Tagged: 10 forgotten fantastical novels you should read immediately
War in Heaven
War in Heaven by Charles Williams, 3/5
I’m not going to pretend that I understood the more esoteric implications of this bizarre spiritual thriller, but I certainly did enjoy its zany plot, humor, and original take on the ever-popular search for the Holy Grail. It’s not a particularly well-crafted novel, but it’s hard to fault a story that opens thusly:
The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.
Why I read it: After my introduction to Charles Williams via All Hallows’ Eve, I wanted to read some of his other “novels of the supernatural,” of which War in Heaven is the first.
Letters from the Earth
Letters from the Earth: Uncensored Writings by Mark Twain, edited by Bernard DeVoto, 2/5
From a scholarly perspective, this collection of previously unpublished writings by Mark Twain is no doubt a valuable resource. However, from a casual reader’s perspective, it was a bit of a tedious mishmash. The main attraction, to me, was an unfinished story, dubbed by the editor “The Great Dark,” which made it onto the list of “10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately.” The concept was memorable–a man and his family are trapped on a dream ship exploring a microscopic drop of water–but the tone was very uneven and the story too unpolished and indeed, unfinished, to be a satisfying read. Much of the rest of this collection consisted of snarky essays in which the author mocked Christianity in an ignorant and closed-minded way that, in my opinion, reflected more poorly on himself than on the religion.
Why I read it: this was the last book I had left to read from the list of “10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately.”
All Hallows’ Eve
All Hallows’ Eve by Charles Williams, 5/5
I had very little idea what to expect from this slim book and that, perhaps, is partly why I found it to be so absolutely astonishing (though pure novelty cannot account for that fully). I don’t want to give away too much, but think Gothic thriller meets supernatural romance in the interest of exploring highly-developed and unconventional theological beliefs. I was not at all surprised to later learn that Williams was a regular member of the Inklings, enjoying the friendship and literary criticism of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
This book demands to be re-read, but I would avoid this edition (Oxford Reprints) at all costs. The binding has that ubiquitously cheap, self-published feel and the text contains a baffling number of typos. Most egregious of all is the use of hyphens in place of em dashes. I know how pedantic that complaint sounds, but Williams used em dashes often and in very long sentences. The relentless and incorrect use of hyphens disrupted visual flow in addition to hindering comprehension.
Why I read it: another entry on the list of 10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately.
The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” and Other Nautical Adventures
The Boats of the “Glen Carrig and Other Nautical Adventures by William Hope Hodgson, 3/5
Taken singly, these stories are fun in a kitschy way, but overall, the effect is repetitive and hackneyed. Maybe the editor’s introduction about Hodgson’s writing career tainted my perspective, but I got the feeling throughout that the author was writing more for a financial inlet than a creative outlet. There were a few brief moments when I thought “Oh, he is capable of higher quality writing and insightful observations when he cares to be,” but they were lost in the endless “weeds” that the ships in his stories all-too-inevitably encountered.
Why I read it: one of the few remaining entries on the list of 10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately that I have left to read.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Rudolf Erich Raspe, illustrated by Gustave Dore, 3/5
The ridiculous and fantastical exploits of Baron Munchausen remind me very much of the tall tales told of American folk heroes Davy Crockett and Paul Bunyan. In fact, I so firmly associate this aesthetic with 19th- and 20th-century America that I really struggled to reconcile it with 18th-century Germany. I looked in vain for an undercurrent of serious political satire, but none was to be found. Even the illustrations seemed implausible: Gustave Doré is best known for his extremely serious engravings of Biblical scenes. I had to verify that he was even capable of depictions like Baron Munchausen’s butt plugging a hole in a leaky ship, while a school of fish look on in obvious shock. This book should not exist but it’s so bonkers that I’m glad it does (even if it’s not exactly my cup of tea).
Why I read it: another one from the list of 10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately.
Doom by William Gerhardie, 3/5
Few escape the author’s satirical pen in this madcap, semi-autobiographical novel, even himself. From struggling artists to business magnates, grasping socialites to simple countryfolk, Gerhardie peoples his version of reality with mostly unlikeable but all too recognizable characters, living in a doomed world that is not as different from ours as one might hope. Is it an eerie prescience, or just a testament to mankind’s unchanging nature, that a novel written almost 100 years ago would depict the machinations of mass media moguls, the limitless privilege of the wealthy elite, and a world polarized by war over Russian territorial claims?
Why I read it: another entry on the list of “10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately.”
Looking for the General
Looking for the General by Warren Miller, 3/5
Set in a semi-dystopian version of the 1960s, this bizarre book is written from the perspective of a physicist who becomes radicalized by an alien cult (literally, a group of people who believe aliens possessing unimaginable knowledge and power, having left earth, continue to monitor mankind via possession of abducted individuals and will return to elevate the deserving). It is a testimony to Miller’s observational powers and skill as a writer that he could create a serious, insightful, and fascinating novel based on such an unhinged premise.
Why I read it: Many years ago, I encountered a list of “10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately,” and am slowly working my through it, having finally got around to using my library’s interlibrary loan service to order the more rare or out-of-print entries.
Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees, 5/5
This exquisite fantasy has a bittersweet and beautiful tune; I was entranced from the very beginning. More down-to-earth than George Macdonald’s Phantastes (one of the only books I can think of to which it is comparable), it expresses rather than evokes the mystery of human experience that C.S. Lewis describes as the “desire for our own faroff country” and the “inconsolable secret in each one of you” (The Weight of Glory).
Sadly, this atrocious edition is peppered with typos–even the front cover does not escape: in the book, residents of Lud-in-the-Mist are referred to as “Ludites,” not “Luddites.” Never did a typo bring along so many unfortunate and completely unrelated connotations.
[Why I read it: It appeared in very good company in the article “10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately.”]
Masters of Atlantis
Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis, 5/5
Imagine a vast ocean of liquid sarcasm completely evaporating and leaving a shoebox worth of bone-dry, crumbly humour and you will get an idea of this book’s style. Masters of Atlantis follows the rise and devolution of the fictional Gnomon Society (the last bastion of Atlantean wisdom), with its narcissistic leaders, shady sidekicks and delusional followers. This book is a remarkably sophisticated and clear-eyed portrayal of humankind’s temptations, weaknesses and failings, presented with lots of sarcastic, dry, deadpan wit.