The William L. Crawford Award for First Fantasy Book has selection criteria almost as sprawling as the Tiptree. Any debut fiction, published in the last 12 months and designated as "fantasy" by the selection panel, is eligible for consideration, no matter its form or intended audience. A brief glance at this year’s shortlist, announced in January, will demonstrate the difficulties inherent in such all-embracing vagueness. It includes: two short story collections, one short story sequence-cum-novel, one children’s book and one (arguably young adult) novel. None of them, except the book for children, Flora Segunda by Ysabeau S. Wilce, is unequivocally fantasy, or at least not as a layperson would recognize it. One of the collections, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron, is quite clearly horror; the other, Portable Childhoods by Ellen Klages, is predominantly magical-realist; God is Dead by Ron Currie Jr. is science fiction if it is anything, and the winning novel, One for Sorrow by Christopher Barzak is a ghost story predicated upon gritty mimesis. The award should have been renamed the Crawford Award for First Speculative Fiction Book, a category which better matches the breadth of genre the judges have brought under consideration.
Nevertheless, there is something missing from the picture. The section of the genre that we might best describe as "market" or "bookshop" fantasy—in other words, the kind of novels that you can find piled high in the Science Fiction/Fantasy bay of your local bookstore—is nowhere to be seen. Despite showcasing a broad array of forms and styles (or perhaps because of it) the Crawford shortlist has avoided epic fantasy. There is no equivalent to, say, The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham, or Temeraire by Naomi Novak, all of which appeared on the 2007 shortlist. These are the work-horses of genre bookselling—those novels whose popularity and economic viability keeps the rest of the market afloat. We must assume that there were no such debuts of this kind and the necessary caliber published between January 2007 and January 2008; a sad assumption with some truth to it. The most obvious candidate for nomination in this sub-category, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (April, 2007), has proved very popular with readers (see, for example, the results of the recent poll at the SF Site) but would have been a token nominee and a poor winner of the Crawford. Written in a stolid, naïve, and drearily predictable prose, and populated by stock characters, it would be a despairing jury that settled on it as the best debut that fantasy (of any kind) had to offer in 2007/8. The shortlist, as it stands, is testament to a yearning for something better than this from genre publishing, something more accomplished, stimulating and daring. I do admire the judges for their determination to nominate what was worthy, rather than what was most obviously eligible. But I balk at the thought that there was nothing of merit amongst books of a "market" fantasy bent: I would have thought that Jonathan Barnes’ The Somnambulist (February 2007), for example, was up to the standard.
Now in her early 50s, Ellen Klages is the oldest of this year’s Crawford nominees, and Portable Childhoods (Tachyon, 2007) is her first short story collection, although the fiction in it dates from between 2001 and 2007. All but one of the pieces has been previously published elsewhere (three of them here at Strange Horizons). Primarily a writer of fabulist tales of childhood for an adult audience, she is at her best in the story that opens the book, "Basement Magic" (2003), which deservedly won the Nebula Award for Best Novelette in 2005. A fairytale of sweet revenge that refigures the narrative of Cinderella, it centers upon six-year old Mary Louise Whitaker, "an odd, solitary child" who "propels herself with a quick shuffle-duckling gate that is both urgent and awkward" (p. 3). Having lost her birth mother in infancy, Mary Louise has long suffered under the watch of her vindictive stepmother, Kitty, and the series of well-meaning middle-aged women her father has hired to tend her. The world she inhabits is vague, amorphous and abstract, a sort of halfway house between the reality of her life and the dream worlds of the picture books she loves. When her parents hire a new maid, Ruby, with skin "the color of gingerbread" and "hair sleek and black, black as midnight" (p. 4), Mary Louise immediately recognizes her for what she is: a witch, a fairy godmother, a woman from another world.
This is both figuratively and literally true. In a sleight of hand that is typical of Klages work, it becomes clear as the story progresses that "Basement Magic" is set in 1969, the year of the first moon landings, and that as a black servant in the household of a white businessman, Ruby is Other in a very real sense. She is a taboo figure, with a racial and economic apartness that manifests itself as sympathetic magic, a subversive difference-based power. Passing across the threshold between one world and another—black to white; basement to upstairs; mundane to fantastical—she is able to work spells that protect and empower Mary Louise against Kitty. The basis of her magical power is her socio-cultural exclusion. Denied influence in one world, she seeks it in another. She explains to Mary Louise that: "this is basement magic, deep and cool. Power that has seeped and puddle, gathered slowly, beneath the notice of queens, like the dreams of small awkward girls." (p. 30) This is Klages' over-riding idea of what constitutes magic. It is the incipient and risen power of the oppressed over their oppressors, either to defeat them or to escape them. The same dynamic forms the basis of all fairytale (and of the Bible too) and may be figured as the triumph of the poor over the rich, the enslaved over the slaver, or the human over the animal. In "Basement Magic" it is the victory of the innocent child over the spiteful adult.
"Flying Over Water" (2001), the earliest story in the volume, envisions a very similar power-play between a mother and her daughter. Kritter, a girl on the cusp of adolescence with a mother who looks like Barbie, knows that no one will ever make a doll of her:
Puberty is softening her—adding hips and breasts to the solid rectangle of her torso—without changing her shape. She is becoming a woman, her mother says. But Kritter can tell it is not the sort of woman her mother had in mind, and feels responsible, as if she had been leafing through the body catalogue and chosen the wrong one. (p. 72)
Faced with the inevitable ascension into womanhood, the unwieldy heaviness of her body and the censure of her parents, she chooses escape. While bathing in a lagoon on a family holiday in Mexico, she transforms herself into a rainbow fish and swims away. The ending is almost identical to that of "Basement Magic" and the latter might be read as a mature re-working of "Flying Over Water," although a more triumphant one. Both girls choose transfiguration over stifling familial relationships; in both stories it constitutes a kind of death or, at least, the shucking off of their humanity. In Kritter’s case this might be literally true: perhaps she drowns in the lagoon and is washed out to sea. They’re strange victories, as much an abdication from difficulty as a triumph over it.
But flight over fight is one of Klages’ most persistent motifs. In "Travel Agency" (2002), a sweet whimsical piece about a nine-year-old girl who disappears into an Enid Blyton novel, she accepts it as a necessary human function. Akin to the escapist act of reading itself, it is a child’s best survival technique in the face of trouble or worry. It is surprisingly pleasant, if a little disorientating, to read a story in which you do not have to turn and face what you fear, a story with bite that allows its protagonists to sidestep the snap of its jaws.
Not all of Klages' stories are so successful, however. I found her stories about homosexual adults rather tired. "Triangle," in which a gay man buys an antique Nazi badge as a gift and looses his partner to the concentration camps of the past, and "Time Gypsy," in which a female scientist travels back in time to meet and fall in love with the mysterious woman on whom she wrote her thesis, both lack the transformative energy of her work about childhood. Although they tick all the right thematic boxes—gender identity, homosexuality and prejudice in academia (both protagonists are academics)—they feel stodgy and didactic. The dialogue is stilted and staged:
"I’d like to take you dancing."
She shakes her head, "We can’t. Not here. Not now. It’s against the law you know. Or perhaps you don’t. But it is, I’m afraid. And the police have been on a rampage in the city lately. One bar lost its license just because two men were holding hands. They arrested both as sexual vagrants and for being—oh, what was the phrase—lewd and dissolute persons."
"Sexual vagrants? That’s outrageous!" (p. 105)
The endings, when they finally inch round, are predictable and lacking in verve. The problem, I think, is that Klages has to force the fantastic into these stories, to provide the twist by which to move the plot forward. She has to dig in her author’s crowbar and wedge time travel, or a sinister fetish, into an ordinary adult life. This is not the way it is with her fables about families. Magic is a native of childhood, and so is easily woven and integrated into the fabric of a child’s experience.
Thus it is in "A Taste of Summer" (2002), in which another tomboy adolescent, Mattie Rodgers, meets Nan Bingham, a scientist-cum-alchemist who manufactures flavors for a cereals company. Although Nan is a flesh-and-blood, real-world inventor, she is also a sort of witch, who can recreate memories and emotions through taste. Mattie first meets her during a hailstorm, during which she is cut off from her family and forced to seek refuge in an abandoned ice-cream parlor. It feels "a little bit magic, like it had been forgotten for a very long time" (p. 127) and, click, just like that the fantastical has entered in. The magic is revealed in the mundane; Klages doesn’t have to cast a false enchantment for her own purposes. At moments like this Klages is almost a great short story writer. Her child protagonists slip through the cracks in real life, using the lacunae and omissions that adults paper over to invoke the presence of the unreal and the unexplained. The stories become vivid exercises in nostalgia, for a time of life when crossing the street alone is an act of transgression, stepping on the cracks between paving is as likely to kill you as not and the basement is where monsters and magic can be found.
There is always an exception to the rule, however, and my favorite story in the book, "In the House of the Seven Librarians" (2006), is the one almost completely lacking in cracks for the reader to fall through. Which is not to say that it isn’t magical. It tells the tale of Dinsy, a foundling who grows up under the care of seven elderly librarians in a disused public library completely cut off from the real world. It is a story about the power of books, and is warm-fuzzy-glow in its purest form, the kind of narrative I wish I could taste. At a time when I couldn’t decide whether I liked Klages’ writing or not, it tipped the balance sharply in her favor.
Laird Barron writes the antithesis of the warm fuzzy glow. His stories do not feature children, or little animals, or eccentric librarians; they do not really feature women, except as hags and prostitutes. Instead they are populated by hard drinking, dirty talking lawmen—FBI and CIA agents, private detectives and intelligence analysts—and small-time thugs. These men live fast and hard; they smoke and they drink and, god damn it, they piss in bushes when the need arises; they drip testosterone from every pore; and in between they confront primeval darkness as the plot demands. There’s no denying it: The Imago Sequence and Other Stories (Night Shade Books, 2007) is a macho fest from beginning to end. It’s womb-shriveling stuff.
If there is one thing I can say in support of Laird Barron’s debut it is that it is consistent in content and theme. Another word for it is predictable. The stories contained in it may have been written and published over the course of eight years (between 2000 and 2007) but essentially they’re all drafts of the same ur-story. Let me tell you that story: a man, more or less drunk, more or less a misogynist, becomes aware that he is sharing the world with a mighty evil, something old, dark and very, very hungry. He is drawn to it, obsessively fixated upon it. Then, after some wordy prevaricating, it eats him, or enslaves him, or does something else grisly to him. The end. Interesting conceit, yes? Been done before, but still. Now, read it nine times over. There, I’ve just saved you the trouble of buying The Imago Sequence, and saved myself the trouble of any more synopsizing.
One or two of the stories are worth reading and if they stood alone, in a field of stories with different plots, I’m sure they would look pretty good. For example, "Bulldozer" (2004), which is slightly innovative in that it is set in nineteenth century frontier country, does more than the rest to develop character and voice. Its first person narrator, Jonah Koenig, is a Pinkerton man, an early federal agent, on the trail of Reuben Hicks, a psychotic killer (who is, you guessed it, also an acolyte of the primeval darkness). Like the rest of Barron’s male protagonists, Koenig has a drink problem, but his muzzy delirium and lack of self-control is more successfully evoked:
Red lights. White faces. Shadows spreading cracks.
I dropped the snifter from disconnected fingers. Thank goodness Octavia was there with a perfumed cloth to blot the splash... Where was Violet? Coupled to a banker? A sodbuster? Hoochie-koochie all night long... Scattered applause. A bawdy ragtime tune. Hungry mouths hanging slack.
And the muzzy lamps. Red. Black. (p. 87)
The style and the structure are also interesting—the story is non-linear and made up of a series of numbered paragraphs, some only a line long. Most importantly of all, Koenig belongs to his world. His foul-mouthed bigotry goes with his territory and is necessary, while the rough, dirty desperation of his work matches the pioneer setting. In other words, he is contemporary to his time, while in comparison Barron’s modern men look like parodies of masculinity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Unthinking, unfeeling and uncomplicated, they swagger through their stories like golems made up of all the myths of manhood gone stale. Too often I found myself impatient for the monster to hurry up and eat them.
Barron’s women are much, much worse, although, admittedly there aren’t many of them. Most are physical manifestations of the (yawn) primeval darkness, like the creepy, wretched hags in "Old Virginia" (2003) and "The Procession of the Black Sloth" (2007). Nothing, apparently, is more terrifying than a group of old ladies:
...you probably get sick to your stomach from old folks’ smell. That stink of urine and sweat. The way they smack their lips and quaver when they talk. Yeah, very unpleasant... (p. 43)
Except, perhaps, beautiful young ladies (who may also be minions of the Evil One):
Shelley Jackson was blurred in the shadows and she sprang upon him, knocked him supine, twisting in his arms, wiry and ferocious. She ravished him with sloppy kisses and nipped his lips, his tongue. She tasted of liquor and blood and darkness. Her skin was damp and hot against him. Her hair was matted and tangled and smelled of animal sweat. (p. 63)
It is difficult not to recoil, especially as a female reader. Not one of the stories in The Imago Sequence scared me, but I was repulsed by them all.
Clearly Laird Barron’s plot-work is influenced by the "cosmic horror" of H. P. Lovecraft, but the terror that it seeks to arouse is too thoroughly suffocated by adjectives and simile-laden sentences, many of which make no sense at all, to have much impact. In "Old Virginia" a man is "an aquamarine phantom, eyes and mouth pools of shadow" (p. 6), leading one to ponder the horrifying qualities of a shade of greenish-blue before realizing that Barron probably means "underwater." In "The Royal Zoo is Closed" (2006), a muddled attempt at stream-of-consciousness narrative, the balance is tipped towards the ridiculous: "Sometimes earnest dollars amounted to more than a hill of beans in a world of spoons" (p. 192). Worst of all, however, are the over-blown descriptive passages like the following from "Shiva, Open Your Eyes" (2001):
His relentless eyes adjusted by rapid degrees, fastening on a mass of sea-green tarpaulin gone velvet in the subterranean illume. This sequestered mass reared above the exposed gulf of loft, nearly brushing the venerable center-beam, unexpressive in its context, though immense and bounded by that gravid force to founding dirt. (pp. 23-24)
Setting aside the dizzying meter, let's count the adjectives. There are eleven. None of them are being used correctly. Eyes cannot really be "relentless," that is "implacable, sustained, or unremitting." A gaze or a look can be these things, but not eyes. Subterranean is fine, meaning "underground," but "illume" is a poetic form of "illuminate" and makes no sense at all; I can only assume Barron meant "gloom," which has the same resonance. Sequestered can mean "retired into seclusion" (although that is not its primary definition), which works I suppose, but it doesn’t have the sinister qualities that Barron wants to suggest. Nuns are sequestered; monsters are not. The rest just confuses the hell out of me. How can the "mass" be "unexpressive in its context"? Does Barron mean that it being in the barn tells us nothing about it? Or that it isn’t moving? Or that the man with the relentless eyes is puzzled by it? And what is a gravid force? Gravid means "pregnant," although it can be used to mean "heavy," as in "I am gravid with child." But it isn’t a force. Does Barron mean it is held down by gravity? And "founding dirt"? I have no idea. All in all it amounts to using a lot of rare, Latinate words to no effect.
There are times when Barron is reaching for something interesting. My favorite story in the volume, "Parallax" (2005), in which a couple lose sight of each other after a rupture in reality, is haunting and neat. Like "Bulldozer" it plays with form, mixing first person narrative with snippets of interviews and excerpts from newspaper articles. It's nothing new, but at least it has blood flowing to it. It has promise. It offers some glimmer of hope that maybe if Barron could just get himself a new plot, and junk his thesaurus, he might be worth looking at again.
[You can read the second half of Victoria's review here.]
Victoria Hoyle works as a medieval archives assistant and researcher in York, U.K., where she lives with her partner and two guinea pigs. She reads as widely as she can, both in genre fiction and out of it, but with a penchant for the weird and small press. She litblogs at Eve's Alexandria with four friends and can be contacted by email at email@example.com.
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