Short and Sweet
Are single-author genre story collections a dead or dying category? Absolutely not! Are they a dead or dying category for big publishers? Well, yeah, pretty much.
Take a look at the Locus RecommendedReading List for 2010, the most recent one available as I write: www.locusmag.com/ Magazine/2011/Issue02_Recommended Reading.html. Scads of excellent story collections, a brilliant mosaic of a thriving field. But not one from any of the so-called “Big Six” firms or their various imprints: Hachette, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin, Random House, or Simon & Schuster. The last such book I can recall, in fact, was Gene Wolfe’s Starwater Strains from Tor in 2005. Or maybe Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars, Scribner’s, 2010.
It’s a lamentable state of affairs, this lack of support for short fiction on the part of the Big Six, due to either real or perceived low sales for such books. How can an entire category, essential to the development and history of SF/F/H, simply be written off on strictly mercenary terms? Aren’t low sales partly a testament to bad marketing and lack of publisher vision anyhow? Who’s buying all the collections that do appear?
But rather than agitate against the self-injurious ignorance and perversity of the Big Six, let’s celebrate the superhuman efforts of the independent presses that keep such collections alive.
Here, alphabetically by author, are mini-reviews of twenty great offerings from 2011.
I initially encountered the awesome prose of Michael Bishop over forty years ago, when I read his first story, “Piñon Fall,” in the pages of Galaxy magazine. That story likewise is the first to greet readers of his magnificent career retrospective, The Door Gunner and Other Perilous Flights of Fancy (Subterranean, hardcover, $45.00, 528 pages, ISBN 978-1-59606-374-7). Usefully arranged by order of publication with the help of Bishop-savvy editor Michael Hutchins, these lightly but meaningfully revised tales—stefnal, fantastical, one mimetic—comprise an astonishing career, illuminating and enjoyable for readers new and old. But even longtime Bishop fans will encounter unseen gems.
Story collections are not only for the benefit of living authors, but also a means of keeping the work of the field’s forebears alive. Robert Bloch—once a famous byline, but possibly growing forgotten since his death in 1994—gets just such a reinvigoration with Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper (Subterranean, hardcover, $40.00, 336 pages, ISBN 978-1-59606-424-9). Not strictly a story collection, since it contains an entire novel, The Night of the Ripper, it’s an omnibus of all Bloch’s tales concerning the famed British serial killer. This includes the screenplay of Bloch’s well-loved Star Trek episode, “Wolf in the Fold.” With mordant and ardent professionalism, Bloch rings the changes on Red Jack’s hideous career, delivering shiv-ers galore.
When speaking of child prodigies in our field, we often fail to mention Ramsey Campbell. He began his acolyte’s editorial correspondence with August Derleth as a Lovecraft-besotted fan in 1961 at age fourteen, and his first book manifested three years later. That volume now receives its slightly premature “fiftieth anniversary edition” from PS Publishing: The Inhabitant of the Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants (hardcover, £19.99, 298 pages, ISBN 978-1-848632-00-4). These Cthulhu Mythos tales exhibit a compelling and unnatural gravitas for such a young author, and capture without slavish imitation many of HPL’s frissons. I particularly enjoyed “The Mine on Yuggoth” for its nighted and hideous cosmic vistas. The bonus material here—Campbell’s original drafts, plus Derleth’s letters—raises this volume to milestone status.
Readers of this column might recall the name Brendan Connell from my review of his prior collection, the urbicentric Metrophilias. Connell now returns with The Life of Polycrates (Chômu Press, trade paperback, $14.00, 266 pages, ISBN 978-1-907681-04-2), in which the stories exude a kind of fevered Aubrey Beardsley Euro-decadence. Think Alberto Moravia, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Thomas Mann. In “The Dancing Billionaire,” louche partygoers hoist “thin-stemmed glasses growing from hands like effervescent fungi.” Connell’s protagonists are all monsters, and not hopeful ones either. They generally inflict and receive grief and pain and meet bad ends. Perhaps the template is best seen in the protagonist of “Collapsing Claude,” who wallows in a sick love affair, then pines for more.
Fans of smart genre criticism and reviews know the name Don D’Ammassa from his long stint as the chief reviewer at the lamentably extinct SF Chronicle, and also from the encyclopedia work he’s done for several presses. (D’Ammassa continues his reviewing these days at his website: www.dondammassa.com.) But savvy readers of this magazine and of Analog will have also seen his byline on a number of fine stories over the years. Despite having sold over one hundred fiction pieces, it is only recently that his first collection appeared: Translation Station (The Merry Blacksmith Press, trade paper, $13.95, 200 pages, ISBN 978-0-61548-936-0). The tales here are for the most part hardcore SF—first contact, space travel, life on alien worlds. The title story plus two others form a great mini-saga about hyperspace travel with a unique twist involving wheeled spaceships!
Gardner Dozois’s new book, When the Great Days Come (Prime Books, trade paper, $14.95, 360 pages, ISBN 978-1-60701-230-6) functions as an essential career retrospective, spanning as it does exactly forty years of his intermittent but collectively impressive fiction output. Unlike the Bishop volume cited above, this overview is arranged with newest items first, and then, more or less, proceeding backward in time. We see the current version of Dozois up front: a seasoned professional capable of turning out any type of story. For instance, “Recidivist” is a top-notch post-Singularity tale equal to the work of Stross or Doctorow, and full of rueful humor. The voyage back through the decades to his earliest work, which I like to think of as “Angry Young Sturgeon,” is one that provides endless pleasures.
On his twenty-fifth anniversary of writing what might be best described as odd, weird, and disturbing fictions, Christopher Fowler has compiled a mammoth volume of twenty-five stories in that macabre vein, christening it Red Gloves (PS Publishing, hardcover, $32.00, 210 pages, ISBN 978-1-848631-98-4). The first half, Devilry, features London-based tales, while the second half, Infernal, is subtitled “The World Horrors.” Fowler’s London pieces exhibit his elegant and understated prose to good effect, proving he can summon up with keen verisimilitude any portion of that metropolis, evoking the eerie and uncanny even from something so mundane as a limo, in “The Stretch.” In the second part of the book, creepiness abounds around the globe, even unto the distant past of the Wild West, with the gruesome tale of “The Boy Thug.”
Glenn Grant’s Burning Days (Nano-press, trade paper, $11.90, 132 pages, ISBN 978-0-9811905-4-9) brings us icy-hot hardcore cyberpunk fictions originally presented during the 1990s and the early twenty-first century, which prove that old-school Gibsonesque visions, clarified and ramped-up by second-generation insights, remain eternally relevant and exciting. As Bruce Sterling says in his introduction, “Glenn Grant’s stories are full of jolting moments of . . . mental clarity . . . moments of ontological realization.” As Grant’s characters move through ultra-wired, densely depicted milieus, the reader gets to experience their epiphanies in realtime. “La Demoña” is particularly vivid for being told first-person by a young “Mex-Am girl working (illegally) as an apprentice myo-electrician for Pandemonium Crew.”
With the blue collar fascinations of Stephen King and the gleeful perversity of a young Ray Bradbury, Glen Hirshberg digs deep beneath the commonplace exteriors of modern American lives to find malaise and bad mojo. The Janus Tree and Other Stories (Subterranean, hardcover, $40.00, 230 pages, ISBN 978-1-59606-408-9) is his latest compilation of mundane façades destroyed by buried impulses and desires. And although illness and madness course through these tales, there are quieter, more melancholy moments such as the account in “Sho-mer” of a young man’s bizarre trials during the Jewish ceremony of guarding a corpse. And the two stories concerning a strange urban phenomenon dubbed “the Book Depositories” have a kind of black Brautigan whimsy.
John Wyndham once did a book, The Outward Urge, with his alter ego, Lucas Parkes. Ed McBain collaborated with Evan Hunter on the novel Candyland. Now Robin Hobb and Megan Lindholm, who otherwise share a single body, bring forth The Inheritance and Other Stories (Subterranean, hardcover, $45.00, 392 pages, ISBN 978-1-59606-438-6), representing “their” two approaches to tale-telling: sprawling versus concise. The three Hobb stories, two of which are pendants to her novels, are interesting and will reward her fans. But the Lindholm offerings, to my eyes, are superior, showcasing a vivid imagination, deep empathy, and twisty sense of plotting. Whether dealing with drug-beslimed aliens (“A Touch of Lavender”) or roadkill magic (“The Fifth Squashed Cat”), Lindholm delivers surprises and thrills embodied in the lives of some very relatable souls.
Chances are, you will not have seen the fantastika stories of Greg Hrbek in their magazine incarnations, because they all appeared in non-genre publications, places like Conjunctions and Sonora
Review: zines toward which we haughty fans all too often turn a blind eye. But, as the title might hint, none of the stories in Destroy All Monsters (Bison Books, trade paper, $14.95, 192 pages, ISBN 978-0-8032-3644-8) would have seemed out of place in Asimov’s or F&SF, and they speak to the same passions and dreams that motivate our genre explorations, with perhaps a tad more polish and gloss. Certainly a touching story like “Sagittarius,” which details the feelings of human parents of a child centaur during one crucial evening, might have flowed from the pen of Kelly Link or John Crowley.
Famed for her novels and essays, Gwyneth Jones also writes superb short stories, though at lesser rates of production. Almost twenty-five-years’ worth are collected in The Universe of Things (Aqueduct Press, trade paper, $18.00, 296 pages, ISBN 978-1-933500-44-7), and they offer immense pleasures, both cerebral and sensual. If I had to pick one word, I would qualify Jones’s work as “playful,” in the sense of serious ludic juggling of ideas, emotions, and themes. Whether creating a punk portrait of our near future (“Blue Clay Blues”) or a peculiarly enspirited house (“Grandmother’s Footsteps”), Jones sports among her tropes like a dolphin at sea. She is a mage whose main message is that “Our magical technology may have unsuspected costs” (“La Cenerentola”).
Perhaps you recall a story from these pages almost thirty years ago, titled “Her Furry Face,” written by Leigh Kennedy. It was nominated for a Nebula Award and generated some level of controversy for its sensitive but frank depiction of interspecies love. However, if you are not such a longterm veteran of Asimov’s, you will still be privileged to encounter the story in Kennedy’s new collection, Wind Angels (PS Publishing, hardcover, £19.99, 230 pages, ISBN 978-1-848631-97-7). “Her Furry Face” holds up remarkably well, and is matched by the other entries here, such as “Belling Martha.” “She sniffed the frigid wind blowing toward her. . . . Someone was roasting human flesh in their fire.” Also, two stories are original to this volume.
Almost four years ago I read Maureen McHugh’s story “Special Economics,” about the fortunes of a spunky young Chinese girl, and immediately considered it to be the ne plus ultra of hip, wired, globally aware, twenty-first-century SF. I had a chance to peruse it again, thanks to the publication of her new collection, After the Apocalypse (Small Beer Press, hardcover, $16.00, 200 pages, ISBN 978-1-931520-29-4), and found the tale just as au courant as ever. SF would not be deemed irrelevant if it were all as good as this. McHugh proves she can deliver zombie shocks (“The Naturalist”), surreal whimsy (“Going to France”), and beautiful mimesis (“Honeymoon”) as well. She’s at the top of her game in these pages.
After gifting us with recent short-story volumes by Paul Tremblay and Claude Lalumière, the magnificent, bold and perspicacious Chizine Publications delivers a phenomenal collection with Teresa Milbrodt’s Bearded Women (trade paper, $15.95, 280 pages, ISBN 978-1-926851-46-4). Milbrodt’s writing is akin to that of Carol Emshwiller or Karen Russell (Swamplandia!). The most outré beings and events are presented with matter-of-fact mimetic clarity and emotional empathy. Besides the hirsute females of the title, Milbrodt shows a fascination with legendary entities such as cyclopes and giants. In “Snakes,” the protagonist is quite happy with the reptilian “seventy-eight little siblings” that adorn her pate. And why not? No character in this volume feels themselves a freak. Or rather, all humanity is freakish, some of us just a bit more colorfully so than others.
Flaunting all the hypnotic elliptical lyricism of an R.E.M. song or the writings of Blake Butler or Rikki Ducornet, the little fables in Helen Phillips’s collection And Yet They Were Happy (Leapfrog Press, trade paper, $14.95, 180 pages, ISBN 978-1-935248-18-7) cohere into a kind of cloud-like meta-narrative that details a world of metamorphoses and disasters and redemptions that blends Ovid, William Blake, and Walt Disney. “Before we left for our trip, we neglected to wipe the kitchen counters. . . .When we returned—we gasped—for there—in our kitchen—a mouse carnival was taking place!” (“Failure #1.”) Ranging from the quasi-autobiographical (“Wedding #1”) to the Phildickian (“Apocalypse #8”: “The trees are flat, two-dimensional, made of brown paper.”), these tales represent our modern world filtered through a unique sensibility and imagination.
Kit Reed has been writing caustic, satirical, jazzy fiction for over fifty years now, and she just keeps getting better. Her newest assemblage of short, sharp shocks is What Wolves Know (PS Publishing, hardcover, £19.99, 232 pages, ISBN 978-1-848631-34-2), and it will knock your socks off with its contrarian, take-no-prisoners approach to both story-telling and subject matter. Consider a story such as “Special,” in which celebrity airhead Ashley Famous meets an ending worthy of a Shirley Jackson conte cruel. Or perhaps “Denny,” which begins thus: “We are worried about Denny. We have reason to believe he may go all Colum-bine on us.” But topicality is not Reed’s only forte. In a story like “The Chaise,” she creates weirdness resembling Edward Gorey’s “The Curious Sofa.”
A prophet of the flesh, Geoff Ryman is fascinated by biology, our human capacity (shared with the rest of squishy creation) for bodily transcendence, degeneration and metamorphosis. Whether contemplating the genetics of homosexuality (“Birth Days”), the lives of transgenic sophonts (“Days of Wonder”), or the humiliating transformations attendant upon aging (“VAO”), he brings a kind of saintly compassion and insight to his characters. But not all the entries in Paradise Tales (Small Beer Press, trade paper, $16.00, 314 pages, ISBN 978-1-931520-64-5) conform to this paradigm. There are cosmopolitan explorations, such as the Cambodian-centric “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter” and “Blocked.” And there are densely speculative cyber-forecasts like “The Future of Science Fiction.” But all benefit from Ryman’s economical yet lapidary prose.
Here is an open secret: Bruce Sterling actually lives in the future—his eleven-dimensional lifeline is smeared across several eras, I suspect—and he merely visits our era occasionally, leaving behind “fictions” for our edification. How else to explain the uncannily prescient and uber-happening stories in Gothic High-Tech (Subterranean, hardcover, $25.00, 232 pages, ISBN 978-1-59606-404-1)? Are they “merely” the result of being as wired as Charles Stross or Neal Stephenson? No! They derive from actual observation of other eras. Sterling merely uses his journalistic training to document what he sees. In fact, he provides a covert self-portrait in “Black Swan,” where cross-dimensional traveler Massimo Montaldo reveals himself to be God—or rather “several million billion Gods,” creating entire continua with the press of a function key.
Can you resist a story that begins thus: “Millard Augustine came home every evening promptly at six-fifteen, unlatched his skull port, removed his brain and placed it in the Bolivian Rosewood box lined with Thai silk that had been given to him by his grandfather on his thirteenth birthday” (“A Gray Matter”). Or how about this opener? “Orly’s modest cottage was located in the mountainous region on the border between the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead” (“On Orly’s Border”). If these alluring salvos—fully justified by what lurks beyond them—entice you, pick up Gay Terry’s Meeting the Dog Girls (Nonstop Press, trade paper, $14.95, 206 pages, ISBN 978-1933065-20-5). Along with some irreducible short allegories, you will find nonpareil fantastika that will stay with you for a long time.
Copyright © 2012 Paul Di Filippo