Hart and Boot and Other Stories. Tim Pratt, Nightshade Books, 2007
20th Century Ghost. Joe Hill, HarperCollins, 2008
Harrowing the Dragon. Patrician McKillip, Ace, 2006
I don’t usually read short fiction. It’s an attention-span thing. I like to immerse myself, soak in a story, and short stories are more like the morning shower than an evening in the hot tub. I’m also a big fan of complex characters and elaborately designed worlds, and most short stories seem to be more about ideas. It’s just a preference.
It’s kind of surprising, then, that in the past month I read three short story collections. One I happened upon by accident, and the other two I had heard about, and found the books on sale tables or other places.
Wandering through Copperfields Used Books one day I reached up to pull down a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel I haven’t read. While I was reaching, I turned my head to say something to the clerk about the store’s charming new cat, Sally. My fingers touched the spine of the book but when I looked back, it wasn’t the Pratchett. It was Tim Pratt. I opened it and read: “The man’s head and torso emerged from a hole in the ground, just a few feet from the rock where Pearl Hart sat smoking her last cigarette. His appearance surprised her and she cussed him at some length. The man stared at her during the outpouring of profanity, his mild face smeared with dirt, his body still half-submerged. Pearl stopped cussing and squinted at him in the fading light. He didn’t have on a shirt, and Pearl, being Pearl, wondered immediately if he was wearing pants.”(p1)
He is not wearing pants, but he is wearing cowboy boots. Pearl Hart and Joe (or John) Boot were actual historical characters. In Hart and Boot, Pratt weaves a fabulous, fantastical tale about these old west desperados. The plot is a “how-done-it,” with a charmingly understated (and never explained) magical element.
Pratt has three stories dealing with Greek mythology. “The Terrible Ones” combines an actress who temps as a dominatrix, the Erinyes and a production of Medea. Is it a fable? A gallows comedy? Whatever it is, it is delightful, with just the slightest sting in the tail—or the tale. “Living with the Harpy” is strange and sweet. All the dramatic action takes place off stage, which adds to the suspense. “The Romanticore” also features characters from Greek myth, although you may not recognize them. At the heart of this story is Ray, the “average guy”, recovering from another breakup, who gets more than he bargained for in the rebound relationship.
Pratt’s characters, even supernatural hitmen, are accessible and sympathetic. The short story is the right length for him, and this is a collection of gems.
Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. Good, now that’s out of the way. 20th Century Ghosts is a prime collection of short fiction. Some stories are horror, some are literary horror and some aren’t horror at all. Hill has a strong style, a distinctive voice, and a willingness to indulge in post-modernism. This means that the conclusions of some stories are left up to the reader. This is not the undisciplined writing of someone who can’t commit to a resolution, but done with intent and skill. “Best New Horror” and “In the Rundown,” readers must decide for themselves what comes after the final paragraph.
“Best New Horror” is a familiar tale, and a tasty mélange of tropes; bits of HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, The Hills Have Eyes, and even the Serial Killer Convention in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, all spiced with a sprinkling of sinister glee that makes the whole thing work.
Pop Art is one of the better stories about friendship and loss, with an original element perfectly introduced into the story. The story has resonance with the last novella in the book, “Voluntary Commital.” “The Black Telephone” is an exercise in desperation, with a grounding in the real world that is palpable.
“20th Century Ghost” is a sweet tale about a ghost that loves movies, and a decaying movie palace.
“You Will Hear the Locust Sing” blends Kafka with the 1950s vintage B-movie Them, about giant ants. I found the physical details to be spot-on, although I’m not sure I really understood the story.
By far the most surreal and disturbing work in the book is “My Father’s Mask.” I finished this story and thought, “Whoa, that’s shocking.” A day later when I was pulling weeds the story finally clicked for me and I thought, “Oh, my God! It’s going to happen again!” Because clearly, it is what always happens.
Terry Weyna of Readingtheleaves.com recommended Joe Hill and I have to thank her. I look forward to more of his work.
When I first read Patricia McKillip when I was in my early twenties. I loved The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, but The Riddlemaster of Hed captivated me.
These stories span nearly twenty years of McKillip’s career. Some are re-told fairy tales of the variety Ellen Datlow anthologizes. Many seem to be set in a world similar to the world of Riddlemaster of Hed. In several stories, the magical or quasi-magical women at their centers save, or change, their world. The Fellowship of the Dragon follows five women, friends of the queen, on a quest to find the queen’s missing harpist. The cost is high, and once he is found, the harpist does not seem worth it.
The Witches of Junket I had read before. Even though the story is not successful for me, I love how beautifully the Oregon coast is evoked, and the story always makes me nostalgic for Haystack Rock.
A Matter of Music is complicated but worth the effort. Here is a story of history and secrets, where none of the characters is evil but each one is weighted with the events of the past. And there is music.
The Lady of the Skulls is a hopeful, touching take on a familiar trope.
There is nothing in Harrowing the Dragon that struck me as deeply as “My Father’s Mask” but the book is pleasant, a perfect companion to a glass of white wine on a deck on a summer evening.
These collections showcase their writers. All three collections were enjoyable, but the big discovery was Joe Hill. I will have to look for his novel now, Heart-Shaped Box.