Canadian fantasy divides into two quite disparate strands, English and French. Canada's first fantastic tales were recited in any of the 13 native languages, including Inuktitut (spoken by the Inuit or Eskimo) and Algonkian (the most widely spoken Native American language); only later were the traditional stories told and written in French or English, the country's official languages. These native tales assumed the presence of Tricksters, Shapeshifters, culture Heroes, Shamans, Witches, oracular shaking tents, malevolent windigos (see Wendigo), benevolent thunderbirds, Dwarfs, Giants and Transformations.
1. English In the 16th-19th centuries explorers, colonists and settlers from France, the UK and other countries established notable regional traditions of storytelling, often fantastic in nature, including the "habitant" legends of Québec (which influenced the province's characteristic contes), the supernatural folklore of the Ottawa Valley, the Tall Tales characteristic of the Prairies and the West, and fancies and fantasies concerning influences that emanated from the North Pole and North Magnetic Pole. Since Confederation (1867) four factors have bedevilled Canada's imaginative writers: the geographical size of the country, with its high travel costs; the weakness of the local book- and magazine-publishing industry; the ready availability of imported publications from the UK and USA; and an otherwise preoccupied reading public. In consequence many writers have emigrated, sought publication abroad or set their fiction elsewhere.
The quintessential Canadian contribution to world literature is the animal story. The drama of a wild animal in a natural setting, written to satisfy the conflicting demands of naturalist and litterateur, owes its existence to Sir Charles G D Roberts (1860-1943) and its popularity to Ernest Thompson Seton (1886-1946). Roberts wrote the earliest realistic story of this type: "Do Seek Their Meat from God" (Harpers Monthly 1892; in Earth's Enigmas coll 1896). But the vogue for the genre was sparked by the success of Wild Animals I Have Known (coll 1898), which Seton wrote and illustrated. In these stories the animals do not talk (see Talking Animals), although quite often human qualities other than speech are ascribed to them – rudimentary reasoning, sympathetic feelings and so on.
The Canadian woods are a dramatic backdrop for six of the compelling tales of Algernon Blackwood, who lived for two formative years in Toronto and Muskoka. In stories like "A Haunted Island" (in The Empty House coll 1906) and "The Wendigo" (in The Lost Valley coll 1910) the fauna and flora of the backwoods are seen as effectively alien – the counter-convention of the animal story.
The first Canadian Anthology of Horror was Not to Be Taken at Night (anth 1981) ed John Robert Colombo and Michael Richardson (1946- ). It was followed by 13 Canadian Ghost Stories (anth 1988) ed Ted Stone (1947- ) and Shivers: An Anthology of Canadian Ghost Stories (anth 1989) ed Greg Ioannou (1953- ) and Lynne Missen. The prolific anthologist Alberto Manguel compiled The Oxford Book of Canadian Ghost Stories (anth 1990), which offers 26 Ghost Stories that range from French-Canadian legends through Anglo-Canadian stories to Postmodern fictions in which the Ghosts are more apparent by their absence than their presence. Don Hutchison is the editor of the anthology series that begins with Northern Frights (anth 1992) and continues with Northern Frights 2 (anth 1994).
Canadian writers' contributions to pulp Magazines have yet to be assessed, but among the most enthusiastic contributors were H Bedford-Jones and Thomas P Kelley (1905-1982), both natives of Ontario. Tay John (1939) by Howard O'Hagan (1902-1982) is the earliest Canadian novel of stature that compellingly combines elements of fantasy and realism; it relates the miraculous birth, life and death of a modern Hero in terms of the mindset of the Tsimshian Indians of the West Coast. O'Hagan's writing is seen as "mythopoeic" (a word associated with the criticism of Northrop Frye); so also is the writing of Gwendolyn MacEwen (1941-1987). The poetry in The Armies of the Moon (coll 1972) and the fables in Noman (coll 1972), to name but two titles, attest to MacEwen's high Celtic imagination, mesmerizing lyricism and fascination with Magic.
Fantastic elements appear in the fiction of many Canadian mainstream writers: Margaret Atwood (1939- ), Robertson Davies, Timothy Findley, Pauline Gedge, Thomas King (1943- ), Brian Moore, Jane Urquhart (1949- ) and others; for instance, Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984) is a vigorous, outlandish, inventive reworking of the story of Noah. Without question the most familiar fantasy written by a Canadian is W P Kinsella's Shoeless Joe (1982), a Baseball novel filmed as Field of Dreams (1989).
The highpoint of Canadian High Fantasy is The Fionavar Tapestry (1984-1986) by Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay's prose is by turns eloquent, magical, imaginative, intelligent and romantic. In the trilogy, five University of Toronto students "cross" to the "first world", Fionavar, where they join in an epic struggle against radical Evil.
In Toronto in the 1980s an Affinity Group of fantasy/adventure/sf/horror writers dubbed themselves the Bunch of Seven. The group grew to include nine members: Tanya Huff, Marnie Hughes, Louise Hypher, Shirley Meier (1960- ), Terri Neal, Fiona Pattan, S M Stirling (1954- ), Mike Wallis and Karen Wehrstein (1961- ). Three members – Stirling, Meier and Wehrstein – have collaborated on Shared Worlds, notably the Fifth Millennium series. Huff has written with verve about Toronto Vampires in Blood Price (1991), Blood Trail (1992) and Blood Lines (1993).
In Ottawa, also in the 1980s, another affinity group formed around the House of Speculative Fiction bookstore. The writers include Gordon Derevanchuk, Galad Elflandsson (1951- ), Charles de Lint, Charles R Saunders and bibliographer and anthologist John Bell (1952- ). The Ottawa group hosted the 10th World Fantasy Convention in October 1984. The group's most prolific member is de Lint; some of his novels are Ottawa-set Urban Fantasies while others follow the adventures of the Minstrel Cerin Songweaver. Moonheart: A Romance (1984) combines Celtic motifs and Native American worlds, both real and imaginary.
Other notable Canadian works include: Wayland Drew's The Wabeno Feast (1973), Ruth Nichols's Song of the Pearl (1976), Garfield Reeves-Stevens's Bloodshift (1981), A Hidden Place (1986) and others by Robert Charles Wilson (1953- ), Terence M Green's The Woman Who Is the Midnight Wind (1987), Dave Duncan's A Rose Red City (1987), Fang, the Gnome (1988) in the Greataway sequence by Michael G Coney (1932-2005), Tim Wynne-Jones's Fastyngange (1988), Antony Swithin's Princes of Sandastre (1990), Ven Begamudré's A Planet of Eccentrics (1990), Sean Russell's The Initiate Brother (1991), William Gough's Chips and Gravey (1991), Michelle Sagara's Into the Dark Lands (1991) and Sean Stewart's Nobody's Son (1993).
The Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association sponsors the Aurora Award, a "people's choice" award presented at the annual national convention. If Canadian sf came into its own in the 1980s and early 1990s, it seems that the 1990s and early 2000s are earmarked for the country's fantasy writers. [JRC]
further reading: Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy (1992) by David Ketterer.
2. French French-language fantasy in Canada is rooted in the old oral tradition of the settlers, in the literary tradition of France itself, and in similar currents of world literature. As part and parcel of the oral tradition, many cautionary tales incorporated, in a Canadian context, the supernatural figures of the Catholic religion – the Devil especially, but also damned Souls metamorphosing into Werewolves or coming back as Ghosts – as well as references to the mysterious powers of Native American Shamans. Such motifs are used in the first novel of French-Canadian letters, L'Influence d'un livre (1837; trans as The Influence of a Book 1993) by Philippe Aubert de Gaspé Jr. Other 19th-century writers like Honoré Beaugrand, Guillaume Lévesque and Paul Stevens mined the same tradition, though a growing scepticism becomes evident in the later stories of authors like Pamphile Lemay and especially Louis Fréchette, whose ostensibly fantastical tales often subvert the traditional beliefs by remaking them into stories of false Perception.
In the first half of the 20th century another element of the oral tradition, reflecting the legacy of European Fairytale, was systematically unearthed by ethnographers such as Marius Barbeau. One of the most common Heroes is a typical Jack, who often carries the day through a mixture of guile, luck and virtue rewarded by higher powers. Called Tit-Jean, or "Little John", his name connects him to St John the Baptist, patron saint of French-Canadians, often represented in the Québec iconography of the early 20th century as a young boy carrying a sheep.
The recognition won by Magic Realism in world literature played a role in the resurgence of French-language fantastical literature in Canada after 1960. Similarly, the tremendous popularity in English-speaking countries of Genre Fantasy and Horror clearly sparked the writing of works in the same tradition. Finally, the various cults of the New Age have generated literary echoes on the margins of fantasy proper.
In French-speaking Canada, the transition from traditional to modern fantasy may be dated to Yves Thériault's Contes pour un homme seul ["Tales for a Man Alone"] (1944). His rural tales are crafted sparingly, proceeding directly to a character's inexplicable doom. His daughter, Marie José Thériault, on the other hand, wrote consciously archaic stories, as in La Cérémonie (coll 1978; trans as The Ceremony 1984), all distinguished by a lush prose style.
The fantastical strain has been illustrated by intelligent collections like Claude Mathieu's La Mort Exquise ["Death Dreadful"] (coll 1965) and Jacques Brossard's Le Métamorfaux ["The Metamorfalsis"] (coll 1974), both wonderfully Borgesian in places, and in such poignant collections as Roch Carriers's Jolis Deuils ["Beautiful Bereavements"] (coll 1964) and Claudette Charbonneau-Tissot's Contes pour hydrocéphales adultes ["Tales for Adult Hydrocephalics"] (coll 1974). It has also been marked by novels by Jacques Ferron such as La Charrette (1968; trans as The Cart 1980) and L'Amélanchier (1972; trans as The Juneberry Tree 1975), which are even more reminiscent of South American magical realism. Other notable books include André Carpentier's L'Aigle volera a travers le soleil ["The Eagle will Fly through the Sun"] (1978), Anne Hébert's novel of Parisian Vampires Héloïse (1980 France; trans as Héloïse 1982) and Négovan Rajic's intriguing allegory of political oppression, Les Hommes-taupes (1978; trans as The Mole Men 1980).
Daniel Sernine probably boasts the most sustained project of Québec fantasy. His deliberately nostalgic Grandverger – Légendes du vieux manoir ["Tales from the Old Manor House"] (coll 1979), Le Trésor du "Scorpion" (1980; trans as The "Scorpion" Treasure 1990), L'Épée Arhapal (1981; trans as The Sword Arhapal 1990) and Le Cercle Violet ["The Purple Circle"] (1984) – conflates Gothic Fantasy, archetypal Québec settings and the history of Canada to create a true Québec Gothic. In recent times, the most famous example of Québec Gothic is probably found in Anne Hébert's Les Enfants du Sabbat (1975 Paris; trans as Children of the Black Sabbath 1977). The latest Sernine novel, Manuscrit trouvé dans un secrétaire ["Manuscript Found in a Secretary Desk"] (1994), is a new variation on an intriguing motif in French-Canadian fantasy – the influence of a Book within the book. The theme emerges also in the short fiction of 20th-century authors like Michel Bélil, André Carpentier, Claude Mathieu and Marie José Thériault.
Genre Fantasy, by comparison, is hard to find. A dozen books, by a medley of authors including Sernine and Élisabeth Vonarburg (1947- ), may qualify as Heroic Fantasy; tellingly, all were published for a juvenile readership. No author has yet found genre fantasy appropriate for handling and developing major adult themes and stories. However, in supernatural Horror Joël Champetier has written La Mémoire du lac ["The Lake's Memory"] (1994), an efficient and suspenseful tale set in northern Québec. In a similar vein, Stanley Péan wrote a Haitian reworking of Edgar Allan Poe in Le tumulte de mon sang ["The Tumult of my Blood"] (1991).
A number of books inhabit the uneasy fringes between fantasy and speculative fiction. Esther Rochon (1948- ), best known for Coquillage (1986; trans as The Shell 1990), dwells in this water margin. While clearly closer to fantasy, Annick Perrot-Bishop, author of Les Maisons de cristal ["The Crystal-Houses"] (1990), may also belong here.
In French Canada short fiction is the natural home of fantasy, and many magazines, notably Solaris (ot Requiem 1974-current) and Imagine (1979), publish such stories. Merging easily with the mainstream of literature, the fantastical also surfaces in collection after collection. [JLT]