If it were left to the rather cutesy cover art to sell the book, Salon Fantastique would not be an immediately appealing prospect (have we not yet grown tired of soft-focus Ren Faire ladies and ... butterflies?). However, the casually browsing would-be reader is also gifted with certain names that inspire more confidence—co-editors Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, of course, together with a roster of fifteen contributors to make any lover of literary fantasy go weak at the knees. This is something to be thankful for, as it's well worth wandering through the pages of Salon Fantastique. Explicitly conceived without a central theme, the mission statement of the anthology seems to be, quite simply and admirably, Rather Good Fiction From Authors We Like. Or, rendered in the suitably interstitial idiom of the editors' introduction, "[O]ur aim was to evoke the liberating, creative spirit of a literary salon by inviting a number of writers to gather together in these pages exchanging tales and ideas in literary form."
The conceit is borrowed from the famed salons of early modern France, venues where poets, artists, writers, thinkers, and the miscellaneously fashionable gathered semi-regularly at the behest of a host or hostess with a reputation for literary and intellectual interests—if not always the abilities or inspiration in their own right. As Windling explains at greater length in a fascinating essay on her website, one of the products of the salons was, from the late seventeenth century, a fascination with folktales given a literary cast—contes de fées, or fairy tales. Herein lies the twofold endeavour of the book, to be both a celebration of fantasy and a dialogue on its many themes and forms: "Together, these stories form a conversation between established writers and emerging writers, between historical and contemporary fiction, between the timelessness of folklore themes and the immediacy of modern politics, between gravity and whimsy, between traditional linear narratives and other means of storytelling."
The idea of genre as a conversation is a long-standing one, and arguably fantasy—especially of the short fiction variety—has a number of salon-esque coteries at work today, such as the purveyors of literate, slightly off-the-wall fantasy centred around Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and Small Beer Press, or Prime and Fantasy magazine's lyrical "mythpunk" crowd (to borrow Catherynne M. Valente's term). Salon Fantastique is not, of course, an ongoing discourse in the sense that, say, a regularly published 'zine is; as presented to us, it is as a completed, self-contained enterprise. If it is a conversation, it is one carried on between its contents and the genre at large, and with the reader's expectations, rather than between the contributors in any meaningful, immediate sense. Unlike in a real salon, the writers did not deliver their tales physically side-by-side, nor did they, in the process of composing these stories, play off each others' work directly as genre writers have often done. If there is dialogue to be found, it must be read into, and extrapolated from, the stories.
The collection's standout piece is, perhaps ironically given the expansive remit, the closest to its historical inspiration. Delia Sherman's "La Fée Verte" traces the fortunes of Victorine, a solipsistic young prostitute living in a mid-nineteenth-century Paris that is equal parts decadence and decay. Victorine has a mind only for the former ("It was her fixed opinion that each politician was duller than the next, and none of them, save perhaps the Empress, who set the fashion, had anything to do with her." [p. 11]). Yet she finds her pity—and fascination—stirred by the enigmatic, "exquisitely thin" woman of the title, whom she meets in a brothel as a young girl. "Embracing her," we are told, "was like embracing absinthe made flesh" (p. 1). It soon becomes apparent that La Fée Verte's moniker may be more than figurative, as her insight into the hidden past, and her uncanny visions of the future, lead her to become, variously, a muse to frustrated writers, a "mentalist" on the stage, and a public speaker and rabble-rouser. She herself remains a sad and distant figure, however: "'I have no past. My present is a series of photographs, stiff and without colour. My future stares at me with a tiger's eyes.'" (p. 10) As Paris comes under siege and Victorine struggles to survive in the only way she knows how, Sherman's strong sense of place and stylised narration evoke the desperation of the city and its people—and the bleakness of their future, foreseen and foretold by La Fée Verte, that will bring war after war to its streets.
By way of a demonstration of the manifold possibilities of the fantasy genre, Jeffrey Ford's "The Night Whiskey" provides ample contrast with Sherman—as well as the collection's other truly excellent entry. It starts out reading like an amiable piece of backwater Americana: "Our town was one of those places you pass by but never stop in while on vacation to some National Park; out in the sticks, up in the mountains—places where the population is rendered in three figures on a board by the side of the road" (p. 343). The story has a frankly bonkers premise, but even that seems fairly harmless: once each year, selected townsfolk drink whiskey made from special berries that grow only from "the partially decayed carcasses of animals left to lie where they'd fallen" (p. 344), wander off to commune with their dead, pass out while roosting in trees, and must be dislodged and brought safely home by the narrator, Ernest, and his good ol' boy mentor. Ernest's apprenticeship in this annual duty of the "Drunk Harvest" is greeted with delight by those close to him ("My father beamed with pride, my mother got teary eyed, my girlfriend, Darlene, let me get to third base and part way home" [p. 343]), for all the world as if he had won a sports trophy. It's all very eccentric and endearing—and then the tone is shifted, expertly, and something much darker takes over.
Another pair of stories that seem to fit together, tonally, are David Prill's "The Mask of '67" and Christopher Barzak's "The Guardian of the Egg," which form their own little American-whimsy sub-genre. In the former, a film star returns to her small-town roots, whereupon her former high-school sweetheart is understandably distressed to discover that she's undergoing a bizarre, gradual Maria-from-Metropolis makeover. In the latter, a teenage narrator recounts how a tree once grew out of his elder sister's head and changed everyone's lives forever. Both authors use the fantastic in the everyday to tell what are essentially quite conventional stories about the alienation and liberation of changing perspectives and growing up. Each proves infectious fun, too, although Barzak's is the more ambitious and better developed of the pair, sustaining its whimsy to the end while also creating a genuinely uplifting tale along the way.
All of these—for all their skilful use of tone and atmosphere—are largely straightforward, plot- and character-driven stories. Others—particularly Lavie Tidhar's "My Travels with Al-Qaeda" and Greer Gilman's "Down the Wall"—are more formally experimental. Tidhar plays with chronology, memory, and repetition in a poignant if rather obscurantist tale about chance, love, and suicide bombings. Gilman's postmodern post-apocalypse shows flashes of brilliance, reading like spoken-word poetry, with syllables chosen for sound and effect as much as for meaning:
Stilt-legs scissoring, snip-snap! the bird gods dance. Old craneycrows, a skulk of powers. How they strut and ogle with their long eyes, knowing. And stalking, how they flirt their tails, insouciant as Groucho. Fugue and counterfugue, the music jigs and sneaks. On tiptoe, solemnly, they hop and flap; they whirl and whet their long curved clever bills. A sly dance, a wry dance, miching mallecho. (p. 224)
But the overall effect is a little too disorientating and wilfully strange to register as anything other than a mood piece or an exercise in linguistic gymnastics. Tidhar has central characters—or, rather, a central relationship—that anchors the piece through its increasingly splintered narrative; Gilman has, for the most part, sound and imagery that never quite hang together, although they would presumably be much more effective if performed aloud.
Stretching the point a little further, one could also compare the anthology's two maritime tales: Catherynne M. Valente's "A Gray and Soundless Tide" (about a lost selkie) and Peter S. Beagle's "Chandail" (about a dying sea creature). Here the mythpunk newcomer edges out the more established writer, at least for this reviewer's taste. Beagle's chandails are a fascinating creation—grotesque, capricious, alien, telepathic sea beasts, given to diving into human minds without warning or care for consequence—but the story, while interesting and affecting, is a little longer than necessary. Valente, meanwhile, uses her stylistic flair to paint a story—of a selkie alienated from her kind—whose tone matches its title, but which works with a broader thematic and emotional palette, and which is ultimately moving rather than simply bleak. "'This is the only story selkies have,' she said, her lips against my neck, 'it is all they know: how to be kept, how to be found, how to escape'" (p. 109).
If there is any recurring motif at work in many of the tales here, it what Farah Mendlesohn has called the "intrusive" mode of fantasy: a sense of fantastical rule-bending, of general weirdness, bleeding through into the apparently "normal" world—while the "normal" world, and its ordinary characters and situations, are retained as the emotional and thematic focus. The fantastic may be enthusiastically deployed by the likes of Barzak and Prill, but it tends to serve the story rather than the other way about. The same may be said of "Yours, Etc." by Gavin J. Grant and Jedediah Berry's "To Measure the Earth." Grant's tale is characteristically oblique and disquieting: a study of a married couple growing apart, explored through the wife's communication with ghosts, and her husband's befuddled but resolute efforts to protect and regain her, leading him to circle their home so obsessively that he wears down a trench in the earth. Like that of several other writers here, Grant's use of language is as versatile as his use of genre elements, mingling rhyme and alliteration with unusual physical imagery to draw the weird forth from the everyday: "It was winter and he was walking widdershins around the house [...] Light from the windows washed over him, spilled over him, slicked him down, sucked him in, and spat him out. He crept, he leapt, he kept his balance. And all the while his wife was writing to a dead girl" (p. 291). Berry's nineteenth-century-set fable, meanwhile, places his stranger—a young, earnest land surveyor who gets lost while mapping land for a new railway—in the strange land of a rural America infused with folk magic, difficult memories, and yet more unquiet dead. Again, there is little engagement with the why or the how of the scenario; the author's interest lies in exploring, quietly but atmospherically, the unsettling operation of it upon his characters.
Nothing in the collection really misfires, although some entries are less successful than others. In "Nottamun Town," Gregory Maguire mingles his protagonist's past and present to poignant and disorienting effect, but the fact that said protagonist is a WWI soldier gone delirious through injury and emotional exhaustion leads to the (perhaps unfair) feeling that, however accomplished it is, there is little in it that has not been done before. Richard Bowes's "Dust Devil on a Quiet Street"—cut-throat New York artists screw each other over in search of success, with the aid of a magic ring—is intriguing but oddly unengaging. (This said, I begin to suspect that it may be a personal issue—a lack of interest in the milieu, maybe—rather than an objective judgement, since I was left similarly unmoved by Bowes's popular "There's a Hole in the City").
Salon Fantastique is an anthology that rewards reflection. Indeed, the process of writing this review has been a journey of discovery, with more links and echoes emerging between the apparently disparate tales than first impressions would have suggested. While most of the stories stand very well alone, the act of reading them together teases out other layers of meaning. It may not be a representative overview of the genre: there is a lack of high fantasy, although that is not unusual at the level of short fiction, and only Prill ventures anywhere near pop-culture archetypes. There is also surprisingly little direct engagement with familiar myths and fairytales, with—the odd changeling or selkie aside—most of the authors opting instead for a more general folkloric feel. If the Windling and Datlow salon only ever existed in a virtual sense while the anthology was being assembled, its post-publication existence—in the imaginations of its readers, and in the collective readings that have apparently begun to take place—is surely where it can become real.
Nic Clarke lives in Oxford, UK, where she is using her PhD funding to assemble the world's largest pile of books-to-be-read. She has previously written for SFX and Emerald City, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.