Five SFF Stories Featuring Magical Paintings

Paintings are in their own way magical, transporting the mind of the observer to the worlds envisioned by the painters. Small wonder that a number of authors have turned metaphor into literal phenomenon, writing about paintings that literally transport observers from location to location or even from world to world. Examples abound! Consider these five.


Delicious in Dungeon by Ryoko Kui (2014- )

Having been saved from certain death-by-dragon thanks to the self-sacrifice of mage Falin, Falin’s brother Laios and his crew of dungeon-delving adventurers are determined to find and resurrect Falin before she is fully digested by the dragon. This simple quest is complicated by the fact that the dungeon is more complex than expected.

Among the unexpected phenomena encountered: paintings so realistic that observers are literally drawn into them. The events depicted provide valuable insight into how the dungeon became as it is. The magic paintings can also serve as traps for the unwary, people who (like Laios) are more inquisitive than careful.

Readers may be distracted by Laios’ frankly disturbing willingness to treat the various monsters encountered as food. In fact, his go-to solution for most challenges seems to be to see if they can be consumed. Were I one of his teammates, I would be careful about sleeping near Laois.


“A Young Lady in a Make-Believe Landscape,” from Alberic the Wise and Other Journeys by Norton Juster (1965)

A disaffected young Claude habitually frequents a museum. His attention is particularly focused on a painting of Elena, a young woman. On closer examination, he discovers he can enter the painting to join the alluring Elena in her world.

Despite Elena’s initial reluctance to share her problems with Claude, he discovers that the world beyond the frame of the painting is one filled with political turmoil, a world in which he is well-suited to play hero. At least, for a time.

Claude runs up against two problems: he jumps to conclusions on the basis of sketchy or incomplete evidence and he is disinclined to reconsider his conclusions once he has made them. I am sure there are no general lessons to be learned here.


“The Night of the Surreal McCoy” from The Wild Wild West, director Alan Crosland Jr., writers Michael Garrison and John Kneubuhl (1967)

Screenshot: CBS

Agents West (Robert Conrad) and Artemis Gordon (Ross Martin) are assigned to guard the Herzberg jewels. Despite their extreme vigilance, the jewels vanish. All evidence suggests that this should have been impossible … and yet someone has managed the impossible.

Recurring antagonist Miguelito Loveless is an amoral genius for whom the word “impossible” is merely a challenge. A conventional theft is impossible? Simply invent the means to enter paintings, arrange for the painting in which one is hidden to be placed in the museum, steal the jewels, then escape when the painting is conveyed back to the home of its owner. This would have been a slam dunk…were it not that West and Gordon are on the case.

The Wild Wild West was a pre-steampunk Steampunk Western TV show in which super-science inventions that would impress even Toronto’s Inspector Murdoch appeared, facilitated a single episode’s plot, and then vanished forever (even though they would have made millions if put on sale). Since a number of these inventions were weapons of mass destruction, this may be for the best.


Monet’s Ghost by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1997)

Geena Howe loves art. Her discovery that she can enter paintings comes as a delight. Geena can appreciate the painter’s world from a perspective no other living person experiences. This is such a marvelous development that she never stops to wonder how her adventures might go wrong.

Within the world of a Monet painting, there is a castle. Not only is the castle haunted, it is mutable. Eerie enough when limited to the internal layout of the structure, but to Geena’s considerable alarm, the location where she entered the painting vanishes. Without it, she may never be able to return home.

Generally speaking, this is where I usually mock protagonists for making choices that might result in (a) adventure and/or (b) a horrible death. But how was Geena to guess that this could be dangerous? It’s not as if Geena had stepped into a Goya or a Bosch. What could possibly go wrong in a Monet? As it turns out, lots.


An Illusion of Thieves by Cate Glass (2019)

Magical talents are seen as evidence of demonic entanglement; people with such talents are arrested and executed by Cantagna’s excessively prudent government. Romy has concealed her magic her whole life…until her idiot brother brought catastrophe on their family and cost Romy her position as mistress to Sandro, Cantagna’s Shadow Lord.

Romy is now eking out a marginal existence as a scribe. Her former lover’s wife, Gilliette, approaches her with a dangerous request: help Gilliette conceal a theft. (If that doesn’t work, Gilliette would be happy to blame Romy for said theft). Gilliette will not take “no” for an answer. Romy tries to placate Gilliette by assembling a team of sorcerers, each with their own special talent—including Dumond, who is able to draw and paint perfectly detailed doorways and portals, infusing them with magic for ingress or escape. Maybe they’ll help her do what Gilliette wants; maybe they’ll save her from her tormentor.



There are many books I could have mentioned, even if I were to leave out the ones I have not read but of which I am sufficiently aware to know they have portal paintings. Many of you may have favourites not mentioned above. Feel free to remind me of them in comments, which are as ever below.

In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, four-time Hugo finalist, prolific book reviewer, and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Interzone, Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021 and 2022 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). His Patreon can be found here.


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