Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The British Tradition of the Fantasy Short Story in Best British Short Stories: 2015

In his  Guardian review of Best British Short Stories 2015 last July, Nicholas Lezard suggested that editor Nicholas Royle must have a soft spot for the "weird or uncanny," since it is behind some of the best stories in the collection, such as Bee Lewis's invention about the origins of Antony Gormley's iron beach statues in "The Iron Men" and Helen Marshall's "Secondhand Magic," which he said gave him the willies. Iain Robinson also noted in his "Unpacking My Library" blog the "magical, the uncanny, and the downright bizarre" evident in many of the stories in the 2015 volume, such as Alison Moore's "Eastmouth," KJ Orr's "The Lakeshore Limited," and Rebecca Swirsky's "The Common People."
Even stories that seem set in the real world of social unrest have a pervasive tone of fairy tale in the 2015 edition of the BBSS. For example, Julianne Pachico's story "Lucky," takes place in a third world country beset by Communist rebels. A young girl's parents and brother go off to spend the holidays in the mountains, but she wants to stay home, cared for by servants. Much of the language suggests an otherworldly/fantasy reality. For example, when the young girl hears the word guerrilla, she pictures men dressed up in gorilla suits roaming the jungle. She reads Arthurian fantasy novels filled with knights and queens. Angelina, the servant whose white apron swirls about her like a cape, mysteriously disappears.
A man comes to the door wearing a shapeless brown robe, saying he is sorry he is late, as if she should be expecting him. He calls her "Princess" and knows that her parents are not there.  He calls her mija, or "my daughter" in Spanish and tells her he is there to help her. She spends the day in her bedroom watching Disney movies on her laptop, such as Beauty and The Beast.  When the power goes out, she checks the generator, recalling how the gardener would go to the back of the house and as if  by "magic," the lights would come on.  The computers in the office at her house seem like "medieval relics," the screens staring at her like grey-faced children asking for coins at traffic lights. When the man comes back, she stumbles to the door holding her fantasy book to her torso like a shield.  Once again, he urges her to open to door, calling her "daughter." His robe swirls around him like a cape.
The girl thinks she needs to figure this out. She doesn't know it yet, "but there's something waiting for her. It could be a future or it could be something else." In a daze, she opens the door and the man lets out a sigh that could also be a groan of pain. She turns her head sharply at what might be the flash of a white apron or the metallic shine of a machete. "It feels like noticing the shadow of her own half-closed eyelid, something had always been there and should have been seen at least a thousand times before."  Joyce Carol Oates uses this narrative convention in "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" when a strangely real/yet fable-like, man shows up at her door and carries her away
Bee Lewis's "The Iron Men" also has a realistic, "ripped from the headlines" basis—a teacher who has been accused of sexual misconduct or attack by one of his students.  The man is a science teacher, who thinks in terms of chemistry and physics; for example he and his wife, he says fit together like hydrogen and oxygen. Although he is exonerated of the charge, he says "mud sticks," although he says he will not go into the physics of it. His wife takes their daughter and leaves him. His life, he says changed, "decayed, oxidised," and he slowly turns into iron, with the sea sloughing off layers of rust and metal like skin. He is immobilized on the beach with a hundred men who have lost their place in life. "Time passes whilst ferrous oxide ravages our outer shells, returning us to the universe." The story is based on Anthony Gormley's 2006 exhibition called "Another Place." of 100 iron statues, all anchored in the sand over a stretch of Crosby beach near Liverpool. 
Jim Hinks' "Green Boots' Cave" is about a man named David Sharp who tries to climb Everest, but makes it only as far as 450 metres below the summit at a place called "Green Boots' Cave," so called because the body of an Indian climber lies there, face-down in the snow, in lime-green climbing boots. Sharp freezes to death here. He is passed by forty other climbers ascending to the summit, including a team of filmmakers.  The story ends with this identification with the reader:  "He is you entirely.  Except that, he realizes, something about being you doesn’t feel right.  Something is haunting you.  A sense that there is something else.  Something lurking behind every thought and feeling you have.  Something going on that you will realise if you can only wake up to the fact."
Uschi Gatwarde's "The Clinic" is a short piece about a couple who have a child that is being tested by government agencies; this sci-fi fable takes on a fairy tale aspect when they decide to run away to the forest with her.
Tracy Rosenberg's story "May the Bell Be Rung for Harriet"  is about a young woman sent to a home to care for a female child whose "deceased mother was a butterfly."  The child turns into a butterfly also.
Helen Marshall's "Secondhand Magic," which is about the requirements of real magic, focuses on a boy who wants to be a magician, but is made to disappear in his own top hat by a witch.
Such fantasy/fable stories are part of a long tradition of the British short story.  In the book I am currently working on, which attempts to chart the historical/generic development of the British short story from the eighteenth century to the present, I try to identify the narrative conventions and themes that guide the development of the form. Here are some of the stories that are most important to that tradition:
The earliest short narrative in English literature that still remains a fairly well-known anthology piece is Daniel Defoe's "A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal" (1706). "Mrs. Veal" has been called an example of the gothic mode that began to dominate English short fiction later on. The piece presents the kind of ghostly apparition, which before the eighteenth century might well have been accepted in folklore stories as an article of belief and faith, in an era in which such willing acceptance was no longer common.
The first single work of short fiction in English literature that perhaps set the tone for all nineteenth-century English short fiction, is Horace Walpole's "The Castle of Otranto" (1765).  However, there are two types of gothic short fiction in the late eighteenth century: the gothic tale best represented by "The Castle of Otranto and the gothic fragment, the best known example of which is "Sir Bertrand" by Anne Letitia Aiken, better known as Mrs. Barbauld, prefaced originally by an essay entitled "On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror." 
The best known example of the oral folk tale in the early nineteenth century is Sir Walter Scott's insert tale in  Redgauntlet which is often anthologized as "Wandering Willie's Tale" (1824).  Told by the blind fiddler Willie Steenson, the story has been called "almost a textbook example of the well-told tale as opposed to the short story." "Wandering Willie's Tale" forms an interesting bridge between the traditional folk tale in which confrontations with the devil are the stock in trade and the later British mystery story in which the supposed supernatural is accounted for in a grotesque but naturalistic way.
Wilkie Collins's "The Traveller's Story of a Terribly Strange Bed" (1856) is a particularly clear example of a supposed supernatural mystery being explained naturalistically. This tension between reality and unreality and between the natural and the supernatural is even more obviously foregrounded in the best known story of Edward Bulwer Lytton, "The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain" (1859),
H. P. Lovecraft has called "The Willows" the foremost Algernon Blackwood tale. And indeed it is a story that seems typical of Blackwood's thematic structure of having an average man, through a "flash of terror or beauty," experience something beyond the sensory reality of the everyday.
Arthur Machen's most famous tale, "The Great God Pan," is a story that H. P. Lovecraft praises for the manner of its telling.  And indeed, the manner of the telling is the central concern of this story which, like Blackwood's tale, is based on the assumption that beneath external reality lies another realm  that man intrudes upon at his peril. 
Of the three great latter-day gothic writers of the nineteenth century, Montague Rhodes James is the one most acutely self-conscious of the fictional tradition within which he writes.  An extensively-read student of the ghost story tradition, James knew the convention so well that he could play with it.  "Casting the Runes," James's most anthologized tale, is indeed a typical short story for its time;  its content consists of late nineteenth-century occultism, and its structure is a variant of the typical combination of demonism and detective work that has characterized the genre from Bulwer-Lytton and Collins to Blackwood and Machen. 
W. W. Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw," (1902) like James's "Casting of the Runes," provides a helpful structural transition between the stories of Blackwood and Machen and those of Dunsany, De Le Mare, and Saki; for although it communicates the sense of horror of the earlier writers, it makes use of the well-made short story structure and the ironic tone of later ones. 
The best-known stories of Lord Dunsany (Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett), "The Ghosts" and "The Two Bottles of Relish," are self-conscious parodies of the two most popular types of late nineteenth-century British short fiction--the ghost story and the detective story respectively.  Both make explicit the conventions and rules of their genres, which in fact constitute the very subject matter of the stories themselves.  As is typical of such parodies, the stories depend on the conventions of their generic models even as they lay them bare.
Walter Allen calls Walter de la Mare the most distinguished of the writers who made the Edwardian age a "haunted period" in English literature.  Part of the reason is the poetic "dignity" of de la Mare as opposed to what is often called the "crude Gothicism" of his contemporaries. Lord David Cecil calls de la Mare a symbolist for whom the outer world is only an "incarnation of an internal drama.  As opposed to other Edwardian short-story writers, de la Mare, says Cecil, uses ghosts not as devices to arouse shudders, but rather as symbols of the eternal world of the spirit. 
To move from the stories of Dunsany and de la Mare to those of Saki (H. H. Munro) is to move from the world of story as a means of parodying story and story as a means of creating a metaphor for the alternate reality of imagination to a world in which story is presented as joke. Because Saki marks a shift in Edwardian short fiction to the trick ending story that dominates popular short stories both in England and America at the turn of the century, his stories often focus on the nature of story itself.

These are only a few of the British writers who  have used the short story form to explore the fine line between fantasy and reality. Both Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling wrote fantasy stories, as did A. E. Coppard and E. M Forster  More recently, the fantasy tradition has been used by Julian Barnes, A.S. Byatt, Angela Carter, Graham Swift, Ian McEwan, and many others. Nicholas Royle's choice of many of the stories in the 2015 edition of Best British Short Stories reflects that the tradition is still alive in the current revival of interest in the short story genre in Great Britain.


julikins said...

I've been a fan of your blog for years and am dead chuffed (to put it mildly) to see you discuss my story 'Lucky.' It's a fascinating analysis and not one that I ever considered, and it's really exciting to me how well you articulate it. Thank you so much for all of the time and effort you put into this blog (long live short stories!).

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for your kind words, Julikins, and thanks for your story. I only want to be the reader you need me to be.