The Silver Gryphon
edited by Gary Turner and Marty Halpern
Golden Gryphon Press ($27.95)
And Other Magic for the Soul
edited by Chris Reed and David Memmott
Back Brain Recluse 24 / Wordcraft of Oregon ($16.95)
by Alan DeNiro
Recently there has been a bumper crop of strong original anthologies (that is, with no or few reprints) that have incorporated genre elements into their contents. Some of these have come from relatively surprising sources, such as Conjunctions or McSweeney's, indicating that something of a sea change is afoot. Perhaps it's the permeability of blockbuster sci-fi film into the popular lexicon. Or it could be that the reality of our everyday lives has increasingly seemed like science fiction--and not of the Jetsons, gee-whiz variety, but rather the paranoid, malcontent societies envisioned by Phillip K. Dick and J. G. Ballard. This is less the result of technological innovation per se and more the product of an open-ended mood, unassailable by logic.
So how are contemporary genre venues handling this new-found interest in their materials? Is it business as usual, or a chance to cross-fertilize with other forms of literature? Two new anthologies, each from small independent publishers, seem to be tackling this genre blur from different corners of the speculative fiction field, but both subtly point towards repositioning the small presses as a crux of the genre. Indeed, speculative fiction small presses have been able to pick up the load where the larger presses have, to a large degree, sloughed off--particularly in the realm of short fiction.
The Silver Gryphon is a superb example of this. It has one story by each of the authors that Golden Gryphon Press has published previously. There is significant symmetry here in that this is the press's 25th book, a milestone worth celebrating in this publishing climate. Golden Gryphon's authors come from a slew of different perspectives, and this volume demonstrates how such an invigorating range can contribute to the tenor of a well-made anthology. But because the writers within tend to be cognizant of a tradition with certain parameters, however loose they may be, it also shows how various fictions are coded to draw in different audiences, which may or may not work against the grain of each other.
Take the Joe Lansdale story "Fire Dog" that closes out The Silver Gryphon. Lansdale is most noted as a horror writer, so we may expect his story to be "horrific"--and horrific it is, with a conclusion that is as inevitable as Greek tragedy but no less compelling because of that. But put this story on a typewritten sheet of paper with no name, and the reading experience might be vastly different; the story could have easily fit into an avant-garde literary magazine, with its whiplash metafictional premise that would have made Barthleme proud:
The suit fit perfectly, though Jim did feel a bit exposed. Still, he had to admit there was something refreshing about the exposure. He wore the suit into the break room, following the Chief.
Rex, the current firedog, was sprawled on the couch watching a cop show. His suit looked worn, even a bit smoke stained. He was tired around the eyes. His jowls drooped.
"This is our new fire dog," the Chief said.
Rex turned and looked at Jim, said, "I'm not out the door, already you got a guy in the suit?"
The Silver Gryphon makes a compelling case, then, for the exciting interstices at the center of the field. It begins with three juggernauts: James Patrick Kelly's "Mother" depicts an amazingly rendered future world involving aliens and an interstate cycling ride, bleak and tender at the same time; Jeffrey Ford's "Present from the Past" orbits a little closer to home, with its deft portrayal of a mother's death and the New Jersey landscape her family inhabits; and "The Door Gunner" by Michael Bishop is a sweeping story of Vietnam, in which a dead private keeps fighting--which in lesser hands might lead to the worst kind of retro zombie movie excesses, but "The Door Gunner" is more in the tradition of The Things They Carried than Dawn of the Dead. This opening triumvirate creates a powerful meditation on death and family, and exhibits how skillful use of genre tropes can create visionary literature.
There are other wonderful stories here as well. Paul DiFillipo's nutty, yet scientifically grounded, "What's Up Tiger Lily?" pushes all the right storytelling buttons, doing everything Joshua Ortega's much hyped Frequencies tried to do (but in the end couldn't) in a fraction of the space. Warren Rochelle's "The Golden Boy," though understated on the surface, is arguably the weirdest story in the collection; it slowly unveils a cauldron of alternate history in which fairie folk are rounded up into camps and North America controlled by an oppressive monarchy. The story is sometimes dulcet, sometimes deeply unsettling, but always striking; interestingly it's the ordinary scenes, such as the adolescent protagonist going to the zoo with his class, that are the most affecting (though there aren't lions and tigers in the cages, but werewolves).
Also quite notable is "After Ildiko" by Lucius Shepard. In some ways, the story mines familiar territory for the author, including the menacing, grungy Central American landscape acting as a reference point for the characters' inner lives. But Shepard is one of the finest prose stylists around, and manages in a relatively short space to create a devastating portrait of a foolish American traveler decidedly out of his element; there is a creeping inexorability to the plot that readers of Patricia Highsmith would appreciate. At the other end of the spectrum, the anthology has a few pieces that, while not exactly light, certainly invoke the pleasures of action/adventure--though even these have off-kilter subtleties that belie their pulp roots. For example, R. Garcia Y Robertson--arguably the best, most literate writer of adventure fiction working today--adds the wonderful "Far Barbary" to his melange of stories; set in Central Asia during a fierce medieval war, its elements of pure fantasia (a city floating on a lake, air-ships) are balanced with a healthy dose of political realism.
Not quite everything works in The Silver Gryphon; there are a few merely competent stories that are paint-by-numbers science fiction, and the stories are all over the map. But its very eclecticism, without making the whole project feel slapdash, proves to be a huge asset. Solidly in the "radical center" of the field, the anthology would work well as a small window, especially for non-genre readers, into the here-and-now of science fiction and fantasy. The very fact that bracing anthologies like this are seldom put out by larger genre publishers speaks to the fact that presses like Golden Gryphon are fulfilling a dramatic need in the marketplace.
This is also true for the amazing Angel Body. Most of the stories herein have a quiet edginess to them, working against the sweetness implicit in the title. Originally published in the United Kingdom as an issue of the experimental small press magazine Back Brain Recluse, this anthology showcases writers who have previously published on the small press Wordcraft of Oregon. There is a more focused tonal argument at work here, even if the authors in Angel Body overall are less well known than their counterparts in The Silver Gryphon, and the stories play off each other in more pronounced (albeit still oblique) ways. For example, Lance Olsen's "Moving" is a stunning, understated story of a couple who slowly disengage with nearly all of their material possessions and interest in the world at large. The story hovers on the boundary between satirizing and lionizing their choices. Immediately following "Moving" is the gorgeously Borgesian "Lupe Varga, Deceased," by Brian Evenson, which begins with this doozy:
When they found the artist Georges Pont-du-Lyon Traba's body on the main street of the capital, it had been penetrated by hundreds of miniature arrows. The fletching of each arrow consisted of a small white scrap of paper with writing on it, similar to the piece of paper found in a Chinese fortune cookie. . . . They removed all 2,761 arrows and read the notes attached to them. All were identical, reading:
You shall take a trip to the Orient
It was a false fortune, however, for Traba was dead.
Metaphysical strangeness of the highest order ensues. Another strong entry is "The Man Who Adopted Dead Children" by Conger Beasley, Jr.--the title itself is like a one-line story. Dealing with an isolated South Carolinian bachelor who fulfills an unexplained inner need by visiting morgues and bringing the embalmed bodies of hundreds children to his estate, the story mines the same territory as Gogol's Dead Souls; the portrait of the protagonist isn't exactly sympathetic, but we see him as more of a child of his battered, post-Reconstruction world.
There are many other stories in Angel Body that swing for the fences (and more often than not, hit the ball out of the park). Tom Whalen's "Concerning the Vampire" not only makes a contemporary story about a vampire actually interesting (no small feat!), but creates a moving portrait of a vampire who is pretty much a big dork, proud of the way he slices his tomatoes and corrects a professor about philosophy. "Frida Kahlo, Pierced by Time," by Lorraine Schein, has a fairly self-explanatory title at first glance, but the "H.G. Wells on acid" plot twists are anything but predictable. And "Burrito Meltdown" by Ernest Hogan is a story involving extra-terrestrials, human sacrifice, and a mysterious, viral substance known as Crossover Salsa. Although at first glance the narrative seems goofy, underneath the zaniness is a fierce exploration of ethnicity, mythology, and conspiracy theories. The language takes on a fiery, transformative bent:
Soon the Chevy was sliding down a beam of light from a pyramid-shaped UFO. The wheels touched down on the Beltway at sixty miles per hour. The melting burritos glowed.
Angel Body is further proof that Wordcraft of Oregon is one of the more underrated presses not only of science fiction, but of literature in general. Its own merits aside, the book provides a fine sampling of Wordcraft's authors, who are well worth investigating on their own--for example, Misha Nogha's Red Spider White Web is arguably the definitive feminist cyberpunk text, a searing work that crashes upon the reader like a catastrophe, not unlike many of the stories in this anthology. (Nogha also contributes an excellent piece of flash fiction to Angel Body, "The Carnelian Cat").
Each of these anthologies represent speculative fiction at its unapologetic best, utilizing a broad palette of fictional techniques; together, they are a crucial testament that this field is anything but fallow. Considering that change is ever coming (changing economics, demographics, reading sensibilities), the questions remain: How do those in the speculative fiction field perceive the increasing amorphousness of the field itself? Is it a threat or an opportunity? A call to arms to protect the confines of the genre, or a chance to meander in the messy scrublands in between? These questions have no easy answers. But these anthologies, in their own ways, are at least posing the questions, which is harder than it sounds.