Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Review - Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier
The Touch of Nutmeg Makes It
Three Bears Cottage
Squirrels Have Bright Eyes
Halfway to Hell
The Lady on the Grey
Incident on a Lake
The Frog Prince
Season of Mists
Without Benefit of Galsworthy
Back for Christmas
Another American Tragedy
If Youth Knew if Age Could
Thus I Refute Beelzy
Romance Lingers Adventure Lives
Bird of Prey
The Steel Cat
In the Cards
Youth from Vienna
Full review: In 1952 Fancies and Goodnights became the second book to win the international Fantasy Award for best fiction book. That this book won is an indication that genre fiction awards were in their infancy, because in later years the awards would be subdivided more finely than in International Fantasy Award's two broad categories of "best fiction book" and "best non-fiction book". As it is not a novel, but rather a collection of short stories, Fancies and Goodnights would likely not have even been eligible for an award as a whole, which would have been a shame, as it is a very readable collection of dark and macabre stories.
Fancies and Goodnights is also somewhat unusual in that only a handful of the stories in the collection can properly be classified as "fantasy" in the broad sense (which, given the works of fiction that won the award includes science fiction within its ambit). The bulk of the stories are entirely mundane (although twisted) stories of spouses murdering spouses, or nephews plotting to kill rich uncles and claim their fortunes, or greedy villagers killing passers by for their presumed fortunes, and so on. The stories that might be classified as fantasy in the book are reminiscent of tales like Robert Louis Stevenson's The Bottle Imp, or Rudyard Kipling's The Monkey's Paw, insofar as they take place in a world that is almost exactly like our world, just with a fantastical twist that shows up to bedevil the protagonist.
Perhaps it is a consequence of reading them all together, and not as part of Sunday paper one at a time, many of the twists of the stories tend to become pretty predictable. In De Mortuis, when a pair of friends suspect a murder that hasn't happened, they spark an actual one. Or in Three Bears Cottage when a husband tries to poison his wife, it is fairly obvious that she will be the one to poison him. In Over Insurance, when a happy couple invests too heavily in life insurance for both of them, it is predictable that their happiness will be destroyed by their resulting poverty. Some stories have less obvious endings, such as The Touch of Nutmeg Makes It, but for the most part venal characters pursue their venal ends and the twists are not really twists so much as obvious plot developments. One might call them cliches, but when Collier was writing his stories most of the turns his stories took probably seemed fairly fresh to his readers. On the other hand, most of the titles of his stories give the "twist" away for the astute reader, so it seems clear that hiding how the story was going to end was not a priority for Collier.
There are just enough stories with a fantasy edge to make this a viable choice for the International Fantasy Award, although most of them follow a similar formula to the mundane stories, just with a supernatural element thrown in. So, in Bottle Party, when a man buys a bottle containing a genie that can grant him any wish he desires, the reader just knows that this will not work out well for him. Or when, in The Lady on the Grey, a caddish Englishman gallivanting about Wales responds to a summons from his caddish buddy and comes across a beautiful woman with a skittish dog, the reader figures out what sort of trouble the protagonist is in for almost immediately. When a father dismisses his son's imaginary friend in Thus I Refute Beelzy, the reader can feel the tension mounting as the story proceed to a fairly inevitable and messy end. On the other hand, in one of the creepiest stories in the volume - Evening Primrose - Collier imagines a shadow world that lurks under our noses, and crafts a story that is creepy and unpredictable. In a completely different way, the dreamily macabre story Green Thoughts drifts to its strange story and somewhat unexpected denouement, proving that Collier could, if he wanted, craft a story that was not entirely predictable.
And even though it is the fantastical stories that drove this book to being awarded, some of the best and most disturbing are the entirely mundane, such as Witch's Money, in which foolishness and ignorance cause an entire village to conspire in a shocking act of violence. Or The Steel Cat, where greed drives a man to betray what might be his only friend. Or one of the best stories in the book, Youth From Vienna, in which a jilted lover gets revenge upon his former intended and her new spouse in a most inventive and subtle manner. This is not to say that the supernatural tales like In the Cards (which I believe was later made into an episode of Tales from the Crypt) don't share this twisted and dark sensibility. Some, however, are darkly humorous, such as Halfway to Hell, in which a man kills himself, and then connives to trick the Devil out of his soul.
Although the stories are very British, and in many ways quaintly old-fashioned, they remain engaging and interesting to the modern reader. Because Collier's stories tend to deal with universal themes: quarreling spouses, greedy charlatans, jealous lovers, and so on, his writing has aged well, even though the specifics of his stories are now well out of date. For anyone who likes their stories to be tinged with a touch of creepy malevolence, Fancies and Goodnights and excellent collection of quality stories.
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