05 February 2005 by Published in: entertainment 2 comments

Ok, it’s time to review a couple of anthologies. As you probably recall, I received Flights last year for my birthday and was very excited about it. I was especially eager to read Neil Gaiman’s story in it, called “The Problem of Susan”. I knew it was a Narnia story, about Susan Pevensie. I have always wondered about her myself, about what was wrong with wanting to be grown up. After all, one can’t really help growing up, right? It’s inevitable, and what’s so terrible about embracing that? So, I was quite eager to read this tale.

And now, I must confess that it’s taken me almost six months to write a review of this book because I hated that story. It was awful. It didn’t really address the question, it didn’t explain anything to me, and it was vulgar. I don’t really consider myself much of prude, but there was some really vile imagery in that account. I like Gaiman so much that I didn’t really want to confess how little I liked this short story. In fact, I was scared, for a minute, that I had stopped liking Gaiman altogether, and that I had only imagined that I liked his works. Then, I read The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Volume 14 and his fabulous, delightful story in it “October in the Chair” and decided it would be ok to say I didn’t much care for one of his stories if I could immediately follow it up with a story of his I did like.

And that brings us to here, where I review two anthologies side by side, just so that I can point out a Gaiman story that was really, really good to go with the one that was – well – not. I’m going to go over all of the stories in both books and evaluate them. Spoilers will be kept to a minimum, and warned. I will rank the top three or so stories in each.

Flights : Extreme Visions of Fantasy. Overall this was a great collection, with many stories that I expect to re-read. It is a collection I am glad to own, as opposed to having borrowed it from the library. The vast majority of the stories were solid. Some seemed less so by juxtaposition with a few outstanding specimens, but truly, very little in this collection was not worth reading. A number of stories were perfectly suitable, but they were so commonplace and standard that I wondered at their inclusion in a book touted as extreme visions of fantasy. These also suffered from the company of their betters, even when they were well-executed. At almost thirty stories, this collection was a great value, also.

  1. “The Sorceror’s Apprentice” by Robert Silverberg: A great story. I love it when an author can step into archetypes and make them into real people, as Silverberg does here. This was a good choice to start off the volume, with appropriate doses of mystery and obsession.
  2. “Perpetua” by Kit Reed: Although not a gripping tale, this story had a strong narrative voice that rang true. The world was fascinating also, a neo-victorian, machine-driven, apocalyptic landscape that seems familiar without seeming worn. It also has message, and weight, and lets you speculate about the fine line between a parent’s love and a parent’s desire for control.
  3. “The Edges of Never-Haven” by Catherine Asaro: I enjoyed this story when I read it, and thought the concept was intriguing, but it had the same effect that some movies do after you leave the theater, which is that its spell unraveled as soon as I’d read the last word. I found myself worrying on inconsistencies, wondering how things worked when they were offscreen, struggling to hold together a belief in the world. This doesn’t make it a bad story, exactly, but it’s not one you can relish afterwards, or mull over, as so many of the others in this book are.
  4. “Pat Moore” by Tim Powers: This was an excellent story, and my first chance to read anything by Tim Powers, though now I am anxious for more. At first I thought it was dragging a little, and I didn’t think I was going to like it, but it gained momentum and suspense as it proceeded and was so deftly orchestrated that I came to the ending truly invested in it. It’s a very close line between this story and the de Lint story for third place.
  5. “Six Hypotheses” by Joyce Carol Oates: This is the best story in this collection. Hands down, no argument, no possible other choice. It’s an outstanding story: lovingly Lovecraftian, riveting and deeply spooky. I thought it was so good that I literally forced my husband to sit down and read it before I’d gone any further in the book. It is among the best stories I’ve read in years. It will absolutely stay with you, floating up to your consciousness at odd moments to give you shivers. There’s a delicate power in the horror here, what is told and what is not told and the angles of themselves that the characters show when faced with the worst.
  6. “The Silver Dragon” by Elizabeth A. Lynn: This was an adequate rendering of a predictable tale. I enjoyed it, but wondered at its inclusion in the tome. It was so completely pedestrian, so exactly genre-framed, that I didn’t see anything remotely extreme or visionary about it.
  7. “Fallen Angel” by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.: This was an interesting piece. It takes a familiar philosophical point of view, that the divine requires the demonic to function. Of course we’re taken along in the point of view of the demon, cynical and trapped, yet with a heart of gold. It worked together beautifully, but still seemed just a little contrived. Worth reading.
  8. “The Following” by P.D. Cacek: This was a very cool little ghost story that I very much enjoyed reading. The characters were very engaging. The story was heart-breaking without being maudlin.
  9. “A Tower with No Doors” by Dennis L. Mckiernan: I really liked this fairy-tale reworking of Rapunzel, but my husband did not care for it. Perhaps I have a weakness for fairy tales. Perhaps he has no patience with them. He did not like the narration frame, which I thought particularly clever. I suppose sometimes taking pleasure in a thing is less about artistry than about whether it strikes you just so, and makes a favorable or unfavorable impression.
  10. “Boomerang” by Larry Niven: Perhaps it was because this was a short-short. I can’t explain it. Maybe I just didn’t understand it. This story was so bad, though, that if it had been longer than about three paragraphs I would have been angry for my wasted time. Without qualms I can say this was the worst bit in the whole collection. Pointless and irritating.
  11. “Wonderwall” by Elizabeth Hand: I felt the same way about this story as I felt about Hand’s book The Glimmering, when I read it many years ago, which makes me think there’s something about her style that causes my reaction. There’s always an extra layer between me and the narration, a distance, like I’m reading a newspaper account that relays what’s happening in the story instead of the story itself. Everything feels remote, unconnected to me. The characters themselves have no impact on me and I’m never fully involved in what’s going on. As such, the story creates no deep emotions in me. I neither hated it nor loved it. It was there, I read it, it seemed alright.
  12. “Bload, Oak, Iron” by Janny Wurts: I very much enjoyed this story, although it was another one of those which made me ask where the extremes were. It didn’t seem to break new ground in any direction.
  13. “Riding Shotgun” by Charles de Lint: This was my first encounter with Charles De Lint, but it will not be my last. This was a superb story. Intricate, well-versed, satisfying. A most peculiar mix of the real and the magical, vividly described. I am eager to see whether all his worlds have this intensity, strange beauty, and realism.
  14. “Demons Hide Their Faces” by A.A. Attanasio: I have often looked at Attanasio’s books in the bookstore, attracted by their cover art. I’m interested in Arthurian stories, as well, and I have often considered reading The Dragon and The Unicorn. It is unlikely now, that I will do so, because of how little I liked this story. The language was overwrought and pretentious, and perhaps this was an attempt to set tone but I think it failed. The story was boring and predictable. The characters were eye-rollingly dim-witted.
  15. “Relations” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman: A very skillfully pulled together story that uses juxtaposition to great effect. Quite delightful. This is the first time I recall reading anything by this author, and I would not shy away from reading more of her work.
  16. “Tourists” by Neal Barrett, Jr.: This story had a little more of the gross-out factor than I’m normally comfortable with in a tale, but none of it was spurious. It was quite good regardless, and though it’s a little heavy handed with its message, its characters were realistic and sympathetic. It was one of those stories which would make a good Twilight Zone episode, if you know what I mean.
  17. “The White Man” by Thomas M. Disch: There are two stories in this book that are not bad stories, but made me just shake my head and ask,”Why?” This was one of them. You know the old writing adage “Write what you know”? Well, I’m not saying I truly buy into that, and there’s ways and ways of knowing a thing and I like an author who takes risks and frames what he knows in new arenas. But this wasn’t that. This was a middle-aged white guy’s choosing to write a black, immigrant, teen point of view and never quite bridging the gap to authenticity. It can be done, I’m sure, but it wasn’t done here. I’ve been curious about Disch’s Camp Concentration for some time now, but it has fallen lower on my list of must-reads after this little debacle.
  18. Out of the Woods by Patricia A. McKillip: I think I read this story and liked it, but I just glanced at the opening and the ending of it to see if I could refresh my memory and came up blank. I guess that tells you something about it.
  19. “Perchance to Dream” by David Morrell: I didn’t expect to like this story, but I did, very much. Perfect for this collection.
  20. “Coming Across” by Harry Turtledove: This story wasn’t dreadful, but it was, well, I don’t know how to put it delicately so I won’t try : it was embarrassingly dopey. First of all it has elves, and I really find elves tiresome most of the time. Secondly, [*SPOILER*] it’s about elves that get AIDS. And yes, it’s as stupid in execution as it sounds in summary.
  21. “The Problem of Susan” by Neil Gaiman: Sadly, I didn’t like this story. I’m willing to say it’s just me, that I hold Narnia in too high regard and can’t see past the blasphemy to how good this one really is. I wanted to like it, though, and failed.
  22. “Keeper of Lost Dreams” by Orson Scott Card: Here’s another middle-aged white guy writing with a young black voice from the ghetto and again, failing to be convincing. To add insult to injury, this story – though interesting in some ways – is intolerably preachy. I love a story with a message; I hate a story wielding its message like a club and smacking me with it repeatedly. I’m probably the only person on the planet who reads science fiction but hasn’t read Ender’s Game. I’m not getting any closer to reading it now and have actually removed it from my wishlist.
  23. “Watchfire” by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts: I really liked this one, and I’m not sure why. I can’t put my finger on it, exactly, but I thought it was a really strong story. I’m always intrigued by works in collaboration, and sometimes look for the places where one pen ends and the other begins.
  24. “Tots” by Peter Schneider: Another story which was doomed from concept. [*SPOILER*]Kids pimped for to-the-death wrestling matches. And yes, I understand that it’s satire, but I just found it dumb, ok?
  25. “Jupiter’s Skull” by Jeffrey Ford: This is the story that I think Attanasio was trying to write and failed to. It’s quite good, another solid well-told tale that makes this collection as a whole as good as it is.
  26. “Death’s Door” by Terry Bisson: I told my husband, only half-jokingly, that I liked this story better when it was called Pet Sematary. I didn’t mind reading it, and it certainly wasn’t anywhere near the worst story in this collection, but this was a story whose concept was better than its execution (unlike others in this collection, whose execution was fine, but started from a concept that was just never going to work) and it failed to really get off the ground and soar. Certainly no story that deals so directly with death can be considered an extreme vision of anything. That ground’s been well-covered.
  27. “Bill, the Little Steam Shovel” by Joe R. Lansdale: This was cute and made me chuckle. I guess there’s something a little extra in it for parents, who may have to read asexual versions of this story a dozen times a day to their children.
  28. “Sleepover” by Al Sarrantonio: Some stories have a fairly narrow target audience, and I think this story does not work unless you have kids of your own. If you do happen to have kids, it’s utterly bone-chilling. I thought it was a great story, but a childless (or childfree, if that’s your preferred descriptor) friend of mine who read it found it meh.
  29. “Golden City Far” by Gene Wolfe: This was a fantastic story. I rate it second best in the collection. I first read Gene Wolfe in high school, when I got a copy of The Shadow of the Torturer. Indeed, it is one of the few books I had in high school that I have managed to hang onto. I am aching to go back and re-read this series, because I am slowly but surely realizing how much of a genius Wolfe is, and how intelligently he treats his readers. Do not expect to be coddled when you read Gene Wolfe. He will challenge you. If you rise to the challenge, you will be well rewarded. This story is no exception to that. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Volume 14. I read this to re-acquaint myself with what is going on in the horror genre these days in order to know how inadequate (or not) my own horror writings might be for submission. I enjoyed this collection, and felt it had several very fine stories in it, but I came away with the feeling that not much of anything remarkable is going on in the horror field. Which is good news for me, I guess, in terms of competition. And also good news for me in the sense that I just borrowed it from the library and didn’t pay money for it.

  1. “October in the Chair” by Neil Gaiman : This is a great story, an homage to Bradbury that evokes him in the fondest way and leaves you with that peculiar sense that Bradbury’s stories always did, which is that much more might be going on, just outside the scope of the story itself. It has been too long since I read Bradbury, and intend to remedy that as soon as I can.
  2. “Details” by China Mieville: I’ve been intrigued by what people have said about Mieville, but read nothing of his until now. This story was creepy and peculiar and quite a good read. There was a solidity and completeness to his world, and all sorts of people that are doing unexplained things inhabit it.
  3. “The Wretched Thicket of Thorn” by Don Tumasonis: The only bad thing I can say about this story was that it did not move me. It was well-written, carefully paced and tightly (though somewhat predictably) plotted. All of that, and I could not be made to care about the people, or what happened to them.
  4. “The Absolute Last of the Ultra-Spooky-Super-Scary-Hallowe’en Horror Nights” by David J. Schow: When I turned the last page of this story, I gave a little shrug. It was cute, I guess. The editor’s paragraph before the story gives Schow’s credits as a lot of film and scripting stuff, and I think that was evident.
  5. “Little Dead Girl Singing” by Stephen Gallagher: This was a very creepy story. Some of the described images are really persistent and disturbing. It works by not revealing what’s actually going on, which is the way I like my horror to work.
  6. “Nesting Instincts” by Brian Hodge: This was a classically grotesque horror tale. It was a good read, with a real shocker of an ending.
  7. “The Two Sams” by Glen Hirschberg: I’m going to have difficulty with this one. It was a ghost story, and I think it struck me in a very personal way. I wept almost continuously while reading it. I don’t expect other people would feel the same way about it. It was beautiful and very sad.
  8. “Hides” by Jay Russel: I’m not familiar with this author, but man, was this a great story. First of all, there’s some extremely clever wordplay. Then there’s Robert Louis Stevenson as a main character. Then there’s a real sense of authenticity in the way people speak, act, and are dressed. I completely believed the time and the setting. I was there. And then POW, what an ending. Great story.
  9. “The Unbeheld” by Ramsey Campbell: Well, I’m not sure what to say here. I know that there’s probably something wrong with me because everyone says Campbell is one of the greats of the field and he does nothing for me. Never has. I keep waiting for the story that opens up my eyes and makes me see how great he is, but I haven’t found it yet. This story was adequate, and he seems talented enough, but I just didn’t care for it.
  10. “Ill Met by Daylight” by Basil Copper: This is the one I don’t remember. As I’ve already returned the book to the library, I can’t re-read the opening and/or the ending to remind myself now what it was about.
  11. “Catskin” by Kelly Link: An odd one. I’m not sure, still, whether I liked it or not. More of a fairy tale than a horror story, really. It was well-written, though, and stretched my mind a bit.
  12. “20th Century Ghost” by Joe Hill: What a great nostalgia piece. This was a wonderful story and it was about so many things at once. Really good.
  13. “Egyptian Avenue” by Kim Newman: I generally like Kim Newman, and this was no exception, although I did think it dragged a bit in places.
  14. “The Boy Behind the Gate” by James Van Pelt: This was a really powerful and effective tale. It was one of those wonderful horror stories that you know gets much, much worse after the last word. I really admire that, when properly done.
  15. “Nor the Demons Down Under the Sea” by Caitlin R Kiernan: Since I’ve read this story I’ve also read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and there’s a definitely strong connection between the two. A good piece, which I enjoyed reading. I liked the subtlety of it.
  16. “The Coventry Boy” by Graham Joyce: Overall, I think this was a good story, but I found myself torn while reading it, and unable to really pin down what aspects of it I didn’t like. Maybe I’m just not that interested in stories about war. There’s nothing specific I can point to as a flaw in it.
  17. “The Prospect Cards” by Don Tumasonis: This was a great story concept. I liked the mystery of it, the half-tellings found in the postcards and the archivist’s descriptions of the collection. However, I couldn’t quite still my inner cataloger during the reading of it, and when the descriptions went a little over the top I was taken out of the story.
  18. “The Cage” by Jeff Vandermeer: This story is really hard to describe. Apparently, it’s set in a world which the author regularly writes about, and the world was really fascinating. I suspect this may be my favorite story in the volume, though it would contest for that position with the Gaiman story and the Russel story. It had some intensely evocative moments, and was completely shudder-inducing as well. The references to the history of the world was pretty compelling, and I’m interested in more.
  19. “Dr. Pretorius and the Lost Temple” by Paul McAuley: A fun, pulpy sort of ride. Not particularly deep, but very engaging. A nice note to finish off the volume on.

Right. I seriously broke my promise about shorter posts. I think it’s ecto‘s fault. On the other hand, it’s not like I’ve posted anything all week, so maybe if you pretend this is five short posts, it will all come out even.


Wed 23rd Feb 2005 at 10:06 pm

You’re much too kind in your opening paragraph — I honestly don’t expect anyone to like everything I write. (That includes me.) Still, I’m puzzled by your use of the word ‘blasphemy’ in desbribing ‘The Problem of Susan’ — could you elaborate? (Er, that’s not a trick question. I’m really interested in where you feel the blasphemy was.)

Sat 12th Mar 2005 at 10:47 am

I’m glad you liked "20th Century Ghosts" as well as you did. I much appreciate the kind words. I hope you’ll read my collection when it comes out this fall… I’d love to know what you make of it.

I’m also a big fan of Neil Gaiman, and thought "October in the Chair" was a great one. I assume by now you’re long finished with SMOKE AND MIRRORS. The story that closes the book, "Snow, Glass, Apples" is just one of the best fantasy stories I’ve ever read. Period.

I enjoy checking out your blog qutie a bit. Your taste overlaps with my own pretty closely, but you read a lot more – I’m s-l-o-o-o-o-w – so you offer a great source of recommendations.

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