Dale Bailey is a 30-something fantasist from North Carolina whose work has appeared regularly in Fantasy & Science Fiction since 1993. The best of his work has been collected in this, his debut collection, from Golden Gryphon Press.
Most of the stories in the collection are dark fantasy, although a couple—"Exodus," set in a future where the old increasingly dominate the demographics of society, and "Sheep's Clothing," a near-future vision of nanotechnology—are straightforward SF.
Many of the stories, such as "Quinn's Way," are about the relationship between sons and fathers. The latter are often absent or abusive, most clearly in this story, set in the small town of Sauls Run, West Virginia, in 1947. When a carnival visits early one morning, two young boys see the possibility of escape from their torment. Bailey freely admits to paying homage to Something Wicked This Way Comes, but his work is far darker than anything Bradbury ever wrote; the boys come to realize that everything that they do has consequences, and each choice—to stay or to go—they make has a price.
Bradbury's influence is also clear in the title story. In an alternative 1960s America, an orphaned 12-year-old moves to rural Missouri to live with his great-aunt. She buys a robot, a resurrection man, to act as a surrogate father, and ostensibly the story is about the boy's growing love of baseball. But this lovely, elegiac look at loss is as much about science fiction as it is about sport, haunted as it is by the ghosts of the Golden Age of Science Fiction.
Another story concerning a 12-year-old without a father is "The Anencephalic Fields," about a boy living in mutual hatred with his mother. She is a biotech researcher in a rural Kentucky on the cusp of anarchy, tending a farm that grows brainless bodies to be harvested for their organs. The boy's father has abandoned the family for another woman, and the fragile truce between mother and son is shattered when another researcher arrives with his girlfriend. It's a dark piece, as befits an outstanding story narrated by an embittered, sexually confused adolescent, but not without hope.
Bailey's stories seem to get better with length, and the weakest stories tend to be the shortest, although even the runts are worth an examination. "Home Burial" is an early story, a standard piece of Southern Gothic. "Touched" is about a family caught up in a strike in the 1920s North Carolina coalfields. "The Census Taker" has some of the most beautiful and haunting descriptions in the whole book, when the narrator takes his eponymous visitor out into the Florida swamps.
Several of the stories also feature standard horror plots cleverly reinvented, as in "Cockroach," which is perhaps the darkest story in the book. Here Bailey inverts his other stories, making the father the protagonist, and reworking Rosemary's Baby from his perspective, anxiously awaiting with his wife the birth of their first child. Bailey plays with the expectant parent's anxieties in a dark, edgy story full of ambiguity.
In "Death and Suffrage" the dead erupt from their graves to march on the polls, and disrupt the presidential election. But rather than simply re-telling Night of the Living Dead, Bailey instead highlights the impact of this event on society from a psychological perspective, and especially on the campaign team of one of the candidates. He also has another, subtler agenda, and this is a fine character study, as well as a sly examination of the American political landscape at the turn of the millennium.
"In Green's Dominion" is the last and longest story in the book. Sylvia Woodbine, a retired teacher with a passion for gardening, is haunted by memories of a largely lonely life, while a monstrous weed growing on the border between her garden and the adjacent forest mirrors her despair. It is a marvelous, haunting evocation of the importance of taking advantage of life's opportunities.
Bailey's fantasies are fables with a social conscience, although the morality never compromises the narrative drive; they shine a light on aspects of the world that we might never consider, and enrich our view of it. This collection shows how good a writer Bailey is, and allows us to peek into corners of rural America that we might never have otherwise seen.