Definitions of the fantastic have always been wide-ranging. Even if one accepts the convention of distinguishing it from fantasy, which makes a more complete departure from normative reality, the term "fantastic" still elicits a variety of responses as to its nature. Requirements for this narrative mode have included a supernatural intrusion into normative reality (Vax, Caillois), an elicited state of uncertainty or hesitation in the face of an impossibility (Todorov), and the evocation of a liminal or paraxial position alongside the real which is neither real nor unreal (Jackson, Bessiere). It has even been suggested that the mode's resistance to definition is a demonstration of its subversive power: it represents the subversion of all categories, a problematization of the objective apprehension of experience (Jackson 176). Indeed, regardless of specific definitions, most theorists would agree that this questioning of our apprehension of our world-of such notions as objectivity and reality-is at the center of the fantastic's power to fascinate. Such a general definition is certainly useful as a way of differentiating nineteenth-century fantastic literature from the realism of the modern novel. However, as a way of discerning fantastic qualities in postmodern narrative, its shortcomings are readily apparent.
Like the fantastic, postmodern narrative is concerned with problems of objectivity. It, too, problematizes the notion of reality. It, too, is resistant to definition-possibly for the same subversive reasons. While the fantastic introduces the impossible as a means of destabilizing our notions of normative reality, postmodern narrative can be typified as a discourse which destabilizes by foregrounding the limitations of coded discourse. The relationship between sign and referent is undermined as words and images are reworked in new and sometimes contradictory contexts. Whether one criticizes this technique as pastiche (Jameson), mourns the loss of truth in the non-distinction of the simulacrum (Baudrillard), or recognizes the transformative potential of parody (Hutcheon), it is undeniable that postmodern discourse is very much about a reflexive recontextualizing of words and images. This attention to context has provided a means of rethinking issues such as the notion of a coherent and essential subject, the relationship between dominant and marginal discourses, and the representation of the repressed or absent in our culture.
Because the fantastic is also concerned with the marginal, the repressed, and the fragmented subject, this recontextualizing aspect of postmodern discourse would seem to work to the advantage of the fantastic mode. However, this is often not the case. While it might be an oversimplification to say that the fantastic problematizes the objective apprehension of reality while the postmodern problematizes the objective representation of reality, this distinction does indicate an essential difference. The fantastic downplays its discursive nature in order to diminish the distinction between the book or film and real life. This is why, depending on one's sleep requirements, a good ghost story either should or definitely should not be read alone at night. Reflexive postmodern narrative, on the other hand, is about representation. It plays up its discursive nature. It foregrounds the issues of power and politics inherent in discourse. The implications for the fantastic effect can be dire. After all, does one really expect an ironically recontextualized vampire with a feminist political agenda to still leave bite marks? Unfortunately, the answer is often "no," but it is not alwavs "no."
Conventional wisdom has always deemed parody to be fatal to the traditional fantastic text. This is because the fantastic relies on an emotional, or at least visceral, involvement while parody has an intellectually distancing effect. Yet, parody is precisely what is entailed in this postmodern process of recontextualization (Hutcheon 15). …