Alan Scherstuhl | Longreads | July 2019 | 19 minutes (5,080 words)
“Hic sunt dracones,” the 500 year-old Hunt-Lenox globe warns travelers off the coast of southeast Asia: Here be dragons. In the half millenium since that mysterious Euro-centric globe’s construction, dracones have evolved, in the popular imagination, from representatives of a dangerous, fantastical unknown to something like just another of the familiar beasts populating what we might call the Fantasy-Industrial Complex. Through big-budget TV and movies, video and pen-and-paper games, and hundreds of novels and short stories each year, fantasy rules like never before. Dragons reign over much of our pop-culture globe, not just one patch.
Diverse and often self-reflexive, today’s fantasy fiction varies wildly in quality and approach. Writers like N.K. Jemisin (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), Sofia Samatar (A Stranger in Olondria), Ann Leckie (The Raven Tower), Kameron Hurley (The Mirror Empire), Seth Dickinson (The Traitor Baru Cormorant), Marlon James (Black Leopard, Red Wolf), Steven Erikson (the Malazan Book of the Fallen series), and many more have in recent years spun dazzling, forward-thinking variations on a genre that has at times been accused of wallowing in repetitive stories, simplistic good-versus-evil conflicts, and an inherent conservatism.
Now, with the publication of The Big Book of Classic Fantasy (Vintage), anthologists Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (she’s a Hugo Award-winning editor; he’s the bestselling author of the Southern Reach trilogy; and together they’ve edited The Big Book of Science Fiction, The Weird, and other collections) are declaring that fantasy has always been weird and wild, thoughtful and delightful. The Big Book covers a diverse array of fantasy fiction from the mid-nineteenth century through the end of World War II. It opens with a German fairy tale (Bettina von Armin’s “The Queen’s Son”) about a queen whose son, immediately upon sliding from the womb, is stolen by a she-bear; it closes, fittingly, with J.R.R. Tolkien, whose tale “Leaf by Niggle” concerns nothing less than an artist’s act of world-making. The almost 800 pages between these offer almost 90 stories from around the world, from the expected writers of fantasy (Fritz Lieber, Robert E. Howard, Lord Dunsany, L. Frank Baum), many unexpected fantasists (Zora Neal Hurston, E.M. Forester, W.E.B Du Bois, Edith Wharton), and a host of surprises from lesser-known writers. The Vandermeers approach is expansive. Half the stories in The Big Book are works in translation; fourteen have never before been published in English; few concern monster-slaying.
The globe that the Vandermeers uncover boasts far stranger things than dragons. Among its folk and fairy tales, the anthology introduces the chatty squid of Gustav Meyrink’s “Blamol,” a heroic hedgehog from the brothers Grimm, and Hagiwara Sakutarō’s “The Town of Cats,” which entirely lives up to its title. A second volume, The Big Book of Modern Fantasy, will follow in the summer of 2020. I spoke to Ann and Jeff Vandermeer this May about fantasy’s historic wildness and their anthology’s organizing principle, “the rate of fey.”
Alan Scherstuhl: It might surprise readers raised on today’s fantasy fiction that there’s a lot of talking animals in this book. There’s a talking squid. There’s the hyena that goes to the ball and bites off the nurse’s face. In the first fiction workshop I ever attended, the professor announced that if an animal talked she’d toss the story out.
Ann Vandermeer: I’m the opposite. If an animal talks, I am sold. There’s also a story in here told by the point of view of a plant, the Sardinian story [Grazia Deledda’s “Sowbread,” from 1908].
Jeff Vandermeer: You’re talking about a kind of propaganda that’s long suggested that animal life is not a serious area for discussion. Denying animals voices is a way of making animals and the plight of animals invisible. We want to push back against that. You’re often told not to anthropomorphize in fiction, but the fact of the matter is that pop culture anthropomorphizes every day, often in terrible ways. It projects a lot of things about animals that are really harmful in aid of, say, pest control companies or lawn services.
There’s a kind of industrialization of this, like the military-industrial complex except it’s about how do we deal with animal life in our yards? The answer we’re told is to treat animal life as pests that shouldn’t be there, even if it was there long before we were. More than ever we need to be considering these things. So there’s some wonderful stories with talking animals in The Big Book of Classic Fantasy that I think are actually more serious than one might think. Of course, when that’s done well, it’s really good, but when it’s done badly, it’s the worst kind of whimsy. But at its best I think it’s delightful and joyful.
[laughs] Sometimes I feel like a grad student who lectures everyone about what I’ve just been studying. I just finished a novel that has scenes from the viewpoint of a fox, a giant fish, and a very strange bird.
When you’re reading these stories from a century ago do you get any sense of why the fantastic felt so important to these writers? Why did they need fantasy?
AV: Fantasy for many of these writers might have been away to explore things they couldn’t have explored in other ways. But we can only speculate. Back then, fantasy wasn’t considered not literature. It was well accepted.
JV: Sometimes I speculate that it’s because their relationship to their landscape was different and more intimate than ours. There were probably more moments of a kind of ecstatic discovery, more moments where you felt the world was a larger, more mysterious place then you could possibly imagine. Perhaps fantasy was a way of expressing it. There’s a lot of different impulses at work in these stories, though. Some are attempts to explain the world actually fairly logically, even if using absurdist elements. Some of these authors weren’t known for fantasy, but I feel sometimes their best stories are their fantasies because in that context they were able to engage with a sense of play that they might not have otherwise. A sense of play is really important and restorative to the imagination.
You’re often told not to anthropomorphize in fiction, but the fact of the matter is that pop culture anthropomorphizes every day, often in terrible ways.
One thing I admire in your Big Book volumes and The Weird is that there’s never that homework feel of having to to grind through established classics that don’t actually seem relevant to today.
JV: If that’s true, it’s because we cast as wide a net as possible. So if you’re looking at as much international work and work in translation as a possible then suddenly, for the early part of the 20th century, you’re not just including the same old stuff from the UK and the U.S. Automatically that widens what you can include that doesn’t seem as dated. Also, looking at under-appreciated authors helps as well. We never feel the need to just include a story for historical purposes. Instead we’ve always found something in every given era that speaks to the modern.
AV: When we get ready to start one of these projects, we have a general idea of certain stories that we remember that we read years ago, and we’ll put them on our maybe list. And we actually go back to read everything before we make a decision. We don’t just go by memory or Oh, I loved this story when I was in my twenties so surely it’s fit. We’ll go back to see if a modern reading audience get something out of it. They don’t always pass the test. Another thing that we do is look at the award-winning stories of prior decades, but also the stories that were on the shortlist and others by the same writers. Sometimes the ones that win the awards are not necessarily the best that those writers have written.
JV: For The Big Book of Science Fiction, we found a lot of environmentally conscious stories that weren’t up for awards that speak to the present moment a lot more than the stuff that reflected the concerns of the day. But we also have our own biases to worry about. There’s a lot of fantasy anthologies that feature dark and horrific work, and we wanted to make sure that our own predilection for weird fiction wouldn’t overwhelm these.
Can you talk about the responsibility of anthologizing a genre with its own huge history, both to readers and to the genre itself?
AV: It’s interesting that you use that word responsibility. I don’t know if all anthologists and editors think about that when they’re putting together a book. But Jeff and I definitely did consider this a responsibility. That’s why we wanted to make sure that we had as diverse a book as we can possibly make. Fantasy’s not just one thing. We wanted to make sure that we weren’t leaving anybody out. We wanted to think about not just the writers and what we were including, but about readers and future generations.
JV: Once you realize that some of the supposedly iconic fantasy anthologies are just tradition-bound, this-is-what-I-liked kinds of things, that weight of responsibility comes off a bit. Even Albert Manguel’s Black Water anthology [from 1984] is just basically chock full of stuff that he likes. It’s a wonderful anthology — because of what he liked and what his mind is like it worked out — but to say that there’s some kind of organizing principle is maybe putting too fine a point on it. We found all these fancy anthologies, especially within the genre, mostly edited by white guys who either put their friends in or had a very narrow view of what fantasy was. Very few encompassed a wide range of material. Quite frankly, I thought the bar was set pretty low, and I don’t think that’s true of some of the other genres.
AV: There were a lot of in-jokes.
JV: In-jokes between authors, even in books from established university presses.
You do have something of an organizational conceit with the idea of the “rate of fey” that you lay out in the introduction. Could you talk about the idea of the fey within fantasy?
JV: With all of these anthologies we try to provide some kind of scaffolding for our selections, but one that falls short of trying to define a movement or be limiting. We want a general framework. For The Weird, of course, it was expanding off of Lovecraft’s definition of “the weird” to an understanding that weird fiction is essentially about encounters with the unknown, but an unknown that can’t have a lot of baggage with it already, like vampires and werewolves. They aren’t really unknown.
When it comes to fantasy, what is the equivalent of the weird’s dark sense of the unknown, or the sense of wonder in science fiction? I was always drawn even as a kid to the kind of fairy stories where the fairies were disturbing, unpredictable, even almost alien. That got me thinking about the commodification of the fantasy world through Disney films and popular culture, where things that were unpredictable or dangerous and not easily put in a box had been made so over the years. So, considering the rate of fey or strangeness within a story’s fairy world is an interesting way to think about it. Obviously it doesn’t fit every fantasy story, but the idea again was just to set some parameters. We were searching for the more unusual fantasy that is wilder than what you might expect.
It’s a tool to quantify the element of unquantifiability.
JV: It’s just a way of making an abstract act slightly less abstract. I know that some reviewers are probably going to pin that idea to the killing board and try to make it definitional, but it’s not really meant to be.
I’m interested in this idea of quantification because a lot of modern fantasy emphasizes a knowability or a lack of wildness, possibly starting with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings appendices and then certainly picking up steam with in the ‘70s with Dungeons & Dragons and the gamification of fantasy worlds. Especially on screens, the rate of fey seems to have been diluted. Tolkien didn’t know how many ax strikes it takes to fell a troll, because trolls were mysterious, but Peter Jackson’s digital effects team certainly does.
JV: Charting classic fantasy, especially, we had to put that out of our heads and try to find the undiluted stuff before the diaspora, so to speak — the diaspora of entering the pop culture. With the next volume, The Big Book of Modern Fantasy, we have a more difficult task because we still have to chart what we were after in classic fantasy, but at a certain point it’s encountering itself in other media and then refracting that back into the fiction. That’s really interesting as well, so we also have to find the best examples of that. When we write the introduction to The Big Book of Modern Fantasy, will we be talking about the rate of fey or will we be talking about the act of riffing off of the familiar?
AV: The rate of influence.
JV: That refraction quality between genres can be really interesting and fun. With knowability there’s other things that [creators] can achieve. Like when your audience already knows the basics and what you’re doing is you’re riffing off of it, that’s valid.
Dungeons and Dragons or fan fiction is like a hidden history of modern fantasy. More than one fantasy writer on the New York Times bestseller lists basically started writing original fiction to support their fan fiction.
I’ve wondered if one of the four or five most influential works of fantastic fiction of the last half century might have been the transcript of a Dungeons and Dragons game session that ran in the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, which explicitly lays out the role of each character type and how they interact and how players interact through them with a knowable, mappable fantasy world. That’s not a great work of fiction, so it wouldn’t belong in the anthology, but I’m curious to see how the stories you do select reflect or challenge that influence.
AV: We’re trying to make sure that the stories that we select are going to delight and surprise the reader and not just be what they expect.
JV: One thing that we’re wary of is brand names or pop culture references within the fiction, any fiction actually in terms of how it dates it. That’s something that you rarely see in any of our anthologies, even in stories set in the modern area. But a fascinating companion volume to The Big Book of Modern Fantasy would be a volume of storytelling from not-strictly-speaking-short-story media. Dungeons and Dragons or fan fiction is like a hidden history of modern fantasy. More than one fantasy writer on the New York Times bestseller lists basically started writing original fiction to support their fan fiction. There’s an interesting mixture of things going on there that is itself kind of fantastical and transformative.
I wonder how much of that is due to the nature of fantasy itself. With the role-playing games and their ethos of collective improvisation, it’s almost as if some basic elements of fantasy are almost open source and that people feel invited to engage with them in a way we’re not with other genres.
JV: With science fiction it can seem like you’d need to know jargon to engage in that, even though you don’t.
AV: I think pretty much everyone in their childhood read some kind of fantasy or had it read to them. But some people think that once you become an adult, you’re supposed to outgrow those types of things. I think that what we show in our anthologies is that there can be very adult, mature fantasy that still brings back the feeling that you had when you were a child. Whereas with science fiction, not everyone grew up reading it. I think fantasy is pretty international as well, and the first stories that were ever written were fantasy stores.
As early as the Edith Wharton story in this volume [1893’s “The Fullness of Life”] you have stories of adults encountering the fantastic and rejecting it in favor of the practical and familiar.
JV: We help run a teen science fiction and fantasy writing camp called Shared World over the summer at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. What we find is exactly what Ann is saying. A lot of them come in thinking they want to write fantasy because they have fine memories of J.K. Rowling, who is a formative experience across the board. But when they actually come into their creativity in the camp, they may decide they want to express themselves in some other way or even in some other media. They’re interested in the feeling they had reading the J.K. Rowling books but not necessarily the replication of them. We have to make sure we give them creative opportunities so that when they realize that they don’t want to do that, or that that’s not what their talent is, they can do something else. But it’s really interesting to me that that is such a seemingly universal reading experience for the kids that we see coming up.
Reading this anthology is kind of like drinking from the headwaters of the culture that they swim in now. And because of that, I found some elements surprising and heartening. It wasn’t until page 475, in an Edgar Rice Burroughs story [“The Plant Men,” excerpted from the 1913 novel The Gods of Mars], that The Big Book offers an act of heroic violence. And the first time in the book a farmboy confronts a dragon [Kenneth Grahame’s “The Reluctant Dragon,” from 1898] they talk about poetry. Were you surprised at all at how different these early stories often are from violent contemporary pop-culture fantasy?
AV: I’m quite delighted that we were able to find as many different kinds of fantasy as we did. I don’t like when labels are put on something and they’re so constraining. When you hear the word fantasy and you think it has to be Game of Thrones and dragons, that’s too constraining for me.
JV: The cliches in the genre aren’t just cliches because they’re cliches. They’re clixhes because they’re prevalent. So we asked, how do we want to represent those? There’s good stuff that embodies them, and then there’s also some not-so-good stuff. One reason for that, I think, is that swords-and-sorcery, which came in with the pulps, took time to kind of grow up. Some of the early stuff is hard to consider reprinting because it really hasn’t dated well. We also have a lot of international fiction in the early part of the anthology that speaks to all of that, but it’s coming from slightly different traditions.
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One of the most fascinating examples of other traditions of heroic fantasy is the anonymous 19th century Korean tale, “The Story of Jeon Unchi,” which has never before been translated into English.
AV: That was a wonderful find.
JV: That came out of working with [historian, writer, and translator] Minsoo Kang. He handed that to us. He’s a contributor for one of our coffee-table books about steam punk [2014’s The Steampunk User’s Guide], where because he has experience in A.I. he helped explain the practicalities of a hypothetical hundred-foot-tall steampunk penguin. He’s also a marvelous fiction writer in his own right.
“Jeon Unchi” and the bizarre Brothers Grimm story “Hans-my-Hedgehog” recount the escapades of magic-touched protagonists in a folkloric, tall-tale way, without cut-and-dried heroism. The actions that Jeon Unchi takes are sometimes cruel, sometimes heroic, sometimes just baffling.
AV: But always entertaining!
Which is more like actual people than most pop-culture heroes. The book makes the case that these oldest stories are more psychologically astute than much contemporary heroic fantasy.
JV: We’re taught even when you study fairy tales in high school that they’re somehow lesser than what came after, that they don’t have rounded characters and blah, blah, blah. But in truth there’s a huge amount of complexity there, just a different mode. We were delighted to find all these different variations. I mean, the hedgehog story still delights me, delights me so much that it’s actually a huge influence on the fantasy novel that I’m completing right now.
That story’s free-range weirdness does suggest your work.
JV: There’s a whole army of hedgehog men riding roosters in the novel because I thought that story was so amazing. Doing the research on this has really been a huge boon to my fiction, and it’s loosened me up a bit because a lot of these stories to me, like the ones you’re mentioning, they’re loose. They’re not self conscious. They have a marvelous fluidity to them.
You include the Paul Bunyan stories from the 1910s and early 1920s, which you note were conceived of as sort of advertisements for logging technology.
AV: That’s what they were originally, but they became a huge industry themselves. We wanted to show American folklore as well.
JV: In all its cynical glory.
He’s unlike Jeon Unchi or Hans-my-Hedgehog, or Coyote and Iktomi from the Native American stories in the collection, in that his fantastic actions are economically minded. He’s after results in a profit-minded way, like a company time-study man.
JV: I find it fascinating to re-examine not just other stories in the collection but fiction in general with that lens, asking “What are we reading from the past that actually had a propaganda or other purpose than just entertainment?” Before TV and everything else, that was a legitimate way of reaching an audience.
We’re a lot more irrational than we think and that we fill in intentionality after the fact. We come up with a reason why we behaved a certain way afterwards to make it seem rational.
There’s one pairing in the book where one story kind of pulls the rug out from under one the other. You have George Mcdonald’s “The Magic Mirror” and then Fitz-James O’Brien’s “The Diamond Lens,” both stories from around 1858 and both about intense young men who find a way through magical or scientific means to peep upon a woman who seems to be trapped in bizarre circumstances. All through George Mcdonald’s story, I worried over whether the author was aware of the creepiness of this scenario or if that was just me bringing a modern sensibility to it. But then comes the O’Brien story, which has all these wonderful elements of horror and crime fiction, and it’s abundantly clear that people at that point in history knew exactly how creepy this trapped-woman fantasy was.
JV: That comes up in our writing workshops, where we have to sometimes gently let the writer know that their hero is actually a psychopath. You can usually do this by making them list the actual things the person does in the story, and then it slowly dawns on them. There’s a lot of moments in these fantasy stories — and not just the problematic moments — where if you really break down what’s happening it’s really absurd or irrational but covered over with his veneer of either pseudo science or the author’s voice making it seem rational. I like that a lot because it’s a lot like how our minds work. Neuroscience tells us that we’re a lot more irrational than we think and that we fill in intentionality after the fact. We come up with a reason why we behaved a certain way afterwards to make it seem rational. Some of these stories reflect something very true about the human condition.
One of my favorites in here involves a prince who wants to marry his pet snake, who he believes to be a beautiful woman trapped in that form [Vernon Lee’s “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady” from 1895].
AV: And his father is such a jerk!
JV: It’s a story that potentially isn’t fantasy at all.
AV: It’s about fathers and sons. It’s about obsession. It has a lot of the fantasy tropes, like people at court conspiring.
JV: You never get direct evidence of the fantastic, so you have to take it on faith.
Is that an important factor? Do you think that a fantasy story has to be demonstrably fantastic? He’s caught up in this rapture, believing this could be true.
JV: That’s enough. But I don’t think you can do it more than a couple times in an anthology. But I also think “Prince Alberic and the Snake lady” is a good example of what you’re talking about because it has all the accouterments, the kind of baroque fixations of fantasy, embedded in it. The signs and signals, so to speak. So that builds it into fantasy despite the evidence being indirect. It’s also an interesting transitional story for that period because it’s neither that nor this. It’s got some religious overtones, which is something that we’re charting. We have to be aware of whether it’s a religious story or a fantasy story. And I don’t mean religious in a bad way. I just mean that we’re trying to show that the shift away from miracles and saints, so to speak, into something that is actually its own separate genre.
How did you come across the unpublished W.E.B. Du Bois story? He was also in The Big Book of Science Fiction, but that story had previously been in print, right?
AV: Yes. This one, “The Princess Steel,” from around 1910, was discovered in his archives and has only been published as manuscript pages in an academic journal as more of an analysis of the work. We were able to work with his estate and the people that run the archive to get permission to publish it as a story.
JV: That story is just part of what they found. Previously discovered in the trunk or in his papers were somewhere between 20 and 40 fantasy and science fiction stories, which I’m sure will be out in a couple of years. It gives a totally different view of this author in that here was someone who was completely steeped in the pulp traditions of the time and clearly read all of this material in the magazines in addition to being a great thinker and social scientists and all the other things that he was. Now here’s this other thing that he was using as a way of expressing all of that through fiction. He’s using the laboratory and fiction to get across certain things he probably didn’t see reflected in the stories that he read in the magazines of the time. It will be fascinating when this whole collection comes out, and in a way kind of sad because what a difference it might have made if they had been published earlier.
One pleasure of the book is that every time a big-name lit-class author shows up, the kind of author whose face you might see on the mural at the Barnes and Noble cafe, like Dickens or Willa Cather or Louisa May Alcott, the stories are legit fantasy. They never read like these authors are just here to class up the genre. But I want to ask about the inclusion of The Metamorphosis and The Nose, perhaps the best known stories here. What is the value of giving them pages in a collection like this? And what makes them fit The Big Book of Classic Fantasy rather than The Weird?
AV: We know that those stories are beloved, that people know them, and that they’re classics. But we really liked the idea of adding them together in the same collection with all these other stories so that you can have these stories actually having a conversation with each other.
JV: We went back and forth on Kafka, and we hadn’t included “The Metamorphosis” in The Weird because it didn’t strike us as weird enough. You know what I’m saying?
It’s all concrete.
JV: Basically the only weird thing that happens is a guy turns into an insect. For the rate of weird, there’s nothing weird that happens after that. The unknown occurs at the beginning, and everything else is known. But when you think of it as a fantasy story, and you think of the rate of fey, the fantastic element remains constant throughout because he’s an insect. That’s one way to rationalize this! But also transformation is an important thread in fantasy, people turning into animals or other things, and that’s one of the first. There’s other stories in this anthology, and in The Big Book of Modern Fantasy we’ll have a Mercè Rodoreda story about a woman who turns into a salamander. As for “The Nose,” well, it’s an absurdist classic. Again, I think it’s more of a fantasy story than a weird story. I understand that, you know, maybe when reading it you’re not literally thinking about a nose walking down the street —
AV: Everybody in the story takes it in stride. They don’t have to think it’s that unusual.
JV: It was one of the first stories we read that was less traditionally a fairy tale, but in a weird way it’s still a fairy tale, a modern fairy tale. It fits oddly fits with “The Metamorphosis.” In fact, I would have loved to have somehow been able to have seen the concept of “The Nose” in the hands of Kafka and see what he would’ve done with that and what Gogol would have tried with the “The Metamorphosis.”
Their inclusion signals that fantasy is a bigger, wilder category than what might be commonly understood.
JV: Fantasy comes from many different impulses, but with an anthology you still have to put it together in such a way that there’s coherence and the reader doesn’t get the bends too badly. I think you also see a certain progression as the book moves forward. And there’s still much to be explored. There’s a wealth of Latin American stuff, especially post World War Two. And there’s a wealth of Russian stuff — in the Soviet era, so much stuff was suppressed or published far after it was written. Getting back to the propaganda idea, we were fascinated to find out from [novelist and translator] Ekaterina Sedia about spiritualists in Russia back in the day who would write stories that were basically promoting their spiritualist powers. Some of these stories are really quite amazing, but they were a bit below the radar because they were not published in fiction publication. They published in broadsheets as advertisements or nonfiction. Those haven’t been seen as fantasy because they weren’t published as part of any kind of apparatus that we think of in publishing fiction. But they’re fascinating, and repatriating them extends the conversation in really interesting ways.
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Alan Scherstuhl is a freelance writer and editor covering books, movies, and music.
Editor: Dana Snitzky