Fans of magical prose and magical worlds, take heart. Titan Books has recently released a special limited edition version of steampunk legend James Blaylock’s The Aylesford Skull, a classic from one of the genre’s trailblazers. To celebrate the release, Blaylock has put together a list of forgotten or ignored works of literature that have inspired his own writing, and should be must-reads for anyone interested in science fiction or the fantastic.
Blaylock writes: “Why these novels turned out to be inspirational is a long story, too long to recount here, and in fact sometimes I can’t quite say: a sensibility, maybe, that seemed to me to be True in some regard, a sense of humor that was also a sense of proportion, wisdom of a whimsical variety, an evocative atmosphere, intriguing characters, a level of eccentricity that was somehow made perfectly plausible, a giant cephalopod. All of that is very murky, of course. One thing: I’ll admit that I’m not cut out to be a rationalist, although I’m skeptical of people who say things like that, which means I’m skeptical of myself, which is either a good thing or else it’s not. I’ve read all of Charles Fort and I believe he was a great genius. I’ve always had a particular fondness for people who take the marvelous seriously, who are certain they’ve seen ghosts or flying saucers, who are intrigued by the idea of desert mummies or the mysteries of Atlantis, who wonder what’s really going on beneath the slowly revolving seaweed surface of the Sargasso Sea. I’ll freely admit that the extent to which these books are forgotten or ignored is debatable. We could take a poll if we had the time. Here’s something: If because of your age you’re offered discount tickets at movie houses or have an eccentric idea of what constitutes good reading, then you might remember them well enough. Good for you. If you’re younger than that, then you might find a few books on the list that are worth looking into.
“Finally, in case you’re ever asked to make up a list of this sort, set aside significant time to do it. If you’ve been fortunate enough to keep your favorite books, you’ll gather them up from various rooms in the house, pile them up on the floor and desktop near your keyboard, and then spend hours rereading bits of them instead of actually compiling the list you’ve agreed to compile. Why choose one of William Hope Hodgson’s novels and not another? The impossibility of answering that question makes it imperative to at least glance at The Ghost Pirates and The Night Land and House on the Borderland before you can make an informed choice, which consists, finally, of closing your eyes and pointing. Right now the floor of my study is a lumber of strange books, half of which I’ve by now decided to reread, a task that should take me a good six months.”
Phantastes, George MacDonald
“This one begins with a young man finding the key to an old, oak secretary in a secret library in a house that sits at the edge of things. He opens the door of the secretary only to discover that what seems to be the back wall is a false panel with a hidden pin that keeps it locked in place. He shifts the pin, draws out the panel, and finds… Published in London in 1858 by one of the world’s great fantasy writers, and originally illustrated by Pre-Raphaelite painter Arthur Hughes, Phantastes is a seriously beautiful and creepy book, always dream-like, often a strangely compelling nightmare. C.S. Lewis bought it when he was 16 years old. Years later he wrote, ‘I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.’ I felt that same way when I read it. I had never read a book more fanciful, and had never read a book more Real. You might have read MacDonald before – ‘The Day Boy and the Night Girl,’ or On the back of the North Wind – but I can assure you that Phantastes is no sort of children’s story. The book was republished in 1970 as one of the brilliant Ballantine Adult Fantasy series (buy them all if you get a chance) and by Everyman’s Library in 1983 and no doubt by other publishers. It’s especially of interest to anyone who wonders which giants C.S. Lewis was standing on the shoulders of.”