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Under the Rose
edited by Dave Hutchinson
Norilana Books, 452 pages

Under the Rose
Dave Hutchinson
Dave Hutchinson is a writer and journalist, born in Sheffield and living in London. He's the author of five collections of short stories and one novel, co-editor of Strange Pleasures 2, editor of Strange Pleasures 3, and the attempted editor of Strange Pleasures 6/New Writings in the Fantastic 2/whatever it'll be called if he ever finds a publisher for it. He's married and a number of cats allow him to share their home with them.

Dave Hutchinson Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

Under the rose -- sub rosa -- has long been associated with secrecy. It is particularly related to the confidentiality of the confessional. None of the 27 stories gathered in this anthology is confessional in mode or concerns the passing on of secrets, however; this is not by any stretch of the imagination a theme anthology.

The secrecy, then, would seem to lie in the existence of the anthology itself. In a very brief introduction (Dave Hutchinson takes editorial reticence to the length of including absolutely no information whatsoever on any of the stories or their authors), we learn that two publishers considered the anthology and then rejected it before it was finally taken on by Norilana, a process long enough for two of the contributors to die in the meantime.

To be honest, however, it is not hard to see why those other publishers eventually decided to back away from the project. The book in our hands today is about half of a pretty decent anthology, but in a volume that is already overlong at 450 pages, too many of the contributions seem under-imagined, under-written or at least in need of one more thorough re-write.

It really doesn't help, for instance, to find yet another story about an author suffering writer's block who visits a magical ideas store ("Side Effects" by Ken Rand); particularly when the inevitable twist ending is so familiar. Nor is one particularly excited to encounter one more iteration of the comedy about the knight rescuing a maiden from a dragon in which the knight proves to be the victim, the maiden is in charge of things, and the whole thing is written in a modern(ish) idiom as if the characters had just walked in off an American street ("Dragon Bait" by Teri Smith). Since Rand and Smith are the two contributors who died before the book saw print, one might charitably wonder if that is the reason they are included, were it not that these are by no means the worst stories here.

Comedy, the mode both these stories employ, is actually very tricky to pull off, and there are too many stories that try to play with genre conventions and don't quite hit the mark. There are funny aliens in both "Five Hundred Vinnies" by William John Watkins, a tale of first contact with farting aliens that becomes more heavy handed and less funny the longer it goes on, and "Galactic Exchange" by Ralan Conley, a tale of ignorant humans failing to understand the economic imperatives of the alien civilization they blunder into that reads as if it comes straight from one of the less-distinguished sf magazine of the 50s.

Others that make you think you've slipped back through time include "Sojourner" by Lou Anders and Chris Roberson, set in a sub-medieval future where ignorant villagers unknowingly worship a mad old machine until a mysterious wise man happens along to change things, exactly the type of story that used to crop up with bewildering regularity during the Cold War when the future was always associated with decline and fear. Thinking of stories that recall the past, one of the better comedies would be "The Man who Pulled Shiny Things out of the Air" by C.L. Russo did it not remind me so insistently of something like "Brownshoes" by Theodore Sturgeon, right down to the moralistic ending.

There are comedies that work very well, of course, the best of them probably "Yeast Virus" by the ever-reliable Uncle River, the only sf story I've ever encountered about a sourdough starter. Even better would be "Mary Nackley" by William R. Eakin, except that Eakin lets his tall-tale Southern Gothic voice get away from him in the middle passages, putting so much into the story that it becomes confused and confusing. This is one of the stories that would have benefitted from another draft, as would, for instance, "Mother Russia's Egg" by James Targett, which recasts post-glasnost Russia as a fairy-tale land of talking animals struggling to find a new role.

Actually fairy tales crop up as a very regular feature of the fantasy stories here, sometimes very weakly as in the astoundingly insubstantial "The Tale of a More Ancient, Ancient Mariner" by Liza Granville, sometimes better as in "California Fairy Story" by Jean Tschohl Quinn, in which an Irish fairy is accidentally carried back to California by a returning GI after World War II, and the effect it has on his garden over the next few generations. But then, fairy stories are just one set of conventions, and an awful lot of the stories here follow convention, as in "Chain Letter, Inc." by Jean Graham which is a typical tale about getting the better of death, or "Indian Summer," a second story by Liza Granville, in which a tired middle-aged man finds a new lease of life through hippies and drugs (and another story that feels like it comes from an earlier age).

One of the things that struck me as I read through this collection was how often I felt the story was unfinished in some way. Three stories, "A Distant Scent of Rain" by Justin Stanchfield about a diplomatic mission that is also a sexual encounter, "Fool's Gold" by Donna Scott about a young girl's return to the Faroe Islands to learn the truth about her mother and "Sagekites' Land" by Ekaterina Sedia about a death in an old family whose family land is being drowned, all seemed to be reaching towards some subtle emotional effect without quite reaching it. While "The Beach of the Drowned" by John Grant, which begins with an old man telling a ghost story in a pub, dips briefly into that story, then went on to recount the story of one of the old man's listeners, seemed to be trying to cram too much story into the space available. Like "Mary Nackley" and "Mother Russia's Egg," it felt like it could have done with one more draft just to clarify which story it was actually telling and which voice it should adapt; nevertheless, these three are among the best pieces in the book.

The real hits, though, are the stories that start out unpromisingly but still achieve a memorable effect. "Miss" by Ren Holton rather falls apart at the end, but this story of the spirit of spinster ladies wrecking vengeance on a small town still sticks in the mind. Better still is "Mrs. Donovan" by Stuart Jaffe, a curious take on the idea of alien possession that centres on a boy's sexual encounter with an older woman. Though the story that works best for me is probably "Eaten Cold" by Gaie Sebold, if only because the tale of emotional vampires seems so hackneyed yet achieves a wonderful twist, and because it is so appropriately told in the language of the gourmand.

In short, a little under half of the stories here really make this anthology worth reading, and most of those could have done with a little more attention to detail.

Copyright © 2010 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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