The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 15

March 4, 2021

Previous post: The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 14.

You might have guessed from the two-week gap between this and the previous post that I am running out of steam on this whole multi-part review thing. But the end is in sight, so let’s bang out the remainder of these, why don’t we?

“Pomegranate Seed” by Edith Wharton

Hey, Edith Wharton! She’s famous and stuff. To be honest, this is the first time I’ve read her work. I didn’t realize she was into ghost stories! That’s pretty cool, Edith.

This one’s about a lady who marries a widower and gradually comes to realize that he is corresponding with his deceased wife via the post. Spooooooooky!

It’s one of the longer stories in The Book of Fantasy and the twist isn’t terribly difficult to see coming, but the strength of Wharton’s writing carries it over the finish line.

The title, “Pomegranate Seed”, is a metaphorical one that is never explained in the text of the story: it refers to the Greek myth of Persephone, who lives for half the year in the underworld with Hades, God of the dead.

I’m not desperately in love with this story, but it’s a solid entry in the collection and I’m happy to have read it. Maybe I will read it again one day and have more to say about it, but rather than wait for that day to come let us instead continue with our journey.

“Lukundoo” by Edward Lucas White

I’ll mention up front that this story has lots of colonialism in it, with its talk of pygmies and shrunken heads and witch-doctors and fetish-men, etc. So maybe that earns a big auto-“nope” from some folks—which, I get it, that’s fine. But the story also does something really interesting in how it subverts genre expectations. Let me explain.

The story centers on a group of Westerner in Africa who come across a man named Etcham. He entreats them to come aid his leader, a man of some renown named Ralph Stone. They go to help him, and they find that he is suffering from a horrific curse that is causing small screeching heads to grown all over his body like carbuncles. The horror! The horror!

So it sounds like your standard “Foolhardy Westerner recklessly explores the heart of the dark continent and falls victim to an ooky spooky curse” story. But the interesting bit comes in the final few paragraphs:

Then we three sat about Stone and watched that hideous, gibbering prodigy grow up out of Stone’s flesh, till two horrid, spindling little black arms disengaged themselves. The infinitesimal nails were perfect to the barely perceptible moon at the quick, the pink spot on the pal was horridly natural. These arms gesticulated and the right plucked towards Stone’s blond beard.

“I can’t stand this,” Van Rieten exclaimed and took up the razor again.

Instantly Stone’s eyes opened, hard and glittering.

“Van Rieten break his word?” he enunciated slowly. “Never!”

“But we must help you,” Van Rieten gasped.

“I am past all help and all hurting,” said Stone. “This is my hour. This curse is not put on me; it grew out of me, like this horror here. Even now I go.”

His eyes closed and we stood helpless, the adherent figure spouting shrill sentences.

In a moment Stone spoke again.

“You speak all tongues?” he asked quickly.

And the mergent minikin replied in sudden English:

“Yea, verily, all that you speak,” putting out its microscopic tongue, writhing its lips and wagging its head from side to side. We could see the thready ribs on its exiguous flanks heave as if the things breathed.

“Has she forgiven me?” Stone asked in a muffled strangle.

“Not while the moss hangs from the cypresses,” the head squeaked. “Not while the stars shine on Lake Pontchartrain will she forgive.”

And then Stone, all with one motion, wrenched himself over on his side. The next instant he was dead.

And so we find that the curse has nothing at all to do with the jungle! Or witchcraft, or exotic thing that the fearful, unthinking mind might latch onto in a moment of mounting tension. The African setting, with all its genre trappings, was a red herring; the real darkness came from within Stone’s own soul.

Not gonna lie, I also totally love the phrase “mergent minikin”.

“The Donguys” by Juan Rodolfo Wilcock

I haven’t quite decided if this was one of my favorite stories in the entire Book of Fantasy, or if it ultimately falls short of its potential. It’s a strange little half-tale that features a race of all-devouring worm-like creatures—the titular donguys—that have been discovered to live underground and are slowly encroaching upon human civilization. The way they are described reminds me a lot of the graboids from Tremors, with maybe a twist of Stephen King’s langoliers thrown in there for good measure.

The donguy’s mouth is a cylinder lined with horn-like teeth, and shredding in a helical motion.

The story ends in a decidedly strange place, with the narrator obliquely confessing to murdering a series of women and feeding their corpses to the titular creatures. This leads the reader to suspect that, hey, there may not be any donguys at all, that our storyteller may be one of those unreliable narrators we hear so much about, and that in fact this whole “donguys” thing might just be the deranged fabrication of a psychopath.

From a formal and technical standpoint the story is a bit odd, as well. I described it as a half-tale earlier because it doesn’t follow a traditional story structure. It spends a lot of time up front establishing a setting, before launching us into a section of script-formatted dialogue that only serves to provide exposition on the donguys. And then in the last two pages everything shifts away from the setting and characters that have been established. The story ends on an image apparently unrelated to anything we have just been told, and the general sense is that humanity is doomed to be devoured by this race of gross worm thingies.

So while I don’t know how much I really enjoyed this story, it certainly left an impression. It’s very much the sort of thing I never would have read if it hadn’t been for this collection. So whether or not I think it’s a great story qua story, I think it serves as a really good example of what I like so much about The Book of Fantasy.

Continued at The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 16.

The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 15 - March 4, 2021 - Greg Poulos