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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."

By Paula Guran

Originally appeared in Cemetery Dance #50
Winter 2004
(Written: May 21, 2004)


About Golden Gryphon
Reviews:

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

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 delineations.

Golden Gryphon's Web site: www.goldengryphon.com

Breathmoss and Other Exhalations
Ian R. MacLeod
Golden Gryphon. $24.95. 310p
ISBN: 1930846266

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 transcendent.

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.

Book Cover 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
Charles Stross
Golden Gryphon. $24.95. 310p
ISBN: 1930846258

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 space-time continuum.

Book Cover 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 them.
Secret Life
Jeff VanderMeer
Golden Gryphon. $24.95. 310p
ISBN: 19308462581


Book Cover 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.


Bumper Crop
Joe R. Lansdale
Golden Gryphon. $24.95. 200p
ISBN: 193084624X

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.

Book Cover 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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Copyright © 2005 by Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.