The Big Book of Modern Fantasy — edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer



Stories by Dean Francis Alfar, Erik Amundsen, J.G. Ballard, Nathan Ballingrud, Greg Bear, Aimee Bender, Jorge Luis Borges, Richard Bowes, Paul Bowles, Mikhail Bulgakov, Italo Calvino, Leonora Carrington, Angela Carter, Stepan Chapman, Fred Chappell, C.J. Cherryh, Alberto Chimal, Julio Cortázar, Samuel R. Delany, Manuela Draeger, David Drake, Rikki Ducornet, Henry Dumas, Carol Emshwiller, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Rosario Ferré, Jeffrey Ford, Karen Joy Fowler, Sara Gallardo, Alasdair Gray, Elizabeth Hand, M. John Harrison, Zenna Henderson, Marie Hermanson, Joe Hill, Nalo Hopkinson, Rhys Hughes, Intizar Husain, Shelley Jackson, Tove Jansson, Diana Wynne Jones, Vilma Kadlečková, Bilge Karasu, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Stephen King, Marta Kisiel, Leena Krohn, R.A. Lafferty, Victor LaValle, Tanith Lee, Ursula K. Le Guin, Fritz Leiber, D.F. Lewis, Kelly Link, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Gabriel García Márquez, George R.R. Martin, Patricia McKillip, Edgar Mittelholzer, Michael Moorcock, Haruki Murakami, Pat Murphy, Vladimir Nabokov, Garth Nix, Silvina Ocampo, Ben Okri, Victor Pelevin, Rachel Pollack, Sumanth Prabhaker, Terry Pratchett, Qitongren, Maurice Richardson, Joanna Russ, Edgardo Sanabria Santaliz, Ramsey Shehadeh, Leslie Marmon Silko, Han Song, Margaret St. Clair, Avrom Sutzkever, Antonio Tabucchi, Sheree Renée Thomas, Karin Tidbeck, Tatiana Tolstaya, Amos Tutuola, Jack Vance, Satu Waltari, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Manly Wade Wellman, Jane Yolen.

When I read this book, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…

33 thoughts on “The Big Book of Modern Fantasy — edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

  1. My previous reviews of Ann and/or Jeff VanderMeer books are linked from here:


    by Maurice Richardson

    “Engelbrecht gathers himself together, leaps up high in the air, comes down heavily on his spring heels, then bounds like a rubber ball…”

    A veritable leap of fate into this big book from that of ‘Classic Fantasy’, and this is a rumbustious and mentally exhilarating start, a boxing match between Engelbrecht, the surrealist boxer, and Grandfather Clock, a battle for relative springs and the nature of Time itself, with seconds in each corner of the ring, near a canal. I once had to negotiate, in a narrow boat, the many locks of Wolverhampton (a town actually mentioned in this Richardson work) during the very rainy summer of 1986 on the Stourport Ring, and then back again through the same locks because the rest of the Ring had become too swollen by the rain! This story has now finally made up for all that in the grandest style possible! Time never ends, nor even stands still, just corrects itself retrocausally into new rings of living?

    My review of Rhys Hughes’ book about the same character from the above work:
    (Rhys Hughes also has a work in this Modern Fantasy book, about which more later!)

    by Paul Bowles

    “This was a new sensation strangely rich and complex, and at the same time unbearably stifling, as though every other possibility besides that of being enclosed in a tiny, isolated world of cause and effect had been removed forever.”

    This work is quite a find for me, a contrast to the rumbustious Richardson just now, yet, like its battles against or within the constraints of Time, this work has its own constraints of harbouring oneself within other entities’ bodies and seeing through their eyes, a work for our times today, of communal co-vivid dreaming, all of us half awake, half not. An entity called the Atlájala, in a circular valley and a now derelict monastery where it has ‘trans’ experiences with creatures great and small, and with the once erstwhile friars themselves, thus in isolation within ‘man’ and, eventually, the arguably ultimate optimum berth, ‘woman’. We follow a particular man and woman, these two become the story proper with this catalyst of resolution choosing between them. A story with a blend of DH Lawrence as well as Ruinenlust and the Gothic, and with EM Forster’s invaded heroine in the Marabar Caves, but was the caves’ entry point indeed circular or a sensually narrowing one? A prospective Midsommar leap as “they reached the gap”…to embrace their already grafted hybridity or to go it alone?

    by Vladimir Nabokov

    “…thought he was learning to fly […] What he had really wanted to do was to tear a hole in his world and escape.”

    We all know that feeling now!
    Well, I don’t think I noticed it before when reading this famous story, but the old couple’s son in the sanatorium has the same sense of preternatural pareidolia as I do, a mystic link between the books I choose to review and some deeper or inner truth. With synchronicities as well as signs and symbols. I am not claiming a skill, but a disability! For example, minutes before rereading this Nabokov story I happened to read and review (HERE: a story about Charlie Brown!
    So the phone call really did startle me in the end. Any fruit jars, notwithstanding.

    I will now seek out my long review of Nabokov’s Collected Stories and see what I said about this particular story a year or so ago. I shall put the link in the sub-comment below…

  4. “…a tiger rampant on it, something of fear, something of wonder…”
    — Angela Carter

    by Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Andrew Hurley)

    “…the Zahir rampant in the center. Anything that is not a Zahir comes to me as though through a filter, and from a distance. […] …the history of the world and its infinite concatenation of causes and effects.“

    I jump-start my imagination of this story consuming me, condensing me, trapped alone with it (or even within it), by not being able to think of anything else, despite it offering me a tiger, an astrolabe, a woman whose lately created corpse perfects her looks from when she was younger, a Brahms melody, “the beginnings of a fever”, “a dream that I was a pile of coins guarded by a gryphon”, caprices instead of hats, and much more. It is the story itself, THE ZAHIR, not what it contains, that has been given me like a curse of an idée fixe now, and I cannot rid myself of its complex dream honed down to a simple singular one. I have dug at its words to find God, or, rather, in my case, to find its gestalt, which is just what it wanted me to do! This gestalt is the coin that buys me for itself and nothing else. The all-nothing oxymoron that I cannot shake off.

    “I am still, albeit only partially, Borges.”

    by Jack Vance

    “Through the dim forest came Liane the Wayfarer passing along the shadowed glades, with a prancing…”

    …towards my fond memories of reading during the 1970s the whole of the then Jack Vance canon and this brought back awesome memories, particularly of the Dying Earth, so important today. To creativists and destructivists alike.
    The story of Liane finding the brass ring, equivalent, I find, to the previous story’s Zahir, (maybe Richardson’s boxing ring, too?) — here as a weapon of invisibility, but whither such invisibility? Liane’s wooing of a beautiful witch by rescuing the other half of her beautiful tapestry from Chun (Chen?) the Unavoidable. If Chen, which Chen? A dire opponent, one at least assumes. But all rogues have good sides? The accretion towards the tapestry’s golden gestalt tellingly piecemeal, thread by thread, in all our uncertain futures. But exactly who is accreting it? Chun or Liane? Rather, it is each reader who reads this, I guess. A never-ending hope.
    A work full of wizards, beautiful fantastic word magic, prismatic colours, kaleidoscopes of motes, “rotting wharves”, “rusty moss”, “tumbled pillars”, “Brooding silence, dead space…” Dead Space.

    by Edgar Mittelholzer

    “, I’ll tell you what a crisis is. It’s when something happens, and you’re not sure what’s going to happen after.”

    This tale is ostensibly delightful, but it is also a referentially ominous-for-our-times “drama” (drama being another word to be explained along with others that its dialogue tellingly explains) – where “dancing” and “springing up” also somehow ironically fall to nought. About a fire that gets out of control, and perhaps we can now relate to this fire, where those responsible to put it out are not up to the job. A lockdown cave of an orchid that seems to be an old man like me, as at the end we realise it IS. The wonderful eponymous creature who lives in this orchid we can choose gender pronouns for. A rumbustious tale as the Richardson tale was rumbustious, too, and, here “bumptious” explicitly, and the orchid is really part of a whole eco-system (including a palace and perhaps recognisable ‘dead space’ “pools”, the holding pools of or by the orchid), a pecking-order system surrounding the supply and demand of honey, of differently named creatures with skin colour jealousies of each other instead of hatreds, but here a system that, as a result of the fire, teeters upon anarchy. I’ll leave you to interpret your own way forward after having been both delighted and darkly inspired by this work. An “idiosyncrasy” that may now become an archetype.

    by Margaret St. Clair

    …much like carrying coals to Newcastle or turning “knotwork” into the tangled ligotti it already is?
    This is a hilarious come-uppance for man’s learnt sales techniques, as Mortensen tries to sell cordage to the gnoles in their “dubious woods” lockdown. The gnoles are delightfully not dissimilar to how I imagine some of the creatures in the previous story, “flitting up from the cellars”, to recoup their own emerald eyes.
    Before going back down with sellers to the cellars and the “fattening pens.”

    • I have now sought out my previous review in 2011 of this story when it appeared in THE WEIRD anthology:


      The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles – Margaret St. Clair

      “The concern good Christian folk should feel for their soul’s welfare is a shadow, a figment, a nothing, compared to what the thoroughly heathen gnole feels for those eyes.”

      i.e. a gnole’s auxiliary eyes, and this gives a telling slant upon what I wrote above today about having more wisdom than all formal religions put together! Equally, there are more liens, lines, ley-lines in this three page story than in the whole book put together so far. The book’s own conflated ‘Long Sheet’, perhaps, as then woven, wrung, tightened, separated out into various strands, torques, lengths, textures and qualities of tying connections together. This satirically funny story of a rope salesman with formula sales techniques is a tip of the hat to Lord Dunsany earlier: i.e. with, I infer, this Borgesian or Kingian self-referentiality of a tale tripping lightly off a gnole’s own “narrow ribbony tongue“.  [Also gives a new perspective upon my own regular ‘Tentacles Across the Atlantic’ articles in glossy old ‘Deathrealm’ in the 1990s!] (14 Nov 11 – another 45 minutes later)

    by Manly Wade Wellman

    “When I looked at him [Mr Onselm], he’d jumped back, almost halfway across the floor from the counter.”

    A delightfully colloquial story about a wandering American country guitar minstrel with Carnacki powers — in fine mutual synergy with the style and plot-feel of O Henry stories (I’ve been recently reviewing his work HERE) — where he meets Mr Onselm with sickle legs and his symbiotic Ugly Bird. A man who no one in the locale dares contradict, and he holds sway over the neighbourhood. This symbiosis, if that is what it is, has something to do with ectoplasmic exchange or with the ability of one of them to hide inside the other as if in a lockdown hide. But unlike the local hicks, our minstrel (who also “made a quick long jump” to match Mr Onselm’s) seems to see the ugly bird and the sickle-legger discretely AND together…
    The songs and the story’s outcome are uplifting.

    • Saint ANSELM of Canterbury stated that every existing thing exists either through something or through nothing. But of course nothing exists through nothing, so every existing thing exists through something.

    by Abraham Sutzkever (translated by Zackary Sholem Berger)

    “A dream-hare on quicksilver feet, stole into his soul through some window he forgot to lock…”

    I am this old man during the course of this beautifully expressed vignette, so not for long.
    It is my skull with which I think — thinking about what treasure trove I somehow desire, amid the traumas of the world around me. It is the gnoles’ “rope” that I use to tug it up from my wellspring of hope.

    by Amos Tutuola

    “, some had no feet and arms but jumped instead of walking.”

    A corner-turning Henri Rousseau type naïveté, a deadpan rite of passage into the eponymous bush by an explicit person as narrator who is later trapped by serially teeming shape-shifting spells upon his personage, but first needing to choose between three ghosts: copperish, goldenish and silverish and their respective rooms, a choice preempted by the arrival of the smelling-ghost itself dressed in the garb of insects and other creatures, and despite the person’s use of a gravity tree, his fate is to reach the 7th Town of Ghosts become, as I said before, trapped, by a juju, within his own body become the body of various other creatures. Beasts of burden, and others. It was the dire cocktail of smells that got me, though. And a drink of urine and limestone juice. And the provision of any good luck ceremony that, by mere mention, may have helped the reader as well as the narrator. But was not to be. At least I was enticed to finish reading it, and despite it being an excerpt, I finally managed to escape via the open end.

    by Gabriel García Márquez (translated by Gregory Rabassa)

    “…dragged him out of the mud and locked him up with the hens in the wire chicken coop.”

    Quite a find for me, this work. Deeply affecting story of a family infested by crabs and the consequent serious illness of their son attracting an angel, who is an old man so old he crash lands outside and they lock him down in the coop. I am that old man, I felt, not an angel at all, and my leaps of faith not even helped by imaginary wings. Faced with a woman turned into a spider, I could not even help her. Doubted by those who should know, too. I often look at dots on the sea’s horizon where I live, and I hope one of them might be me soon…
    Are the wings too big to wield for the body that they might otherwise have borne? A question for all us oldsters, that you too will eventually become… or, thinking about it, maybe not. Still, I carry on, desperately flapping my crazy “tongue twisters”. The logic of his adopted on-line wings, not.

    “…the risky flapping of a senile vulture.”

    by Zenna Henderson

    “My heart outstripped my flying feet…”

    That’s what the teacher as unreliable narrator sees in her pupil Sue-lynn’s eponymous box, not to confiscate it knowingly as Sue-lynn’s punishment for adopting such a girlishly self-satisfying LOOKING at nothing in nothing’s squareness, but I sense the teacher knew it was her box of delights instead and put it in her junk drawer for herself. So perhaps it is the teacher, rather than a girl like Sue-lynn, who herself had ‘the soft smile as well as maggots of madness’, a need to climb inside her own Anything Box. And we know, even if the story doesn’t, what is really going on, or at least, you DO know now, with my here issuing enough hints to tell you. Or you can try to keep this story as your own delightful Anything Box, as delightful as this story has always, till now, been deemed to be — an uplifting one with its happy ending. Stay in such denial, if you can. But really it tells of the end of imagination, its flat pocket… Full of the presence of real future lockdowns inside nothingness. Letting Sue-lynn have her box back is simply so that she can disown it in your favour. The Nothing Box. And you’re inside it. The story’s heart outstripped. And we all have these truths to teach, now.

    “This was the happy ending. This was—“

    by Fritz Leiber

    “Soon his senility dropped away like an old cloak,…”

    …or a pair of over-sized old wings … as this swordy and, yes, rollickingly wordy, yarn of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, makes me feel! The famous pair splitting up for their own ventures amid the hard times of Lankhmar where “Bored and insecure men will loose arrows at dust motes”, as we all feel today, and even Fafhrd, his beard now grown long. And they take opposing sides in the pecking order of gods by placement on a Street, with wily machinations and false Samaritanships. Different castes of divinity, one participant having been “swimming with leviathan, frisking with behemoth…” now still upon the stage of the “gods-dazzled mob”, upon tiers of racks as well as racketeering. Jug and Pulg. Sides sticking to their own particular god “like a giant squid”. Priests, saintlets, acolytes, extortioners, “occasional foreigners and madmen”. Legerdemain of this story’s events and outcomes are funny as well as swashbuckling … despite the lean times that swaddle them all, and swaddle us all. A medicine and the mending to be read in every lockdown, I say. Taking the bad taste out of one’s mouth from when one was (or will be again) in darker moods of story interpretation. I never omitted to clap such a good performance, even if it often remains imbued with whatever “this ridiculous mating of northern stoicism to southern masochism” is meant to mean!

    by Michael Moorcock

    “Be hopeful, if you like, and think of the dreadful past the Earth has known, or brood upon the future. But if you would believe the unholy truth — then Time is an agony of Now, and so it always be.”

    The sea that Elric of Melniboné sails at the end being this future’s formless fated form? The world now a co-vivid dreaming city that can explode at a moment’s notice. A telling bloodthirsty mythos that is within the Jung of us all, as well as being an effective character-led and inner / outer battle-strewn yarn deploying its original trope-busting of Conan and Frodo Baggins. Weakness-into-strength by dint of sword and word amid the Bright Empire that will never come again? Except perhaps by unexpected ironies or paradoxes supplied by this story — and by the overall book that contains it — regarding our now truly Dying Earth?
    I once enjoyed these Elric books and similar such books by Moorcock in the sixties and seventies. I have changed since then, but also I now see that the works themselves have changed, even though their texts are set in stone.

    by Julio Cortázar (translated by Paul Blackburn)

    “having fastened the memory with webs and reminders”

    …just as real-time reviewing represents my aide-mémoires to obviate books’ slippage after reading. So I must be a fama, conscientious and fustian, as I am.
    Yet, somehow, I am a cronopio, too, aspirationally free-wheeling with my imagination as well as my critiquing. Scatterbrained, too.
    I am definitely not an esperanza, not a lugubrious dolt.
    I enjoyed these headed sections about such behavioural examples of extrapolated humanity, not because I enjoyed reading about them, but it was more the sheer novelty of knowing that they HAVE been written about in such a way, and I always enjoy discovering new phenomena of literature, or at least a phenomenon new to me. A phenomenon of human exchanges here that is deadpan, obliquely disarming, post-absurdist, pre-zeroist….
    Quite fancy owning a wild artichoke clock.
    As to this work’s place in this whole book’s context, it is defiantly resistant so far to my attempts thus to nail it down.

    by Tove Jansson (translated by Thomas Warburton)

    “At the moment when Moomintroll slunk up the back steps little My jumped into view from behind the water barrel and called: ‘What’ve you got?’”

    When I was myself a leaping little My instead of today’s big old slouching His, I used to fish, armed with a jar, for sticklebacks in the backwater where I lived in the 1950s, and it is a coincidence, perhaps, that I happen to be concurrently reviewing (HERE) ‘The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again’ a brand new book by M. John Harrison wherein bottomfishing for such creatures as, maybe, even tiny last dragons, seems already to be taking place, even deep in indoor toilets…. and here in Jansson the found dragon is not so much locked down in a jar but allowed to annoy every moomin whom Moomintroll knows in the area, including his family bubble. Teased and tantalised. This story also contains a “night box” under Moomintroll’s bed… but all is so opened up with flighty escape, and despite potential breath-scorching, it also manages to bring a breath of fresh air to a new My’s already very hot day today here where I read about it in England. With Snufkin ready by my side. Featuring illustrations.

    “A youngish hemulen steered”.

  17. …to more watery bottomfishing to accompany the above MJH cross-reference with Moomins…

    by J.G. Ballard

    “What I found so fascinating was partly his immense scale, the huge volumes of space occupied by his arms and legs, which seemed to confirm the identity of my own miniature limbs, but above all, the mere categorical fact of his existence. Whatever else in our lives might be open to doubt, the giant, dead or alive, existed in an absolute sense, providing a glimpse into a world of similar absolutes of which we spectators on the beach were such imperfect and puny copies.”

    The above is what I now feel about this big book and my puny part in it! Think on.
    Otherwise, this is a truly compelling, beautifully worded story of the motley socially-undistanced beach visitors who come to view and clamber over the jetsam of a giant man, as the tide brings it nearer and nearer, day by day. Its comparison with our statue syndrome of “monumental sculpture” becoming an Ozymandias or a slow-decaying/ gradually lopped off/ butchered-for-novelties Gulliver carcass — making it feel like a future dream or a bony shipwreck or the false memory / fake news of whaledom. A “hawzer”/ “hauled away” and a “pizzle” that is no longer a penis. We just need to go through the now real-time streets to regather the bits of him as a new gestalt. I feel I was that “elderly beachcomber” (as I often am in recent years) whom the engaging narrator explicitly once saw near the story’s drowned giant, also in this story’s contextual book.

    Cf “a giant because his margins are outside the hard edges of this book?”, now soft edges(!), in my review of ‘The Buried Giant’ by Kazuo Ishiguro here.

    • I have been alerted to the fact that I must have inadvertently leapfrogged the story below from its position just before the Moomins one…

      by Intizar Husain (translated by C.M. Naim)

      “It must be mentioned here that the princess had always kept herself physically at a distance from the prince,…”

      Another significant find. A story of the previous giant above when he once must have plagued a princess in a fort whereby she needed to hide her live-in suitor prince from the inimical giant’s visits by turning the prince into a tiny fly during the giant’s visits. This work becomes an agonising portrait of the philosophy of bodily- and self-identity, and here it is on the prince’s part. Involving duality, doubts and fears, self-hatred as excrement … instead of the potential leap-scope of a what a fly could have managed as a sporadic interim ability for a human being like the prince, giving him the chance of the best of both worlds. But no, we agonise as we we watch him finally turning into a fat fly, a giant itself by becoming thus human-sized, stuck on the lockdown’s wall at the end. Hope that is not a spoiler. The inimical giant himself, by the way, had his true seat of consciousness inside a distant caged parrot. Make of that what you will. And I did!

    by Satu Waltari (translated by David Hackston)

    “and together they flew across the babbling brook”

    A touching story of Viivian who, from a home with Stumpy and Romi Nut Bunny, secretly at night, travels on her horse in the armoured clothes this maiden or small girl dresses herself in, to a squalid cave where a meticulously and skilfully described monster lives, except it is, instead of a monster, a badly described or ill-drawn dragon who confesses to her its chequered backstory, eating maidens the taste of whom he grew to find distasteful, and now eating mushrooms, and the St George and the like turning up to slay him, with such visits having now gone out of fashion. It was Viivian’s horse that I am more worried about, and intrinsically, for me, this tale is about this horse: his flying across the babbling brook and, later, before reaching the dragon’s cave, it “took a great leap” over a dizzying gorge but at the end, after Viivian is blown back by the dragon’s breath to further dreams or to her reality of whatever family she lived with, all she can simply, perhaps pathetically, say is: “It’s a good thing I remembered to unsaddle the horse…”
    As an aside, another highlight was her timepiece with hands controlled by ants.

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