The Big Boom I
Anne Rice (1941-)
Terry Brooks (1944-)
Stephen Donaldson (1947-)
Stephen King (1947-)
By the middle of the seventies, Fantasy had a handful of breakout successes – primarily the works of Tolkien and Lewis – and a few other works beginning to grab the imagination of the young, such as those of Le Guin and McCaffrey. Moreover, there was now an established Fantasy genre, albeit one that remained wedded to Science Fiction. But Fantasy (with the exception of the magic realists, who had escaped out into the wilds of Literature) was still very much a niche genre, and not even all that big a niche. In the late seventies, that began to change, through a raft of writers born in the ‘Baby Boom’ after WWII, and particularly in the bumper year of 1948 (these will be included in the next few sections). Children born in 1948 were 7 when the final volume of The Lord of the Rings was published, and 8 when the Chronicles of Narnia were completed. They grew up as a the volume and variety of Fantasy stories were expanding, and most importantly they were teenagers as Tolkien-mania hit fever pitch, culminating in the publication of the massively-succesful Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings when they were 17. Unsurprisingly, then, it was Tolkien’s work that formed the backbone of their own developments, not Leiber and Moorcock.
Four authors in particular turned Fantasy into a massively-succesful commercial enterprise. The most innovative – and yet in some ways most traditional – of these was Stephen Donaldson, whose Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever (initially rejected by publishers the first forty times…) developed a rich secondary world filled with mythic imagery and resonances, but turned the tropes of heroic plotting on their head by centreing the series on one of the most reprehensible and thoroughly unpleasant protagonists imaginable. His tale of a repugnant and self-centred reluctant hero came equipped with a plot painted in the darkest shades of tragedy, and a style of language that outdid any predecessor in its alien, hyperelevated diction. Nonetheless, his books were enormously succesful.
Not so succesful, however, as those of Terry Brooks, whose The Sword of Shannara became the first Fantasy novel to reach the NYT trade paperback bestseller list (1977 was the big year for commercial success in Fantasy – The Sword of Shannara, Lord Foul’s Bane and The Silmarillion were all published, along with the first rulebooks for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons). On the surface, Brooks’ novel was very close to Tolkien – indeed, Lin Carter (influential S&S author and editor) opined that it was “the single most cold-blooded, complete rip-off of another book that I have ever read”, and that its plot was ‘stolen’ not just shamelessly but “with such clumsiness and so heavy-handedly, that he virtually rubbed your nose in it.” And it’s true that the characters from Tolkien are transposed more-or-less one-by-one and given new names, and that the plot passes through exactly the same checklist of developments, in the same order, as Tolkien’s book. But Brooks was, nonetheless, crucially and vitally innovative in one particular way – a far more important way than Donaldson’s superficial novelty. In creating his, as one critic put it, ‘diluted substitute’ for Tolkien, slavishly imitating all the particulars of Tolkien without ever really seeming to understand any of the soul or purpose of the original, Brooks set the prototype for a generation of fantasy novels. He liberated the superficial tropes of the Tolkienian world from the ideological framework of Tolkien’s romantic fantasy, employing a style more similar to ordinary adventure novels than to Tolkien’s anachronistic mediaevalism. In doing this, he not only made the genre more accessible to readers who were unable to appreciate the nuances of Tolkien’s worldview, he also made it more accessible to authors who understood fiction but had not been able to understand, and hence had not been able to replicate, Tolkien’s unique approach. Brooks showed that the surface was all that anyone needed to copy.
But while Donaldson and Brooks were forging ahead in epic fantasy, two other writers were achieving even greater commercial success at the edges of the genre. The most succesful of all was Stephen King. Like García Marquéz and the Magic Realists, King was largely able to avoid the stigma of ‘Fantasy’ writing, though where they found a home in literary fiction, King was unabashedly populist mainstream fiction. Nonethless, the four-time WFA-winning, Hugo-winning, Nebula-nominated author is best known for a brand of ‘Horror’ that leans heavily on the encounter between reality and the supernatural, even the magical, and has been open about his influences from fantasy horror (Lovecraft), SF (Matheson and Bradbury), and from outright Fantasy (Tolkien) – notably, King described his The Stand as an attempt to transplant The Lord of the Rings into a post-apocalyptic America. Meanwhile, behind and between all his stories lies the fantastic multiverse detailed in his The Dark Tower series, which combines epic fantasy with the Western genre, in with which many of his more famous novels are connected. In this, King helped turn Fantasy toward more morally ambiguous protagonists, and helped show the compatibility of epic fantasy with real-world and post-apocalyptic settings. More generally, King’s massive commercial success inspired writers in all niche genres, and particularly created interest in the borderland between reality and fantasy, and in contemporary retellings of traditional ‘horror’ tropes.
A second commercially succesful writer at the border of horror and fantasy was Anne Rice, who may never have matched King in pure sales, but has arguably been even more influential. Rice, like King, helped resurrect (no pun intended) the old vampire story, but put a distinctly different spin on it, beginning to ‘defang’ her vampires from terrifying, unreasoningly evil existential threats into (sometimes unpleasant, yet) understandable human beings, whose stories might be filled with angst and brooding. And, of course, a lot of sex. Rice is probably the mother of the modern ‘paranormal romance’ subgenre, and more generally casts a long shadow over urban fantasy as a whole.