I discovered fantasy in the summer of 1972.
On the recommendation of my roommate, I had started reading the short stories of H.P. Lovecraft, the master of American horror. Shortly after my immersion in Lovecraft’s dark universe of horror from beyond the stars, my roommate strolled through the apartment, carrying a book titled A Day at the Edge of the World.
“Who’s that by?” I asked, intrigued by the title (as who wouldn’t be?)
“Lord Dunsany,” he replied. “One of the people who influenced Lovecraft. Want to borrow it?”
From there, I was hooked. I had already, at my sister’s urgings, read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Now I expanded my reading, filling my bookshelves with the great nineteenth-century fantasists Lord Dunsany, George, MacDonald, William Morris, and their literary descendants, authors such as William Hope Hodgeson (The House on the Borderland; The Nightland; The Boats of the Glen Carig), Arthur Machen (The Three Imposters), Clark Ashton Smith (Hyperboria; Xothique; Poseidonis), and many others.
Many—in fact, most—of these books were published as part of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, a project initiated by Ian and Betty Ballantine that ran between 1969 and 1974. The novels were selected and edited with introductions by Lin Carter, working in close collaboration with the Ballantines. I found them in a revolving rack in the science fiction department of Kroch & Brentano’s bookstore in downtown Chicago (back then, the premier bookstore in the Loop). For weeks I haunted the store, waiting eagerly for each new volume. The science fiction department, which had a vaguely subversive atmosphere in those days, was in the store’s basement, and I was usually undisturbed as I paged through its array of titles.
The Adult Fantasy series proper included more than sixty-five titles, as well as a number of titles, including Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books, that were added to it retrospectively. Their covers had a distinct appearance, and each bore, in the upper right corner, a small circle surrounding a unicorn’s head.
Among my early purchases was a remarkable story, Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees. The original Ballantine cover showed a young boy poking at giant apples floating down a river, while an idyllic small town glowed in the light of a rainbow behind him. I thumbed through it, intrigued by the comment on the back cover: “As sturdy as a painting by Brueghel, as delicate as the breath of a hummingbird’s wing.”
Mirrlees (1887–1978) was an English writer and scholar, who sank into increasing obscurity with the passing of the 1920s and 1930s. She was a remarkable woman, a friend of Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot, part of the Bloomsbury literary circle, (Mirrlees’s poem Paris has been called by some critics an undiscovered treasure of Modernism) and a close friend and collaborator of the great classical scholar Jane Ellen Harrison. She and Harrison divided their time between England and France. She became fluent in French and Russian, and later studied Spanish.
Lud-in-the-Mist was one of the first fantasy books we selected for Prologue’s Fantasy list, and rightfully so. The book is Mirrlees’s masterpiece. Set in the quiet land of Dorimare on the borders of Faerie, it has something of the sensibilities of Tolkien’s Shire–adventures are just over the horizon, but the hardworking sober folk of Dorimare want no truck with them. And yet, as so often happens, adventure seeks them out when the son of one of the land’s old, proud families does the unthinkable and eats of faerie fruit.
And we know that nothing good can come of that.