Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Posthumous Fantasy

As used over the past decade or so, this term has proved inadequate as a descriptive term; but a more fitting one seems difficult to find. Some critics use the term "afterlife fantasy" to designate any story whose protagonists are dead, but when they do so generally concentrate on the adventures of the protagonists in a Heaven of some sort. A PF is a tale which deals primarily with the Rite of Passage from death to a state of understanding. In the standard version of the PF the protagonist's Soul generally begins its journey – several examples of the form are set on ships and Trains – in a state of almost total ignorance, not usually even being aware that its mortal existence, within a human frame, has ended. The Landscape into which the soul moves may seem to be nothing more than his or her own native surroundings, but almost invariably a sense of haunted strangeness and Wrongness soon pervades, and within a very short period the landscape tends to take on the characteristics of a world or Labyrinth which must be deciphered, while at the same time it is beginning to echo and grey out; the chiaroscuros and bureaucratic absurdities often found in Urban Fantasies now frequently start to oppress the soul. But throughout there is a growing pressure of meaningfulness in every sight, every sign. Eventually, the soul begins to recognize that the world it is now inhabiting constitutes a kind of diorama or theatre whose central Story concerns the true meaning of the mortal life so recently departed. And, in due course, the soul begins to understand the Story; and the tale ends.

The PF is thus not really a fantasy at all but, because it posits a real world which has been departed and an Afterlife which is superior or subsequent to that real world, it is a type of Supernatural Fiction. Tales whose focus is upon a relatively autonomous afterlife – such as the Houseboat sequence by John Kendrick Bangs and afterlife epics by authors like E R Eddison and Philip José Farmer – are not PFs, in the terms of this narrow definition: they are fantasies whose Secondary-World settings are posthumous; the relationship between that world and the world departed is of virtually no importance in the narrative structure of such tales. By contrast, in the PF proper that relationship is central: everything pivots upon the protagonist's act of understanding, an act that may be couched in terms that attain the consistency of Allegory (in the sense intended by Northrop Frye, who defines a text as allegorical "when the events of a narrative obviously and continuously refer to another simultaneous structure of events or ideas ..."). The posthumous world, in this kind of story, is always something else: it is the map of a soul.

Dante's The Divine Comedy, not itself a PF, provided for future centuries much of the furniture of the mode. Before the 20th century, the form was uncommon; Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies: A Fairy-Tale for a Land-Baby (1863) is one of relatively few significant examples. The tale that most famously presents the sensation of the PF – though technically it is a tale of nonsupernatural Horror – is Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1891). (The latter part of Nikos Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ [1950; trans 1960] can be seen as a variant on this tale.) An earlier story which conveys some of the same effect is Pedro A de Alarcón's El amigo de la muerte (1852; trans as The Strange Friend of Tito Gil 1890 US). The protagonist of Conrad Aiken's most famous single tale, "Mr Arcularis" (1932) – later dramatized as Mr Arcularis: A Play (1957 chap) – hears his death in the throbbing of the engine of a great ocean liner; the text is ambiguous as to whether or not he has actually died, or is merely hearing death arrive. A similar ambiguity applies to the hero of William Golding's Pincher Martin (1956; vt The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin 1957 US), who clings tenaciously to a rock in the ocean after his ship has been sunk, refusing to die, rehearsing his life again and again.

PFs have been fairly common throughout the 20th century, though they have become less frequent in recent years. Texts which comprise or incorporate examples include: Margaret Allen Curtois's "The Land Without a Sun" (1907); H Rider Haggard's The Mahatma and the Hare (1911); Coningsby W Dawson's The Unknown Country (1915 chap); Leo Perutz's Zwischen Neun und Neun (1918; trans Lily Lore as From Nine to Nine 1926 US); Par Lagerkvist's Det Eviga Leendet (1920; trans as The Eternal Smile 1932 chap UK); Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine (1923); Rudyard Kipling's "On the Gate", in Debits and Credits (coll 1926); Alan Sullivan's The Days of Their Youth (1926); A M Burrage's "The Wrong Station" in Some Ghost Stories (coll 1927); Stephen King-Hall's Posterity (1927 chap), a play; Sutton Vane's Outward Bound (as play 1923; as novel 1929); Winifred Holtby's "The Man who Hated God" (1928); The Bands of Orion (1928) by Temple Lane; Wyndham Lewis's The Childermass (1928), whose sequels – Monstre Gai (1955) and Malign Fiesta (1955) – are more properly fantasies of the afterworld; Rebecca West's Harriet Hume: A London Fantasy (1929); As I Lay Dying (1930) by William Faulkner (1897-1962); Vladimir Nabokov's Soglyadatay (1930; trans Dimitri Nabokov as The Eye 1965 US); Lady Saltoun's After (1930); Fiddlers' Green (1931) by Albert Richard Wetjen (1900-1948); Michael Maurice's Marooned (1932); The Wedding Garment (1894) and The Invisible Police (1915 Christian Endeavor World as "The Great Crossing"; exp 1932) by Louis Pendleton (1861-1939); Claude Houghton's Julian Grant Loses His Way (1933); Hangman's Isle (1933) by Glyn Griffith; A Christmas Party (1934) by Paul Bloomfield (1898-?   ); Marjorie Livingston's The Future of Mr Purdue (1935); Naomi Mitchison's Beyond this Limit (1935 chap); Intra Muros, or Within the Walls (1936) by Rebecca Springer; Alexander Lernet-Holenia's Baron Bagge (1936; trans Jane B Green in Count Luna: Two Tales of the Real and Unreal 1956 US); Rex Warner's Why Was I Killed?: A Dramatic Dialogue (1943; vt Return of the Traveller 1944 US); Huis-clos (produced 1944; 1945; trans as In Camera in The Flies and In Camera 1946 and as No Exit in No Exit and the Flies 1947) by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980); Philip Wylie's Night Unto Night (1944); Charles Williams's All Hallows' Eve (1945); Gerald Kersh's "In a Room Without Walls", in Neither Man Nor Dog (coll 1946); the movie A Matter of Life and Death (1946) dir Michael Powell (1905-1990), novelized under the same title by Eric Warman (1904-1992); Lawrence Durrell's Cefalû (1947; vt The Dark Labyrinth 1958 US); Message from a Stranger (1948) by Marya Mannes (1904-1990); Almet Jenks's The Huntsman at the Gate (1952); Robert Nathan's The Train in the Meadow (1953) and The Summer Meadows (1973); The Investigator (1956) by Reuben Ship; The Bridge (1957) by Pamela Frankau (1908-1967); Memoirs of a Venus Lackey (1968) by Derek Marlowe (1938-    ); Piero Scanziani's Libro Biano (1968; rev 1983; trans Linda Lappin as The White Book 1991 UK); Michael Ayrton's "Tenebroso", in Fabrications (coll 1972); Michael Frayn's Sweet Dreams (1973); Astrid Lindgren's Bröderna Lejonhjärta (1973; trans Joan Tate as The Brothers Lionheart 1975 US); Larry Niven's and Jerry Pournelle's Inferno (1975); Clifford D Simak's "The Ghost of a Model T" (1975); the movie Alice, ou la Dernière Fugue (1976; vt Alice, or the Last Fugue) dir Claude Chabrol (1930-    ); J G Ballard's The Unlimited Dream Company (1979); Dying, in Other Words (1981) by Maggie Gee (1948-    ); Lanark (1981) by Alasdair Gray; Peter Carey's Bliss (1981); D M Thomas's The White Hotel (1981); Susan Cooper's Seaward (1983), whose two protagonists, having fallen into the Country of Life and Death (see also Godgame), decide to return to the mortal world; Kathy Acker's Don Quixote (1986); The Adventure (1986), a book-length narrative poem by Frederick Pollack (1946-    ); Brian W Aldiss's "North of the Abyss" (1989); Wolf Mankowitz's Exquisite Cadaver (1990); and Robertson Davies's Murther and Walking Spirits (1991).

Movie examples of PFs have appeared regularly over the years; unlike the case with written fiction, they show no particular decline in popularity during the 1990s. One of the earliest was Outward Bound (1930), based on the Sutton Vane novel noted above; it was remade as Between Two Worlds (1944). The definitive PF movie is probably Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941), based on the play Heaven Can Wait by Harry Segall; confusingly, this has nothing to do with the movie Heaven Can Wait (1943), which is also a PF; but Here Comes Mr Jordan was remade as Heaven Can Wait (1978). A Matter of Life and Death (1946) deals with similar material. A Guy Named Joe (1944) saw a dead airplane pilot return to oversee his girlfriend's establishment of a new relationship; the plot was reworked to become more of a true PF in Always (1989). The comedy Beetlejuice (1988) centred on a young couple who must discover that they now exist only as Ghosts. Ghosts Can't Do It (1990) has some peripheral interest in the PF context. A large chunk of Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991) is PF – and very well done – although the protagonists, by cheating Death, are able to return to the mortal world. Defending Your Life (1991) is a recent example of the PF proper: the protagonist discovers himself in a Limbo where he is judged. By far the most interesting movie PF of recent years has been the Technofantasy The Breakthrough (1993); here we are never permitted clear sight of a dead man's experience of the Afterlife, but must witness his realization of his situation through the eyes of those still living, and the hi-tech machinery they use. This reversal of the normal viewpoint of the PF is debatably evident also in Field of Dreams (1989), and there are various Supernatural-Fiction movies – an example is Portrait of Jennie (1948; vt Jennie UK) – which might be regarded as PFs seen from the wrong side of the "barrier".

Some further written examples stand out as remarkable. The protagonist of Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman (1967) has murdered a man, and has himself been killed; caught in a surreal Ireland, he steals a bicycle and eventually scares his murderer to death, but fails to realize that (as is ultimately clear to the reader) he is himself dead and doomed to repeat his cyclical course for all eternity. The protagonist of Gene Wolfe's Peace (1975) either does not realize that he has been dead for many years, or does not reveal to us his knowledge; either way, his failure to come to proper terms with his mortal life is reflected in the fact that none of the stories embedded in his reminiscences ever reaches an end: there is no peace without an ending. The text of John Crowley's Engine Summer (1979) comprises the life-story of a narrator who has been dead for centuries, but who never realizes this fact upon being awakened in crystalline form to tell, again and again, his exemplary tale. The Hereafter Gang (1991) by Neal Barrett Jr very energetically describes its dead protagonist's coming to terms with himself in a Texas Borderland town populous with ghosts, memories and auguries.

Afterlives (anth 1986) ed Pamela Sargent contains some examples of PFs. [JC/JG]

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.