Dreamers, all of them, in love with what they think they see instead of what they see.
"The Gorgon in the Cupboard"
In Patricia A. McKillip's latest collection of stories, Dreams of Distant Shores, we encounter our fair share of so-called witches, mermaids, heroes, and heroines. We are, it would seem, on familiar ground, and so, perhaps, we may think we already know the shape these stories will take. We've seen it all before, haven't we? High fantasy has, over the last forty years, on occasion, run the risk of going the way of American fast food, of giving rise in its oft-epic success to a kind of monoculture—the latter producing endless fields of the same old boring potatoes, the former producing endless fields of the same old magical orphans.
McKillip, thankfully, while possessing the deepest reverence for the rules of high fantasy, also finds those rules rather boring and in constant need of breaking. As she says in her essay, "Writing High Fantasy," included at the close of this volume:
[W]e have all had it up to the proverbial 'here.' How many times can you repeat the same plot [...] how can [high fantasy] follow the rules of high fantasy and break them at the same time?
And, so, we get stories here such as "Alien," in which we meditate more on the alienation of old age than the reality of little green men, or "The Gorgon in the Cupboard," which both invokes and reshapes the meaning, not to mention the face, of Medusa into something altogether more mysterious and lovely, an exploration of how our dreams might turn ourselves, and the world, to stone. As well, we have the glorious "Weird," in which we have a hero and a heroine and possibly the end of the world, though all very oddly arranged—the hero and heroine being regular sorts of people who bunker down in a strangely well-stocked bathroom, with towels and blankets and jars of Kalamata olives and plates of mushroom Brie, seeking shelter from the unnamed vaguely apocalyptic rattle that crashes in the streets and thumps over their heads and bangs on the door and lurches under their feet. The hero pushes our heroine to share a story, not simply silly (say, an alien abduction) or imagined (say, a pair of zombie slippers) or which may have happened to someone else (perhaps a shoe landing in a cousin's wedding cake), but one both true and weird and which truly happened to her. After a few failures of imagination and memory, our heroine succeeds, and it becomes clear the tale she tells isn't simply about her, but also, somehow, about everyone and everything, her and him and the end of the world besides. And there, in that neat little synecdochal twist, McKillip deftly arrives, perhaps, at the purpose of all fantasy: to find some universal truth in the truly and particularly weird.
Where McKillip's last story collection, Wonders of the Invisible World (reviewed here), thrilled, this one, for the most part, tickles, in the way of a playful lover's nails, or a spider's whiskers, whispering around your ankles. We find ourselves, often, in rather cozy confines—the well-stocked bathroom of "Weird" or the family reunion in "Alien"—and then watch as McKillip nestles up to uncanniness, slowly picking the worlds of her characters apart—banging on the walls or directing our gaze into the eyes of an old woman desperate for more to life and death—leaving them and us, with a sensation of having glimpsed the edges of some shapeless mystery.
Throughout these stories, as well, we see characters struggle, whether by wonder or cowardice or both, to recognize the reality of their dreams and the dream of their realities—to see, in other words, what's right before their eyes. In "Mer," our witch smuggles herself across the sea and upon waking in the new world, finds she has, once again, mislaid her body and name. In "Edith and Henry Go Motoring," we follow Henry through a house of mirrors, chasing after himself, wondering at his changing, increasingly unrecognizable self. And we have the artist in "The Gorgon in the Cupboard" who refuses to recognize a woman from his past, seeing her not as a woman at all, but only as his snake-haired dream.
She is my Medusa. She exists only in this little world, only to be painted. I dare not make her real.
McKillip, unlike her characters, luxuriates in the realities of her worlds—invisible or otherwise, often writing with a luminous languor, oiling over her scenes with layers of precise and fantastic detail. There is power in being able to name things, and McKillip knows a great many names. One comes across here, amongst the glamorous weavings of witches and goddesses and underwater princesses, a thick braid of naturalism: chitons and anemones, birch and maple, salty bivalves and flying cormorants, "the crushed-strawberry scent of rambling roses" and the whispers of clams dancing in the tidal foam. Here, in a passage from "Things Rich and Strange," she conjures something of the magic of reality:
[...]the beach was adrift with velella, tiny purple sailboats as delicate as butterfly wings that caught the wind and sailed the surface of the sea. Some storm had tumbled them ashore; dried, light as leaves, they blew across the sand, minute ghost ships lost on land.
In this story, the oldest and best, McKillip explores the loves and dreams of two characters, Jonah and Megan, who live above their shop along the shore of one ocean or another. We meet through them a profusion of names and shapes (sand dollars, champagne bottles, starfish, sea turtles, soda cans, Tinker Toy wheels), as well as a brother and sister of the sea who bewitch them each in turn. Jonah descends into the sea and makes his way through a labyrinth whose center contains a golden tower inside of which sings a raven-haired siren. Along the way, he ignores the suffering laid before him (the netted whale, the scarred manatee, the broken turtle) only pushing harder to reach his dream at the heart of the sea. Megan, for her part, hoping to rescue her lost lover, rather than coming up with her own plan, searches for answers in an old bookshop, reading through countless old mythologies in the hopes of discovering in the old dreams of old dreamers some escape from her loss. The man who runs the bookshop, though, tells her—in a voice I imagine as sounding rather like McKillip herself—that this is pointless.
There is the Island of Glass, with its castles of light and crystal that you might glimpse within the weaving strands of sunlight on the sea, if you don't look directly at it. There is the realm up north, ruled by Sedna, whose temper is terrible and whose looks can kill, who watches with her single eye over the mammals of the ocean. There is Fata Morgana, the dream palace made of clouds that appears in the first misty light of morning, or in the last light over the sea before night. But. None of that will do you any good. Mythology is what was real. What's real now is for you to see. For you to say.
Sometimes, I wondered why McKillip clung, despite her having had it up to here with them, to the names and shapes of High fantasy. With witches and towers and mermaids and cupboards. I wondered why not leave them behind entirely? Kelly Link and Karen Russell, two of my favorite writers, skip across mythology, movies, television, and Nancy Drew, smashing multiple genres and influences together into something altogether still fantastic but, also, entirely new. And, very often, particularly in the case of Link, they break all the rules of form, creating shapeless narratives that embody in their form, as well as their content, the struggle to give name and shape to the strangeness of being anything at all.
And yet, while I might wish for McKillip, at times, to venture further afield, to experiment more with radically different settings or characters, to not look for new ways to see old things, but for new ways to see new things, this then, perhaps, would not be McKillip. And why should my dreams of what she might do blind me to what she already does so well?
Why write fantasy at all, you might ask, and McKillip does. Her answer? "Because it's there" and because its rules "are the rules of our unconscious and the imagination." I don't know about that. And I don’t know, whatever rules might exist in our unconscious, that we’re best served by reinforcing them. There is a difference between breaking a rule and ignoring it. There is no reason, in the end, to have always witches and wizards, selkies and mermaids, heroes and heroines, gods and goddesses, sirens and tricksters. No reason except, I suppose, that these are the old shapes and names, the ones already imagined, anyway, for those things which continue to inspire and haunt and, despite our best efforts, remain without shape or name. Even as we discover the particles of god and unspool the threads of gravity, we hold tight to the old shapes and names, despite or, more likely, because of their age. We value them because they are familiar and, in their familiarity, they seem timeless. They seem to say that however much the ways in which we see the world may change, some things remain. A kiss, still a kiss. A witch, still a witch, even if, as time goes by, she forgets her name.
"At its best," McKillip says, "fantasy rewards the reader with a sense of wonder about what lies within the heart of the commonplace world." It's a worthy goal of all stories, whatever genre. And, at its best, Dreams of Distant Shores does this, managing to show us, tucked inside the commonplace forms of fantasy, glimpses of things which remain timeless, nameless, and true.
Chris Kammerud is a graduate of the 2012 Clarion Writers' Workshop at UCSD. Presently, he's revising a novel concerning love, revolution, and virtual K-Pop idols. Past work has appeared in The Interstitial Arts Online Annex, Fiction Weekly, and Strange Horizons. He lives in Ho Chi Minh City. For more, visit his blog, or follow him on Twitter.