The roots of genre fiction can be found in everything from mythology and folklore to narrative poetry and Victorian gothics…and beyond.
With this in mind, we asked our panelists:
I grew up reading in Urdu first, so children’s magazines Bachon Ki Dunya, Bachon Ka Bagh, Jugnoo and Mazhar Kaleem M.A.’s children’s books about Chaloosak Maloosak, Chan Changloo, and others were my entry into genre literature. This was followed by abridged Urdu renditions of Central Asian, Arabic, and Subcontinental classics such as Hatim Tai, The Adventures of Amir Hamza, Talism Hoshruba, et cetera. I began reading Enid Blyton’s books and fell in love with them around ten or so. After that, it was Christopher Pike, Stephen King, Guy De Maupassant, Poe et al. There is a wealth of untranslated Urdu spec fiction, which is still being written and reprinted. Hopefully some day I can read more of it (these days I mostly read in English, which is a pity really and I need to do better than that, to be honest).
Not just fan fiction as we usually think of it — but the tradition of remixing, subverting, reacting. Of building on culture and having a conversation with history. There are countless books, movies and television shows that transform or retell older tales, and to me these are in the same amazing tradition of modern fanfic: genre fiction that rewrites the past and extrapolates the future in ways that make us rethink reality.
What inspires me most about remix and fan fiction culture is how routine it is to push past boundaries. Missing scenes, alternate universes, fix-its — these explorations so often color outside the lines of what is (or was) acceptable or expected in mainstream at the time. It’s particularly mind-blowing to me that in modern fan fiction, queerness has become absolutely normative, but it’s not only that. It’s the spirit of reshaping the world into what we want to see . . . reshaping the world through reshaping fiction.
Fan fiction has helped me think outside the tropes.
Two of my published works, “Hunting Monsters” and “Fighting Demons,” are explicitly fairy tale remixes and subversions. But even in my stories with no specific basis, I’m working from a long literary tradition. The Russell’s Attic series exists in conversation with all the superhero stories that came before it, as well as all the tales of mind powers or saving the world. Even my story “By Degrees and Dilatory Time” is a reaction against all the cancer stories I’ve hated.
And if I’m ever afraid of exploring something in my fiction, I think about whether fan fiction would be afraid to do it — or whether that exploration would be part of the normal world of transforming and subverting. And I take courage from the answer.
Remixing, retelling, and rebuilding have been a part of genre fiction since genre fiction existed. Fan fiction has existed as long as there’s been fiction. And it’s taught me as much or more than any other tradition genre is rooted in.
For me it’s mythology and folklore, first and foremost. Always has been. Always will be. When I was in first grade, I got a book of classical myths from one of those Scholastic book order forms (remember those? THEY STILL DO THEM AND THEY’RE STILL GREAT.) and stayed up way too late reading and rereading it in bed every night for a week. I’m pretty sure that’s where it started. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized there were super-geniuses out there who were using mythology as a basis for fiction. Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles were my obsession for months in fifth grade, all thanks to my amazing progressive teacher who said no to reading textbooks and gave us middle-grade novels instead. Those books were eye-opening and formative for me in any number of ways. A couple years after that I got my hands on the Datlow/Windling Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies, and it was all over. My favorite stories, then and now, are the ones that draw from those deep-down wells — mythology, folklore, creation stories, &c — and make the materials they’ve found there into something wholly new. Bonus points if you mash in some other stuff from other genres and sources that at first glance in no way belong on the same page together. Done right, these disparate bits of source material, I find, have the most interesting conversations amongst themselves in a piece of fiction. (I guess what I’m saying is I really dig magical realism and New Weird. Anything that smashes genres together with utter disregard for what belongs where is 100% my jam. But I digress.)
Today, I have a whole bookcase full of folklore from all over the world. (I had even more before I moved last year and had to downsize my library significantly.) Having read, um, a lot of books on the topic, I think what I’m really drawn to, and what influences my writing the most, is what that folklore looks like on the ground level. Stories about gods and goddesses are great and all, but what really pushes my buttons is when I can get a look at how those myths influenced the day-to-day of the people who lived at the time of their telling. All the from-a-distance-seemingly-bizarre stuff they’d do in the name of ritual. What do their celebrations look like? Their superstitions? What kind of idioms spring up in their language from those myths? How do they ensure the gods will smile upon their harvest? Who answers for it if the harvest fails, and who do they answer to? What would your life look like in that kind of society? How long would your life last? In what way would you be most likely to die? How will they dispose of your body when you do? What happens to whatever’s left — your ghost, your soul, whatever — when your body has been burned or buried or sunk in a bog or hung in a tree or repurposed?
People ask me often where I came up with the worldbuilding for Archivist Wasp. It takes place across three settings, but the two they’re almost invariably referring to are Wasp’s world (so far in the future from whatever caused the apocalypse that it’s reverted to a pre-technological subsistence-farming bartering society in which life is short and hard and myths are Very Very Real and the keeping of their customs may well kill you) and the underworld into which she travels (full of stuff I shamelessly stole and synthesized and extrapolated from existing mythologies). The honest-if-brief answer I give them is that it fell into my head pretty much of a piece, during a period in my life when I was reading The Golden Bough (and, later, The Bog People) at the same time I was playing Fallout 3. I didn’t want to retell any one specific myth from any one specific mythology. (Many people have noted the conversation Wasp is having with Greek mythology, but really that’s one of its more minor influences.) I’ve always been fascinated by human sacrifice, and in the concept of a year-king specifically. My year-king though is a teenage girl, and she’s also her town’s scapegoat and high priestess/historian. She also hunts ghosts, because with no written record of anything from the Before, they have to glean what few scant clues they can from the dead.
That’s the kind of distortion of existing concepts I aimed at all throughout the book. What I wanted to do was see what kinds of bizarre Golden Bough-esque rituals might take root in an extremely post-apocalyptic society where the technological era has been dead and buried for many, many generations. Where our world is a long-faded memory distorted through the same lens that distorts ancient and classical mythology for us today.
For years, I felt bad, because I didn’t really draw upon any mythology! I’d look at Neil Gaiman and Catherynne Valente repurposing fairytales, and I’d feel like an orphan – I mean, I read fairytales, and I liked them, but they weren’t formative experiences.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized “comic books” were, in fact, their own mythology.
I grew up in the 1980s, and that’s when comic book creators like Moore and Gaiman and Morrison and Miller were already starting to treat them like a mythology – and then doing that hybridization of “Yes, these are archetypal stories, but what happens if we try to root them in reality?” So you had this very exciting time where people were taking questions like, “So why does Batman actually do this? What effect would living that way have on a man?”
And what remained was this weird mishmash of tones – yes, Batman’s psyche is as realistically portrayed as a man in a bugf**k crazy opera costume can get, but we still have those mythological (and, on some level, utterly ridiculous) elements of a big swoopy cape and constant streams of bank robberies and fusillades of bullets that never hit Bruce Wayne in the face.
To this day, that’s where I draw a lot of my writing strength from: these tremendously motivated people who want to do good, and are given inexplicable powers in order to do so. That story gets told again and again – that these powers, in some way, come to refine the wielder and make them a better person. Whether Tony Stark’s arrogance gets to be harnessed into righteousness or Captain America’s need to fight his country gets lent strength, the common theme in comic mythology is that giving someone power tells you who they truly are.
Not a bad theme to have. Even if I tend to play a little more with the “What is goodness?” trope than most comic book authors.
Shortly after watching the movie Highlander, I became obsessed with Europe’s medieval period. I’d already gone through a love affair with Greek literature and mythology, a time following hard on the heels on a tough break-up with a passion for all aspects of Egyptian history. Nothing interested me as much as trying to grasp the worldviews of people who lived a vastly different way than I did, but for some reason* everything about European medieval and Renaissance customs and folklore remain a fascination.
When I need to get inspired, I love to dig around and read from medieval cookbooks and herbals—the instructions for running a household or tending the sick. These ordinary bits of lifelore reveal the ways people thought about the plants and creatures of their world, which often had spiritual or animistic properties far different from our modern understanding of biology and botany. Trying to look at the world from the perspective of a medieval person really expands my worldview and stimulates my ideas of the fantastical.
A few resources that I’ve found interesting include A Modern Herbal, by Mrs. M. Grieve (available online at http://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/mgmh.html); Stefan’s Florilegium (http://www.florilegium.org), which is a compilation of articles directed toward historical reenactment; and The Medieval Kitchen by Hannele Klemettilä. But since the medieval period is such a well-loved era, the resources available are boundless.
The role of the Catholic church in the construction of the medieval world view can’t be overstated, and it’s definitely inspiring to look at what was going on in the church during the medieval period. (I could probably read/watch The Name of the Rose once a year just for the magic it creates!) I have a short story coming out soon that draws from the life and teachings of Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th century German mystic and nun. She has a lot to say about herbs and running a religious establishment, and all of it is interesting. Within the church at this time, the musical tradition also went through many fascinating changes based on ideas about spirituality, tonality, and songwriting. Some of the most wonderful music from the era is included in the Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, volume 1 (some tracks, including music by Hildegard, available here: http://www.allmusic.com/album/norton-recorded-anthology-of-western-music-vol-1-ancient-to-baroque-box-set-mw0001407742).
I know that medieval Europe has long been the cradle of fantasy literature, but I think many of the period’s more interesting tensions and traditions have yet to be examined. There’s much more magic and meaning to the time than just knights and ladies and Vikings, and classes of people whose voices are yet to be heard. I’m sure I’ll keep finding inspiration in the period.
*And by “some reason” I mean “swords.” My love affair with those things will never end!
When I get interested in something, I tend to then read everything in that area that I can get my hands on, and the more interested I am, the larger that area tends to get. So, for example, when I first read Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, and particularly her The Grey King, that lead me to everything Arthurian I could get my hands on. T.H. White, and Malory, and Chretien de Troyes and Marie de France, of course, but then also the really old stuff – The Spoils of Annwn, and the Mabinogi, and that lead me to the Gawain poet, and then a turn sideways to Táin Bó Cúailnge, which brought me around to the great Irish epic poem, “Buile Suibhne” – I cannot recommend Seamus Heaney’s Sweeney Astray enough.
Speaking of epic poetry, I would be a very bad medievalist indeed if I didn’t mention “Beowulf,” which stood my hair on end the first time I read it.
I remember checking out every book of fairy tales and mythology that my library had when I was in elementary school, and then going back in high school and doing the same with the Windling and Datlow fairy tale anthologies. I’m still constantly on the lookout for new versions of favorite stories (Beauty and the Beast, the Persephone myth), and for recommendations of new myths and fairy tales to love, especially from the non-Western canon.
Finally, of course, Shakespeare. Not only for the brilliant language, but for the way that of course some witches are going to be interested in who the next king of Scotland is, or that obviously the rightful Duke of Milan is a wizard – that the fantastic doesn’t need to be written in, it’s just there.
The first fantasy novel I read was the Bible. It had everything: magic, battles, monsters, the living dead, people with hard to pronounce names…. all the fuel a young writer needed. The Old Testament is Epic Fantasy, while the Gospels are modern fantasy–a personal story infused with the supernatural and politics. The messiah story casts its shadow over every western novel, and it certainly affected me: it became impossible for me to not to look for Christ figures in every text.
As a result, most of my short stories and every novel I’ve published have a religious element–a church, cult, or belief system that holds sway. I’m very interested in how belief and faith work, socially, psychologically, and especially neurologically. My SF novel Afterparty is explicitly about the neurological basis of that feeling of the numinous that is so important to religious experience.
In most of my stories, there’s a main character who is drawn into or rebelling against the role of savior. I think the messiah complex is extremely dangerous in the real world, and novels that accept a main character’s “chosenness” without questioning are a little dangerous too.
I’m an academic by day — and night — too many nights — early mornings — bah — and my periods of literary interest are the 18th and 19th centuries. I love best those dislocating moments of nothing new under the sun where you’re confronted by just how much early essayists writing in the periodicals of the day read like angry bloggers, or how “postmodern” are books like Tristram Shandy and The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. I think my answer to this question is mostly a reversal: I think genre is so thoroughly entrenched in my brain that I see its roots in places where the fruit is in disguise. I read Derrida and see genre: when he writes “Unwittingly, writing simultaneously designs & discovers an invisible labyrinth in the desert, a city in the sand,” I see a fantasy writer fighting a desperate battle against the curse of narrative that governs his brain. I read Proust and see time-travel. I read Judith Butler and see with agonizing clarity our grimdark dystopia.
So I want to just run in vigorous agreement with the question’s premise that “the roots of genre fiction can be found in everything,” because yes, they absolutely can — but to answer it more straightforwardly: Coleridge’s notebooks and letters as well as his poetry; the 1001 Nights, read in English; Western medieval romances from Orfeo to the Lais of Marie de France to the Mabinogion to Gawain and the Green Knight; so many fairy tales. But still I’m drawn to say, no, there’s something more at work: genre has its roots, ultimately, in reality, such that Arabic has Sun Letters and Moon Letters, such that bees dance to communicate, such that birds were once dinosaurs. All of these things are to be wondered and marveled at, and I think I draw as much from them as I do from texts.
Coleridge wrote in a letter to his friend Thomas Poole that through an early diet of fairy stories (from the Arabian Nights!) he had become “habituated to the Vast” — and I feel similarly; that, if not habituated, I’m certainly oriented towards the vast, the marvellous, the strange, the deep, wherever I can find it.
I mainly write horror, so unsurprisingly, Edgar Allan Poe had a huge influence on me. When I was in middle school and high school, I would stay up late at night reading his poetry and stories over and over, dissecting the words and memorizing chunks of “The Raven.” The dread Poe could create, the sense of horror, it all mesmerized me.
When I was in high school I received a collection of Grimm’s Fairy Tales for Christmas. Have you read the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales? That is some dark stuff right there! We think of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty as being these magical, lovely tales of romance and all things sparkly, but the originals are full of blood, treachery, and death. In the original Cinderella, the step-sisters cut off pieces of their feet to fit into the squirrel skin slippers (no glass for Cinderella in the first telling). The stupid prince is too dim to notice that the girl he’s about to marry is not the one he fell in love with at the ball and is about to marry her. It isn’t until the actual wedding, when the woodland animals show him the blood in the snow that he realizes he’s been tricked. This happens not once, but twice! Once a step-sister cuts off her toe and then the other cuts off her heel! Yuck! And – if you’re a horror writer and into that sort of thing – completely awesome!
Finally, when I was in college one of my English professors assigned Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. Dark and sensual twists of traditional fairy tales, these stories are the perfect fodder for any horror writer looking for inspiration.
To this day I have copies of Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales and Poems, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories close at hand. I grab them whenever I want to remind myself of the power of language: how words alone can induce dread, fear, a flinch from the gruesome.
Ever since I was little I had a fascination with myths. I think those old badly dubbed Italian movies that played on Saturday afternoons of Sinbad where Kali danced or Jason and the Argonauts helped my interest along. (And I especially loved the special effects by Ray Harryhausen!) I guess that’s why I was so excited to buy Sally Benson’s Stories of the Gods and Heroes as my very first book on a school field trip to a museum. I felt all grown up handing over my $1.75 to the cashier and receiving back the slim paper bag with my book inside. I still have it my on bookshelf to this day. I loved those stories. They seemed important somehow, and the characters seemed to reappear over and over again all around me, in films, on TV, in other books, in comics, etc. No one came right out and said that this was true, but it was clear to me even at that early age that the same stories were being told over and over with the same characters over and over. Changed slightly, but I recognized them everywhere.
Then there was the movie The Warriors. When I was a kid, I was desperate to see it. But because folks back then were a bit off their rocker and thought that gang wars would break out because of kids watching it, the movie was blacked out the night it was supposed to show. This only made me even more curious and my curiosity led me to read up on the film. The Warriors, now a cult classic, is no cinematic masterpiece, but I did learn two very important things about the formation of the film: first, it was based on an historical (almost mythical) Greek event; and second, it was also based on the real gang truce that happened in NYC, which gave birth to Hip-Hop. Back then Break Dance battles were everywhere, graffiti was on all the trains, and we all knew the rap lyrics by heart. Rap didn’t play on the radio but somehow we knew the words. The birth of an art form happened right before my very eyes and its origin story could be told through the retelling of an ancient Greek event. From this, an idea formed in the back of my mind that contemporary events—even the ones that had personal meaning to me—could sometimes be understood through the lenses of history and myth.
I suppose, though, that the real root of my genre fiction may have been formed—and I kid you not—on a college shuttle bus. When I was on my way home one day, on the seat next to me I found an abandoned, brand-new copy of Jean Shinoda Bolen’s Gods in Everyman and began looking at it. It seemed so interesting that I took it home then proceeded to read it cover to cover. Indeed, I could find the archetypes of these gods in almost everyone I knew. Back then, as a struggling engineering student, I had no idea that I would become a science fiction writer, but now that I am, the book continues to have a deep, meaningful impact on my life and work.
Myths, in my humble opinion, are true stories distorted over time. Human beings can’t help but add magic, god-like powers, and godly intervention into our history. I think it helps us to make sense of it all. In my writing (at least for now) I like to tell my tales through the retelling of ancient tales, finding a truth behind the myth, developing meaning, and maybe a little order, in a world that is often chaotic and hard to understand.