ANN & JEFF VANDERMEER, The Big Book of Classic Fantasy. New York: Vintage Books, 2019. 822 pp. $25.00 tpb. ISBN: 978–0–525–43556–3
“A night at the end of June, a child takes a walk with his mother. It’s raining falling stars. The child picks up one and carries it in the palms of his hands. At home he deposits it on the table and locks it in a reversed glass. The next morning, getting up, he lets escape a scream of terror: A worm, during the night has nibbled his star!”
— According to Dali, written by him at age 8
The above is provided as a public service in the interest of giving an even more complete survey than included in this Big Book.
Painful? We’ve read worse assuredly. While nothing is as brief as this in this volume, it would not be out of its scope. There are ninety selections, not all of which are complete narratives (nine novels are excerpted ranging from Through The Looking Glass to The Night Land). Twelve of the authors appeared previously in The Vandermeer’s collection The Weird (2011). The Big Book in some respects presents a deeper cut of that aesthetic. One story, Hagiwara Sakutaro’s “The Town of Cats”, is in both anthologies.
Regular subscribers to this journal might first associate the term “fantasy” with a heroic narrative in a “secondary world,” either in an epic, think Tolkien, or pulpier, shorter form , think Howard. Both the Oxford Professor and Two-Gun Bob are in these pages. The Vandermeers define Classic Fantasy as that written “from the early 1800s to World War II, from the start of a nascent idea of ‘fantasy’ as opposed to ‘folktale.’” There are folk and fairytale tropes abounding in these pages due to “the rate of fey” the editors use in establishing parameters for this collection, but many extend Beyond The Fields We Knew.
There is a preponderance of playful comic fantasy, the welcome example being Oscar Wilde’s delightful “The Remarkable Rocket;” a rather overdone choice on the other hand being Gustav Meyrink’s “Blamol.” Franz Blei’s “The Big Bestiary of Modern Literature” is doted on and not surprisingly, as it seems a formative influence on the anthologists’ Thackery Lambshead books and Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals.
Science fantasy — another subdivision — is represented by Edgar Allan Poe’s “M. Valdemar” and Fitz James O’Brien’s “The Diamond Lens.” “The Masque of The Red Death” or “The Wondersmith” come to mind as more suitable examples from either however. And while this reviewer loves the writing of Bruno Schulz, “A Night of The High Season” included in this volume, while written fantastically in style and descriptions, does not have anything fantastic happen in itper se. (All of the above also goes for Herman Melville and his tale “The Tartarus of Maids.”) “Too much time and energy has been expended by well-meaning editors of past anthologies invoking such arguments as the “Nathaniel Hawthorne Defense” to establish fantasy’s bona fides.” The Vandermeers then proceed to do just that themselves, recently admitting in a recent interview something akin to a “we speak to repatriate” the “literary” into the “fantastical” — is there a need to boost the relevance of the latter?
We must look at what this book is rather than what it is not. Jeff Vandermeer’s predilection for speculative fictions concerned with humanity’s interaction with the Natural World and its’ flora and fauna infuse an underlying flavor to this self-described “sumptuous repast”. The Will-O’-The-Wisps of the Hans Andersen story cry “…they are drowning our meadows and drying them up! What will become of our descendants?” Jasoomian Imperialist John Carter takes up long-sword in the edit from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars series to fight the “hideous”, “repulsive” plant men.
And yet. There are samples from The Worm Ouroboros or A Voyage to Arcturus to entice an uninitiated palate desiring refinement. A new encounter was with the writing of Marcel Schwob, his standout story (complete with climate change!) being “The Death of Odjigh”, reminiscent of J. H. Rosny. And any time an anthology contains a selection by Leonora Carrington it is worth a read. In summation: While not the definitive collection of fantasy — classic or otherwise — this book’s value was in relation to the amount of material that was new to me. For now, this far encompassing, albeit curated, tour will last long enough for a night at the end of June.
Published in Dead Reckonings no. 26.
Joe Shea aka The joey Zone is an artist and illustrator. A sample of his work can be found at http://www.joeyzoneillustration.com/