Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Review of Thirteen Phantasms by James Blaylock

It’s cherrypicking, I know. But sometimes an author introduces their collection in such an organic, telling fashion that it’s impossible not to jump on for the ride. Starting with a giant wooden carving of dogs worth $500 encountered as a child, and moving to the other random, exotic things encountered in his life for sale for $500, Blaylock, in the introduction to his 2000 collection Thirteen Phantasms, draws a parallel to not only the parallel manner in which the subsequent stories’ are also of arbitrary natures and substances, but likewise to the ebb and flow of life, and how it shapes the stories we write or tell in memory. Covering a gamut of material, times, settings, and possibilities, the metaphor is extremely apt—hence I’m shamelessly rehashing it. (But do read Blaylock’s intro; it’s miles better.)

Twenty-three years in the making, Thirteen Phantasms is Blaylock’s first collection of short stories. Not a prolific writer of short fiction, the timing is appropriate given the collection brings together every, single piece Blaylock published between 1977 and 1999. A mix, it includes three stories from the popular Langdon St. Ives steampunk universe, one from his Land of Dreams setting, two pieces co-written with Tim Powers, and variety of individual stories that cover everything from pulp fiction nostalgia to dwarf merchants, UFOs to men finding better ways of behaving toward their wives. Despite the paucity of numbers, Blaylock possesses a good touch for short fiction given the stories in Thirteen Phantasms are collectively more engaging than some of his novels.

A bit of nostalgia for yesteryear science fiction and fantasy, the title story tells of Landers, a man who helps an elderly lady clean out her attic after her husband passes away. The effort including the man’s boxes of old Astounding magazines, on a whim Landers decides to use one of the yellowed order forms to mail in for a Clark Ashton Smith collection. To his surprise, the collection arrives, in turn sparking further ideas… Falling nicely in line with the nostalgia of “Thirteen Phantasms” is “Red Planet”—another Astounding-ish story. About a goofy guy on a cross-country, let’s-see-what-happens bus trip, his sense of carefree takes a shot in the arm when he discovers where one bus ticket might take him. (The old lady on for the ride is the icing on the cake.)

Were it written today, one might mistake “The Pink of Fading Neon” for a China Mieville piece. Atmospheric with a touch of Weird, it tells of a region—an unnamed place—undergoing transformation in quietly poignant, almost nostalgic fashion. Death the teacher required to educate one elderly man on the unperceived value of his spouse, “The Olde Curiosity Shop” finds Doyle Jimmerson searching for her knick knacks in an antique shop after her untimely death. The fantastical elements used to fine allegorical effect, dwarves and vampires never had such domestic meaning. Another domestic story—the wife not only alive but feisty this time around, “Doughnuts” is a small town California version of The Remains of the Day. One man coming to terms with his own habits in the mirror of his wife’s, it’s likewise an educatory story for the main character, and done in a way everybody can relate to—a “Let he who is without sin be the first to…” fashion.

The title (intentionally?) misleading, “Bugs” is a subtly funny yet real-world story of a bookshop owner with romantic problems. Inspired by six-legged creatures he finds in his shop, he goes home to celebrate his wedding anniversary as he never has. Childhood acquaintances accidentally running across one another in St. Malo, France, the quirky habit of one isn’t lost to adulthood in “Nets of Silver and Gold”. Seemingly eccentric, the childhood friend begins talking about strange appearances through the keyhole in his hotel. When otherworldy things begin appearing, however, things truly become strange.

As mentioned, there are three Langdon St. Ives stories in the collection, including the story idea which started it all. The Ape-Box Affair” has many of the trademarks of Golden Age fantastika yet bears a modern sensibility—an awareness of what it’s doing.  An eccentric gentleman scientist, Langdon St. Ives, has built a rocket ship, and his test pilot is an orangutan named Newton.  Forgetting to fill the food box before lighting the fuse, however, has dire circumstances, as the ape, cheated of his vittles mid-flight, sets to pushing buttons, sending the ship careening back to London.  Emerging from the wreckage a smoldering, alien visage, London may never be the same as Newton wanders the city. An origins story, “The Idol’s Eye” tells of how St. Ives’ greatest nemesis Narbando came to be.  Starting innocently enough in the jungles of Java, one wild umbrella stab later, and the world is a different place.  St. Ives’ gang getting up to their typical antics, this story has a dark fate for one even as the evil genius comes to life. A look at the butterfly effect as only St. Ives/Blaylock can, “Two Views of a Cave Painting” starts with St. Ives’ discovery of a small, overlooked cave in the Surrey countryside.  Entering the cave, he finds an ancient painting, as well as the fact the cave is a time traveling portal—the painting, in fact being created in real-time by a mysterious Neanderthal from ages past.  Naturally, St. Ives and his companions go exploring in the past.  But to what effect?

The collection features two collaborative efforts with Blaylock’s good friend, Tim Powers. The first is “The Better Boy.” A story tinkering with the gray between fate and karma, it weds one man’s love of raising tomatoes with his actions outside the garden. Losing his pants (literally) in the early going, he learns some life lessons in the aftermath. The second is “We Traverse Afar”. In it, a suburban Ebenezer Scrooge finds someone—or something (as it were)—scroogier than him, making for an atypical critique of the religious roots of the Christmas holiday.

Winning Blaylock a (deserving) World Fantasy Award, “Paper Dragons” tells of a man who becomes involved in his neighbor’s bizarre project to reconstruct a Chinese parade dragon. Strongly inflected with magic realist m.o., the story is alliterative in the most engaging, human sense, and is a stand out in the collection. Relatively similar in mode but different in appearance to “Paper Dragons”, “Unidentified Objects” takes Blaylock’s introductory $500 hodge-podge and brings it full circle, closing the collection in subtle but fine style. A dreamlike interweaving of past events, out of order and its lens not sharply focused, this story of a man’s flying saucer project is certainly not your average UFO science fiction story.

Overall, I enjoy the Langdon St. Ives’ stories for their escapist adventuring, but they are not my favorite flavor of Blaylock. Such novels as The Last Coin, All the Bells on Earth, and The Paper Grail tend to feature Blaylock at his best. His least fantastical tales, they are rooted in contemporary, domestic life and the eccentric yet quotidian characters who populate it—just like the majority of stories in Thirteen Phantasms. The supernatural the stories possess is just a little spice for the pot. But it may be fair to say the quasi-magic realist stories in the collection—“Paper Dragons” and “Unidentified Objects” (and to some minor degree “Red Planet”) are the best of the collection. Blaylock artistically co-locating an unconventional number of things that have no right being together, they make for colorful, thoughtful reading—the mustard on the collection’s hot dog, and yet another reason to read it.

As (inconveniently) titled, the following are the sixteen stories collected in Thirteen Phantasms:

Thirteen Phantasms
Red Planet
The Ape-Box Affair
Nets of Silver and Gold
The Better Boy (with Tim Powers)
The Pink of Fading Neon
The Old Curiosity Shop
Two Views of a Cave Painting
The Idol's Eye
Paper Dragons
We Traverse Afar (with Tim Powers)
The Shadow on the Doorstep
Myron Chester and the Toads
Unidentified Objects

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