The Book You Need About...The Fantastic

Christopher Fowler
A huge subject with porous borders, there have been assemblies of writing on the fantastic for a century now. But if you're starting out and bewildered by where it all leads, this might help. I've separated off long-form fantasy, much of which can already be found on this site. Instead let's concentrate on readable chunks. Fantasy is everything that explores a possibility not covered by the rational. In the last few years much of it has been categorised, branded and monetised by US media, but let's remember that there are nearly two hundred countries each with their own folk tales and heritage of the fantastic, most of which are ignored by the western press. America in the mid-20th century brought us wonderful authors, naturally writing from a US-centric viewpoint - much the same English domination of the murder mystery reflected its own social mores - but there's so much more to explore. Alberto Manguel looks at the bigger picture in his huge collections, 'Black Water' and 'White Fire', scouring the world for fantastic literature he can bring to new audiences. Many of these tales feel seminal; touchstone archetypes that might have replaced Cinderella and Pinocchio if the publishing landscape had been slightly different. An anthology is a set of stories by different authors, often on a common theme. A collection is a set of stories by one author. Some publishers still get the distinction wrong on their covers. The advantage of producing a collection is obvious; the reader gets a kaleidoscopic view of the author’s mind – see ‘Not the End of the World’ by Kate Atkinson (I have to wonder if Atkinson read my tale ‘Dale and Wayne Go Shopping’ before she wrote the eerily similar ‘Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping’), a set of 12 stories that link to reveal a state of mind, like jigsaw pieces revealing a picture. The collected stories of Evelyn Waugh might as well be a novel in fragments. You quickly see what interests the author. If you read anthologies from Daphne du Maurier, Elizabeth Bowen or Angela Carter it’s impossible not to know where there author’s passions lie. Short stories are always tricky to balance together, and only a great editor can find the equilibrium. In any set of stories, one needs a balance of the hidden or unfinished, together with the perfectly formed, but it’s also good to make sure there’s some relevance to our world. I love a rounded-out short story like, say, Roald Dahl’s tale ‘Parson’s Pleasure’, a perfect example of the ‘comeuppance’ tale, but I also like disturbing, open-ended stories like ‘Three Miles Up’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Whether it’s open-ended or perfectly finished, a story needs to satisfy the reader at some level. HH Monroe ‘Saki’, John Collier, HG Wells, Shirley Jackson and Conan Doyle all wrote beautifully polished tales that fit together like fine marquetry, but sometimes you read messier, more chaotic stories that still leave you with a great single image. 'The Weird' is a typical Ann and Jeff Vandemeer product; he's an 'Everyone into the pool' kind of guy, so here we have well in excess of a thousand pages of double-column type covering the entire history of the fantastic. It's a messy, sprawling approach featuring the usual suspects but also plenty of surprises. Personally I find short fantasy more digestible than Ring-cycle length novels, but interest in one often leads to the other. I'm not sure I've ever written a story that could not be seen equally as fantastic fiction or psychological drama; we'll see what you think when 'Total Midnight' is published next year. My tip; go with 'Black Water' - there's not a dud in the collection.    


Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Tue, 11/10/2022 - 12:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I first read ‘Three Miles Up’ when it appeared in an anthology (was it one of the Pan horror series?) and thought it was the scariest thing I had ever read - much worse than rattling chains, aliens, blood and guts etc etc.
It still takes some beating.
Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed ‘The Night Museum’ so much - all those scary things that weren’t quite so scary after all.
Another book added to my extremely long queue.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Wed, 12/10/2022 - 00:26

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

It's not that we have nothing to say; more that we are so aware of those porous borders you mention and not wanting to end up in any of the circuitous discussions that are lurking just outside the door.

Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Wed, 12/10/2022 - 08:54

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Having spent most of yesterday looking for ‘ Three Miles Up’, complicated by the contents of a bookcase being in boxes while the bookcase is being refurbished, I eventually found it.
It wasn’t a Pan anthology, it was ‘The Cold Embrace’ published by Corgi.
It’s now in the bookcase where Mr Fowler’s books live, so I won’t lose it again.

Paul C (not verified) Wed, 12/10/2022 - 10:01

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks for that fascinating post.

The weird and fantastic do seem to work better as short stories rather than novels - perhaps it's more difficult for readers to suspend their disbelief over the long form and harder for writers to sustain too ?

My favourite story in Black Water is Enoch Soames by Max Beerbohm - a wonderfully strange story I read every year and the best shock ending I know is The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. Agree that Angela Carter, Dahl, Collier, Saki and Bradbury are all dazzlers but I find Robert Aickman unreadable - my fault I'm sure.

I've lots of old anthologies by Peter Haining and Hugh Lamb from the 70s and 80s which are terrific and well worth tracking down.

I'm off to buy the E J Howard story - thanks for the recommendation, a new one on me.

Joel (not verified) Wed, 12/10/2022 - 18:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@helen they may be lurking, but i say fling the door wide open and invite the buggers in

i don't usually read short stories, because i like a long proper one. although i did just read jodi taylors' 2nd "tales of st. mary's" collection. probably because of the way the regular novels are done, and the craziness that is always ensuing, the short stories didn't feel seperate. looking forward to finally reading the first of her collection this weekend.

i have yet to read any of stephen king's short story collections, although i have seen, i think, all of the movies that were inspired/based on them. i have read most of his novels, but kept away from the stories. may just have to start with them and see what i think.

snowy (not verified) Wed, 12/10/2022 - 23:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Angela Carter [the E L <del>James</del> Wisty of Gothic smut], ideal for anyone that found 'Handmaid's Tale' a bit too 'sunny'.

Her 'Book of Fairy Stories' is useful for those with a keen interest in folklore, [I suspect Liz may have a dog-eared copy on her bookshelf.]

Often thought 'Nights At The Circus' would make an interesting/spectacular/bonkers film, but the only person that could conceivably make it is Terry Gilliam, and he's burnt more boats with the mainstream studios than a Viking funeral arranger on reindeer wee.

Paul C (not verified) Thu, 13/10/2022 - 11:28

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I wonder why the literary establishment regards the supernatural / weird / fantasy genre to be inferior ? They used to look down on crime fiction too but this no longer seems to be the case.

Interesting that many major writers wrote weird (for want of a better name) short stories : Tolstoy, Dickens, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, etc etc. I think it's much much harder to write convincing weird fiction than realism and it should be regarded favourably. Wonder why it's not ?

I'd like to see Gilliam's Nights at the Circus (great idea) but who would you cast as Fevvers ?

Brooke (not verified) Fri, 14/10/2022 - 13:38

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Wow, 2 hi-quality zingers in 3 sentences. Hats off to Snowy.

Granny (not verified) Sat, 15/10/2022 - 12:08

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Now re-reading Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber. Loved discovering her at uni, her language was/is so continuous, total opposite to Samuel Beckett who always seemed to write from some isolated prison that never had any visitors.

Would Becket be classed as a fantasy writer?

keith page (not verified) Sat, 15/10/2022 - 12:27

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

For weird stuff, may I suggest 'Paris Noir' by Jaques Yonnet

Brooke (not verified) Sat, 15/10/2022 - 13:39

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Keith, thanks for tip about Paris Noir.

chazza (not verified) Sun, 16/10/2022 - 10:59

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For me, weird stuff would encompass Marcel Bealu, Stefan Grabinski, jean Ray, Thomas Owen and Hanns Heinz Ewers. European writers are definitely the way to go. Pity not more are translated...

snowy (not verified) Sun, 16/10/2022 - 22:21

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Casting Fevvers?

Turning Book to Film is like turning Lamb to Chop, neither process is gentle, or kind.

*Sharpens cleaver*

The book is about a [seemingly] innocent on a journey into a strange world. Add in the Late Victorian/Fin de Siècle setting. That seems to shout 'Alice'.

So a young woman , lost and surrounded by rogues [brothel scenes] and by the 'exotic' [circus scenes] and all semi-grotesques, is not a bad fit.

Visually Fevvers needs to be almost boringly normal, almost a bit twee, to contrast with the other characters, [until the big reveal].

Any relatively unknown actress 18-25yrs convincing as an aerialiste would probably do.

I did try another idea, to give Fevvers a bit more 'muscularity'/initial oomph but Fantasy insists on polarity of character and she just merged in with everybody else, if the viewer is to focus on her, she has to stand out against the background.

[The third try started well,l but then it turned into the story of a very small elephant with very big ears. And the fourth wasn't really a setting, more of a storyboard for the first six minutes].

Paul C (not verified) Mon, 17/10/2022 - 15:59

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Eleanor Tomlinson would be my choice - she was wonderful in The Outlaws on TV recently.

Wayne Mook (not verified) Thu, 20/10/2022 - 12:16

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I've read The Weird, it's a good collection if a bit scattergun as you say, at least it does have modern horror writers in it. I have the Ramsey Campbell test, if it doesn't have a tale by him it usually means a number of weak new tales by literary writers, nice writing but little effect, dull is the word that usually describes these tales.

Black water is an older collection, but ignores the lost writers of horror post war to the mid 70's, Shirley Jackson being the most famous, The Lottery should be in any best of horror stories. Always nice to see some Ray Bradbury but then he did go SF and then crime.

Three Miles Up also appears in the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories ed Robert Aickman, it features Trains by him, in fact I saw a copy going cheap and have bought for my daughter for Xmas.

High Fantasy short tales i like were the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales by Fritz Lieber, and the Conan tales were always fun, not read them in many a year.