In The Dark Fantastic (2019), Ebony Elizabeth Thomas offers up a thoughtful and important exploration of race in fantasy, looking in particular at four case studies: Rue in The Hunger Games, Gwen in Merlin, Bonnie in The Vampire Diaries, and Harry Potter. As should happen with books like these, reading it forces you to see things in a different light that you’ve long viewed and that have grown familiar.
Thomas defines her terminology early on as “the role that racial difference plays in our fantastically storied imaginations,” and then distinguishes it from Afrofuturism or the Black Fantastic in its recognition that “the vast majority of speculative narratives [in the US] are still written by White authors,” its focus on transmedia and fandom, and its reliance on reader-response theory (along with a heavy personal touch via Thomas’ own youth and her involvement in social media and fandom, along with her niece’s responses to reading). She also explains why her analysis is focused on female characters (mostly due to a lack of male ones).
Taking Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Monster Theory as a jumping off point, Thomas describes a cyclical pattern of the Dark Other: spectacle, hesitation, violence, haunting, and emancipation. This last, she notes, is all too rare. She then uses this framework to guide the reading of the four case studies, though each offers unique explorations of racial elements in addition to emphasizing/illustrating the pattern. As noted above, Thomas doesn’t limit her analysis to the texts themselves, but steps outside of them to look at the (often horrific) fan reactions via social media to the casting of black or mixed-race actors, even when, as in the case of Rue, the original material had clearly signposted the characters’ characteristics. While the reactions are similar, Thomas uses the various roles in different fashion, to peer into different nooks and crannies of the discussion. With Rue, for instance, she examines how black girls cannot be seen as “innocent” and how Rue has to be sacrificed for Katniss’ good. For Guinevere, part of the discussion centers on how fans argued she couldn’t be “beautiful” due to her race, while part of the analysis of Bonnie deals with how the shift in the character’s race came with an accordant shift in her centrality to the story (to the margins).
I can’t say I agreed with every reading Thomas offers, but one doesn’t read for confirmation and full agreement is never the goal when I’m reading thoughtful analyses of familiar works. I can say that the readings are almost always insightful and often eye-opening in the way they cast a different light on things or place me at a different viewing angle. And that should be the goal of such works. A goal Thomas achieves. Sometimes I wished she had engaged a bit more with some of the other critics she cites, sometimes I wished we could have gone down another path (an additional one, not an alternate one) or two; the book is a bit slim. But Thomas doesn’t present it as an exhaustive analysis or as a full, and thereby “closed” conversation, but more along the lines of an opening to one. And there again, she succeeds.
We need books like The Dark Fantastic to keep us on our reader/fan toes, to bring forward our blind spots, to fill in the gaps in our readings and reactions, to give us a language to discuss them. Recommended therefore for readers, and especially for educators and librarians.