I picked up Under the Sunset after seeing it mentioned in a Slate article about Bram Stoker. For such a short book – it couldn’t have taken me more than a few hours –, Stoker’s first work was a slog.
This collection of Victorian children’s stories is set in a fantasy world, one nominally populated by humans just like us (so asserts the introduction). It’s actually just a gathering place for beings of either simple virtue or plain wickedness: kings think only of the good of their people, brave and beautiful princes stand ready to sacrifice themselves to save their land, everyone weeps for the sadness of some misfortune, good wins out before there’s even time to build some suspense.
I suppose it’s fine that there’s no nuance: this is a children’s book. What I find harder to bear is that there’s no humor. Everyone is so deathly earnest about everything. All stories are filled with this weirdly urgent Manichaean division: the good and innocent, so beautiful they moves everyone to tears, and the hard-hearted guilty, who either meet the swift death or (if they are lucky) are saved by an overwhelming sense of remorse and repentance. Stoker’s writing leaves no space for humor, let alone nuance. You emerge from this book coated in treacly virtue.
Though the content of the stories isn’t particularly interesting either, Bram Stoker does paint some fantastic and vivid images: a invisible, blind giant as big as the sky, only his unseeing face and hands visible; the shadow builder, who makes shades for the world, forever alone as images of the dead transit around him; the raven who steals the number seven, leaving no one able to use that number until he returned; the Castle of the King of Death appearing from the mists to take in a soul as it passes.
As I read, a creeping thought took hold in my mind: Victorian England had a messed up relationship with children and how to teach them social values. In one archetypical instance, a little girl fails to tell her teacher that she was doodling rather than doing her arithmetic exercise. Responding entirely fairly and proportionally, an angel comes to her in a dream. After showing the girl heaven, the divine messenger tells her that she’ll be eternally damned unless she confesses that most grievous sin. There’s no room for play, for childhood curiosity, or learning through living; the smallest misstep courts hellfire.
In the end, as you’ve probably already gathered, there’s really not that much to recommend this. I’m sure there are many better children’s books out there from that and other eras. If you’re interested in early fantasy writing and alternate worlds, you’d do infinitely better to check out the odd and fascinating book The Worm Ouroborus, written in 1922 in a classically heroic style (think the Iliad, a little) and that inspired Tolkien and other subsequent fantasy greats.