No. 6 - Summer Solstice
The Fantasy Book:
An Illustrated History from Dracula to Tolkein
Collier Books, 1978
The Fantasy Book is a very nice history of fantasy. It is gorgeously illustrated and entertainingly written. The author is a German citizen and he throws in some great information about European weird fiction writers that are probably unfamiliar to an American audience. The introduction starts by quoting H. P. Lovecraft’s classic essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear,” says Lovecraft. Rottensteiner quibbles with this a bit but goes on to give a nice talk about the attraction of horror fiction to audiences of the past and why horror fiction remains popular today.
The first chapter details the Gothic origins of the genre. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1717-1797) is considered the first weird novel. It is “melodramatic, laboured and unbelievable, […] and yet it was to be the first of a whole group of novels, the Gothic school.” The Gothic novel was very popular and eventually became the subject of parody. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818) is one famous parody. Next up was the oriental fantasy. William Beckford (1760-1844), a very wealthy but jaded fellow wrote the popular novel, Vathek. It is about a very wealthy but jaded fellow who indulges his wickedness in adventure after adventure finally resulting in his heart being eternally circled by living fire. Another oriental fantasy recommended by the author, is by a Polish Count named Jan Potocki (1761-1815), called The Saragossa Manuscript. This novel while seemingly about the supernatural concludes with non-supernatural explanations for the preceding events. Potocki killed himself with a silver bullet he had fashioned for the occasion. The Saragossa Manuscript was made into a film in 1965. The film captures the essence of the novel (stories embedded in stories) but changes the ending to a supernatural one. Rottensteiner goes on to discuss the gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) and the popular novel The Monk by Gregory Matthew Lewis (1775-1817). The Monk had graphic sexual descriptions and later editions were censored. The most famous gothic horror novel is discussed next. Frankenstein by Mary Godwin Shelley (1797-1851) remains popular today. One of the author’s favorite gothic novels is Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Robert Maturin (1780-1824). Melmoth has sold his soul to the devil for a prolonged life. He is looking for someone to take his place so he shows up in prisons, insane asylums, and battlefields looking to swap places with someone. America enters the picture with the work of Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810), a little known author who is considered the first American novelist. More successful was the work of Washington Irving (1783-1859). Praise is given to the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) whose novels The House of the Seven Gables and The Marble Faun contain a small supernatural element.
The second chapter deals with the author’s favorite writer, E. T. A. Hoffman (1776-1822). One of the few writers to have an opera written about him, Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman. The Devil’s Elixirs is given as a superlative example of Hoffman’s work. Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is discussed next. Poe, according to the author, was a “master diagnostician of abnormal mental states.” Poe’s short stories such as The Tell-Tale Heart certainly prove this point. Rottensteiner tells an interesting story about Poe’s literary executor, Rufus W. Griswold. Griswold wrote a biography of Poe that “distorted the facts of Poe’s life, depicting his subject as an ingrate, a wanton libertine, and a hopeless drunkard.” Some Poe admirers were pleased with this dark portrait, feeling it explained some of the power in Poe’s work. The author also discusses Russian author, Nicolai Gogol. Gogol’s The Overcoat (1842) is considered a masterwork of weird fiction. The fantasy work of other Russian writers such as Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy are also mentioned.
The third chapter deals with vampires, werewolves, and ghosts. The Vampyre by William Polodori (1795-1821) is considered the first vampire novel. Polodori was Lord Byron’s personal physician and during Polodori’s lifetime it was often assumed that Byron was the real author of the novel. J. Sheridan LeFanu (1814-1873) gave the vampire story a lesbian undertone in the story, Carmilla. Of course, the most famous vampire is Dracula by Bram Stoker (1837-1912). The vampire remains popular today, most successfully in the novels by Anne Rice. Werewolf novels are few. There have been short stories about were-wolfs, were-bears, and even were-cats. The author’s pick of best were-wolf novel is a fairly modern one, Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris (1933). A discussion on the Jewish roots of the Golem comes next. The golem is usually attributed to High Rabbi Loew of Prague (c.1512-1609). Many golem stories, poems, and films exist. Marvel Comics recently published a story where “The Thing” character in the Fantastic Four comic book is declared to be Jewish. A rabbi considers the Thing a sort of golem.
The fourth chapter is about British horror novelists. Primary among them is J. Sheridan LeFanu who was mentioned above. Le Fanu’s stories are considered classics in the genre. Stories like Green Tea, and Carmilla are reprinted continuously. Le Fanu is also credited with creating the first “psychic detective” with his stories featuring Dr. Hesselius. Other British horror writers include Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894). Stevenson, of course, was an accomplished novelist in several genres. Treasure Island is the premiere pirate novel and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the premiere novel of split personality. M. R. James (1862-1936) is the author’s pick for the English ghost story. Oliver Onions (1873-1961) is also mentioned as a contender. William Hope Hodgson is discussed and complimented for his “sea-stories” The Boats of the ‘Glen Carrig’ (1907) and The Ghost Pirates (1909). More writers are mentioned, specifically, Walter de la Mare, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood. Algernon Blackwood’s Dr John Silence stories are given praise over Le Fanu’s Dr. Hesselius, Hodgson’s Carnacki, and Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin. Arthur Machen probably had the most influence on American horror writers of the pulp era. The Great God Pan influenced H. P. Lovecraft and Machen’s stories of “the little people” influenced Robert E. Howard.
The fifth chapter brings us back to the USA. After Edgar Allan Poe the most famous and respected horror writer was probably Ambrose Bierce (1842 - ?). His An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is a classic. Other American horror writers of that period are Robert W. Chambers (1865-1933) remembered for his The King in Yellow stories, and F. Marion Crawford (1854-1909). Crawford was very popular at the turn of the century but is barely remembered today. Supplanting, perhaps even Poe, as the quintessential American horror writer is H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). Lovecraft slowly gained a huge following and respect in literary circles. During his lifetime he was a favorite among the readers and writers of Weird Tales. Weird Tales was the premiere horror pulp. Regularly contributing writers to Weird Tales were Henry S. Whitehead (1882-1932), Seabury Quinn, Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) and Robert E. Howard (1906-1936). Rottensteiner considers Smith to be a pseudo-orientalist. He uses the fact that Smith added new episodes to Beckford’s Vathek to support this claim. Rottensteiner says this about Howard, “While Howard had an undeniable gift for vivid, if crude, description, most of his stories, especially those about Conan (who has long since become a cult figure), rely heavily upon coincidence, and soon degenerate into carnage, with supernatural creatures providing just another class of foe to be slain. Nevertheless, sometimes Howard did come up with some impressive fiends.” For Rottensteiner, Weird Tales main claim for posterity is the fact that the bulk of Lovecraft’s work was published there. When Lovecraft died, his friends, fans, and correspondents mourned his death. There is no telling what would have happened with his literary legacy if not for the work of author August Derleth (1909-1971). August Derleth and Donald Wandrei formed Arkham House after Derleth’s attempts to get a Lovecraft book published by Scribner’s and Simon and Schuster failed. Arkham continued to publish numerous other horror titles reprinting some British authors as well as other Weird Tales authors like Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) and Robert E. Howard (1906-1936). Lovecraft’s main claim to fame is “The Cthulhu Mythos.” A series of stories based around the idea that fearsome gods called the “Great Old Ones” want to rule the earth once more. Modern writers like J. Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, and Stephen King have all added on to the mythos.
The sixth chapter brings us away from horror and back to fantasy. Rottensteiner starts with William Morris (1834-1896) but backtracks to George MacDonald (1824-1905). Rottensteiner gives the nod to Morris as being “the originator of that form of the fantastic which is typically set in an imaginary, quasi-medieval world.” Mention is also made of Baron Dunsuny, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett (1878-1957). Eric Rucker Eddison (1881-1945) is mentioned for his The Worm Ouroboros. Fletcher Pratt for his The Well of the Unicorn. All of the above mentioned authors were represented in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series as edited by fantasy author Lin Carter in the 1970’s. Rottensteiner quotes L. Sprague de Camp as the authority on Sword & Sorcery, “the name of a class of stories laid, not in the world as it was or will be, but as it ought to have been to make a good story.” Rottensteiner give Robert E. Howard the nod as the true creator of sword & sorcery. Rottensteiner gives a somewhat back-handed compliment to Howard, “the Conan stories of Howard’s imitators lack the crude vigour of the original.” When this book was written, sword & sorcery ruled the paperback market. Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, L. Sprague de Camp, and Jack Vance are all mentioned as writers of this type. Rottensteiner is not much of a fan of this type of fiction. He says de Camp has “qualities of real wit” in his The Goblin Tower and The Clocks of Iraz but opines that “a type of fiction which aims at nothing more than entertainment usually fails even in that objective.” Rottensteiner goes on to discuss J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1971). “One of the chief attractions of the trilogy is Tolkien’s ability to conjure up this fully realized other world […].” Rottensteiner bows out of making an assessment of Tolkien’s literary merits by stating that “trilogy’s success at a mass level has made a real assessment difficult.” This statement is even truer today. Tolkein is undoubtedly the most successful fantasist ever. Frodo rules.
The seventh chapter deals with fantasy and popular fiction. Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925) is given his due for King Solomon’s Mines and She. Abraham Merrit (1884-1943) is mentioned as well. Talbot Mundy (1879-1940) is praised as a better writer than Haggard although he never achieved Haggard’s level of popularity. Fantasy thrillers get mentioned next. Arthur Sarsfield Ward (1883-1959) better known as Sax Rohmer gets mentioned for his Fu Manchu novels. Dennis Wheatley (1897-1977) is also praised.
The eighth chapter goes back to Lewis Carroll for a discussion of whimsical fantasy. Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898) was the author of Alice in Wonderland. Dodgson was a completely different fellow when around little girls. He told his made-up stories to 10 year old Alice Liddell and her two sisters. He wrote the stories down and published them under the name Lewis Carroll in 1865. Other fantasy authors are mentioned: Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. Ursula K. Le Guin is mentioned for her Earthsea trilogy. Fantasy and humor come next. Thomas Anstey Guthrie (1856-1934) wrote Vice Versa in which a father and schoolboy change identities. This was modernized and made into a movie with Judge Reinhold after the success of Tom Hank’s “Big.” Oscar Wilde is also mentioned for his humorous fantasies. James Branch Cabell (1879-1945) is singled out for Jurgen. G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) for The Man Who Was Thursday. T. H. White’s (1906-1964) The Once and Future King is mentioned as well. The pulp magazine Unknown Worlds is singled out for its emphasis on humor. The stable of writers were L. Ron Hubbard (later the creator of his own religion, Scientology), Theodore Sturgeon, Robert A. Heinlein, Fritz Leiber, Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague De Camp. Rottensteiner opines that while Unknown Worlds published some fine writing that after a while, “the jokes wear thin, the cliché’s of pulp literature are too often in evidence, and the logical paradoxes often seem simplistic compared with Carroll’s.”
The ninth chapter deals with fantasy literature that tries to be allegorical. C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) is mentioned for his Christian inspired novels as well as his Narnia series. Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is trotted out as a classic. Mervyn Peake’s (1911-1968) Gormenghast trilogy is thoroughly reviewed.
The tenth chapter deals with non-English authors. Latin American magical realism is mentioned as are authors: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Jorge Luis Borges short stories, as well as numerous others. French author Balzac is mentioned as writing a sequel to Melmoth the Wanderer. Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893) is a master of the short story, some of which were fantasy. German, Austrian and other European authors are also mentioned.
The last chapter deals with modern fantasy (up to 1978). Anne Rice is singled out for her Interview with the Vampire (1976). Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont are singled out for praise. Science fiction authors Brian Aldiss and James Blish are mentioned for their crossover works. Robert Bloch is mentioned for Psycho and Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper but Rottensteiner prefers Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, and even Harlan Ellison (to a point.)
All in all this was a nice overview of horror and fantasy. The book is superbly illustrated and attractively laid out. It is a book to keep. Rottensteiner is a pretty unimaginative voice though. He routinely praises the classics and denigrates work that falls into pop culture. His opinions seem safe and uninspired. His voice is a seemingly calculated one designed to appeal to already established literary thinking. One never gets the sense of an original thinker. One who might rock the casket or ghost-ship.