by Sarah Kennedy
The supernatural seems to have infected contemporary writing of all kinds. Many readers were charmed by the notion of the kid-wizards of the Harry Potter books, and before that Anne Rice had tamed vampires to the point that they seemed almost like the funny, quirky neighbors whose house always smells a little odd. The genres of horror and fantasy now have moved into all kinds of fiction—and even poetry—to the point that it seems impossible to find any kind of book that hasn’t tried to exploit the current obsession with the paranormal, the supernatural and the superhero, the faery-born and the dragon-wielding. As a writer of historical fiction, I resist this trend, even as the genre in which I write seems to invite indulgence in it. My main character in The Altarpiece (Knox Robinson Publishing 2013) is a nun in Tudor England—and if that’s not a setting for some spooky business, I don’t know what is. But for me, that’s taking the easy way out. My nun tries to see the world as it is and to make her way in it using her wits rather than relying on some holy superpowers.
Now, I like a good ghost story as well as the next person, and I was an avid watcher of bad vampire movies as a child. As an adult reader, however, I tire of the intrusion into otherwise realistic character-driven novels and poems of unexplained paranormal features: the Twilight phenomenon. I read The Hunger Games, a story I first dismissed as a tale for kids, with some pleasure because it was science fiction rather than fantasy that tried to provide some explanation for the dystopia it created. I’ve enjoyed episodes of Game of Thrones, but I grind my teeth whenever the dragon-keeping waif of a woman appears.
Why does this grate on me when I love reading and teaching Hamlet? It’s partly because the culture that produced the play accepted the reality of immanent non-human beings. Hamlet is not the only character who sees the ghost, and even the scholar Horatio knows how he is supposed to talk to one. And yet—the ghost of Hamlet’s father is also a joke, as he’s revealed to be not only a terrifying apparition but an actor who runs around under the stage yelling “swear.” Shakespeare’s clearly got his tongue in his cheek even as he invokes a “ghost.”
And we are laughing, sometimes. But the students at my college get more excited—seriously excited—about steam punk and Abraham Lincoln as a vampire hunter and the so-called zombocalypse than they do about most literature. It may be that in our meta-textual world, we slide into fantasy as comfortably as we adopt our Facebook and blog identities. We’re all just intersections of discourses, right?
Maybe. But the now-standard addition of supernatural elements to writing seems also to be market-driven. We’ll pay to give up the very difficult task of living in the physical world to the easier fantasy of vampires and wizards and superheroes who make the work of real action in the real world almost irrelevant. They either know right from wrong inherently and completely and have the power to enforce it or they blur the lines between the human (good) and paranormal (bad and scary) to the point where it doesn’t matter anymore. Throw a cute dragonette over their shoulders or a bottle of glitter-paint over a few of them and they’re not even frightening anymore.
For writers of historical fiction, especially in settings that predate the Enlightenment, the temptation is perhaps even stronger to insert ghosts, monsters, magical cups, cauldrons, crowns, or swords. Why not spells or incantations? Why not a little card-reading or some magic potions? People believed in this stuff, didn’t they?
Some of them did, to be sure, but such beliefs came under question by skeptics, even early in the Christian Church in Europe. The witch hunts of the late middle ages were gruesome and horrifying, but even they didn’t entirely quash the arguments among thinking men and women that the witch was born of ignorance and superstition. In England (the setting or pseudo-setting of much historical fiction and dungeons-and-dragons fantasy), talk of witchcraft and sorcery was long met with raised eyebrows. Of course, Anne Boleyn was rumored to have engaged in witchcraft to snare Henry VIII, but this was one among many questionable charges against her when Henry was devolving into an off-with-their-heads style of leadership. James I was a famous witch-hunter in his youth, but by the time he took the English throne, he was himself belittling unquestioning belief in demonic powers. The hideous episode of hangings that the self-styled “Witch-Finder General” Matthew Hopkins caused in England had as much to do with the upheavals of the Civil War as it had to do with an increase in real belief in witches.
I could have made my main character, Catherine Havens, “magical” in her ability to heal. But she’s not. She’s an intelligent woman who observes the effects of different methods of treating disease and injury and tries to adjust her knowledge accordingly. She prays, and she believes in God, but she doesn’t believe in magic or spells or curses—except when they reveal an ill-wishing that results in very human criminal behavior. She does admire the mystic Margery Kempe, but what interests me about figures like Kempe and Julian of Norwich is the pain and depth of the visitations they record.
There may in fact be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies, but the paranormal has become like the ubiquitous puppy, kitten, or baby in the television advertisement: it’s there because it sells. Give me the story that does the harder work of creating a character who fails or succeeds without anything twinkling, sparkling, winged, or fanged, who faces conflict in the form in which we really find it—other people and, more often, ourselves.