The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 6

January 31, 2021

Previous post: The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 5.

“The Man Who Did Not Believe in Miracles” by Herbert A. Giles [1]

Another paragraph-long fable, this one I have to admit I’m not certain I understand.

Chu Fu Tze, who didn’t believe in miracles, died; his son-in-law was watching over him. At dawn the coffin rose up of its own accord and hung noiselessly in the air, two feet from the ground. The pious son-in-law was terrified. “Oh venerable father-in-law,” he begged. “Don’t destroy my faith that miracles are possible.” At that point the coffin descended slowly, and the son-in-law regained his faith.

My best guess: the operative word here is “possible”, and the son-in-law should be interpreted as saying something like: “Don’t destroy my faith that miracles are possible, because what I am seeing before me is so overtly impossible that I can only conclude I am imagining things.”

The more I think about it, the more I like this interpretation, because it illustrates something quite powerful and underappreciated about belief.

“Earth’s Holocaust” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

A parable in which humanity constructs a massive bonfire with the intent of incinerating all the “wornout trumpery” of the world. They (i.e., we) start by purging the various historical trappings of monarchy and rank—robes, regalia, heraldry, and whatnot—but soon move on to progressively more puritanical purges; eventually, all literature and even religious accoutrements are consigned to the flames.

The story is a bit didactic for my tastes, especially given that it’s on the longish side of this collection. But despite being written in the 19th century, it feels very timely, like it could have been written by any of the major contemporary critics of the so-called “wokeism” of the modern left.

That’s not to say the story is bad. The point it makes is a simple one, and there is truth in it by virtue of that simplicity. The trouble with simple truths is that we presume they are facts, when they are more like lenses through which we may look at the world. Like a lens, a simple truth should not be left to gather too much dust; however, nor should it be the only means by which we view things.

The concluding paragraph is a good summary:

How sad a truth, if true it were, that man’s agelong endeavour for perfection had served only to render him the mockery of the evil principle, from the fatal circumstance of an error at the very root of the matter! The heart, the heart—there was the little yet boundless sphere wherein existed the original wrong of that inward sphere, and the many shapes of evil that haunt the outward, and which now seem almost our only realities, will turn to shadowy phantoms and vanish of their own accord; but if we go no deeper than the intellect, and strive, with merely that feeble instrument, to discern and rectify what is wrong, our whole accomplishment will be a dream, so unsubstantial that it matters little whether the bonfire, which I have so faithfully described, were what we choose to call a real event and a flame that would scorch the finger, or only a phosphoric radiance and a parable of my own brain.

“Ending for a Ghost Story” by I. A. Ireland

I already tweeted about this.

“The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs

I had read this in school many years ago, and my recollection of the story was that the wife had made an obviously terrible mistake to wish for her son alive again; the story was more or less a fable about being careful what you wish for. This is the popular interpretation of the tale, as adapted by the Simpsons and a bajillion other places.

Upon rereading, I find the narration is a lot more equivocal. Yes, the wife’s wish for their son to be alive again is probably ill-advised, given what little we know about how the monkey paw operates. However, the husband’s fear of the “thing” outside their door is rooted more in terror than sober-minded consideration.

Here’s an interpretation: The “twist” of the second wish is not that the son has been reincarnated as some kind of Lovecraftian undead monstrosity. Rather, it’s that he was revived perfectly and completely, but this restoration was undone by his own father as a consequence of the third wish.

The story is also subtle enough that it leaves open the possibility nothing supernatural has happened at all, and all the strange happenings are merely an overinterpretation of coincidence.

In conclusion, this is an underrated story, and most adaptations do it a disservice.

Continued at The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 7.


[1] Yes, that Giles.

The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 6 - January 31, 2021 - Greg Poulos