Novelties and Souvenirs: Collected Short Fiction by John Crowley

Perennial, 2004, $13.95
reviewed in Interzone 194, September-October 2004

John Crowley has a good claim to be the most critically respected author currently working in the fantastic. Certainly his books are as near perfect as it is possible to be, and for twenty years or more critics have been falling over themselves to say so. But it would seem that beautiful prose, hauntingly elegant stories and critical respectability do not translate into sales. At least, that is how we must interpret his treatment by publishers. In America, the fourth and final part of his extravagantly praised Aegypt sequence has been turned down by leading publishers and will appear, if at all, from a small press. (At least America has seen these wonderful novels, in Britain only Aegypt has been published: it was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, but that wasn’t enough to persuade anyone to publish its two sequels, Love and Sleep and Daemonomania, nor indeed his most recent novel, the exquisite The Translator; and presumably no-one will be taking up this new collection of short stories, either.)

Now, with Novelties & Souvenirs, his publishers appear to be trying a different tack. The cover shows a subtly intriguing photograph of a zeppelin flying over a 1930s city street (it bears no relation to any of the stories, but the mood seems appropriate). There is a note to the effect that Crowley has won awards and The Translator was a New York Times Notable Book. There are enthusiastic quotes from Harold Bloom, the New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle (which compares him to Thomas Mann and Robertson Davies), and he is described as ‘A master literary stylist’. And nowhere in this book, until you get to the publishing history of these stories tucked away discretely right at the back, are the words ‘science fiction’ or ‘fantasy’ used. They have finally given up trying to sell him to a curiously indifferent genre marketplace and are, instead, trying to place him in the mainstream. One can only hope it works, because Crowley deserves a massive audience, and if we are not making him a viable publishing option, what hope is there for the genre?

That said, a collection of stories is not necessarily the best place to start reading if you are new to Crowley. He is neither a prolific nor always a proficient short story writer. The publishers have misleadingly subtitled this book ‘Collected Short Fiction’ though it omits ‘The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines’ which was published in Conjunctions 39 a full year before this volume appeared; nevertheless, the 15 stories gathered here are all else he has produced in over 25 years. It is not that hard to see why. The shortest pieces – ‘The Green Child’, ‘Lost and Abandoned’, ‘The War Between the Objects and the Subjects’ – are generally the weakest. A story that doesn’t have room to develop subtle atmosphere and allusion doesn’t allow Crowley to display his strengths.

When he does allow himself this space, however, it is obvious why he has won such renown. ‘Great Work of Time’ is not much shorter than a novel, and in its slow unfolding you will find one of the finest tales of time travel, alternate history and paradox you are likely to encounter, even though it is not always clear that that is what you are reading. Other long stories collected here – ‘Snow’, a haunting meditation on memory and loss; ‘Novelty’, a story that combines the religious impulse with the idea of being a writer so intricately that at times you feel in here must lie the original seed of Aegypt and its successors; or ‘An Earthly Mother Sits and Sings’, a chill blending of the ballad of the Silkie with the destruction of the Spanish Armada – may not quite have the mesmerising quality of ‘Great Work of Time’, but that is only because a plot worked out with the intricacy of a watch mechanism and told obliquely through the emotions of its witnesses is something even a writer as skilled as Crowley cannot achieve every time. Make no mistake, there are treasures here that any other author would kill to achieve.

Of course anyone already converted to the cause of John Crowley will already have all but four of these stories in the collections Novelty and Antiquities, which means this is a collection aimed particularly at those of you who have yet to discover his work. Go and buy it now. You owe it to yourself to read perhaps our finest writer; and you owe it to the genre to convince the publishers that he is worth keeping in print.