The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 8

February 4, 2021

Previous post: The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 7.

“The Return of Imray” by Rudyard Kipling

I didn’t really like this story! It’s … kind of racist? It strikes me as kind of racist.

I mean, it’s Kipling, so I guess what was I expecting?

I don’t know, I was trying to articulate something intelligent about this story, but the more I try to the more I’m like, “Why bother?” There are other stories I like more, and this one is not particularly worth remembering. Indeed, it is probably the worst story in this collection relative to its length!

That’s right! You and your Nobel Prize and suck it, Rudyard!

“The Horses of Abdera” by Leopoldo Lugones

A race of super-intelligent horses rises up against their masters, only to be stopped in the final few paragraphs by an enormous lion who turns out to be Hercules.

The story is actually not so weird as it sounds. Upon reflection, it’s essentially just the old “robot uprising” trope, but with the robots replaced by horses. Which is great. Like, The Matrix was a great movie—and now imagine The Matrix but where the robots are replaced with horses. Cinematic gold, my friends!

“The Ceremony” by Arthur Machen

This is a remarkable piece. It reminds me a bit of Borges’s “The Sect of the Phoenix”, though that story is more of a literary riddle with a definitive answer,[1] whereas this one is more definitively ambiguous.[2]

Arthur Machen is a foundational figure in the genres of fantasy and horror fiction.[3] His novella The Great God Pan influenced a bevy of writers from H. P. Lovecraft to Stephen King, and was apparently also an inspiration for the book Bird Box, which you might remember as having been adapted into a Netflix movie that everyone talked about for about three days in 2018 and then promptly forgot ever existed.

Incidentally, I think it’s pretty funny that The Book of Fantasy includes approximately a billion selections by authors that inspired H. P. Lovecraft, but no works by Lovecraft himself. Could it be because Lovecraft is not much more than a competent pastiche artist and stylist who could never quite pin down the trick to making the inexplicable actually horrifying? Like, if Lovecraft wrote “The Ceremony”, the ceremony probably would have metastasized into some kind of horrific ritual, and half the verbiage would be spent describing the indescribableness of it all, and he’d have probably worked some noneuclidean geometry in there; whereas Machen just … doesn’t describe the ritual. It’s a lot less work, to far greater effect.

“The Riddle” by Walter de la Mare

Oh yes, I love this story. Seven children go to stay with their grandmother in a large old house. Grandma tells them to please play and romp and just generally enjoy life, except remember this one thing: don’t play in the ancient oak chest in the spare bedroom!

And so, one by one, the children disappear into the chest.

I’m reaching for a comparison here, and the first one that comes to mind is House of Leaves. It’s a spooky house, but not like a Turn of the Screw haunted house or even a Haunting of Hill House everything-is-fucked-up house. The supernaturalness feels somehow more ancient and more profound than that. The grandmother describes the chest as old, indescribably old, older than her own grandmother. The chest can apparently effect some degree of psychological manipulation on the residents of the house, though the extent of this power is left ambiguous.

And then there’s the title. What precisely is the riddle here? There is certainly a mystery, a puzzle; but “riddle” is a very particular word, and it implies a specific solution that can be worked out by the reader. I don’t see that being the case here.

Someone else please read this story and let me know what you think.

“Who Knows?” by Guy de Maupassant

A dude’s furniture comes to life. The story is a little too cute for my tastes.

Continued at The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 9.


[1] It’s sex, the answer is sex.

[2] “Definitive ambiguity, the best type of ambiguity!”™

[3] And, apparently, fake news:

“It seemed that my light fiction had been accepted by the congregation of this particular church as the solidest of facts; and it was then that it began to dawn on me that if I had failed in the art of letters, I had succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit. This happened, I should think, some time in April, and the snowball of rumour that was then set rolling has been rolling ever since, growing bigger and bigger, till it is now swollen to a monstrous size.”

The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 8 - February 4, 2021 - Greg Poulos