Monday, December 4, 2023

Raymond Chandler's Fantasies

Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) is renowned for his seven hard-boiled detective novels, published between 1939 and 1958. He also wrote twenty-five longish short stories, only three of which were published after 1941, and two of these appeared posthumously (one less than two weeks after Chandler's death; the other published seventeen years later). 

In a letter written on 19 June 1956, Chandler wrote:

I love fantastic stories and have sketches of perhaps a dozen that I should love to see in print. They are not science fiction. My idea of the fantastic story--possibly a little out of date--is that everything is completely realistic except for the basic impossible premise. Both of those I have mentioned are concerned with vanishing or invisibility. I have one about a man who got into fairyland but they wouldn't let him stay. Another about a princess who traded her tongue for a ruby and then was sorry and it had to be retrieved. One about a young society novelist whose father was a magician and kept making a duke disappear so his son could make love to the duchess. I may add that the duke took it with good grace (a joke) although he was rather annoyed. That sort of thing. Quite rare nowadays.

The two stories that Chandler referred to as "concerned with vanishing or invisibility" are in fact the two fantasy stories he finished and published. 

 from Unknown, November 1939
The first is "The Bronze Door," in which a man purchases an odd antique bronze door, and when anyone passes through it, they disappear. It is the best of Chandler's fantasies, told in his typical terse and understated style. It first appeared in the short-lived fantasy pulp Unknown, edited by John W. Campbell, in the November 1939 issue, with one illustration by Frank Kramer (who is known for illustrating two Oz books by Jack Snow in the 1940s).

The second is "Professor Bingo's Snuff," a kind of fantastical locked room mystery in which the murderer uses invisibility to depart a locked room after the police have arrived and broken in from the outside. Sadly, Chandler lost focus on the story and it is not as effective as it might otherwise have been.  It was published in Park East, for June-August 1951, but Chandler had written a slightly better (less sprawling) precis of the story, titled "Bingo's Snuff",  on June 3, 1943, which is published in The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler (1976). The story was certainly fully written before June 1950, when it was rejected by Cosmopolitan magazine. On 31 October 1951, Chandler wrote of the story to James Sandoe:

I think possibly it was a little too grim for a fantastic story and a little too fantastic for a grim story. But when you say why in hell would Joe [the main character and murderer] bother, I don't get the point. Why wouldn't he? Anyhow I had fun writing the story, although it didn't turn out quite the way I expected. I started out to do a burlesque on the locked room mystery and somewhere along the line I lost interest in the burlesque angle and became preoccupied with the thought that a miracle is always a trap. As you know, good fantastic stories are extremely rare, and they are rare for a rather obvious reason, that in them it is almost impossible to turn the corner. Once you have exposed the situation, you have nowhere to go.

A third story of interest is "English Summer: A Gothic Romance," and it is primarily because of the sub-title that one is drawn to the story. Yet, beyond the closed society of an English household, together with sexual intrigue and a murder, there really isn't much "gothic" about it. Again, Chandler had plotted it as early as 1939 (see The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler, p. 9), but the story is usually dated to 1957 because that is when Chandler re-wrote it. To Helga Greene, he wrote on 31 January 1957 that "many years ago I wrote a story about an American at an English country cottage. I haven't looked at it for twenty years, but I came on it while looking boxes in the storeroom here." He announced that he would make "a few changes, not many" to it; and by 30 April 1957, he had finished and was sending it to Greene, noting, "it may not be commercial at all, but I enjoyed writing it and rewriting it very much. It's a rather exquisite bit of writing, possibly a little too exquisite, but, hell, can't a man spread himself once in a while?" Chandler hoped to write a play from it, but never did.  The story remained unpublished until 1976 when it was included in The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler, with a small number of illustrations by Edward Gorey.

 An Edward Gorey Illustration for "English Summer"

Chandler had included "The Bronze Door" in The Finger Man and Other Stories (1946) but withheld it  from his collection The Simple Art of Murder (1950), in which included the stories he most wanted remembered. As that book was being compiled, Chandler wrote to his agent Bernice Baumgarten on 8 November 1949: 

I'd like to leave off The Bronze Door because I'd like to do a group of fantastic stories in which it would belong, if they ever got published (or written, you will add). These stories, about ten of them, longish short stories, would all be about murder in some sense, or the elimination of some annoying person, all more or less fortuitously through the happening on a magic means of doing it, all realistic in tone, with a dash of humor, and all in the nature of a spoof on some type of murder story.

Chandler's ambivalence about the idea of a collection of fantasies shows up in a letter from 27 September 1954 to his friend and British publisher Hamish Hamilton, where he wrote:  "If you really want to know what I should really like to write, it would be fantastic stories, and I don't mean science fiction. A dozen of so of them have been rattling around in my head for a great many years, pleading to be put done on paper. But they wouldn't make a thin worn dime. That would just be a wonderful way to become a Neglected Author."

We know little about these other fantasies, beyond what Chandler wrote in his 1939 notebook, evidently not long after "The Bronze Door" had been written. Then he envisioned:

a set of six or seven fantastic stories, some written, some thought of, perhaps one brand new. Each a little difference in tone and effect from the other. The ironic gem The Bronze Door, the perfect fantastic atmosphere story The Edge of the West, the spooky story Grandma;s Boy, the farcical story The Disappearing Duke, the Allegory Ironic The Four Gods of Bloon, the pure fairytale The Rubies of Marmelon. (p. 9)

Chandler hoped to have enough money on hand so as not to worry if such a volume sold. Perhaps that expectation kept him from writing most of the fantasies, for all we have to read are the two described above,  the haunting titles from his notebook, and the small descriptions quoted from a letter at the beginning of this essay. I for one want to know more about "The Four Gods of Bloon" and "The Rubies of Marmelon," both of which sound almost like Dunsany titles.  


  1. A typo perhaps but "a set of sex or seven" would make a great title.

  2. Fixed. And that would make an interesting title! Thanks.

  3. Thanks for this. Looking up where I can read some of these, I find that both "The Bronze Door" and "Professor Bingo's Snuff" are included in Chandler's Collected Stories from Everyman's is a story entitled "The King in Yellow." Quite a coincidence that.

    1. It seems to me that it couldn't possibly be a coincidence, though the story has nothing to do with the classic weird. Probably an in joke.

  4. Chandler really hated science fiction. Funny, considering he has become so influential to it in the last forty years.

  5. So interesting to consider that Chandler is practically defining what is now called magic realism, when he says, "everything is completely realistic except for the basic impossible premise." And I know what he means about the difficulty of writing a good fantasy story because it's so hard to "turn the corner." In other words, to introduce the fantastic element without a big let-down to the reader.