Revealing the appeal of the fantastic in fiction

Cynthia Duncan, author of Unraveling the Real, reveals why she is attracted to ghost stories and Latin American ficciones.

UNRAVELING THE REALWhen I was a little girl, I loved old fashioned ghost stories. I liked the idea that within the everyday world I inhabited there could be magical and mysterious things with no rational explanation.  It made the world much more exciting, like there was the promise of something beyond what I could touch, see, or hear around me.  It opened the doors to my imagination, and to a love of reading and watching films about these other worlds.  The books and films I loved the most weren’t about fantasy creatures that lived on other planets or mutant monsters who ripped off heads and stomped on skyscrapers.  I loved the more subtle forms, set in the everyday real world I could recognize as my own, where the supernatural was only suggested, never overt, and fear was balanced out by doubt and disbelief.

I remember an old T.V. show, maybe something from The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone, that haunted me for years.  The ghost of a beautiful, vain woman lived inside an old mirror, and she punished any other woman foolish enough to spend too much time admiring her own beauty by reaching through the glass and dragging her to the other side.  This seemed both logical and possible to me, although, of course, improbable.  The supernatural wasn’t random and inexplicable; it erupted into the real world as a moral warning, or a kind of vengeance.  Stories like “The Telltale Heart” and “The Monkey’s Paw” fascinated me, because they slipped so effortlessly between the recognizable world of the reader and the seemingly unreal. I could read them again and again without ever reaching any conclusion about why things happened as they did.  The uncertainty of the texts fascinated me.

It wasn’t until I was in graduate school, when I took a seminar in Spanish American fantastic literature, that I learned there was a name for the kind of fiction I loved.  I had by then read most of the short stories I could find by Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Elena Garro, and others who would later find their way into my book, Unraveling the Real.  But I didn’t know how to think about them critically.  There was so much disagreement and vagueness in all the theory I read about fantastic literature.  I was deeply attracted to magical realism at the time, which focused on the clash between the so-called “primitive” worldview of marginalized people in Latin America and the more modern, “developed” worldview of western European settlers.  The political implications of this literature were limitless, and invited dialogue about the impact of colonialism and neo-colonialism on Latin American letters.  Many people dismissed the fantastic as an outdated mode of expression, something that had no relevance in the 20th century, and that was essentially escapist in nature, not a true representation of Latin American reality.  I knew instinctively that this attitude was misguided and wrong.  My desire to vindicate the fantastic as a valid and important mode of expression in Spanish American literature and film motivated me to specialize in this kind of fiction, and to write a book about it.

Some of the stories I write about in Unraveling the Real are my favorite works of literature in the Spanish language. Julio Cortázar  “Continuidad de los parques” is one of the most perfectly crafted short stories I’ve ever encountered. Every word matters, and the text is absolutely seamless in its construction.  Borges’  “El sur” and Carlos Fuentes’ “Chac Mool” speak volumes about the alienation of modern man in the giant metropolis, but also about the way Argentines and Mexicans think about themselves and their place in history. Elena Garro’s “La culpa es de los tlaxcaltecas” and Silvino Ocampo’s “La casa de azúcar” are as relevant today as they were when written.  They talk about the difficulties of human relationships, and the way women have been marginalized from male-dominated discourse.  No te mueras sin decirme adónde vas is, quite simply, the most romantic movie I’ve ever seen and, every time I watch it, it takes my breath away with its message about love and redemption.

I hope that readers of Unraveling the Real will come to share the same profound affection and interest I have in the fantastic in Latin America, and it will show, beyond doubt, that the metaphysical, political, and social issues the fantastic treats in fiction still resonate in the world around us.

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