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Off On A Tangent: F&SF Style
Last time we considered aspects of Paraspheres, a recent anthology which attempted to showcase stories blending elements of genre and literary fiction in order to reach readers beyond the genres of science fiction and fantasy. For reasons discussed at some length there, we felt the concept ill-conceived and the general quality of the new stories rather low in terms of imaginative or original content.
Considered as the second panel of a diptych, we now take a look at Logorrhea, edited by John Klima (Bantam Spectra, Tpb, May, 2007, 433 pp., $13/$17 Can.). Rather than soliciting stories that struggle to mix elements of literary fiction directly with those of the science fiction and fantasy genres in a single story as did Paraspheres with its so-called "New Wave Fabulism," Logorrhea wisely bills itself as a compendium "of the weird, the fantastic, the haunting, and the indefinable" (from the rear cover). Its concept is distinctly different from Paraspheres and unique unto itself. We note, despite possible protestations to the contrary, that in both anthologies every story can be defined as being genre or non-genre. Stories are either science fiction, fantasy, dark fantasy/horror, or non-genre (i.e. "mainstream" or "literary" fiction for purposes here).
The editor of the current volume has asked twenty-one writers to choose from the long list of final words (some 75 years' worth) from the Scripps National Spelling Bee. These words being those that, when spelled correctly, decided that year's spelling bee winner. They would then craft a story around the word they had chosen. This mandate being their only constraint, they were otherwise free to write any story in any manner they saw fit. The result being the twenty-one stories considered below.
Differing editorial concepts and approaches aside, there are marked similarities in a sizable number of the stories in both anthologies. A fair number of stories in each seem preoccupied with sadness and/or despair, or paint a somber, melancholy view of the world. In a full two-thirds of the stories below, death (or an aspect of it) is a component of the story. There is death through disease or through other natural causes; folks attend funerals; a death in the family is noted on several occasions; the death of one or more friends is a part of the story. In one story a young man falls in love with a comatose woman who later dies. In another, a seductive ghost causes the death of two men. In yet another a man suffocates his wife. And on and on. Why the preoccupation with death when one can write of anything in the whole wide world of imaginative literature? Why the melancholy, why the gloom, why the despair, all of which are emotions closely associated with death?
Such is the preoccupation with death in Logorrhea that we have chosen to illustrate this fixation with a running count of all those who have died (from one cause or another) in its stories. And, in an attempt to be somewhat lighthearted about it, we have elected to do this with a story by story body count, tabulated thusly:
Body count: 0
There are many ways in which a reviewer or critic may convey themes or patterns in any given collection of stories. Though perhaps an unusual method of doing so, we feel a running body count in this case is apropos. With the caveat that there are spoilers in many of the stories, we begin.
CHIAROSCURO: "The Chiaroscurist" by Hal Duncan
(First published in 2005)
Set during the crusades (or a reasonably inferred analogous counterpart in this otherwise undefined fictional setting), this tale concerns the self-absorbed, first-person account of a chiaroscurist, as he takes nearly five years to paint the ceiling and walls of the antesanctum of the Monadery di Sanze Manitae. The centerpiece figure of the grand mural as backdrop to the altar is a gnomish figure, a hobben, and friend to the unnamed plaster artist, who creates his Art in complicated plays of shadow and light. Through the hobben, the artist believes he has seen God and has therefore chosen him as the central conceit of his work, forever in progress. However, because this monumental work is so detailed and painstakingly slow to complete, Iosef, the hobben, has died and been left to rot, unburied, in his final death pose on the altar; putrid slick flesh, glistening maggots and all, while the artist struggles to complete his masterwork. With Iosef's death, God has now become transformed into Death, and the religious work envisioned to make the chapel a place in which to honor God, now represents the Death of God as seen through the worm-eaten, bloated corpse and partly exposed skull of poor Iosef.
A somber, meditative work, we learn fine points in the art of chiaroscury as given to us by the first-person narrator as but preamble to the dark journey he experiences, as time passes and his once-hopeful vision of light turns gradually to gray, then to the blackest of blacks. Which is but one of the meanings of the word chiaroscuro: "the arrangement or treatment of light and dark parts in a pictorial work of art." As such, Duncan's work succeeds wonderfully on several levels: as his fictional artist's work begins from the light, and almost imperceptibly shades toward the dark, so too does Duncan's story begin with the light of hope only to find its resolution in death—the ultimate and final darkness.
There are, to be sure, additional layers worthy of exploration in this progressively bleak journey: after its own fashion, for instance, some might view this as a fellow traveler's nod to Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," but this loose thematic comparison might be stretching things a bit overmuch for any measure of critical certainty; also, the inclusion in the master mural of the protagonist's lover, the "whore angel" Rosah, rife with all of the traditional religious symbolism surrounding the Virgin, as yet another example.
Suffice it to say, however, that "The Chiaroscurist" is a thoughtfully envisioned tale (with at least one stylistic convention usually associated with practitioners of "literary" fiction) set amidst one of the most violent eras in the history of Christianity. It will be nearly impossible for other stories in this all-new anthology to surpass it for its overall thematic and artistic sense of symmetry. It is a rewarding example of dark, imaginative fiction at its finest.
Body count: 1
LYCEUM: "Lyceum" by Liz Williams
Eradication through conquest of the ancient Uniqt people on the planet Karquom leads a member of the current A-vokt race who destroyed them to commit suicide because of guilt.
Body count: 1
VIVISEPULTURE: "Vivisepulture" by David Prill
This one concerns the death of a "maybe" dead young woman placed in a Leichenhaus (a 19th century waiting room for those who may not be dead; many thought dead were at that time buried alive) by her wealthy parents, and the young man who has wandered into this strange mausoleum of the living and has fallen in love with her comatose body. Upon a final visit to the Leichenhaus where he discovers her body is missing and the wires keeping her alive have been disconnected (she has finally been given up for dead and removed), he goes to the graveyard after her burial, and in anguish beats on the freshly turned earth with his head and hands much like those who have beaten with their head and hands on the inside of their coffins while buried alive. A fresh look at the psychology of love and how one man reacts to a loved one's death (even though the begrieved has never actually met the beloved—only the corpse).
Body count: 1
ECZEMA: "Eczema" by Clare Dudman
The death of a man's sister leads to subsequent strange events by three so-called "crows," three strange women dressed in black who help the brother with his "eczema." The brother also has conversations with the spirit of his dead sister. Said older sister never cared for her younger brother, always chastising and teasing him that he was born from a strange egg his parents found in a quarry during a geological dig. The strange women turn out to be aliens, and the man is one of them, whose mother's long-ago wanderings to the edge of her gray mystical world led to his egg entering our world. The eczema is just his human skin moulting as his real alien skin begins to appear as he matures into adulthood. The three alien women have finally found him and need him to come home in order to "balance" their society's requirement of an even population of 5,000. He is torn between his new and old worlds, finally deciding to go home, as Earth is no longer to his liking since he has changed into a young, childlike "thing" in the eyes of those who now care for him. Though intellectually mature, he is treated like a young child in some orphanage of the state. He has trouble retracing the steps required to go home because of his small size, and is chased by a man and his dog. The end of story has him running for his life.
Decent, but old SF theme. Well enough told, but resolution unsatisfying. We never know if the man/alien (Robin) survives or not, as if it didn't really matter. Perhaps the point is that those caught in between the cracks of society (i.e. the alienated) are always on the run for their lives.
Body count: 1
SACRILEGE, SEMAPHORE: "Semaphore" by Alex Irvine
The story begins with the death of Josh's Uncle Mike, and with references to the extinction of the Jews in WW II. Josh's brother Danny died years before in WW II, and as Josh looks back over his life (he is now 70) he recalls the after-death conversations he imagines having had with Danny, and other things from his life. Dream-visits from Danny show Josh glimpses of WW II, and form the link to the story's real theme, which is Josh's coming to terms with and accepting his own life as it has played out, rather than what he wanted it to be as a child. Danny's encrypted messages to Josh (as given in the hidden clues throughout the dream visions of WW II) reveal this truth to him.
Body count: 2
SMARAGDINE: "The Smaragdine Knot" by Marly Youmans
A centuries-dead Puritan minister's all but forgotten private histories/diaries are the springboard for this tale. The major arcane text is titled The Smaragdine Knot (i.e. The Emerald Knot), and recounts an out-of-body journey (an astral projection religiously inspired?) which the old minister has taken as he meditates deeply before his hearth. He encounters the demon angel Astariel, and they have quite a mystical row before Astariel is vanquished and old minister Ned is returned to his now blazing hearth, wondering how his simple meditations could have gotten so out of control.
The beauty of the storytelling is revealed from the fact that the actual tome, which has been handed down through generations, is now recently lost, and the story of Ned the minister/scholar/poet and his tale of the smaragdine knot and his unearthly encounter with the demon angel Astariel is told as a remembering of the story from a great-uncle to his great-nephew, Simon. Young Simon vows to find the book, and when he does his wise great-uncle will bequeath to him the title of Grand High Keeper of the macabre volume. The final page also hints at something else great-uncle Samuel may not be revealing to Simon, but to say more might lessen the implied revelation.
Body count: 2
INSOUCIANT: "A Portrait in Ivory" by Michael Moorcock (An Elric Story)
This is an early, brief interlude in Elric's wanderings following the destruction of Imryrr, the Dreaming City, and his part in it. He sits for a female sculptress/carver of remarkable ability, as she brings out, through her genius, his melancholy, guilt-ridden soul from the giant bone of a long-dead dragon of Melnibone from which she carves.
Body count: 0 (Cities and dragons don't count)
CAMBIST: "The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics" by Daniel Abraham
Dark fantasy circa turn of the 19th century in what appears to be a fictionalized (?) English city. The story traces the odd meetings of a working-class cambist and one Lord Iron, a pompous rich man with few scruples. Told in period language and idiom for proper atmosphere, one of Lord Iron's strange requests turns into one of the most original deal with the devil stories we've ever read. Highly satisfying.
Body count: 0 (Souls don't count)
LOGORRHEA: "Logorrhea" by Michelle Richmond
Story consists of two unnamed characters, one male, one female, who meet on a beachside pier in Alabama one evening. She suffers from logorrhea, and he from a unique affliction in which his entire body is covered in beautiful scales instead of flesh. Through obvious trials and tribulations (mostly physical, the scales are sharp) they fall in love and are married. She is more in love with his scaled form than with the highly advanced and lifelike pseudo-skin he has had made. When a final version of his new "disguise" makes him appear fully human, she doubts her love for him, for he is now just another normal man. No explanation (medical or otherwise) for his affliction is given, other than that it is "unique." If not for the unexplained scales this would be a mainstream story dealing with why one falls in love with someone else and why change may alter that love. The scales serve as metaphor for change, and/or inward vs. outward beauty.
Body count: 0
POCOCURANTE: "Pococurante" by Anna Tambour
Mainstream story of a quiet, but otherwise ordinary man who has a talent for playing an obscure instrument (given to him as a gift by co-workers) while working in an Australian dry cleaners. Townsfolk react to him in various ways. Slice of life story about a man with an odd talent, but nothing speculative, fantastical, or mystical about it as far as we were able to determine.
Body count: 0
AUTOCHTHONOUS: "From Around Here" by Tim Pratt
Contemporary dark urban fantasy warfare between what appears to be two beings (angels?); one of light, the other of darkness, each of whom kills those on the opposing side (including humans). Both have taken human form to further their objectives, the avatar of the Dark One making deals with humans who carry out his wishes. A serial killer who is burned to death in his house, dismemberment, and mutilation are portrayed in this brutal and eternal struggle between the forces of good and evil made manifest.
Body count: 4
VIGNETTE: "Vignette" by Elizabeth Hand
As the title suggests, this is a series of inner-connected vignettes—snapshots—of a small group of survivors during a war in progress. They've gotten together and holed up with their supplies far from the fighting. Sprinkled here and there among the vignettes are hints of the war, but they are sparse and vague. The sound of a falling plane ceases in the distance; a computer file is now blank, suggesting an EMP has arrived from a far away nuclear weapon, etc. Perhaps successfully illustrative of the title word, but not much here science fiction readers haven't come across before.
Body count: 0 (implied deaths through background war don't count)
SYCOPHANT: "Plight of the Sycophant" by Alan DeNiro
This is a very strange little story. It's an interesting and quirky scenario DeNiro imagines for us, and I commend him for its originality, but I'm not sure I fully understood all of it. It seems we have angels that are not really angels, but beings seven or eight feet tall. They don't have wings, but their guns do. If allowed to escape their owners, these winged guns flutter around like hummingbirds until retrieved. The aliens are apparently border guards to a waterfall, allowing some people to pass, others not. We are not given a criteria for who gets through and who doesn't. The border is the strange waterfall itself, that has simply appeared out of nowhere. Through a quick glimpse of the other side near story's end we see it as an idyllic, pastoral world. The hows and whys are not explained
Our protagonist works as a cashier at a pawn shop/gas station next to the border. He is approached by a woman needing help to change her tire, and he agrees. It turns out that her human form is a façade, and once alone with the young protagonist she unveils her true form. He is so entranced with her beauty he immediately can't resist her commands. He becomes an instant sycophant. She has some scheme in mind to get to the waterfall (or, as it turns out, the strangely beautiful world on the other side of it), to which he becomes a pawn. It ends up with him shooting at a strange water man and mistakenly murdering the woman instead. (She has abducted and tied up this water being in the back of her Hummer in her efforts to return him to the idyllic world on the other side of the waterfall, as near as we can understand. Though bound, he apparently aids in her deception.)
The protagonist tries to understand what has happened to him thusly: "And so, everything that happened with Lydia makes perfect sense to me now. If you're not a gun, then you're an angel. This includes me. Lydia was probably a gun. It doesn't matter if you're made of water or not, or flesh and blood, or . . . well, whatever angels are made of. Angels are meant to do things—guard borders, build cars, safecrack waterfalls, operate cash registers. The guns, on the other hand, do what they love. They love the waterfall, and love to control it, to control who comes through."
It is also postulated that the winged guns actually control the alien angels, the opposite of what one might normally assume. Accept the narrator's own explanation given above for the story's meaning, or formulate your own. Either way, it's a freshly imagined SF scenario and welcomed.
Body count: 1
ELEGIACAL: "The Last Elegy" by Matthew Cheney
Mainstream story of three artiste-types; a painter, an actor, and a poet who specializes in, and is famous for, his elegies. Well written and realized, it focuses on the feelings and concerns of the actor, Anders/Andrea, who undergoes a transgender operation to become a female, Edward the elegiast who loves Anders and who is traumatized when he becomes a she (though it is made clear that neither Anders/Andrea nor Edward is homosexual, so Edward's love for Anders is deeply platonic and not sexual), and the painter Grete, who at one time (before his/her operation) was married to Anders/Andrea.
When the story picks up, Andrea has already died at some unspecified time, and Grete is dying and writes to Edward to come visit her before her death. It's all very sensitively told, and asks serious questions about the nature of love and why we love who we do. For example, before Anders's operation he was a transvestite, dressing up as Andrea and performing on stage. Edward is emotionally enraptured with the Anders persona but not the Andrea side, and is devastated when Anders does not feel the same toward him and becomes a woman: as far as Edward is concerned, Anders is dead to him. On the other hand, Grete was married to Anders/Andrea and had no problem loving both sides to him/her, and their marriage dissolved only after his/her transgender operation. (Grete remarries, but her second husband has died as well.)
This all unfolds in numerous alternating sections; one from the present concerned with Grete's and Edward's current situation (her impending demise and his recollections of her and Anders/Andrea), and one from the past where we learn of the relationships among the three close friends and how the present situation came to be. Not to make light of this seriously intended slice of life story where questions of love and rejection are considered, but it does strike one as a rather melodramatic series of unrequited entanglements written for the Kleenex crowd. We therefore give this tale of love, sorrow, confusion, woe, and triple-death four of a possible five hankies.
Body count: 3
EUDAEMONIC: "Eudaemonic" by Jay Caselberg
Living at his beachfront home, commercial artist Michael encounters a strange girl, Claire, on the beach. She is bending over the corpse of a young man who has apparently died . . . with an odd smile on his face.
Soon thereafter, Claire bumps into Michael on several occasions, gradually insinuating herself into his life. They become lovers. Michael is troubled, because the joy, the inspiration for his "serious" art has left him. Claire tells him she can be good for him in this regard. Michael tries to paint, but his past relationships and dead end job have robbed him of the inner joy he needs to spark his creativity. Claire leads him down to the beach, to allow the sound of the ocean to fill him with joy. The last thing he recalls is the sand hitting his numbed face and Claire bending over him to close his eyes. Allusions are made to her origins as being otherworldly, and she herself feels as if she is a ghost, just "passing through." C'est tout.
Another sad story, another pair of deaths.
Body count: 2
MACERATE: "Softer" by Paolo Bacigalupi
Sicko mainstream (horror?) story about a man who smothers his wife in their bed, then draws the bath and lets her soak for a few days before burying her in the backyard. He hops in the tub with her corpse to relax (more than once) while pondering his miserable life (workload, bills, etc.). After her burial, he clears out his bank accounts, drives to Las Vegas, sells his car, and hitches a ride to Mexico where he can begin a new life, unfettered with responsibilities.
Body count: 1
TRANSEPT: "Crossing the Seven" by Jay Lake
This is an entertaining blend of the sword & sorcery adventure tale and science fiction (there's a large "blackstar" spaceship hanging in the sky throughout the story though its direct involvement is more catalyst to the upcoming adventure than anything else; it exists as little more than a looming presence). The storyline recalls that of many an Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert E. Howard adventure, in that the protagonist and his traveling caravan visit one self-ruled little kingdom (in this case queendom) after another, each more bizarre and deadly than its predecessor.
There are seven cities visited by Andrade, once a slave, who now finds himself, through a series of misadventures, to be the proclaimed messenger of the blackstar to the peoples of his world. His quest is to remove the fear of the blackstar from the people; his role being roughly analogous to that of the catholic priest to whom one confesses, though here the people are absolved of their fear rather than their sins or guilt.
Each of the seven cities is markedly different—geographically and with regard to its customs and morals—and more often than not they are increasingly decadent and prone to excesses of torture, sacrifice, perverted sexual excess, or all. So much so that only a few of the original caravan have survived by their arrival at the final city—which is mostly abandoned, its queen a shriveled corpse on her high-tech throne, long dead. Said crystalline throne chamber with its dangling wires and odd buttons leading one only now to formulate a purpose for the appearance of the blackstar: it has returned after a long absence to check on those it has left behind from a previous visit, only to find all have regressed or met death. By the end of the story it is but a dark spot in the sky, returning to the insterstellar depths from whence it came. The author imparts a moral to the story through Andrade, but we will let the reader discover this for himself, to accept or not according to his own reading of the tale.
The real beauty of the story, however, is how the author has captured the essence of the sword & sorcery/adventure tale made famous by Howard in many of his Conan (and other) stories. Each city (i.e. "land") has its own unique atmosphere, be it cliff-dwelling people, forest-dwelling people, people who live underground or on floating villages on the sea. Each land and its peoples hold different picaresque dangers and challenges to be either fought, out-witted, or simply escaped from. They are every bit as dark and decadent as anything out of Howard (if not more so), with beautiful and seductive queens with murder and treachery hidden behind their lovely eyes and naked forms, brutal instances of male buggery and rape, females being (willingly) sodomized, the dead turned into zombies, a land where victims are sealed into underground chambers to be used as food . . . you get the picture.
All in all, and taken for what it is intended as, "Crossing the Seven" is a successful, colorful homage to the Burroughs and Howard branch of the sword & sorcery tree, albeit perhaps more brutal and graphic in its depiction and/or references to certain sexual practices. That said, this story is one of the most adventurous and purely entertaining entries to this volume, and one of the longest at close to novella length.
Accordingly, and as is to be expected in this sort of tale, the death toll is quite high.
Body count: 21 (give or take the odd corpse or zombie)
PSORIASIS: "Tsuris" by Leslie What
Mainstream story about a husband with psoriasis and his cheating wife, on their way to a funeral. The wife is full of guilt and self-recrimination for her adultery, for she knows the man she married is still the same man on the inside though she cannot find it within herself to love him any longer because of his affliction. She hates herself for this weakness, yet cannot find it within herself to change.
Body count: 1
EUONYM: "The Euonymist" by Neil Williamson
(First published in 2005)
A euonym is the appropriate name for a person, place, or thing. Calum is the official euonymist for the Unification Bloc of worlds, to which Earth has recently become a member (as in yesterday). He is plugged into a database of thousands of languages from all the Bloc worlds, and is charged with naming everything from planets to plants with the most precise, representative name possible. But here's the rub: a strange plant hitherto unknown on Earth has just been found in his backyard. It is assumed, though it cannot be proved, that it has been "planted" there by a scheming race known as the Peloquin. The Peloquin have figured, quite correctly, that the closest language with the proper name for this plant will come from their language. Why is this important for them? Calum explains:
"Cultural imperialism is a big deal. There's a lot of prestige awarded when one race's languages are used for naming over another, and it can all get a bit heated. There have been wars fought over the naming of a new planet, civilizations wiped out. In fact, it's one of the reasons the Bloc exists. It was originally set up to ensure fairness, and encourage harmony and trade, but in lieu of conflict the various races have developed internecine one-upmanship to a fine art. My job is to ensure that all of the languages in the Lexicon are represented equally while at the same time apportioning a name that is apt."
Normally, an already inhabited planet like Earth already has its own nomenclature in place, and any naming to be performed would be from an indigenous language. But since this new bio-metallic plant has suddenly appeared, and is obviously from off-world, and also since Earth is—since yesterday—a member of the Bloc, Calum, as official Bloc euonymist, must draw from the official Bloc Lexicon. Enter the Peloquin and their obvious scheme to lay naming rights—and thus garner great prestige—should the plant be named from one of their languages. This would give them "the first non-human cultural claim on Earth."
Needless to say, Calum is hard-pressed to do his job fairly yet thwart the Peloquin scheme, but thanks to one of his old Scottish relatives and a Scots dialect not in the Lexicon (Calum bends the rules a bit, knowing the legalities of his choice will take years to sort out), he solves this unique conundrum in Earth's favor.
Whether as a practical matter the basis for the Unification Bloc's formation as a likely occurrence can be debated, it is nevertheless an original idea, and the creation of an official euonymist a probable and logical position to spring from it. This story runs strongly along the lines of those seen quite often in Analog, and is a fine example of this type of "problem" story.
Body count: 0
DULCIMER: "Singing of Mount Abora" by Theodora Goss
Reminiscent of some of Tanith Lee's magical fantasy efforts, this charming tale involves Kamora, the favorite maiden of the Empress Nasren, and her convoluted plan to wed the Cloud Dragon, who takes the shape of a man at night. The Empress grants her wish to wed, but only if Kamora can find a replacement for herself, for she is Nasren's favorite and cannot do without her. With help and clever bartering for favors from the blind instrument-maker, the Stone Woman, and others (not without complications) her scheme to be free of Nasren and win her true love is played out to its happy conclusion.
The author also weaves a second storyline into that of the mythical tale with a parallel story set in contemporary Boston, with another young girl (a college student studying Samuel Taylor Coleridge). Both concurrent stories have closely equivalent characters treading similar paths. At one point the author has the contemporary girl so absorbed in her reading of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" that she discovers herself transported to the great and lavishly appointed palace of the Great Khan himself, where the paths of both young women are skillfully played out. Goss's language, lavish descriptions, and poetic rhythms—sentence by sentence—when in the fantasy realm help lose the reader in this colorful world of magic, love, and wonder.
Body count: 0
APPOGGIATURA: "Appoggiatura" by Jeff VanderMeer
The author sets himself a challenging task (or, if one is of an Oulipoean frame of mind, "constraint") here. He attempts to interpret his chosen word by writing separate, yet interconnected vignettes incorporating each of the other twenty words used by the other authors in this anthology. Each of the vignettes also represents part of the larger tapestry VanderMeer weaves of the lost city of Smaragdine, its fabled lost text The Book of Smaragdine, and as much of its lost lore and peoples has he can ingeniously cross-reference through each of the pieces. When completed, the final product is more than the sum of its parts, and leaves the reader feeling he has been given but a glimpse of the fabulous, dark, and ancient lost city of Smaragdine.
The rich language evokes a quaint, baroque feel to the world, reminiscent of the period language employed by writers of the lost world or otherwise fantastical tale popular around the turn of the 19th century, and brings to mind in small or great degree and in various ways the likes of Lovecraft, Merritt, Clark Ashton Smith, H. Rider Haggard, and others of similar ilk.
VanderMeer shows himself equal to the task he has set for himself, and pulls it off with great aplomb.
Body count: 14
Logorrhea is marketed by Bantam Spectra as a book of contemporary fantasy. It is a fair assessment, for much of what is represented here is easily recognizable as such. It is a good, solid collection of (mostly) imaginative stories, including several standout pieces, and worth your money.
Divided into three categories: mainstream, f/df/horror, and SF, we find 4 mainstream stories, 9 fantasy/dark fantasy/urban fantasy/horror stories, and 8 science fiction tales. A couple could easily slip-slide back and forth between two categories depending on how one sees a mainstream story as horror, or vice versa, but this is the general breakdown. Fantasy, in one form or another, predominates. As does a fixation with Death in any one of its many forms or representations. Out of 21 stories we find 55 "deaths." That's 2.5 deaths per story on average. Remove Jay Lake's sword & sorcery/SF adventure where there are 21 deaths, and we have 34 deaths in 20 stories. That's 1.7 deaths per story on average. Consider then that there were 7 stories where no deaths occurred or were mentioned, and we have (minus the Lake story) 34 direct or indirect instances of death in the remaining 13 stories. This equates to 2.6 "deaths" on average, up from the 1.7 when all stories were included. 2.6 deaths on average in each of the 13 stories (minus the Lake), is nudging toward 3 deaths per story. Regardless of how you slice and dice the numbers, that's a lot of death and dyin', isn't it?
One of our observations of Paraspheres was that many of its stories were of a bleak, melancholy, or despairing nature. This seems strangely to be the case with Logorrhea as well, though we much prefer this book over the former. As we remarked earlier, with the endless creative potential of the human mind and what it can take as inspiration from the entire universe, be it past, present, or future, and all of the potentially wonderful and promising possibilities for stories to be imagined and shared with readers, why are so many of these stories of the glum, bleak, murder-laden, death or dying, suffering or tortured, going to or from a funeral sort? Are optimism and happiness not an option with many of these writers? Can their imaginations be so limited? Can their outlook on life at such a relatively young age be so touched by the dark that they experience no joy, no excitement, no wonder in life worth sharing? Of all the stories presented here, only two are unremittingly and without nuance or quibble upbeat: Neil Williamson's SF tale "The Euonymist" and Theodora Goss's fantasy "Singing of Mount Abora." And there's not a death between them.
We like Logorrhea and recommend it to you on a story-by-story basis. That its concept derives from words and their meanings—which go to form the richness of language as we know it, and is what helps to shape a large part of what the reading experience is all about—is worthy of your attention alone. The level of line by line craftsmanship is high, many of the insights into our nature in the better stories are well observed and valuable, and there are a number of tales sure to be on recommended reading lists come the end of the year. And who knows, maybe several on various award ballots.
It frustrates us, however, that so many (again, we emphasize not all) of the practitioners featured within Logorrhea's pages seem to think so depressingly along the same lines when it comes to mood or atmosphere, and how they go about setting that mood or atmosphere. Their stories are in aggregate damned by an atonal emotional flatline of sadness, and are plagued with the virus of serious intent toward some Higher Meaning or insightful Revelation. Which is but one of the oft-cited (we know it when we point to it) markers of so-called "serious" Literary Fiction.
Worthy of consideration in light of the above is the following:
"Where writers seem to get caught on a dilemma in the science fiction world, is when they try to decide whether they'll be entertainers or serious writers. Remember the monkey in Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau that had Big Thinks? He didn't think Small Thinks about water and game and nuts and fruit . . . he had Big Thinks. And when the hero comes back to London and went into the Church it seemed to him that the people were gabbling Big Thinks. That was a cruel satire."--Edmond Hamilton, interview in Tangent #5, Summer, 1976
Robert Bloch was a master of the dark, the psychologically perverted or insane (Psycho and An American Gothic), and the ingeniously macabre story, where Death was often the Christmas turkey to be carved and dissected until the revealed bones of its essence were all that remained. Though sometimes gruesome and gory, Bloch often infused his examinations of death (and the pathology surrounding it) with wry humor and made his "Big Thinks" subtle, stinging satires. It is therefore striking that all but one or two of the stories dealing with death in some degree or other (a staggering 67% of the book's total), failed to exhibit even a hint of the wit or insight that Bloch tossed off on a regular basis.
The fear of Death is (with rare exception) universal. We try not to think about it though we are acutely aware of its inevitability. Bloch faced this fear by ripping it open and examining it in all of its various guises, in some works quite seriously. More often than not though, he taught us how to laugh at it. A nervous laugh, perhaps, but . . .
When many of the authors here fail to show even the slightest awareness of the literary power of wit or humor (dry, dark, or otherwise), or a more deft or original touch to their clichéd uses of death to examine character (or whatever else it was they wished to explore), it reveals a narrow, limited mindset of embarrassing proportions. How many times has the literary convention of traveling to or from, or gathering at a funeral been used in literary fiction over the years? How many times has the convention of remembering a departed loved one been used in literary fiction as a springboard to begin a story? Effective or useful perhaps, but how original? In several of the stories, for example, death is used right up front to establish mood quickly (are there no other literary tools with which to do so?).
The first line of one story begins: "The three crows were at Melissa's funeral."
The first line of another begins: "When my uncle Mike died . . . "
The third line of another begins: "After Andrea's death . . . "
And so on.
After a while, this dreary repetition of downbeat mood to begin a story becomes tedious for the reader. Oh, no, not another depressing story. Even a little gallows humor or Grand Guignol in proper measure is preferable to the dreadfully gray sameness shown here time and again. More's the pity.
Death mentioned, witnessed, discussed, or portrayed with insight and originality:
On the other hand . . .
A magazine editor has enough material in inventory to balance theme, setting, or mood in any given issue. When the anthologist commissions 21 stories he must accept what he receives and hope for the best. It's too bad that so many of the writers (out of all the infinite possibilities open to them) chose death as either a primary or peripheral ingredient in their stories, and then for the most part failed to take advantage of its possibilities, with little originality or variation in mood or tone. The exception coming immediately to mind is David Prill's "Vivisepulture," which refers to the House of Corpses, and his interesting resurrection of this no longer needed "transition place between life and death, a waiting room, if you will." His chosen word demanded he deal directly with death, and we felt he did so with a creative and original take, with the clever reversal at story's close quite satisfying.
Editor John Klima came up with a clever, worthwhile concept for an original set of stories here. He gave his writers their choice of words and the entire universe in which to go play. He did his part. Hopefully, his writers will do theirs next time out, with more freshness and originality than they showed here, at least where it comes to the collective mindset which produced so many stories involving death. Thank goodness the other writers chose to write about something else.
June 11, 2007
Dave Truesdale began the short fiction review magazine Tangent in 1993. Since then, it has been honored with 4 Hugo nominations and 1 World Fantasy Award nomination. For several years in the 1990s, he was deeply involved with the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and in 1998 was a World Fantasy Award judge. He edited the Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America from 1999-2002. Tangent Online can be found at www.tangentonline.com.
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