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Books
by James Sallis

Reality by Other Means: The Best Short Fiction of James Morrow, by James Morrow, Wesleyan University Press, 2015, $30.

You Have Never Been Here: New and Selected Stories, by Mary Rickert, 2015, Small Beer Press, $16.

A Natural History of Hell: Stories, by Jeffrey Ford, Small Beer Press, 2016, $16.

 
FROM ALL evidence, publishers failed to get the memo, the one that's been circulating pretty much nonstop for years, that short-story collections don't sell.

Okay, maybe it's true that collections aren't commercial. And maybe it's also true that factors such as new production technologies, dedicated interest from university-affiliated presses, and the proliferation of small presses and niche publishers have changed the landscape, story collections springing up in the shade.

For my last column here, in which I reviewed story collections by Dale Bailey and Tananarive Due, I read six collections and sampled at least as many. And now on my desk, irrepressibly, there's a new crop from Black Lawrence Press, Tachyon Publications, Aqueduct Press, Macmillan, Small Beer Press, McSweeney's Books, Wesleyan University Press, and half a dozen or so more.

We read, among other reasons, as a corrective to history and as rescue from habituation. History deals in large issues, overviews, wars and shifts of power, while fiction allows us to see how individuals and groups truly lived, their day-to-day lives. But it is our own daily life—habituation—that can inure us and keep us from seeing, dial the brightness of our lives down to a blur. Fiction sits up and takes note. Fiction can make our world large again.

Fabulists love to take the large in one hand, the small in the other, and juggle them.

 

*   *   *

 

James Morrow loves to poke at anthills. Reading him always recalls a favored quote from The Wild Ones, when the motorcycle gang's leader, asked what he's rebelling against, responds "What do you have?"

Reality by Other Means collects seventeen stories from this magazine, Amazing Stories, Conjunctions, and various anthologies such as Full Spectrum and The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories. Those who know Morrow's work will recognize familiar touchstones: the folly and inevitability of war, orthodoxies and dogma in whatever shape or form, politics, horror movies, and, of course, religion. It may be tempting to think of religion as his fulcrum. He did, after all, title a series of tales Bible Stories for Adults. And wrote a novel about towing God's massive corpse across the Atlantic. Reality reminds us of the range of his writing.

The first lines in the collection, from "Bigfoot and the Bodhisattva," serve as a kind of speed-dating pitch to the reader, hitting every mark.

 

After thirty years spent eating the chilled coral brains of overachieving amateur climbers who believed they could reach the summit of Mount Everest without dying, a diet from which I derived many insights into the virtues and limitations of Western thought, I decided that my life could use a touch more spirituality, and so resolved to study Tibetan Buddhism under the tutelage of His Holiness, Chogi Gyatso, the fifteenth Dalai Lama.

 

There, doing the yeti voice, are Morrow's trademark looping style, skewed perspective, and crowlike gather of shiny things. Each sentence seems to head off in two or three different directions; phrases are folded and folded again, hiding secrets at their heart.

In "The War of the Worldviews" diminutive Martians appear, suck up the city's electricity and seal it into a spherical container the size of a racquetball before going about their incomprehensible agenda.

In other stories, Helen of Troy's son asks what mommy did in the war; special formulas turn beast-men into politicians or men (for entertainment) into sub-humans; the ground itself ruptures, a fault line opening "down the middle of Room 102 in the Willard Building," when a teacher lectures on relativism and the passing of morality, truth, and beauty; a woman gives birth to a miniature Earth complete with evolving and disappearing life forms.

Yet never does the idea of a story claim more than its fair share at the food bowl. The yeti considers the code and protocol of what he does, and bonds with the Dalai Lami over a mutual passion for James Bond films. Father Cornelius Dennis Monaghan makes housecalls in his portable baptismal font complete with Styrofoam chalice and corrugated cardboard altar. With Morrow, always there's a deepfelt humanity, not a wizard, behind the curtain. What makes a novel readable, he's said in an interview with Nick Gevers on SF Site, is not its immediate subject but its deeper themes, adding that these emerge only in the writing itself.

 

"When the starving sailors start munching on God's flab in Towing Jehovah, when Jesus reveals himself as Satan at the end of Blameless in Abaddon, and when God's large intestine lets slip that he doesn't give a shit about humanity in The Eternal Footman—well, there's not much going on there to comfort the average churchgoer."

 

There is, however, a great deal to stimulate and delight the imaginative reader. Morrow is a classic satirist in the manner of Swift, Voltaire, and Twain, his stories at one and the same time dark comedies, inexorable tragedy.

 

*   *   *

 

The sky may not be falling, but it's certainly atilt at an odd angle, and we are all afraid.

"Which world?" you ask. Well, that's the question, isn't it, since a primary engine of arealist fiction is its embrace of the suggestion that the world you see isn't the world that is; that beneath, behind, ahead, or half a step to the side of the world you inhabit lie others.

Reading a Mary Rickert story quite often is like sinking through layers of such worlds. We begin in one place, blink, and open our eyes to somewhere—something—else.

"Journey into the Kingdom," for instance, seems in its initial pages the fairly standard story of a childhood till the narrator's dead father starts bringing home the ghosts of fellow drowned travelers, including that of a young man who does not melt away like the others to a puddle, and to whose first-person narration the story shifts, without transition, before returning to that of the young woman.

 

Later, after my mother had tended the lamp while Ezekial and I shared the kisses that left me breathless, she asked him to leave, saying that I needed my sleep.

 

Here, as in all, the seams are beautifully aligned but never stitched tight. We can't be sure where we stand, overcome by vertigo that for a moment stops our breath. Each time our feet find purchase, the ground again drops away.

You Have Never Been Here collects eleven stories, six of them from the magazine you're now reading, others from Subterranean Magazine, SCIFICTION, and Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. "The Shipbuilder" appears here for the first time.

Rickert, a recipient of World Fantasy and Shirley Jackson Awards, has published two previous collections and a novel, The Memory Garden, the tale of a witch and her foundling which, as Matthew Cheney wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books, begins with echoes of Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Peter Straub's Ghost Story before, three-quarters of the way through, "it blossoms into something rich and strange."

Here, from "The Shipbuilder," is a man returning to his childhood home, a town literally and figuratively lost in time, unfailingly rich and strange.

 

Thinking of Wayne, Quark almost missed the turn down Avalon, going too fast for the dip in the road. Over the years it had only grown deeper. Naturally, nothing was done about it. To the citizens of Bellfairie a pothole was a matter of terrain; not a problem with a simple remedy, but the inevitable erosion—impossible to combat—of life.

 

The world within and the world without, large and small, become indistinguishable, the rhythms and lineaments of one forming a frame for the other.

Rickert's stories hit the ground running hard. "The Mothers of Voorhisville" begins, "The things you have heard are true; we are the mothers of monsters" and continues its bifold exoneration-confession for a hundred pages. Rickert also writes killer endings, as in this further exemplar of her style from "Cold Fires."

 

All that night, as they told their stories, the flames burned heat onto that icy roof, which melted down the sides of the house and over the windows so that in the cold morning when they woke up, the fire gone to ash and cinder, the house was encased in a sort of skin of ice which they tried to alleviate by burning another fire, not realizing they were only sealing themselves in more firmly. They spent the rest of that whole winter in their ice house. By burning all the wood and most of the furniture and eating canned food even if it was out of date, they survived, thinner and less certain of fate, into a spring morning thaw, though they never could forget those winter stories, not all that spring or summer and especially not that autumn, when the winds began to carry that chill in the leaves, that odd combination of sun and decay, about which they did not speak, but which they knew would exist between them forever.

 

In every story here, on virtually each page, occur such remarkable turns: collapsed chronology, textual trapdoors, secret passageways, lyrical language cheek-to-cheek with terrible events. Recreations of the dreams that make us and those that haunt us—which may be the same.

Fiction is how society dreams, Mary Rickert has said in an interview in the Internet Review of Science Fiction. Like Quark in "The Shipbuilder," like Ezekial, like the children of the Voorhisville mothers, "We are beautiful monsters."

 

*   *   *

 

The field we call science fiction and fantasy, perhaps better considered a community than a genre, more than most other writing cleaves to its past. Stories often palpably carry the mark of what came before. Those of Jeffrey Ford's A Natural History of Hell, for all their diversity, reach, and virtuosity, may remind veteran readers of classic work from the fifties, that intersection of the fantastic and mundane put in place by writers like Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and Fritz Leiber.

Formally Ford's stories are object lessons in how to stage a narrative. Some are first-person, ajamb and smoldering at the threshold of truth; others are tales narrated within other tales, a kind of literary turducken; some, such as "The Angel Seems" or "Word Doll," have the authentic feel of folk tales. Courting the fantastic, they are, every one, stories of people, of resilience and pain and silent struggle, and of the occasional winning-through.

This, for instance, from "The Last Triangle":

 

I was on the street with nowhere to go, broke, with a habit. It was around Halloween, cold as a motherfucker, in Fishmere, part suburb/part crumbling city that never happened. I was getting by, roaming the neighborhoods after dark, looking for unlocked cars to see what I could snatch. Sometimes I stole shit out of people's yards and pawned it or sold it on the street.

 

That is the writer leaning toward you to whisper he has something important to tell you. And you know that he does.

"A Natural History of Hell" collects thirteen stories originally published in this magazine, on Tor.com, and in various anthologies such as Queen Victoria's Book of Spells and Fearful Symmetries.

"The Blameless," appearing here for the first time, opens the collection, with Tom and Helen receiving a formal invitation to an exorcism for the daughter of their neighbors up the street. These are all the rage, it seems; there are even greeting cards for the occasion.

 

"Yeah, people are getting their kids exorcised for whatever ails them….You know, if your kid doesn't listen, is screwing up in school, hanging out with knuckleheads…. It costs like a grand to have your kid spring cleaned."

 

"Blood Drive" echoes that same black comedy and terrible pertinence—if this goes on with vengeance, rim shot, and cackles of laughter offstage.

 

For Christmas our junior year of high school, all of our parents got us guns. That way you had a half a year to learn to shoot and get down all the safety garbage before you started senior year. Depending on how well off your parents were, that pretty much dictated the amount of fire power you had. Darcy Krantz's family lived in a trailer, and so she had a peashooter, 22 Double Eagle Derringer, and Baron Hane's father, who was in the security business and richer than god, got him a 44 magnum that was so heavy it made his nutty kid lean to the side when he wore the gun belt.

 

Then, fellow travelers, moving right along, there's the medicine-show cure-all, the abused children, and the intervening witch of "Mount Chary Galore"; a visit to the shabby, long-forgotten museum of dolls created to give hard-laboring farm children the easement of an alternative reality; Emily Dickinson learning her ride's here in "A Terror"; the quick-change artistry of Ford's tribute to Japanese creators in "A Natural History of Autumn."

Of the last, asked in a 2012 interview on SF Site if it is out of the ordinary for what he usually writes, Ford responded that it's hard to say what's typical of his work these days. "When I just look back over the last five or six stories I've written for publication, I can't find any two that are similar…. It's definitely not typical in that I have never written a story set in Japan before and probably never will again. It is typical that I have written supernatural stories containing weird creatures with undercurrents of noir and/or pulp."

For which we are all the richer.

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