the Little Red Reviewer

Next Foray into The Big Book of Classic Fantasy

Posted on: June 25, 2019

For the first entry in this series, and more info on The Big Book of Classic Fantasy edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, click here.

 

This isn’t braggable progress through The Big Book of Classic Fantasy, but darn if I didn’t enjoy the hell out of this week’s stories!  This week I got to enjoy folklore, cautionary tales, and satire from 1819 to 1918.

When I was a little girl, my mom would tell me the story of Rip Van Winkle as a bedtime story.  I don’t remember if she ever read the story out of a storybook, but I know she didn’t need a book to tell us the story.  Washington Irving published “Rip Van Winkle” as a short story in 1819, and it has been part of New York folklore ever since. (Does anyone remember an animated movie of this? I can’t tell if I’m getting my cartoon memories mixed up with the old Legend of Sleepy Hollow animated movie??)   My parents grew up in New York, and Rip Van Winkle was the local story that everyone knew, and that everyone told to their children.  If you’re not familiar, it’s the story of a bumbling husband who shirks his obligations, and is one day walking through the woods with his dog and his hunting rifle.  He follows a strange man through the woods until the come upon the strangers friends, who are playing nine-pins. The sound of the pins is the sound of thunder. Rip drinks some of their beer, and on the way home he sits against a tree and falls asleep.  He wakes up and decades have passed. He was raised in the Catskill mountains as a loyal British subject, who the hell is General Washington, and where is his wife??? The story has a happy as possible an ending. I got shivers reading this, this, this was the story my mom told little me as a bedtime story! And now it is in this big book of classic fantasy?   I did not expect to have a personal connection with anything in this book, that is for sure!

 

Everyone has heard of Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. Even if you’ve never read Frankenstein you surely have seen a movie version or at least have some concept of the story. I always knew that Shelley wrote other works, but never came across any. Until now!  Her short story, “Transformation”, first published in 1831, is considered an early example of “doppleganger” fiction. To be honest, the first half of this story was painfully boring, and I almost stopped reading. Businessman’s son gets everything he wants, is totally spoiled, flaunts his wealth. Dad dies, he inherits, and instead of buying a house for he and his betrothed to live in, he blows it all and makes a complete idiot of himself.  I was bored by this point, but good thing I kept reading, because the story got good! As he is walking along the beach having a pity party, he sees a shipwreck off in the distance, and who should float to shore, but a dwarf and chest of gold! The dwarf says “trade bodies with me for 3 days, and I’ll give you this chest of gold”. Figuring he has nothing left to lose, our hapless narrator agrees. Surprising no one, the dwarf in his body apologies to his betrothed, and is about to marry her, leaving our narrator in the dwarf’s body forever.  He attacks the dwarf who took his body, and this is where Shelley blew my mind. About to be mortally injured, the dwarf-in-his-body says

“Strike home! Destroy this body – you will still live many: may your life be long and merry!”.

If the narrator-in-dwarf’s-body kills his human body, he will never be able to return to his true body. What to do??? Boring start, fan-freaking-tastic ending.

I took a “world literature” class in high school, and we studied “The Nose” by Nikolai Gogol (1836), it was a pleasure to come across this story again.  I love satire, I love surrealism, I love absurdist fiction. I had no idea what surrealism or absurdist meant when I was 16, and I was certainly too young to understand satire. But I must have known something, because I remember reading, and really liking this story!  Major Kovaloff is self-centered and vain, and one day, his nose falls off. He’s rather embarrassed to be walking around with no nose! With a scarf wrapped around his face, he ventures out on the search for his nose. What should he see, but his nose walking around, dressed as him!  His nose is wearing a perfect uniform showing a high rank, a sword, and has immediately gained the respect of passersby and officials alike. The nose looks like a high councillor, dresses like one, acts like one, so everyone treats it like one (regardless of the fact that it is, a nose).  Walks like a duck, eh? Isn’t satire wonderful? Major Kovaloff even attempts to put an advertisement in the paper for help with his problem, and that goes hilariously awry, at least for the reader. This story reads like Vonnegut with a better sense of humor, complete with 4th wall breaking at the end.

 

I can’t help but touch and poke anything that has is called a “Bestiary”, they are usually full of wild descriptions of rediculous animals. And “The Big Bestiary of Modern Literature” by Franz Blei (1918) is sort of like that?  This Bestiary isn’t about monsters or animals, it is people that Blei knew. One paragraph at a time, Blei is roasting everyone he knows. If you are familiar with European literature of the early 1900’s, i’m sure you’ll get a kick out of this. I however, am not at all familiar with the landscape of European literature of any time, so I know there were about a million jokes that I missed.  I flipped through this excerpt, and focused on names that I recognized, such as G.K. Chesterton, Henrik Ibsen, Franz Kafka, Leo Tolsoy, Walt Whitman, Charles Swinburne, Blei even put himself in. Surprising no one, apparently this Bestiary tanked Blei’s career, and when he published it again, he did so under a pen name. It’s a fun entry to dip into, and even if the satire is lost on me, i can still mostly pick up on what is supposed to  be biting insult and what is meant to be in good fun. Apparently, this excerpt is the largest such to ever appear in English. Enjoy!

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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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