It is common to find poems and stories regarded as “fantastical.” But, a specific genre, “fantastic literature,” exists. Poems and stories within this genre are common and can conform to various subgenera. These include:
- Children’s fantasy
- Gothic fiction
- Fairy tales
- Science fantasy
- Occult fiction
- Detective fiction
- Superhero fiction
Fantastic in Literature Definition
Fantastic literature includes supernatural or otherworldly elements that make the story or poem more unusual and ambiguous.
These may include elements of the “uncanny” or phenomena that end up having a rational explanation.
The fantastic might include ghost stories, monsters, magic, confusion regarding dreams and reality, general feelings of malice or uncertainty in an otherwise mundane setting, seemingly symbolic or foreboding elements that speak to the future (like a black cat), and more.
Examples of Fantastic Literature
“The Black Cat” by Edgar Allan Poe
This is a classic example of gothic horror fiction that also includes elements of fantastic literature. The story was first published in August 1843 and featured a nameless protagonist who begins abusing a black cat. He cuts the cat’s eye out and hangs it from a tree. That terrible act becomes symbolic of the narrator’s treatment of others. His life begins to fall apart as he attempts to kill a second black cat. Here are a few lines:
This dread was not exactly a dread of physical evil–and yet I should be at a loss how otherwise to define it. I am almost ashamed to own–yes, even in this felon’s cell, I am almost ashamed to own–that the terror and horror with which the animal inspired me, had been heightened by one of the merest chimeras it would be possible to conceive.
The story ends with the narrator killing his wife and entombing her in the wall. The police are alternated to the presence of something in the wall through the meow of yet another black cat that’s been walled up with her.
Readers are asked to contemplate the presence of the black cats and what they symbolize. Are they normal, everyday animals? Or do they represent something more malevolent?
Read Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry.
The Dead in Love by Théohoile Gautier
The Dead in Love by Théohoile Gautier is another classic example of a fantastic piece of literature. It was published in French in 1836 with the title “La Morte amoureuse” and tells the story of a priest who falls in love with a woman who is later revealed to be a vampire. Here is a quote:
The famous courtesan Clarimonde died recently, as the result of an orgy which lasted eight days and eight nights. It was something infernallymagnificent. They revived the abominations of the feasts of Belshazzar and Cleopatra. Great God! What an age this is in which we live!
“The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood
Algernon Blackwood is well-regarded for his horror fiction. This specific story was published in 1907 and is considered one of the most important tales of the supernatural in the English language. It describes two friends on a canoe trip down the Danube River. The setting and atmosphere become more and more ominous as the story progresses. Here is a well-known quote:
Sleepy at first, but later developing violent desires as it became conscious of its deep soul, it rolled, like some huge fluid being, through all the countries we had passed, holding our little craft on its mighty shoulders, playing roughly with us sometimes, yet always friendly and well-meaning, till at length we had come inevitably to regard it as a Great Personage.
The story ends by suggesting that the world the two explore is the fourth dimension. Of this world, the writer said it was “on the frontier of another world, an alien world, a world tenanted by willows only and the souls of willows.”
Fantastic literature is defined by a strange, supernatural element in stories or poems. There is something mysterious and unknown going on that is usually described in more detail as the literary work progresses.
Fantastic literature includes magic, unusual events and sights, a foreboding atmosphere, mystery, symbolic creatures and people, a well-developed setting, and more.
No, fantasy is a type of fantastic literature. The former includes magic, creatures, battles, and unreal landscapes as its conventions, while the latter is defined by any kind of supernatural presence.
Related Literary Terms
- Genre: a type of art, literary work, or musical composition defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.
- Science Fiction: a literary genre that focuses on imaginative content based on science.
- Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
- Short Story: a piece of writing with a narrative that’s shorter than a novel. These stories usually only take one sitting to read.
- Resolution: the parts of the narrative that bring the story to a close.
- Setting: when and where a story takes place. This could be a real place or someone completely fictional.
- Horror: a genre of fiction that plays with human fear, feelings of terror, dread, and repulsion to entertain the audience.
- Magical Realism: a genre of fiction writing that is interested in imbuing the realistic modern world with magical, fantastical elements.