Black Water: The Anthology of Fantastic Literature
Roderick McGillis was Associate Professor of English at the University of Calgary, Alberta.
Black Water, an omnibus anthology of fantastic literature, will prove indispensable to the lover of the macabre or to those interested in “magic realism.” Alberto Manguel’s taste is Todorovian; the stories he collects are full of surprises, marvellous happenings, and suggestions of the supernatural. In his Foreword, Manguel carefully distinguishes fantastic literature from “tales of fantasy” (the kind of story we associate with Tolkien or LeGuin, although LeGuin is represented here by “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”) by asserting that the former “deals with what can be best defined as the impossible seeping into the possible.” And his enthusiasm for a form that delights in its freedom from the restrictions of form and reality is readily apparent.
Perhaps the best thing about the anthology is its range. Although there are no stories in the High Fantasy manner, there are ghost stories, dream stories, time travel stories, stories of metamorphosis, stories of devils and imps, and more. The scope is international: Manguel chooses writers from England, the United States, South America, and Europe. Especially valuable are the nine stories from South America, since these give us a splendid introduction to the founders of “magic realism” — that haunting and puzzling rippling of the unexpected and the marvellous into our rationalist perspective on reality. Black Water also makes available, after many years, David Garnett’s wonderful novella Lady into Fox. The anthology is worth the price for this work alone.
Manguel has chosen his stories with affection and care. Some are familiar and available elsewhere: Dickens’s “The Signalman,” Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” Lawrence’s “The Rocking-horse Winner.” Others are less familiar and less accessible: Hichens’s “How Love Came to Professor Guildea,” King’s “A Scent of Mimosa,” Quiroga’s “The Feather Pillow.” One might ask why such writers as LeFanu, Bierce, or Blackwood are overlooked, but the collection is long as it is. For each story Manguel has written a brief introduction in which he speculates upon the themes of the story or offers biographical information on the author. Some of this information is, albeit interesting, unhelpful (see, for example, the introduction of Maugham’s “Lord Mountdrago”). The biographical sketches at the end of the book are useful, but nowhere in the notes does Manguel clarify, for most of the stories, the date and place of first publication. In short, for the reader with a scholarly bent, this anthology is frustrating.
Frustration aside, Black Water, as its subtitle asserts, is the anthology of fantastic literature. The 72 tales, ranging in length from half a page to 52 pages, offer superb reading.