the Little Red Reviewer

Dipping my toes into a Big Book of Classic Fantasy

Posted on: June 16, 2019

Ann and Jeff Vandermeer have edited a handful of these “big books”.  My first one was The Weird Compendium. A glorious example of scope-creep, The Weird Compendium clocks in at around 1100 pages.  I remember that I got it, as a hardback, out of the library, and the book was too thick to fit through the book return shute. Once it came out in paperback, I bought it, and it was still too heavy to lug around the house.

 

Now, the Vandermeers are back with The Big Book of Classic Fantasy (available July 2nd from Vintage books), which they have somehow kept to only 850-ish pages.  Is this book the end all be all of Classic Fantasy? Oh goodness no. This book barely scratches the surface, and the editors know that.  Skimming through the table of contents, I see tons of names I’ve never heard off, I see names of authors I read in “world literature” classes in school,  skimming over this table of contents makes me feel like i’m in an international grocery store, and I want to try a taste of everything.

Something I love about these Big Books, is that there is no need to read the stories in any kind of order. I mean you could if you wanted to, but you can also jump around to whatever looks interesting.  I also don’t feel the need to finish the book in any specific period of time. The table of contents might be like walking through the world’s best international grocery store . . . but it also feels like reading through the entries of an encyclopedia.  You don’t read the encyclopedia cover to cover, do you? Well, I don’t. I’ve had a copy of The Weird Compendium for I don’t know how many years, and I still feel in no hurry to finish it. These are books you have with you your whole life, that you dip your toes into whenever you want. I guess in a good way, they sort of all like encyclopedias.

 

The Vandermeers purposely looked far and wide for this collection –  grabbing the edge of the envelope of fantasy, looking for more translated fiction than ever before.  The table of contents is like looking up at the stars on a summer night – you see hundreds of stars, you know there are millions more out there just waiting for you to find.  I think a lot of readers will read these stories and say to themselves “this is fantasy???”, and well yes, it is. Fantasy is far more, and wider than you thought!

 

I’m not going to review this collection as a whole, as I don’t have the patience to read and think about 100+ stories, and I believe it would be pointless to try to distill 850 pages of 200 years of fantasy into 2000 words.  Instead, I’ll dip my toes in, and let you know about a handful of stories from random locations in the table of contents, time period, theme, and location. Were they fun? Were they fantastical? And you know, I do have the Weird Compendium and The Big Book of Science Fiction,  so who knows, maybe this is the start of a long series of blog posts about short stories!

 

Let’s start at the very end. The very last story in The Big Book of Classic Fantasy is “Leaf by Niggle”, by J.R.R. Tolkein, written in 1945.  This story starts out very Hobbit-y – with a man who enjoys his quiet time, but also always helps his neighbors with anything they need. Niggle paints in his spare time, and the time, effort, and resources he puts into his paintings are not valued by his community.  He has a painting he has been working on for years, and to make the painting look bigger, he puts his other paintings around it, completely changing the environment of the image in the original painting. This is fun for him. What is the value of art? What is the value of the time you spend on your hobbies?  And what if the art you create isn’t very good but brings you unending joy? This gently written story was an absolute joy to read! I’m pretty sure I cried at the end. There is this weird, wonderful, fantastical thing that happens to Niggle, and I’m sure there are many ways to interpret what exactly is going on.

 

And because I’ve mentioned Tolkien, I’m bound by the laws of the internet (and my goofy sense of humor) to post this:


“Sennin”, written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa in 1922 is my type of story.  Deceptively simple, sly, and without a conclusive ending. This is the story of Gonsuke, a perfectly average servant, who moves to Osaka to find an employer who will teach him how to be a sennin (an immortal).  Gonsuke will work as a servant in his employer’s house while learning how to become a sennin, for as long as it takes.  A physician and his wife, neither of whom know how to make someone an immortal, hire Gonsuke, with the wife promising that she will teach him what he wants to know.  Here’s the sly thing – we never actually learn who the physician and his wife are.  Maybe one, or both of them, know something, and aren’t telling? Maybe the wife isn’t lying? This story reads like folklore, and was a ton of fun.

 

The only poem in this collection is “Goblin Market”, by Christina Rossetti, which was originally published in 1862. A visually stunning story of two sisters, the poetic lines feel like song lyrics, the technicolor imagery is incredible,  and I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to believe this poem was first published over 150 years ago. So, is this a story of two sisters, one of whom goes to the Goblin Market and the other who saves her? Or is a story of temptation, sexuality, and/or feminine empowerment?  Who knows. What I do know is that the term “goblin market” can be a metaphor for just about anything that “good girls” don’t go near.

 

“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” by Edgar Allen Poe was written in 1845, and this story would be just as much at home in a horror collection.  The narrator is interested in mesmerism, and is interested in what will happen if someone is hypnotized just as they are dying. Could you keep the person from dying? As luck would having, the narrator and his mesmerism hobbyist friends have a terminally ill acquantance, who agrees to be mesmerized in the moments leading up to his death.  If you mind is hypnotized, what happens when your body ceases to function? Really creepy weird stuff happens, that’s what.

 

What’s next? I’m interested in reading “The Nose” by Nikolai Gogol and “The Metamorphasis” by Franz Kafka because I remember learning about them in a high school literature class.  I want to read “The Ensouled Violin” by H.P. Blavatskaya, “The Big Bestiary of Modern Literature” by Franz Blei and “The Capital of Cat Country” by Loa She because those titles sound so fun!

 

Stay Tuned!

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5 Responses to "Dipping my toes into a Big Book of Classic Fantasy"

I have the science fiction book of this! I didn’t realise they did a fantasy one! I’ll have to add this to my tbr!

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the fantasy one is so brand new that it won’t even be on bookstore shelves for a few weeks yet. I should have put that in the blog post!

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Ooh that’s exciting though! I can’t wait to check it out when it comes out ☺️

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I’m curious what the Chesterton story is. He’s very important in fantasy because of his non-fiction writings on the topic, and his personal influence (Tolkien, Lewis, TH White, etc) – and his novels may be called fantasy, or at the very least ‘fantastical’. But I didn’t realise he’d written any fantasy short stories – the only short fiction of his I’m aware of are his mysteries.

I assume the Oscar Wilde is one of his fairy tales? Star Child, maybe?

And, is that THE Madame Blavatsky, the cult leader? Never realised she admitted her fantasies were fictional..

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The Chesterton story is “The Angry Street”, are you familiar with it? I’ll have to get to it sooner rather than later, so we can chat about it!

the Oscar Wilde is “The Remarkable Rocket”, I’m familiar with very little of Wilde’s work, I remember having to study some of it when I was in school.

Yes, THE Madame Blavatskaya, I couldn’t believe it either!! This story is “The Ensouled Violin”, and it is definitely on my ‘read soon!’ list! The intro for the story says this story was inspired by a nightmare that she had, so I am assuming she knew this particular piece was fiction? The title also brings Charles Stross’s Laundry books to mind. . .

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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