Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

A term most vividly associated with Supernatural Fiction and Horror, but inherent to fantasy as well. Supernatural fictions are stories in which the real world is impinged upon or violated by supernatural elements; they thus include Gothic Fantasy, Ghost Stories, Occult Fantasy, Witchcraft tales, stories involving satanic rites or Pacts with the Devil, tales of Possession, Vampire tales and stories of Werewolves.

The central moments in many supernatural fictions take place in an Edifice or Bad Place that somehow does not add up, and whose architectural disproportions generate – as in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1841), or in much of H P Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos – a sense that a Portal into moral abyss – a lesion or wrongness which must eventually be purged – has invaded. Consequently, though central to supernatural fiction, wrongness's intrusion is not generally sensed as signalling a profound or inherent illness in the circumambient world. It comes from abroad, and in most instances – even after it has dug itself in – it can be deported.

It is otherwise with "pure" Fantasy. A central premise of the Secondary World or Otherworld is that it cannot ultimately be understood in terms of real versus wrong, mundane versus contingent. This is not to claim that fantasies exclude supernatural fiction or horror – for the movement of a fantasy tends to co-opt any passing elements of these two genres of the fantastic. Fantasy Realities, in other words, incorporate the dichotomies that define and generate supernatural fictions. A sense of wrongness, therefore, when it bears in upon the protagonist of a fantasy text, generally signals not a threat from abroad but the apprehension of some profound change in the essence of things, though perhaps initially signalled in terms that evoke supernatural fiction. The sense of wrongness, in fantasy, is a recognition that the world is – or is about to become – no longer right, that the world has been subject to, or soon will be subject to, a process of Thinning.

Wrongness and thinning are two essential moments in the "grammar" of fantasy; but in the flow of Story are distinct, even though they frequently manifest together. A textbook example is the moment, late in Lisa Goldstein's Summer King, Winter Fool (1994), when Taja – a potential poet-mage – overhears an incompetent poet attempting to call the god of summer. "She [Taja] felt the invocation as a terrible wrongness, a sickness that invaded her soul"; and within a few sentences the wrongness has awakened a bad Magic which turns the bad poet and his companions to stone – a change that could be described as the ultimate thinning-down of being, short of death.

A sensation of wrongness often warns of – or accompanies – a thinning of Faerie or of Magic in general; it frequently prefigures or accompanies the departure of the folk, or the creation of some sort of Polder, which may well have been constructed precisely to counteract a world gone wrong. Examples are common.

Wrongness may signal the Transformation of the Land that ensues when a Dark Lord triumphs or threatens to triumph, turning the old world into a Parody of its prior being; Metamorphoses of this sort variously threaten Middle-Earth – most movingly the Hobbits' Shire, which subsequently requires harrowing – in J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), and in much subsequent High Fantasy.

Wrongness also warns of Time distortions – which may include the uncanny frisson generated by Time in Faerie, when years may pass in a night or a night may be discovered to have lasted for years, or the analogous melancholy felt when "normal" time resumes or begins, a paradigm example being the moment in Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle (1851-1867) when the Gods suddenly age. Or it can be something ostensibly rather simpler. The sense of visceral shock felt in Lisa A Barnett's and Melissa Scott's Point of Hopes (1995) when all the clocks in the city go suddenly awry, when even the central magists' Orrery fails any longer to turn with the heavens, is so intense because the world of the novel is literally governed by the stars, by Astrology; when the clocks fail to work, the world goes wrong.

It can also mark a state of Bondage, the unnatural freezing of reality generated when a Metamorphosis goes wrong, or cannot happen, or is imposed as a punishment. Ariel's interminable scream, when he is locked into the tree, is a scream of bondage. Though that scream is not heard but simply recollected in William Shakespeare's The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623), it epitomizes wrongness. [JC]

see also: Arabian Nightmare; Balance; Crosshatch; Elder Gods; Haunted Dwellings; Horror; Labyrinths; Malign Sleeper; Talents.

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.