I first heard of the early-19th century writer John Sterling through Brian Stableford’s Dedalus Book of British Fantasy: The 19th Century, which included one of his tales, “A Chronicle of England”. Introducing it, Stableford said:
“Sterling would surely have become one of the leading writers of his day had he not died so young, and he might well have become the most important nineteenth century fantasy writer; his prose fantasies are more various and more adventurous than any other contemporary work.”
“A Chronicle of England” paints a delightful, fairy-haunted picture of England in the days before it received its first human inhabitants. The constant battles between the semi-substantial, light-loving fairies, and their brothers, the thunderous, brutal giants, often feels like a poetic allegory of England’s changeable weather — sunny one moment, cloudy the next — particularly when, at one point, the giants open a great cave to unleash a mist upon the land. The story certainly felt different in the richness and poetry of its fantasy elements compared to the other writers in the anthology, and I wanted to find out more.
Sterling was born in 1806 and died of tuberculosis in 1844. During his short life he’d been co-proprietor of the literary magazine The Atheneum, a disciple of the elderly Coleridge, and a friend of Thomas Carlyle. He wrote novels (Arthur Coningsby, published in 1833; The Onyx Ring, serialised from 1838 to 1839), poetry, and numerous essays, plus enough short fantasy stories to fill a slim volume. His shorter writings were mostly collected in a two-volume, posthumous Essays and Tales in 1848 (which you can find at archive.org), and these contain almost all of his fantasy output. (His novel Arthur Coningsby also contains some easily-separable stories, as told by its characters, some of which are published on their own in Essays and Tales, but I found two more of a fantastical nature that merited being collected as tales in their own right.)
Once I’d sought these out, cleaned up the text, and assembled them together for my own reading, I thought I’d put them out as a book, because, although the Essays and Tales are freely available as a PDF, I think the fantasy tales are worth issuing on their own, and in a more readable form.
Are they worthy, though, of Stableford’s high praise? It’s impossible, of course, to tell if Sterling really would have become one of his age’s most important writers, but his fantasy stories certainly show signs of developing in a unique direction. Aside from an attempt at Orientalism (“The Caterpillar”), which at least has the virtue of ending with a humorous moral to its tale of what happens to a young woman who thoughtlessly flicks a caterpillar off her arm, Sterling’s early tales published in The Atheneum were mostly set in or around the world of Ancient Greek myth. “Zamor”, for instance, is a sort of Vathek-in-miniature, providing three glimpses into the life of Alexander the Great, first as a carefree but ambitious boy, then as a world-conqueror granted a glimpse of the afterlife horrors awaiting all world-conquerors, and finally as a broken man haunted by that terrible vision. Perhaps the best tale of this period is the poignant “The Last of the Giants”, in which a fifteenth-century man, wandering among wild mountains after a shipwreck, gets a privileged but mournful glimpse of the titular creature.
The Arthur Coningsby tales are slighter but see an opening out in the sort of fantasy Sterling wrote. “The Crystal Prison”, for instance, is about a man punished by being imprisoned in a crystal sphere, in which, wherever he looks, he sees only his own face (an idea also used, if I recall rightly, in “The Hell of Mirrors” by Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo in 1926), and “The Sons of Iron” is a sort of early robot fable, about men made of metal who spend their lives making more men out of metal.
Near the end of his life, Sterling began publishing a series of stories under the shared title “Legendary Lore” in Blackwood’s Magazine, and it’s here his writing really shows the promise Stableford alluded to. “A Chronicle of England” and “The Palace of Morgana” (a virtually conflict-free idyll about bright young things flitting around the grounds of a paradisal palace, amusing themselves with displays of magic — Stableford calls it “a uniquely delicate prose poem”) have left the world of Classical Greece for a fantasy that seems to owe more to the Shakespeare of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. The fantasy in these two tales is poetic and playful, strange and wondrous. Also published in Blackwood’s was “The Suit of Armour and the Skeleton”, a dialogue between two relics in an old church, one of whom (the suit of armour), despite being hollow, is rather full of himself, for having once been worn by a somewhat brutal duke, while the skeleton, of humbler origins, proves to have a more down-to-earth and inclusive outlook, as well as a greater claim to be on display in the church. The title and form both reminded me of Clark Ashton Smith’s prose-poem dialogue, “The Corpse and the Skeleton”, which has a similarly satirical (though more darkly cynical) flavour.
If these three, the best of Sterling’s tales, point the way to how his work might have progressed had he lived, he’d certainly have deserved Stableford’s praise. Ralph Waldo Emerson wanted to get Sterling’s works published in the US, and Carlyle, Sterling’s friend and literary executor, wrote a book on his life, but today he’s mostly forgotten. I’d like to imagine though, that, had the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line continued, it might one day have had a Sterling volume such as this. (I was aiming for something of that feel with my cover.) His language is often poetic and archaic (and I like it all the more for that), and he may rely, on occasion, on certain Romantic clichés (most of his heroines are unworldly, innocent types devoted to their ageing, widowed fathers, but have a longing to witness strange and sublime sights), but if you like classic fantasy, I think there’s something to enjoy in them.