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Wainscot Societies

Entry updated 13 May 2024. Tagged: Theme.

In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, the term "wainscots" [see links below] denotes the common Fantasy trope of people or societies who live in the margins of a dominant civilization or the literal wainscots of its buildings. The classic fantasy example is The Borrowers (1952) by Mary Norton (1903-1992), televised as The Borrowers (1992 six episodes) and filmed as The Borrowers (1997), whose little people live behind the walls and beneath the floors of ordinary human homes, euphemistically "borrowing" the necessities of life. This situation is echoed in Terry Pratchett's Book of the Nomes Children's-SF trilogy, whose opening volume Truckers (1989) has similar creatures – here tiny humanoid Aliens – inhabiting the wainscots of a large, old-fashioned English general store. Fritz Leiber's The Swords of Lankhmar (1968) features a highly civilized wainscot society of rats in an Underground realm beneath the great City of Lankhmar – "Lankhmar Below", depicted with witty sf inventiveness although the novel is essentially fantasy. In Urban Fantasy [again see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] and Horror, the initial Perception that a wainscot society has been discovered may morph into an awareness of a secret history of the world, or of Secret Masters in our midst.

Humans are imported into a planet-wide Alien installation to play the destructive wainscot role of Mice in Wolfbane (October-November 1957 Galaxy; 1959) by Frederik Pohl and C M Kornbluth. Perhaps the most celebrated sf example is William Tenn's Of Men and Monsters (October 1963 Galaxy as "The Men in the Walls"; exp 1968), a pungent Satire in which humans endure a wainscot existence amid a society of huge, uncaring Aliens. Tenn's dark vision was influential, as shown in Kenneth Bulmer's closely similar Demons' World (1964 dos US; vt The Demons 1965), John Brunner's Day of the Star Cities (1965; rev vt Age of Miracles 1973), and Rob Chilson's Men like Rats (1989). Another wainscot-society example defined by a Great and Small division is found in the television series Land of the Giants. Christopher Fowler's Roofworld (1988) is one of many tales of a secret other London, here rooftops and high places inhabited by warring tribes.

Metaphorical or psychological Invisibility provides the dividing line in several wainscot stories, including Christopher Priest's The Glamour (1984; rev 1984) and John Sladek's Love Among the Xoids (1984 chap), the latter featuring a particularly pathetic wainscot underclass. Other, variously different societies, like the humanlike Aliens stranded on Earth in Zenna Henderson's People stories, are concerned to hide themselves amid humanity in general like sought-after needles in Earth's vast haystack: see Pariah Elite. [DRL]


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