The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories is a collection of 31 fantasy stories, published mostly in the 20th century. I’ve been reading the stories on my lunch break over the last several weeks, and I finally finished the collection this week. In previous posts (Part 1 and Part 2), I’ve shared a few notes about each story, and today I’ll be looking at the last 10 stories in the collection.
1. “The Wager Lost by Winning” by John Brunner (1970). I tend to enjoy “be careful what you wish for” stories as well as stories in which arrogant and powerful people get their comeuppance. This story has elements of both, and it’s fun for that reason. However, the plot is a little unnecessarily complex. That makes for greater immersion in Brunner’s fantasy world, but it also makes the story drag at times.
2. “Lila the Werewolf” by Peter S. Beagle (1974). A man discovers his new girlfriend is a werewolf, but he decides he can live with that. The werewolf is a powerful metaphor in fiction, and Beagle cleverly uses it as a stand-in for all those unpleasant surprises we might discover about a partner only after we’ve made a commitment. At what point do such annoyances become deal-breakers?
3. “Johanna” by Jane Yolen (1978). This intriguing story may or may not be properly classified as fantasy. A woman ventures into the forbidden woods after dark to seek help for her sick mother. What happens to her is ambiguous enough to make it unclear whether this story is fantasy or just tragedy.
4. “The Erl-King” by Angela Carter (1979). Another enjoyably ambiguous story, although here the ambiguity is not in whether the events are fantasy but in the fantastic relationship at the heart of the story. Again, we have a metaphor for falling in love, but here the metaphor has to do with being subsumed by another and losing one’s independence.
5. “Beyond the Dead Reef” by James Tiptree Jr. (1983). Structured like the old-fashioned fantasy stories in which the narrator reports on a story he got from someone else, this story tells of an ill-fated diving trip. This is one of those stories that could seem silly if you only hear the bare bones of it but the way it is told makes it frightening.
6. “Subworld” by Phyllis Eisenstein (1983). A father and his son have a surprising adventure in the New York City subway. This story gets at questions about what it means to have a happy life and what we’d be willing to give up (or not) for a new start.
7. “Bite-Me-Not or Fleur de Fur” by Tanith Lee (1984). A twist on the vampire legend in which a kingdom grieves the loss of a princess to a vampire attack and then faces a different grief when they finally capture a vampire. This is another story that gets at questions about free will and love and what a person might give up for love. (I’m interested that this theme continues to recur as more women authors are popping up in the collection. The themes are getting to be more about relationships and not just about adventure.)
8. “The Night of White Bhairab” by Lucius Shepard (1984). Set in India, this story tells of a ghost woman and an Eastern spirit that do battle over the souls and bodies of an American man and woman who are visiting India. The East meets West spirituality here is pretty interesting, but the treatment of women’s sexuality raises some questions.
9. “Thorn” by Robert Holdstock (1986). Another ambiguous story in which pagan spirits (the Green Man in particular) attempt to maintain a foothold in an England being overtaken by Christianity.
10. “Troll Bridge” by Terry Pratchett (1992). A comic story about a world that has moved on from the old ways, in which heroes fought monsters and every bridge had a troll and every troll a bridge.
These last stories were some of my favorites because they took the usual fantasy tropes and turned them into metaphors or used them to introduce ambiguities and questions about good and evil. The collection as a whole improved as it went along, perhaps because the genre itself developed and grew.
Overall, the collection has a nice variety of stories, and I’m glad I picked it up because it gave me a chance to try out several authors I’ve been curious about. However, I think the lack of introductions for each story is a serious omission. Tom Shippey’s introduction to the collection as a whole is informative and interesting, but he doesn’t cover every story. A paragraph or two introducing each story and providing a short explanation for why it was included would have been invaluable. As it is, I don’t know whether these particular stories are typical of their eras or of their authors’ writing. That’s a pretty big let-down in an anthology of this type.