Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

It has always been an assumption that behind the wainscots one may find invisible societies of animals – Mice and Rats, etc. It follows that invisible or undetected societies living in the interstices of the dominant world – normally but not necessarily human – can be called "wainscot societies".

These societies – "wainscots" for short – are sometimes made up of humans indistinguishable from normal humans except for where they live; in fantasy wainscots comprising normal humans are uncommon, though they sometimes feature in sf texts like William Tenn's Of Men and Monsters (1968). The rooftop London gangs (see London) featured in Christopher Fowler's Roofworld (1988) form a wainscot, as do the eponymous "rats" in Stephen Elboz's The House of Rats (1991) – the "rats" in question being humans who, evicted from their village, have created "a home between the walls and beneath the floors" of a vast, doomed Edifice, and the street people of the tv series Neverwhere (1996) written and novelized by Neil Gaiman. The labyrinthine nature of the City in most Urban Fantasy evokes a landscape of intersecting wainscots – though in the dance of plots typical of urban fantasy it is often difficult to determine who is hiding from whom. But certainly the society ruled by Horrabin the beggar-king in Tim Powers's The Anubis Gates (1983) is a wainscot, as is the empoldered underground society featured in Phyllis Eisenstein's "Subworld" (1983) (see New York). Horror texts are often riddled with cellar wainscots, which may contain humans who have degenerated; horror texts tend also to feature invasions from the wainscot, although this is not inevitable: in Clive Barker's Nightbreed (1990) the horror occurs when the outside (human) world attempts to exterminate the wainscot.

More usually the wainscots that appear in Fantasy texts relate to the dominant world in three main fashions: (a) They may be distinguished from the dominant world specifically through the nature of their inhabitants, who may differ from "normal" humans in size (usually by being tiny), in scarcity, by species (see Animal Fantasy) or other basic fantasy criteria – they may be dead, or invisible or immortal; they may be Shapeshifters; they may be Doubles of those who live in the open. (b) They may seem visible to the world, but in fact conduct their true lives in private – it is here that the notion of the wainscot feeds into the notion of the secret organization which covertly governs the world (see Fantasies of History). (c) The wainscot may constitute an Otherworld which is Crosshatched with ours, in which case the assumption of human or "normal" dominance may become problematical; the inhabitants of this crosshatched otherworld may possibly be spellbound humans, but are more likely to be one or other of the species of Faerie, as in Lisa Goldstein's Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon (1993). Frequently in stories of the latter sort an Animate/Inanimate dynamic will operate, and it will be found that features of the world that seem inert turn out to be alive, like (in the Goldstein novel) the treestump that turns out to be a man pointing the way to Faerie.

Examples are very numerous. The Borrowers in Mary Norton's Borrowers sequence – filmed in part as The Borrowers (1973 tvm) – are small, as are Miss Bianca and the other mice in Margery Sharp's Rescuers sequence – filmed in part by Disney as The Rescuers (1977) and The Rescuers Down Under (1990) – the eponymous tribes living in the weave of a carpet in Terry Pratchett's The Carpet People (1971; rev 1992), the Wildkeepers in Nigel Grimshaw's Wildkeepers sequence, the Smalls in Charles de Lint's The Little Country (1991), the eponymous clan of rag Dolls in the Mennyms sequence by Sylvia Waugh, the rat inhabitants of Lankhmar Below in Fritz Leiber's The Swords of Lankhmar (1968), and the Nomes in Terry Pratchett's Nomes sequence. Mistress Masham's Repose (1946 US) by T H White features a wainscot community of Lilliputians, brought back to England by Gulliver. The protagonist of Raymond Briggs's Fungus the Bogeyman (graph 1977) is a member of a somewhat loathly wainscot. There are two separate hidden nations in Diana Wynne Jones's Power of Three (1976), one underwater, one underground. The department-store dwellers in John Collier's "Evening Primrose" (1941) depend on the Perception that they are in fact mannequins. The antagonists who haunt Christopher Priest's The Glamour (1984) are effectively invisible, also through a control of perception. The tesh in Ian MacDonald's "Some Strange Desire" (1993) are shapeshifters. The Shadow Boy in Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993 UK) doubles the protagonist.

The family of Witches in one of Ray Bradbury's early story sequences – including "The Traveller" (1946), "Homecoming" (1946), "Uncle Einar" (1947) and "The April Witch" (1952) – constitute a wainscot of the sort whose inhabitants inhabit the world in disguise, but conduct their genuine lives invisibly, as do the ramified and hierarchical society of Wizards in Diane Duane's Wizard sequence, the concourse of all those born in a caul who periodically rescue the world in Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana (1990), the Crafters in the Crafters Shared-World anthology sequence ed Christopher Stasheff and Bill Fawcett, and the Vampires in Dan Simmons's Carrion Comfort (1989). Zenna Henderson made a career almost solely out of a long series of wainscot tales, The People, where the human-like beings are extraterrestrials stranded on Earth – but they could as well be fairies, since their superhuman abilities are really just Talents flimsily clad as sf.

Elves and brownies and other creatures – as in "The Gnurrs Come from the Voodvork Out" (1950) by Reginald Bretnor – frequently impact upon the human world from wainscot havens. Fables in which brownies (or hobs, etc.) secretly interact with favoured humans are extremely numerous; modern examples include William Mayne's Hob and the Goblins (1993) and Barbara Hambly's "The Little Tailor and the Elves" (1994). More significant today is the complex interface where two worlds – the normal world and the otherworld – crosshatch; when Smoky Barnable, in John Crowley's Little, Big (1981), travels from New York to Edgewood he traverses a Threshold into a crosshatched world inhabited by denizens of Faerie as well as characters seemingly shaped from the Fairytales written by the man who will become his father-in-law. One world – in novels of this sort – is generally invisible to the other, except at points of crisis. In Midori Snyder's The Flight of Michael McBride (1994), for instance, it is only when the protagonist needs help to escape that his world becomes suddenly animate, and he glimpses the true crosshatch complexity of things.

Insofar as they are designed to survive, and are frequently described in terms that emphasize the vigilance necessary to maintain them, many wainscots are so similar to Polders that the two terms can very often be used to describe the same setting. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the structure of the fantasy Story both wainscot and polder tend to be found at those points where Thinning is being experienced in the world or by protagonists. [JC]

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.