Strange Horizons has printed quite a few reviews of short fiction collections in the last six months: The Year's Best Fantasy: 1999, Graven Images, Queer Fear, Howard Waldrop's Dream Factories and Radio Pictures, Robert Charles Wilson's Perseids. I've done a couple of those reviews myself. Today I'm here to tell you that Beluthahatchie, Andy Duncan's first story collection, is as good as any of them, maybe better. It brings together eight stories published over the last five years plus two new pieces to give the reader an enthralling sequence of beautifully crafted stories. If I had to categorize the stories, I'd call most of them historical fantasy or horror, though if you go into them looking for spells and monsters, you'll not find much. Most of the magic in these stories is in the writing, where it should be. Listen to the opening of "Liza and the Crazy Water Man":
She was long done singing, but the schoolhouse was still full of her voice. It flowed into the corners. It washed along the ceiling and the floorboards. It surged against the backs of the farmers and the mill workers as they shuffled out the door. It claimed all the space they had occupied. It crowded them, ready to pour out, into the cool night, and roll freely across the face of the mountain.
These words open a story about folk musicians and radio in western North Carolina during the Depression, in which a mountain woman with an extraordinary voice (that's Liza) comes down to the town of Charlotte to sing on the radio, and some extraordinary things happen as a result. Most of those things don't have anything to do with magic, but I laughed out loud for several minutes at the scene in which Liza borrows a lighter, and the ending of the story (which does have a bit to do with magic) brought tears to my eyes. Andy Duncan's stories find the magic that lies deep down in people's lives and bring it out for us to see.
Duncan is a Southern writer, and many of these stories have Southern settings and themes. The title story "Beluthahatchie" and the newly printed "Lincoln in Frogmore" are grounded in African-American folklore. One tells the story of a legendary blues singer's arrival in the newest, and worst, suburb of hell -- Beluthahatchie; the other tells the story of Abraham Lincoln's clandestine visit to free blacks living in a South Carolina swamp as the Civil War draws towards its end. "The Executioner's Guild" depicts a small, depression-era Mississippi town anxiously awaiting the arrival of the state executioner, who drives from town to town, hauling his electric chair on the back of a big flat-bed truck. "Liza" is set in the same time period in Appalachia. Duncan keeps all his stories very close to their folklore roots, so they combine magical elements with an intense realism that asserts that these stories actually happened. The aged narrator of "Lincoln in Frogmore" makes this claim most strongly: "Now I'm gone tell you a true thing. I'll tell you bout Mr. Lincoln, just the way it happened, and you can put it in your book. That's how true it is now: True enough for a book." It's the tension between truth and fantasy that makes all of these stories so marvelously uncanny. In this respect Duncan's Southern stories strongly resemble those of another great writer of Southern fantasy, Manly Wade Wellman. If you know his tales of John the Balladeer, who wanders the coves and ridges of the southern Appalachians with his silver-strung guitar, you'll find echoes of his style in these stories, especially the ones having to do with music. These are Duncan's most lyrical stories.
But, beautiful as his folkloric style is, it's not his only one, nor does his imagination stop at the Mason-Dixon line. The other half of the collection showcases a much more extravagant, phantasmagoric Duncan, one just as capable of being funny and touching as the folklorist, but who creates these effects from material much more outrageous, macabre, and bizarre. Take, for example, the opening of "Grand Guignol," a droll tale charting rehearsals at a Parisian theatre specializing in slasher melodrama:
Charles is my friend, my brother, my right arm, my most valued assistant, my comrade in glory and trial since the Armistice, and to say anything against him is almost more than I can bear -- but today he brought me a sack of eyeballs of which, before God, not one was usable. Stress? Love? Syphilis? Who can say? I am saddened beyond speculation. . . . Not one bounced -- not one! Smack, smack, smack, like so many eggs. They surrounded my desk, gazing up at my shame.
In addition to the trials this long-suffering director undergoes at the hands of his prop master, "Grand Guignol" treats us to the reflections of the company's cemetery-haunting playwright and his envious psychotherapist, the longings of the theatre's leading lady for the legitimate theatre ("I would love a role that did not require me to be strangled or boiled or gutted like a fish twice each evening plus matinees"), the longings of the prop-master for the leading lady, and the longings of the shy and brilliant make-up artist for the playwright. It's a grand tour de force of love and death. Duncan treats these themes of love and death more subtly but no less wittily or strangely in "Saved," which intertwines the sinking of the Titanic with the silent-movie industry, and "Premature Burials," which treats the peculiar fascination of a doting and randy young couple for coffins. Both "Saved" and "Premature Burials" were originally composed for collections of erotic horror, and they are both sexy and uncanny. The opening sequence of "Premature Burials" (which I won't spoil for you by summarizing) is particularly subtle, hilarious, and sublime. "From Alfano's Reliquary" is more purely macabre, but its tale of the peculiarities of the Carolingian popes also treats the grotesque with unique delicacy. My tastes do not, as a rule, run to horror, but these tales won me over anyway.
If you're a fan of Howard Waldrop, Duncan's more extravagant stories will seem both familiar and appealing. Indeed, Duncan comes perhaps a little too close to Waldrop in some of these pieces, especially those that focus on theatre, film, and television. The second new piece in the collection, for example, "Fenneman's Mouth," which examines the implications of using video technology to create new shows out of classic TV materials, treats this subject in a manner quite similar to Waldrop's recent story "French Scenes," while "Mouth's" focus on Groucho Marx seems a nod to Waldrop's classic story "Save a Place in the Lifeboat for Me."
Yet for me to note this close resemblance to Waldrop may not, after all, be a criticism. Waldrop's uniqueness is legendary, so it's something readers have come to expect from his stories: it's his forte. While some of Duncan's stories are unique ("The Executioner's Guild" and "From Alfano's Reliquary" come to mind as having few parallels), what sets Duncan's stories apart, what gives them their consistent and enduring appeal, is the style, the attention Duncan gives to getting every detail exactly right, so that the reader sees something familiar in a completely new and utterly memorable way. "Beluthahatchie," for instance, is based on one of the oldest and most hackneyed of fantasy stories premises: the pact with the Devil. But I guarantee you will have never seen the Devil as he appears in this story, and you won't forget him soon. One might see a bit of an artist's self-portrait, then, in the methods of Zell, the protagonist of "Fenneman's Mouth." Zell uses old material for his art. He uses that old material to create new episodes of old shows -- episodes that never happened. But everyone remembers them as if they had. "No one had seen them, but they were classics nonetheless, cherished TV memories of millions of Americans, indistinguishable from reality," Zell explains. Is he just tapping an existing reservoir of urban legends? Or is he, by creating pieces that seem so exactly right, changing the way people remember their own past? Most likely, he's doing both at once. That is Zell's art, and I suggest that it is Andy Duncan's art, too. Fantasist and folklorist, he takes premises that are not made up, or at least are not made up by Andy Duncan (he explains the origins of each of the stories in a fascinating set of author's notes at the end of the collection), and creates new and strange stories out of them, which nevertheless tell the truth about the way things happened. You owe it to yourself to read these stories and let them become a part of your own past.
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