Elevated Horror — MIDSOMMAR

Artful Genre or Hollywood Hype?

According to many—maybe most—film critics and writers, there’s no such thing as “elevated horror”, an expression they dismiss as pretentious posturing or marketing hype. Tell that to Hollywood. As a serious—albeit  (as yet) unproduced—screenwriter, currently marketing a horror script, I am often confronted by producer requests for “elevated horror.”

What is elevated horror? According to one writer, the phrase “refers to movies that don’t rely heavily on jump-scares or gore, but are so emotionally and psychologically disturbing that they traumatize even the most seasoned of horror buffs. Many of the films also seem to contain allegorical meanings.”

Is that another way of saying they are artful? Certainly, horror films can be artful. I’ve written recently about a couple of examples—Frankenstein (1931) and Alien (1979). In recent years, the works of three directors have frequently been cited for “elevated horror”: Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, and Robert Eggers. This is the first of three articles, one for each of these artists.

Ari Aster grabbed the brass ring with his debut feature, HEREDITARY, in 2018 and raised critical and audience eyebrows the following year with his second, MIDSOMMAR. Both films are tagged (in IMDb) as “Drama, Horror, Mystery.”

I’m writing about MIDSOMMAR because it satisfies all my criteria for a “fantastic tale”: It’s imaginative and original in concept. The only comparable work I can think of is the original British film, THE WICKER MAN (1973), and this one goes far beyond that in its exploration of folkloric ritual horror. It’s outstanding in its screenplay and execution. In my rating system it’s a “5”—worthy of repeated viewings, analysis, and study. It’s truly bizarre — discontinuous with everyday reality—unlike anything I’ve ever seen—and exotic in its exploration and presentation of culturally remote Swedish folklore.

As drama, it tells the story of Dani (aptly named for an ancient goddess) who journeys from orphaned survivor of unthinkable family tragedy, through a frustratingly unsatisfying relationship with a deceitful and self-absorbed man to an unimagined destiny in a remote Swedish midsummer ritual. She is sympathetic, generous and intelligent, unlike her boyfriend and his peers, who all pursue this adventure for various selfish reasons. Desperately hungry for love and family, Dani just wants to be with the ironically named Christian, the man she loves who does not really love her. She longs for her lost family and sister and ultimately finds both family and sisterhood, albeit under bizarre circumstance.

As horror, the story is a slow build—with only one instance of real horror in its first half—to a literal conflagration of relentless fright, shock, and revulsion in the third act, which is almost unbearably horrifying. There are no monsters, no shock-scares by things leaping out from shadows. The horror slowly gathers and builds mounting suspense, until it overflows and overwhelms in an avalanche of visceral emotion. The antagonists who deliver the horror are wholesome country folk, true to their ancient traditions and suffering palpable empathic pain along with their victims.

The central mystery is hinted at with myriad clues and forebodings throughout the second act. As finally unveiled in the final scenes, we realize that it’s capital “M” Mystery—ancient and deadly. Anyone with any knowledge of European folklore or its pagan history will suspect where the clues are pointing and still likely be emotionally unprepared for the ultimate reveals.

Speaking of mystery and clues, this is a near perfect screenplay in the sense that every action, virtually every line of dialogue, every composition, in addition to advancing the story, sets up and foreshadows things to come. Three fourths of the story is set up and the pay-offs in its final act exceed our worst fears and anticipation.

So, returning to the initial question:  is this “elevated” horror. I would say, “Yes,” and I offer my own definition:

Elevated horror delivers the visceral impact of the genre in artful forms, untrammeled by the genre’s familiar and formulaic tropes and convention.

By that standard, Ari Aster has written and directed an elevated horror masterpiece that establishes him as a master filmmaker. Considering that MIDSOMMAR is only his second feature, one looks forward to his future work with anticipation.

Penny Dreadful

Penny Dreadful is fantastic serial story telling at its best.

Kbatz: Penny Dreadful Season 1 | HorrorAddicts.net

Long before cable and network TV, before affordable paperback books, comic books, and pulp fiction, when Victoria Regina reigned over a worldwide British empire, kids (and adults) found escapist entertainment in the pages of the “penny dreadful.”  The first word—penny—referred to the cover price. Educated and cultured folks used the second word—dreadful—to describe and demean their content—fantastic stories—popular tales of action and adventure, humor and horror. The two most popular genres were American Westerns and tales of the supernatural, largely from European folklore—ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and undead Egyptian mummies.

Penny Dreadful (TV Series 2014–2016) - IMDb

The late lamented TV series PENNY DREADFUL (2014-2016) encompasses both genres—horrific fantasy and guns-ablaze Western adventure in one sweeping wonderful three-season story. It’s true to its 19th-century roots, its spin on old genres is wonderfully fresh and original, its storylines are familiar but different, its characters and settings bizarre and exotic. The art design and music perfectly complement everything else. Kudos first of all to series creator John Logan.

It’s billed as “drama fantasy horror,” and delivers on all three genres. For drama, it presents an unforgettable protagonist (see more below) on her dramatic journey from selfish orphan through progressive loss and heartbreak to tragic destiny as “Queen of Darkness.” I loved her and wept for her— and tears shed are one of my criteria for effective drama. It provides enough fright, shock, and revulsion to earn its horror tag, but not so much as to overwhelm the dramatic  (and romantic) fantasy at its heart.

Penny Dreadful (2014) [S01E01] - Night Work | Josh Hartnett as Ethan  Chandler, Harry Treadaway as Dr.… | Penny dreadful, Penny dreadful tv  series, Best new tv shows

Like all good drama, Penny Dreadful is character-driven—and it’s cast of characters touch virtually every horror fantasy of the era, including:

  • Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein and his Creature
  • An American Werewolf in London (couldn’t resist using that expression)
  • Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, portrait and all
  • Robert Louis Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll (but not alas Mr. Hyde),
  • Several characters from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, including the Prince of Darkness himself
  • An assortment of witches (one benign and others diabolical), demons, vampires, and memorable prostitutes (it wouldn’t be true to the dark side of Victorian London without prostitutes).

Their stories (artfully spun in new ways) are interwoven into the series-through-line in unexpected and intriguing ways.

Speaking of prostitutes, and just to give a sense of how these varied tales intersect—one of the downtrodden streetwalkers is Lily—the doomed (by TB) love of our American Werewolf hero. After Lily’s death, Doctor Frankenstein resurrects her as the intended bride of his Creature, only to fall for her himself, and whom she spurns in favor of the dazzlingly decadent Dorian Gray, whom she nearly destroys. Got all that? That’s only one part of just one subplot! If it sounds soap-opera ish, fear not, it isn’t.

Penny Dreadful" Fresh Hell (TV Episode 2015) - IMDb

The dramatic heart of PENNY DREADFUL, the main character—to whom all other major characters and in whom all subplots connect—is Vanessa Ives, unforgettably portrayed by Eva Green. Vanessa is a psychically gifted woman drawn to the dark side despite her essentially spiritual nature. Beset by guilt for betraying a friend of her youth, she suffers greatly—from demonic possession, madness, what passes for psychiatric care in Victorian England, physical and psychic assault by demons and witches, and seduction by a charming cultured Dracula—on the path to her fate. Good writing and great acting transform what could have been a jumbled melodrama into something elevated.

Vanessa has a cadre of loyal friends and supporters:

  • The American sharpshooter, Ethan (our werewolf, played poignantly by Josh Hartnett) whom she recruits from a touring wild west show, who comes to love her and ultimately saves her soul
  • Sir Malcolm Murray (Timoth Dalton) who takes her into his heart and household after his daughter disappears
  • Sembene (Danny Sapani), a formidable warrior, Sir Malcolm’s loyal friend and servant
  • Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway)
  • Frankenstein’s Creature, aka John Clare (heartbreakingly portrayed by Rory Kinnear)
  • Dr Seward/Joan Clayton (both played by Patty Lupone), two mentors, witch and psychiatrist, who aid Vanessa at critical junctures on her journey

It would take detailed notation and organization while studying all episodes to do justice to all the characters and interwoven storylines. I’ve only watched the full series twice and was too rapt to make notes. It’s worthy of a book—idea noted.

My strong recommendation is to watch this series, the best horror fantasy I have ever seen on any screen, large or small.

Alien & Aliens

From Horror to Action Adventure

The story told in the Alien films, at least the first two—Alien and Aliens—is a fantastic tale that combines elements of multiple genres—Sci-Fi being the common denominator. I call the tale (and both films) fantastic because the story is imaginative original and outstanding science fiction, with bizarre and exotic elements we’d never seen before in Sci-Fi movies. Both films, one forty years old and the other thirty-five still entertain without feeling dated.

One point I find interesting—which prompted me to write this post—is that, unlike virtually all the other great science fiction sagas, this one begins life as a horror movie. Then, unlike virtually all horror movies, the sequel is something else–an action adventure.

ALIEN (1979)

The original is a great science-fiction film, with artfully designed space ships (human and alien) and believably futuristic high tech (albeit circa 1978)—including an android that passes for human. Did I mention the alien? Its prime antagonist—the creature designed by H.R. Giger—is arguably the most imaginatively and artfully designed and executed—and scary—alien ever brought to the screen, before or since.

That said—Sci-Fi takes a backseat to Horror as the dominant genre. The setting and devices are science fiction, but the story is a tale of progressive unrelenting horror. By thirty minutes in—at the end of Act 1—you know—you can feel—you are watching a horror movie.

It is edge-of-your-seat scary and suspenseful, set in a labyrinthine factory ship full of ducts, pipes, chain hoists, and venting steam valves. Most of it is claustrophobic with short sight lines, myriad openings on every surface, and blind corners from which something terrible might be—and often is—waiting to pounce.

Shocks and surprises abound—from the first eruption of a creature from an alien “seedpod” to clasp the first victim’s face—to its subsequent eruption from that victim’s torso at the dinner table. Between that shock and its final surprise appearance in the hero’s escape pod, the creature stalks its victims through one surprise attack after another.

It begins life as a little thing—scary but not awesomely so. It grows and morphs every time we see it, becoming ever larger (with each victim consumed) and ever more horrifying—with features like acidic blood that burns through steel, a talon-tipped tail, and telescoping fangs that extrude from its maw. As if one monster wasn’t enough, we are treated to the shocking surprise of a second—the ship’s science officer turns out to be an artificial being—with a surprising secret agenda—in which the human crew is expendable.

Every character but one—discounting Jones, the cat—meets a grisly disgusting end that fills the audience with revulsion. Did I mention the monster’s mid-story eruption from inside a living victim’s abdomen? Gross! That scene has become a movie archetype and people still talk about it forty years after the film’s release.

The sole surviving character emerges—over the course of the story—as one of the great Sci-Fi heroes in cinema and—surprise—that hero is a woman. Today we have heroic female characters all over screens big and small. In 1979—Ripley was an imaginative innovative surprise arguably breaking barriers and paving the way for characters like Jyn Erso (in Rogue One) and Rey (in Star Wars episodes 6-9).

ALIEN was a smash hit that made a ton of money and established Ridley Scott as an A-list director.

It was not surprising that there would be a sequel. It wasn’t even that surprising that Ridley Scott didn’t get to direct it—that happens all the time. What was surprising is that the sequel to a Horror Sci-Fi hit movie was not a Horror Sci-Fi movie.

ALIENS (1986) transformed archetypal Horror Sci-Fi into archetypal Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi.

Arguably, that has two likely explanations—STAR WARS (1977)—and James Cameron— the sequel’s writer and director.

ALIEN was a box office hit but STAR WARS was a box office phenomenon that grossed half a billion dollars in its release year. We are still seeing the effects of that phenomenon in movies and TV, so it would be naïve to think it didn’t figure into the transformation of alien from Horror to Action Adventure. STAR WARS was an Action Adventure Fantasy.

James Cameron had his breakout hit with THE TERMINATOR—an Action Sci-Fi movie.

Connect the dots.

ALIENS (1986)

Like most James Cameron films, this is a high-tech, heavy metal, hardware film—a city in space, a spaceship designed to look like a weapon, armored troop transports—flying and wheeled—a colony built around a fusion-powered plant that creates an atmosphere for a lifeless planet. The marines who accompany Ripley are armored and armed to the teeth with ballistic weapons, grenade launchers, and flamethrowers. 

Images and terrific sound-design conjure a wealth of believable omnipresent technology—so much that, unlike the prequel, Sci-Fi elements almost overwhelm the primary genres—Action and Adventure.

Horror is largely absent. Yes, there are alien monsters—a slew of them—hence the plural title. Yes, there are some scary and suspenseful scenes and characters do meet grisly ends—but without the visceral impact of the first movie.

This is an action adventure tale. Ripley’s story is disbelieved until all communication is lost with the small colony established—during her half-century of castaway hibernation—on the planet where her crew first found the alien (and vice versa). Reluctant Ripley is persuaded to accompany a platoon of space marines on a search and rescue mission. Setting up and launching that adventure takes up the first half of the film.

The second half is one action set piece after another. The comfort taken by the audience from Ripley’s rugged warrior companions quickly dissipates. The platoon is decimated in its first contact with the aliens. Their ground vehicle is disabled and their transport back to space is destroyed. Worse, that initial battle damaged the fusion reactor, which is now on a countdown to detonate and destroy the colony. Surrounded and outnumbered, they must find a way off planet before it blows.

Desperation demands a hero, as does an adventure. Once again, Ripley reluctantly steps into that role. Lacking real leadership, the surviving marines look to her for direction as she devises a plan and puts it into motion.

A hero must do more than lead. Ripley takes up arms and joins the battle for survival. Having bonded with the colony’s sole survivor—“Newt”—a little girl who perfectly personifies Ripley’s “inner child”—Ripley goes to great lengths to keep her promise never to abandon Newt. Keeping that promise—and leading the escape of her steadily dwindling troop—sends Ripley beyond harm’s way—into the nest of a literal “Mother of Dragons”. That sequence is one of the most brilliantly executed action set pieces I’ve seen in science fiction and estalishes Ripley’s place in the movie-hero pantheon.

Like any good sequel, ALIENS includes homage “reprise” elements from ALIEN that also inject new twists—

  • The crew emerging from hibernation—only this time they’re marines not civilian contractors
  • Another android science officer—only this time it’s revealed up front and the surprise comes from his good-guy heroics
  • A “bad apple” in the crew—only this time he’s human (more or less)—a corporate opportunist who nearly incubates Ripley and Newt as a way to smuggle aliens back to the company’s “weapons division”
  • A countdown clock to doom—only this time it’s not a space ship, it’s an entire colony set to blow
  • Ripley’s heroic action sequence—only this time she’s not escaping, she’s risking her life to save a child

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the penultimate reprise comes when the “Mother” alien, stows away on the shuttle and Ripley must blow her out an airlock. This time however, rather than Ripley fearfully pushing some buttons, she “armors up”—augmented in mechanical robot garb—to do battle.

The final reprise is the final scene, as Ripley settles in for another round of hibernation—this time accompanied by her most loyal followers—a wounded marine and a wrecked android, and one little girl, who has come to call her, “Mommy”.

Ripley’s character—and her hero’s journey—is the spine that unites these two very different genre movies into a fantastic tale.

The Fantastic Tale of Frankenstein (1931)

“It’s alive!”

When I first decided to write about this classic, my thought was to call the piece, The Horror of Frankenstein. Then I remembered that title was used in a 1970 retelling of the story. That isn’t why I changed the title. I changed it because my perception of the movie changed as I watched it again—with a writer and filmmaker’s eye.

Growing up with the film and the story, I always thought of it as a horror—or “monster”—movie. Most of the tale’s many film adaptations—like the aforementioned Horror of Frankenstein—were indeed horror movies with all the tropes—scares, shocks, and disgust. Later, after reading Mary Shelly’s novel—I came to regard it as a prototype “mad scientist” Sci-Fi film, with enough horror to qualify as “Sci-Fi Horror.”

When I screened it again for this essay, I was struck by how little horror there is in the original film story. Sure, it features midnight scenes in a cemetery and beneath an occupied gallows, stolen brains, the creation of a fearsome monster, and a murdered child, but none of it that scary, shocking, or disgusting. I turned to IMDb, my go-to reference to see it’s “official” genre designation, and found it tagged as a “Drama, Horror, Romance.” That gave me pause and a new perspective.

It is indeed classic drama—a man explicitly and maniacally plays God and is nearly destroyed by his own hubris. It’s also a tragic drama about his Creature, abandoned by its feckless creator to wander from mishap to mishap until the creator returns with a mob to destroy it.

It’s also a romance—albeit unsatisfying—a man abandons his true love out of insane ambition and returns to her, broken and humbled. Complications ensue—his vengeful Creature assaults his fiancé—before a hopeful ending and a toast, “Here’s to a son to the House of Frankenstein.”

Between the drama and the romance, there is just enough horror to transform a dramatic romance into a dramatic horror romance.

As drama, the film has issues, the first being its protagonist. It sets up Henry Frankenstein, as a brilliant narcissist, a would-be “modern Prometheus”—the very subtitle of Mary Shelley’s novel. “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” His character peaks in the film’s 1st Turn—the archetypal creation scene in the mad scientist’s laboratory— “It’s alive!”

After that, Henry goes limp, degenerating into a meek, passive “daddy’s boy” and simpering romantic. Sure, he seeks revenge when the Creature attacks his fiancé, but only in the company of a mob, and then all he accomplishes is wandering off to fall into the Creature’s clutches. Henry’s no hero.

The Creature is a far better character—a tragic monstrous anti-hero. It is born in a blaze of lightning in the dark of night, then locked in the dark and tormented with blazing torches. It slays its tormentor and escapes to seek revenge on its creator. Most audiences come away feeling more sympathy for the Creature than for its creator—notwithstanding the death of a little girl—the Creature only wanted to see her float like the flowers. Say the name and what image comes immediately to mind? Not Henry! The Creature is the most—the only—empathetic character. We share in its terror at its horrible end. That’s probably why the name—Frankenstein—became attached to the “monster” almost immediately in common usage.

The real problem with the film as drama is that the Hollywood adaptation removed the novel’s tragic core—the death of both Henry’s little brother and his fiancé at the creature’s hand and Henry’s ultimate death in the far North on his epic and unsuccessful pursuit of his Creature. Remove tragedy from a tragic drama and you end with mere melodrama. Remove tragedy from the arc of a tragic hero and you end up with a whining lover boy—Henry, born again homeboy, recuperating in a paradisiacal garden, feted at his wedding—Young Frankenstein indeed.

You can, if so inclined, project some psychological or mythic tropes onto the drama. You could describe it in terms of Henry investing all his mania in his Creature, leaving him effectively denatured and the Creature free to act out the man’s darkest impulses—a child killer who attacks Henry’s fiancé. That would make the story similar to Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde.

As romance, the film is as limp as Henry. There’s never a doubt that his fiancé will marry him. It’s boy abandons girl, returns to girl and (after the mob dispatches the Creature) marries girl. Not much suspense emotion or drama (or anything else save a gorgeous wedding gown) in this romance.

Frankenstein (1931) is unsatisfactory as drama and romance and not horrific enough, especially by contemporary standards, to stand out as a horror film.

Why then call it a fantastic tale?

Why keep returning to it as a classic film, worthy of repeated screening, analysis and study?

Sometimes the synergy of less than brilliant parts results in a brilliant whole.

What elements make Frankenstein brilliant and fantastic?

It’s incredibly imaginative and fanciful, especially in its visual elements. It’s monochromatic art design and cinematography range from chiaroscuro nighttime exteriors that look like animated impressionist art, to a now-iconic mad-science laboratory, to softly lit romantic but realistic garden bower and sitting-room interiors. The visual contrasts highlight and heighten dramatic suspense.

The Creature’s rendering—in makeup, lighting, and camera angles—is so imaginative, so striking that it remains iconic after ninety years. It created a horror film archetype—the “walking dead” if you will—that still animates horror movies and TV series.

It’s a bizarre story— something we are not likely to encounter in real life and—in 1931—something most moviegoers had never seen even on the screen.

It’s settings and the Creature itself are exotic and unfamiliar—or were in 1931—nighttime cemeteries, a mad scientist’s laboratory full of sparking arcing electrical devices, even a charming—pre-Third Reich—Bavarian village.

You may argue that it’s hopelessly dated, archaic, primitive—clichéd. You can say that about much classic literature and film. The clichés you may cite are now clichés because they were so successfully first realized in the classic work. As my alter-ego DF Tims argues in a recent post, “Everything is a process,”—including a film—and “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can understand any process in isolation” —“Context is king.” When considering a classic work, regard it in its original cultural context and evaluate it using timeless criteria.

One final criterion of a fantastic tale—it’s extraordinary. It stood out in 1931 and continues to do stand out in both popular culture and in my personal esteem.

The ultimate achievement and effect of this film is indeed fantastic.

 “It’s alive!”

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How Should Horror Feel?

Image by Catharina77 from Pixabay 

What do you expect from any horror story? Scares for sure—shocks and surprises too, I’d bet. How about at least a touch of the disgusting? A scary shocking, maybe disgusting unnatural monster would probably belong in a horror story.

Let’s note these are all feelings­—primal emotions. Horror is all about your body feeling afraid, shocked, and or disgusted. A horror story may have intellectual or cultural aspirations but …

If you don’t feel it, it’s not horror.

Does a horror story need to make the audience feel all three of these emotions?

Some people use “horror” and “scary” interchangeably—especially to characterize movies.

Is every scary story a horror story? No. Fear is used to some degree in most types of story. Indiana Jones was afraid of the snakes beneath that pyramid but Raiders of the Lost Ark was not a horror story.

Is every horror story a scary story? I would wager that most of them are and maybe need to be—can’t think of any notable exceptions . . . Fear seems to be an obvious necessity for horror.

Some level of shock—unexpected and upsetting twists and turns—is an element in most kinds of story. We feel a pleasant tingle of discomfort mingled with pleasure when something upsetting or surprising happens in a story.

Is every horror story shocking? Yes. We expect the upsets and surprises to be intense in a horror story. That’s part of the suspense designed to keep us hooked.  

So, is two out of three enough? Is any scary and shocking story without anything disgusting about it a horror story? No, it’s probably some kind of thriller.

So, when does a thriller become a horror story?

You might be one who says, “I like horror but not the violent disgusting bits.”

I would argue that disgust—in the sense of revulsion or offense—is necessary for the full sense of horror to emerge in a horror audience. It needn’t be physical violence or mayhem. It might be anything that makes us feel revulsion—physical or even moral. The disgusting element may not even actually occur in the story. A prediction, omen, or premonition of what could happen might evoke anticipatory disgust in our imagination without ever actually happening in the story. Some horror fans would call that “subtle.” Others would call it “unsatisfying.” It may be only prefigured and the disgust provoked may be subliminal.

A psychoanalyst or an MRI might suggest that we aren’t always consciously aware of a feeling—especially an unpleasant one like disgust.

In much popular horror, the disgust is as palpably unmistakable as the blood and entrails portrayed in the story. The audience knows that it feels disgusted and may or may not enjoy the sensation. In other horror stories—think HP Lovecraft or Edgar Allen Poe—it might be mostly sub-textual— designed to provoke very subtle disgust. We may feel it almost subliminally without much notice—but we do feel it.

It seems to me that all three aspects of horror—fear, shock, and disgust—however subliminal—must be present in a horror tale.

Can a story evoke all of these feelings without being a horror story? Sure. Consider The Silence of the Lambs. It’s scary, full of shock and surprise, and truly disgusting in parts—and it’s genre is “crime drama thriller.”

What’s the missing element? I think it’s a sense of the uncanny or fantastic, something that “gives us the creeps.”A horror story must have at least one of the qualities I’ve described in another post that characterize a fantastic tale. The story must be strange—bizarre—something we are unlikely to experience in real life. The story’s setting and or its antagonist—human or monster—must be exotic—not somewhere or something from the here and now. The audience needs to feel that they are out of their natural element—they’ve crossed over into another reality where scary, shocking, and disgusting things are likely—nay assured—to happen.

Remember that “scary shocking, maybe disgusting unnatural monster” I mentioned at the top? It’s the “unnatural monster”—an element of the fantastic—that assures we’re in a horror story and not “just” a thriller.

What do you think? Have I left out some essential ingredient? Leave a comment and tell me.

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WHAT MAKES A TALE FANTASTIC?

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

The name of this blog is “Eye on Fantastic Tales. Those are the stories I love most, that I want to write and write about and which I hope you are interested in exploring and celebrating here with me.

What do I mean by fantastic tales? Precise definition is always elusive and these qualifications are personal but . . .

When I say tale, I mean a short story, novel, play, film, or TV series—a fictional story however told.

What do I mean by fantastic? That’s more complicated and needs some unpacking.

The dictionary describes “fantastic” as “the imaginative and fanciful, the extraordinary, bizarre, or exotic.” For me, a fantastic tale must have some of or all these qualities. Let’s explore each, and allow me to put my own spin on their dictionary definitions.

When I say a tale is imaginative, I mean it shows creativity and invention. It tells me a story I’ve not read, seen, or heard before—or it retells a familiar tale in a way that lets me experience it as new. An imaginative tale expands my own imagination. In my schema, fantastic tales must at least be imaginative—I can’t think of one that isn’t. Imaginative is the essential quality of fantastic. However, I’ve known many imaginative tales that I wouldn’t call fantastic. Imaginative is necessary and not enough for me.

When I call a tale “extraordinary” I mean it stands out in my experience and esteem and maybe—but not necessarily in our culture’s esteem. (Some of my favorite tales are not popular.) I wouldn’t call many or even most extraordinary tales “fantastic”—but all my choices for fantastic tale are extraordinary—at least for me. So let’s add extraordinary to imaginative as my essential qualities of a fantastic tale. Are those two sufficient?

Let’s consider the others.

When I say a tale is fanciful, I mean it’s imaginative on steroids—“overly imaginative and unrealistic” or “existing only in the imagination or fancy” says my dictionary . . . A fanciful tale is imaginative and then some—it’s “far out.” There are many fanciful tales that I wouldn’t call fantastic and not all my designated fantastic tales are fanciful—but many are.

When I call a tale “bizarre”—“strange or unusual”—I’m saying that the story would be very unlikely to occur in  “real life”. There are many bizarre tales that I wouldn’t call fantastic and not all my designated fantastic tales are bizarre—but many are.

When I say a tale is “exotic”—“foreign” “alien”—I’m saying this tale is set somewhere and or some-when other than here and now—or else its about someone or some thing not native to here and now—a stranger in our midst. There are many exotic tales that I wouldn’t call fantastic and not all my designated fantastic tales are exotic —but many are.

So, is this a long way of saying I’ll be writing about SF (speculative fiction) genre tales—Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror? Yes, but . . . Virtually all SF tales are bizarre and many—maybe most—are fanciful and exotic. They are certainly not all imaginative and outstanding—ergo, they’re not all fantastic (at least in my schema).

You will find me writing about fantastic tales from other genres—dramas, or comedies, and certainly many that are action adventures. They will all be imaginative, at least personally outstanding, and have at least one other fantastic quality.

So here are my “rules” for this blog—at least until I break them.

First, a fantastic tale must be imaginative and outstanding.

Second, a fantastic tale must be one or a combination of fanciful, bizarre, or exotic.

That’s my concept of what makes a tale fantastic, which I will try to heed and cite as I write about them.

What’s your concept of fantastic? Leave a comment and join the dialog.