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Black Water: The Book of Fantastic Literature Paperback – December 13, 1984
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IMPORTANCE by Manuel Mujica Láinez
Great Lady: Mrs. Hermosilla del Fresno, widow, lady of very great importance, lives in her huge mansion with her many servants and presides over all the city’s important charities and parties. Great writers such as de Maupassant and Balzac have always understood one of the perfect ingredients for a good short story is a character puffed up by all their wealth and social standing. Manuel Mujica Láinez was familiar with the precariousness of family wealth: born into a distinguished and wealthy lineage of Buenos Aries nobility, by the time the family line reached his parents and Manuel, the vast majority of wealth vanished. Manuel had to earn a living as a literary critic and art critic for the city’s leading newspaper.
Chink in the Armor: Unfortunately, there is one small fact diminishing the Señora’s splendid importance: her family background is somewhat less than splendid. That’s right, sad but true, she comes from a dubious bloodline. Also unfortunate for Señora, certain obscure relatives occasionally have the temerity to pop up at the wrong time forcing Señora to cloak their kinship with a wry smile and arched glance “while her vanity spits and snarls inside her like a crouching tiger.” Ah, a second valuable ingredient for a good short story featuring a puffed up character: a hidden flaw.
Piety Counts: Señora believes in God as well as in heaven and hell. And equally notable, Señora also firmly believes, a belief bolstered by her assistants and employees, that she has unquestionably earned her rightful place in Paradise. Such a worldview as the Señora’s has always amused me, a worldview shared by fundamentalists of whatever stripe I’ve encountered: there’s a heaven and hell and I’m the one going to heaven. All the rest of you people who don’t believe exactly what I believe will go to hell – good riddance!
The Fantastic: As it turns out, there’s an excellent reason why this story is included in Alberto Manguel's anthology of fantastic literature: one morning Señora wakes up only to discover she is dead. That’s right, all her very, very important servants gather in her room, wailing and crying over the fact that their beloved Señora has died. Of course, Señora is frightened and a tad astonished at this event since deep down Señora really and truly believed she is immortal. Let’s face it, all of us are not that different from Señora – a characteristically human way of viewing life: suffering, old age and especially death are things that happen to other people, certainly not me since, well . . . life is all about me!
The Unexpected: After one hour, two hours, three hours, Señora thinks enough is enough, where are heavenly angels to carry me off to paradise? Instead, exactly the beings she does not want to appear, appear: her dubious cousins, nephews and, damn, her most dreaded half-sister show up in open view of those upper crust ladies Señora has always tried her hardest to impress. Oh, my, what a bummer for someone who has spent their life molding an identity around wealth, status and bloodline. Sidebar: In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition with their Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead), the biggest mistake we can make at the time of our death is to cling to our past life and relationships rather than letting go.
Bad News: Señora's upper crust lady friends actually exchange pleasantries with her lowly relatives rather than paying any attention to her. What is happening here? Señora grows impatient, life is not cooperating with her wishes and desires. On top of this, after six distasteful, highly unpleasant days, Señora’s lawyer shows up on the scene and, contrary to her interests in perpetuating her good name by leaving her wealth to her chosen charities as clearly expressed in her will, the nefarious rascal denies there is any such will and boldly states all her monies will be distributed to her relatives. Ahhh! Señora wants to raise her arms to heaven and shout out the truth, but, alas, inhabiting a ghostly, otherworldly space, she cannot move her limbs or open her mouth.
Even Worse: The bad news continues, her cousins, nephews and half-sister move into her house, rummage through her drawers and closets, put on her clothes and jewelry, have lewd sex on her bed right next to her ghostly body, speak of her as prudish, vain and haughty. Here is how Manuel Mujica Láinez ends his tale: “Until, gradually, Mrs Hermosilla del Fresno (who cannot even escape into the haven of madness) understands, with surprise and despair, the she will never be taken away, not even to be guided to an unexpected Hell. Because this, however strange, absurd, unconventional and antitheological it might seem, this is Hell.”
The editor, a book-lover and reader of note, is known among other things for his library of 30,000 volumes. The choices for this collection were obviously the product of very wide reading. Elements he noted in the fantastic literature selected were time warps, hauntings, dreams, unreal creatures, mimesis/chance connections in the universe, and good versus evil. The collection wasn't exclusively a book of horror stories, ghosts or psychological terror, although it contained examples of them. Very little from the SF genre was included.
With a few exceptions, the works ranged from the 1880s to 1980s. A small number of contemporary writers were included, but the editor focused mainly on authors from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. Earlier stories were from Pushkin, Hawthorne, Andersen, Poe and Dickens. There was also one tale each from T'ang China, medieval Spain, and the Islamic world (the 1,001 Nights). Many of the translations from Spanish, French and Italian -- about a fifth of the titles -- were made by the editor himself.
One-fifth of the book was given to just five tales: "Lady into Fox" by David Garnett, "Split Second" by Du Maurier, "How Love Came to Professor Guildea" by Hichens, "Pomegranate Seeds" by Wharton, and "The Argentine Ant" by Calvino. Other entries were just a page or two. Among the classics included: "The Monkey's Paw," "The Queen of Spades" by Pushkin, "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" by Poe, Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner," and Kafka's "In the Penal Colony."
There were also fairly obscure writers like Hillaire Belloc, I. A. Ireland, Léon Bloy, André Pieyre de Mandiargues plus a few from Argentina. For me, none of their works merited rescue from oblivion by this collection. On the other hand, a big attraction was the inclusion of authors such as Cortàzar, Quiroga, Aymé, Flann O'Brien, Akutagawa, Bruno Schulz, John Collier, Guimarães Rosa, Brian Moore, and Howard Fast.
Among the most enjoyable stories were "Enoch Soames" by Beerbohm, involving a pretentious poet from the 1890s who traveled into the future, in a way that brought the story's future into the story. It was metafiction from 1916, told with sly humor. "The State of Grace" by Aymé, a very funny work about a reluctant modern saint trying to sin his way out of sainthood. "An Invitation to the Hunt" by George Hitchcock, one of the few fairly contemporary stories, touching memorably on class and conformity in the U.S. in a way that recalled Shirley Jackson. And a moral tale from medieval Spain involving a cleric who asked a wizard to help him win promotion. This was selected from the Tales of Count Lucanor (ca. 1335), called the first great work of Spanish prose fiction and the first European work in a vernacular language.
Others enjoyed included a readable early story by Nabokov, "A Visit to the Museum," on a mesmerizing journey into confusion that recalled the best work of Robert Aickman. "Autumn Mountain" by Akutagawa, about a masterwork that might've been a fake. "The Sight" by Brian Moore, which showed how a selfish man slowly reconciled himself to the supernatural. "The Large Ant" by Howard Fast, about the dark side of human nature, with mankind treated by other worlds the way the sick are treated here. And Quiroga's "The Feather Pillow," a memorable symbolic story that might be taken to comment on marriage.
Stories particularly strong on atmosphere included Nabokov's one on the museum, together with Tennessee Williams' "The Mysteries of the Joy Rio," which contained a sleazy cinema palace bordering the spirit world. Other works investigated especially memorable subjects in fantastic writing, such as a paradise sought and lost (the story by H. G. Wells), or an artist and the life given to his creation (Tanizaki).
Criticisms would be that a fair number of other pieces contained tales that were far too over-written and lacking in clarity and structure, often with points that appeared slight or unfathomable (Kipling, Mujica Lainez, Papini, Verne, Bloy, Pieyre de Mandiargues, Ozick, Denevi, Forster). The editor had a taste for the baroque that I couldn't share. And the very long tales in the collection were far from being the most interesting.
Of the small number of younger authors included (Ozick, Joanne Greenberg, Alex Comfort), few were among the best. And many superior writers of fantastic lit were omitted: Robert Aickman and Dino Buzzati, Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith, Paul Bowles, Donald Barthelme, William Sansom and I. B. Singer. It was surprising that a title like The Book of Fantastic Literature would overlook authors like Aickman and Buzzati. The editor's prime focus was the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, which might account for some of the omissions, yet Maupassant, Bierce and Blackwood didn't make it into the book, either.
Stronger selections by Andersen, M. R. James, Saki, Kipling, Borges and LeGuin, among others, might have been included. And a thick volume or two could be compiled of outstanding magical realist tales solely from the editor's home region, Latin America (Fuentes, Arreola, Paz, Lispector and many more), with tales superior to some of the lesser-known entries here from Argentina. Too bad the editor didn't use his wide knowledge of writers from the region and his translation ability to introduce more of them in this book.
Another volume by the editor, Black Water 2: More Tales of the Fantastic, appeared in 1990. Some authors of fantastic lit from Latin America were introduced in his smaller anthology, Other Fires: Short Fiction by Latin American Women (1986).
Most recent customer reviews
This anthology was one I obtained in my 20's and have dipped into ever since. Certain themes resonate.Read more