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Club Story

Entry updated 26 February 2024. Tagged: Theme.


1. Assemblages of tales told within an enabling frame-story to a group of companions in a sheltered venue were not always known as club stories, a term of nineteenth-century provenance that does not, perhaps, very adequately encompass (for instance) the implications of Odysseus's narrating most of the events of The Odyssey (circa 700 BCE) (see Homer) over dinner, or of the Decameron (finished circa 1372) by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) or the Canterbury Tales (written before 1400) by Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1343-1400). Only in hindsight, moreover, does the term do much to expand upon our knowledge of the colloquium format used by Sir Thomas More to disengage the presentation of Utopia (1516) from any fixed register of seriousness or advocacy. Utopia is in any case not a collection of any sort; it is a sustained narrative entity in two joined parts, only the second being a tale told by a teller to active listeners. Club stories of sufficient length and intensity to stand alone and in some instances to be published separately, like H G Wells's The Time Machine (1895), are not normally found till the end of the nineteenth century (see Part 2 below).

The term club story may, however, be retrofitted very cautiously to describe the actual workings of the Scriblerus Club (founded 1712, disbanded 1745), of which Jonathan Swift (almost all of whose work was distanced through the use of satirical masks) was a founding member; and to suggest the nature of occasional publications as by Martin Scriblerus, mostly written by John Arbuthnot (1667-1735). There is clearly a thin line of connection between the Platonic colloquium and Boccaccio and imaginary nineteenth-century gatherings, but the line is slender, and seems not to represent anything like a conscious tradition; a conscious structuring of material into club-story form only seems to manifest itself in conjunction with the slow evolution of the short story into a meditated, self-sufficient, necessitous, revelatory apophthegm of the telling of the mundane world; this very evolution, however, tended gradually to divorce "serious" short stories from any frame in which they might be subjected to the lèse-majesté of being treated as exemplary of a category of telling: for a true short story is entirely autonomous (or so the story goes).

But long before this process of essentialization had taken its full toll, short narratives of various sorts began to be sorted together in collections. Very early in the nineteenth century, transgressively Romantic authors like Jan Potocki, with Manuscript Found at Saragossa (1804-1815 and later), Johann Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853) [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] and E T A Hoffmann were publishing their work in collections whose contents were increasingly story-like in the modern sense, and which were presented within club-story frames [for Friedrich Laun see part 2 below]. Hoffmann's Die Serapions-Brüder: Gesammelte Erzähflungen und Mährchen (coll 1818-1821; trans Alexander Ewing as The Serapion Brethren: Volume I 1886 and The Serapion Brethren: Volume II 1892) is a particularly significant example of the marriage of exemplum and discourse through its innovative interweaving of the twenty-eight stories being told and the thirty-three conversations which represent a critical discourse on the part of the brethren to what they have just heard; all of this amounting to a sense that The Serapion Brethren served – with a degree of deliberation it is admittedly hard to fix – as a forcing house, a laboratory for the alembication of Story. Though individual tales were soon translated separately, the fact that this seminal collection did not appear in its intended form in English until the end of the century may help explain the subsequent exiguousness of the English-language club-story tradition. The complexities of presentation of Washington Irving's The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (coll 1819-1820 7vols), with narrator nested within narrator, may be contiguous with club story assemblies in their problematized scrutiny of the tales they "uncover", but neither this volume nor any of its successors present any intramural communing. Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) did publish one of his collections – Tales of a Grandfather (coll 1828-1831 3vols) – in a form featuring a narrator and an auditor: but the connection is almost purely didactic, and the stories themselves are rigidly adherent to history; the shared story frame for Nathaniel Hawthorne's A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys (coll 1851) and Tanglewood Tales for Boys and Girls (coll 1853) suffers similarly from airlessness. For his first collection, Evening on a Farm Near Dikanka (coll 1831-1832 2 vols; trans Constance Garnett 1926), Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) provides an intervening narrator, with some interaction between tales as told and the listener; but this collection was not translated (as noted) for almost a century. No hint of club story framing can be found in Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (coll 1840 2vols): which may be in part accountable by his not seeing Hoffmann's work – which deeply influenced him – presented as Hoffmann had intended, though the slightly later "A Descent into the Maelström" (May 1841 Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine) hints at being told, though with only one auditor.

Charles Dickens adumbrated something like the familiar club story in the first volume of Master Humphrey's Clock (coll 1840-1841 3vols), though the frame was then more or less abandoned; and came magically close to the fireside tale in A Christmas Carol (1843), whose unseen teller conspicuously addresses himself to an auditor or auditors; it is the first mature Christmas Book [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], many of which are assembled around club-story frames, as are non-seasonal gatherings like Kit Bam's Adventures; Or, the Yarns of an Old Mariner (coll of linked stories 1849) by Mary Cowden Clarke (1809-1908), in which at least one Lost World is fleetingly encountered. But this is a far cry from Hoffmann, or from the great assemblages of European medieval material out of which culture-founding creators like Boccaccio and Chaucer took their inspiration. Nor does the nineteenth-centry club story in English normally refract complex Eastern models – from the fifth-century Pañchatantra to the multi-sourced Arabian Nights themselves – in which a frame-story figure like Scheherazade recounts a series of tales under orders; European examples of this category do not seem very common, though The Pentamerone (1634-1636 6vols) by Giambattista Basile (circa 1575-1632) roughly fits the model, as does, much later, The Pacha of Many Tales (coll of linked stories 1835 3vols) by Captain Frederick Marryat [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Any focus on these culture-creating world-encompassing story assemblages makes it clear that the range of implications held within the term club story cannot be addressed by taking the nineteenth-century model as a template. The first English language club-story collection of any significance seems to be Robert Louis Stevenson's New Arabian Nights (coll 1882 2vols; 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 (1840-1914), whose titles unchallengingly homage Arabian Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. But Stevenson did not seriously examine his model, or transform it. What he left was a convenience; and it cannot be denied that to describe the club story as a tall tale told by one man to other men in a sanctum restricted to those of similar class and outlook, who agree to believe in the story for their mutual comfort, and who themselves may (or may not) tell a tale in turn, is to submit to a particularly narrow understanding of a very broad and deep tradition. But even so understood, the term itself remains useful [and see part 2 below].

Club-story assemblages that like Stevenson's feature a solo raconteur who is not under coercion include the Mulliner collections by P G Wodehouse, beginning with Meet Mr Mulliner (coll 1927) and continuing for several years, and the five Jorkens collections by Lord Dunsany, beginning with The Travel Tales of Mr Joseph Jorkens (coll 1931) and continuing for two decades; both focus on one storyteller (rather than a cénacle of raconteurs) who tells a number of tales, some featuring the storyteller himself, some recounting urban fantasies and other implausibilities. Mulliner and Jorkens are both purely volunteer, and are therefore unreliable warrants of the significance of the tales they narrate; but the club story format, though it does not support the truth of their tales, does at least sanction the safely enclosed telling of them. This is important.

For club stories as narrowly defined, whether or not narrated by a single figure, safe telling is vital. Certainly it was no coincidence that the form should have become popular in the UK towards the end of the nineteenth century, for by this point the texture of Western World had begun to show marks of strain throughout, an effect that had been gradually intensifying for more than a century. Through the fin de siècle period climaxing finally in the death of Queen Victoria, and through the years leading up to World War One, the great progressive march of Western history had begun to seem more and more problematical, and the swollen empires of Europe were increasingly being characterized in fiction – especially in the literatures of Fantastika – as entities fatally vulnerable to infection; club stories, especially those told by travellers who have safely made it back home with their booty, could be comforting. For socially dominant white UK males, whose sense of reality was beginning to fray under the assault of women, and Darwin, and dark strains of Marx, and Freud, and Flaubert, and Zola, the club story created a kind of psychic Polder [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] against the epistemological insecurities of the dawning new world. By foregrounding that sense of sanctuary, authors and readers could sideline the question of the believability of the tall tale; and the tale could therefore be accepted by the males to whom it was addressed not for its intrinsic plausibility but – defiantly – as part of a shared conspiracy to maintain an inward-looking, mutually supportive consensus that the world outside could continue to be gossiped about, and manipulated, and escaped from. Most club stories are set literally in safe havens, most until recently are told by men to men, and most are conservative in both style and content, though they are conveyed in a tone of exceedingly moderate self-mockery, examples being John Kendrick Bangs's Roger Camerden: A Strange Story (1887) and Jerome K Jerome's After Supper Ghost Stories (coll 1891); the latter takes the form of a Christmas Book, gently parodying the club-story format and the tales told therein. Most club story collections incline more to fantasy than sf, though most incorporate some sf material. 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) – examples of the form read more like fantasy in the guise of lubricated Satire.

Further examples, almost all from the twentieth century, and mostly British, include Stanley Waterloo's The Cassowary: What Chanced in the Cleft Mountains (1906); Saki's The Chronicles of Clovis (coll 1907), though these tales are much less uniformly cast in the club story format than this author's nonfantastic Reginald (coll 1904); William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki the Ghost-Finder (coll 1913; exp 1947) (see Carnacki); Alfred Noyes's Tales of the Mermaid Tavern (coll 1914), a set of narrative poems told in Shakespeare's pub; Told in a French Garden (coll 1916) by Mildred Aldrich (1853-1928), tales told in a Decameron-like setting to ward off the War; Zeppelin Nights: A London Entertainment (1916) by Ford Madox Ford and Violet Hunt (1866-1942), and Foe-Farrell (1918) by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, both tales which come close to representing World War One as something not amenable to solace; Sapper's The Dinner Club (coll 1923), with one borderline-fantastic tale; H G Wells's second use of the form in The Dream (1924); H Rider Haggard's Heu-Heu; Or, the Monster (1924); John Buchan's The Runagates Club (coll 1928); Das Schiff Espérance (1931; trans G C Grant as Ship in the Night 1932) by Robert Neumann (1897-1975), where a Ship of Fools serves as sounding board for a series of surreal Satirical tales depicting the world after World War One as a Ship of Fools writ large; Cameron Blake's Only Men on Board (coll 1933); The Salzburg Tales (coll 1934) by Christina Stead (1902-1983) which evoke Boccaccio, as does a slightly earlier Anthology series, The New Decameron (coll 1919-1929 6vols) ed anon; T H White's Gone to Ground (coll of linked stories 1935), which – as these tales are told by survivors of what may be the final Holocaust – resembles the Ford/Hunt and Quiller-Couch volumes cited above by stretching to its limit the capacity of the form to comfort [see part 2 below]; Wyndham Lewis's Count Your Dead – They Are Alive!; Or, a New War in the Making (1937), whose puppet-like disputants augur World War Two; Maurice Richardson's The Exploits of Engelbrecht (coll 1950) along with a Sequel by Other Hands, Rhys Hughes's Engelbrecht Again! (coll 2008); Wild Track (coll 1963) by Alex Hamilton (1930-2016), which contains at least one sf tale; there are many others.

In "Sites for Sore Souls: Some Science-Fictional Saloons" (Fall 1991 Extrapolation), Fred Erisman loosens the argument made above that the club story can be understood in terms of denial; he suggests that sf club stories – or in his terms saloon stories – respond more straightforwardly 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 America is reflected in the UK – and therefore significantly undervalues the unspoken but clearly felt ambience of pubs like the one portrayed in Arthur C Clarke's cosily Recursive Tales from the White Hart (coll of linked stories 1957) – his comments are clearly helpful in understanding the persistence of the club story in American 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, partly perhaps because imaginary American saloons and venues like Conventions – where the Fandoms that generate and consume American sf tend to foregather – are similar kinds of informal public space. Further examples of the club story in America, not all of them set in "saloons", are assembled in Poul Anderson's Tales of the Flying Mountains (April 1963-September 1965 Analog as by Winston P Sanders; fixup 1970); Sterling Lanier's The Peculiar Exploits of Brigadier Ffellowes (coll 1972) and The Curious Quests of Brigadier Ffellowes (coll 1986); Isaac Asimov's several volumes of nonfantastic Black Widowers mysteries, starting with Tales of the Black Widowers (coll 1974); Spider Robinson's Callahan books, starting with Callahan's Crosstime Saloon (coll 1977); Larry Niven's Draco Tavern tales, which appear mostly in Convergent Series (coll 1979) and Limits (coll 1985); and Tales from the Red Lion (coll 2007) by John Weagly (1968-    ). A further Poul Anderson example, the Nicholas van Rijn story "The Master Key" (July 1964 Analog), pastiches Rudyard Kipling's use of the club-story format. 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). Pocket Books' Star Trek crossover Ties in the Star Trek: The Captain's Table sequence, which began in 1998, feature Club Story tales told in the titular bar by captains and acting captains from the first four Star Trek Television series.

Almost certainly the most important sf novel to have been organized around a club story frame is Dan Simmons's Time Opera, Hyperion (1989), which is very loosely based on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales [see above]. Rana Dasgupta's Tokyo Cancelled (coll of linked stories 2005) very effectively applies the model to the contemporary world. Fourteen Days: A Collaborative Novel (anth/coll of linked stories 2024) edited by Margaret Atwood and Douglas Preston comprises a series of tales told to each other by various narrators trapped in their New York apartment block by the Covid Pandemic; some of the tales are of sf interest.

2. But there is more to the club story form than its capacity to fix tall tales into sanctums where it is safe to pretend to believe them. Fixing a tale into place can be a double-edged sword. Superficially, locking a story into the moment of its telling may seem to constitute a narratological insistence that the meaning of the story is itself locked down by the visibility of that telling, that livewire connection around the campfire between teller and listeners being a central concern of Walter B Lord in the Singer of Tales (1960) [see Checklist]. For at least three substantial reasons, it is in fact dangerous to make a story visible. One: each and every club story represents a bringing into the present tense of witness a story which, it is claimed, has already happened, which is to say the world of the auditors was in some sense false or incomplete before the truth was told. The club story brings together the past and the future. Two: it could be argued that the more visible a story is, the less reliable any paraphrastic abstraction of that story will be, for what is almost inevitably exposed by paraphrase is the essential slipperiness of Story [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], what might be called the polysemy of semblance when narrated (see Equipoise). Three: it seems clear that to make a story visible within a club story frame is primarily to enforce not meaning but witness, for the story has now been told to auditors whose very attentiveness affirms a sense the storyable world: it is, in a clear sense, impossible for them (or us) to deny the existence of a story once told in this fashion, in this context. It is of course also true that to tell a story exposes its narrator to being witnessed; that to tell a story visibly exposes it to challenge. But that is part of the game of transgression, where silence is assent. The club story is a vessel explicitly shaped for the mandatory reception of raw story. There are few genuinely great club stories, but all of them are threatening.

It may be more than a rhetorical gesture to note that at least two paradigm creations in the nearly new-born realm of the fantastic, the Frankenstein Monster and the Vampire – both transgressive figures central to the evolution of sf, and fantasy, and horror – were created within the context of the club story. In the middle of a famous 1816 walking tour in Switzerland, Lord Byron, John Polidori, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley were forced by rain to remain indoors at their holiday lodging, the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva. One evening recital included readings taken from an assembly of Schauerroman tales by Johann August Apel (1771-1816) and Friedrich August Schulze (1770-1849) writing as Friedrich Laun, all told in a club story frame assembled as Das Gespensterbuch ["The Ghost Book"] (coll 1811-1815 5vols; first two vols trans Jean Baptise Benoit Eyries into French with cuts as Fantasmagoriana 1812; Eyries's redaction trans Sarah Elizabeth Utterson with further cuts and one added story as Tales of the Dead: Principally Translated from the French 1813). After this experience, Byron suggested that each member of the party make up a similar tale to be told on a subsequent night. (It might be noted that Chuck Palahniuk's Haunted: A Novel of Stories [coll of linked stories 2005] – which suggestively treats a writing workshop/retreat in club story terms – is set in a "theatre" referred to as the Villa Diodati.) Though there is no clear evidence as to what was actually recounted aloud, both Polidori's and Mary Shelley's eventually published narratives The Vampyre: A Tale (April 1819 New Monthly Magazine; 1819 chap) and Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) – came out of that club-story moment, and both stories exhale the intrusiveness – the first words spoken by Frankenstein's "monster" are "Pardon this intrusion" – of tales that enforce witness. The very weight of Shelley's novel wrenches it from any putative framing, yet another transgressive birth in a text bound to transgressive births; and it should be noted that some of the tales assembled in The Serapion Brethren [see part 1 above] are of very considerable length, and leave home.

Though James de Mille's A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (written late 1860s; 7 January-12 May 1888 Harper's Weekly; 1888) is a powerful precursor, and works as a corrosive dismantling of Imperialism's exploitative gaze upon worlds whose very existence comments upon its pretences, the great period for the club story that threatens rather than consoles comes rather later: during the 1890s, exactly when reactive club story writers [see part 1 above] were beginning to construct Polders against a sense that the Western imperium had become fragile. The four greatest novellas in English of that decade are probably Arthur Machen's "The Great God Pan" (in The Great God Pan, coll 1894), H G Wells's The Time Machine: An Invention (1895), The Turn of the Screw (27 January-16 April 1898 Collier's Weekly; 1898) by Henry James (1843-1916) and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (February-April 1899 Blackwood's Magazine as "The Heart of Darkness"; in Youth: A Narrative; and Two Other Stories, coll 1902; 1925). [Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor: (An Inside Narrative) (1924 and later) was incomplete at his death in 1891.] Each of the four published works is a club story. Each of them constitutes a witness against any stable understanding of a darkening world. The case of The Time Machine is central to the history of sf: the Time Traveller recounts his Scientific Romance-inflected tale of long inevitable decline to a group of auditors who are forced to recognize his tale by virtue of the fact that he returns like some inverted Hero with a Thousand Faces to irrefutably tell it. In Heart of Darkness – whose setting and tone reflect the contemplative witnessing of the New Zealander, who gazes upon the same darkening Thames that Marlow and his auditors will sail into decades later – a tale almost totally resistant to paraphrastic analysis is recounted, at times bewilderedly, by Marlow, whose pilgrimage into the heart of darkness at the head of the Congo leaves him whited like a sepulchre: Kurtz's cry of "The horror! The horror!" seems – after decades of critical analysis – beyond any definitive interpretation: though within the frame of this encyclopedia (see again Fantastika) it is easy to suspect that he sees what the future will hold: vastation: the malice of the world. Certainly nothing Marlow says puts limits around Kurtz's encompassing vacancy. In conveying his witness to this overwhelming cry, and by enforcing his auditors' witness to that prophetic experience, Heart of Darkness perfectly exemplifies the deep power available within the club story format. A club story that has been told cannot be untold. [JC]

further reading

  • Albert B Lord. The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1960) [nonfiction: hb/]
  • Fred Erisman. "Sites for Sore Souls: Some Science-Fictional Saloons" (Fall 1991 Extrapolation) [mag/]


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