Howard Waldrop

Small Beer Press


200pp/$24/November 2013

Horse of a Different Color
Cover by Charles Vess

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Science fiction has produced several wonderful authors in its history, but only a few with a distinctive voice whose stories could only be conceived of and told by a particular authors.  Howard Waldrop is one of those distinctive voices, the only person who could have written such classics as “The Ugly Chickens” or “All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past.”  Some of Waldrop’s newer stories are collected in Horse of a Different Color.

In 2003, Waldrop published a collection entitled Dream Factories and Radio Pictures, a title indicative of his love for old movies and old Hollywood.  Several of the stories in Horse of a Different Color could have fit into that earlier collection based on their theme. The opening story, “Why Then Ile Fit You” is barely a fantastic story, but rather a bittersweet examination of the last days of George Zucco (1886-1960, career 1907-1951).  Sought by director Jimmie Whale for a starring role long after he retired, Zucco refuses to even consider acting again, aware that his time is past, yet at the same time waxing nostalgic about his career and those of his compatriots, a nostalgia tempered by a full understanding of his situation.

Robert Howlin is imprisoned for the crime of lycanthropy in “The Wolf-man of Alcatraz,” which shows him as a very thoughtful and intelligent man who is incarcerated for his own good and that of society and fully understands and accepts his fate.  Serving his time in Alcatraz for the entire time the prison was functional, Waldrop sets part of the story against the 1946 “Battle of Alcatraz” showing how different it could have played out with an unavoidable threat within the cell block as well as coming from the outside.

Returning to show business, Waldrop’s narrator in “The Horse of a Different Color (That You Rode in On)” is Manfred Marx, the eldest Marx Brother who died in infancy.  Rather than focus his attention on the Marx Brothers who appeared in film, Waldrop portrays Marks, as he styles himself, as an old vaudevillian telling the story of a duo who he used to appear with, Dybbuk and Wing, who were much more than the vaudevillian jesters they appeared.  Just as “Why Then Ile Fit You” is nostalgic of the films of the 40s and 50s, “The Horse of a Different Color (That You Rode in On” waxes nostalgic for a Vaudeville long gone and often misrepresented. The addition of two men who travel in Vaudeville as a way to expand their own horizons, both physical and spiritual, adds to the mystique of the life on the road that Marks describes.

“The King of Where-I-Go” begins as a straight nostalgic, if sad, story of the summer of 1953 when Bubba and Ethel were spending the summer with their grandparents in Alabama and Ethel contracted polio.  Glossing over most of their history, although providing enough to get a feel for their relationship with each other and their family's history, Waldrop tells of Bubba's feelings of guilt as his sister slowly recuperates and regains the use of her legs, only to find herself the subject of an experiment in psychic powers and the potential for time travel.  The story collects up the sort of nostalgia which underlies so many of the stories collected in Horse of a Different Color, although in this case, the nostalgia is very personal and specific rather than the media-induced nostalgia of some of the other tales.

Another tribute to Hollywood of the thirties, "’The Bravest Girl I Ever Knew…’” is a biography of film actress Ann Darrow.  Darrow, of course, was Fay Wray's character in King Kong, but Waldrop is very happy to follow her career after she made her film with Carl Denhem as she tackles roles in Tarzan films and a screwball comedy.  Waldrop also fills in her backstory, extrapolating from just a few lines Wray spoke in the film.  As with “Why Then Ile Fit You” and “The Horse of a Different Color (That You Rode in On),” Waldrop provides a nostalgic look at the era without devolving into sap. If he never fully convinces that Darrow was the great actress he makes her out to be, that is more a product of the medium rather than Waldrop's narrative.

“Thin, On the Ground” is a tribute to Robert E. Howard’s Breckenridge Elkins stories.  Rather than a tall tale, it describes a night of revelry just over the border in Mexico by a couple of high schoolers to celebrate their graduation.  Moving from strange encounter to strange encounter, they don’t allow themselves to think too much about the fantastic events they are witnessing, merely desire to continue their revelry and to get away from the eldritch occurrences, assuming them to either be just oddities of human nature or the results of too much to drink until the evidence became overwhelming that something strange was happening.  Almost a vignette with a detailed setting rather than a story, “Thin, On the Ground” is a piece that leaves the reader wanting more.

“Kindermarchen” is a retelling of the Brothers Grimm tale of Hansel and Gretel. Waldrop provides an institutionalization for the children’s leaving their father’s home, at once making the step-mother and father both more understandable and more horrific than in the original version of the story. 

William S. Gilbert joined three of his comic operas, H.M.S. Pinafore, The Mikado, and Utopia, Ltd. together, so it seems only fair that Howard Waldrop joins Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance together in “Avast, Abaft!” Waldrop's story has the pirate crew returning to its life of crime and being chased by the Pinafore.  Before the two ships can meet up for a rousing musical number, the find themselves in a world far distant from the Victorian England in which they were originally set.  Waldrop captures the feel of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas and intermingles his new elements adroitly.

A second tribute story, this time honoring Jack Vance, is “Frogskin Cap,” set in the universe of Vance’s Dying Earth. Vance’s world was a post-apocalyptic earth unlike those seen in the post-Cold War era, which immediately gives a dated feel to Waldrop’s story set in the far future. Set at a local festival, Tybalt actually knows something about the way the world works, rather than the superstitions that have taken hold of the world, which gets his ire up when he witnesses a flim flam man playing into those superstitions.  Tybalt, though, learns that things aren't always as they seem and superstitions might have a place in the world.

The collection closes with a World War I story, “Nineslando,” in which the War takes on a life and personification of its own, intent on making sure that it destroys the antebellum world and any hopes that humanity can better itself.  Rather than placing itself in opposition to the Germans or the British who are furthering its goal by fighting the War, the War works against those who have opted out of the War or hope and believe that a better world is still in the making.   

For each story, Waldrop provides an afterword (as opposed to have a foreword).  Theoretically, this means he can discuss the story and its origins without worrying about spoilers, but in fact he rarely goes into that amount of details, often simply discussing the impetus of the story and his health during the writing of the story, rather than talking about the decisions that went into writing the story itself.  These afterwords are nice, but not essential and the crux of the collection is the stories themselves, as it should be.

Why Then Ile Fit You Thin, On the Ground
The Wolf-man of Alcatraz Kindermarchen
The Horse of a Different Color (That You Rode In On) Avast, Abaft!
The King of Where-I-Go Frogskin Cap
"The Bravest Girl I Ever Knew..." Ninieslando
Jeffrey Ford The Green Word

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