Monday, May 26, 2014

In Praise of the Short Story, and the Anthology

I was at my local Barnes & Noble today, and I decided to do something I often do: look about for "Appendix N" material that has snuck back into print. It's a sadly shrinking landscape, unfortunately. Only one volume of Howard appeared, with no Elric and for probably the first time I can think of it, no Andre Norton. Lovecraft and Tolkien are by far the best represented, and Roger Zelazny's Amber books are still in print. Skimpy trade paperbacks of the first three Mars stories by Burroughs are the only other material from actual Appendix N authors.

Until, of course, I went 'round to the beginning of the section and looked at the anthologies. One welcome surprise was The Sword & Sorcery Anthology, a wide-ranging tome that has several Appendix N authors (Howard, Leiber, Moorcock, Anderson) as well as a number who should be considered essential reading: C.L. Moore, Karl Edward Wagner, Gene Wolfe, Charles R. Saunders, and Michael Shea. It's wide-ranging and those are just the ones that I've read and enjoyed. (There's also a few authors in slightly different veins - Glen Cook and George R.R. Martin are the standouts.)

A second volume I found, American Supernatural Tales, is edited by S.T. Joshi, who has made a killing on this kind of thing. It features Appendix N authors Lovecraft, Howard, Derleth, and Leiber as well as several more must-reads: Robert W. Chambers, Clark Ashton Smith, Karl Edward Wagner, and Robert Bloch. It also has stories from people who should be read on general principle - the classics in Irving, Hawthorne, Poe and Bierce, to Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson.

Short stories and novellas have always been very special to me as a form. I've been reading a lot of them lately, mostly Clark Ashton Smith and Manly Wade Wellman (the latter thanks to Michael Curtis's Chained Coffin Kickstarter) and the form has always struck me as essential for fantastic literature. Of course, I love novels – whether Tolkien's dense epics or the light reads of Burroughs – but I find briefer jaunts are often more satisfying. The short story author has no time to spend on long descriptions or travelogues; a world must be sketched quickly and dynamically, and the point arrived at in brief.

When I got into fantasy short stories it was in the mid-1990s, my high school years; in a way it was a relief from overly long fantasy epics and tie-in novels. Short stories, by contrast, can focus on an incident or oddity without becoming tedious; they are great for shifting in mood. You can read a Conan story in the morning and a Lovecraft tale at night, and the next day switch to something in a science fiction vein, if you like. Even a single author can vary widely, such as the drastic shift from Lovecraft's "The Doom That Came to Sarnath" to "The Colour Out of Space." It's a day trip rather than a long vacation.

Sword & Sorcery's revival in the '60s was focused around short books, beginning with one called Swords and Sorcery and continuing with its follow-ups, The Spell of Seven, The Fantastic Swordsmen and Warlocks and Warriors. Edited by L. Sprague de Camp, these books are not terribly hard to find and really defined the subgenre at the time D&D was about to come out. They're a better guide to it than Appendix N; in addition to Howard, Leiber, Moorcock, Vance, Dunsany, Anderson and Zelazny (and the markedly inferior epigones, de Camp and Carter) they feature Henry Kuttner, C.L. Moore, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, John Jakes, and a few others.

The great thing in these sort of anthologies is the breadth of worlds that you visit. I think that the idea that everything today in fantasy is not only a novel but a series of novels manages to diminish that kind of breadth, exchanging it for depth in a single world. For a roleplayer, though, I think breadth of ideas is far more important. So it's good to see these kinds of anthologies back on the shelf. There's nothing wrong with extended stays, but it's good to be able to make day trips.

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