Imagine an anthology—pretty much any old one will do.
Indulge me a moment, and suppose that the efforts of its various contributors are a skin of sorts: a skin of stories, each an epidermal membrane unto itself, fine and unique and diffuse, yet collectively a heavy, leathery vellum; a living, breathing wrapper evolved to enclose every body, and every book. Flay away the layers, and there, under the skin, a network of veins: delicate throughways from one organ to the next, the next to the last, and the last to the first and the thing entire. You could call it an idea.
Do you see it?
For a long while, reading through Subterranean Tales of Dark Fantasy 2, I could not. However much I flexed my perspective, I struggled to discern anything—any theme or motif—with which to tie together the eleven short stories contained within its mysterious skin. I saw no singular thematic concern running through the veins of the latest anthology to bear Bill Shafer's name; nor is the second Subterranean Tales of Dark Fantasy either ordered around or informed by some aesthetic imperative. It is in no way a taxonomical statement as to the current affairs of dark fantasy—and that, at least, is as well, for dark fantasy is a genre descriptor so broad as to be practically meaningless: so long as it's a little on the weird side, pretty much anything goes.
Nevertheless, to paraphrase master anthologist Jonathan Strahan from his introduction to the hard SF hijinx of Engineering Infinity (p.11), there is a promise embedded in the title of Subterranean Tales of Dark Fantasy 2, and it is the selfsame promise made by the first anthology to bear the aforementioned moniker—something of a melange itself. It is the promise of an idea of an altogether different species than, say, twenty assorted tales about handsome vampires, or stories of sword and sorcery for the self-aware generation. It is, of course, the Sub Press promise: an assurance of quality, and consistency, and such care that can only come from a genuine affection for the form, hard-earned through the sixteen years this exclusive publisher has been in operation.
And what is Subterranean Press if not Bill Shafer? Co-founder, spokesperson, and as fine a reason as any to rob a bank—because these books, beautiful as they are, can cost a pretty penny—he is a gentlemen quite without peer in the publishing industry, and a superb editor irrespective of all that. Here, for our wonderment, he presents an array of talents both new and old.
In pole position, Joe Hill is a little of each. Though he did not feature in the first Subterranean Tales of Dark Fantasy proper, a chapbook of his short fiction, free with the limited edition, felt a deleted scene of sorts. Moreover, Hill's meandering and unfussy prose in "Wolverton Station," his contribution to this sophomore volume, rather recalls that of his . . . storied, shall we say, father—to whom there's a neat and natural heads-up in the shape of a certain image from Stanley Kubrick's esteemed adaptation of The Shining. Indeed, Saunders seems just the sort of affable yet ineffably unpleasant protagonist you might find in the pages of Full Dark, No Stars:
In his years in management at Burger King, he had earned the nickname "The Woodcutter," because when there was a hatchet job that needed doing, Saunders never shied away from wielding the ax. He had not made his sizable personal fortune . . . by avoiding confrontation. He had once fired an eight-month pregnant woman, the wife of a close friend, with a two-word text message: you're toast. (p. 13)
In his turn, however, Hill unfortunately falls afoul of one of the very problems which have intermittently plagued King's fiction. A preponderance of exposition means it takes far too long for him to cut through the gristle to the meat of the thing, which is to say a train trip gone wrong when Saunders's carriage takes on passengers at Wolverton—rather than Wolverhampton—station. In short, Are You Afraid of the Big Bad Businesswolf?
To its credit, "Wolverton Station" has some of the "jolly relativity" of Jeff VanderMeer's The Third Bear about it, but the chaotic delight of Hill's incarnation of the carnivalesque is quite undermined by a rant about the impotence of protest, and an overabundance of The Life and Times of so-and-so. Thus Hill sets the second Subterranean Tales of Dark Fantasy off with something a stutter, rather than the decisive thrust of so many past Sub Press productions.
Three extended canon pieces follow Hill's so-so squib of a short. Jay Lake and Shannon Page re-enter the world of Green in "The Passion of Mother Vajpaj," wherein Shayla, aspirant to the Blades, is set a final test quite the reverse of that which fantasy through the ages has bidden us expect; "Chivalrous" sees Kelley Armstrong returning to the Otherworld with a particularly canny composition; and from the annals of The Black Company comes Glen Cook's "Smelling Danger: A Black Company Story." Take or leave that as you may.
Of the three, "Chivalrous" surprised me most. A twisty tale of two star-cross'd wolves and their respective packs, Armstrong's contemporary revenge fantasy condenses the exhausting hither and thither of so much paranormal romance into something with high stakes and a bona fide climax. On the other hand, it more than either of the other extended canon escapades feels decidedly unfinished: a prologue to a larger thing. Otherworld itself, presumably.
Least surprising of the three, "Smelling Danger" is in name and nature a tale of The Black Company. Fans of that longstanding series will surely consider themselves serviced, though I'll admit Cook’s company left this reader momentarily unmoved. Meanwhile, wedged between "Smelling Danger" and "Chivalrous," "The Passion of Mother Vajpaj" is a counter-intuitive quest narrative decadent in atmosphere and rich with eroticism. Unlike Armstrong's contribution, it and "Smelling Danger" stand alone from their respective franchises perfectly well.
One of only two authors featured in both volumes of Subterranean Tales of Dark Fantasy, William Browning Spencer's "That Dappled Thing" finally breaks from the continuing continuing adventures with, appropriately, high adventure of the old mould. Think Journey to the Centre of the Earth retouched with steampunk trappings, à la the latter chapters of The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar. "That Dappled Thing" is a lush and inventive diversion; if it's not amongst the anthology's strongest stories, consider that that speaks only to the strength of many of the others.
Not least "Not Last Night But the Night Before," which is perhaps the pinnacle of the wide swathe of fantasy fiction collected herein. I'll grant that it’s a little late in the coming, but Stephen R. Boyett's short gets the second Subterranean Tales of Dark Fantasy on the right track at last. A darkly delightful tale which put me in mind of Roddy Doyle's wonderful "Blood," the crème of the crop from Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio's superb Stories, "Not Last Night But the Night Before" begins
. . . one rainy Sunday afternoon when the windows were misty and the barometer was high and Michael himself was in bed with a hangover so bad he could hear his hair growing. At the crack of noon Michael finally exhumed himself to slap together a pot of Kona, and as he bumped toward the kitchen he glanced at his frumpy sleeper couch and saw his death sitting there, quietly reading the Sunday paper he’d thoughtfully brought in from the front porch. (p. 133)
The externalization of an abstract idea, in this case death, is an age-old concept which Boyett here realizes once more, with fabulous feeling. "Not Last Night But the Night Before" is a veritable Casanova of a story, sweet, droll and intelligent, and though it is the first home run of the bunch, it is not the last. Nor the second to last. Nor even the third.
You get the picture.
Cut to Caitlín R. Kiernan: still not a horror writer. In "Hydraguros," our drug-addled, drug-dealing heroine is disturbed to see, one afternoon on the Jersey Speedline, an inexplicable substance like quicksilver drip from another passenger's nostril, accompanied by an odor of "ozone and ammonia and something with the carbon stink of burning sugar" (p. 165). Getting know a new Kiernan protagonist is like slipping on a favorite slipper, and as in so much of the work of this Subterranean Press favorite—indeed, she is the only other author besides William Browning Spencer featured in both anthologies—dreams come in short order to take on new and revelatory significance. The phantasmagorical last section of "Hydraguros" strives to strike an ambiguous note, and so it does, resounding shrill throughout the remainder of Subterranean Tales of Dark Fantasy 2. But buyer beware: some readers—you know quite well who you are—will find the descent into Kiernan's surreal and opaque dreamscape dissatisfying. For my part, I don’t know that it’s ever been more effective.
More immediately satisfying than "Hydraguros," if by that same token rather less interesting upon further reflection, "The Parthenopean Scalpel" by Bruce Sterling is a solid and well-told tale of fundamentalist fantasy terrorists which takes a surprise turn a few pages in, whereupon our assassini protagonist is cast out from his cell, to fall for conjoined twins. Sterling makes much of "the severe grammatical problems associated with Ida. Sometimes she was 'she,' sometimes they were 'they'" (p. 196), though the pronoun game he plays threatens to wear out its welcome as the affair approaches a climax.
In the case of the concept at the core of "A Pulp Called Joe," quite the converse assertion proves true. Welcome to Long Rapids, a sleepy town encircling a paper mill of such import to the townsfolk that during the war, when a shortage of "critical dye #33-R" (p. 206) threatens to put paid to this pivotal industry, the people take to donating their own blood in its stead. But in
An off-trail biological process that was as curious as it was quick, not surprising as these were cartwheeling-into-the-future times, the go-go years of postwar America, [just] as you were in the paper, so the paper was in you . . . It got into your eyes, into your lungs. Into your body. Part of you became wood, the processed pulp, the paper. (p. 207)
With which wondrous whimsy David Prill sweeps back the curtain on a hierarchy of paper people, a nomenclature of class informed by the perceived quality of the particles ingrained in one's person, among whom a Pulp called Joe works in the mill, and loves above his station. The girl of his dreams is Penelope Vellum, so-called for her perfect synthetic skin, but between him and her, there's one Jack Dankworth. And he isn't "paper at all. Pure flesh and blood, that Dankworth. Pure flesh and blood" (ibid).
"A Pulp Called Joe" is a clever and deeply endearing throwback romance—another of the anthology's highlights—which sees Prill channelling Jasper Fforde to tremendous effect. That said, whatever its charm and cheer, it is less than satisfactorily concluded: Prill's last layer of wrapping feels a mite slight, robbing "A Pulp Called Joe" of some of its poignancy. Nor does such an airy tale feel a neat fit in an anthology of dark fantasy.
As if to make up for which lack, the penultimate story in Subterranean Tales of Dark Fantasy 2 marks an about turn. All dark, all the time, "Vampire Lake" is positively relentless in its tone and content. For all that it's another gritty vampire story, however, Norman Partridge's contribution remains compelling. Think From Dusk Till Dawn by way of Mr Shivers: a red-rich and secretly satisfying cocktail of the bleak and the bloody. That is if you can keep it down.
Last in line, though very far from least, needless to say, "A Room with a View" sees the pseudonymous mystery that is K. J. Parker engaged in a tale of master and apprentice somewhat reminiscent of "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong," a stunning bit of short-form fiction lately featured in Subterranean's own magazine. From architecture to engineering and from manufacture to music, Parker's habit has been to tackle a different aspect of industry with every successive narrative, and "A Room with a View" continues the genderless author's round robin. The industry addressed herein, however, will surprise those readers familiar with Parker's previous work:
There is no such thing, they tell you on your first day in school, as magic. Instead, there’s natural philosophy, science; logical, provable facts and predictable, repeatable reactions and effects. What the ignorant and uninformed call magic is simply the area of natural philosophy where we've recorded and codified a certain number of causes and effects, but as yet can't wholly explain how or why they work. Research is, of course, ongoing, and in due course it’ll all seem as simple and straightforward and ordinary as the miracles of procreation, metallurgy or fermentation. Until then, foolish country people insist on calling it magic and calling us wizards. Meanwhile, since we can do all this useful stuff and they can’t, we get to charge them large sums of money for exercising our strictly controlled and regulated powers. (p. 265)
"A Room with a View" marks one of the only occasions whereupon Parker—not an author particularly given to flights of fancy; and this despite having worked a decade in fantasy—has tackled the genre's central tenets head-on. As such the result is a treat of the uppermost order: a sterling systematization of magic made by an embittered opportunist with all the barb and verve one expects from K. J. Parker. Characteristically cynical and divinely twisted, "A Room with a View" serves to close the book on the second Subterranean Tales of Dark Fantasy with a winsome wink.
Subterranean Tales of Dark Fantasy 2 feels at first an anthology in dire need of drive. I fear it does not put its best foot forward with "Wolverton Station," and whatever their respective merits, the three extended canon narratives which follow Hill's garrulous opener collectively engender a certain sense of disharmony. In fact nothing until "Not Last Night But the Night Before" truly speaks to the promise of quality that is this anthology's only orbit, and in lieu of some more traditional structure with which to unite its diverse beginnings, the second Subterranean Tales of Dark Fantasy gets off to a precarious start. However, from Stephen R. Boyett's pretty twist of a short on out, Shafer's selections strengthen—tales from Kiernan, Prill, and Parker in particular impress—and one comes thus to reconcile oneself with the realization that Subterranean Tales of Dark Fantasy 2 is more short story collection than anthology, with no greater agenda, in the end, than to collect together a few good short stories.
Which it does.
Niall Alexander (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes about speculative fiction of all shapes and sizes from a dank and none too mysterious hidey-hole somewhere in the central belt of Scotland, where no one can hear his screams. Neither coincidentally nor particularly imaginatively, he blogs his days away at The Speculative Scotsman.
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