Lack of Distinction(s)
"We'd all be better served by a recognition of good fantastic
literature and a devotion to high quality rather than quantifiers.
Instead of 'supporting the genre,' support what's best about it."
Originally appeared in Cemetery Dance #50
(Written: May 21, 2004)
About Golden Gryphon
A good argument can be made, although I'll not make it here, that
distinctions between science fiction, fantasy, and horror have been
detrimental to the fiction of the fantastic for a number of years.
For those of us who were first attracted to "genre" by the dangerous
visions of Harlan Ellison, P.K. Dick, Samuel Delany, Fritz Lieber, J.G.
Ballard, Roger Zelazny, and so many others, our fictional faith was
founded in imaginative literature as a whole, without regard for
distinctions between what was called science fiction, fantasy, or
horror, let alone further definitions between sub-genera.
We were attracted by the ideas and the imagination of the fiction.
Although they were never the main attraction, we even enjoyed the
occasional ride on a shiny spaceship of hard SF (especially if the
characters were as important as the hardware) or liked the mighty swing
of a barbarian sword once in awhile (if there was as much style as sinew
and a real story). Give us the best wizardry laced with allegorical
wisdom and we'd warm-up to it. We'd even slum with the devil's spawn and
make-out with the occasional monster -- if they were revelatory
re-inventions and not rehashed regurgitations.
Some of us preferred the darker brew more often than not, but it was
still part of the mix and it still is. Even if "science fiction readers"
get ill at the thought of a unicorn, they do not disdain good "fantasy."
SF/F readers who say "I don't like horror" will invariably admit they
love certain works of literature that are, without any cognitive
stretch, "horror" or "dark fantasy."
I'm not denying there are identifiable differences in the whole. It is
just that we'd all be better served by a recognition of good fantastic
literature and a devotion to high quality rather than quantifiers.
Instead of "supporting the genre," support what's best about it. Realize
nothing is gained, and quite a bit is lost, by sustaining anything
simple because it's called by one name or another.
Golden Gryphon Press was founded in 1997 by James Turner. Starting in
1971 Turner had been the editor at historically important small press
Arkham House. He'd continued to publish the canonical authors, but
started concentrating more on contemporary science fiction, fantasy, and
horror writers, showcasing them in high quality short story collections.
The way I heard the story, Arkham's owners fired him in 1996, because
they wanted to focus on what had gone before (a.k.a. "classics") as
opposed to authors who were still alive and kicking.
So, Turner established Golden Gryphon, and continued to publish
contemporary authors of merit in well-turned out tomes. Turner died in
1999 and his brother, Gary, and Gary's wife, Geri, took over the press.
Marty Halpern signed on as an editor in 1999. By the end of this year,
Golden Gryphon will have published a total of 40 books and have a roster
of authors that includes Kage Baker, Neal Barrett Jr., Michael Bishop,
Andy Duncan, George Alec Effinger, Jeffrey Ford, Nancy Kress, Joe R.
Lansdale, Richard Paul Russo, Pamela Sargent, Lucius Shepard, Howard
Waldrop, and Ian Watson.
At this writing (early May) Golden Gryphon has four "dark" titles fairly
hot off the presses. Not only are all four worth reading, they happen to
be good examples of how the best fiction continues to further blur genre
Golden Gryphon's Web site: www.goldengryphon.com
Breathmoss and Other Exhalations
Ian R. MacLeod
Golden Gryphon. $24.95. 310p
It's probably unfair to even try to summarize this spectacular
collection of short stories from British author Ian R. McLeod. At the
luminous center of each story is the light of an individual character
that the author takes and focuses through his literary prism. The result
is a wide spectrum of colors -- not all of which are immediately
apparent. Some can not be seen with the naked eye, but are still deeply
felt by the naked soul.
Invariably, MacLeod's singular luminaire seeks out whatever is just
beyond the boundaries that are assumed to be established. Life may be
good where one is, but destiny lies in the stars. One may attain human
perfection, but the true perfection of being must be found outside of
one's humanity. Love and caring is fulfilling, but always flawed and
never complete. There is magic or hope just past the mundane and
hopeless. Truth is never simple or close at hand. Both hidden wonders
and dark matters are just out of reach: if we stretch far enough, they
will be within our grasp -- but should we make that stretch? These are
dangerous visions: sometime dark, sometime redemptive, always
Stylistically, McLeod's prose is shaped to story and character, but,
just as surely, story and character shape the prose. Few writers can
achieve the variety and breadth necessarily for such synthesis, but
McLeod does so effortlessly.
In "Breathmoss" McLeod takes the familiar focus of a coming-of-age story
and, although nothing is said that has not been said before, it is said
in a way that is utterly convincing. Set in a far future in which
humankind is predominately female, the author creates a pleasantly
functional, if slightly conforming, society of fulfilled women. As
adolescent protagonist, Jalila, matures and learns, the pace and detail
somehow make this novella as comprehensive and nuanced as any novel.
In "Verglas," being human is not enough and a man's wife and children
forsake their humanity to become ecologically fitting winged scavengers.
A fey young girl gives an aging, ill composer one final glimpse of
something beyond the average ken in the "The Noonday Pool." "New Light
on the Drake Equation" finds the last remaining seeker of
extraterrestrial life at the end of his life, ridiculed, alone,
impoverished, and drunk. By story's end both character and reader know
both wonder and mystery. "Isabel of the Fall" is set in the same
universe as "Breathmoss" and reminds us that even though the facts are
plain, truth is often not discernable. It is a story that should be read
and re-read and savored.
The World Fantasy-award winning "The Chop Girl" is set during World War
II on an RAF base where death is a constant and luck a palpable reality
for the young airmen. One girl is identified as a bringer of bad luck, a
"death flower." But the true chill of the tale comes when she meets her
"lucky" counterpart, a flyer who never dies, but who suffers a thousand
deaths. McLeod convincingly captures both the feel of the era and the
emotions of his characters while proving the supernatural - or at least
the belief in it -- still has a trick or two left to be exploited.
"The Summer Isles," another World Fantasy winner, is an alternate
history of an England that lost WWI. In the climate of disgrace and
powerlessness, beset with inflation, the English make decisions similar
to those made in historic Germany. A charismatic "man of the people" is
elected to power and his policies of "Modernism" are as devastating to
Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals as Hitler's. The brilliance of this small
masterpiece is that the story is told from the point of view of a
homosexual historian with a unique relationship to the fascist leader.
If one needs an argument for the dissolution of whatever distinctions
can be made between science fiction and fantasy and horror and a final
amalgam of fantastic literature -- find it here. None of these works were
published as "horror." The two most identifiable as "science fiction"
("Verglas") and "fantasy" ("The Noonday Pool") were published in The
Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the rest in the science
fictional publications such as Asimov's, Interzone, and SCI FICTION.
Several could just as easily been published as "literary."
If you've confined your search for dark fiction to any recognizable
"horror" venue, you probably missed most of these stories. ["The Chop
Girl," was, at least, was reprinted in Datlow & Windling's The Year's
Best Fantasy and Horror: Thirteenth Annual Collection (St. Martin's
Griffin 2000).] Here's your chance to catch up with them now.
The Atrocity Archives
Golden Gryphon. $24.95. 310p
The Atrocity Archives consists of one novel, The Atrocity Archive, and
one novella, The Concrete Jungle. The first was originally published in
serial form. The second is original to the volume.
The universe of The Atrocity Archive is quite similar to what we
perceive ours to be, except it is definitely in an Everett-Wheeler
(don't ask me what happened to "- Graham," I'm just a simple country
horror reviewer) cosmology of multiuniverses. Although several of these
universes are mentioned, only the one in which H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu
mythos is real matters here. What might be called "magic" never worked
too well (although there are hints that dabblers like Dee and Crowley
and a few mystics had small successes) until Alan Turing postulated his
final Theorem (the one we of which we know nothing in this universe) in
1953. Not only did this disprove the Church-Turing thesis (which, in our
universe is assumed to be true) but set the stage for the use of
Platonic mathematical formulae/incantations that can be used to call
forth nameless gibbering monstrosities as well as rip holes in the
Obviously power of such magnitude must be kept from the hands of
evildoers, hacker-geeks, bored grad students, and smarties who
inadvertently stumble onto the secrets of the universe. Thus arose the
need for extra-secret secret services; someone has to keep the
metaphysical lid on, preserve occult maths for the forces of democracy,
and generally take care of the occasional nastiness from out of space
and out of time. The Brit version is the Laundry. Its self-perpetuating
bureaucracy is staffed (at least partially, perhaps primarily) by the
aforementioned geek-grad-smarties who happen onto hidden knowledge and
are then whisked into the service of their country. They have some
choice in the matter, of course. They can keep their mouths shut and
function as paper pushers or low-level functionaries until pension time;
they can become active agents and risk all; or they can -- well, let's
just say with the third choice you run out of choices.
Our protagonist is Robert "Bob" Howard (one of the many little
Lovecraftian in-jokes in the novel) who joined the Laundry under just
such circumstances. As a student, Bob worked out a geometry curve that
iterated a method for invoking Nyarlarhotep. The Powers That Be saved
him (and many innocent bystanders) from himself, let him in on some of
he secrets, and clasped him to its bureaucratic bosom. As our story
opens he has decided to make a career of the Laundry in active service
rather than opting for the safe and secure tech support course.
Unfortunately, readers won't need non-Euclidean geometries to find that,
as a character, Bob is a bit flat. He's also a handy store of background
knowledge of Laundry matters with which to Explain Things to Us All,
even if it is not quite logical for him to have such knowledge. After
some bumbling, insubordination, and a great deal of cracking wise,
however, he eventually turns into a true blue -- if not always by the
book and therefore superior -- spook before the story's end.
Things get hopping when Bob is sent to Santa Cruz to assist Dominique
"Mo" O'Brien, an attractive Irish Doctor of philosophy. While working in
the US her research had inadvertently breeched the secret line and the
American secret squad is preventing her from leaving its shores. She
winds up kidnapped by Middle Eastern terrorists and Bob goes against
standard procedures in an attempt to save her. He has his own problems
with the bad guys and then shows little concern about whether she
escaped, lived or died until she shows up back in London safely under
wraps as a new Laundry employee.
Although mutual attraction exists, Bob, on Laundry orders, takes Mo to
Amsterdam to do some research and dangle her as bait for the bad guys.
The research turns up a connection to the "lost and most secret
nightmares of the Third Reich" and "leftover Nazi necromancers." Mo soon
gets abducted again, this time through a gateway to another universe
blown through the wall of her hotel room. She was supposedly under full
Laundry protection at the time, but -- oh well, the plot must go on.
It's up to a special forces unit and Bob to identify the bad guys,
neutralize them, and close the gate. Saving Mo is important, too, but
that is secondary to the mission (if not Bob.) Once on the other side,
things are ever so much worse than first thought, but, thanks to Bob's
knowledge of nuclear weaponry, both the world and Mo are saved, although
not without some regrettable loses.
"The Concrete Jungle" finds Bob more firmly ensconced as a Laundry Man
and cohabiting with Mo, a Laundry Woman who is off training somewhere
which conveniently allows Bob to share this adventure with a detective
inspector named Josephine. He's more of the operative and less the geek
now, but still irreverent and a mite overly emotional. Luckily his
"pretty unique skill mix modern Babbage engine Internet contraptions"
makes him valuable in the field. Bob faces off against (among other
things) a lamia, some gorgons, and bureaucratic idiocy and/or an office
power play. This adventure is done well enough, but seems a bit
slap-dash more than well crafted.
Stross's Bob Howard is not yet as amusing as Kim Newman's James Bondian
Richard Jeperson. Stross's occult spy novelizing is not yet in the
literary neighborhood of Tim Powers's Declare. (Whose is?) True
characterization is lacking, the plotting could be more polished, and
there's a proclivity toward dialogue a mite too thick with "scientific"
jargon. But the sheer exuberant energy of Stross's narrative overcomes
its not-quite-ignorable, but probably-forgivable flaws. Enjoy the
stories for what they are: fun, entertaining, and clever exercises in
"what if." You'll encounter a talented writer you probably haven't run
across before (after all you are a "horror" reader and he's been a
"science fiction" short story writer for years.) Bob and the Laundry
seem destined for more dark adventures. You'll not want to miss out on
Golden Gryphon. $24.95. 310p
Like McLeod's stories in Breathmoss, Jeff VanderMeer's fiction is most
commonly found these days just about anywhere but in the pages of
anything called "horror." More experimental in style than McLeod's work,
the stories of Secret Life are even more varied and less possible to
summarize. What, after all, can you glean from a reviewer writing: The
eponymous opening story mythologizes an office building, turning the
mundane - a missing pen, an office plant, a certain floor -- into an a
surreal dream/nightmare that rings truer than reality? Or: The story of
Maco Tupac, the last surviving Inca, who tells a reporter a strange
impossible tale - of which the possible parts are the most disturbing.
Or: In "Detectives and Cadavers," we (and the author) first glimpse the
dark city of Veniss that he later developed in the novel Veniss
Underground. How about: The haunting novella "Balzac's War" set in the
same dark future where dead soldiers are bioengineered into something
not quite alive and the enemy shapes those of your species and sends
them in the "guise of a flesh dog, mouthing your own name or the name of
your beloved" as the creatures fight you to your death.
I didn't think it would help.
If there is any recurring theme in these 23 stories written over a
15-year period, it might be rebirth. There's a recognition of the sheer
transformative strength needed to be fully human in these stories,
although none of them state that in so many words. There's nothing
escapist about these fictions. Most succeed in entertaining as well as
confronting. Perhaps that's the darkest part of them: the recognition
that no one escapes the darkness, but we survive it and are changed in
the process. VanderMeer's unique visions appear to be effortless
manifestations of shamanistic dreams and future precognitions, but it is
the author's meticulous craft that makes them appear so. Secret Life
is another revelatory exercise from an author who is beginning to take
his place among the other masters of the fantastic.
Joe R. Lansdale
Golden Gryphon. $24.95. 200p
Well, at least there's no need to introduce Joe R. Lansdale to readers
of Cemetery Dance. Heck, one of these here stories was even originally
published within these not-so-hallowed pages. In fact, first publication
of these 26 stories came mostly in magazines like The Horror Show and
Twilight Zone or anthologies from publishers like Dark Harvest. No fear
of the h-word here. But, just as surely as the books mentioned above,
this is a collection that should not be confined by genre
classification. Just as "horror readers" may have missed out on most Ian
McLeod stories, "SF/F readers" have missed on most of Lansdale's.
(Although it's highly likely they are at least aware of him by now.)
Lansdale's greatest gift as a writer is not that he can "go for the
gross-out" (although he has on occasion) or his skewed sense of dry
humor or his pure-"d" ability to spin a fine story or even that his East
Texas sensibility and well-honed sense of justice give his stories a
rare integrity. Nope. The secret is that Lansdale, no matter what he
writes, is true to "his ownself." Few writers ever master themselves as
well as Lansdale has.
Bumper Crop is a companion volume to GG's earlier Lansdale title, High
Cotton, which the author considers his definitive "best of" collection.
And, as Lansdale wrote in the introduction to High Cotton, he once
"thought that I would be a science fiction writer..... science fiction
-- and keep in mind I lumped fantasy, horror, science fantasy, weird
adventure, ghost stories, anything odd, under that label -- was my main
source of reading matter."
In general, the stories here are darker and shorter than High Cotton.
But even the "too strange, too violent," deeply stygian "God of the
Razor," once it finally was published in Grue, wound up being reprinted
as "crime fiction" and in a "best of" mystery anthology. "Editors who
rejected it the first time out, and don't remember they did," Lansdale
writes in the story's introduction, "love to tell me how much they liked
it. Uh huh." Uh huh, indeed.
This bumper is harvested from a variety of crops. If you want a monster
story with a Cryptkeeper heh-heh-heh ending, you'll find few as good as
"The Dump." "Chompers" is "heh-heh-heh" all the way. A tall tale with a
touch of Bradbury? There's "Fish Night." How about Bradbury crossbred
with the splat-pack? "The Fat Man." There's a white trash prefab Gothic
haunted house ("The Shaggy House") and redneck ritual sacrifice ("On a
Dark October Night" and "The Duck Hunt"). Like Cassandra in Troy, a true
prophet is not believed in the Tornado Alley fantasy "The Man Who
Dreamed." "Billie Sue" is surely one of the weirdest and one of the
funniest love stories ever written. The far-fetched seems pretty damned
"fetched" as "Bestsellers Guaranteed" explains a great deal about the
business of publishing bestsellers. "Fire Dog," previously published
only in Golden Gryphon's anthology The Silver Gryphon last year, is a
small gem of absurdist theatre that could have been written by Harold
Pinter if he hailed from Nagadoches, Texas. "Cowboy" sums up American
racism in a sad, brief morality tale. In one of his most memorable
stories, "Master of Misery," Lansdale uses his knowledge of the martial
arts to write one of the best "fight" stories ever penned.
Let's keep it simple. Bumper Crop is good enough to make a rabbit spit
in a bulldog's face. Y'all just buy it (and grab a copy of High Cotton
if you're lacking it) and you'll be as happy as a hog in slops.
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