Discovering Richard Parks's fiction is like discovering a wise zen master pumping gas at a service station or a weathered swami slinging burgers at your favorite corner diner: transcendence in the midst of the ordinary, right where it ought to be. In Parks's work, profound truths are tucked between the quirky and the quotidian, folded with the complex simplicity of origami.
His stories have appeared in an enviable assortment of genre publications, and he ranges with ease through the subgenres. A variety of his work is represented in this Obscura Press collection, which comprises fifteen stories, all but one originally published over the last seven years in such magazines as Asimov's, Realms of Fantasy, Science Fiction Age, and Weird Tales, and such anthologies as Not of Woman Born.
Parks's fiction, while often deceptively simple, is a study in contrasts. That's appropriate, because so is the human heart. And so is Parks: in the introduction, Parke Godwin describes the author he first met nearly twenty-five years ago, as being "a taciturn kid from Mississippi who mumbled diffidently over the phone, looked like a good ol' boy fullback from Dogpatch, and wrote like a prophet." It's what Parks does with the elusive space between contrasting elements that marks him as such a fine writer. Parks's narrative hand reaches through the interstices of mythic and mimetic, between the inebriating mist of enchantment and the rocky scree of cynicism, down into a deep still place as familiar as it is alien. When the hand comes up, it's the reader's own heart displayed on the palm.
Fairy tales are clearly a focal point of this collection, given its subtitle, and the titular "Ogre's Wife" will appeal to anyone who wants their fairy tales to have a fresh perspective and maybe a twist but still feel like the Grimms' stories they love. The moving "Beauty of Things Unseen" and the entertaining "My Lord Teaser" (sort of Le Morte d'Arthur meets the Sidhe) carry the faerie bite of the Celtic, but elsewhere Parks draws as fully and strongly from the Japanese ("The God of Children," "A Place to Begin"), the Norse/Teutonic ("The Trickster's Wife"), the Grecian ("Doing Time in the Wild Hunt"), the Judeo-Christian ("Judgment Day"), and the Chinese ("Golden Bell, Seven, and the Marquis of Zen").
He explores the collective unconscious through one cultural entry point after another, and then he creates a few of his own, as in "Take a Long Step," which opens, "The Walker had been a god once. He would soon be one again, these things tending to be cyclical. He was already hearing voices. Not the average, everyday kill-strangers-for-no-good-reason voices. Real voices. Real people." Real voices and real people are exactly what we get in Parks's work, along with gods and tricksters, kami and sidhe, ghosts and genetic reconstructions.
Perhaps more unusual, Parks has a particular knack for original allegory -- stories specific to his own imagination that resonate with the universality of myth. I'd love to hear Stith Thompson's or Joseph Campbell's take on the sly creation tale "How Konti Scrounged the World," in which an ostensibly insignificant godling sets out to create a world with nothing more than an old cast-off sack he found and a talent for bartering with the greater gods for surplus elements. His collection and exchange of bits of earth and cloud and greenness cross-pollinates the other gods' worlds, and as the effects multiply we're left with a refreshing sense of life as a synergistic blend of self and other -- what we start out with, what we acquire from those around us, and what we give in return.
Parks also blends mythic motifs into startlingly effective modern short stories, as in "Doing Time in the Wild Hunt," a quiet but potent portrait of marriage as a primal forest of fear and desire.
"Doing Time in the Wild Hunt" is the piece original to this collection, and it happens to include this exchange, between a human named Ray and an "odd arrangement of leaves and twigs that might have been a face, except it looked just like Ray and there was nothing served admitting that":
"Are you the Green Man?"
"Your mother read you fairy tales." It sounded like an accusation. "Bad influence, those. They feed the imagination with all sorts of nonsense. They make you do strange things."
"Like leave everything you know to chase everything you do not. Or is there some other reason you're here?"
Those words sum up, all by their metafictional selves, the beauty and terror -- and self-examination, on the part of both readers and characters -- Parks's brand of fiction engenders. When you sit down to read a Parks story, you can't be sure what to expect, even when it appears in a heavily genre-targeted venue. Published together, his works invite us on an enchanted hunt through an eclectic, unorthodox forest.
Straightforward contemporary fantasy isn't given short shrift, however ("Borrowed Lives" is a magical short piece in which an old snapshot purchased at a flea market prompts more than musing on the road not taken), and neither is science fiction ("Doppels" is an absorbing piece about identity, virtual reality, corporate politics in the entertainment industry, and media icons taking on a life of their own). And then there's a combination: the Eli Mothersbaugh stories ("Wrecks," "The God of Children," "A Respectful Silence"), which apply SFnal technology to the classic ghost story with powerful results. Parks gives us excellent ghosts, but he doesn't neglect the most appealing aspects of ghost stories: mystery (what past event caused this haunting?) and characterization (identifying and solving the personal grievances of haunts and the people affected by them). It's not surprising that the Eli Mothersbaugh stories have their own fan following. With everyone else, I clamor for more.
The only authors I can offer in comparison are other authors who defy comparison: Jonathan Carroll (also mentioned in Godwin's introduction), Michael Bishop, James Blaylock, Andy Duncan, Graham Joyce. Parks's work is as proficient and poignant, as witty and wondrous, but in its own inimitable way -- profound and conversational, innocent and wise, mannered and informal, naive and cunning, everyday and eternal. He's a remarkable writer with a unique sensibility. It's about time that was showcased in a fine collection like this.
A copyeditor and musician from New York, Terry McGarry is the author of the fantasy novels Illumination and The Binder's Road, both set in Eiden Myr. Her short fiction has appeared in more than three dozen magazines and anthologies, and her genre poetry is collected in the award-winning chapbook Imprinting.