This question concerns a very famous short story by Saki. For much of the story, it appears to be a ghost story with supernatural elements. That there are no ghosts or apparitions involved is the twist ending.

There are votes to close the story as off topic, as it is not, strictly speaking, fantastical in any way. However, it raises a logical question of whether stories that appear to contain fantasty (or SF) elements should be on topic, even if it is ultimately revealed that what is actually happened is entirely mundane.

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    Strongly related – Möoz Dec 10 '17 at 20:41
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    This is our consensus on the matter, and IMO covers this question and this should be closed as a dupe of the consensus. – Edlothiad Dec 11 '17 at 7:27
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    @Edlothiad I just look at that "consensus answer" and I can't figure out if it's a yes or a no to the current question. Maybe a yes based on point 5, "If you're not sure it's SF but you think a good case can be made for it, it's on-topic." – user14111 Dec 11 '17 at 8:06
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    Yes, they are on topic. If you're going to rule stories off topic because nothing fantastical "really happens" then, logically, you've got to throw out every story with a frame. There go all the bar stories and club stories; nothing fantastical about a character telling a wild story in a bar. There go all the "found manuscript" stories. There go the Arabian Nights; nothing fantastical happens, just Sheherezade telling stories. – user14111 Dec 11 '17 at 8:12
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    @user14111 Firstly, I don't see why you wrapped consensus answer in quotes, 45 upvotes compared to the next highest of 12 seems like a pretty good consensus to me. Secondly I'm leaning further towards it being off-topic, as per point 6. I also don't see why we shouldn't throw out every story with a frame. Bar stories and story tellers (unless distinctly SFF-nal) aren't really suitable here. – Edlothiad Dec 11 '17 at 8:27
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    @user14111 - Conversely, do we really want to treat stories with an obvious (or not so obvious) deception? All those old kid detective novels with fabricated hauntings designed to liberate elderly millionaires of their money, TV shows with phony psychic investigators, sea monsters that are actually enemy submarines? – Adamant Dec 11 '17 at 8:31
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    Are you asking whether stories that don't contain fantasy or sci-fi should be on-topic? – Valorum Dec 11 '17 at 8:31
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    I don't think "contains fantasy or sci-fi" should be a criterion for topicality, as long as we don't have a definition of "fantasy or sci-fi". – user14111 Dec 11 '17 at 8:37
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    @user14111 - Please post that as an answer so I can downvote it – Valorum Dec 11 '17 at 8:42
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    @Valorum Please give us definitions of "fantasy" and "sci-fi" so that we can use them to decide what's on topic here. – user14111 Dec 11 '17 at 8:44
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    @user14111 - How about a negative? Someone pretending to be a ghost isn't fantasy – Valorum Dec 11 '17 at 8:47
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    "then I think anything anybody wants to call science fiction or fantasy should be on topic" - I've decided to call Mein Kampf is science-fiction. Can I now ask about it here? Planet Earth is fantasy, can I now ask what the inspiration for the filming of the iguana escaping the snakes was? Was it inspired by American Football running backs breaking tackles? – Edlothiad Dec 11 '17 at 8:50
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    @user14111 - Why should the storyline of a videogame be any less valid as a work of fiction than a cheap pulp story flung together by Asimov on a wet afternoon because his publicist was shouting at him about deadlines? – Valorum Dec 11 '17 at 9:19
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    @Jontia Are you asking me? The story is so short that summarizing it hardly seems worth the trouble. As far as the fantastical elements go, I think my statement in the original question covers it: "For much of the story, it appears to be a ghost story with supernatural elements. That there are no ghosts or apparitions involved is the twist ending." – Buzz Jul 26 '19 at 19:01

I'm going to go straight out on a limb here and say it. Stories that don't contain science fiction or fantasy content should be off-topic on Science Fiction and Fantasy:SE

This includes;

  • Crooked realtors pretending an abandoned funfair is haunted to drive down property prices.

  • Murderers creating fake UFO sightings to cover up their misdeeds.

  • Children fantasising that a neighbour is a witch who turns out to be an old lady with poor hygiene and obvious mental health issues.

  • Hotel guests hallucinating that a room is a portal to another dimension because the humidifier has liquid LSD in it.

And any variations thereof.

As per our usual procedures, if the OP of a is unsure whether that story contains fantasy or sci-fi elements but then it turns not to, we should err on the side of closing it.

If the OP is sure that it doesn't contain science fiction or fantasy (as in this case where OP states that the ghost is a fake) then we should just close it.

  • -1 for the undefined terms "science fiction" and "fantasy". – user14111 Dec 11 '17 at 9:14
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    +1 for not allowing stories about crooked realtors pretending abandoned fun fairs are haunted. Seriously, we can’t start setting the precedent that in-story deceptions that may appear fantastical to the people being deceived (which may, briefly, include the audience) qualify a story as SF in itself. – Adamant Dec 11 '17 at 9:15
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    Airborne LSD as a hallucinogen is a weapons system that has not yet been developed in the real world, as far as I know. I don't see why that couldn't be the basis of a science fiction story. – user14111 Dec 11 '17 at 9:21
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    @user14111 - Liquid LSD has been around for decades. Putting it into a humidifier in a small room would present little or no difficulty aside from the cost. – Valorum Dec 11 '17 at 9:27
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    Re your last paragraph - "An answer should not make a question off-topic, if the question without the answer seems on-topic." IMO, the issue here is whether the story as described in the question (which mentions that the ghost story was fake) is on-topic. – Rand al'Thor Dec 11 '17 at 10:46
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    +1 not all fiction is fantasy. Sure, the lines are blurry, but in this case the fantasy elements are so obviously fake that i think lit.SE would be a much better fit for it – user68762 Dec 11 '17 at 10:56
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    Yes, if the ghost is fake, then there is no ghost, therefore, there is no 'fantasy' element to it. – Möoz Dec 11 '17 at 21:40
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    So, if Scooby Doo hadn't made a bunch of TV movies and other detritus in which the ghosts were real, it'd be off-topic. Is that the correct read here? – Kevin Dec 15 '17 at 5:37
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    @Kevin - Precisely. The mere presence of a talking dog character in a world where talking dogs are perfectly normal isn't enough to push it into fantasy territory. If we just go by the original TV series, it would be off-topic. All the previous instances of the supernatural were fakery. – Valorum Dec 15 '17 at 7:20
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    Hm. By declaring it off topic, are you not actually spoiling the ending, since that's supposed to be the twist ending? – jpmc26 Dec 23 '17 at 5:23
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    @jpmc26 - This is a site for Science fiction and fantasy. We can spoil all the non-SFF films we like, for all I care. – Valorum Dec 23 '17 at 9:02
  • "hallucinating that a room is a portal to another dimension" - the most highly voted answer (albeit total vote counts there are not very high) in an earlier meta question explicitly classifies hallucinations of fantasy elements to be on-topic, and voting in a more recent question seems to reiterate that outcome. – O. R. Mapper Jul 25 '19 at 22:37
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    @O.R.Mapper - I like the distinction that Carrot makes, that there's a difference between a film with an explicable fantasy element versus a film that is fantastical but then has an "all just a dream" ending – Valorum Jul 26 '19 at 7:33
  • The bullet points in your answer are very amusing. Do they actually write fiction like that? – Simpleton Jul 26 '19 at 15:20
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    @Simpleton - The first one is Scooby Doo, the second one was an episode of Father Brown, the third was an episode of The Simpsons and the final one was an episode of CSI – Valorum Jul 26 '19 at 15:39

Valorum is right, as usual. This story is off-topic. But there are a few related cases which we should not forget about:

From these, I conclude that tacking an "And then I woke up" ending onto some random work of fantasy would not suddenly make it off-topic (see for example The Wizard of Oz). On the other hand, if the fantastical elements are exposed as mundane, and this is a major plot point, then it becomes difficult to justify calling the work on-topic. Unfortunately, there is a large gray area between those two extremes. Topicality needs to be judged holistically, and it's difficult to provide blanket rules which cover every situation. Users with sufficient rep should close-vote judiciously, and ask on meta if a question's topicality is unclear.

  • I have trouble imagining a treatment of "fantasy world is implemented with mundane technology" which wouldn't catapult the story back into science fiction. If exposing the technology as mundane is indeed a major plot point, the technology is a focus -- and that sounds rather SFnal to me… – duskwuff -inactive- Dec 24 '17 at 20:20
  • @duskwuff: Suppose the first few chapters are a standard high fantasy, and then in chapter 4 we're told that it's actually a bunch of modern-day people LARPing. The story then continues for several more chapters. That is not SFnal at all. – Kevin Dec 24 '17 at 20:38
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    That said LARPing itself is creating a fantasy story. – Jontia Jul 25 '19 at 13:33

If a work markets itself as SF&F, then we should treat it as SF&F. As per Occasional Sci-Fi Elements point number 1.

This is mostly a matter of practicality. A story that appears initially to be about ghost, or time travellers or some such will be presented as such in its blurb or trailers. The "twist" of it being faked can't be revealed without reading/watching the whole film and is a massive spoiler. When thinking about the very popular story-identification tag, there's no guarantee that the questioner remembers or even read the twist ending in the first place.

  • As I said earlier, the fact that a question about a non-SFF property is spoiled by us closing it (or migrating it) really isn't our problem. We've solved it and now we can close it. – Valorum Jul 25 '19 at 22:20
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    @Valorum: I disagree, as that would mean one cannot ask about a work unless one is absolutely sure there is no twist ending (or even a framing device that someone deems sufficient to declare the work out of scope) without running a risk of being spoiled. That is precisely the issue that this answer would avoid. – O. R. Mapper Jul 25 '19 at 22:44
  • @O.R.Mapper - Well, I'd asssume that the poster has already seen it (and hence is largely immune to spoilers) and the act of closing it (after it has been revealed to be not sff) renders it less visible to others – Valorum Jul 26 '19 at 7:36
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    @Valorum I guess that's the point at the heart of the discussion. I disagree that the solution eventually being mundane stops the work being SF&F. If it is marketed as SF&F then it is SF&F. Admittedly I don't know if that's the case for the individual book in the question here. I've bounced through a couple of dupes and related articles to post a generic rather than specific reply. – Jontia Jul 26 '19 at 8:24
  • If it's solidly marketed as sci-fi/fantasy and, at the end, has something that makes it not SFF then that's mostly fine and on-topic since it's covered by our policy on sf-nal elements – Valorum Jul 26 '19 at 11:00
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    @Valorum: "I'd assume that the poster has already seen it" - I don't think that is a generally valid assumption. Except for the nostalgia of watching or reading a work again that the asker already knows in depth from former times, knowing only a part of a work (e.g. a trailer), and/or having been exposed to it in a way where some parts of the plot did not become clear (foreign language, audio mostly drowned by engine noise on a plane, etc.) seem like valid and likely use cases for story identification questions. – O. R. Mapper Jul 26 '19 at 13:37
  • @O.R.Mapper - Again, when it comes to non-SFF films, spoiling them (by revealing that they aren't SFF) really isn't our problem – Valorum Jul 26 '19 at 14:08
  • This is more of a problem for older works. Something newer will have a clearly defined genre for marketing purposes. It'll end up on the right shelf in the bookshop, and so categorising it as off-topic (for this twist ending variation) will be easy. – Jontia Jul 26 '19 at 14:34
  • @Valorum: I tend to disagree with that stance, as I see avoiding spoilers as a general courtesy towards fellow book readers/show watchers that is not linked to the scope of the site it happens on. I do not see why I should be considerate towards other users in warning them about possible spoilers when I mention a fact about their favourite SFFnal work, but not when I do the same concerning their favourite non-SFFnal work just because the latter happens to be inadmissible on this site as the subject of a question. Actually, I would do the same when mentioning a work of scifi on, say, ... – O. R. Mapper Jul 27 '19 at 7:46
  • ... User Experience, where also SFFnal works would be off-topic. – O. R. Mapper Jul 27 '19 at 7:47
  • If the fact that a work isn't actually sci-fi or fantasy is a spoiler, by all means answer it and shove that fact behind a spoiler before you vote to close it. – Valorum Jul 27 '19 at 8:06
  • @Valorum don't closed questions get removed from the site? Potentially meaning the same thing keeps coming back? – Jontia Jul 28 '19 at 19:09
  • @Jontia - In my time here I've seen no entirely off-topic Story-ID questions get re-asked by different users. – Valorum Jul 28 '19 at 19:35

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