By Rachel Hartnett
Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth. The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games. New York University Press, 2019.
“When people of color seek passageways into the fantastic, we have often discovered that the doors are barred” (2). The precarious and complicated relationship between readers of color and fantasy literature is the site where Ebony Elizabeth Thomas stakes a claim in her new book, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games. Drawing on both an expansive knowledge of literary theory and her experience as the “eldest daughter of an African American, working-class, Detroit family,” Thomas blends the personal and the academic into a theoretical framework of representations of Black female characters—a term Thomas explicitly uses because her text does not include analysis of Black male, nonbinary, or trans characters—in fantasy media aimed at young adults (1). Early on, Thomas calls attention to the “imagination gap” for readers of color within “young adult literature, media, and culture” that either doesn’t represent characters of color, pushes them to the margins, or presents them as “stereotypes or caricatures” (5, 4, 5). Even when Black women are featured prominently within texts, they fall into Thomas’ critical category of the dark fantastic.
Building on critical race theory, Thomas uses the practices of critical race counterstorytelling and autoethnography to explore the cycle of the dark fantastic. Thomas defines the dark fantastic as “the role that racial difference plays in our fantastically storied imaginations” (7). Using Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Monster Theory and postcolonial theory, Thomas argues Black characters—most particularly Black female characters—are positioned as the ultimate Dark Other within each text. As she outlines in her first chapter, “Towards a Theory of the Dark Fantastic,” a dark fantastic reading highlights the characters of color in a text, and deconstructs how their representation and integration into the text “reveals an eerie cycle that moves inevitably from spectacle to hesitation, from violence to haunting, and can only be subverted through emancipation” (12). Expanding on Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, which argued that Black characters were integral in shaping White identity in American literature, Thomas argues “that people of color are not incidental to the fantastic. Without Dark Others—either embodied or as shades—fairy tales, science fiction, high fantasy, superhero comics, and graphic novels as we know them simply would not exist” (25). Ultimately, her central claim is that this “Dark Other is the engine that drives the fantastic” because “in the Anglo-American fantastic tradition, the Dark Other is the spectacle, the monstrous Thing that is the root cause of hesitation, ambivalence, and the uncanny. The Dark Other is the present-absence that lingers at the edges of every fairy tale” (25, 23).
It is in her second chapter, “Lamentation of a Mockingjay: The Hunger Games’ Rue and Racial Innocence in the Dark Fantastic,” where Thomas delves into the dark fantastic cycle. She expertly demonstrates the steps in the cycle through the story of District Eleven’s doomed tribute, Rue. She is positioned as a spectacle within the text, as she is simultaneously presented as a symbol of innocence while being animalized, often being compared to birds—most notably the titular Mockingjay which later becomes a symbol of resistance and hope. This animalization continues into her death when she is “trapped and speared much like the animals Katniss used to hunt,” realizing the inevitable violence enacted on the body of the Dark Other in the text (52). Rue henceforth becomes a haunting figure in the series, as it is her sacrifice that saves Katniss and helps realize the revolution to come. Furthermore, Thomas also highlights Suzanne Collins’ racialization of her characters, most notably Rue and Thresh, which did not prevent a backlash from racist subsets of the fandom when Rue was portrayed by a mixed-race actress in the film. Tapping into reader response theory and fan studies, Thomas positions this as part of the dark fantastic cycle, which “ensures that characters who are racially marked are rejected by readers” (61). This chapter and analysis of Rue and the racial politics of District Eleven positions the reader in a clear understanding of the dark fantastic cycle and how it functions in young adult literature.
Thomas’ third chapter, “A Queen out of Place: Dark Fantastic Dreaming and the Spacetime politics of Gwen in BBC’s Merlin,” traces the path of a racebent Gwen from servant of Lady Morgana to eventual Queen Guinevere, ruling Camelot alone after Arthur’s death. Thomas charts the dark fantastic cycle in Gwen’s story, being sure to mention events and experiences unique to this Dark Other Gwen, including that during the early parts of series she “is incarcerated, falsely accused, and loses a parent to state violence” (79). Like Rue in the previous chapter, there is no emancipation for Gwen. Although the show finishes with her in the seat of ultimate power as the ruling queen of Camelot, this itself seems to be a dark victory, with the final scene showing Gwen ordering the execution of a civilian accused of associating with magic—echoing the very first scene of the show. Thomas also discusses the controversy of casting mixed-race actress Angel Coulby as Guinevere, much of which centered around the “authenticity” of Black people existing in medieval Europe (an ahistorical claim caused by media representation) and the argument that Coulby is not pretty enough to play the legendary Guinevere (which plays into Eurocentric, anti-Black standards of beauty). Despite Gwen’s inability to escape the dark fantastic cycle, Thomas argues, Gwen’s racebent casting creates a space for Black women outside the traditional roles reserved for them in fantasy texts.
In what is arguably the strongest chapter in the book, “The Curious Case of Bonnie Bennett: The Vampire Diaries and the Monstrous Contradiction of the Dark Fantastic,” Thomas outlines the power of the dark fantastic on fantasy transmedia. The transformation from “an auburn-haired witch of Irish descent” to the portrayal by Russian, Polish, and Liberian descended actress Kat Graham inevitably changed the course of the character of Bonnie Bennett, placing her in line with the dark fantastic cycle (110). The character is removed from her position as the second most prominent female character in the series, removed from an integral love triangle with two primary characters, and is ultimately presented as a primary problem due to her opposition to vampirism. Even in a story with supernatural Dark Others, Black women cannot escape the fate of ultimate Dark Other. She is ultimately killed (a fate avoided by her book counterpart) and literally haunts the show as a ghost until her emancipation is promised in the fifth season of the show. Thomas explains that emancipation can only be reached when “the Dark Other is liberated from spectacle, embodied hesitation, violence, and haunting” but that narratives that include such emancipation are rare and rarely popular (28). The Vampire Diaries teases the possibility of Bonnie’s emancipation when she faces her second death while holding hands with book love interest Damon. Thomas views this framing for Bonnie to reclaim her centrality and importance within the story as emancipation for a character who was denied a primary position on the show, primary male characters as love interests, and independently significant plots due to her race. However, even this emancipatory possibility is thwarted by the dark fantastic as the final three seasons see Bonnie begin dating a new vampire, continue her antagonism to vampirism, and finally “decide to leave Mystic Falls for ‘Africa’” despite never expressing “any interest in visiting the continent” and “no specific nation, city, or region [being] mentioned” (127). By exploring the power of the dark fantastic in a racebent character, Thomas cements her theoretical framework as one inherent in fantasy texts, while demonstrating the possibility these texts have for emancipatory fates for these Dark Others. While reading, I couldn’t help but make connections to Game of Thrones and the similar fate of Talisa Maegyr (played by the Spanish-British actress Oona Chaplin who has Chilean and Mapuche indigenous ancestry) who replaced Jeyne Westerling (a white noblewoman) as the wife and queen of Robb Stark. In the show, Talisa is overtly sexualized, brutalized, and killed—a fate avoided by the white Jeyne in the books. This outside example from an adult-oriented transmedia text further communicates the commonality of themes within the dark fantastic cycle that Thomas has identified.
Thomas’ final chapter, “Hermione is Black: A Postscript to Harry Potter and the Crisis of Infinite Dark Fantastic Worlds,” skirts the line between a conclusion and an analysis of the role of race in the Harry Potter franchise and fandom. Charting her own experiences in the Harry Potter fandom—which included ostracization that was likely compounded due to anti-Black racism—Thomas also addresses the recent trend of “restorying” that has pushed for a racebent Hermione Granger and accounted for part of the success of Broadway’s Hamilton. She ends with a hopeful section that readers have already seen what “an emancipatory dark fantastic” looks like through the vast and varied works of afrocentric writers, poets, actors, and other artists, but that the continuation and prevalence of such texts require much work still to be done (168–9). While this chapter does address important issues, I was left wanting for a critical analysis of the dark fantastic cycle of either the racebent Hermione or the character of color Thomas clung to in fandom, Angelina Johnson. The Harry Potter series has had such a profound impact on fantasy literature, young adult literature, and fandom that to not consider the dark fantastic cycle within the series seems like a missed opportunity in an otherwise amazing and extremely necessary contribution to the field.
While Thomas does an excellent job of describing and deconstructing the tropes surrounding Black female characters in fantasy media, she excludes other Black characters from her analysis. She acknowledges this gap early on, saying “My choice not to focus on Black male characters, Black nonbinary characters, and Black trans characters in this project was solely due to their limited number in popular speculative transmedia during the period of research and writing” [emphasis in original] (33). However, I am left wondering if the dark fantastic cycle for these groups would manifest in the same way, since many of the characteristics of the dark fantastic cycle she addresses in these texts are gendered, such as Rue’s innocence, Guinevere’s legendary beauty, and Bonnie Bennett’s attractiveness to men. Nevertheless, I do believe this will likely lead only to a slight reconsideration of the conditions of each step within the cycle, not a refutation of the dark fantastic cycle itself.
Ultimately, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games is a worthy addition to the growing field of critical race and postcolonial studies within the fields of science fiction and fantasy literature. It works in conversation with John Rieder’s Colonialism and the Emergence of Science; Ericka Hoagland and Reema Sarwal’s edited collection Science Fiction, Imperialism and the Third World; Masood Ashraf Raja, Jason W. Ellis, and Swaralipi Nandi’s edited collection The Postnational Fantasy; and Helen Young’s Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness. Any academic working in (or parallel to) the fields of critical race studies, science fiction and fantasy literature, children’s literature, or monster studies, I am sure, will soon find this to be essential reading. Furthermore, its importance, autoethnographic style, and low price ($28 for hardcover; a $17 paperback will be released this September) will also make it a valuable addition for fans of Anglo-American young adult literature.