I’ve now read about two-thirds of the stories in The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories, and the collection is getting better the further I get into it. The stories I’ll be writing about today come from the 1950s and 1960s. The writers have moved beyond the sword and sorcery tales that dominated the first third of the collection, although both swords and sorcery do continue to appear. (And as nice as the variety is, I wouldn’t want that tried-and-true formula to go away entirely.)
Today, I’ll be sharing brief thoughts on 11 of the stories in the collection. See my previous post to learn about the first 10 stories.
- “See You Later” by Henry Kuttner (1949). This is a comic piece about a family of magic mountain monsters and their run-in with a neighbor whom the narrator considers “just about the meanest man in the world.” The dialect is a little over-the-top, but the story is pretty funny, especially the last line.
- “Liane the Wayfarer” by Jack Vance (1950). This is a strange story about a boastful “hero” who offers to do any task to win over a beautiful witch. A good bit of the story feels like an ordinary, but brief quest narrative. The enigmatic and poetically just ending is what sets this apart.
- “The Desrick on Yandro” by Manly Wade Wellman (1952). More mountain magic and more poetic justice. (Were magic hillbillies especially popular in mid-century fantasy?) The dialect is less exaggerated than in Kutner’s story, and the plot is more predictable. But I enjoyed it.
- “The Silken-Swift…” by Theodore Sturgeon (1953). This is a unicorn myth with a twist. A golden-skinned man, a bewitching squire’s daughter, and a modest and quiet girl from the bog become bound together through a spell that has disastrous consequences. I’m torn about a lot of the ideas in this story. The way the idea of purity is handled is lovely in its way, but it’s also colored by a lot of unfortunate ideas about men and women and sex. I felt like the wrong person was punished.
- “Operation Afreet” by Poul Anderson (1956). What would it be like if werewolves, witches, vampires, krakens, and such were real and part of the military? In this story, a werewolf smuggles a witch across enemy lines so they can stop the Saracen Caliphate from launching an unstoppable magic weapon. This is a fun story that reads like a straight-up ordinary military adventure.
- “The Singular Events which Occurred in the Hovel on the Alley off of Eye Street” by Avram Davidson (1962). Another magic in real life story. I tend to enjoy these kinds of stories a lot, and this one was kind of amusing, but it felt a little like magic soup, with government jargon and fantasy lingo thrown together almost randomly.
- “The Sudden Wings” by Thomas Burnett Swann (1962). A brother and sister on a journey meet a god who changes their lives. This one was OK. A little too long and over-written.
- “Same Time, Same Place” by Mervyn Peake (1963). A young man wishes to escape a stifling family life—with a father who smells of cabbage and mother with worn shoe heels. He thinks he’s found a way out when he meets a beautiful woman in a dance club. Although most readers will have a sense of what’s happening from the start, Peake brings just a little extra weirdness.
- “Timothy” by Keith Roberts (1966). More country magic, this time involving a bored girl who casts a spell to bring a scarecrow to life. I kept expecting this story to take a different, more sinister turn from the one that it took. It’s more melancholic than frightening.
- “The Kings of the Sea” by Sterling E. Lanier (1968). This story felt like some of the early stories in the collection, in which an ordinary man relates an extraordinary adventure. This adventure involves an encounter with a family that has been connected with the great old myths for generations. Such a connection is a huge responsibility, and when one family member seeks her own way, the consequences could be severe.
- “Not Long Before the End” by Larry Niven (1969). Another sword-and-sorcery story and a pretty good one. In this case, the swordsman is attempting to free a young village woman from the clutches of a powerful sorcerer. But is she even there against her will? And what is the price for wielding great magic, for swordsmen and sorcerers alike?
I expect to finish the remaining stories in the next few weeks. The rest of the collection includes pieces by several authors I’ve been eager to try, such as Jane Yolen, Angela Carter, James Tiptree Jr., and Terry Pratchett.