Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

There is a common reading of US literature which sees it as permeated by the sense that the present is already too late, that the Wilderness is past, that to perceive a Frontier (>>> American Gothic) is to find it dust, that Eden cannot be recaptured, that people are never born soon enough to live their true lives. The Quest for a truly virgin frontier, which is also a quest for the ideal City, is by this reading a quest whose true bent is return. US literature, if read along these lines, sounds very much like any definition of Fantasy that treats the form as being haunted by precedents.

The usefulness of "belatedness" as a term of practical analysis is minor unless it is restricted to particular applications. It seems best to restrict the term to that cultural complex of disappointments and loss which is intrinsic to US literature – whether fantasy or otherwise.

Early US literature is characteristically peopled by protagonists who are attempting to recapture what has irretrievably gone. Along with Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle and most of the regret-drenched creations of Edgar Allan Poe, the eponymous Accursed Wanderer of William Austin's Peter Rugg, the Missing Man (1824 New England Galaxy; 1882 chap), one of the central early US fantasy texts, is constantly encountered trying to reach the City to which he longs to return but can never approach, for the faster he rides the more distant it seems. US texts seemingly influenced by this tale's haunting fixedness include Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" (1853) and "The Lightning-Rod Man" (1856). More generally, the Flying Dutchman was peculiarly suited to the 19th-century US imagination; when he does triumph, his victory tends to be as fatal as Captain Ahab's (in Melville's Moby-Dick [1851]), and it has become a cliché that a grandiose Ahab-like futility underlies the Quest structure of much US literature. Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) owes some of its exhilarating effect to the fact that, when Huck decides to "light out for the Territory ahead of the rest . . .", he does so on the last page: only later will he become a typical adult American, according to the lines laid down by US writers in their most classic works. For belatedness is not only a relationship to the past: it is an experience of inherent disappointment.

That US fantasy can be seen as a set of strategies to counter disappointedness is an obvious – though extreme – reading of a complex set of texts; but certain characteristic modes of contemporary US fantasy – particularly Dark Fantasy – clearly represent a range of confrontations with the longing to return. Many of the novels of Stephen King (and his imitators) are permeated by a feeling that all the Horrors are occurring in an environment – usually a small town – that should have been still like it was before, in which case the horrors might not have happened. Stories like "The Search" (1981), It (1986), The Tommyknockers (1987) and Needful Things (1991) convey a frozen belatedness. Charles L Grant's Oxrun Station sequence evinces a similar effect, as do some of Gene Wolfe's confessional tales – Peace (1975) in particular. Most tales of Thinning are necessarily also tales of belatedness, as in the movie Dragonslayer (1981), whose Sorcerer's Apprentice hero is too late in his inheritance of his master's Magic because the world is now turning towards a new form of "magic", Christianity. (Dying-Earth stories are of course explicitly nostalgic about the deep past, as are many Planetary Romances, but it would be difficult to argue that they represent in any engaged sense a wrestling with the sensation of having just missed the boat.) In all this it should not be ignored that, underlying the disappointedness that fuels so much US fantasy (here we ignore Genre Fantasy), there is also a sense that recuperation may be possible; and that, even if failure is inevitable, the search for meaning is more than a gesture.

Perhaps the most original strategy devised by US writers to cope with belatedness can be found in the Gnostic Fantasies of writers like John Crowley, whose continuing Aegypt sequence complexly conflates its protagonist's search for a true Story, one that will make sense of his life, with a Gnostic explanatory structure by virtue of which he may come to understand that the contemporary world is a shadow of the real world (> Reality), and that the real world is not irretrievably lost (i.e., inherently belated) but simply has not yet been told. [JC]

see also: Knight of the Doleful Countenance; Liminal Beings; Obsessed Seeker; Recursive Fantasy; Revenants; Twice-Told; Wainscots.

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.