Thursday, March 27, 2008

Fantasy Storytelling and the Books that Make the Tale




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I love hunting for really old bargain books whenever I can. In the country where I live in, there's this chain of bookstores that specializes in the acquisition and distribution of really really old books at bargained prices, and sometimes I would just lounge around in one of the said bookstores, running my hands through the volumes and hunting for the occasional book that might catch my eye.

While these bookstores carry mostly unsold books from publishers and other such surplus volumes, one can usually find the rare treasures from within the mess; classic literature books, for example, can be unearthed if you dig through the piles long enough (I have experienced this countless times; sometimes it's fruitful, other times, you end up frustrating yourself). Slice-of-life and adventure books literally litter (pardon the alliteration) the shelves of the more popular / consumer-friendly books, which are usually thronged either by romance novels or textbooks. In the popular fiction section, one can feast on a plethora of awesome sci-fi and fantasy novels from the classics, where authors like Orson Scott Card and Isaac Asimov rub shoulders with Roger Zelazny and Michael Moorecock.

During my forays into the depths of this bookstore, I've ended up with quite a lot of books that would have cost me a small fortune otherwise. My best finds include the entire Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, books by Sanjay Nigam, Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres, and various short story collections by Larry Niven, Ray Bradbury, and Roger Zelazny. In the pure literature section, I managed to find (along with Corelli's Mandolin) a copy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago and Mother of Pearl by Melinda Hayes.

Dark Imaginings. Why ancient? It was originally published in 1978, nearly half a decade before I was born, and features stories the likes of which were probably published during the last few years of the 1800's as an attempt to trace the roots of gothic fantasy storytelling. The authors, in their preface, draws inspirations from C.S. Lewis [...the "arresting strangeness" of high fantasy ...], in defining the boundaries between the two classes of fantasy. I mentioned "high fantasy," which in simple terms is your classic fairy story where the world is set in a different world from ours, and magic / the impossible is rampantly evident. At the other end of the spectrum is "low fantasy," a method of storytelling that infuses the magical into the all-too familiar reality of our world.

Another key feature of gothic storytelling presented here is the omnipresent, if not openly felt, ambience of dread. The authors cite H.P. Lovecraft's "Supernatural Horror in Literature" as the explanation for the omnipresence of dread, foreboding, or a mix of the above. This point is masterfully depicted by Lovecraft himself in his own short story featured in the collection.

Finally, Dark Imaginings draws one more element - perhaps the most important of its elements - from another great author by the name of Geoffrey Chaucer. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's first story, "The Knight's Tale," involves a scene wherein the narrator (Chaucer) depicts the Temple of Mars in such a manner:


Ther saugh I first the derke ymaginyng
Of felonye, and al the compassyng;
The crueel ire, reed as any gleede;
The pykepurs, and eek the pale drede;
The smylere with the knyf under the cloke;
The shepne brennynge with the blake smoke;
The tresoun of the mordrynge in the bedde;
The open werre, with woundes al bibledde;
Contek, with blody knyf and sharp manace.
Al ful of chirkyng was that sory place.


the title of the collection is taken from the first line of this selection, which is fitting; this is, perhaps, one of the earliest forms of gothic fantasy that can be attributed fully to a given author (Beowulf, while older, is non-attributable), and thus serves justly to provide the proper ambiguous foreboding that instantly sets the mood for the reader.

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