In the introduction to his latest collection, Innocents Aboard, Gene Wolfe says that these are only horror and fantasy stories, and, well, maybe magic realism and perhaps even ghost stories. That is to say, there's neither science fiction nor mainstream. (Except "The Friendship Light" has aliens, and so does "Copperhead." They have aliens but are horrific and fantastic in feel. What are we to make of these stories? Only that rather than being used by genre, Mr. Wolfe uses their conventions for his own purposes.) What's interesting is that he's identified more types of stories that are included than excluded, so why delimit this collection at all? I doubt that this is a misstep as Mr. Wolfe is very precise in his language. Perhaps it is a marketing strategy. But Wolfe fans will read whatever he publishes regardless of genre, and readers of short fiction are so few in number that I doubt that a few science fiction stories in a genre collection would have them put the book back on the shelf.
I don't know why Mr. Wolfe chose this avenue, but what I like to think is that he knows that, more than anything else, he is a magician, and that fantasy and horror have more to do with magic and the realm of the impossible than science fiction, which focuses on the possible (however improbable) future and mainstream, which is ever looking backwards at a time that never was. You see, Mr. Wolfe uses words, but not like any other writer. He does not veil deficits of character or plot with dazzling pyrotechnical language (although he can and often does dazzle) or stories that return to the Golden Age of the INSERT DECADE HERE. Rather, he shows everything you need to know, but not in the order that you need to know them. Like any great magician, all the pieces are there to see—nothing is hidden unless in plain sight—but he demands that you pay close attention or, voila, you've seen the spectacle but missed the true magic.
Take, for example, the first story, "The Tree is My Hat," which has such a wonderful title that any lesser writer could not live up to such demands. The story is set in the South Seas on a small island. The narrator becomes friendly with the natives, who have their own gods, and only later does it become clear exactly who he's befriended. There is, of course, a terrible price to pay.
Friendship is a common theme, as is deceptive narration. In an interview, Mr. Wolfe referred to "The Walking Sticks," saying that of course the narrator spins events for his own purposes; he is exactly like many people that Mr. Wolfe (and myself, and you, too, if you've paid the slightest bit of attention to the national news) knows. Both "The Walking Sticks" and "The Friendship Light" make use of this self-aggrandizing narrative voice, although I would say that "Light" is superior. That Mr. Wolfe can enmesh himself so entirely in the story that his narrator is telling is, well, telling. Further, in such stories there is always a purpose. In "Light," the narrator needs to contact his 'friends' for purposes of law, and in "Sticks" the narrator, who is almost certainly lying through the entire thing, needs an alibi.
But I've mentioned languaged and precision, and not mentioned examples of these at all. In "The Waif," which has, incidentally, elements of science fiction, a child's rash words put him in danger of being brutalized by his peers. To protect him, his father-figure teacher will beat him in front of the class.
The schoolmaster's voice softened. "Guilt is the worst part, Bin. Knowing that we are on the devil's side, and that what we got was less than we deserved. I want to spare you that. You've done nothing wrong. Have you ever raked something out of the fire with a stick?"
"That's what I'll be doing, with my switch. Remember that."
Genius, really. First, even if you've not read the story, surely you know that anyone who says, "You've done nothing wrong," is saying exactly the opposite. Now, look at the analogy: The fire is the wrath of the students, and the something being raked is Bin, while the stick is a switch, which is really just a stick with a different name. But the ending of the story, which I won't give away, has to do with a fire, and a person who is not raked from the flames. The lesson is not learned, as such lessons rarely are, and the analogy becomes a reality.
"How the Bishop Sailed to Inniskeen" is an excellent example of a ghost story and a framing story that excels because the dialect is near-perfect. It would not have the effect that it does if the story-teller (not the narrator) were to speak in the flat English of ordinary literature. But rather:
"'Twas Saint Cian's pillow," said Hogan, "an' rough when he got it—rough as a pike's kiss. Smooth it was when he died, for his head had smoothed it sixty years. Couldn't a maid have done it nicer, an' where the stone had worn away was the Virgin. Her picture, belike, sir, in the markin's that'd been in the stone."
(Really, it's just such a pleasure to read. My goodness, is it a pleasure.) Good, scary ghost stories are usually told orally and (taken as myth by us cosmopolitan folks) oft told and believed by those who we might consider simpler, or at least living a simpler lifestyle. The voice, therefore, lends a faux-oral feel (to mix senses) as well as a credible sense that this is, indeed, a true ghost story rather than one simply dreamed up by Mr. Wolfe. Language is the key, and Mr. Wolfe is a master locksmith.
"The Wrapper" plays with the convention (ah, look, more foolin' with convention) of rose-colored glasses: a man discovers that a "more of a rose red than a pink" candy wrapper is the secret to seeing the underlying structure of the universe. The narrator uses this to his advantage (oh, that his invention were to exist!) but his real lament is the loss of the wrapper. His hope is that Angelo, who gave him the wrapper, will give him another. Do you see? Angels, loss of innocence, truth. These are heady concepts. Not razzle-dazzle, not sleight-of-hand (though there is that) but real, honest-to-god (maybe, knowing Mr. Wolfe is a devout Catholic, honest-to-God) efforts to explore all the things that make us human, by exploring those things that are only humans in disguise.
Children, not incidentally, are significant characters in a number of stories, though rarely are they only children. I've mentioned Angelo above, who is a child, but probably also something more. With Mr. Wolfe, clarity and ambiguity are, somehow, not antitheses. Innocence, and the loss of, are near-constant themes, and children are most prone to losing it. "Houston, 1943" and "Pocketsful of Diamonds" have children losing their innocence in mythical and magical places. "The Old Woman Whose Rolling Pin Is The Sun" is directly addressed to Mr. Wolfe's grandchild, Becca, and is all about loss of innocence. The last line is heart-breaking.
But if innocence can be lost, it can be found, too. In Mr. Wolfe's work, we are often reminded of the most heinous crimes we can commit upon one another, but in reading these stories we are reminded of how good we can be. It takes a certain amount of innocence, I think, to approach a story of horror or fantasy or ghosts and to find in it a semblance of reality, a slice of truth, a sliver of humanity. To, above all, forget that it is "only" a story, and remember it as an experience. If you are too cynical to believe that ghosts exist, or that candy wrappers hold the secrets of the universe, or that monsters and gods live everywhere, then this is not a book for you. The conductor calls: "Innocents aboard!"