Fantasy beasts

Circus scene, 1930s

Charles G Finney: The Circus of Dr Lao
Introduction by Michael Dirda
Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks 2016 (1935)

How to categorise this extraordinary fantasy? Its style is hard to pin down precisely, its subject matter diffuse, its denouement unclear, its cast of characters largely unlikeable.

That acknowledged, it nevertheless is said to have inspired Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) and was loosely adapted as a film entitled 7 Faces of Dr Lao. Its faint influence may even, I fancy, be detected in J K Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts films.

Perhaps the best way to approach the structure of this dark fantasy with comic and satiric elements is through the very nature of its subject matter: as a series of sideshows followed by a final circus spectacle.

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Human yet deliciously alien

Neil Gaiman: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Headline 2014 (2013)

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a
king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.
— Shakespeare: Hamlet

Like all good fantasy books, what makes this novel outstanding is not so much the magic (of which there is enough to sate the most avid of fans) but the essential truths that it contains: of human nature, of joy and pain, of choices and consequences, of life and of death. It strongly evokes what it’s like to be a child trying to make sense of an adult world, learning through books and above all through bitter experience. My main criterion when judging a performance, a work of art or a book is: Would I want to experience it again? In this case the answer is unhesitatingly Yes! And why? Because it is life-affirming; while conversely — and, seemingly, perversely — affirming that the inevitable consequence of life is death.

I confess I shall be hard pushed to mention everything that struck me as I read this, so exquisite was the underlay below the equally rich surface details. The unnamed narrator has been attending a funeral in Sussex — for his father, one soon realises — and afterwards drives off to the site of the former family home, and then on to a farm, curious about the pond that he remembers being there. It instantly brings back childhood memories, specifically when he was around the age of seven; and what memories they turn out to be!

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Fiction most foul

mansion

The creative writing course I’m attending, looking at various genres, this week turned from Gothick horror to 20th-century Horror fiction, though not without a look first at 19th-century antecedents. These included Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Stoker’s Dracula (1897), James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) and, not long after the turn of the century, Blackwood’s The Empty House (1903). Even a short romp through these key titles reveals a singular lack of female authors.

However, one female writer whose name did crop up in discussion was Gertrude Barrows Bennett. Writing under the masculine pseudonym ‘Francis Stevens’ (given her by a pulp magazine editor) she is now credited with having invented the genre of dark fantasy in the years around 1920, maybe influencing H P Lovecraft’s writing in the twenties (though the connection is disputed).

I could have added, of course, Edith Nesbit, better known as a children’s writer. Between 1893 (with collections called Something Wrong and Grim Tales) and 1910 (Fear) via 1897’s Tales Told in Twilight she published several short horror stories; many of these have recently been republished in a new collection by Wordsworth Editions as The Power of Darkness: Tales of Terror (2006).

Thereafter male domination of horror seems to have continued, usually with supernatural overtones (as in M R James’ ghost stories).

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