The Fantasy Five-Foot Bookshelf Pro and Con
The eight page “Fantasy Five-Foot Bookshelf” appeared in the June and August 1983 issues of THE TWILIGHT ZONE magazine. Penned by R.S. Hadji, Thomas M. Disch and Karl Edward Wagner, the FFFB consists of several highly eclectic listings of recommended fantasy volumes, with a particular emphasis on horror. That’s true even of Disch’s contributions “13 All-Time Fantasy Classics” and “13 Great Works of Fantasy from the Last 13 Years,” with genre classics like THE AUCTIONEER, THE SOUND OF HIS HORN and CONJURE WIFE all given their just due by the erudite Disch. TZ’s then editor T.E.D. Klein also chimes in with “The 13 Most Terrifying Horror Stories,” represented by the likes of “The Willows” and “Who Goes There?”
That the FFFB has influenced me should be obvious from my book review choices (I’d have never thought to seek out COUNT DRACULA’S CANADIAN AFFAIR on my own). I also credit the FFFB with introducing me to essential genre texts like Hanns Heinz Ewers’ ALRAUNE and Brian Moore’s GREAT VICTORIAN COLLECTION.
Clearly I wasn’t the only one impacted by these listings, as the FFFB’s contents, in particular the Karl Edward Wagner selections, have been referenced in innumerable print and online forums. See Ramsey Campbell’s “Thirteen Novels on the Edge of Horror” entry in THE BOOK OF LISTS: HORROR, in which, writing of George Philip Chadwick’s DEATH GUARD, Campbell singles out “scenes that amply justify Karl Edward Wagner’s inclusion of the book in his list of the best science fiction horror novels.”
Many of the FFFB’s more obscure titles have been reprinted in recent years by specialty publishers like Ash Tree Press, Centipede Press and Ramble House. Those reprints include three novels by the ultra-obscure British scribe R.R. Ryan, whose following can be ascribed entirely to the fact that Wagner mentioned Ryan’s books in his FFFB listings.
The downside of The Fantasy Five-Foot Bookshelf’s popularity is that its contents have for many people become sacred, with quite a few self-proclaimed “literary horror exerts” littering the net whose sole exposure to horror fiction, it seems, is via the FFFB. I’m certain that if Mssrs Hadji, Disch and Wagner had any real inkling of how influential the FFFB would become they might have done a better job on it.
In critiquing the contents of The Fantasy Five Foot Bookshelf one must first take into account the fact that the listings, despite the “Best” designations of Karl Edward Wagner’s three entries--“Best Supernatural Horror,” “Best Non-Supernatural Horror” and “Best Science Fiction Horror”--were intended primarily as selections of obscure and little known publications. Or, in the words of author John Pelan, “The list isn’t really Karl’s selection of the thirty-nine best novels, rather it’s his use of the magazine as a bully pulpit to call attention to works that might otherwise have been overlooked.”
R.S. Hadji at least makes that designation clear in the title of one of his listings: “13 Neglected Masterpieces of the Macabre.” It’s the best written contribution, with impressively concentrated, frank and literate assessments, including a 49-word entry for Jane Gaskell’s SHINY NARROW GRIN that remains arguably the finest-ever summation of that novel.*
Hadji does, however, wildly overrate MEDUSA, whose author E.H. Visiak apparently “achieved the terror and wonder, the sense of awe, that Lovecraft could only grasp at.” Having read MEDUSA, I believe a better description would have been the phrase Hadji uses to praise John Blackburn’s BURY HIM DARKLY: “An entertaining curiosity.” Also, was the Lovecraft bashing really necessary?
Karl Edward Wagner’s entries, unfortunately, leave much to be desired writing-wise. That Wagner wasn’t known for nonfiction is evident in his summations of THE DEADLY PERCHERON, in which Wagner raves at some length about the opening chapter but apparently forgets about the rest of the book, and THE TORTURE GARDEN, in which Wagner devotes more attention to the Frank Franzetta cover of the U.S. paperback edition than the text. Wagner’s book choices, at least, are generally quite strong, with the iconic scribes Fredric Brown, John Dickson Carr and the aforementioned R.R. Ryan all well represented; perhaps it’s right that the reprinting of Wagner’s FFFB listings in THE BOOK OF LISTS: HORROR excises the descriptions.
One area in which the FFFB really shows its age is Hadji’s “13 Worst Stinkers of the Weird.” The #10 selection is John Shirley’s proto-splatterpunk classic CELLARS, derided as “The most thoroughly disgusting horror thriller in recent memory, a declaration of war on all standards of taste in the genre.” The funny thing is that by today’s standards CELLARS seems fairly tame!
Beyond that there’s the issue of the many worthy novels and writers that for whatever reason didn’t make the FFFB. I realize, given the off-the-beaten-track nature of the selections, that complaining about such omissions is pointless, but I’ll do so anyway. Important names like David Lindsay, Robert Aickman, William Sloane, Edgar Jepson, Marcel Bealu, Seabury Quinn, Ronald Fraser and Gustav Meyrink, to name but a few, all go unmentioned. This is why the Fantasy Five Foot Bookshelf, despite its qualities, should not be considered the catch-all horror reference so many have proclaimed it.
*To whit: “A vampire novel set in sixties London, exploring the fascination of a dark, mysterious boy for a plain girl, and by extension, of the vampire myth for adolescent girls in general. Moody, ambiguous, with a sharp eye for the “Mod” milieu, this could be considered an anti-Romantic fable.”