Thursday, 9 December 1999

Tom Shippey: The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories (1994)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1994
Review number: 403

This collection of short stories aims to be representative of the history of the modern fantasy genre, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. The authors include many important shapers of the genre, though there are odd omissions - Tolkien, Morris, MacDonald and Donaldson, for example. The selection concentrates on the earlier years, probably because the average reader of fantasy relies on the selection in the local bookshop and only ever sees relatively recent literature. The introduction explains something of the importance of the writers, though its thematic rather than historical arrangement makes it difficult to gain a coherent understanding of the history of the genre from it. (It is clearly intended as a discussion of what makes a story fantasy and what elements are contained in a fantasy story.) The book would have been improved by giving a short editorial introduction to each story, to set it into the context of the author's work - some are entirely typical, like Robert Holdstock's Thorn, others not at all, like Mervyn Peake's Same Time Same Place - and to describe the author's role in the fantasy genre in general.

For my taste, the selection ran rather too close to the horror end of the genre, and one or two of the stories are very unpleasant indeed, while few have the lightheartedness so typical of another side of the genre, a tradition running from Pratchett back to de Camp and beyond. (The most humorous stories are the first and last, The Demon Pope by Richard Garnett from 1888 and Troll Bridge by Terry Pratchett from 1992.)

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