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Bulgarian-French structuralist literary critic Tzvetan Todorov originated the concept, characterizing the fantastic as the hesitation of characters and readers when presented with questions about reality.
The fantastic can be seen in works where the reader has a sense of confusion about whether a work presents what Todorov calls "the uncanny," wherein superficially supernatural phenomena turn out to have a rational explanation (such as in the Gothic works of Ann Radcliffe) or "the marvelous," where the supernatural is accepted as real. He also points out that the ending always drives the hesitation towards one of two decisions:
The fantastic requires the fulfillment of three conditions. First, the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural or supernatural explanation of the events described. Second, this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader's role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work -- in the case of naive reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character. Third, the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as "poetic" interpretations.
The Fantastic can also represent dreams and wakefulness where the character or reader hesitates as to what is reality or what is a dream. Again the Fantastic is found in this hesitation - once it is decided the Fantastic ends.
There is no truly typical "fantastic story", as the term generally encompasses both works of the horror and gothic genres. Two representative stories might be:
- Algernon Blackwood's story "The Willows", where two men traveling down the Danube River are beset by an eerie feeling of malice and several improbable setbacks in their trip; the question that pervades the story is whether they are falling prey to the wilderness and their own imaginations, or if there really is something horrific out to get them.
- Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Black Cat," where a murderer is haunted by a black cat; but is it revenge from beyond the grave, or just a cat?
There is no clear distinction between the fantastic and magic realism as neither privilege either realistic or supernatural elements. The former, in its hesitation between supernatural and realistic explanations of events, may task the reader with questioning the nature of reality and this may serve to distinguish the Fantastic from Magical Realism (in which magical elements are understood to constitute in part the reality of the protagonists and are not themselves questionable).
The fantastic is sometimes erroneously called the Grotesque or Supernatural fiction, because both the Grotesque and the Supernatural contain fantastic elements, yet they are not the same, as the fantastic is based on an ambiguity of those elements.
In literary works
- many of Edgar Allan Poe's short works
- Henry James, The Turn of the Screw — seen by Todorov as one of the few examples of pure Fantastic
- Nikolai Gogol's "The Nose"
- Mikhail Bulgakov
- Mircea Eliade
- Algernon Blackwood's works
- Sheridan Le Fanu's works in "In a Glass Darkly"
- Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast series
- E.T.A. Hoffmann's works, notably Der Sandmann, "The Golden Flower Pot", and "The Nutcracker and the King of Mice"
- Gérard de Nerval's "Aurelia"
- Guy de Maupassant's "The Horla"
- Ambrose Bierce's "The Death of Halpin Frayser"
- Todorov, Tzvetan, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. by Richard Howard (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University Press, 1973), p. 33
- Manguel, Alberto, "Blackwater: the book of Fantastic literature" Picador, London, 1984 introduction
- Todorov, Tzvetan, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. by Richard Howard (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University Press, 1973)
- Apter, T. E. Fantasy Literature: An Approach to Reality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982)
- Armitt, Lucy, Theorising the Fantastic (London: Arnold, 1996)
- Brooke-Rose, Christine A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially of the Fantastic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981)
- Capoferro, Riccardo, Empirical Wonder: Historicizing the Fantastic, 1660-1760 (Bern: Peter Lang, 2010)
- Cornwell, Neil, The Literary Fantastic: From Gothic to Postmodernism (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990)
- Jackson, Rosemary, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London, Methuen, 1981)
- Rabkin, Eric, The Fantastic in Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975)
- Sandner, David ed., Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004)
- Siebers, Tobin, The Romantic Fantastic (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984)
- Traill, Nancy, Possible Worlds of the Fantastic: The Rise of the Paranormal in Fiction (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996)