- The Dark Fantastic:Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas begins The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games with an evocation of magic. "My mother," she writes, "was doing me a favor by letting me know that magic was inaccessible to me" (1). As an African American woman born in Detroit at the end of the 1970s, Thomas explains that it was made clear to her that this racial logic of inaccess to fantasy and science fiction was made plain to her. And yet, at the same time, she explains that it was in these genres, which she broadly combines into "the fantastic" (8), that she "found meaning, safety, catharsis—and hope" (1). This basic frictional fact—that the fantastic is often inaccessible to non-white readers or viewers and yet those same viewers can still manage to connect with these genres—is the argumentative core of The Dark Fantastic.
The dark fantastic is what Thomas names "the role that racial difference plays in our fantastically storied imaginations" (7). Distinguishing this theorization from Afrofuturism or the Black fantastic, Thomas argues that there is a critical need for a way of considering not just the way these genres are produced within a context of blackness, but also how readers and viewers who are non-white consume, and respond to, the fantastical productions made by a mostly-white creative class. The Dark Fantastic leans heavily on reader response theory conceptually, meaning that the uptake and revision of racialized texts by non-white peoples are just as, if not more, important to Thomas for understanding how the racial imaginary plays out in an Anglophone context. [End Page 108]
To speak to this directly, Thomas constructs "an eerie cycle" (12) of the dark fantastic. Beginning from the position of the Dark Other (the alien, the orc, the metaphorized raced body), the author explains that a pattern is produced within fantastic fiction that constructs a particular way that the Dark Other is processed and then ultimately dismissed within culture. This cycle, which proceeds from spectacle to hesitation to violence to haunting and then through emancipation, is not merely contained within the text. As Thomas demonstrates across case studies of The Hunger Games, the BBC show Merlin, The Vampire Diaries, and Harry Potter, this cycle always takes a figure from inside the text and puts them through a ringer of highlighting, controversy, and exclusion by fan communities on racial grounds. The dark fantastic's work as a heuristic allows us to break apart the process that creates conditions, for example, where a set of black readers understand Hermione from Harry Potter to be black where other readers vehemently reject that possibility in a racist and violent way.
Much of the book is dedicated to detailed readings of the case studies in order to elucidate how they fit the cycle that Thomas has constructed, and these readings are successful in that they are compelling ways of understanding these texts not just as things plugged into a system, but as constituting the cycle that Thomas is outlining. These readings operate similarly to "circuit of culture" arguments from the field of cultural studies, and I would have liked to see a comparative to see how these two modes of engagement might get at or access different things within the loop of author, text, and reader.
I think it is also crucial to mention that Thomas' analysis is relatively pessimistic when it comes to the actual production of emancipation, the last part of the cycle of the dark fantastic. She puts a significant amount of weight on the work of fans and interpreters simply because many texts, perhaps most clearly The Hunger Games, work to plow under their non-white characters and, for Thomas, therefore the imaginations of non-white readers. Thomas considers the Dark Other to be the structuring presence that allows the fantastic itself to exist (29). With that in mind, the work of emancipation of the...