The British Library Tales of the Weird series has made quite a name for itself with its collections of lesser-known pre-war ghost and horror stories. Now things are taking a turn for the fantastique with their new number, Doorway To Dilemma: Bewildering Tales of Dark Fantasy. As veteran genre editor Mike Ashley makes clear in the Introduction, this anthology is perched on the interface between “fear and confusion” as it appeared to authors in the early days of Dark Fantasy.
Though the term itself wasn’t coined until the 70s, Ashley pinpoints the 1880s as the dawn of the subgenre, and the anthology begins with the fittingly question-marked ‘What Was It?’ by Fitz-James O’Brien – a stylish, timeless story of an unforgettable apparition that is frustratingly enigmatic but at the same time very gruesome. There is also some very unsavoury behaviour on the part of the humans that wouldn’t be out of place in a nihilistic modern horror film. It’s an endlessly anthologized tale, but this apart Ashley has largely eschewed the obvious. The only other predictable inclusion is Arthur Machens’ ‘The White People’, which certainly delivers both fear and confusion, but also a large dose of enchantment, beauty and liberation. Lord Dunsany does less well – ‘The Hoard of the Gibbelins’ is far from his best work, which is a shame considering what a titan of early fantasy he was.
HG Wells is another household name, but his story ‘A Moonlight Fable’ is a lesser-known, rather sweet little garden nocturne that I enjoyed more than most of his work. However, I preferred his wife Catherine Wells’ contribution to the anthology, ‘Fear’. Mrs Wells is usually only mentioned with reference her husband’s energetic philandering (as far as I can gather it was the kind of open relationship that’s only really open on one side) so it’s good to see her appear as something other than an object of pity.
In fact there’s quite a bit of pairing up in this book. An early trend in dark fantasy was what Ashley calls the “puzzle or dilemma story”, and it would seem that many of these stories come in pairs. Sometimes the second story provides a resolution of the dilemma set by the first, as in Cleveland Moffett’s ‘The Mysterious Card’ and ‘The Mysterious Card Unveiled’, refined urban fantasy with a premise that’s since been pounded into the ground by decades of unoriginal authors, but which must’ve been quite impressive in its day. Others, like Madeline Yale Wynne’s ‘The Little Room’ and ‘The Sequel To The Little Room’ – two shots of American domestic gothic written with a brisk chattiness that emphasizes the weird events by contrast – leave things very much hanging.
That said, overall I felt four was two too many of this kind of story, and my favourites in the anthology were all stand-alones. David H Keller’s ‘The Thing in the Cellar’ terrified me as an eight year-old and is still creepy after all these years, with a basis in child psychology that prevents it from being just an empty intellectual puzzle. Lucy Clifford’s ‘The New Mother’ is very well-known to academics, and in fact years before reading it I first read about it in Alison Lurie’s Not in Front of the Grown-Ups: Subversive Childrens’ Literature. Lurie’s description alone put the fear of God into me and the story itself, a kind of nice Victorian fairy-tale gone horribly wrong, is scary, pitch-dark and very ahead of its time with its showcasing of motherhood and female monstrosity. The way the omniscient narrator appears to be gloating and growing increasingly excited over the hapless protagonists’ fate is very unusual in fiction of the day.
Put all this together and what you have is a very plausible argument for giving the early days of dark fantasy – a hazy, distant time before werelions had even thought of having sex with tree sprites, and nobody even rode a motorbike – a bit more attention than it commonly gets from the general reader.