A few thoughts:
It is a twenty minute walk to that place along well-traveled sidewalks, followed by a short jaunt across the rise and fall of land. There, beside the river, I would read the next fantasy story on my list. Someone, woman or girl, had left sandals at one end of the bench. A few pebbles sat on the nearer end. I brushed off the pebbles and looked for someone barefooted. A large, tree-covered island rises from the channel, just beyond this point. Whoever the woman or girl was, she had dropped her sandals, waded a short distance, and then swam the rest of the way. No doubt. A pair of phoebes darted from the upper branches of the tall tree just downstream.
This was a strange place to be reading the next story on the list, which was Jeffrey Ford's "The Honeyed Knot." Or a strangely appropriate place. While the tale takes place largely within the confines of academic spaces, behind desks and before computers, it still breathes with a rhythm of the outdoors, and that involves the spirited beings we call wild animals; and these wild animals enter and exit the way they do in our lives, without explanation.
For me, this was a re-reading of a story that had not adequately spooked me the first time around. I was due for re-acquaintance, and found my opportunity while reading through a huge collection, for this review essay. Reading the story outside gave it a second chance to spook me, which it did. I recommend these things: morning light, the sound of water, the sound of birds. I also had boat noises. Sandals. Fisherman. You must go find your own external furniture to internalize.
Ford's comment, in an afterword that did not appear with the original publication of the story, prompted a few reflections. He notes that his story is 99.9 percent true. By this I presume we are to understand that the facts of Ford's life inform a great deal of the narrative; that the story is, somehow, not untrue to those facts. If he had stated the story was one hundred percent true, on the other hand, we might have safely assumed the whole was pure fabrication and concoction, and incontrovertibly "true" in the sense that fiction must be true. His saying this about his own story would simply give us a glimpse of his pride in his fiction-writing abilities. The tenth of a percent of difference, however, puts this story in a different category. Or, rather, Ford's pointing to that tenth of a percent confirms the reader's sense that something elusive had taken place in the story -- in the writing of it, or in the reading of it. Ford's mention of that tenth of a percent simply solidifies that sense. It makes it seem more certain that the elusive element would remain forever that way -- elusive.
I am struck occasionally by the idea that fantasy, so-called, is at its best when it is realism, when it presents you with words that leave you afterwards nodding and saying, "Yes. That's so." These stories look ordinary, but conceal a spark of myth; or they use realist narrative technique to point at and to clearly delineate the denial of the power of myth in our world, which is a strong denial for all that ours is a myth-drenched world.
This story of Ford's involves that kind of denial. His narrator, named, as is the author, Jeff, is interested in the symbolism of the events happening to him. This interest is, in itself, the denial: the narrator is an academic, and needs a wall of removal from mystery, and chooses the wall called symbolism. Symbols are not physically real. They just stand for something. The honeyed knot of the title, an old, mystical understanding of the intertwining of all lives, makes its first stated appearance in the story in a historical note drawn from an academic library: it is literally a fact found flattened between pages. The academic Jeff, faced with strange occurrences and coincidences, turns to that flattened fact for insight.
The power of realism, as a fantasy construct, may account for the dissatisfaction I felt on finishing the first reading, and to a lesser degree on this second reading, of Ford's "The Honeyed Knot." In the end, the narrator professes to directly experience the honeyed knot, and this time not as an academic. The reader, to a degree, has already experienced that honeyed knot by traveling along the intertwining strands of the story, strands that always threatened to come together without ever quite doing so; and here the narrator professes to have experienced not only that, but something more. From the facts stated, he has emerged transformed, an event that makes the story close kin to the various stories of transcendence that litter commercial science fiction. He has directly experienced the honeyed knot.
The fact to keep in mind here is that the narrator only claims this. As reader, I am left in doubt. Here, in my eyes, that tenth of a percent of untruth has crept in, a falsification that enables an untiable knot to be tied.
These, anyway, were a few thoughts I had, walking then back along the river from the bench where I had re-read a fine, tantalizing story. The woman or girl who had left the sandals, in the meantime, had not swum back to shore from that wooded island. The sandals may still be there.
Ford's story appears in the 15th edition of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's fantasy and horror annual, and is among of the finest of that selection. The annual presents the editors' choice of the best of the year. Only the editors themselves know what exactly constitutes fantasy and horror, to them. That is part of the entertainment in reading a volume of this sort, to enter into a dialog with the editors, and to say, "Really. You don't say," after each of their statements about what fantasy is, or horror is. Each story is a statement of conviction.
This is one reason Marion Arnott's "Prussian Snowdrops" stands out. If it is to be taken as a statement about what horror is, then it is a fine, possibly even exquisite, statement. The story itself is straightforward, and even familiar, with details that are like well-used furniture in a friend's house: we know these pieces well. The story takes place during the rise of Fascism in Germany, in the earlier 1930s. Some of the characters, on and off stage, are newspaper sorts who still hold to beliefs the Fascists are trying to stomp out, such as the belief that Truth matters, or that, as a corollary, People matter. These people may be ordinary or extraordinary, or, as in this tale, incapacitated by mental or physical disability.
The reader encounters the events of this story with a set of essentially ready-made premonitions, being familiar with the horrific hardness with which the Fascist machine dealt with Truth and People. In having these premonitions, the reader is not disappointed. The story, true to history, lets the Fascist machine roll along doing what it did best.
The viewpoint character, Karl, is one of these newspaper sorts, with a shred of humanistic optimism still cached in his mental arsenal. At the time of the story's opening, he is at the seemingly harmless task of writing sentimental Fascist claptrap, while stationed in a small town. He looks forward to being restored to official favor, so he can return to life in the big city.
Then he discovers Truth. The story of "Prussian Snowdrops" is that of a man who finds the staff of conviction in his hands. With that staff, he can assert his mortal being.
That staff, of course, is taken away from him, in the end. This is sad. He lives with this development, since he must either live with it or not live.
And this is horror.
Not, "Yes. That's so." Rather, "Oh, no. How could it be?"
In the most effective horror stories in this volume, our sense of the "real" is rewarded from beginning to end. This is certainly the case in Christopher Fowler's fascinating "Crocodile Lady," which takes a short, factual, historical tour of the London underground railroads. It does this while also inhabiting the mind of a teacher who has returned to the educational fold after an episode of married life. A creature of experience, she brings a sensitive understanding of human character to her supervision of her children. This sensitivity gives her the resolve she needs when a shadowy figure abducts one of her children, and leads her on a chase through London's ancient tunnels.
The protagonist, who comes to be known as the Crocodile Lady, utters a line that unwittingly encapsulates an attitude that also helps differentiate between the horror tales in this volume and the fantasy tales. "The past is done," she says to the abductor. "Lessons are over. I really think you should go now." The Crocodile Lady, a figure of time-weathered insight, wants time to go on forward, and the past to be done with. Not forgotten, but done with. It is a bracing and anti-Romantic attitude. It is almost this attitude itself that casts the abductor into the shadows he inhabits.
The figure who cannot leave behind his childhood is glimpsed again later in the volume, in a character named Nicholas, the narrator of S.P. Somtow's "The Bird Catcher." Nicholas tells his grandson about his youthful friendship with a bogeyman whose crime, in the chaotic time after World War II, was the eating of children's livers.
Again a narrative that balances present against past, "The Bird Catcher" unreels a series of events that draw together Nicholas, as a boy, and Si Ui, a Chinese man who catches sparrows and eats them raw, and who also catches children. Unlike the horrific end in "Prussian Snowdrops," in which Karl chooses life with the crime of collaboration on his soul, the boy in "The Bird Catcher" breaks from the influence of Si Ui. Even so, he clearly bears the mark of that strange friendship, and comes to suffer from the same pangs that led Si Ui to be the predator he was. The horror lies in the damage done to the human soul.
It also lies in that mist of unknowing: we, as readers, cannot quite see how shadowed the narrator might be. We have no Crocodile Lady to tell us.
If I were to walk away with only two stories in my head from reading this volume, one might well be Somtow's. Another candidate is Kelly Link's "Louise's Ghost," which, as it happens, was already in my head. Where Somtow uses an international, historically deep canvas for the painting of a complex series of images, Link uses a largely domestic landscape and populates it with simple objects, many of them amusingly flattened. You almost feel as though you might peel the characters up from the page, in the manner of pliable plastic decals.
"Louise's Ghost" is the story of a friendship between two women, both named Louise. Small events fill it, relating to one Louise's lovers, who are cellists with low sperm counts, and the other Louise's ghost, who is a fuzzy, naked man who tends to manifest on the floor and under the bed. The annoyances of everyday life occupy the two Louises' lives.
In this delightful piece of surrealism, Link pulls off a great deal, authorially, not least of which is the trick of making the reader interested in two characters of the same name. She describes a relationship that seems impossible anytime and yet typically contemporary, and speaks of the absurd in such a way that you leave saying, "Yes. That's so."
In other words, the sense of the real floats invisibly behind this odd series of scenes; and while the sense of the real remains invisible clear to the end, by then you have arrived at the conviction that it is there.
One of the surprises of this volume, for me, was the number of tales I encountered that struck strongly science-fictional notes.
In the case of the horror selections, this does make a certain amount of sense: if you are attempting coverage of the spectrum of horror writing, then science fiction would naturally need to take its place. In the case of the fantasy selections, the one here that most strongly gave off these "science fiction" vibrations is identified as alternate history. This sort of story naturally can be seen as fantasy, even though typically confined to the science fiction camp by the appointed border-guards of genre.
Since science fiction is a variety of fantasy, moreover, perhaps I should not be surprised.
The alternate history story is "Grass," by Lawrence Miles. It contains this line, referring to explorers Lewis and Clark: "Like Jefferson, these people excel at being only partly correct." The extraordinary condescension of this line pervades this story, even though the story demonstrates meager authority with which to justify such airs, making what seems to me both an enormous historical blunder and an equally large scientific one. The historical blunder is to put the Church on the side of defending the notion of the extinction of species, with Science being on the contrary side. Since the 1600s, the Church had substantial stake in defeating the notion of extinction. While many scientists have enthusiastically engaged in the search for relict species, they have not done so in the spirit of critiquing the notion of extinction. Which is enough of a footnote, for present purposes. The scientific blunder lies in the story's depiction of the relict population of mammoths. They act much as do 1950s-style, intentionally inferior dinosaurs, even though these are mammals. It may be a telling fact that the story opens with a 1950s quotation that appears to belittle, with the hubris of elevated hindsight, a hypothesis that was clearly a rational one in the time of Jefferson.
The failings of this story may be seen as signs of dedication to pure imagination rather than as faint devotion to history, fact, and science; as signs of strong fantasy, not poor science fiction. The story's condescending tone toward historical characters who were themselves more careful in their research, however, makes it hard to approach the reading of the tale in quite this way.
Several of the stories in this volume that have the feel of science fiction might be called entomophobic, since insects and insectlike beings provide the source of fear. Michael Libling's "Timmy Gobel's Bug Jar" is a relatively routine exercise using the "I was a boy at the eve of the alien invasion" storyline, colored with a few nice images. Scott Thomas's "The Puppet and the Train," set in 1909 Massachusetts, has more meat to its bones. It follows a worldly, experienced veterinarian through a series of disturbing events after the death, by a train, of a circus's talking elephant.
Certain aspects of the story give it a fantasy feel, including those that echo British Colonialist and American pulp "oriental" fantasies. It may be these that make the revelation of the insectlike being at the end seem a bit out of place, and jarring. This final development has a slight aftertaste of Lovecraftian pastiche, an aftertaste also left by the one story of the volume that struck me as actually silly in its conceits and narrative, which was Michael Chabon's "The God of Dark Laughter."
It may be that the fantasy and science fiction genres are linked in their interest in the alien, insectoid or otherwise. In fantasy, the various fairy tale traditions clearly suggest the existence of other realms, and of beings alien to our ways or our natures -- of Others. Victorian depictions of these Others even made the connection to insects, oddly enough, since artists showed diminutive fairies as winged, and winged with not the feathered bird-wings of Christian angels but the veinous wings of the mayfly.
This comfortableness with the notion of the alien might make stories of now-folkloric space aliens, such as the ones that appear in Kathe Koja and Barry N. Malzberg's "What We did That Summer," seem more works of fantasy than of science fiction. In this particular example, the determined avoidance of explanatory resolution helps give it a fantasy feel, even though it is presented here as an example of a story bridging science fiction and horror.
A particularly fine work that may or may not strike readers as science-fictional ends the volume: James P. Blaylock's "His Own Backyard," a relatively gentle and calmly spoken time-travel story that recalls the works of Ray Bradbury or Clifford D. Simak, two other writers unafraid to use backyards as settings for fantastic events. While gentle and calmly spoken, the story is also a bravura performance. The story speaks of impinging upon one's own past, of the power of physical objects in an ordinary life, and of the consolations of the family.
Unintentionally it echoes the words of Fowler's Crocodile Lady, earlier in the volume, and quoted above. Blaylock's central character Alan travels back in time and meets his father. Their brief exchange ends with this advice from the father: "Look, I think maybe it's better if you go back now." Alan has transgressed, although not with any intention of doing so; yet it is the transgression that has helped shape his own past, and provides the key to his finding comfort in the present time. Unlike the Crocodile Lady, Alan's father makes it obvious that the past is not done with.
Oddly enough, Blaylock's story appears in this anthology shortly after "Scarecrow," by Gregory Maguire, a minor effort based on a famous episode out of Frank L. Baum. I say oddly, because Blaylock's character Alan undertakes a Dorothy quest. After arriving in a strange yet oddly familiar land, he searches for magical things to help him return to the time and place where he started; and it turns out these magical things are already in his possession. It is what he discovers along the way to discovering these magical things in his possession, moreover, that provides the ultimate reward for Alan as fictional character, and for the reader.
While I cannot explore them at even the insufficient lengths to which I have gone above, I should mention other especially noteworthy efforts in this volume. They include the fascinating "Onion," by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which looks at souls who are lost in this world because of their glimpses of other places, a story which seems more a beginning than a completed work; the dark "Struwwelpeter" by Glen Hirschberg, even despite its "Chief Seattle" quotation, and the darker and more violent "Outfangthief" by Gala Blau; the disturbing fairy tale of "Watch Me When I Sleep," by Jean-Claude Dunyach, and the more incisive fairy tale of "Queen," by Gene Wolfe; the excellent werewolf tale "Gestella," in which the horror befalls only the wolf, by Susan Palwick; the bittersweet fantasy about miners, "Black Dust," by Graham Joyce; the dark morality tale and fairy tale about miners, "The Bockles," by Melissa Hardy; and the indefinably not-quite-fairy-tales "Tom Brightwind, or, How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby" by Susanna Clarke; and "The Project" by Carol Emshwiller.
Different readers will naturally emerge from this volume with different impressions, an advantage a broad-coverage anthology such as this one has. On-line readers, for instance, might quicken most to the presence of the Hirschberg tale or the comfort-and-reassurance fantasy "Plenty," by Christopher Barzak, which first appeared in this publication. I would not be surprised, for another instance, if some readers found especially moving resonance in Steve Rasnic Tem's careful portrayal of a downward-spiraling salesman's life, in "In These Final Days of Sales." For a further instance, the differences in possible opinions could not be more clear than with Anthony Doerr's "The Hunter's Wife," which one of the editors thought the finest single story of the year, and which I found improbable, even if attractively written in one of the prevailing modes of contemporary American fiction.
The editors have succeeded without question in conveying the breadth and vitality of an important corner of the contemporary writing scene. As to how well they have culled their respective fields for the most tellingly characteristic pieces of fiction and poetry of the year, very likely they themselves are the only ones to know. Who else has been reading as widely and deeply?
These volumes are more than monuments to the genres of fantasy and horror. They are monuments to the editors, veritable Atlas figures holding up their twin worlds. I have utmost respect for this accomplishment.
Mark Rich has written criticism and reviews for NYRSF, SF Eye, Small Press Review, and several literary reference works. His short fiction has appeared in Analog and SF Age. Ten stories are being released as Fictionwise.com eBooks. Small Beer Press will be releasing a chapbook of his fiction in 2003. For more about him, visit his SFF.net page or his personal Web site.