Friday, December 20, 2013

Time Capsule: Imaginary Worlds (1973)

This year not only marks the fortieth year of The House with a Clock in it Walls (as has been noted throughout the blog’s last twelve months) but also of Imaginary Worlds: the Art of Fantasy, the study of the modern literary fantasy genre authored by Lin Carter (1930-88).

Wikipedia identifies the fifty-eighth volume in the celebrated Ballantine Adult Fantasy series as the “earliest full-length critical works devoted to fantasy writers and the history of fantasy” and Carter’s third study of the genre - proceeded by Tolkien: A Look Behind "The Lord of the Rings" (1969) and Lovecraft: A Look Behind the "Cthulhu Mythos" (1972).

Chapter eight, entitled "The Young Magicians: Some Modern Masters of Fantasy", is of particular interest because it discusses Carter’s three choices as the best fantasy novels to appear since The Lord of the Rings. His selections are The Last Unicorn (1968) by Peter S. Beagle, Red Moon and Black Mountain (1970) by Joy Chant, and The Face in the Frost (1969). Carter includes the following cryptic and tantalizing passage about Bellairs at the tail-end of his analysis of Face:
A graduate of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, he is a teacher-turned-novelist who now lives in rural Massachusetts, where he is busily concocting further adventures of Prospero and Roger Bacon. I wrote to him after reading The Face in the Frost, and we have been exchanging letters off and on for some time now. An affable chap, he has let me look at his sketchy maps of the South Kingdom and some unpublished scraps, notes, and outlines for these further adventures; and, in fact, he has produced for my yet-unpublished anthology of juvenile fantasy, entitled Magic Kingdoms, a new short-story which tells how his diabolic duo first became friends. I confess myself hopelessly smitten with the South Kingdom, with Prospero, with his house (which sounds like the sort of place I'd like to live in myself), and very much infatuated with his jolly, mad mirror---even if it does show nothing else but the eighth inning of the 1943 Cubs-Giants game.
While we’ve been aware of the above passage for years (and can confirm Magic Kingdoms was never published), the fact that Imaginary Worlds is only turning 40 was new to us. We had always assumed that it was published shortly after Face (1969, maybe 1970), and therefore Carter’s praise was some of that early, right-after-publication praise. Instead four years passed between Face and Imaginary Worlds and seemingly most latter-day praise of Face then comes from its being mentioned in Carter’s 1973 book. That’s what Bellairsia contributor and book collector Russell Bernard thought, too, when he brought up the book's anniversary earlier this year.

“I would say this is probably some of the earliest praise for The Face in the Frost, if not the first major review of the work,” Bernard said in emails this past summer. “This may well be one of Bellairs first major reviews, at least for his fantasy work. In a way it is a shame that he did not keep going in the adult fantasy field.  Although I enjoy his series titles, I think he started to look on them as just work at some point and the stories suffered for it. I think writing to a formula can do that to a writer. In many ways he never lived up to the potential that Lin Carter saw in his early work. I love reading [John's] books (many times over) but I wonder what he might have done if he had not been pushed towards doing juvenile titles.”

Bernard continues that he has Carter more than any other person to thank for forging many of his likes and dislikes in the fantasy genre: “I have all three of his choices in my collection and I know I started looking for them soon after reading about them in his book. My earliest interests were in Tolkien and some other early writers of fantasy (like Lord Dunsany and William Morris), and if something was compared to Tolkien I had to find it and read it.”

A longtime science-fiction and fantasy fan, Carter was a prolific author, editor, and critic and quoting from his extensive bibliography is no easy task or all encompassing. Some of what flowed from his prolific pen include the 8-book Callisto series (1972-78), the 5-book Green Star series (1972-76), the 6-book Thongor of Valkarth series (1965-70), and the 3-book Chronicles of Kylix series (1971-84).

Bernard says he was never really a fan of the books that Lin Carter wrote himself (mainly sword and sorcery titles), but “as an editor he was always right on the mark, at least for me. He introduced a world of new fantasy fans to many forgotten and almost forgotten authors as well as many new authors like Bellairs. Without Carter many authors that are popular today might not be so.

“I also think many people do not realize what a different world it was for fantasy readers and collectors in the 1960's through the mid 1980's. Fantasy was not taken seriously as a genre at the time and readers of fantasy were looked on as, well... "not right in the head" by many people. Quite different from today where a large portion of the movies made are fantasy in nature, and many romance novels as well as some ‘mainstream’ titles have at least some fantasy elements in them. Fantasy has hit the big time now, and it is at least almost respectable.”

Carter’s Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, considered a high-water mark in fantasy publishing, reissued out-of-print and hard-to-find works of fantasy literature. In total 65 books were published during the imprint's five-year run (1969-74) and are fondly remembered today by their distinctive unicorn's head logotype and for their cover artwork.

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