Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Dickens, Charles

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(1812-1870) UK writer. He has a threefold importance for fantasy: (a) he created the Christmas Book; (b) he transmogrified London into a profoundly evocative stage (see Urban Fantasy) for the heightened acting out of human dramas; and (c) he wrote several significant Ghost Stories.

Christmas Books Of CD's five Christmas Books, four are Supernatural Fictions, though the first and the last of these further transform traditional supernatural motifs into fantasy shape: they are A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (1843), The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells That Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In (dated 1845 but 1844), The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home (dated 1846 but 1845), The Battle of Life (1846) – the one that is not fantastic – and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain: A Fancy for Christmas-Time (1848). All five tales were assembled as Christmas Books (omni 1852; vt Christmas Stories 1868 US; best version ed Michael Slater vt The Christmas Books 1971 2 vols UK); A Christmas Carol has been published in very many forms, cut, variously adapted, dramatized, and often filmed (see A Christmas Carol).

Although technically a Ghost Story (it can be read also as a fantasy of Perception), A Christmas Carol powerfully conveys a sense of redemptive fantasy through the pacing of the tale, and the rhetorical weighting given to the Edenic festivities which follow upon the moment that Ebenezer Scrooge has earned his way (via a gruelling Night Journey) into the happy land of Christmas. For the reader of fantasy, the significance of this novella lies not only in its potency and near-perfect calculation of effects but also in its use of supernatural material (the Ghosts) as agents of fantasy Transformation: Scrooge is a central exemplar of the protagonist who gains (or regains) his true nature by wrestling his way through a Recognition of passage, prefigured by moments of indeterminacy and horror – as in the transformation of the doorknob into Marley's ghost countenance. And, in their breadth of release, the final moments of A Christmas Carol display the true easement of the fantasy Eucatastrophe, though without any hint that the mundane world has been abandoned.

The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth are of less interest. The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain – though also technically constructed as a supernatural fiction – is once again a tale of transformation whose effects range far beyond those ascertainable in more straightforward uses of supernatural props, in this case primarily a Doppelgänger. The doppelgänger grants the melancholy protagonist his Wish – to lose all memories of the "sorrow, wrong, and trouble" which have plagued him for years. The opening passages of the novella, which lead directly to the granting of this wish, constitute a classic representation of an urban landscape as a theatre in which Wrongness can be sensed brooding; and the descent of the protagonist into the Answered Prayer of Amnesia similarly presents the Thinning of the fabric of Reality central to the movement of fantasy. Caught in this thinned world, the protagonist becomes a hollow creature, an artificial, dehumanized caricature of a man; and it is now – for his Answered Prayer also curses those he meets with the same "gift" of amnesia – that one of his stiffening victims asks, "What is it that is going from me again? What is this that is going away." Metaphorically, at this point, as CD makes clear, the cast is turning into stone. The tale then progresses into a scene of sickened, surreal Revel, during which an ancient man, gabbling fiercely to himself, gobbles a holly wreath; it is a savage presentation of the festival of Christmas in Parody form. Only then does the protagonist begin to wrestle his way clear of the nightmare, to abjure his Curse, and to enter – frailly – the eucatastrophe of a restored Christmas.

The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge (1990) by Paul Davis, which investigates a full range of adaptations of these Christmas Books and related works up to the end of the 1980s.

London as Urban-Fantasy Venue The 19th century saw a process of transformation whereby tales set in Cities evolved into full-blown Urban Fantasy; CD was a figure of central importance in this process. Early in his career, in novels like Oliver Twist (1839), he tended to conceive of London in Manichean terms as a prison of Evil, and though a late novel like Our Mutual Friend (1865) immensely complexifies that vision, it remains true that, throughout his career, CD treated the city as an almost animate, labyrinthine, serpent-like monster, the coils of which constituted a kind of theatre upon which the drama (and melodramas) of life could best be articulated.

Like Eugene Sue, whose Mysteries of Paris (1844) helped shape his mature concept of the city as a forum for the enactment of mysteries, CD structured his work around particular institutions – all seen as exemplary platforms or stages where humans exposed their behaviour to view – and peopled these stages with hierarchical societies, high and low, legal and illicit, which mirrored and parodied each other. Softened and romanticized, CD's vision of London has been central to the very numerous Gaslight Romances created from circa 1880 onwards by writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, H G Wells, Bram Stoker and G K Chesterton, and in Recursive-Fantasy mode by many more recent writers of sf and fantasy – Joan Aiken, James P Blaylock, Tim Powers and countless others.

Ghost Stories Woven into The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836-1837) are three Ghost Stories: "The Bagman's Story", "The Story of the Bagman's Uncle" and "The Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton". The first two are unremarkable, but the third – on Christmas Eve, Goblins kidnap a miser and present him with a vision of what poor people must endure – clearly prefigures A Christmas Carol.

Moments of supernatural Horror percolate, sometimes in the form of interpolations or ultimately rationalized experiences (see Rationalized Fantasy), through much of CD's fiction, including, it has been suggested, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) – CD died before revealing whether this would contain a supernatural resolution. As an author of ghost stories, CD is remembered almost exclusively for the brilliant "No. l Branch Line. The Signalman" (in Mugby Junction: The Extra Christmas Number of All the Year Round anth 1866 chap). The story is remarkable enough for its atmosphere and suspense, but is also notable for the context within which it first appears, because Mugby Junction is a Shared-World anthology – likely the first of genre interest – comprising tales by CD (four in all) and others, all set at and involving Mugby Junction, a relatively new venue but one which proved highly fruitful (see Trains).

"The Magic Fishbone" (in A Holiday Romance anth 1868 chap) is a Fairytale for children, and is not successful.

CD was not primarily a writer of supernatural fiction or fantasy; but the urgency and plenitude of his imagination, and the subversive anger of his polemical mind, tinged everything he wrote with the dangerousness that early fantasy always threatened to convey. [JC]

other works (selective): Material pertaining to Gog and Magog in Master Humphrey's Clock (coll 1840-1841 3 vols); various extra Christmas numbers of CD's journals, Household Words (1850-1859) and its retitled reincarnation, All the Year Round (1859-1867) are shared-world anthologies, beginning with A Christmas Tree (anth 1850 chap) and including The Haunted House (anth 1859 chap), plus Mugby Junction; To Be Read at Dusk (1852 The Keepsake; dated 1852 but circa 1890 chap); The Uncommercial Traveller (coll 1860); The Lamplighter's Story; Hunted Down; The Detective Police; and Other Nouvellettes (coll 1861 US), containing also "Blow Up With the Brig!" by Wilkie Collins; The Uncommercial Traveller and Additional Christmas Stories (coll 1868 US), which contains the first book publication after Mugby Junction of "No. 1 Branch Line. The Signalman"; The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens (coll 1982) ed Peter Haining; A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Stories (coll 1984 US), which does not include the other Christmas Books; The Haunted Man and the Haunted House (coll 1985); The Signalman and Other Ghost Stories (coll 1988 US); Charles Dickens's Christmas Ghost Stories (coll 1992) ed Haining.

Charles John Huffham Dickens


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.