Tuesday, 18 August 2015

GREAT GHOSTS OF THE SHELVES #20 - The Armada Monster Book

By 1975 that powerhouse publisher of children's books Armada, had successfully established a paperback anthology series The Armada Ghost Books, which now ran to seven volumes, with a eighth in the works. And with three anthologies on fantastical beasts - Witches (1972), Mermaids And Sea Creatures (1973) and Dragons (1974) - edited by Carolyn Lloyd doing well too, it is no surprise it was thought that a companion series on monsters would go down well too. 

And to helm this new vessel that would be a Noah's ark of things with fang, scale, fur and tentacle, Armada turned to one of their frequent contributors of ghostly tales, R. Chetwynd-Hayes. Now this fellow had carved out a successful career as a writer of weird fictions - and you can hear more about the great man and his works here. Now in 1974 he had taken over the reins of the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories series from Robert Aickman, commencing at the 8th volume proving his editorial mettle, and  furthermore with his great and idiosyncratic imagination and off-beat sense of humour, Chetwynd-Hayes was the ideal man to curate a series on monsters. He had often invented his own bizarre creatures and beings for his own tales, and his penchant for liberally mixing laughs with his chills made him a perfect choice to edit anthologies for children. Chetwynd-Hayes understand perfectly well the appeal monsters had for kids, and could be relied upon to deliver a finely balanced mix of fun and thrills to stimulate under imaginations.   

And the full menagerie of monsters he assembled is as follows -

The Sad Vampire by Angus Campbell
The Last of the Dragons by E Nesbit
Dimblebee's Dinosaur by Howard Peters
A Ride to Hell by Ruth Manning-Saunders
Inside the Monster by Lucian of Samothrace
The Chimaera by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Guardian at Hell's Mouth by Sydney J Bounds
Something in the Cellar by Rosemary J Timperley
Theseus and the Minotaur by Charles Kingsley
The Sea Serpent by Gerard James
The Thing in the Pond by Paul Ernst
Big Feet by R. Chetwynd Hayes

Now then, broadly speaking good old RCH is following the template established by Christine Bernard and Mary Danby in the Armada Ghost Books, and therefore we have the familiar mix of old classics, brand new tales and a sprinkling of folklore. However for the Monster Books, we have a couple of new ingredients in the mix. Firstly, we have the introduction of classical legends, for no self respecting monster book could fail to have some famous faces from world mythology. 

And hence we have two trips to Ancient Greece - there's a recounting of the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, which was (and is) pretty much standard for any childrens' monster book past or present. But rather than wheel out the Minotaur's usual running mates, Medusa or Polyphemus, instead RCH includes Nathaniel Hawthorne's account of the Chimaera, neatly ticking the classic literature and classical legends boxes in one fell swoop. However for extra brownie points, we have Inside the Monster - the fantastical tale of life inside the belly of a monstrous whale from Lucian of Samothrace. It's actually an extract from a longer work Verae Historiae I (True History I) a 2nd century work widely hailed as one of the first science fiction novels. 

The other new element is of course the inclusion of tales penned by the editor himself. Now it was almost traditional for an author helming such an anthology to be allowed to include a tale of his own, which indeed RCH does. However he also rather cheekily includes a second tale billed under his alter ego of Angus Campbell. Big Feet is a fun romp riffing on the cliches of dragon slaying stories, while The Sad Vampire is the story of a young boy befriending a monster, albeit one that builds up to a rather wicked blackly comic ending. Now you might say that including two of your own tales is something of a low trick for an editor, but in this case when both stories are such good fun, I'm inclined to forgive him.   

However on the other paw... if I have one criticism of this volume, it is that as a whole the book is weighted a little too heavily towards to the comedic. For E Nesbit's tale is also poking fun at the tropes of dragon slaying, Dimblebee's Dinosaur see another school boy befriending a monster, and Rosemary Timperley's Something in the Cellar has its tongue firmly in its cheek too. So then, not counting the legends retold or the entertaining folk tale from the always reliable Ruth Manning-Saunders, we only have three stories playing it straight. I'm guessing that Armada wanted to keep these book fun and frothy but all the same I can't help feeling that a few more tales with some monstrous frights in them wouldn't have gone amiss. 

But then again, maybe that's just the horror fanatic in me coming out. For unlike some of the other anthologies we've looked at in the past that have wandered off-topic from their chosen subjects, The Armada Monster Book certainly delivers a different creature in every tale, and beasts from many different historical ages. And while I might lament a lack of more scary tales, it's certainly full to the trim with monsters. 

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