Alberto Manguel’s “Black Water: The Book of Fantastic Literature”

To break the ice, I’d like to discuss the first book that drew me into the world of weird fiction. I was familiar with Kafka, Borges, and Lovecraft from my college years, but it wasn’t until sometime later that I encountered Alberto Manguel’s anthology “Black Water: The Book of Fantastic Literature”. Though, to say that I merely “encountered” this volume in a used bookstore would cheapen the experience. Once in a while, a book catches the corner of my eye and draws me to it. I’m not much inclined to indulge in supernatural explanations for this experience, but it would be disingenuous for me to say that I don’t experience it as such.

Perhaps it was the cover? The excerpt from Tooker’s The Subway spoke to me as well. I like this quote from the Whitney Museum of American Art, describing the work. It articulates quite well my initial reaction to the book’s cover.

“WBW coverhether closed off in tiled niches or walking down the long passageway, each androgynous, anxiety-ridden figure appears psychologically estranged, despite being physically close to others in the station. The central group of commuters is locked in a grid of the metal grating’s cast shadows, while the labyrinthine passages seem to lead nowhere, suspending the city’s inhabitants in a modern purgatory.”

Whatever mystical force brought myself and this book together, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that that book had definitely not been read very much. I’m not quite certain what circumstances get a book withdrawn from a public library, but I would imagine that lack of use is high on that list. The complete lack of torn or bent pages, coffee or water stains, notes or doodles, backed up my idealistic version of the book’s history. It was almost as if it had simply been allowed to cure and age among the stacks and I could now uncork it myself.

BW withdraw

I wasn’t familiar with Alberto Manguel either, but over the years I became a huge fan of many of his works. Born in Buenos Aires, raised in Tel Aviv, and now a Canadian, Alberto Manguel is a prolific author and editor, as well as passionate anthologist. Manguel spent a number of years reading to a blind Jorge Luis Borges, became fluent in multiple languages, and traveled and read widely. Early in his career, he co-wrote “The Dictionary of Imaginary Places”, a catalog of fantastical settings and places from across the literature of the world.

Shortly after, Manguel published the first installment of the Black Water anthology series (there is a second installment, which I plan to explore at a later date).  The Canadian edition was published in 1983, but my copy is the American edition, published a year later.  At nearly 1,000 pages, this volume includes an international collection of authors commonly associated with science fiction (Wells, Bradbury, Verne), magical realism (Borges, Cortazar), the dreadful (Poe, Denisen, Kafka), and literature with a capital L (Dickens, Wilde, Lawrence). While authors such as these certainly have their place in this volume, they make up roughly half of its contents, with the remainder of stories coming from authors that, to the best of my knowledge, are not widely read in the English-speaking world.

Despite its yellowed pages and dry rotted glue, this volume remains one of my most prized possessions. Manguel captures my sentiments best in this excerpt from his foreward to the book:

“…a truly good fantastic story will echo that which escapes explanation in life; it will prove, in fact, that life is fantastic. It will point to that which lies beyond our dreams and fears and delights; it will deal with the invisible, with the unspoken; it will not shirk from the uncanny, the absurd, the impossible; in short, it has the courage of total freedom.”

Given the current popularity of weird fiction in general, this book is in dire need of re-printing. I’d personally love an updated volume, perhaps with additional commentary from Manguel about how the genre has evolved since the original edition. Fortunately, as of this writing, there are still multiple copies of the original printing available online.

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