Thursday, August 14, 2014

Quick reads: Irish Masters of Fantasy - Peter Tremayne (ed), 1979

Between Friday posts, here's a quick read-through of a medium-sized anthology. I picked this up on a whim at the Wellington Public Library, unsure of the content aside from a suspicion that I'd find nothing within that might nowadays be called 'fantasy' (i.e. no swrods and sorcery), and probably no or little actual Irish folklore. I was right on both counts, but it also proved that I know little of the genre - of the Irish writers I was aware of Stoker and LeFanu, but looked for Wilde and Yeats in vain – Peter Tremayne’s collection is instead a pretty sensible picking of a broad range of writers among whom largely two elements are common – forays in the fantastical, gothic or phantasmagorical, and at least a passing stint in the Emerald Isles. And so without further ado...

'Melmoth the Wanderer'(excerpt) -Charles R Maturin A man is stalked for years by a demonic figure. Both meandering and possibly the most action-packed chapter at that, of a long and turgid work. I was reminded of Varney the Vampire in its episodic, drifting style. Once the action heats up in a London asylum (described pretty starkly) the pace quickens, but it’s all pretty hysterical and ultimately, I was glad to reach the end of it. yes, that's not very charitable to a work regarded as one of the great progenitors of Gothic literature, but to me many of the hoarier aspects of the genre seemingly begin here, too - leaden and sonorous descriptive passages being one.  

'The Familiar' – Sheridan Le Fanu
A man is stalked for years for- hang on... Actually, this is a nicely paced work, just the right length. I’ve had a few brushes with Le Fanu’s Carmilla including as edited prose (a children’s version, if memory serves – good grief!), film adaptation (Hammer’s very loose Karstein trilogy) and audio adaptation (a rather fine reading by Miriam Margolis), but this was the first proper read I’ve had of his work. The Familiar is pretty good, with quite a neat ending - I was listening to a reading of Guy de Maupassant's The Horla at the time of reading and couldn't avoid comparisons.  

'The Wondersmith' - Fitzjames O'Brien Begins with a splendid descriptive opener reminiscent of Dicken’s Bleak House scene-setter (though this is set in a fictional New York), but soon mutates into an alternately ghoulish and sentimental story of gypsies, hunchbacks and outright villainy – and it gets rather silly towards the end. The story’s classed by some as the progenitor to the robot story with its murderous miniatures, but to me that’s a little too generous - like saying Pinocchio prefigures I, Robot. Sort of satisfying in the end, but a tad melodramatic. And the gypsy stereotypes are a worry.  

'The Burial of the Rats' – Bram Stoker Englishman runs for his life in a labyrinth of rubbish, pursued by desperate vagrants in post-Revolutionary Paris. Really really good. Skin-crawling and effectively tense. I loved it – it stayed with me for a few days afterwards.

 'Xelucha'- M.P. Shiel Man mistakes shady lady for ancient enchantress (or doesn't?) Hysterical. Complete bonkers from a decidedly shady writer and possible loon. Impenetrable text, verging on the wrong side of what we might nowadays call magical realism (maybe), but apart from the punchline ending, just stream of consciousness bobbins.

 'The Ghost of the Valley' / 'Autumn Cricket' - Lord Dunsany I shan't spoil these - both short, intimate and rather lovely pieces of supernatural pastoral fantasy. Alongside Stoker and Le Fanu's works both were enough to make me want to seek out more of Dunsany’s work.

 ...three to four out of six is pretty good, and I've a new writer to seek out. Not too bad!

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