The Big Book of Classic Fantasy

Working  as an editorial duo, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer are rapidly acquiring the status of designated guardians of the fantastika canon. Light-handed and inclusive expansionists, yet reverent classicists; passionate amateurs at heart, yet vigilant scholars by force of will; exhibiting superb taste, extensive knowledge and indefatigable powers of heavy lifting, they have previously codified and ennobled the science fiction genre (The Big Book of Science Fiction) and Weird Fiction (The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories) with insightful and mammoth compilations. When you add in their smaller anthologies concerning time travel, steampunk, and feminist SF and the New Weird, you get a picture of the pair as wunderkammer wizards sorting out an elaborate taxonomy of spells; or as Knights of the Round Table in quest of the Grail; or as immortal bardic elves issuing deep tranches from the library at Rivendell. All metaphors congruent with their latest project.

With The Big Book of Classic Fantasy, the VanderMeers are intent on charting the literature of the unreal “from the early 1880s to World War II–from the start of a nascent idea of ‘fantasy’ as opposed to ‘folktale’ to the moment before the rise of a commercial category of ‘fantasy’…”   It’s a deft choice of chronological territory with one terminus at the logical point where such stories begin to settle out from the undifferentiated mainstream, and the other terminus at the rather melancholy point where commodification, multimedia big-bucks attention, and an insatiable fandom began to transform the genre.

Having wisely benchmarked start and stop, the VanderMeers next offer a simple yet airtight definition of what they seek to chronicle. “For purposes of this anthology, ‘fantasy’ means any story in which an element of the unreal permeates the real world or any story that takes place in a secondary world that is identifiably not a version of ours, whether anything overtly ‘fantastical’ occurs during the story.” Whatever quibbles one might make about how we identify with any certainty the “unreal” in a world of daily bizarreness, this is a handy and easy-to-grasp metric. They further offer a rubric of “feyness”–that quality being a blend of “‘sense of wonder’ and ‘uncanny’ in a fantastical context”–as the defining hallmark of fantasy, and discuss the various furniture of mermaids, princesses and other emblematic tropes and figures. There follows some handy discussion of subtypes of fantasy and insights into their editorial methods of selection, all this in seven compact yet fat pages. Then we are off to the unicorn races.

The entrants are a welcome blend of familiar and unfamiliar bylines, with the stories from those authors who are not household names proving fully equal to those by the major players. Even veteran fantasy fans will find their horizons enlarged. Several famous novels provide excerpted bits, and a goodly number of the non-English-language pieces receive sparkling new translations, with some of the stories seeing their first-ever English appearance.

The primary quality of this anthology is its sheer readability, its exuberance, range and level of esthetic accomplishment and sheer writerly craft. These stories need take no back seat to any “literary” specimens in terms of sophisticated prose, emotional or philosophical depth, or richness of characterization. Far from some dry historical and academic tome, the book provides hours and hours of pure entertainment. Although nearly half of the book consists of stories from the nineteenth century, there is nothing fusty about them, and they embody the word “classic” in the perfect sense of betokening something imperishable and worthy of any era. Whether thrilling to the extravagant trickster adventures found in the anonymously penned Korean tale, “The Story of Jeon Unchi,” or horripilating at Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” the reader is never put at a distance: They feel intense and fresh and intimate. The samples from the Brothers Grimm–“Hans-My-Hedgehog”–and Andersen–“The Will-o’-the-Wisps Are in Town”–remind us of the primeval vitality of all fairy tales, and newer cousins by Alcott (“The Frost King”), Hoffmann (“The Story of the Hard Nut”), and Hawthorne (“Feathertop”) extend the mode into fresh territories. As we progress deeper into the nineteenth century, we encounter the nascent strains of surrealism (Tagore’s “The Kingdom of Cards”); satire (Tolstoy’s “The Story of Ivan the Fool”); science fiction (Wells’s “The Plattner Story”); absurdism (Wilde’s “The Remarkable Rocket”); and pure eldritchness (Blavatsky’s “The Ensouled Violin”) that the next generations will further unfold.

As for the tales from the twentieth century, most of them are utterly au courant and might have been plucked from new collections issued by trending twenty-first-century masters. John Collier’s “Evening Primrose,” with its sense of outlaw anomie, and Marcel Aymé’s “The Man Who Could Walk Through Walls,” with its blithe flaunting of physics, both capture some flavors from our present condition. The sense of reality as a mere scrim over vast oddnesses, and the suspicion of the existence of parallel worlds as real as our consensual one predominate. Quotidian scenarios go readily off the rails, revealing hidden passages and trapdoors to other ways of being and perceiving.

Once the reader has satiated himself or herself on the pure narrative joy to be found here, thanks to the curatorial prowess of the VanderMeers, it’s also a pleasure to trace the many links among the included stories. The older folkloric type of tale, for instance, finds a continuation in the rediscovered work of Native-American writers like Mourning Dove (“Coyote Stories”) and African Americans like Zora Neale Hurston (“Uncle Monday”), as well as in “The Marvelous Exploits of Paul Bunyan” by William B. Laughead. The dreamlike narratives of Lewis Carroll–here represented by an excerpt from Through the Looking-Glass–lead to a story like E. F. Benson’s “David Blaize and the Blue Door.” Strange inventions such as in Fitz-James O’Brien’s “The Diamond Lens” find an echo in Yefim Zozulya’s “Gramophone of the Ages.” The swordsmanly adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs (“The Plant Men”) flow into those of Robert E. Howard (“The Shadow Kingdom”) and Fritz Leiber (“The Jewels in the Forest”). Nightmares and insanity travel from Edith Wharton (“The Fulness of Life”) through Arthur Machen (“The White People”) and into Vladimir Nabokov (“A Visit to the Museum”). Portal fantasies find a robust forefather in A. Merritt’s “Through the Dragon Glass,” which detours to adventures on Mercury in E. R. Eddison’s “The Worm Ouroboros.” The comedic strain receives a hearty accounting, from Kenneth Grahame’s “The Reluctant Dragon” onward through Baum’s “Jack Pumpkinhead and the Sawhorse” and, blackly, Leonora Carrington’s “The Debutante.” Other currents and threads can be picked out at will.

Having ventured on this fabulous argosy of a century’s worth of fantasy, the veteran reader will immediately get a better sense of the origins of many post-1945 authors. “Gramophone of the Ages” leads straight to Ballard’s “The Sound-Sweep.” Burroughs, Leiber and Howard deliver us unto Michael Moorcock. Clark Ashton Smith fuels a whole host of writers such as Laird Barron, Simon Strantzas and Nathan Ballingrud.   The roots of Jeff VanderMeer’s own fiction can be seen in a story like Bruno Schulz’s “A Night of the High Season,” which also presages the unique voice of R. A. Lafferty.   And of course, for good or ill, the children of Tolkien–the capstone tale here is his “Leaf by Niggle”–are too infinite to cite.

As for second-guessing the VanderMeers’ s choices, I make only a couple of quibbles. I would rather have seen any other tale from Kafka than the over-parsed “The Metamorphosis.” And I miss seeing here one of my favorite forgotten fantasists, Christopher Morley (1890-1957).

The narrator of Edogawa Ranpo’s “The Man Traveling with the Brocade Portrait” says, “Like a dreamer who is permitted to peek at a world other than our own or a lunatic who hears and sees what the rest of us cannot, it may well be that I happened to catch a glimpse–if only for an instant–of something that lies byeond the field of vision in our world, and by using the bizarre mechanism of the atmosphere as my lens, I peered into a corner of a realm that exists outside our own.”   This feast of almost one hundred extravagant, unnerving, baffling, reassuring, unearthly, unpredictable stories forms just such a lens and window, artfully assembled by two master artificers of the unknown.