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Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy
edited by William Schafer
Subterranean Press, 232 pages

Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy
William Schafer
William Schafer is the publisher of Subterranean Press.

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A review by John Berlyne

This short but very tidy anthology from Subterranean initially seems something of a hodgepodge. Used as we are to themed anthologies, the title here is loose and generic enough to capture virtually any kind of genre story that has something strange in it. As such, Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy (which replaced the more substantial and ambitious Best of Subterranean in the publisher's schedule) is indeed an eclectic mix of works, but it is the consistent excellence of the material that gives this collection its cohesion as much as the fantasy content of the stories.

The collection opens with a Poppy Z. Brite story, "The Gulf." Dealing essentially with the effects and aftermath of hurricane Katrina it is, perhaps (and strangely, given that it is the opening tale) the story with most subtle genre content, underplayed so much by Brite that some might argue with its presence at all. It is followed, however by such a wonderful parade of short fiction that it is almost impossible to pick a favourite.

Stalwart Mike Resnick's story "Alastair Baffle's Emporium of Wonders" is a haunting tale of two old men having one last roll of the dice. They venture out of their sheltered home in search of a magic shop they remembered from the youth and lo and behold, they find it, just exactly as it was seventy years ago. Weirdly, the proprietor is equally unchanged. It is a bittersweet story of ambitions unfulfilled, suffused with gentle humour and a generous pinch of pathos.

Joe Lansdale is one of my favourite writers and as such I wished his story, "It Washed Up" were more substantial than its three pages. Nevertheless, even as a mere vignette this pied-piper-meets-Swamp-Thing tale is highly effecting and unsettling -- a little like having your head dunked in the sea and held down!

Tim Powers's contribution, "The Hour of Babel" is a virtuoso performance, incorporating many of Powers's trademark tools and centring on a flashpoint time travel conundrum. Powers coveys perfectly the displacement his characters experience and yet ties it all together with a plot that creates a sense of wonder both at the story itself and at the exemplary craft employed in its construction.

"The Lunatic Miss Teak" is the contribution from Darren Speegle, a writer whose work is new to me. A Faustian tale, it tells of an artist who acquires a talisman (a wooden statuette of a female) that somehow leads to his stellar success. However, over time, the protagonist experiences the moral of "be careful what you wish for" and ultimately he sells more than his soul in attempting to rid himself of the spell. The story itself lacks the clarity of others in this collection -- though perhaps that is its point. Also lacking clarity is the other story by a writer I have not previously encountered -- "Monstrous Embrace" by Rachel Swirsky is the only tale told from an abstract viewpoint. Ugliness itself is our first person narrator here, offering up a monologue in which it beseeches a prince to embrace its affections or suffer the consequences. As one who infinitely prefers plot-based stories to purple prose, I found this particularly ponderous and heavy going.

Clarity is not an issue in Caitlin R. Kiernan's "The Steam Dancer (1896)" -- this story is a tour de force, a steampunk classic for sure. It tells of a mutilated woman whose missing limbs have been replaced with steam-driven equivalents. She dances at the local burlesque, a shadowy twisted figure and the fulfillment and ecstasy she gains from parading herself thus is sensuously rendered by Kiernan. A fabulously charged and oddly erotic story.

William Browning Spenser's "The Penguins of the Apocalypse" is the most fun and most agonising tale in the anthology. A down-on-his luck divorced father has allowed his alcoholism to stray into delirium tremens territory and is plagued with visions of a strange foreigner who claims to be able to solve all his problems. In a narrative as amusing as it is bizarre we get to witness our man's excruciating one way descent and it's one wild ride!

Gentler in nature is Kage Baker's "Caverns of Mystery" -- a young girl is able to see snatches of the past through one eye -- with its imprints of events, of people and of spirits. It is a talent that she has grown used to having and Baker offers it to us as if it were heliotropes superimposed upon the narrative. The effect is ethereal, as is the story of this young girl's summer vacation. A dreamy and haunting tale of the summer adventures of our youth.

Mike Carey, the British novelist (author of the Felix Castor novels) and graphic novelist presents a rare piece of short fiction and his clever story "Face" is a highlight of the collection. It tells of a magistrate called upon to rule in an extraordinary case in which a tribal society's ancient rituals conflict with the secular rule. The father has the right to own and keep the face of his daughter until she marries and in this case, the daughter is challenging this edict. The magistrate finds the ritual repugnant and barbaric but must somehow attempt to preserve his own face, as well as the literal and metaphorical faces of others involved. It's cleverly titled and cleverly tilted piece, and perhaps the story that gives most pause for thought.

The final story in Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy is by Patrick Rothfuss, the author of last year's highly acclaimed fantasy The Name of the Wind. This piece, set in the same world as Rothfuss's novel will be a welcome bridge for those readers eagerly awaiting the (delayed) appearance of a second novel. Meantime there is "The Road to Levinshire," a revenge tale of real brutality featuring the lead protagonist of the novel, Kvothe. The story unfolds in a surprising manner, hardening as it progresses and revealing a grit in Rothfuss's writing that I had not seen evidenced in his debut. It bodes very well indeed for the tone of subsequent novels.

Not included in this volume is Joe Hill's story "Thumbprint" which will be issued as a chapbook alongside finished copies of Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy. Already sold out in its signed, limited state, trade copies are widely available. In spite of the casually catch-all nature of its brief, the standard of the stories here is as high as you'll see anywhere. Recommended.

Copyright © 2008 John Berlyne

John Berlyne is a book junkie with a serious habit. He is the long time UK editor of 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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