When I got this book in the mail a few weeks ago, I was immediately in love with it; there was a cigarette burn on the front cover, the pages were severely yellowed and delicate, and the book pocket on the last page read “Boston Public Library.” Not to mention, the little sticker on the spine that designated the book as “sci fi” was exactly the same as the library stickers I came across during summers at the Manhattan, Kansas, public library. (You suppose libraries standardize those labels?) So, really, I when I opened this book for the first time, I felt like I was going home.
The stories, however, took me to far stranger places.
The authors collected in this work were refreshingly not the usual suspects in the English cannon. Originally published as Antología de la literatura fantástica in 1940, Borges and his pals selected works of the fantastic that appeared between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There were stories from some familiar names, of course–Joyce and Kafka, Lewis Carroll, Edith Wharton, Bradbury, Wilde–but a majority of authors were Argentinian, Nordic, French, or Chinese. A surprisingly large amount of stories were taken from Chinese folktales, interestingly, and they were fun (and short) for the most part. Borges can’t be given credit for collecting a truly international representation, of course–there’s a marked lack of writers from African or Central American countries of origin–but still, it’s nice to come across “classic” works that are both speculative and different.
Now, it’s true that many stories in the collection were so overwritten and badly paced they put me to sleep–Wharton and Wilde, I’m looking at you guys–but overall most of them were entertaining. Tolstoy’s “The Three Hermits” was an interesting humorous departure, and Borges’ own story he included (because of course) was a fun, snarky Gulliver’s Travels-style piece of meta-fiction.
My favorite story by was a piece by Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar called “House Taken Over,” which was (as you might suspect) about a big manor house being taken over by mysterious forces. I am a total sucker for gothicism, and the horror of the tale was so subtle and sinister. I loved it so much I’ll be checking out more of Cortazar’s work later.
But the best–the very, supermost, supreme best–thing about reading The Book of Fantasy was, on the page hosting Carroll’s story “The Red King’s Dream,” I found a legit clump of old cigarette ash.
For some, perhaps, this would be gross, but for me, I was instantly transported to a shadowy corner of the Boston Public Library, circa 1962, where I imagined some beatnik punk type slumped over a reading table, probably with those classic green-shade reading lamps, tapping her Pall Mall over a glass ashtray while reading strange tales. Too cool. I love it when my reading becomes an all-around immersive experience, and this old book certainly delivered.