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Secret Life
Jeff VanderMeer
Golden Gryphon Press, 305 pages

Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer was born in Pennsylvania in 1968, but spent much of his childhood in the Fiji Islands, where his parents worked for the Peace Corps. His books include The Book of Lost Places (Dark Regions Press), Dradin, In Love (Buzzcity Press), Dradin, In Love & Other Stories (Oxy Publishing, Greece), and The Early History of Ambergris (Necropolitan Press). He began the publishing house, Ministry of Whimsy, which has done a number of titles including The Troika, by Stepan Chapman which won the Philip K. Dick Award. Other work has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award. He lives with his wife Ann Kennedy, publisher and editor of Buzzcity Press.

Jeff VanderMeer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Excerpt: The Mansions of the Moon
SF Site Excerpt: The Mimic
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Review: The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases
SF Site Review: Veniss Underground
SF Site Review: Leviathan Three
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Excerpt City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: The Exchange

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

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Secret Life "Jeff VanderMeer writes as if in a fevered dream." That's one opening line that came to mind while reading this collection. "Jeff VanderMeer writes with one foot rooted in the Victorian Era and the other planted in next-century's answer to post-modernism." That's another. Throw in a disarmingly witty reference to VanderMeer's own sense of humor and you have a review that begins to do justice to stories that are in turn funny, amusing, horrifying, mystifying, surreal, thought-provoking, and sometimes just plain weird.

Imagine, for example, a man encountering the corpse of a large rabbit, complete with waistcoat and pocket watch, and a detective who worries that "What I cannot solve may kill me." That's from "The City", a story that might be a glimpse into the far future, or something else entirely. "Balzac's War" is another far-future piece related to Vandermeer's novel Veniss Underground. The vision of a bio-engineered future portrayed in these stories is as strange, beautiful, and frightening as any in science fiction.

That edge, where the beautiful and the horrible intersect and create visions that can haunt the mind is the territory in which VanderMeer does his best work. Whether in a morality story like "The Bone Carver's Tale" where an artist's obsession with his work has tragic consequence, or the almost hallucinogenic feel of "Corpse Mouth and Spore Nose", in which a detective's encounter with the mushroom-like underground denizens of Ambergris turns positively surreal, VanderMeer's prose is filled with dense descriptions of people, places, and things that are both horrific and sublime. These stories are the work of a writer who cannot help but see the horror in the beauty, and the beauty in the horror of everything he writes.

Not that everything here is dark and mysterious. "The Festival of the Freshwater Squid" is a classic piece of regional American humor that evokes comparison to everyone from Mark Twain to R.A. Lafferty. "Secret Life" is a fable for anyone who has ever worked in a large office building, and suspected that there was more going on beneath the surface than anyone knew.

Secret Life is mainly a collection of VanderMeer's early work, much of it related to or preceding the author's work set in the legendary cities of Ambergris and Veniss. For that reason, there is at times the feeling that you are reading rough cuts that would later be turned into polished pieces, sort of like listening to an early version of a song that, later, with a little different arrangement, went on to become a hit. But the essence of what made it a great song was already there, and that essence is present throughout the stories in Secret Life. Whether you are already familiar with Jeff VanderMeer through City of Saints and Madmen or Veniss Underground, or are newly come to one of the field's rising talents, the stories herein will take you to strange and terrible places, and in the end leave you to contemplate the wonderfully funny horror of it all.

Copyright © 2004 by Greg L. Johnson

Living next door to a city of saints, reviewer Greg L Johnson surmises that his home must be full of madmen. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.


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