Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Answered Prayers

Seneca advised: "Do not ask for what you will wish you had not got." Common in most folk literatures (as in the locus classicus, the Grimm Brothers' "The Three Wishes"), the motif of the answered prayer responds to a sense of the enormous dangerousness (see Conditions; Prohibitions; Quibbles) of making a Wish under conditions which seem to compel obedience, of attempting to trick the cosmos and the Gods into granting a desired outcome. The AP may be defined as a prayer which, when answered literally, brings unsought but terrible consequences; and it is in this sense that Charles Dickens's The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain (1848) can be seen as an effective early use of the AP as a literary device: the haunted man agrees with his Doppelgänger to have all memory of "sorrow, wrong, and trouble" expunged from his mind; and finds that he has transformed himself into a hollow man, an artificial creature divested of that which made him human.

The most famous AP story is almost certainly "The Monkey's Paw" (1902) by W W Jacobs (1863-1943). The eponymous Talisman has been cursed by an Indian fakir who "wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow". It will grant Three Wishes. The first brings an old couple £200 – which turns out to be compensation for the death of their son. The couple then wish for his return. At the last moment, their third wish protects them from the horror that scrabbles at the door. In Graham Masterton's "The Taking of Mr Bill" (1993), a Gaslight-Romance version of this tale, a horrific Peter Pan figure kills the Souls of young boys; the mother of one dead lad calls him back, though without his used soul. In Pet Sematary (1983) by Stephen King, filmed as Pet Sematary (1989), the bereaved can bury their dead in an ancient cursed ground and know that so doing guarantees physical return of the loved ones – but with souls that are murderously different.

Answered Prayers (1987), a fragmentary nonfantasy novel by Truman Capote (1924-1984), examines people whom success has tricked; as does Into the Woods (1987) (see Into the Woods) by Stephen Sondheim (1930-    ). When Pierce Moffatt, in John Crowley's Aegypt (1987), elaborately considers how to couch in safe terms the three wishes he longs to have, he is attempting in his imagination to avoid an AP. Jonathan Carroll, in his sequence starting with Bones of the Moon (1987 UK), has constructed a series of AP meditations on the costs of success in life, in art, in negotiations with Fate. Stephen King, in Needful Things (1991), combines the motif with that of the Little Shop to demonstrate that the urge to get what one wants most is one that easily becomes damnable. [JC]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.