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April 1999
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
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F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

WILDEST DREAMS, by Norman Partridge
Subterranean Press, 1998; 200pp; $40.00
Hardcover; ISBN 1-892284-00-6

THE BOAR, by Joe R. Lansdale
Subterranean Press, 1998; 170pp; $40.00
Hardcover; ISBN 1-892284-03-0

We've spoken before in this column of the great service that many speciality presses do in getting, or bringing back into print, work that might not be worthwhile for one of the major houses to publish, but still deserves an audience, so I won't go into it at length again. Instead, I'd like to take a look at a pair of offerings that recently appeared in my post office box from Subterranean Press, one of the more active of these publishers.

I know Norman Partridge more for his wonderfully strange mystery novels such as Saguaro Riptide than for his horror. In Wildest Dreams he proves to be just as accomplished (and strange) with the latter as he introduces us to Clay Saunders, a paid assassin who can see ghosts. Makes it sort of disconcerting when you can continue to interact with your victims after their death.

The novel opens with Saunders returning from a job in Mexico to collect his fee in a Californian coastal town. He was hired by Circe Whistler, an occult practitioner best described as a tattooed Elvira-like evangelist for Satan, to kill her father so that she can take over his business of gathering souls for Old Nick. Initially welcomed onto her estate, Saunders soon finds himself on the run from a murder charge, held hostage by the ghost of the elder Whistler, and bound by a promise he made to the ghost of a little girl that he met on the way to his meeting with Circe.

Part hard-boiled thriller, part grisly horror, part tender character study, Wildest Dreams is one of those remarkable and engrossing novels that fits no category but its own. I literally had to read it in one sitting.

While Subterranean Press's big Lansdale book is the first edition of Rumble Tumble (the latest entry into his Hap and Leonard series, also available in a more affordable trade edition from Mysterious Press), I was much more taken with the first appearance of The Boar, an early, previously unpublished novel that's been sitting for far too long in the author's file cabinet. This is a riveting, coming-of-age story set in Lansdale's beloved East Texas during the Depression in which a teenage, would-be writer, living on a dirt-poor farm, faces off against a menacing killer boar that lives deep in the bottoms wild country.

It's a fairly straightforward, linear tale and the end section, where the novel's young protagonist and his friend face off against the monstrous boar, is harrowing and edge-of-the-seat. But what makes the book shine for me is how Lansdale evokes the era, the voices of the characters, the details with which he brings this part of East Texas so fully to life. I was reminded of classic YA novels such as The Yearling or Old Yeller, simple tales with great heart, and The Boar has easily become one of my favorite Lansdale books to date.

Long-time Lansdale aficionados will appreciate the author's introductory essay detailing The Boar's unpublished history and his personal connection to the locale and times of the novel.

Also recently published by Subterranean Press is Crypt Orchids, a new collection of short stories by David J. Schow, as well as single-story chapbooks by Chaz Brenchley and David B. Silva. If your local bookshop can't get these for you, or for more information, contact the press at P.O. Box 190106, Burton, MI 48519.

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SPECTRUM 5, edited by Cathy Fenner & Arnie Fenner
Underwood Books, 1998; 168pp; $25.00
Trade paperback; ISBN 1-887424-43-1

The Spectrum series is to fantastic art what the St. Martin's Press editions of The Year's Best Science Fiction and The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror are to prose: a subjective collection of the best visual work in the field, chosen in this case by a six-member jury of the artists' peers. The book is as classy as any art gallery quality catalogue and the production values are superb featuring rich, full-color reproductions on glossy stock with sewn bindings. In an opening essay, Arnie Fenner provides an overview of the year, but from then on the only text is what accompanies the images: Artist's name, title, medium, size, etc. Lastly, there's a very useful artist's index including contact information.

What about the art itself? As might be expected, it's all of a very high quality in terms of rendering, although whether a particular piece actually appeals to the viewer is naturally an individual matter. One of the things I like about this series is how it introduces me to artists with whom I'm unfamiliar, especially those from outside the field who work with fantastical, or simply imaginative, images. I also tend to be drawn to the more painterly artists such as Thom Ang, Kent Williams, Dave McKean, Greg Spalenka, and the like, where the brushmarks show and the images grow out fascinating patchworks of anything from found objects to startling discourses of pure color. The realists don't interest me as much, unless it's someone like Rafal Olbinski with his startling perspectives and the way he plays with the viewer's expectations.

The problem with the realistic painters is that many of them still seem to be locked into outdated depictions of buxom naked, or nearly-naked women, lusty barbarians, noble bards, dragons, and other tired mythological imagery. Sometimes the variation is only that they're put into a science fictional setting. So no matter the genre, what we too often get is all those same tired poses and characters that we've seen on far too many books in the sf/fantasy section of our local bookstores.

But I'm not particularly disappointed by their presence here. Just as when visiting a gallery, I don't expect to like everything that's hanging on its walls, here there is enough pleasing, startling, imaginative, disturbing, and fascinating work in this collection to make the entrance fee easily worthwhile.

Still, speaking of the same-old, same-old makes for a perfect segue into:

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THE TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND, by Diana Wynne Jones
DAW Books, 1998; 304pp; $5,99
Mass Market; ISBN 0-88677-832-8

This is a hilarious spoof on the well known "Rough Guides" travelogue and encyclopaedia series published in the UK, offering easy-to-follow hints on how to survive a visit to Fantasyland (a pastiche of pretty much every fantasy novel published since Tolkien). Like much British humor, the writing is witty throughout and the humor rises naturally from the material, rather than relying on pratfalls or punchlines. In other words, it's Monty Python more than the Three Stooges.

The entries are set up in alphabetical order for easy reference, cross-indexed throughout, and in many ways makes an excellent companion to the more serious The Encyclopedia of Fantasy published in 1997. And Jones's book is funny. I won't bother to quote favorite bits, but there are plenty, as you can see for yourself if you simply open a copy in your local bookstore and read an entry at random.

But a funny (as in odd) thing happened to me as I continued to read. While I kept laughing, underneath the laughter a certain depression began to set in because every funny bit (check out the entry on horses, for example) started to remind me of a novel--no, of many novels--in which these same improbabilities, and just plain mistakes, were cheerfully presented in the course of the story in all seriousness. Now I realize that we've built up a certain amount of stereotypical characters, settings and plots in high fantasy novels over the years, but until I read this book, I didn't realize just how bad it has gotten. You know—how you can miss the most obvious thing until someone points it out to you?

I'm not speaking of the actual prose now, and certainly many authors aren't guilty, but every high fantasy author should read this, and study it carefully, to avoid making, or propagating, the same errors and stereotypes. Because many of your readers will be reading it as well, and after doing so, they'll undoubtedly be much less forgiving than they have been in the past when any of these elements showed up in one of your books.

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Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.

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