Among this month's best reads is one of the biggest and most ambitious themed anthologies ever published. The Big Book of Classic Fantasy is, quite simply, massive. Within its 840+ pages, you'll find 90 timeless fantasy stories written between 1800 and 1940. While some anthologies undertaking such a feat might stick exclusively to the well-tread classics, editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer made it a point to offer readers many rarely-seen gems from authors around the world. (See below for the complete globetrotting table of contents.) The Big Book of Classic Fantasy, just like 2016's companion volume The Big Book of Science Fiction, is poised to stand for years as one of the most comprehensive, well-researched and seminal volumes of the short fiction form—in any genre.
I had the opportunity to ask editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer about their Herculean task of assembling this impressive volume...
Q: How did the idea for compiling The Big Book of Classic Fantasy come about?
ANN: We had talked about doing a large-scale fantasy anthology for years. We envisioned it to be at least two volumes, because we knew we couldn't possibly fit everything into one large anthology. Over the years we have worked on many different projects, but this one has been near and dear to our hearts.
Q: It seems like you intentionally defined fantasy rather loosely so as to be able to include the widest selection of fantasy stories. Why was that important?
JEFF: I'd just gently push back and say it's not that loose—I mean, every story has a fantastical element. And one point of doing an anthology like this is to put in one volume different ideas from many different places of what "fantasy" is.
ANN: It's important to be open to different ideas and to look at each story not only from an historical perspective but also from the reading audience's perspective. It's easy to fall back on the same familiar names and stories that we've all grown up with, but in order to bring something new to the field, you need to cast a wider net.
Q: "The rate of the Fey" is a term you use as a way to measure the fantastical properties of a story. Can you describe what that is and how it helped you to decide which stories to include?
ANN: Every tale has some fantastical element front and center in the story, not just a casual aside or glimpse, but right there on the page, not to be ignored. It's true that some stories may be more fantastical that others. This could be in the setting, an otherworldly fantasy land, or in the characters themselves, whether they be talking animals or fairies or other mythical beings.
JEFF: SF has a "sense of wonder" and Weird fiction has a kind of "transcendent unknown". So "rate of fey" is our idea of the fantasy equivalent. How much new, even if just for the time, is in the story? This is kind of important for this period because you see the transition from tales that were meant as literal warnings or that were basically religious tales into "short stories" and "fiction". But it's not meant to be a strict definitional term—just scaffolding to help think about fantasy.
Q: What other criteria did you use for choosing which stories to include?
ANN: When seeking out stories from the past it is important to ensure that they stand the test of time. The stories must be relevant to a modern audience and therefore not contain a lot of in-jokes. Those things will date a story quickly. We chose stories that were good stories, that readers can enjoy; not simply for historical reasons. That's the bottom line.
We also wanted to make sure that each story we selected was the best of that kind of story. We have oftentimes found that some writers will be so influenced by certain writers and past work that their stories are a poor pastiche of the original. However, there are also times when the newer story is much better.
Q: What were some of the challenges in putting together The Big Book of Classic Fantasy ?
ANN: As with all projects, we always want more time and resources, ha! One of the challenges is finding the estates for some of these writers. It is heartbreaking to learn that certain writers died penniless and alone.
JEFF: I would say that we faced fewer challenges just because a lot of the estates and agents know us well by now, due to doing so many anthologies. We have great working relationships with them and with translators. So even though there are always some obstacles in obtaining stories, it's now pretty smooth. Ann does a great job getting the permissions.
Q: What are some of the major differences between current fantasy and the classic fantasy fiction covered by this anthology (late 1800s to World War II)? What, if anything, has stayed the same?
JEFF: The major professional magazine market didn't exist before World War II (not talking about genre pulps) and also pulp culture as we think of it didn't exist before the 1980s. These things are both influential in that the general magazine market published a lot of what you might call "mainstream fantasy" and a publication like The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy on the genre side published folks like Borges. In terms of pop culture, the infusion of other media ideas of fantasy has of course influenced the written word as well. Sometimes this results in unique hybrids. And then the rise of things like Latin American magic realism in the 1970s definitely influenced and changed the perspectives of writers known for fantasy and those who only wrote a few fantasy tales.
Q: As thoroughly curated as this anthology is, the realities of publishing, schedules and availability must mean that some things couldn't be included. Are there any stories or authors you would have loved to also include but couldn't?
ANN: Overall, we were able to acquire all of the stories we wanted. Of course, with more time and resources, we would have included more new translations from other countries. It's fascinating to me to see what work is being read and enjoyed in different parts of the world at the same time. For this project in particular, we know that many of the writers didn't know about each other, except Edgar Allen Poe, who was known and translated internationally. His work was an influence on others, especially the Russian writer Aleksandr Grin, who was said to have carried a photo of Poe in his vest.
JEFF: The size of these anthologies tends to mean we get everything we want and the main issue is what our start and end dates are, as to what seems like a cohesive period.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from The Big Book of Classic Fantasy?
ANN: My hope is that the readers will seek out more work by some of these writers as well as others mentioned throughout the book. I'd like them to recognize that just because a story was written over 100 years ago doesn't mean it isn't still relevant today. Also, that works in translation are not difficult or academic, but can be a lot of fun and bring a fresh perspective to each reader, no matter the time period.
Q: The Big Book of Classic Fantasy is impressive for lots of reasons, including breadth of story selection, the inclusion of writers from all around the world, numerous translated stories brought to English-speaking readers for the first time--not to mention the huge number of stories in its 840+ pages. Having completed this Herculean task, has it changed the way you view literature and if so, how?
ANN: Thank you for your kind words. This project hasn't changed my view of literature, it has only confirmed that there is a lot more out there than we can know and read in one lifetime. It has made me appreciate the work of writers, translators and also editors, too. And I am even more adamant that we should be taking better care of our storytellers today, for they are the ones who will tell our stories to future generations.
Q: Both of you are accomplished in the literary field. What can we expect next from each of you?
JEFF: Well, a breather. These huge anthologies are like creating an air craft carrier or a small city or something. Afterwards, it's important to recharge.
BONUS: Here is the Table of Contents for The Big Book of Classic Fantasy:
- "The Queen's Son" by Bettina von Arnim
- "Hans-My-Hedgehog" by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
- "The Story of the Hard Nut" by E. T. A. Hoffmann
- "Rip Van Winkle" by Washington Irving
- "The Luck of the Bean-Rows" by Charles Nodier
- "Transformation" by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
- "The Nest of Nightingales" by Théophile Gautier
- "The Fairytale About a Dead Body, Belonging to No One Knows Whom" by Vladimir Odoevsky
- "The Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton" by Charles Dickens
- "The Nose" by Nikolai Gogol
- "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" by Edgar Allan Poe
- "The Story of Jeon Unchi" by Anonymous
- "Feathertop: A Moralized Legend" by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- "Master Zacharius" by Jules Verne
- "The Frost King: Or, the Power of Love" by Louisa May Alcott
- "The Tartarus of Maids" by Herman Melville
- "The Magic Mirror" by George MacDonald
- "The Diamond Lens" by Fitz-James O'Brien
- "Goblin Market," Christina Rossetti
- "The Will-o'-the-Wisps Are in Town" by Hans Christian Andersen
- The Legend of the Pale Maiden" by Aleksis Kivi
- "Looking-Glass House" by Lewis Carroll
- "Furnica, or the Queen of the Ants" by Carmen Sylva
- "The Story of Iván the Fool" by Leo Tolstoy
- "The Goophered Grapevine" by Charles W. Chestnutt
- "The Bee-Man of Orn" by Frank R. Stockton
- "The Remarkable Rocket" by Oscar Wilde
- "The Ensouled Violin" by H. P. Blavatskaya
- "The Death of Odjigh" by Marcel Schwob
- "The Terrestrial Fire" by Marcel Schwob
- "The Kingdom of Cards" by Rabindranath Tagore
- "The Other Side: A Breton Legend" by Count Eric Stanlislaus Stenbock
- "The Fulness of Life" by Edith Wharton
- "Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady" by Vernon Lee
- "The Little Room" by Madeline Yale Wynne
- "The Plattner Story" by H. G. Wells
- "The Princess Baladina—Her Adventure" by Willa Cather
- "The Reluctant Dragon" by Kenneth Grahame
- "Iktomi Tales" by Zitkala-Ša
- "Marionettes" by Louis Fréchette
- "Dance of the Comets: An Astral Pantomime in Two Acts" by Paul Scheerbart
- "The White People" by Arthur Machen
- "Blamol" by Gustav Meyrink
- "Goblins: A Logging Camp Story" by Louis Fréchette
- "Sowbread" by Grazia Deledda
- "The Angry Street" by G. K. Chesterton
- "The Aunt and Amabel" by E. Nesbit
- "Sacrifice" by Aleksey Remizov
- "The Princess Steel" by W. E. B. Du Bois
- "The Hump" by Fernán Caballero
- "The Celestial Omnibus" by E. M. Forster
- "The Legend of the Ice Babies" by E. Pauline Johnson
- "The Last Redoubt" by William Hope Hodgson
- "Jack Pumpkinhead and the Sawhorse" by L. Frank Baum
- "The Plant Men" by Edgar Rice Burroughs
- "Strange News from Another Star" by Hermann Hesse
- "The Metamorphosis" by Franz Kafka
- "The Hoard of the Gibbelins" by Lord Dunsany
- "Through the Dragon Glass" by A. Merritt
- "David Blaze and the Blue Door" by E. F. Benson
- "The Big Bestiary of Modern Literature" by Franz Blei
- "The Alligator War" by Horacio Quiroga
- "Friend Island" by Francis Stevens
- "Magic Comes to a Committee" by Stella Benson
- "Gramaphone of the Ages" by Yefim Zozulya
- "Joiwind" by David Lindsay
- "Sound in the Mountain" by Maurice Renard
- "Sennin" by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
- "Koshtra Pivrarcha" by E. R. Eddison
- "At the Border" by Der Nister
- "The Marvelous Exploits of Paul Bunyon" by W. B. Laughead
- "Talkative Domovoi" by Aleksandr Grin
- "The Ratcatcher" by Aleksandr Grin
- "The Shadow Kingdom" by Robert E. Howard
- "The Man Traveling with the Brocade" by Edogawa Ranpo
- "A Visit to the Museum" by Vladimir Nabokov
- "The Water Sprite's Tale" by Karel Čapek
- "The Capital of Cat Country" by Lao She
- "Coyote Stories" by Mourning Dove
- "Uncle Monday" by Zora Neale Hurston
- "Rose-Cold, Moon Skater" by María Teresa León
- "A Night of the High Season" by Bruno Schulz
- "The Influence of the Sun" by Fernand Dumont
- "The Town of Cats" by Hagiwara Sakutarō
- "The Debutante" by Leonora Carrington
- "The Jewels in the Forest" by Fritz Leiber
- "Evening Primrose" by John Collier
- "The Coming of the White Worm" by Clark Ashton Smith
- "The Man Who Could Walk Through Walls" by Marcel Aymé
- "Leaf by Niggle" by J. R. R. Tolkien