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Thursday, 25 September 2008

Here's one of the best books I've ever read, Fantastic Tales: Visionary and Everyday, a collection of nineteenth-century fantastic fiction, edited by Italo Calvino.

A quick look at the table of contents is enough to recall my favorites. "The Story of the Demoniac Pacheco" is not a short story, but an excerpt from Jan Potocki's The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. This is the first tale in the collection, and Calvino endeared himself to me by confessing that he was immediately breaking one of his own editorial rules — only complete works.

There's no better story to begin this collection, though, and it stands alone quite well. It's basically about a guy who has a night of wild sex with two women, then wakes up to find that he's been consorting with the rotting corpses of two hanged men. Things get much worse from there.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" is a cynical and atmospheric tale about the discovery of widespread corruption in a seemingly virtuous community. Gogol's "The Nose", about an official who loses his nose and goes in search of it — at one point he's convinced that he sees it mingling at a party — is a masterpiece of absurdity. Théophile Gautier's "The Beautiful Vampire" aniticipates scenes from countless vampire movies and is an absorbing story of obsessive love.

The final word on obsessive love, however, is Vernon (Violetta) Lee's "A Lasting Love", in which research into a small town's history awakens an evil spirit that has been dormant for centuries. Prosper Mérimé's "The Venus of Ille", about the residual power of a pagan idol, has one punch to swing and places it squarely on the reader's jaw. Hans Christian Andersen's "The Shadow" is about a man who loses his own shadow, finds it again and wishes he hadn't. It's similar to "The Nose" in some ways, but does not go as far over the border into satire.

Ambrose Bierce's "Chickamauga" is fantastic in its imagery if not in its content, presenting a detailed and terrible portrait of the horrors of war. The first paragraph begins "One sunny autumn afternoon" and turns out to be cruelly and horrifyingly ironic. On a different note, Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Bottle Imp" is a light and entertaining "Monkey's Paw" kind of story.

Finally, H. G. Wells's "The Country of the Blind", the last story in the book, isdevastating. I found myself thinking about it for days after I read it. The premise is that the one-eyed man, or even the two-eyed man, might not actually be king in the country of the blind.

Each story has an erudite and informative introduction by Calvino, who also wrote an introduction for the collection as a whole. He appears to know and to have read everything. One question I had was whether he read these stories in English or Italian or both. At least one story here has an English translation that is copyrighted some years after Calvino's death, so it seems he could not have read the exact same words printed here.

Andersen's "The Shadow" appears here in an English translation by M. R. James, a fact which is curiously unremarked by Calvino. James was one of the masters of fantastic fiction, whose "Casting the Runes" was filmed by Jacques Tourneur as Curse of the Demon, a.k.a. Night of the Demon. Since Calvino makes no comment about James, I assume that either he did not read this translation or (less likely) he was unaware of the translator's identity.