Susan had set up the ironing board in the kitchen and upended the iron there while she sprinkled her blouse. I could not detect the heat waves rising from the face of the iron, but the morning sun showed them clearly on the refrigerator door, curling and uncurling in hypnotic arabesque. That became my image for visionary fiction: the play of the shadows of our invisible realities.

Alas. The shine soon wears off such nifty formulations. For someone else, the phrase might equally well describe religious painting, music, or even mathematics. Still I’m attracted to it, partly because of its Platonic overtones, mostly because the sort of literature I am trying to delineate is devilish hard to define.

Visionary fiction, as I conceive of it, cuts across several genres but totally includes, or is included by, none of them. It is fantasy, of course, but it is not heroic fantasy of the sword-and-sorcery type in which leather-clad heroes with leatherbound brains do battle with evil magicians. Conan the Conqueror lacks—to put it delicately—sufficient delicacy. It may occasionally appear as science fiction, as with C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, but generally it does not do so. Technology, with its fluorescent glare and antiseptic atmosphere, is inimical to the half-lights and shifting shades of the visionary modes. Visionary fiction is always allegorical, but it is not straightforward political allegory like Kafka’s The Trial, nor scientific allegory like E.A. Abbott’s Flatland, not simple religious allegory like The Pilgrim’s Progress. It is sometimes Utopian in nature, but not politically Utopian; and it is never dystopian. The great wrongs that visionary fiction addresses are more ancient and more profound than political wrongs.

Its literary ancestry is various and noble, including not only the fairy tale and the pastoral romance but also the epic poetry of the marvelous, like The Odyssey, and the knightly romance, like The Faerie Queene. To these influences must be added the overmastering one of the Bible, especially the books of Genesis, Job, the Song of Solomon, and Revelations. It absorbs the thoughts of the philosophers, particularly those of Plato and the neo-Platonists, but also the later ones of figures like Berkeley, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Jung. It is at pains to ally itself closely with Romantic narrative poetry like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Alastor, and Endymion. A lesser but still notable influence will be that of the Gothic novel in its “Oriental” guise; William Beckford’s Vathek is in the farther background. The masque as we find it in Milton’s Comus is extremely important, but the single most important influence is that of The Divine Comedy.

The familiarity of this list of influences gives us a clue. Visionary fiction, even as it is practiced in the 20th century, is deeply Victorian and profoundly English in temperament and outlook. It is written—and perhaps mostly read—by writers of gentle and retiring, even reclusive, character. One imagines that there are great bales of the stuff lying unpublished in the secret cabinets of vicars, philosophers, and emeritus mathematicians. This notion helps to describe in part the sometimes fusty charm of the works.

It helps to account too for the allergic reaction that many readers have toward it. We are speaking here of such books as Ruthven Todd’s The Lost Traveller, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Robert Graves’s Watch the North Wind Rise, Lydia Obukhova’s Daughter of Night, Sedagh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl, George Macdonald’s Lilith and Phantastes, and of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus. There are readers, maybe even a majority of them, to whom fantasy is anathema; they would echo the complaint of Heerbrand in E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Golden Flower Pot. “By your leave, worthy Herr Archivarius,” he says, “this is Oriental bombast, and we beg very much you would rather . . . give us something of your own most remarkable life, of your travelling adventures, for instance; above all, something true.”

The good Heerbrand’s objection is full to bursting with ironies. An easier one is that in Archivarius’ fable of Lily and Phosphorous, he has given a literal account of his own birth. Another is that realistic fiction is none so real as its admirers like to pretend. Naturalism especially tends to verge toward, and often to break into, phantasmagoria in its moments of harshest intensity. If the climaxes of such works as Frank Norris’ The Pit or Zola’s Germinal or L’Assomoir stood separate and complete, no one would ever recognize them as realistic.

In the end, the strictest adherent of realism would deprive us even of the parables of Jesus. With his cold insistence on the “bottom line” of literary discourse, he sees it all as a particular kind of sermonizing, and he would like the sermons without exempla. He exhibits the blindness that visionary fiction is designed to alleviate.

Yet he is correct about the nature of its deficiencies. The visionary mode can make no pretense of any broad understanding of society or politics or culture; it draws no figures who embody the aspirations of a social or economic class; it never deals with racism, economic struggle, labor problems, or agrarian ruin. When it sometimes deals with political injustice, it does so only by oblique implication. It is directly concerned with the problem of the salvation of the individual soul by means of its understanding of itself and through its commerce with superior beings.

These superior beings may be avatars or representatives of God; or they may be lesser gods of one sort or another; or they may be supernatural entities like angels or demons; or they may be fantastic or ordinary persons with special knowledge or powers. In visionary fiction we meet crones and witches, magicians, priests, philosophers, poets, artists, singers, “little people” like elves, dwarves, or children, and wise animals with the ability to speak, unicorns or ravens or wolves.

The purposes of all these figures are threefold: They make possible or at least facilitate the questing protagonist’s entry into the Other World; they guide him through this world and explain, in whatever manner they see fit, the significance of the objects in it and of the events that take place; and they usually—though they do not always—see the traveler safe home again.

This Other World that is journeyed through has a symbiotic nature. Seemingly independent in itself, it is actually only our ordinary, everyday world transvalued. It is a strange and marvelous world in which spiritual understanding, though not easy, is a firm possibility—as it is for only a very few of us in the world we are accustomed to. But that shortcoming is, as E.T.A. Hoffman points out, our own fault: “Favourable reader, while you are in the faery world of glorious wonder, where both rapture and horror may be evoked; where the goddess of earnestness herself will waft her veil aside and show her countenance . . . while you are in this region which the spirit lays open to us in dreams, make an effort to recognize the well-known forms which hover around you in fitful brightness even in ordinary life. You will then find that this glorious kingdom lies much closer at hand than you ever supposed.” Lord Dunsany jokes that his novel mostly shows no more than “the face of the fields we know, and ordinary English woods and a common village and valley,” and he adds that these scenes are at least “a good twenty or twenty-five miles from the border of Elfland.”

In visionary fiction, a searching dialectic obtains between the two worlds. The world we live in physically exists; it only makes no sense. Its sister world, the one the author has invented or discovered, may or may not exist physically, but it makes a highly dramatic spiritual sense. Yet it cannot exist alone, since it is finally an interpretation of our customary world. It is mysterious, but its mysteries are oblique explanations of the world we ordinarily live in and ordinarily do not understand.

This dialectic asserts a primacy between them. The visionary author will come down heavily in favor of the fields we know. In Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, the quester Maskull and his companion guide Polecrab stray through the genuinely strange but utterly convincing landscape of Tormance. Yet Maskull observes that “this world of yours, and perhaps mine too, for that matter, doesn’t give me the slightest impression of a dream, or an illusion, or anything of the sort. I know it’s really here at this moment, and it’s exactly as we’re seeing it, you and I. Yet it’s false. It’s false in this sense, Polecrab. Side by side with it another world exists, and that other world is the true one, and this one is deceitful, to the very core.”

The author asserts the primacy of our customary world because it is, after all, the subject matter of his work; the life lived within it is the substance under the examination of his extraordinary lens. The form that a visionary fiction takes is, then, almost invariably that of an educational journey. His odyssey through a landscape peopled with angels and demons, mages and monsters, opens the traveler’s eyes to the glories and terrors of his mundane existence—which is now at last comprehended to be a supramundane existence.

A transcendent harmony is the goal aimed at. After Mr. Vane, the half-willing searcher of George Macdonald’s Lilith, has endured his necessary trials, he discovers this harmony. “My bare feet seemed to love every plant they trod upon. The world and my being, its life and mine, were one. The microcosm and macrocosm were at length atoned, at length in harmony.” He has attained this knowledge of harmony in the Other World, but he is determined to carry it back with him into the world of his former existence:

Now I knew that life and truth were one; that life mere and pure is in itself bliss; that where being is not bliss, it is not life, but life-in-death. Every inspiration of the dark wind that blew where it listed, went out a sigh of thanksgiving. At last I was. I lived, and nothing could touch my life.

This passage, lifted out of the context of Lilith‘s happy ending, may be too easy, may sound too Pollyanna, for contemporary taste. W.H. Auden remarked that “the Scylla and Charybdis of Dream Literature are incoherence and mechanical allegory,” but there is another worse danger too. It continually runs the risk of falling into soft religiosity, into Sunday school pietism, into a kind of Pre-Raphaelite sappiness. Perhaps this is a danger for any literature in which the happy ending is necessary to its ritualistic structure.

Yet the best of visionary fiction is careful to take account of the grand tragic element of our lives, and to absorb it in a larger scheme of things. Tragedy is no longer perceived as we usually perceive it, as the sum of all the terrible things that happen to us, or as an essential and bottomless emptiness of existence. It is a given meaning as a necessary part of the harmony of the whole and is one of the few elements of daily life that is not transfigured in the Other World. As the raven tells Macdonald’s journeyer, “Why, Mr. Vane, but for the weeping in it, your world would never have become worth saving.”

As an acutely conscious literature of the Born Again, visionary fiction is constrained to be built upon some straitly held set of religious or philosophical beliefs. Still, it must avoid any merely sectarian evangelism. It does not matter to the overall design what kind of beliefs are promulgated, since what is most at stake is a transfiguration of quotidian secular life. The beliefs are usually Christian, but they may be fiercely pagan, as in Graves’s Watch the North Wind Rise, or even Jungian, as in Miguel Serrano’s The Visits of the Queen of Sheba. In Hoffman’s story the subject of faith is poetry. A smug bourgeois Dresden is invaded by the realm of pure poetry, and the confused student Anselmus is taken captive by it. “Were you not even now in Atlantis; and have you not at least a pretty little copyhold farm there, as the poetical possession of your inward sense? And is the blessedness of Anselmus anything else but a living in poesy? Can anything else but poesy reveal itself as the sacred harmony of all beings, as the deepest secret of nature?”

This harmony is realized when the two worlds are at last recognized as one and the same. That is a recognition not easily or cheaply achieved, but the best and most perceptive of visionary novelists would approve it in much the same terms as Novalis when he wrote, “Our life is no dream, but it should and will perhaps become one.”

Here then I sat, watching the heat-shadows from Susan’s General Electric steam iron play upon the refrigerator door. It is a scene perfectly ordinary, boringly domestic, idly inconsequential—or, to perceive more truly, perfectly extraordinary, blissfully domestic, and charged with powerful consequence: one of the infinite number of thresholds to the Other World.