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Paracosm

The supernatural world has always been more real to me than the real world, says best-selling author Anne Rice, the undisputed queen of a genre known as metaphysical gothic fiction. During her career she has sold nearly 100 million books, most of them about vampires and witches. Then unaccountably she announced she was abandoning the genre in favor of a new series of novels on the life of Christ. Having been raised as a Roman Catholic, she had lost her faith as a young adult, only to reclaim it in midlife. Rice’s abrupt career turn risked alienating her earlier fan base with no guarantee that Christian readers would warm up to a writer previously associated with the occult. Yet her turnabout may not be as surprising as one might suppose. Whether writing about the realm of darkness or the realm of light, she has always been drawn to paracosms.

A paracosm is any richly imagined world that exists apart from this one. Literary examples abound: Alice's Wonderland, Narnia, Dune, Hogwart's Castle, Oz, Middle Earth and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Paracosms may be utterly fantastic realms, like most of the ones just listed, or they may closely resemble a real place, like William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. Disneyland, which is in the world but not really of it, is effectively a paracosm. The supernatural world, which Anne Rice says is more real to her than the real one, would certainly qualify. So would the heaven and hell of normative Christian belief, richly imagined and existing apart from our everyday world, whether or not they actually exist. Think of Milton's Paradise Lost, Dante's Divine Comedy or Hieronymus Bosch's triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Child psychologists sometimes use the term paracosm to describe elaborate fantasy worlds invented by precocious children. These may persist for years and even extend into adulthood. The classic examples are the paracosms shared by the Brontë sisters and their brother Branwell, whose toy soldiers served as the original inspiration for stories, poems, reports of military campaigns, maps and diary entries that went on for years. Psychologists speculate that the invention of a paracosm may be an attempt to process the death of a loved one or similar tragedy in childhood. The Brontës, for example, had lost their mother and two sisters. As it happened, Anne Rice wrote her first vampire novel after losing a young daughter to leukemia.

Religious believers who regard the afterlife as more real than the real world may object to its being categorized as a paracosm. However, the hereafter fits the definition by virtue of the fact that it exists apart from this world, even assuming it does exist. More importantly, it cannot be apprehended through our physical senses and so must be imagined. Of course, many people have had so-called near-death experiences and come back with reports of having visited a spiritual realm. And while there are common features to these experiences, the beings they encounter appear to be culturally determined, meaning that any religious figures they meet are ones they might have imagined, given their own spiritual orientation.

Imagination should not be denigrated as a means of apprehending the unseen. After all, the world we live in now was once a distant future that could only be foreseen, however imperfectly, by the most visionary members of society. All the electronic wonders of our age exist because someone was first able to imagine them. As St. Paul once said about faith, imagination is the evidence of things not seen. So it is with the spiritual world. Such concepts as eternity and immortality have no tangible presence in our world, yet they are ubiquitous in human history and in cultures across the globe. Do they actually exist? Only as evidence of things not seen. So where do they come from? We can only imagine.

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