Readers of my novels Conjure Woman’s Cat and Eulalie and Washerwoman know those stories are magical realism. This afternoon, I’ve been looking for examples of magical realism to post here to dispel the misguided notion that magical realism is a subset of fantasy (as Amazon, among others categorize it). I couldn’t find what I wanted, partly because showing you enough to illustrate my point here that the magic in magical realism is just as real as the realism, would have forced me to show you passages long enough to be considered copyright infringement.
So, even though I guess it’s shameless promotion, I’ll show you a passage from my Kindle novel Mountain Song. The passage first appeared in print in a complex novel called Garden of Heaven self-published in 2010. My previous publisher suggested I make it easier for readers to attempt by splitting it into three novels. I was never happy with the resulting books published in 2013.
The problem was basically that the publisher wanted me to edit and re-configure the books as fantasy. I said they weren’t fantasy, they were magical realism. The publisher’s response to that was dismissive, that I was full of myself and thought my work was good enough to be considered “literary fiction” because that’s what magic realism was: a fru-fru synonym for fantasy. We had many heated arguments about this, all of which I lost since I was under contract. I had to complete the trilogy. When it didn’t sell, the publisher and I agreed to pull it from the market.
The following excerpt is part of the main character’s vision quest on a mountain at the edge of the plains. While he’s standing on the mountain top, an eagle (Píta) picks him up and throws him down onto the plains where a black horse (Sikimí) appears with ideas of his own.
Píta dropped him like a frail aspen leaf upon a flat rock in the center of the prairie. A shroud of rain obscured the mountains and moved east. He stood, confused, favoring his left foot. When he saw Eagle suspended midway between the unnatural yellow sky and the unnatural yellow earth, he heard a faint call, high-pitched and strung tight across the chasm between clouds and prairie, then suddenly brilliant, enveloping and histaminic. What he heard in this wide lonely place was the clear, unmistakable voice of his grandmother, raised to the heavens in laughter on that long-ago day when Jayee shouted “holy shit” at a cow in the road in the great mountain’s shadow.
If he could walk west, if he could walk west to the highway, following the laugh his grandmother laughed when the world intruded, (laughter is sanity’s last defense, she told him so often) the laugh he heard now like a true beacon due west and ten years back, the laugh for which she was rightfully proud, her great opus written for flute crying, coyote yapping, bulls rutting, if he could follow this laugh west, then to the highway, then south to the crossroads store and the phone on the far side of the storm, great cauldron of probabilities and worlds, then he would survive this, all of this, this, this. He took stock of himself and laughed. The burnished steel puddle at his feet flung back a tiny caricature of a man, half drawn, beneath the immenseness of all else. He was cold. He smelled bad, too, reminiscent of dog shit and goat piss. If this was shock, then he would make the most of it. In the stinging spray of the first rain drops, he leapt forward, laughing, onto his left foot, and it felt good, damn good.
With each step, he pulled strength out of the soil. He began to run, and in spite of his heavy climbing boots, he felt light and fine. This was effortless; he was in his prime. He danced around the edge of a dry gully; he was smiling and thinking he had it in him to run past the telephone at the crossroads store, past Babb and St. Mary, of course, that would be easy, and then over the continental divide at Marias Pass, after which it would be downhill all the way home to Alder Street and the buff-colored house with the white picket fence.
And then it was the horse.
Sikimí burst out of the rain. He was a terror, a daemon, that one, pulling storms. David’s strength rushed back into the stony earth like water from a flushed toilet. Those eyes—deep sweet rage—rose and fell, rose and fell, in ecstasy, in pain, synchronized with breath and muscled strides. There was no cover. He flung off his shirt, focused his tumbling thoughts with the pure tones of vowels, climbed naked bedrock between forks of a creek, felt a clean tension in his hands and forearms, felt Earth’s heat climb his legs, forced breath and a strident growl from his burning throat, and exploded into silver fire in the shape of a man.
The horse came on, without pause.
“Aiá, Kyáiopokà, Stookatsis.” Eagle streamed out of the pale overcast east of the rain and dropped the lariat vine into David’s waiting hands.
He made a large loop, wrapped the loose end around a knob of rock like a climber’s belay, and let gravity take his weight down into the pain of his left ankle. This was good. This was his new anchor. Sikimí was twenty yards away when the storm swept around from the north and swallowed the prairie whole. All sounds were rain, and grey.
Then, screams, hooves pawing scree, Sikimí’s head shooting up out of boiling shadows, striking into the pain of his broken ankle like a snake and sliding away into the depths, except for the eyes which hung for great moments like molten saucers of gold on a black table. David dropped to his knees, the vine in front of him puny and limp on the stone. Before he could think, or spit rain and curses, those eyes rose up like the birth of fire and Sikimí’s breath seared his face.
When all was lost, he jumped forward with the Stookatsis noose in his hands, fell into the center of an ocean of rain, and grabbed Sikimí’s neck. The mane blew into his mouth. He gagged on seaweed. Salt scraped his eyes blind. His hands pulled a raw cry from the horse’s throat. For just moments, the vine around the rock restrained the thrashing beast and David was able to swing up onto his back. Then hell hit with no mercy.
Sikimí spun, twisted, tore the air, shook the prairie with his rage, slid through rocks and mud into the creek, transforming the rising torrent into high foam. David coiled the flapping loose end of the vine around his right hand and arm and clawed the mane with his left. His thighs and calves ached against the horse’s flanks. In the rain and the dark, those eyes spawned lighting, followed by belched thunder across the rank grass. Those teeth were into his legs again and again, until he jammed his heavy climbing boots against the side of the horse’s head. He was breaking Sikimí’s jaw, shattering the huge mandible into elemental powder, screaming forbidden words with each kick, again and again, until he saw what he had done, and slumped down against the hot neck and whispered, “There boy, there boy, you goddamn son of a bitch.”
Thwarted, Sikimí ran. He ran and the rain cut into David’s face like old knives. He ran and the contour lines rose and fell in a grey blur beneath his feet. He ran and David felt an uncommon exhilaration. Irreverent of the land, he ran west into the deeper storm where rain and cloud coalesced into a palpable sea. The dulled colors of a spilt rainbow, elongated like taffy pulled to the breaking point, swirled past on a cold tide. Shimmering schools of light darted and feinted in great unisons between the shadows of hill and dale.
When Black Horse ran, he ran with long, graceful strides and the passion of lovers. When Black Horse ran with long, graceful strides and the passion of lovers, his movements created a dance choreographed to the music of drums deep in the earth. David heard the music between his legs as uncommon heat and released his grip on Sikimí’s neck. He heard shrill notes and dissonant chords burn upward along his spine like fire on a short fuse and he released the noose and saw it float away into the blue grass. Now then, he was pain personified. Now then, in the overwhelming face of it all, he, David Ward, was dancer and dance; now then, he was a woman straining in tears and blood to give birth, he was a dark haired child straining in sunshine to pull his playground swing above the tree tops; now then, he was a man in his prime breathing hard beneath weights; now then, he was Eagle traversing the hyacinthine blue where air and sight are pure; now then, he was Black Horse leaping the western horizon; now then, when he could see and he could feel, there appeared in his path dreams, first as curtains of light, then with depth and breadth and movement where Sikimí tore them apart in dance.
(Copyright (c) 2010 by Malcolm R. Campbell)
If this were fantasy, it wouldn’t be happening in the very real world of Montana. If this were figurative, I would say, “it was as if the eagle dropped him on the plains” and “it was as though the black horse leapt out of the rain.” I don’t say such things because the scene is just as real as the mountain trails I use in the novel.
My new magical realism novel, “Lena,” will be release August 1 by Thomas-Jacob Publishing, a company that knows the difference between fantasy and magical realism.