy: the story takes place in a world with a strong history and magic system, and the central conflict is whether the protagonist, the wizard Samal, will save his apprentice Iz or let the weight of his past crush him. They key themes of The Crownless King are despair, horror, and death, but against it all stands the small hope that the human spirit can survive.

The term “neo-fantasy” may never come into general usage, but that doesn’t matter to me as much as having a term that I can use to unite all of these thoughts under one umbrella and articulate them to people who haven’t read my work. Everyone wants to be part of something new, avant-garde, and fashionable, but the wars over genre and theory matter less than the stories themselves.

A Manifesto for Neo-Fantasy

The Crownless King

‘The crownless king’ is a necromantic concept I’ve had in my head for a couple years now, waiting to be woven into a story. It’s meant to be an honorific, a title, an honor. It came partly from Kabbalah, from the Tree of Sephiroth: the highest sephirot is Keter, the Crown, which is equated with the head of God, the King of Creation. 

The ‘crownless king’ came up in one story, but the draft was never finished. The story was about chiromancy, the magic of altering and manipulating the human body. Here’s an excerpt from the story, which deals with the concept.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

— Chris

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Samal looked down at the bailing knife in his hand, held it up to the light, and tilted it. He held it out to Iz.

“Hold this.”

One by one, he began unbuttoning his coats, jackets, and shirts, until the illuminated, tattooed skin of his chest was bare. When he was finished, Samal sighed.

“When I was growing up, there were seven hallmarks to a wizard: a name, a song, a card, a craft, a hand, a tongue, and tired feet. For Muzin, there were tattoos added in.”

Samal made eight points on his chest with his fingers, each one touching a different star. “The eight points of the world, the eight ports…the seven hallmarks and the tattoos show you’re bona-fide.” Samal shook his head slowly. “Real bona-fide wizards don’t die.”

Iz was staring at him. Samal could see his mind working.

“I’ve seen friends of mine take a bullet to the lung and keep laughing. One of them walked out of a hostel without his jaw. They knew the amount of blood in their bodies down to the thimble, and they could weave muscle faster than yarn. The only way to get seven hallmarks was to be a stitcher, bones, blood, or tissue. Now we’re back to just that. There’s only one hallmark left now, and it’s the crownless king. You ever heard of the crownless king?”

Iz shook his head slowly. The knife was getting tighter in his hand. Samal put both hands on his head.

“A crownless king is when you can take away a person’s head, sever it from the spine, and the person doesn’t die. They don’t drain blood, they don’t need air, they don’t eat food. Their body is perfect, no matter where you cut it. There have been twenty-two crownless kings in our age. My teacher was one of them.” Samal nodded to Iz. “Now, I’ll show you how to harvest muscle.”

Samal pointed at one of the stars on his chest. “You’re going to open me from the north to the south star. Half an inch deep. That’s this much.”

Samal held up a half-inch between his thumb and forefinger.

“If you cut too deep, it won’t matter to me. Just take your time.”

Iz’s body stiffened up, and his shoulders rose, but he didn’t say anything. His neck jerked to the side, then his arm, all the way down his body, like a puppeteer tugging on each joint. Then he stepped forward with the knife. With careful precision, he laid one hand on Samal’s chest and inserted the blade into the skin. With steady pressure, he dragged the tip down Samal’s sternum, watching the tip of the knife with rapt attention. Samal could feel the cold sensation of metal parting the skin, and almost shivered at the smoothness and ease: either Iz had a practiced hand at carving, or he was half-asleep.

Then it was finished. A thin line divided Samal’s chest, cutting the tattoos in half. He took the knife and made two more long cuts, perpendicular to the first, creating a tall ‘I’. He peeled back both wings of skin and revealed the wet, red muscle of his chest. Iz stared like was looking toward the horizon.

“No blood,” Iz said softly. “None of it’s spilling out.”

“It’s hemostasis. Instant clotting, and the rest flows along the flesh like a magnet. You did a good job, too. Half-inch.”

Samal sighed, and the muscles bulged outward with his diaphragm.

“You have to be careful with this, especially in the cold. All the heat escapes, and diseases can get right into the flesh. You have to be very careful.”

Samal reached in and made two incisions on either side of a length of muscle, about three inches long. With the tip of the knife, he lifted out the strand and set it in his other hand.

“When you’ve got a body like mine, it heals very quickly, but I have to eat food, drink, and rest. I’ll get this strand back in two days. Now, bring me your bowl.”

Iz brought him the little bowl of water, and Samal set the strand of muscle in it.

“You’re going to grow this strand, just like my body will grow it. I’ll give you the powder, and you sing to it. In a few days, it’s going to grow into a sheet. When it’s ready, you can start using it again. And when you’re finished with the skull, I’ll show you how to harvest your own muscle.”

Iz took the bowl. “How long did it take your teacher to become a crownless king?”

“It took him eighty-two years, I think.”

“Is he still alive?”

Samal bit his lip and exhaled through his nose. “No.”

“What killed him?”

“He killed himself.”

The Crownless King