Invisible Ink: No 178 - The Vanishing Fantastics

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The Independent Culture

What do the following names have in common? Winston Churchill, Raymond Chandler, John Lennon, Muriel Spark, JB Priestley, F Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Daphne Du Maurier, Noël Coward?

They all wrote short stories. Some were macabre and fantastical, some involved detectives or ghosts, some were pulpy and sensational, written mainly for personal pleasure – but all were published. There was once no snobbery in enjoying popular fictions. It was said that you would have to go far to find a bishop who did not keep the latest Agatha Christie on his bedside table. WH Auden loved Chandler, and Dylan Thomas read science fiction adventures.

Churchill's "Man Overboard" is a disturbing little number that leads off a marvellous collection entitled The Lucifer Society. Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Bottle Imp" is a wonderfully ingenious reboot of the traditional genii story. HG Wells' moving "The Door In The Wall" is one of the most perfect shorts ever written. For many, short stories were the opener of the way to a literary career. The challenge is the chance to construct a flawless jewel of concision and power. With abbreviated length comes a condensation of language that can be polished until it sparkles. A plot can be controlled without the need for digression, a character can be rendered indelible with a phrase, a twist to the tale can add extra depth or turn the whole account inside-out.

Throughout the 20th century, short fiction anthologies were best-sellers (an anthology is not a collection; the latter features stories from a single author). Some became legendary; the Pan Book of Horror Stories series comprised some 30 volumes produced over as many years, and were a best-selling guide to masters of the macabre in short form, featuring almost as many women as men. Alberto Manguel's immense Black Water and White Fire gathered together the greatest international fantastic fiction, much of it translated for the first time. Kirby McAuley's Dark Forces was regarded as an anthology high water mark. Hugh Greene edited The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, rediscovering the best Victorian detectives, while Michel Parry's The Rivals of King Kong introduced a host of rampaging giant creatures. Editors such as Peter Haining and Stephen Jones clocked up literally hundreds of titles between them. There have been anthologies of betrayals, revenges, lovers, trains, even one concerning swimming pools, printed on waterproof paper. You'll find dozens in secondhand book fairs, and it's time they were reinvented for a new generation.