The award-winning short-story writer and editor Kelly Link and her husband, reviewer, publisher, essayist, and occasional fiction writer Gavin J. Grant, have created something of a miniature literary empire for themselves. They preside over Small Beer Press, perhaps the finest publisher of literary fantasy in America today, and several years ago took over the co-editorship of the prestigious anthology The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, which they share with Ellen Datlow. Further, for more than a decade they've published a superb little literary magazine with the delightfully eccentric name Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. Now, Del Rey books is to be commended for having the good sense to make some of the best work from this magazine available to a wider audience.
The anthology consists of a number of different sorts of things. There are a variety of short stories of course (most of them quite short), as well as several very odd pieces that might as well be called short stories for lack of a better label. There are essays (as well as a number of rather strange items that might as well be called essays, again for lack of a better label). There are poems (as well as ... etc.). There are odd comments from the editors that seem to have been included just for the hell of it, including an apology for any chocolate stains that may appear on the book; a short contributor's note for the long-dead British writer Hilaire Belloc (whose work does not appear anywhere within these covers); and a note on selling out. And there are lists, a wide variety of them, including someone's favorite music (The Freight Hoppers' Waiting on the Gravy Train, Manic Street Preachers' Know Your Enemy, etc.); a "Selected List of Chickens"; someone else's favorite music (Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Mad Melancholy Monkey Mind, Drive [a favorite of mine]); a selection of teas from the LCRW kitchen; a list of tomatoes; again etc. This is all inspired silliness but hardly reason enough to shell out $14.95 plus tax to buy the book.
Reason to do that, however, is provided by the fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.
After a genuinely funny Introduction by Dan Chaon, we're treated to the best-known story in the book, Link's own Tiptree Award-winning "Travels with the Snow Queen," a wonderfully mordant feminist send-up of the classic Andersen fairytale written in Link's trademark second person style.
Ladies, has it ever occurred to you that fairytales aren't easy on the feet?
So this is the story so far. You grew up, you fell in love with the boy next door, Kay, the one with the blue eyes who brought you bird feathers and roses, the one who was so good at puzzles. You thought he loved you—maybe he thought he did, too.
The original Andersen story is considerably stranger and more morally ambiguous (and more intensely sexist) than most people, who only half-remember it from childhood, realize. Link, however, has studied the tale closely and her inspired redaction wrings every possible drop of feminist irony from the original.
Another particularly fine piece is Nalo Hopkinson's "Tan-Tan and Dry Bone," a marvelous Caribbean dialect tale later incorporated into her science-fiction novel Midnight Robber, in which the hero, Tan-Tan, is first fooled by the trickster Dry Bone, "the skin-and-bone man," and then, following the advice of Master Crow, turns the tables on her tormentor.
"What a way you taking long today," grumbled Dry Bone.
Yes. Coasting in quiet-quiet on wings the span of a big man, Master Johncrow the corbeau-bird float through the sky. From her window Tan-Tan see him land on the banister rail right beside Dry Bone, so soft that the duppy man ain't even self hear he. She heart start dancing in she chest, light and airy like a masque band flag. Tan-Tan tiptoe out to the front door to watch the drama.
Other outstanding stories include Karen Joy Fowler's "Heartland," which concerns a very odd love affair gone bad; Ray Vukcevich's "Pretending," a ghost story of sorts set at a party in a decommissioned missile silo; Jeffrey Ford's marvelously atmospheric tale "What's Sure to Come," which evokes the dangers involved in betting on the horses even when your grandmother can predict the future; Theodora Goss's somber allegory "The Rapid Advance of Sorrow," which concerns aesthetics and revolution in an intensely symbolic Eastern Europe; Sarah Monette's dark tale of seduction, "Three Letters from the Queen of Elfland"; Jan Lars Jensen's "Happier Days," which begins straightforwardly enough with an extraordinarily common phenomenon, a high school reunion with a "Happy Days" theme, and then gets very strange indeed; and Philip Raines and Harvey Welles's mysterious "The Fishie," another dialect tale (which I'm still trying to figure out) that seems to take place in a world where the various elements (earth, air, fire, water) have been mixed improperly, so that gigantic fish can be born out of the rocky ground.
Closing out the anthology is Cara Spindler and David Erik Nelson's bizarre "You Were Neither Hot Nor Cold, But Lukewarm, and So I Spit You Out," which centers on a "Famous and Talented Horror Author" who decides, seemingly without real evidence, that his wife is actually a monster, "a tentacle thing digging out my flesh with razored suckers, with fangs and venom-slavering maw," while he sleeps. The protagonist goes for help to his brother, "the Club-Footed Janitor," who is also, unbeknownst to either of them, a professional hit man. Only later does the "Author" realize that maybe he kind of likes rough and monstrous sex (or some equivalent thereof) after all, that maybe he too has his monstrous side and that perhaps he and his wife are two of a kind, or more accurately two halves of a Platonic whole.
The next day the Famous and Talented Horror Author awoke next
to his soft, sleep-sighing wife, their sheets mud-draggled and the warm
blood still tacky on their body, and for the first instant in his life he was
truly alive to what love is.
Notice those key words, "their body," singular. The utter strangeness implied by that phrase may well sum up the fiction in The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet better than any other phrase in the book. These are very strange stories. In truth, relatively few of them are likely to appeal to more traditional or conservative genre readers.
The essays in the book tend to be equally strange. Among the best are Gavin J. Grant's own "Scotch: An Essay into a Drink," which combines history with recipes and a long paragraph of anti-gin conspiracy theory; Richard Butner's pro-gin "How to Make a Martini" (do we sense a motif here?); William Smith's entirely straight and quite trenchant review of Don't Look Now, a lovely and largely forgotten 1973 ghost film by Nicolas Roeg; a couple of examples of Gwenda Bond's hilariously funny "Dear Aunt Gwenda" column, an LCRW mainstay; Lawrence Schimel's hilarious look at "The Well-Dressed Wolf," an examination of crossdressing in "Little Red Riding Hood" and elsewhere, ably illustrated by Sara Rojo; and Grant's "Homeland Security," an upsetting account of life as a resident alien in post 9/11 America, which at some point (I'm really not sure where) appears to turn into what may or may not be science fiction.
Finally there's the poetry, which is also excellent. Among the pieces that stood out for me are Ian McDowell's Don Marquis take off, "Mehitobel was Queen of the Night"; Mark Rudolph's grim little tale of a failed father-son relationship, "My Father's Ghost"; David Blair's satiric zombie poem, "For George Romero"; and Nan Fry's powerful "The Wolf's Story," which recasts "Little Red Riding Hood" (another motif?) from the wolf's viewpoint as a tale of Nature taking revenge against those who would despoil the environment:
I was hungry.
You killed all the deer,
Cut down my forest ...
Full at last, I fell asleep,
The hunter cut me open,
Took them from me, and filled
me with stones. They say I died then.
But whenever you hear of children
Given stones for supper, I am among you.
My name is Hunger.
Is it my imagination or does that last stanza echo Tom Joad's great speech from The Grapes of Wrath?
To conclude, this is one of the finest reprint anthologies I've read in years, and a fitting testimony to Link and Grant's editorial acumen. Readers who like their fantasy literary, dark, and a tad absurd should love this book.
Michael Levy teaches English at an obscure Wisconsin university and is a past president of both the Science Fiction Research Association and the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.
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