readingtrance

book reviews by Althea

The Treasury of the Fantastic – David Sandner, ed.

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A full five stars – not because I loved every single one of the pieces in this huge volume (although I certainly loved more than I didn’t), but because this is an exquisitely curated collection. It hits all the bases; including both classics and forgotten gems. I wouldn’t hesitate to use this as a textbook for a class on the 19th-century literature of the fantastic.
(However – don’t be disingenuous. The 1923 cutoff date has nothing to do with the publication of ‘Weird Tales’ (as the introduction claims) and everything to do with the fact that pre-1923 lit is free to publish. So – yes, you can read all of these stories for free elsewhere. But – would you, without them conveniently gathered together here?)

*****”Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
One of my favorite poems of all time…

*****”Darkness” by Lord Byron
Wow! Written in 1816, after a disastrous volcano eruption, this poem contains a remarkable number of the elements of current post-apocalyptic literature.

**** “La Belle Dame sans Merci” by John Keats
A classic poem, telling the tale of a knight ensnared by a faery femme fatale.

*****”The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving
Strange as it may be to tell, I don’t think I’d ever actually read this before. I would’ve sworn that I had. Of course, I knew the story… but nope, the language and details were all fresh and new to be. And that was a pleasant (if bewildering) surprise! Because – what language! This is a beautifully told tale, and a true pleasure to read. Irving can really turn a phrase, and the story is surprisingly humorous.

**** “Peter Rugg, The Missing Man” by William Austin
This is actually two stories presented as one. Apparently, the second (and a few other sequels) were written due to popular demand, after the success of the first. You can tell. The first one is truly excellent; the other simply very good, but not quite as inspired. A cursed coachman travels the world with his young daughter, just trying to get home to Boston.

*****”The Mortal Immortal” by Mary Shelley
Now this classic I’ve read before. I love how it deals matter-of-fact-ly with the practicalities of immortality, and the the effect it might have on relationships with those around you.

**** “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
For the first half of this, I felt it was a rather plodding allegory: a young man bids adieu to his wife Faith and goes to meet The Devil in the woods. However, the conclusion really twists it around and makes this an excellent piece.

*****”The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe
Of course; I’d read this before (somewhere or other, I have an old set of the complete works of Poe, which I bought at the estate sale of a recently-deceased woman – I felt it was appropriate, somehow.) However, it’s been a long time. A re-read was welcome, since I’d recently read “Madeline’s Version” by F. Brett Cox, which gives another viewpoint on this tale. Still, for language and vivid imagery, the original Poe cannot be surpassed. Just the opening paragraphs bring the titular house to chilling ‘life’ as no other description of a cursed abode may even have done. A classic for a reason.

**** “Morte d’Arthur” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
The end of King Arthur’s life, in verse.
I generally prefer tales told in prose, but this poem has a nice, very readable flow, and beautiful imagery. A wistful tone suffuses the work, as the dying Arthur repeatedly convinces Sir Bedivere to return Excalibur to the Lake, and Arthur’s passing is equated with the passing of magic from this world.

**** “Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti
Another one that I hadn’t read for many, many years. While generally I appreciate authors who are loath to have their work read as allegory, this is too clear to be denied. The message I get out of this? “While men may be very tempting, it’s generally safer to have sex with other women before marriage (Although the men won’t think much of that plan).”

*****”The Golden Key” by George MacDonald
I don’t remember if I’d read this before or not. If I did, it was when I was a child. I read ‘The Princess and the Goblin’ and ‘The Light Princess’ dozens of times, and loved them. I know I also read ‘At the Back of the North Wind’ and didn’t care for it as much. I’m not at all sure I would’ve loved this when I was little, but I loved it now. It does feature the same Grandmother/Lady seen in ‘The Princess and the Goblin,’ with her magical baths. She has got to be one of my favorite characters in fiction, and even a brief appearance is wonderful. Plus, air-fish! I loved the air fish! (After having an Oscar in a tank for some years, I used to dream about fish ‘swimming’ around my room, through the air.)
Plot-wise, this is sort of a cross between a religious allegory and Plato’s ‘parable of the cave.’ Two innocents, one of whom finds a golden key at the end of the rainbow, go on a quest to find the ‘land from whence the (sublimely beautiful) shadows come.’
The story is odd and allusive, rather than didactic, and quite lovely.

**** “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll
The classic poem, here presented with the ‘explanatory’ bits from the ‘Alice’ book. I prefer it without the explanatory bits. I do love the poem; it’s a wonderful exploration of how language works. It’s introduced here as a ‘nonsense’ poem – but the thing is, it’s not nonsense – it will make sense to anyone with a good knowledge of English, whether or not the words used are part of our vocabulary.

**** “The Ogre Courting” by Juliana Horatia Ewing
A tale of a clever woman who outsmarts her father and an ogre to avoid an arranged marriage and come out on top of the deal. A very classic feel; reminded me of a lot of fairy tales I read as a child – perhaps those in Andrew Lang’s ‘color’ fairy books.
Ewing’s philosophy on fairy tales was summed up by herself in 1882; this story clearly demonstrates her goals: “There are ideas and types, occurring in the myths of all countries, which are common properties, to use which does not lay the teller open to the charge of plagiarism, Such as the idea of the weak outwitting the stron; the failure of man to choose wisely when he may have his wish… Secondly, that in these household stories (the models of which were originally oral tradition) the thing most to be avoided is a discursive or descriptive style of writing. Brevity and epigram must always be soul of their wit, and they should be written as tales that are told.”

**** “Carmilla” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
Re-read last year… “a classic vampire story: a must-read, and worth a re-read.
I personally feel that the lesbian aspect of the story has been overemphasized – there are only a few times it crosses the line over from that old-fashioned ‘my very dear friend’ kinda thing… so don’t expect too much in the way of eroticism.
But LeFanu achieves a psychologically complex and morally ambiguous tale, as he tells this story of a lonely young woman who invites a stranger into her home and her heart.
Structurally, there are a few aspects to the story I feel could be better, and a few oddly unanswered questions… but hey, it was written in 1872, and was so very influential and historically important that any possible failings are only to be forgiven.”

**** “The Ghostly Rental” by Henry James
A passerby is drawn by curiosity to investigate an abandoned, haunted-looking house – and uncovers the strange tale of the old man who visits the gloomy, crumbling building every quarter – reputedly to collect rent from a ghost.
The narrator comes across as an unconscionable busybody, and the source of his gossip seems quite random and conveniently plot-serving, but other than that, this is a very nice ghost story, with a satisfying twist.

** “The Dong with the Luminous Nose” by Edward Lear
Humor is a very individual thing, and this bit of ‘nonsense poetry’ did not strike my fancy.

**** “The New Mother” by Lucy Lane Clifford
If you are looking for a story to scare your children into good behavior, and likely scar them for life while you’re at it, then this is something to read them at bedtime. This is the stuff of which night terrors are made.

*** “The Griffin and the Minor Canon” by Frank Stockton
Recently read in Neil Gaiman’s ‘Unnatural Creatures.’ “A vain griffin come to town to see his likeness carved in stone, as the gargoyles of the local church – to the great consternation of the townspeople. An amusingly written story, but the social commentary rather fell flat, for me. No, I don’t subscribe to the idea that the “sick and the poor” are all actually just malingerers.”

*** “The Happy Prince” by Oscar Wilde
Much as I love Wilde; this is not one of my favorite fairy tales. Its moralizing tone and theme of self-sacrifice/martyrdom may seem surprising to anyone familiar with Wilde’s character. Overall, it just feels a bit saccharin and flat. It’s OK, but it has none of the incisive wit that Wilde’s better writing displays.

*** “Because I could not stop for death” by Emily Dickinson
Everyone ought to have read this in high school, no? It’s OK, but has never moved me particularly.

**** “An Occurrence at Owl Creek” by Ambrose Bierce
I’m not sure if this selection really belongs in a collection of the ‘Fantastic.’ It’s an extremely effective study of the state of mind of a man about to be hanged, during the Civil War. The vivid realism is undoubtedly enhanced by the fact that Bierce himself was a member of the Union Army. Perhaps he even was involved in a similar execution?

*****”The Bottle Imp” by Robert Louis Stevenson
A tale on the classic theme of ‘The Problems With Wishes.’ A man comes across the remarkable opportunity to buy a bottle containing an imp – who, genie-like, will fulfill all the wishes of his owner. The catch? If the owner dies in possession of the bottle, he or she will be damned for all eternity. The bottle cannot be given away, only sold – and it may only be sold for a lesser price than it was bought for.
It’s a great set-up, and Stevenson does it full justice.
It’s also worth mentioning that the main characters are native Hawaiian – the setting was based on Stevenson’s 1889 travels in the then-independent Hawaii. There is no ‘exotification’ of the characters’ background at all – interestingly, the story was first published in the Samoan language, according to Stevenson, ‘for a Polynesian audience.’

*****”The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Gilman
Another re-read of a classic. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is a spooky-as-hell ghost story which maintains a nice ambiguity all the way through – but it’s also a raw, effective protest against the infantilization of women and even a call to arms regarding awareness of mental illness. Gilman is great at leaving what doesn’t need to be said unsaid. There are no ‘morals’ stated here, but her stance is clear.
(And was that room ever a ‘playroom’ or ‘gymnasium’? Oh hell no.)

**** “A Moth: Genus Unknown” by H. G. Wells
Two entomologists have spent their entire careers in bitter animosity, competing viciously for precedence in their specific field. When one of them dies (driven to his death by the feud?) the survivor is haunted by the deceased, in the form of a moth that no one else can see. It’s a horror story with a psychological aspect – but it also deftly skewers academic debates over minutiae that the general public neither understands nor is even aware of. Reminded me a bit of Gahan Wilson’s 1972 story, [inkspot] – but without the clearly humorous aspect.

*****”Cassilda’s Song” by Robert W. Chambers
A short yet evocative poem that opens Chambers’ short story collection, ‘The King in Yellow.’ I’ve been motivated to download the whole book from Project Gutenberg.

*****”The Library Window” by Margaret Oliphant
A teenage girl, on an extended visit to her aunt’s in Scotland, becomes obsessed by looking out at a window across the way – a window no one but her is convinced is more than a clever bit of trompe l’oeil. The more she looks, the more she seems to see… and all her aunt’s elderly friends cluck in concern as if they know more than they’re telling… This ghost story is exceptional – it truly captures the mental state of a lonely, bookish young person, and although quietly told, creates an effective sense of dread.

****”The True Lover” by A. E. Houseman
Nice poem, with the feel of a traditional, tragic ballad.

*****”The Reluctant Dragon” by Kenneth Grahame
Of course, I had ‘The Wind in the Willows’ as a child. I truly wish I’d had this story as well. It’s less well known – but I’m not sure why. This is a truly wonderful story-within-a-story: two children, fancying that the snow tracks they’ve followed from their yard are those of a dragon, encounter a kindly neighbor, who tells them a story – of course, about a boy who meets a literarily-inclined, and unusually good-tempered dragon. Whimsical, warm and clever.

*** “The Book of Beasts” by Edith Nesbit
A rather precious story of a young child who is unexpectedly crowned King, and ends up letting out all manner of dangerous Beasts from a magical tome. It has a rather annoying tone – I can just see the adults going ‘nudge-nudge, wink-wink’ over the things that passed over the head of the child the story was being read to. And, when a dragon eats someone, that person should stay dead. Kids can handle that.

**** “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs
The definitive tale of wishes gone wrong. Strong, but not as scary as I’d remembered it, somehow. (I didn’t recall there being so much forethought about what state the son might be in when he returned.)

**** “They” by Rudyard Kipling
Of course I had ‘The Jungle Book’ and ‘Rikki Tikki Tavi’ as a child, but I’d never read this Kipling tale before. It unfolds as a man, driving aimlessly in his motorcar, comes across an estate tenanted by a lonely blind woman… and, it seems, several children, who are strangely elusive. The setting is vivid and lush, the language evocative – it’s more of a musing of life and loss than the ghost story it might seem to be. However, the ending is peculiar and rather unsatisfying – I’m not sure what to make of it.

*** “The Sword of Welleran” by Lord Dunsany
The city of Merinma’s heroes and defenders are legendary. Just the rumors of their martial prowess have effectively protected the city into an age of peace and safety. Which has been a good thing, since all the heroes are long-dead, leaving only statues and monuments behind. But when the city finally faces emboldened invaders, the spirit of those heroes enters the populace… but also causes them to realize that an era is passed and gone.
Dunsany’s artificially elevated language may be slightly off-putting to some, but this is an interesting, thought-provoking tale.

**** “The Celestial Omnibus” by E. M. Forster
The allegory here is in the beat-’em-over-the-head-with-it school, but I still really enjoyed this tale of a small boy who discovers a carriage that conveys him to the Heaven that all true lovers of literature can find (the return ticket is free). Yes, the story is 100% about the wonders of reading and scathing about both those who disrespect the sense of wonder, and those who treat literature as a didactic tool to be put on a pedestal – and that’s just wonderful. Very clever.

**** “The Eyes” by Edith Wharton
I love Edith Wharton. This isn’t one of my favorites by her, but it’s still a very effective piece. A group of men have gathered to tell each other ghost stories. Upon urging, the host of the evening shares his own – and in doing so, inadvertently reveals more about himself, and the things he regrets about his past, than he recognized in himself.

*** “Casting the Runes” by M. R. James
A researcher into black magic is miffed when his work is passed over by an academic society. Luckily, the object of his ire has a bad feeling about the whole thing (after all the researcher is known to be an ill-tempered man who delights in terrifying children). In a continuing stroke of luck, the academic oh-so-conveniently just happens to be able to consult with the brother of the last person who crossed this magical expert. They hope to be able to turn the tables on a curse…

**** “The Ghost Ship” by Richard Middleton
A humorous tale of a town bustling with ghosts. The living villagers are accustomed to the deceased going about their business around them – but an element of chaos is introduced when a supernatural pirate ship appears in a turnip patch, and begins to dispense a heavenly rum to both living and dead. Good fun.

*** “The Listeners” by Walter de la Mare
A poem of great mystery. It’s all about the feeling that hints and unanswered question give the reader.

*** “Red-Peach-Blossom Inlet” by Kenneth Morris
Set in China, a parable about not being satisfied with what you have; as a man completely fails in his professed goal to become one with the Tao.

*** “Red-Peach-Blossom Inlet” by Kenneth Morris
Set in China, a parable about not being satisfied with what you have; as a man completely fails in his professed goal to become one with the Tao.

*****”The Mysterious Stranger” by Mark Twain
A gloriously nihilistic tale of a village visited by a terribly amoral angel named Satan. While undeniably humorous in many ways, it’s also a bitter indictment, not just of religion of all kinds, but of the hypocrisy of human nature. Wonderful.

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