The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 3

January 26, 2021

Previous post: The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 2.

“The Tail of the Sphinx” by Ambrose Bierce

This is one of the super-short stories that I don’t have a lot to say about. So instead I’ll talk about Ambrose Bierce. His bio in The Book of Fantasy reads:

Ambrose Bierce (born 1842), American journalist and short-story writer, is noted for his imagination and brilliant cynicism, as displayed in Can Such Things Be? (1893) and The Devil’s Dictionary (1906). Tired of life, he disappeared in Mexico some time in 1913.

Another fun fact about Bierce: his story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” influenced Robert W. Chambers’ stories in his collection The King in Yellow, which was in turn a source of inspiration for the first season of True Detective.

“The Squid in Its Own Ink” by Adolfo Bioy Casares

This story is The Day the Earth Stood Still by way of the Coen brothers. Maybe that comparison makes sense to no one by me, but I’m going to stand by it.

It’s not my favorite story, but it represents much of I like so much about this collection. It’s particular brand of weirdness, I suppose.

I don’t really understand the title.

“Guilty Eyes” by Ah’med Ech Chiruani

A paragraph-long religious parable of the sort that I should probably start collecting somewhere. It has a nice air of ambiguity and mystery that would make it a nice juicy atmospheric addition to a novel or role-playing campaign or something.

Incidentally, the author’s bio is as follows:

Ah’med Ech Chiruani is a name from a notebook, from a collection of folk tales. Nothing more is known of him.

My first instinct is to say that Chiruani is an invention of Borges/Ocampo/Bioy Casares. But maybe I’m being too much of a skeptic! Why not take their word at face value? It’s more fun that way. And anyway it doesn’t hurt anyone if I believe the wrong thing in this particular instance.

But … now that I’m thinking about it more, this story has a very similar vibe to Borges’s “The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths”. That’s it: I’m back to believing Chiruani being a cheeky invention of the editors. Next story!

“Anything You Want! … “ by Léon Bloy

I don’t really dig this story, but its ending is kind of metal:

“Goodbye, Maxence, my little Maxence, my poor brother. Goodbye forever, and forgive me,” she cried. “Now I can die.”

She fell before her brother could make any move to help her, and instantly her head was crushed under the wheel of a night wagon that was driving by at lightning speed.

Maxence no longer has a mistress. He is currently completing his novitiate as a lay brother at the monastery of Grande-Chartreuse.

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges

This is one of the greatest short stories of all time, straight-up. Upon reading it again, I was compelled to pick up a copy of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial. I … don’t think I would recommend it.

“Odin” by Jorge Luis Borges and Delia Ingenieros

This story features Olaf I Tryggvason; coincidentally, I was just the other day reading about Olaf II Haraldsson, for entirely unrelated reasons. Weird, right?[1]

This short piece is notable for a technical achievement: the story hinges entirely on a piece of subtext that is communicated almost in passing in the first sentence. The relevant non-restrictive relative clause is: which had been converted to the new faith.

“The Golden Kite, The Silver Wind” by Ray Bradbury

This is a fable that reveals the destructive cycle of tit-for-tat strategies. A good lesson, though one that I worry is utterly lost on most people in most circumstances. (I would like to say I’m better than most, but I am sure I’m not.)

The story strikes me as kind of simple, although I am hedging here because I have underestimated Bradbury in the past.

“The Man Who Collected the First of September, 1973” by Tor Åge Bringsvaerd

A temporal counterpart to Borges’s spatial Map described in“On Exactitude in Science”.

Although I’d mostly enjoyed everything in The Book of Fantasy so far, “The Man Who Collected the First of September, 1973” was the first story:

  1. of substance
  2. I wasn’t already familiar with
  3. which made a big impression on me.

Between this one and “Tlön”, it’s clear to me that smart people were anticipating the modern condition[2] long before our contemporary world of information deluge and 24-hour news and crowdsourcing and facts alternative facts blah blah blah.

A brief investigation suggests to me that Tor Åge Bringsvaerd is the only author featured in The Book of Fantasy who is still alive. That makes sense, because based on this story’s publication date, it could not have been included in the original 1940 publication, or even the 1965 revision, but must have been added in the 1976 edition. (Or possibly even specifically for the 1988 English-language edition?)

I dunno. I guess the issue isn’t very interesting. But the fact that I just spent 10 minutes on the internet trying to figure out the answer seems rather appropriate, given the nature of the story I have ostensibly been telling you about.

Continued at The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 4.


[1] Upon further consideration, it’s … not really that weird.

[2] The Modern Condition™

The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 3 - January 26, 2021 - Greg Poulos