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January/February 2016
 
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Books
by James Sallis

The End of the End of Everything, by Dale Bailey, 2015, Arche Press, $16.

Ghost Summer: Stories, by Tananarive Due, Prime Books, 2015, $15.95.

 
ONE OF MY flats in London had a single small window looking out onto a bare brick wall, a slice of street, and, set off a bit, a stretch of other flats. Each weekend the street below would fill with stalls. Antiques, foodstuffs, junk, teapots and electric kettles, well-used comic books and paperbacks, cheap clothing, shoes. And from that narrow view—as I observed, extrapolated, imagined—came my understanding of the city.

I was writing short stories the same way I stood at that window, finding pieces and pushing them together in various ways till they fit, discovering with each story a new world.

That, I believe, is what the reader does—and highlights my attraction to the short story where, in six, twelve, or thirty pages, we can come to hold an entire spinning world in our hands.

Dale Bailey's The End of the End of Everything, for instance. Nine stories, nine worlds. Bailey began publishing in 1993, his bibliography comprising three novels (The Fallen, House of Bones, Sleeping Policemen) and a previous collection, The Resurrection Man's Legacy and Other Stories, with a fourth novel, The Subterranean Season, just out. Altogether not a large body of work, but substantial and, for all its diversity, remarkably coherent.

Of the nine stories, four appeared in the magazine you are reading, two each in Asimov's and on Tor.com, and one in Clarkesworld Magazine. Publication dates range from 2004 to 2015, mostly along the latter side.

Reading them, one might wonder if stories aren't always about things lost: people, opportunities, memories, love, youth, the Black Lagoon. As suggested by the collection's title, keynotes here are isolation and a general winding-down. In the opening story, "The End of the World as We Know It," the last man on Earth sits on his porch drinking as he runs scenarios, some extrapolative, some historical, for how our world falls away.

 

Still, it seems to him that, if anything, night rises, gathering first in inky pools under the trees, as if it has leached up from underground reservoirs, and then spreading, out toward the borders of the yard and up toward the yet-lighted sky. It's only toward the end that anything falls—the blackness of deep space, he supposes, unscrolling from high above the Earth.

 

In "The End of the End of Everything," which concludes the book, those not yet quite dead gather at the edge of a spreading nothingness for elaborate, artistically arranged suicide parties.

 

Ruin had lately devoured most of the city and it encroached on either side of the abandoned interstate: derelict cars rusting back to the elements, skeletal trees stark against a gray horizon, an ashen, baked-looking landscape, though no fire had burned there.

 

In other stories, a legendary lake monster is summoned into some order of being by the emotional push-and-pull of two friends; a woman stares into the hellish pit at city's center and must make a terrible choice in order to save her sick child; road pirates become dime-novel-like media heroes for their hijacking of government oil tankers; and a troop of Girl Scouts on a wilderness trip fades all too summarily and believably into the wild.

Every story, I tell my students, is a leap off the cliff. Bailey chooses his cliffs with care, reimagining standard science fiction, fantasy, and horror themes with marvelous physicality, quiet compassion for his characters, and language whose sharpness we barely feel till we look down to see blood flowing from the cut.

Nowhere is this reimagining more evident than in "The Creature Recants," a lyrical, humane, sometimes comic, finally mythic retelling of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Brought to Hollywood with promises of work as an actor, amidst lunches of sushi, love advice from Boris Karloff, and the ever more pendulous gravity of memory, the Creature ends up trapped in making a film of what is, essentially, his true story, another goddamn monster flick.

 

During breaks in shooting, the Creature from the Black Lagoon usually rests in a pond on the studio back lot and dreams of home. The pond isn't much even as ponds go. It's maybe four feet deep at its deepest point and a hundred yards or so around, an abandoned set carved out of the scorched southern California earth for some forgotten film or other.…

 

When finally the Creature swims away from the woman who has professed her love for him and heads into the fathoms-deep caverns of Wakulla Springs toward the Lagoon he will never reach, we all feel with him the loss of his world and life, a loss intricately entangled with heroism. That's all I am, a monster, the Creature thinks. But he is, might have been, so much more.

Similarly in the time-travel story "Mating Habits of the Late Cretaceous," at the very instant Gwyneth senses a doorway opening between herself and her estranged husband, she is snapped back from the far, far past's engendering wonders to her own time, to ordinary life, by the safety yoke.

And finally, to balance the ledger, a beginning for you. This from "Eating at the End-of-the-World Café," as Eleanor struggles not to acknowledge the brute, too-visible world that soon will claim her.

 

She'd seen them once, the dead and damned, hooded blind, their hands bound at their backs. She'd seen blue lightning leap sizzling from electric prods as gray men in blue uniforms harried them stumbling down from enormous canvas-covered army trucks. She'd heard their cries, their moans, the shouts and the mocking laughter of the men in blue. She'd smelled the stench of their roasting flesh.

 

The truest mark of Bailey's craft and art is that in such scenes and such stories, again and again, he leads us to moments of absolute grace.

 

A big favorite in our bag of parlor tricks as writers is the way we consistently talk about one thing by talking about something else. And one very particular power of arealist fiction is its capacity (which it shares with poetry) to intensify.

We all die alone, but have a man crashed on Mars, unable to move within his suit as oxygen and life bleed away, and you've kicked it up a few dozen notches; you have "The Man Who Lost the Sea." We all fear being taken over, changed by something that's not us, be it virus, communism, or Other. Take that fear, decant it to pods that, in their own fury to survive, are creating duplicates to supplant us, and you've made fear palpable, visible. You have strong brew.

I'm led to these thoughts by "The Lake," the first story of Tananarive Due's collection Ghost Summer, with its brilliantly evocative objectification of aberrant behavior.

Due's previous books include twelve novels (supernatural thriller The Living Blood winning an American Book Award), an historical novel of Madam C.J. Walker (The Black Rose), and the civil-rights memoir Freedom in the Family, co-written with her activist mother. Ghost Summer is her first story collection.

In "The Lake," Abbie LaFleur has come to Gracetown to rebuild her life: to assume a new job as high-school teacher, to inhabit a new house with a new lake behind, to construe a new beginning. Divesting herself of clothing, relishing her newfound freedom, Abbie takes to swimming at dusk in the lake.

 

No one had told her…that one must never, ever go swimming in Gracetown's lakes during the summer…. Further, one must never, ever swim in Gracetown's lakes in summer without clothing, when crevices and weaknesses were most exposed.

 

Crevices and weaknesses. For while a new beginning, this radical relocation in no manner comprises freedom. However we paper it over, what is within, what is essential, will emerge. The grammar of our lives does not change simply because we change the words we use. Another world, another end.

Quite early in the account we begin to have that slow recognition that things are not right.

 

But there would be boys at the school, strong and tireless boys, who could help her mend whatever needed fixing. In her experience, there were always willing boys.

 

Whatever needed fixing. Which is, of course, her loneliness. Her need. Her hunger. As, seamlessly, Due syncopates the evolution of the story with the (real?) transformations affecting Abbie.

Transformations abound in these stories. Abbie's; the werewolf of "Aftermoon" learning how best to pass; the zombie apocalypse of "Danger Word" (co-written with husband Steven Barnes); the suddenly sweet-tempered, spirit-ridden baby of "Summer" whose mother wonders "if she was patient and wise, or if she was a tragedy unfolding slowly, one hot summer day at a time."

Then there are the three stories featuring Nayima that, even in a collection of stand-out stories, move to the front of the line. A plague has made short work of much of humanity, and while Nayima, a young woman, survived, she is a carrier, an outcast. By the second story, bitter, solitary, and untrusting, she has abandoned what dreams she once had of community. In the third, now an old woman, she's told of a child formed from her genetic material, and while still mistrustful, cannot forego this last, fraught chance of connection.

Due never over-defines, never violates the situation's complexity. How could this, a "daughter," possibly be true? Could the whole thing be only another kind of manipulation by the government? What could she possibly hope to find here, save more heartbreak? But when emissaries come and she opens the door, we feel virtually everything Nayima feels now, everything she has felt.

Into these three stunning stories Due packs the meat and substance of a lengthy novel.

Just as do Dale Bailey's stories, Tananarive Due's open doors to invite you in. Here is a world you know, they say, and out there, as they walk you to the window, out there is a world you've never before seen.

Watch with me.

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