Friday, January 1, 2010

Beyond Life: Bangsian Fantasy

I have always been something of an officious aficionado for the genre of Fantasy, so it came as something of a surprise to me to find a label that was new to me applied to a subdivision of that literature: Bangsian Fantasy, a term applied to stories taking place wholly or partially in the Afterlife, be it a heaven or hell or realm between. It takes this name from an early practitioner of this type of tale, John Kendrick Bangs, who published a book called A House-Boat on the Styx in 1895, and followed it up with three other books the same vein. It is almost the opposite of a ghost story, in that instead of the spirit returning to haunt the earth it travels in other worlds.

It's roots are far older than Bangs, of course: at the very beginning of Western literature we have Ulysses' and Aeneas' journeys to Hades; Dante's pilgrimage from the depths of Hell to the pinnacle of Heaven in the Middle Ages; the visions of Blake and Swedenborg opposing the growing materialism of the Industrial Age. The difference is that these were not written as Fantasy, though they provided blueprints: the ancient Greeks and Romans believed Hades was an inevitable part of reality, as Dante believed in the Christian vision; Blake and Swedenborg balance on a knife blade between vision and moral parable, with firm personal belief in what they say. Bangsian Fantasy is literature, and does not set itself up as a new revelation.

Books I have read in this genre include Inferno, by David Pournelle and Larry Niven, in which a science fiction writer follows in Dante's footsteps through Hell to escape through the bottom, guided by (spoiler alert!) Benito Mussolini; Jurgen, by James Branch Cabell, where Jurgen visits the Hell that the pride of his father has demanded to be created to punish his sins and the Heaven that was supplied to fulfill his grandmother's love; and Eric, by Terry Pratchett, where Rincewind visits and escapes from Hell and the machinations of it's new business-oriented Dark Lord. On the more didactic side, perhaps, are C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, where a busload of ghosts take a daytrip to Heaven, or Peter Kreeft's Between Heaven and Hell, where John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley (who all died on the same day) discuss their various beliefs in Limbo while awaiting final disposition. Even in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry has an episode where he meets the dead Dumbledore and a mewling remnant of Voldemort's soul in a state between life and death.

For some reason lately I've been seeing a lot of movies with this theme as well. Heaven Knows, Mr. Jordan. Bits of Ghost (tribute to the passing of Patrick Swayze). The Five People You Meet In Heaven (it was researching this movie that led me to the term). And of course What Dreams May Come, recently hilariously maligned on Family Guy. Of course with Peter Jackson's upcoming film of The Lovely Bones (in which a young girl observes from "Heaven" the effect her life and death had back on earth, and comes to terms with it) Bangsian Fantasy could very well be a handy-dandy critical tool to use to discuss it.

We have always been curious about what happens "once we have shuffled off this mortal coil," and it is this curiosity--and hope, and fear--that fuels our interest in Bangsian Fantasy.


John said...

I have never heard the term before either, but you can bet I will be utilizing it in future. The set up concerning Kennedy, Lewis and Huxley sounds intigueing. What did you think of the book? Was it pulled off convincingly? Worth a read?

Brer said...

I haven't actually read Kreeft's book, though I have been looking for it (especially when we go to HalfPrice).