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Sunday, December 23, 2001

I really do plan to put up a page of cool recommended things, as soon as I get around to it.

In the meantime, someone in the FAQ requests wanted me to recommend authors of short stories: so let's see... Saki (H.H. Monro) was the finest short story writer of the first couple of decades of the 20th century. John Collier is a wonderful short story writer who is almost forgotten now -- look for Fancies and Goodnights and there's a Best of John Collier collection out there introduced by Anthony Burgess. Ernest Bramah wrote strange pseudo-oriental little confections -- try to find Kai Lung's Golden Hours or Kai Lung Unrolls his Mat. R. A. Lafferty's 900 Grandmothers, Samuel R Delany's Driftglass, Roger Zelazny's Rose For Ecclesiastes, Harlan Ellison's Essential Ellison and the Avram Davidson Treasury contain remarkable stories by remarkable authors. Find and read Bradbury's The October Country. Shirley Jackson's The Lottery and Other Stories. And then go and find any short story collection by Robert Aickman that you can afford. And then there's James Thurber, and Gene Wolfe. Kelly Link's Stranger Things Happen. Susanna Clarke has only written a handful of stories, and they aren't collected, but they are rather wonderful. Jonathan Carroll's The Panic Hand. And the Datlow-Windling Year's Best Fantasy and Horror collections are always an excellent overview of the any fiction that's off the beaten track.

And for now, here's something from the archives -- something I wrote for Fantasy and Science Fiction a couple of years ago...



Count Jan Potocki, a widely travelled Polish writer army man and balloonist, blew his brains out in 1815, using a silver bullet (melted down from a samovar and first blessed by the castle chaplain). He was, it is said, convinced that he had become a werewolf, and there were other rumours of incest and of strange melancholias.

His book, the convoluted and barely finished �Manuscrit Trouv� � Saragosse� is an intricate work of dark genius. It is the tale of Alphonse Van Worden, a young officer travelling to Madrid, who spends a night in a haunted inn in which he is the recipient of the not entirely unwelcome advances of two Moorish sisters � or, perhaps, as he discovers on waking the next morning beneath a gibbet between the bodies of two dead bandits, he is the victim of ghostly malice. For the next sixty-six days, and for about a hundred stories, he will no longer be sure what is real and what is not, and neither will we.

Potocki is the Scheharazade of this 18th Century Arabian Nights: everyone Van Worden meets has a tale to tell, and the people inside those stories have their own tales that must be told; the stories nest inside each other, connecting directly and at tangents: mysteries are happened upon in one story, explained much later in another tale entirely. We meet the Wandering Jew, demonaics and caballists, lovers and mathematicians, devils and angels, bankers, hermits and a large number of mysterious women. The stories range from out and out horror (particularly in the first ten days) to erotic tales of courtly love and behaviour. On the way the nature of faith and of religion is called into question, and we find ourselves wondering about the nature of stories.

It is appropriate that the introduction to one edition of the Manuscript calls into question whether the same man wrote the whole book, or part of it, and suggests that who whole existence of the Manuscript might be a strange sort of fraud. Bits of the manuscript turned up in strange libraries, written in unlikely languanges. The book we have now is an assemblage � a sort of gothic picaresque, and its publishing history is as appropriately convoluted and unlikely as its author.

There�s even a film of the Manuscript, and a good one, made in Poland during the sixties. My copy has been through so many hands that the black and white film has started to pick up splashes of video colour.

The ultimate resolution of the tale (involving a Moorish scheme, a hidden gold mine and the revelation of sundry secret histories and plans) is, compared with the rest of the book, perfunctory: the Saragossa Manuscript is a mirrored labyrinth with an unsatisfying resolution. Perhaps if Potocki had not become convinced that he was a werewolf he might have given us a finer ending. But with a book like this it�s the journey that matters, not the destination. And it is a journey like no other.


The Manuscript Found In Saragossa (Penguin ) Tr. and introduced by Ian MacLean
Tales From the Saragossa Manuscript -- Ten Days in the Life of Alphonse Van Worden (Dedalus European Classics). Introduction by Brian Stableford
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