CLUB STORY
   It is almost certainly no coincidence that volumes of club stories should have become popular in the UK towards the end of the 19th century. The classic club story may be described as a tall tale told by one man to other men in a sanctum restricted to those of similar outlook, who agree to believe in the story for their mutual comfort; and it was precisely during the fin de siecle, and the years leading up to WWI, that the great march of history began to seem problematical to socially dominant white UK males, whose sense of reality now began to fray under the assault of women, and Darwin, and dark rumours of Freud, and Marx, and Zola, and Flaubert . . . and Henry James. Though it is no more a true club story than Joseph CONRAD's "Heart of Darkness" (1902) or Chance (1914), James's "The Turn of the Screw" (1898) is indeed a tale told at a club, and it is indeed a tall tale. But James uses the convention of the story told within a frame to underline the unreliability of his narrator, and to make forever problematical the "true" reading of his tale; "The Turn of the Screw" is a preview of the epistemological insecurities of the dawning new world. The conventional club story, on the other hand, by foregrounding the security of the sanctum itself, sidesteps the question of the believability of the tall tale (and sidesteps most of the 20th century as well). In the conventional club story, that tale is accepted by the males to whom it is addressed not for its intrinsic plausibility but as part of a shared conspiracy to maintain an inward-looking, mutually supportive consensus.The great counterexample to this model is - perhaps inevitably - the work of H.G. WELLS, who often imitated popular modes of storytelling in his early writings, but almost always to subversive effect. THE TIME MACHINE (1895 USA; exp 1895 UK) does certainly exhibit some club-story features - a group of men gather together to hear the Time Traveller tell his tall tale - but in this case the ambience is far from consolatory, and the Traveller's dark report from the future seems all the darker when it is evident that his hearers may be forced to believe it. Some of Wells's early short stories, too, are club tales - notably "The Truth about Pyecraft" (1903) - though in name only. It should come as no surprise that the most typical club stories were composed by men of a very different cast of mind than Wells's, and that most club stories are conservative in both style and content. Though precursors to the convention can be adduced almost indefinitely - from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio's Decameron to Charles Dickens's Master Humphrey's Clock (1840-41) - the first collection to express the ambience of the genuine club story is perhaps Robert Louis STEVENSON's New Arabian Nights (coll 1882 in 2 vols; 1st vol only vt The Suicide Club, and The Rajah's Diamond 1894) and its successor, More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter (coll 1885) with Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson. As early a work as Jerome K. Jerome's After Supper Ghost Stories (coll 1891), although set not in a club but around the table after Christmas Eve dinner, parodies the club-story format and the tales told therein. Some of the exploits recounted in Andrew LANG's The Disentanglers (coll of linked stories 1902) are of sf interest, though more frequently - as in G.K. CHESTERTON's The Club of Queer Trades (coll 1905) - early examples of the form read more like lubricated SATIRE than fantasy. Alfred NOYES's Tales of the Mermaid Tavern (coll 1914) is a set of narrative poems told in Shakespeare's pub; while sequences like P.G. WODEHOUSE's Mulliner books (from 1927) heavily emphasize the tall-tale element, and The Salzburg Tales (coll 1934) by Christina Stead (1902-1983) evoke Boccaccio. Of greater genre interest are SAKI's The Chronicles of Clovis (coll 1907), John Buchan's The Runagates' Club (coll 1928), the five Jorkens books by Lord DUNSANY, beginning with The Travel Tales of Mr Joseph Jorkens (coll 1931) and continuing for two decades, and T.H. WHITE's Gone to Ground (coll of linked stories 1935), which - as these tales are told by survivors of a final HOLOCAUST - stretches to its limit the capacity of the form to comfort.In "Sites for Sore Souls: Some Science-Fictional Saloons" (1991 Extrapolation), Fred Erisman suggests that sf club stories - or in his terms saloon stories - respond to a human need for venues in which an "informal public life" can be led. Although Erisman assumes that the paucity of such venues in the USA is reflected in the UK, and therefore significantly undervalues the unspoken but clearly felt ambience of the pub in Arthur C. CLARKE's cosily RECURSIVE Tales from the White Hart (coll 1957 US), his comments are clearly helpful in understanding the persistence of the club story in US sf. Beginning with L. Sprague DE CAMP's and Fletcher PRATT's Tales from Gavagan's Bar (coll 1953; exp 1978), it has been a feature of magazine sf for nearly half a century - perhaps partly because imaginary US saloons and the genuine affinity groups that generate and consume US sf are similar kinds of informal public space. Further examples of the club story in the USA are assembled in Isaac ASIMOV's several volumes of Black Widowers tales, starting with Tales of the Black Widowers (coll 1974), Sterling LANIER's The Peculiar Exploits of Brigadier Ffellowes (coll 1972) and The Curious Quests of Brigadier Ffellowes (coll 1986), Larry NIVEN's Draco Tavern tales, which appear mostly in Convergent Series (coll 1979) and Limits (coll 1985), and Spider ROBINSON's Callahan books, starting with Callahan's Crosstime Saloon (coll 1977). There are many others; some individual stories are assembled in Darrell SCHWEITZER's and George SCITHERS's Tales from the Spaceport Bar (anth 1987) and Another Round at the Spaceport Bar (anth 1989).
   JC

Science Fiction and Fantasy Encyclopedia. . 2011.

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