Michael Dirda’s Top Ten 20th Century Works of Fantasy
1) The Gormenghast Trilogy: Titus Groan, Gormenghast, Titus Alone, by Mervyn Peake. The other great fantasy trilogy of our time: A vast crumbling castle in the midst of a bleakly desolate landscape, inhabited by overreachers and grotesques, all evoked in a thickened, painterly prose of immense power.
2) Watch the North Wind Rise, by Robert Graves. Also known as Seven Days in New Crete. A minor poet of our time finds himself in a feminist Utopia, of sorts, based on the dark rituals of The White Goddess. Quick-moving and irresistible.
3) Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter. In arguably her finest novel, this provocative fabulist imagines an aerialist with real wings. Cockney magic realism.
4) From the Realm of Morpheus, by Steven Millhauser. Most of Millhauser’s fiction is short and perfect, but here all is gaudy, glorious excess. Rabelaisian incident, stylistic pastiches, fables of all sorts — Borges meets Baron Munchausen.
5) The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. The Devil comes to 20th-century Russia, encounters one of the most bewitching heroines of modern fiction, and gives us a glimpse of Pontius Pilate’s private life. The masterpiece of Soviet fiction.
6) His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman. The Anti-Narnia, a critique of organized religion, a paean to Blakean joy in life, and, for all its controversy, the most vividly imagined”secondary world” in 20th-century children’s literature. But definitely not just for kids.
7) The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka. The most celebrated fable of the past century, the story of Gregor Samsa and what happened to him when he awoke one morning and found himself transformed into a gigantic insect. Disturbing, funny, puzzling and unforgettable.
8) The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson. Horror from the past, dizzyingly unreliable narration, the impossibility of determining the real from the imagined, pathos and psychopathology — all these come together in this most haunting of haunted-house stories, by the author of”The Lottery.”
9) At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien. Layers upon layers: In this work of”Gaelic absurdism,” one finds penniless students, Wild West cowboys, the folkloric giant Sweeney and characters in a novel who murderously turn on their author. A great, woolly comic extravaganza.”A pint of plain is your only man.”
10) Little, Big, by John Crowley.”As once upon a time they were.” Smokey Barnable marries into a family with pictures of elves in their photo albums. Prose that Scott Fitzgerald would envy and a heartbreaking love story: the best fantasy yet written by an American.