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The Paranormal in literature and popular culture

18 March 2019

Paranormal hasn’t been part of my active vocabulary until recently. I’d seen the word, and had a vague idea of what it meant, gleaned mainly from books like Supernature by Lyall Watson. It was all 1970s stuff like Uri Geller bending spoons by looking at them and razor blades being sharpened in pyramids. Mildly-interesting uh-huh stuff, of no practical use. A bent teaspoon stirs no tea, and I haven’t shaved for 50 years.

Then someone wrote a review of my book The Year of the Dragon, and said it might appeal to those who like paranormal thrillers, and I began to wonder. It’s a fairly mundane adventure story, set in this world, with some mythological or fantasy elements. I’d not thought of it as “paranormal” before.

I said something to that effect in an online forum for discussing books and writing, and several people told me that “the paranormal” and “fantasy” were regarded by publishers as different genres. The “fantasy” genre, they said, required romance, and if the romance element was missing, then it was “paranormal”. I suppose under that definition The Lord of the Rings would just make it into the fantasy bracket because Aragorn and Arwen marry. But Lewis’s Narnia stories, or Alan Garner’s children’s books must be paranormal, because the main characters are siblings and there’s no hint of incest. I’m not entirely convinced.

I then learned of a new book edited by John Morehead The Paranormal and Popular Culture: A Postmodern Religious Landscape, and on asking about it, he pointed out that “This book draws upon Jeffrey Kripal’s definition of the paranormal as those phenomena rejected by mainstream religion and traditional science. It is expressed in a variety of ways, and this book looks at some of the more popular forms in popular culture.”

That definition certainly still fits the Lyall Watson stuff of 40 years ago, But where do you draw the line between paranormal and myth?

The Inklings, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and J.R.R. Tolkien, spoke of their writing in relation to myth. I’m not aware of their having used words like “paranormal”. Can one draw a line between myth and the paranormal, either in literature or in popular culture? And somewhere nearby is folklore.

In another recent blog post, Angels, demons, and Inklings, I wrote about the mythical creatures that populate the works of the Inklings, and this post is related to it, and perhaps can be seen as a follow-on from it, but relates more to the literary genres in which such creatures appear. Could one regard eldila as being “paranormal”?

Can the term “mainstream religion” help here?

Though eldila and the like are not referred to by name in works of theology, the kind of creatures Lewis had in mind are, but what about elves and Tolkien’s dwarves and orcs, and Lewis’s dwarfs?

Goblins, ghosts and fairies belong to folklore rather than to mythology, and, as Morehead suggests, there are different lines by which we can trace the paranormal in literature back to the Gothic tale. And as for the theological significance, Charles Stewart, who made an anthropological study of villagers on the Greek island of Naxos, found their folkloric beliefs were not really survivals of ancient Greek paganism as some romantic neopagan Hellenists like to claim, but were fitted entirely into the Orthodox worldview, yet Stewart also commented on the theological point: “The main doctrinal point is simple: NO DUALISM. Satan is not to be regarded as a power equal to God. He is God’s creation and operates subject to divine will.”

Other points made by Stewart in his book Demons and the devil are : (1) Satan has no independent power. He may tempt, but his success is strictly dependent on lapses in human will; (2) Satan is immaterial; there is no excessive concern with his form or geographical associations; (3) as he has no real power, there is no reason to appeal to him. All rites, sorcery, black magic, astrology and the like that appeal to demons or the devil are fruitless; (4) Satan’s field of operations is narrow, and the harm he can provoke is limited; (5) Satan is strictly and intrinsically evil. The Church does not accept the existence of intermediate or ambiguous fairy-like creatures such as neraides, gorgones and kallikantzaroi; (6) Satan is singular. He is the leader of demons who are fallen angels of the same order as himself. There is no real concern for the names of demons.

His research showed that beliefs of the villagers of Naxos fitted into the Orthodox theological framework, with the possible exception of the exotika, who formed no part of formal theology.

I’ve just finished reading another book, The Wrath of Angels, by John Connolly (my review here), which could help to clarify the distinction. The fallen angels in Connolly’s book seem to belong to the paranormal category rather than to the mythical category. And perhaps that could take one a step closer to articulating the distinction.

I agree with what Nicolas Berdyaev says about myth:

Myth is a reality immeasurably greater than concept. It is high time that we stopped identifying myth with invention, with the illusions of primitive mentality, and with anything, in fact, which is essentially opposed to reality… The creation of myths among peoples denotes a real spiritual life, more real indeed than that of abstract concepts and rational thought. Myth is always concrete and expresses life better than abstract thought can do; its nature is bound up with that of symbol. Myth is the concrete recital of events and original phenomena of the spiritual life symbolized in the natural world, which has engraved itself on the language memory and creative energy of the people… it brings two worlds together symbolically.

I don’t think one can say that of the paranormal.


9 Comments leave one →
  1. 18 March 2019 12:56 pm

    The distinction between Paranormal and Urban fantasy is a confusing one. But Epic Fantasy stands alone.

    Lord of the Rings is clearly Epic Fantasy. Always will be. It’s set in a medieval world with magic (Fantasy), and features a group of characters going on an Epic quest. There’s no requirement of romance to call THAT fantasy, in my opinion.

    In fact, I’ve never heard of a book set in a medieval (or other distantly historical) world being described as Paranormal or Urban at all. The setting alone defines it as Fantasy… well, that and the existence of magic. A book set on a world like that, but which contains no magical or fantastical elements would be classified as Historical Fiction.

    No, for a story to be Paranormal or Urban, it must be set in a contemporary time. At least, a time after the invention of steam power (in which it might be categorised as Steampunk), or perhaps just the common use of gunpowder.

    But is it Paranormal Fantasy or Urban Fantasy… or worse, Paranormal Romance?

    The vast majority of Paranormal Fantasy stories are Romance stories – you can thank Twilight for that, so, unfortunately, I believe that many readers consider Paranormal Fantasy and Paranormal Romance to be the same thing. Urban Fantasy often contains romance, but not always.

    As I understand it, technically, the term Paranormal concerns the occult, typically ghosts and spirits, magical spells (but only if they’re particularly spiritual or religious in nature). It’s about characters that are otherwise human, but can commune with spirits or have some dark, unexplained abilities.

    If it’s any other type of fantasy, but it’s set in a contemporary urban environment, it’s Urban Fantasy. Unless there’s a significant romance sub- or main plot. In which case it’s probably Paranormal Romance.

    Like I say, the lines blur, but I’ve never heard of Fantasy set before modern times. If Fantasy is set in the past (the default being a European Medieval world), it’s Sword and Sorcery, Epic Fantasy, or perhaps some other sub-genre, but never Paranormal or Urban.

    • 18 March 2019 1:03 pm

      Then, I suppose TECHNICALLY speaking, a lot of horror could be a subgenre of either Paranormal or Urban fantasy (or, when it’s set in that medieval world, it’s more properly Dark Fantasy instead of horror).

      But it’s ALL actually part of a catch-all category called Speculative Fiction. Which, in a nutshell, speculates a world unlike our own, in some way… and which Science Fiction is also a part. And we haven’t even begun to talk about THAT, yet! 😉

    • 20 March 2019 7:58 am

      It probably helps to give examples, and I’ve been helped by comments on this in the Neoinklings and New Religious Movements Mailing lists. I would classify Neil Gaiman’s books as Urban Fantasy and Anne Rice’s books as Paranormal Romance (which I will avoid as far as possible). But Alan Garner’s Elidor is also urban fantasy, with occasional flashes of what you call Epic Fantasy. But his earlier books are not urban, and then there is Charles Williams — is he sui generis?

      • 20 March 2019 8:49 am

        Yes, I was actually thinking that it’s not QUITE correct to say that paranormal contains ghosts and other spiritual/occult elements. Those things probably COUNT as paranormal, but also stray quite a bit into the “horror” lane. Besides, books with contemporary settings, but containing vampires or werewolves, have been classified as “Paranormal” for ever.

        I guess you properly want to say that “Urban Fantasy” can be a subgenre of “Paranormal Fantasy”, and that any story with a contemporary setting, but containing otherworldly elements should technically be called “Paranormal Fantasy”. But that isn’t strictly true, because I still stand by my assertion that readers expect “Paranormal Fantasy” to be synonymous with “Paranormal Romance”.

        There’s also supernatural fantasy/fiction, which I tend to see as NOT having otherworldly characters (like ghosts/vampires/werewolves), but rather having humans who can perform supernatural feats… although, if those feats are casting magic, then it might be Magical Realism instead. Superhero fiction, for example, while being a subgenre on its own, I would class as Supernatural Fantasy.

        I still stand by my assertion that traditional “Fantasy”, set in a quasi-European Medieval society, cannot ALSO be labelled Paranormal or Supernatural or Magical Realism, because those things are implied by the genre and setting.

  2. 19 March 2019 3:28 am

    I think where I would draw the (admittedly blurry) line is that fantasy and myth generally have a moral dimension and meaning. Also the way that the universe works in fantasy, magic usually takes the place of science, even if it’s explained in a quasi-scientific way. And that’s the meaning of occult : the hidden causes of phenomena.

    Paranormal stuff assumes that the weird stuff is just in here with us, and probably has a scientific explanation. Paranormal fiction is mainly out to scare or unsettle the reader. There’s less of a moral dimension.

    So I rather doubt that your book fits in the paranormal category.

    I found the one Charles Williams novel that I read somewhat unsettling, but it definitely had a moral dimension/meaning.

    Maybe you could classify your book and his books as Christian paranormal fiction?

    • 20 March 2019 8:24 am

      But again, as I said to Graham, where do you put Alan Garner’s books? They unsettle the reader, but there is no scientific explanation for the phenomena, Fantasy, but not set in another world.

      It comes back to that conversation between Lewis and Tolkien — if we want more of the kind of stories we like, we shall have to write them ourselves. So how does one describe that kind? Lewis, Williams and Tolkien wrote them. Alan Garner did, at least in his earlier ones. But few others.

      • 20 March 2019 2:10 pm

        Again, depends on the main goal of the book, and whether there is a moral dimension.

        I gave up on Anne Rice when it became clear that she thought being a vampire was a good thing, and a man who didn’t want to be a vampire was made one against his consent and acquiesced to his fate far too quickly. Considering that the whole of the first book is about the moral struggle of one of the vampires (and it was this that made it interesting), this was very disappointing to say the least. I also hated her series about the witches, for various similar reasons.

        • 20 March 2019 2:15 pm

          Re: Alan Garner: some of his stuff is magic realism (Strandloper, Thursbitch), some of it is fantasy (Elidor, The Owl Service), and some of it is unclassifiable. He was mostly writing before the category of urban fantasy was described.

          More useful than many subcategories and sub genres is Amazon’s “readers who bought this also bought these books”.

          Though I wish bookstores would shelve urban fantasy separately from other fantasy, as I mostly only like urban fantasy. Sword and sorcery fantasy irritates me.


  1. The Black Angel | Khanya

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