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

I Just Published a New Piece on Multiverse, TSR’s Blog!

Back in college, I used to keep a sticky note attached to my laptop titled “Things Chris Mahon Believes In”. In order, they were:

  1. Ursula LeGuin’s “Wizard of Earthsea”
  2. Princess Mononoke
  3. Neon Genesis Evangelion
  4. Milk

The sticky note was there to anchor me, and remind me why I do what I do. I used to read and write a lot about moral philosophy, and a lot of my writing is still informed by that, but day-to-day, I always found myself returning to stories for inspiration and a reason to get out of bed.

Thanks to Outer Places (the sci-fi website where I work), I got to write a piece on my seven favorite sci-fi/fantasy movies and books for TSR’s blog, Multiverse! You can read the article here, but here’s the list:

  1. Wizard of Earthsea
  2. Dune by Frank Herbert
  3. Neuromancer by William Gibson
  4. Princess Mononoke
  5. Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard
  6. Hogfather by Terry Pratchett
  7. End of Evangelion

This list isn’t definitive, but it’s a good chunk of what I love. There’s no H.P. Lovecraft on there (because most of his work is short stories and novellas) or Paranoia Agent or Serial Experiments: Lain (both TV shows), nor is there any manga/graphic novels (Vagabond or Uzumaki or V For Vendetta or Prophecy), and I couldn’t include things like The Seventh Seal or Man of LaMancha because those films aren’t technically fantasy.

Still, it’s a good shortlist and amazingly cool that it’s been published. It’s now “ON THE RECORD.” Woop woop!


I Just Published a New Piece in The Portalist!

After sending in a pitch to Open Road Media’s new sci-fi/fantasy site The Portalist back in November, I wrote up a listicle on the 5 Most Elaborate Sci-fi Alternate History Books, including H.P. Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness, PKD’s Man in the High Castle, and William Gibson’s Difference Engine. Now it’s live on the Portalist site! Huzzah!

Today I also sent in my third non-fiction pitch to Clarkesworld Magazine on the topic of magic and worldbuilding in fantasy–we’ll see what they say. My last two essays with Clarkesworld were on “The Candlelit World,” about mythology’s influence on fantasy, then “Paradise Lost,” about the history of the genre. They’re a fantastic publication.

In the meantime, I’m still working on my new short story with Yute, incorporating some of the ideas I picked up from my new book on wabi-sabi and the Japanese tea ceremony.

I Just Published a New Piece in The Portalist!

Transcontinentalism: On Gods, Graffiti, and Trains

The following is a short essay I wrote about graffiti. It began when I was back in Washington State, watching the graffiti on freight trains and wondering who made them. Thinking about graffiti shaped how I think about art, and about what it means to be famous. Trains, graffiti, and gods were all themes of the project I worked on last year for the Twitter Fiction Festival, The Rats in The Walls.

Which way to Zion? Follow the railroad! The big, red, rusted rails!

It’s brilliant—God’s always hiding in nautilus shells, why not BNSF? Northern Pacific Railway!

Sitting on the rails for days and weeks, those great, glorious train cars.

Jesus Christ.

Look at them. Who would have thought? Gods speak on old train cars.

Gods make the graffiti on the trains.

You have to understand that rail yards are surrounded by barbed-wire fences. That means the taggers were out at one a.m., carrying carpets. You buy the carpets at a thrift store or pick them up off the curb, and you make sure they have the rubber on the bottom. You throw the carpets over the top of the fences so the barbed wire digs into that rubber, and that holds it in place while you climb over the top. The taggers probably have a plastic Safeway bag full of spray cans with them, clinking and tinkling with ball bearings, and someone’s got to figure out how to get the cans inside without making a lot of noise. The open rails near the highway are even tougher. They’re twenty feet away from the road, and there’s no shoulder to pull your car off. When the taggers hit rails near a highway, they’re looking at a lot of walking, this time getting their backs lit up by headlights. You can see them at midnight, walking on the other side of the guardrail: pilgrims, knights, and small gods.

Those train cars are plastered with their work. Big, cartoonish proportions, horribly twisted and squished in all the bright colors of Tokyo neon lights, perfectly clean and sharp. Starbursts, the kinds of colors you see out in space. A lot of intestine-puzzles, the kind that are so warped and tightly wound that you have to slowly tease the letters out of them. There are the block letters, the towering white modular ones that each take up a panel of the train car. There are the occult cartoon characters too, the grinning zombies, the fucked-up Mickey Mouses with black eyes and pinprick red pupils, the giant, symmetrical Easter Island heads. There are names, slogans, parodies, giant eyeballs on Illuminati pyramids, non-Euclidean geometry and cyclopean blocks, all mashed together into a frieze on an industrial freight line. Triptychs are nothing new, but Hieronymus Bosch was painting earthly delights before the Industrial Revolution, before coal-powered double-boilers, before the atomic bomb and urban renewal, and a long time before the Union Pacific. He knew nothing of Hell.

Away from the railroads, far from the highways, there’s graffiti on electrical boxes, too. The thin, bright white glyphs and logos in miniature. Out in the great unknown wastes, there’s electrical box and lamppost taggers walking around at night, running their hands over the cold, metal surfaces. And there’s the disenfranchised youth sitting around in hoodies, passing around phone screens full of the newest tunnel graffiti, down where the clearance between the wall and the C train is about five inches. Deep tunnel graffiti is some of the most beautiful, partly because you only see it for an instant, in a little halo of light as the subway goes by, but you always remember that flash, that little alcove of illumination down in the tunnels. There are dozens of eyes in subway cars, watching for those flashes. Because taggers are the last gods. People may laugh at that, but it’s true—they’re the last gods. People still believe in them. There are worshippers out there, in the basements, apartments, and the streets. And the rush of the divine still fills them.

The small gods pay homage to the big ones. In cities, the cherubim take pilgrimages to the underground skate parks and overpasses to see what the seraphim have done. Alleyway spirits adapt the work of the angels in the metro tunnels. With freight trains, there’s a Passover: all the taggers pass by the big designs, the best designs, and paint over the amateur stuff, or they find an empty car for their work. In a half-mile-long train, an empty car is hard to find, but they do it because they’re not going to paint over something done by XNILS, one of the archangels of the Santa Fe Line. They know when they’re in the presence of something greater than themselves. They know what sacrilege is. This is what Jeremiah 31:33 describes when it says the LORD will write the law on the hearts of humanity, and that they will all know Him, from the least of them to the greatest of them. This is reverence, this is awe, and this is worship.

I just watch the hands on the clock in the First Church of the Lord and try to manufacture reverent feelings. I do the same thing in the Museum of Modern Art, when they let me in.

Dead, empty spaces.

They became dead, empty spaces when canons were established. They became dead, empty spaces when the first wave of orthodoxies began, when they built up that nice, comfortable patina of dust that lets lip-service and parrot talk creep in. Everyone wants to talk to you about God and Warhol, and no one whispers their names anymore. Their works are memorized rote. The French have got into everything, the Bible and the art galleries, and now it’s Jacque Derrida’s footprints next to yours in the sand.

But while wars of fashion and philosophy continue their pendulum swings, signs are appearing daily. Thousands of parousias are blossoming in public restrooms, alleys, and the trains. Polytheism is back in all its glory, and visions of Eden and Hell are crossing three thousand miles of the United States on big red rails, even the flyover states. The Pyramids are on tour, complete with hieroglyphics, the old books of alchemy are off the shelves and riding the rails with the lumber, and the burning words of the East Coast deities are written for all to see. Nietzsche and Time Magazine declared God dead a long time ago, but the graffiti keeps coming in on semi-trucks, bearing wonders to the people of the Tri-Cities.

Out walking on the asphalt and concrete, I’ve seen three people, one sweatshirted and earbudded, one sundressed and open shoed, and one suit-jacketed with his sleeves rolled up. They were standing at different distances from a brick wall, running their eyes over it. The wall was covered in a neon green sunset and pink marshmallow-puffed letters haloed by stark black. The rest of the people on the sidewalk threaded past those three and left them alone. After a while, they all went their separate ways. It lasted about ten seconds, but the world stopped for those three. That was a Mass. That finger, reaching out to touch.

Praise be.

But if the immaculate XNILS were to descend from Hoboken and meet his worshippers among the rail yards, would he lose something in the descent? Would the name fit a skinny Hispanic kid in a black Volcom hat? No. It wouldn’t. His letters have grown too big for one historically underprivileged youth in a sweatshirt. It’s common knowledge that gods dissipate when exposed to light. It’s that grasping, desperate desire to know what God looks like, to shine the harshest light on that figure so you can soak in every detail. There were honest-to-God quests back in the 18th and 19th centuries, Quests for the Historical Jesus. They dug through archaeology, historical records, and all the methods of the Enlightenment to try and reconstruct The Man Himself, to size him up and get him defined like the perimeter of a triangle. Every word was weighed, every hair was examined, and it took a wonderfully jowled man named Robert Bultmann to tell all the scholars that the obsession with accuracy was killing whatever The Man had been saying. And we’re still killing gods today. Why did people want to touch what Elvis touched? They wanted to get close to Him, that overflowing cup that poured ecstasy into their souls, and drink it all in forever. But it’s that thirst that bleeds everything dry. That’s what kills gods, because no human can sustain that gaze and fulfill that thirst for long. Soon, the shine will come off, the mystery will dwindle, and the divine glow will fade. So the answer, the wisdom of the gods, is to never to show your face.

The bridges.

The overpasses.

The brick walls.

The lampposts.

The electrical boxes.

The trains.

Oh, god, the trains.

Their handiwork is there, in all its untainted mystery and all its glory. Who made it? How did a giant, blue-and-green name, DENIUS, find its way onto an old grain silo by the highway? It’s seventy feet tall. Was it one man, or a woman, or six people working together? Was there one hooded figure sitting by the highway, directing it all? A grand architect, or a watchmaker? Somehow, the same occult lettering shows up all over the country, monolithic and inscrutable. Who makes it?

It’s better not to know. It’s better to wonder and imagine, and to build a grand image in your mind, grander than their shoe size, grander than Hoboken, grander than any human could ever be. In the end, it all lets you focus on the point of contact between you and the divine: the art on the train. I think it was the short man and the slightly taller, afro-headed man who said it best.

And the people bowed and prayed

To the neon god they made

And the sign flashed out its warning

In the words that it was forming

And it said “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls

And tenement halls

And echo in the sound of silence.”

Today, we are all knights with Sir Antonius Block. Sistine Chapels everywhere, but one face is missing. I want to believe. God, I want to believe.

Transcontinentalism: On Gods, Graffiti, and Trains