TITLE: Under the Sunset
AUTHOR: Bram Stoker
136 pages, Wildside Press, ISBN 9781592249779 (paperback)
(editions available from several publishers, though)
DESCRIPTION: (from Goodreads): Far, far away, there is a beautiful Country which no human eye has ever seen in waking hours. Under the Sunset it lies, where the distant horizon bounds the day, and where the clouds, splendid with light and color, give a promise of the glory and beauty that encompass it. Sometimes it is given to us to see it in dreams. This Country is the Land Under the Sunset. This is the story of that Country, and what happened when evil came to abide there. It is a story all of us must hear.
MY RATING: Three stars out of Five
MY THOUGHTS: Over the past few years, I’ve been attempting to read through all of the works of Bram Stoker. It’s been a slow project. I usually put one owned-but-unread Stoker work on my TBR Challenge list each year, but there have been years where I don’t complete the Challenge and the Stoker choice for that year goes unread. I’m also pacing myself on the Stoker books I do own until I get around to buying the ones I don’t. Semi-regular re-reads of Dracula, and less frequent re-reads of The Jewel of the Seven Stars and The Lair of the White Worm, don’t help my pace either. All of this to say that I’ve been meaning to read Under the Sunset for years. I finally got around to it in May – and I’m tempted to say that’s a couple of hours of my life I’ll never get back.
Okay, it wasn’t that bad. But it’s certainly not Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories in terms of consistent quality, either.
I’d first read some of Stoker’s short stories in a tidy little volume called The Bram Stoker Bedside Companion, acquired at a library book sale somewhere in my teen years during my early fascination with Dracula and Lair of the White Worm. I liked most of the stories in that volume, many of which felt very Poe-like, and only later found out that a number of them were either novel excerpts or pulled from other collections, like this one. So I was prepared to enjoy a collection of fairy tales set in a land like our own distant past but a little bit different. A land where Evil hasn’t take root, except when it has. Or maybe it hasn’t, and all the bad things that happen are just because people are stupid and selfish? Or they’re stupid and selfish because Evil did sneak past the angelic guardians at the borders? So maybe it is all Evil’s fault after all? I’m not sure, by the end of the collection, that even Stoker knew exactly what his point was for the over-arching theme.
The title story theoretically sets the tone for the book as a whole, and the tone this one sets is stilted direct address to the reader, flowery almost purple-prose writing that is archly Victorian without any of the whimsy that makes the fairy tales of, say, Oscar Wilde so enjoyable. Not every story employs this tone, but the damage is kind of done after the first couple of pages: Stoker warning his (theoretically young and impressionable) readers that they had best pay attention and learn the lessons of the stories to follow, to think upon the fate of the Land Under the Sunset once they (knowingly or not) let Evil in to do its will. But then that thread, as I mentioned, seems to drop from most of the stories – Evil isn’t really behind most of what happens in the succeeding stories despite the overblown introduction.
My favorite story in the collection, “The Invisible Giant,” feels very Wildean: a young girl is the only one who can see an oncoming Giant, a race the humans of the Land have long since stopped believing exists, and the only one who believes her is an old hermit from outside the town. Everyone ridicules the both of them, until people start dying and the Giant turns out to be Plague. Another story of battle with a giant, “The Rose Prince,” is also enjoyable if slightly longer than it needs to be. If you can get past the awkward pre-teen romance and some very repetitive segments, it’s a good yarn about a Prince who saves the day when whole armies are incapable of the feat. And Stoker employs the “story within a story” model well in “How 7 Went Mad,” which is at once a morality play about paying attention in school and being careful what you wish for and also a surrealist farce where numbers and letters have life and talk. The ridiculousness of the final few pages of the story put me in mind of the zanier parts of The Phantom Tollbooth.
Other stories don’t work as well. The moral of “Lies and Lilies” is so blunt, and the characters so one-dimensional, that Stoker may as well have written “Don’t Lie, It Ends Badly” and saved a dozen pages or so. “The Castle of the King” is circuitous and feels unending as it slogs its way along. And I fell asleep twice trying to read “The Wondrous Child,” whom I didn’t find so much wondrous as manipulative and annoying. (It’s possible the title character is a call-back to the angelic babe who features in the title story of the collection, but I came to a point where I no longer cared if the connection existed or not simply because the characters in “Child” are so annoying.) And I’m still really not sure what to make of “The Shadow Builder,” another story that feels overwritten but also manages to include some wonderfully creepy scenes and (dare I say it, Lovecraftian?) turns of phrase.
I think ultimately my problem with this collection is that the stories feel derivative. Now I realize that a) at the time they were published they probably were not derivative even of Stoker’s peers and b) it’s impossible to be derivative of works that weren’t published until decades later (like Lovecraft and the Phantom Tollbooth). But I do think that anyone coming to this collection for the first time at this late date and after having already read Wilde, Poe, Lovecraft and Juster (not to mention the more well-known traditional fairy tales of Perrault, Grimm and Andersen) is likely to feel, as I did, that the stories in Under the Sunset feel a bit overwritten and a touch too familiar.