Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Fantasies of History

Tales which uncover a Secret History of the World, doing so with the aid of fantasy devices. These fantasy elements include invocations of Elder Gods, plumbings of fictional Books, and discoveries that the rulers of the world are immortal (> Immortality), comprise Pariah Elites, are Secret Masters and/or inhabit societies in a Wainscot relationship to the world we commonly know. An FOH is set in the mundane world, either now or at some point in the past, no matter how fundamentally our understanding of the mundane world may be rewritten through the revelations of the tale. FOHs cannot occur in Secondary Worlds, Fantasylands or Wonderlands.

The FOH can resemble sf; and in some Steampunk and Gaslight Romance texts, notably by Tim Powers and James Blaylock, certainly does. That connection with history and historical process is one, essentially, of control: the FOH is interested only in a Secret History of the World which invokes a controlling ruler or faction, or one seriously aspiring to control. Indeed, the conspiracy subtext of many FOHs necessitates successful conspirators. Text, rune and labyrinth are central to the texture of FOHs, enforcing a sense that in these texts the history of the world can be deciphered. FOHs tend to feel as though they must be unlocked, or subjected to unpacking, rather than merely read.

In "The Secret Masters of the World", Michael Dirda describes Lawrence Norfolk's Lemprière's Dictionary (1991) as an "antiquarian fantasy", which he defines as a text which tends to juxtapose the present and the past, disclose awesome, frequently gamelike conspiracies at work in history, draw heavily on some branch of arcane learning (Chess, Renaissance hermeticism), and provide a trail of scholarly "documents". It is this element of play and the feeling of an intelligent mind in control that prevents such fantasies being only a variant of Supernatural Fiction, even when the protagonists can do no more than discover the extent of the conspiracy and realize their own powerlessness against it. A central examination and embodiment of the form is Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum (1989), which meditates on the ways in which humanity's constant generation of theories about the origins of power is itself a principal source of that power.

The principal overlap between FOH and Supernatural Fiction is in the case of Elder Gods. H P Lovecraft and his disciples elaborated the Cthulhu Mythos in which the Earth is surrounded in space and other dimensions by powerful beings who dislike humanity; perhaps inevitably, the mythos came to serve for Lovecraft as a symbolic parallel with various paranoid dreads about the world, including degeneration and multi-racial society. FOHs have enough in common with genuine conspiracy theories that they can generate real conspiracy theories – it is believed by some occultists, for example, that Lovecraft only thought he was making it all up.

The issue is further confused by the fact that various writers whose work includes FOHs – e.g., Sax Rohmer, Arthur Machen – were occultists; when Machen writes of malevolent Faerie as a Lost Race of Picts with supernatural powers, it is possible he believed in such things. An active religious belief also figures in some Christian Fantasies that, like those of Charles Williams, resemble FOHs.

Generally, when FOHs do not end in the destruction, co-option or mere survival of their protagonists, they tend towards Instauration Fantasy. The assertion of the agency of the protagonist in the struggle with principalities and powers is almost inherently a statement of renewal, save when that agency, as in Tim Powers's The Stress of her Regard (1989), is merely a clearing of the board; the alliance between the silicon-based Lamias and the Austro-Hungarian empire is broken, but there is not enough energy left in Powers's drained protagonist to affect the subsequent direction of history. In Elizabeth Hand's Waking the Moon (1994 UK), Sweeney is the human observer who perceives a battle between aspects of the Goddess which have possessed her former friends – her perception and sympathy may be held to be agency enough and all that humanity is capable of in the face of power. She is explicitly contrasted in her acceptance of powerlessness with the patriarchal Benandanti, whose ruthless conspiratorial efforts produce results contrary to their desires. Secret Masters are impotent in the face of the Goddess. John Crowley's Little, Big (1981) is clearly an FOH as well as an instauration fantasy, given that it includes conspiracies – the Rod and Gun club, Secret Masters of the USA – Elder Gods (in the shape of Faerie) and a variety of esoteric texts, notably the Least Trumps themselves and the various recensions of Drinkwater's Architecture of Country Houses.

There are often elements of FOH present in genre thrillers, whether those that deal with surviving Nazi conspirators – e.g., Ira Levin's The Boys from Brazil (1976) – or those which deal with strange and murderous cults – e.g., Michael Dibdin's Dark Spectre (1995). The protagonists or villains of such thrillers act as if they were living in an FOH, whatever the true state of affairs. [JC/RK/GW]

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.