In his 2006 collection Mythic (reviewed for Strange Horizons here), Mike Allen served up a selection of stories and poems that took their inspiration from myth, folklore, and legend. In Mythic 2, Allen gives us a second helping. As before, he seems to have approached the collection with the intention of including the widest variety of fantasy possible. In fact, Mythic 2 can be viewed as its own fantasy universe, with a heavenly realm of gods, a middle realm of lesser magic and human enchantment, and a lower realm where all the magic has drained away, leaving imperfect memories and forlorn longing or opportunities for erudite display. So why don't we, as a way of exploring what Mythic 2 has to offer, take a grand tour through all its mythic realms?
Let me direct your attention first in this direction—no, I mean upward—to the home of the gods. We may see Athena, or perhaps Wotan. No . . . no, we see something a little different. Sheree Renée Thomas's poem "Once" is a modern quasi-myth told in a style that is both poetic and conversational. The poem's narrative voice relates how Old Sista Sky gets her hair done by Old Scratch. It is a stormy process: thunder is the sound made by untangling her hair, lightning is the firing up of her hot comb, rain is her crying as Old Scratch parts her hair:
'cuz everybody know
Old Sista tenderheaded
cry like she ain't got
Ultimately, Sky's fit of temper when the cornrow braiding becomes too painful leads to a cosmic event:
Old Sista don' up and snatch the devil comb
she beat Scratch above, beat Scratch below
they fought so long, they forgot the damn stove
hot comb burnin', hair grease smokin'
the heat turnt up too high
great blast of fire is how Sun got to Sky (39)
This is wonderful fun to read: the poem has a voice of great individuality, broad humor, and a created mythology like no other. Another poem by Thomas, called "untitled Old Scratch poem, featuring River," is included as well—it is not as humorous, but just as entrancing in imagery and language.
The short story "Simargl and the Rowan Tree," by Ekaterina Sedia, also tells a sun-myth story. A man who has just died in a fiery accident finds himself in a new postdeath role as Simargl, the celestial hound of Slavic mythology who accompanies the sun god and his chariot on their daily round across the sky. He is charged with protecting heaven from its enemies. Chief among those enemies is the grotesque and malignant General Viy of Navi, the underworld:
Viy's eyes were concealed by . . . eyelids so long they brushed the black sand under his clawed feet, and his fingernails scraped and tore the ground with every step as they dragged along. Simargl's upper lip curled and he gave a low growl of warning. Viy heard him, and motioned for his attendants, who carried iron pitchforks, to come closer and lift the terrible weight of his eyelids so he could look. (98)
Sedia's prose is a bit magical itself, possessing economy and richness at the same time. The brief passage above is full of detail and action, the figures of Viy and his pitchfork-bearing servants drawn in deft strokes. "Simargl and the Rowan Tree" is a finely crafted piece of storytelling: we follow Simargl's education in his role as guardian of heaven and his journey to the underworld when he inadvertently allows Viy access to heaven and creates a catastrophe.
Descending from Mythic 2's heady god realms, we come next to its middle world, which is occupied by magical tales and poems that rework or emulate fairy tales, deal with fabulous creatures, or follow the paths of contemporary fantasy. Firmly in the first vein is Catherynne M. Valente's story "Temnaya and the House of Books," a tale about a child unloved by both her mother and her stepmother. The story, combining elements from "Snow White" and "Hansel and Gretel," nevertheless distances itself from the plain, earthy Grimms' tales with sardonic commentary and details that are more reminiscent of Disney. It is hard to say what the story intends to be: one moment it's a morality tale; the next, a satire. It veers in many directions but seems to be aiming nowhere.
Erzebet YellowBoy's "Moonstone" recalls the literary fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson and Oscar Wilde in a story about a queen whose daughter is stolen from her by the estranged father (a premise similar to Valente's). A striking characteristic of this story is its dreamlike absence of logic, which seems arbitrary at times: a child cries a literal stream of tears, but those who try to soothe him don’t notice it for days—until, one day, when the story requires that they notice, they do. It's a bit of a hurdle for a reader, and I wished the author had made it more convincing.
Leaving the fairy tales and going to mingle with the fantastic creatures, we encounter Steve Resnic Tem's poem "The Troll on 23rd Avenue," about a tormented outsider in human society who won't accept what he is and longs to be something different. The poem reads like an epitaph for the troll's life, and yet—unlike its subject—it is light, witty, and quick on its feet.
"The Immigrant," by Cherie Priest, is a dragon story that evades the cliches of such tales. An American GI finds a young dragon, injured and alone, in the cellar of a French church during the days following the Normandy invasion. He rescues the creature and brings it home to his wife in Tennessee. The virtue of this unassuming story is in its conviction—its true-to-life depiction of character, thought, and behavior and its ability to weave an incredible series of happenings into a convincing and satisfying story. You will almost believe that, yes, this story describes an actual occurrence and a dragon who is a true Southern gentleman.
Now, if you'll just freshen your glass of bourbon and step this way, I'd like you to meet a mermaid. "Homecoming," by Sonya Taaffe, is an exploration of the theme of a mortal man in thrall to the sexual spell of a faerie woman. Although Taaffe describes "Homecoming" as having its source in the Odyssey, it bears more resemblance to John Keats's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," in which a knight passes a period of delight with a fairy seductress and then is famously left "alone and palely loitering," wasting away with longing. In Taaffe's work, however, the besotted man returns home to a wife extraordinarily sympathetic to his obsession. She tolerates his redecorating the house with mementoes of his sea-nymph lover, hanging prints of mermaids and strewing seashells about; she tenderly coos about his welfare; and she helps him recapture the experience of mermaid intercourse by having sex with him while he lies underwater in a bathtub, pulling him out of the water when, at the point of near-drowning, he reaches orgasm. This mixed-form work—the husband's sections are poetry, the wife's prose—thus manages to be both explicit and sentimental. You may find it easier to believe in mermaids than to believe in this wife.
"Visanna," by Charles Saplak, plays with a fascinating conceit: people display ghostlike images of their past faces as they age. The main character, Visanna, is twenty-seven years old, and trailing behind her are insubstantial afterimages, in one-year intervals, of twenty-six past faces, from infancy to adulthood. At a party, she meets a man who is different from her and everyone else in her society: before him can be seen images of his future faces. Which is to be preferred, forward-looking or backward-looking? For the idle, neither is an attractive prospect.
Last, come cross the border and leave the middle realm, to descend to . . . well, it isn't hell; it's just the ordinary world or a close approximation, the land of symbol, metaphor, allegory, personification, and literary reference. In Lawrence Shimel's "Winter Day," the fantastical content is nothing more than a visual allusion to a fairy tale:
Looking for you among these rows of curtained beds
I feel lost as in a wood, not a hospital ward . . .
You shiver beneath the thin hospital sheets and my condemnations
dissolve, unuttered. I look for blankets. I can't find any,
so I take off my coat and tuck it around you for warmth.
The red hood sits upon your belly . . . (132-133)
"The Tale of the Desert That Vanished Inside Her," by JoSelle Vanderhooft, imagines a dialogue between the decomposing body of a murdered girl and the desert where she lies. The anguished girl tells her story of abuse and betrayal; the desert soothes her. There is not much dramatic movement here: although the girl fears at one point "I'm going to die" (59) and at another point "falls into a trance" (60), she is, after all, already dead. But the imagery is strong and striking and compels the reader to look on this scene with mixed horror and resignation. In spite of the talking desert and communing dead, the action does not constitute a magical tale any more than Carl Sandburg's "Grass" can be called a fantasy; giving a voice to the desert is a way of describing the place where the girl's body lies; giving a voice to the girl is a way of telling her story in retrospect after her murder. The fantastic here is a literary device, and we remain in the real world: the story of the murder could have come from any newspaper.
As our guided tour of Mythic 2 concludes, I will admit that I have missed a few points of interest and invite you to explore independently. May you discover a corner or two of this wide landscape that pleases you!
Donna Royston was first published at age five. It was a poem titled "My Grandmother's Cats." Now she writes stories about Genghis Khan and sentient rocks.