Sometimes less is more. If you've ever gotten weary of turning the pages of yet another 700-page fantasy novel in a multi-volume saga, if you've ever despaired of finding a single genuine moment of wonder buried in that all-too-familiar heroic plot, the well-crafted fantasy short story can shake you free of weariness. It won't create an elaborate alternate universe for you; the brevity of form usually binds the short story to the familiar world. But the fantasy short story, if you watch closely, can reveal the entry into that familiar world of the strange, the wonderful, the terrifying. Sometimes the fantastic arrives in a sudden eruption, sometimes it gradually infuses the ordinary world with splendor. The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Thirteenth Annual Collection brings together over thirty short fantasy pieces (plus another fifteen horror pieces that I won't discuss) that reward the reader with glimpses of the genuinely strange and wonderful. It's a marvelously rich collection of work. The pieces that editors Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow have selected are almost all outstanding, and there's sufficient variety that any reader will surely find stories that tickle the fancy or send sudden chills racing up the spine.
One sign of the wealth of the collection is the diversity of its mythic roots. Many of the pieces arrange for the entry of the fantastic by using mythological or folk-tale frameworks, and Native American, Zen, near Eastern, and Voudoun pieces stand side-by-side with the more usual variants on European folk tales and Greco-Roman myths. The poetry in the collection is mostly traditional in its sources. There's an Orpheus poem from Ursula K. Le Guin, "Redescending." "Odysseus Old" by Geoffrey Brock revisits a familiar Homeric hero, while "Old Merlin Dancing on the Sands of Time" by Jane Yolen revisits another from the Arthurian legends. "Mrs. Santa Decides to Move to Florida" by April Selley treats an even more familiar figure of modern folk tales. Despite the hallowed subject matter, however, these are not reverent poems. Their ironic view of these archetypal subjects is most deliciously expressed in Bill Lewis' "The Beast" (he of "Beauty and" fame). Lewis places the lonely Beast in a modern setting, pining for the absent Beauty:
He reads Angela Carter novels, fairy tales and Mother Goose and hopes that wisdom does not go stale over the centuries. In those stories she always returns. . . . He plays records. It is the nature of the Beast to own vinyl, not a CD collection. . . . He does not know that sentimentality is an act of violence.
My personal favorite of the poems reworking 'fairy-tale' themes is Laurence Snydal's "Grandmother," which approaches "Little Red Riding Hood" from the Grandmother's point of view. Her sympathies, it turns out, are unorthodox.
Non-European materials appear more frequently in the short stories, where the writers have more freedom to introduce new ways of seeing the world. Some stories, like Jan Hodgman's Zen tale, "Tanuki," and N. Scott Momady's elaboration on Native American myth, "The Transformation," place the Anglo reader wholly in a different culture. These stories please with the wholeness of their imagined vision. More complex are the stories in which the reader discovers new ways of seeing together with the characters. Wendy Wheeler's "Skin So Green and Fine" introduces the sensuous rituals of Voudoun through the experience of a young Hispaniolan woman who marries a rich Haitian planter. Here her discoveries of sexuality and magic are beguilingly intertwined. "Falling Away," by Elizabeth Birmingham, tells of harder discoveries. In her tale, Gracie, a woman of Irish-Catholic heritage, comes to terms with the ghosts of her past with the help of a Native American vision quest. This story, justly praised by the collection's editors, also plays with the importance of finding new language for seeing the world new. When Gracie ventures on her quest, she finds that she must use Lakota Sioux words that may not even be real language:
"Now ask for your vision [the spirit tells her]. Ask in these words: Waniyetu wikcemna ma yamni. Miye kuwa wowicake. Miye kinica wicaka kuwa." I didn't know Lakota, but for the words Jimmy tells me, and this still sounded like Jimmy's bullshit Lakota. I know these words, though, in my mind: I am thirty. I seek for truth. I try to speak the truth I follow after. I repeated his Lakota, truth or not: it was my truth.
The stories that I found most compelling in this collection all establish their own truth, in their own language. Some draw on distinctive literary styles to set the mood of their magic. "The Parwat Ruby" by Delia Sherman and "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse" by Susanna Clarke draw on the Victorian genres of colonial horror and fairy story, respectively. "The Stork-men" by Juan Goytisolo and "The Wedding at Esperanza" by Linnet Taylor work in the style of magic realism. "The Wedding at Esperanza" is perhaps the best tale in the collection at capturing the uncanny sliding of the ordinary into the magical, as in this wild and evocative description of the wedding dance:
The melody they played was not a wedding tune, but an ardent, wild music of incantation that caught their bodies like moths in candlelight and made everyone dance as they had danced when they were young, the rhythm taking them, leading them whirling and stamping and twisting in the light of the great church candles and strings of colored bulbs like spiraling birds.
A small set of daring stories goes one step further: they do seek to take the reader into a completely different world, even within the scope of a short story. These stories offer bravura exercises in language, treading the line between alternate reality and abstract allegory. "The Grammarian's Five Daughters" by Eleanor Arnason takes the reader to a world that lives by the rules of language, reminiscent in certain ways of The Phantom Tollbooth. Ursula K. Le Guin contributes a story set in her world of Earthsea, "Darkrose and Diamond." Thomas Wharton, writing in the tradition of Lord Dunsany and Tanith Lee, creates in "The Paper-Thin Garden" a starkly artificial realm of abstract luxury realized in jeweled language. This story has perhaps the most striking opening passage in a book filled with virtuoso beginnings:
The Emperor, in addition to being a lover of dioramas, models, and automata, also collects books. I have heard tales of some of the wondrous volumes in his library, such as that of the book which is said to be made entirely of glass. As you read, the ghostly words of adjacent pages shine through from below, like memory. If you breathe upon its surface, the book opens like a crystalline lotus and changes the order of its pages. Yet no one is allowed to read this book. No one has ever read it. Such a miraculous artifact is too precious to be handled as one would handle a book of accounts, an astrological treatise, a novel.
This stylized language may not suit all tastes, and some readers may find these daring stories too much like exercises in style.
But the best stories in the collection are not pure showcases of style. When the story-tellers take the power of transformation seriously, what begins as an exercise of style or as a merely fanciful renaming of common things--for example, the king's bestowing the title "The High and Mighty of Next Week" on the ineffectual narrator of Jeffrey Ford's "At Reparata"--becomes an avenue for the transformation of human spirits and, tentatively, the world that they inhabit. When "The High and Mighty of Next Week" sets out to save his king from deadly grief, he changes his own title to the more serious, "The Conscience of the King." The story goes on to test just how far the transformative powers of language and desire can go to repair human grief and loss. In a more hauntingly realist vein, Mary Sharratt's "Anatomy of a Mermaid" explores the same question as two young women, one a poor seamstress named Sara Doolan and the other a prostitute who is Sara's best customer, sustain themselves and build a friendship out of the fantasies they have of one another's lives. In fantasy, in dreams, they find ways to repair one another's pasts. As Sara says,
The moment just before you fall asleep is the moment of enchantment. For one eternal moment I was there, between the worlds where everything is possible, where all mistakes can be undone.
Through many different forms, the fantasy stories and poems in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror pursue the moment of enchantment. Readers who go along on these brief, exquisite vision quests may share in the capturing of that moment.