The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 11

February 12, 2021

Previous post: The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 10.

“The Bust” by Manuel Peyrou

Oh yes, this is the good shit. I am absolutely here for this story.

Obscure Argentinian author? Check.

Gradual descent into obsessive madness? Check.

Supernatural persecution by an inanimate object of mysterious origin? Check.

At five pages, the story is satisfyingly substantial without overstaying its welcome. There’s no stylistic chicanery going on here, which is neither a plus nor a minus, just an observation. Which is to say, while there is certainly something mysterious going on here, I wasn’t left scratching my head wondering what the hell actually happened.

“The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe

This is a classic and I sincerely doubt I have anything interesting to say regarding the story itself that has not already been said. What interests me here is the choice of the editors to include this tale in The Book of Fantasy.

Unless I’m forgetting something significant, nothing properly impossible happens in the “The Cask of Amontillado”. Now, there have been a few selections in this collection that stretch the notion of “fantasy”, or at least look at it slantwise.[1] so it’s not like “Amontillado” is wildly out of place here. But if you had asked me to select a Poe story for a collection titled The Book of Fantasy, “The Cask of Amontillado” wouldn’t even make it onto my shortlist. I’ve only read, like, three other Poe stories in my life – “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Masque of the Red Death”, and “The Tell-Tale Heart” – and all of them more fit more obviously into the theme of “fantasy”.

Given that Borges was impossibly well-read,[2] I have no doubt he could’ve whipped out an obscure fragmentary piece from some never-completed collection of Poe’s and really given the literature snobs something to ooh and aah over. I mean this: Borges was quite possibly the most well-read person on the planet during his lifetime. So the choice of “Amontillado” is, in addition to being weirdly inapt, also seems unaccountably … well, basic.

And yet. The atmosphere of the story certainly suits the collection. There is something darkly fantastical lurking within the obscurity of Montressor’s motives and the cruelty of his vengeance. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say the editors chose this piece precisely because it stretches our notion of fantasy, and does so in a way another Poe story wouldn’t. The sheer famousness of “Amontillado” forces the engaged reader to look past the story itself and contemplate the very nature of fantasy. If you’re at all aware of the context, you can’t simply say, “Oh, I know that one!” and move to the next tale. Or, I guess you can, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you do.

Alternately, they included this story because thought it was ooky-spooky scary. The ending is pretty metal, too.

“The Tiger of Chao-Ch’êng” by P’U Sung Ling[3]

A tiger devours an old woman’s only son, and she insists that the law bring the tiger to account. It works out surprisingly well for her.

“How We Arrived at the Island of Tools” by François Rabelais

This is an extract from Pantegruel, which is a work I once forgot the name of during a one-on-one scholastic bowl match versus my friend Cliff. The match had come down to that question, so Cliff won and went on to compete in the final. Fortunately, I’m not bitter about it! Not at all![4]

The translation of this piece was done by Sir Thomas Urquhart, an eccentric Scottish aristocrat from the 17th century with whom I feel a strong spiritual affinity. In contemporary parlance, I’m pretty sure I stan this guy.

I mean, just look at his bibliography! Here, let me start quoting extensive portions of it for you:

Trissotetras: Trissotetras treats plane and spherical trigonometry using Napier’s logarithms and a new nomenclature designed to facilitate memorization. Urquhart’s nomenclature resembles the names medieval schoolmen gave the various forms of syllogism, in which the construction of the name gives information about the thing being named. (Urquhart would make use of the same idea in his universal language.) The resulting effect is, however, bizarre, and the work is impenetrable without the investment of considerable time to learn Urquhart’s system. Although Urquhart was a formidable mathematician and Trissotetras mathematically sound, his approach has never been adopted and his book is a dead end in the history of mathematics.

“Universal language”??? Wikipedia, you can’t just drop shit like that on me! I NEED MORE.

Pantochronachanon: Subtitled “A peculiar promptuary of time,” this work is a genealogy of the Urquhart family. In it, Urquhart manages to name each of his ancestors in an unbroken hereditary line from Adam and Eve all the way up to himself through 153 generations. This work has been the subject of ridicule since the time of its first publication, though it was likely an elaborate joke.

Does it get better? OF COURSE IT DOES

The Jewel (Ekskybalauron): A miscellaneous work. It contains a prospectus for Urquhart’s universal language, but most of the book is, as the title page says, “a vindication of the honor of Scotland,” including anecdotes about many Scottish soldiers and scholars. It includes Urquhart’s fictionalized life of the Scottish hero James Crichton (1560–82, “The Admirable Crichton”), Urquhart’s most celebrated work outside of his Rabelais; this section has sometimes been reprinted separately.

OK OK, but there you are again with the universal language. What about the UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE?

Logopandecteision: This book contains another prospectus for Urquhart’s universal language. Although Urquhart does not give a vocabulary, he explains that his system would be based on a scheme in which the construction of words would reflect their meanings. Logopandecteision also contains a polemic against Urquhart’s creditors.


(If you want to read more about the universal language, rest assured: it’s pretty great.)

Oh and then there’s this:

Urquhart’s prose style is unique. His sentences are long and elaborate and his love of the odd and recondite word seems boundless_[citation needed]_. At its worst his style can descend into almost unintelligible pretension and pedantry (“a pedantry which is gigantesque and almost incredible”, in the words of George Saintsbury), but at its best it can be rich, rapid and vivid, with arresting and original imagery. He coined words constantly, although none of Urquhart’s coinages have fared as well as those of his contemporary Browne.

Now, if Urquhart’s writing is anything like Thomas Browne’s, then odds are that I won’t actually, you know, enjoy reading it. This kind of thing appeals to me more in the abstract than the mundanity of implementation; I’m glad to leave that drudgery to the philologists.

Oh right, I’m supposed to be reviewing a story or whatever. Um, it’s fine? It’s kind of random. But it’s only a page long so whatever.

Continued at The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 12.


[1] E.g., “The Monkey’s Paw”, which as we discussed earlier presents us with dots that are very tempting to connect, but the genius of the story is that it never explicitly connects them, leaving it open to interpretation.

[2] (and surely the other editors as well, but Borges is the only one I feel relatively confident in assessing here)

[3] This is how the author’s name is formatted in the bio provided in The Book of Fantasy; I suspect that the capitalized U is a typo. Wikipedia uses the name Pu Songling (蒲松齡 in Chinese).

[4] I’m actually not! There are absolutely some ScoBol-related things from high school I still kick myself over—I’ll even tell you about them, if you care to ask!—but this ain’t one of them.

The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 11 - February 12, 2021 - Greg Poulos