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In For a Penny
James P. Blaylock
Subterranean Press, 175 pages

In For a Penny
James P. Blaylock
Living in Orange California with his wife, Viki, and children, James Blaylock teaches creative writing at Chapman University. He was born in 1950 in Long Beach and he studied English at California State University (Fullerton) where he received an MA in 1974.

James P. Blaylock Tribute Site
Blaylock Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Rainy Season
SF Site Review: Winter Tides
SF Site Review: Night Relics
SF Site Review: All the Bells on Earth

Past Feature Reviews
A review by John Berlyne

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What a treat! This new collection of James P. Blaylock short stories will be welcome news to the many worldwide fans of this writer, particularly in light of the fact that it has been four long years since we last had the pleasure of a Blaylock novel (though I'm told by a reliable source that there is a young adult novel in the pipeline.) The author is clearly still very active in the short fiction market and, as illustrated by this new collection, he is currently right at the top of his game. An earlier collection, Thirteen Phantasms, published in 2000 by Edgewood Press was very favourably received. So much so, in fact, that Ace have recently issued a trade paperback edition for the mass market.

The new collection, entitled In For A Penny is issued in a smart limited form by Subterranean Press and showcases Blaylock's most recent output (i.e. post-2000), the majority of which has only previously appeared on the Internet, specifically on Ellen Datlow's excellent SciFiction site. Of the remaining inclusions, one is original to this collection and one previously published only as a limited chapbook (also by Subterranean). Even if you, like me, managed to catch these stories when they first appeared, one the most enduring qualities of Blaylock's work is that it is, and should be, required re-reading. Like a painting by an acknowledged master, this is work that can be viewed time and time again, with each visitation revealing something new and hugely rewarding.

Blaylock's development as a writer can be charted through some interesting and inventive phases. His earliest novel work consisted mainly of low comedic fantasies filled with whimsical creations -- the Balumnia novels (The Elfin Ship, The Disappearing Dwarf and The Stone Giant) told of eccentric, fictional lands filled with all manner of strange folk. Later works became darker in tone, though strange folk remain a staple throughout. In the Steampunk stories featuring Langdon St Ives, notably Homunculus and Lord Kelvin's Machine, Blaylock delivers madcap and often macabre antics in the foggy alleyways of Victorian London. The Digging Leviathan (one of my all-time favourite novels) almost defies categorisation, but notably Blaylock sets it in southern California, a place where he has lived for many years and where he now seems, for the time being at least, to also have come to rest in literary terms. Blaylock's short fiction has followed a similar, if slightly more eclectic path to his novel work and with one very notable exception, the stories in this new collection, if not specifically pin-pointed in the narrative, do all fall into the same geographical setting, give or take a mile or two.

In the title piece, "In For a Penny" (subtitled "The Man Who Believed in Himself"). George Mason stumbles across a garage sale around the corner from his house. He finds a small leather coin purse, and opening it discovers a penny inside. When he comes to pay for the item, he realises he doesn't have any money with him, so he hands over the penny. The vendor happily accepts it. "I don't despise a penny," she says, "There's better things have been sold cheaper. And worse things too." George takes the purse away and finds himself feeling terribly guilty at his deception. He also figures, with wonderful duplicity, that the experience was clearly a stroke of luck, that providence or fate or what-have-you is smiling on him. And why shouldn't it? Later that day, he is walking through the local park when he comes across a twenty dollar bill amongst a pile of leaves and that seems to confirm his thoughts. He thus begins to actively seek out other treasures, in trash cans and dumpsters and this delusion escalates in a peculiarly Blaylockian way -- the result is both terribly funny and terribly sad.

"In The Other Side," Art convinces himself that he is having psychic experiences. Blaylock deftly side-steps whether this is actually happening in the story, leaving it to the subjective judgement of the reader. Art twists himself into knots over this and his search for an answer leads him to visit a gathering of psychics in Santa Ana. There, in a room of people that make his own eccentric behaviour of late seem rational, he comes to a realisation about who he truly is and realises also that it is okay for him be happy with this discovery. The moral is a gentle one and, I suppose, an answer of sorts.

Both these stories, and particularly the title tale serve to illustrate something that Blaylock writes of with startling effect. His characters seem ever capable of creating for themselves a totally believable and utterly warped logic. The justification for their often astonishingly eccentric actions is always plausible and their flaws are therefore heart-rendingly clear for the reader to see. And when these protagonists find their prime mover, the spark that sends them on their way through these stories, we get to see them worry at it, like a cat tormenting a trapped bird, until things unravel or calm down or reach a climax in some moment of cathartic realisation. This masterful depiction of obsession and self-delusion, tinged both with great comedy and soul-searching pathos is very much a Blaylock speciality.

"The War of The Worlds" also illustrates this point. Set against the backdrop of what looks to be an alien invasion, in the dead of night a couple are given only twenty minutes to evacuate the neighbourhood. As the two of them struggle to collect their belongings, a silent battle erupts between them over what should be taken. Barely a word is spoken, but there are volumes of meaning in their actions. In spite of them being married, the couple may as well be from separate planets for all the understanding they have of each other. A clever, sad and touching story of alienation.

Blayock's characters often seem to have a piece of them missing. Each of them is searching for something, whether it be meaning, or a piece of themselves. "In His Own Back Yard," Alan is searching for his past, his heart yearning to experience again the youth that made it beat faster. He takes a trip, alone, out to his childhood home, now deserted and boarded up. There his memories take on an ethereal reality and he finds that he has somehow travelled back in time. How strange that he should now feel like an intruder in the very house where he was raised. This is, I suppose, Blaylock's take on Heraclites -- that no man can step into the same river twice, for the second time he is not the same man, nor is it the same river. We are told that "The empty house around him was true to his memories, and yet it wasn't his anymore," and by the conclusion of the story, via an extraordinary confrontation the grown-up Alan has with his own father, the reader is affected deeply, aware of the need to touch base with one's past, but also of the fact that it's gone.

Coming to terms with one's situation is prevalent in "Home Before Dark" as well. Here, the protagonist is a man who has died and who must come to terms with the fact and with what he must leave behind before he moves on to wherever he needs to go next. This is the bleakest, least colourful piece in the book. Blaylock sees no need to qualify or dictate his personal interpretation of what death is and to where it might lead us. Instead, he simply chooses to let us share this man's thoughts and feelings as he gathers up his courage to move on. It's a story that avoids shading its central concept with light or dark -- it simply is. Death casts a shadow over "Small Houses" too, which tells of an old man who, some years ago, constructed a tool box that he intended to double as his casket. To his mind, it is a matter of perfectly practical simplicity and Blaylock makes this reasoning plausible. We follow our man as he makes his final preparations to use his creation. Both these stories are gentle in their sense of drama and powered by the characters having to, as Blaylock puts it in his introduction to the collection, "...grapple with a lifetime of relative happiness and with the sad fact that there's an inevitable end to it."

The new story original to this collection is, to my mind, very much its high point. "The Trismegistus Club," in many ways, goes against the flow and tone of all the other stories here. For a start, it is set in England, in an overfull country bookshop run by an ailing elderly gentleman, Ian Henley. Also, it is unashamedly a ghost story, the spirits announcing themselves as definite and influential presences. All former friends, acquaintances of the bookshop owner, they visit his establishment in the small hours of the night, supping his whiskey and smoking his tobacco. In a good humoured and indirect way, they tease poor Henley, teaching his pet bird odd words and leaving out the books they've been riffling through. In the end, though again a story about death and moving on, this tale is an uplifting one, invoking a sense of release. A recently deceased ghost who comes to join the club at first has trouble accepting his new state, but his companions know that soon enough he will be "...like a man awakened from a long and tiring dream. In a few earthly hours the world and its toil and trouble and joy and hope would simply have ceased to concern him." It's a curiously joyous sentiment and one delivered with a genial and delightful humour that is far lighter than the other explorations of the same theme that Blaylock undertakes in this collection.

It may be that with "The Trismegistus Club," Blaylock is announcing the coming of a new strand of work, one veering away from the doleful, introspective, but very special southern California that he has become so associated with lately. Certainly I have always delighted in reading those stories which reveal Blaylock's take on things British -- but as a Brit hailing from Manchester, a northern English city renowned as much for its rain as for its industrial history or its soccer teams, the image of southern California that is evoked in Blaylock's work has become a particular fascination to me. Purely from reading Blaylock, places like Huntington Beach and Fullerton, Orange and Long Beach are to my mind almost mystical locations, tinged with a magic that blows in through the palm fronds on the Santa Ana winds. Those who live in these places might laugh at such an idealised foreigner's image, but I have been privileged to visit Jim Blaylock at his home in Orange and to have been taken on a guided tour of his neighbourhood. I've seen Blaylock's world for myself and it does exist. But it could not exist without Blaylock himself to reveal it to us, for it is only through his eyes, through his ability to penetrate through to the magical fabric that informs and engenders his surroundings, that we too have the chance to see his world as charming and funny and sad and filled with such wonder and loss and pathos and nostalgia for things past. His is a beautiful, peculiar and unique brand of Americana and one that, frankly, should have the author stuffed and placed in The Smithsonian as a national treasure!

Copyright © 2003 John Berlyne

John Berlyne is a book junkie with a serious habit. He is the long time UK editor of Sfrevu.com and is widely acknowledged to be the leading expert on the works of Tim Powers. John's extensive Powers Bibliography "Secret Histories" will be published in April 2009 by PS Publishing. When not consuming genre fiction, John owns and runs North Star Delicatessen, a gourmet food outlet in Chorlton, Manchester.


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