June 2007

Colleen Mondor

fiction

Salon Fantastique edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling are widely known for their wonderful collaborations on all manner of fantasy anthologies. Patterned after the freewheeling and witty literary salons of the past, their recent collection, Salon Fantastique, collects the short stories of 15 writers with no directive for style or content. The key here seems to be an open-mindedness about what makes a story fantastic, and because of that the fantasy elements are often subtle or sly and, in some cases, not even the point.

To begin with, readers will discover Delia Sherman’s mid-19th century French prostitutes in “La Fee Verte” and embark on a tale that is mostly about love: finding it, losing it, settling for it, and fighting for it. This is a story that is steeped in language first and foremost, with passages that dazzle as much as they inform. Consider this:

“I see them in scarlet,” La Fee Verte was shouting above the noise. “I see them in grey. I see them in black, with peaked caps on their heads, marching like wooden dolls, stiff-legged, inexorable, shooting shopgirls and clerks and tavernkeepers, without pity, without cause.”

After your emotions are more than a bit spent by France, readers may then come across Christopher Barzak’s thoroughly modern tale of a girl, a tree, and a pledge that leads her and her brother deep into the woods. “The Guardian of the Egg” made me most obviously think immediately of Daisy Head Maisy but that isn’t a bad thing, as it is a total flip on what Dr. Seuss did with his “girl with a plant in her head” story; in fact it’s really quite interesting to juxtapose the two. Barzak must know that he is playing with a bit of a classic here and yet he remains serious with his story of environmental courage and dedication. It might be all about a girl with a flower in her head (at least at first) but in the end you won’t be laughing at Hester. Rather, you will thinking more about how Barzak could have found such a compelling character from a premise that seems to insist on silliness above all else.

Richard Bowes artfully finds subtle horror in the world of critics (oh how I loved this one) in "Dust Devil on a Quiet Street." Told from the perspective of newly retired university librarian and author, it is an inside look at writers and critics and the often unholy relationship that develops between the two groups. Written in a nostalgic tone as the protagonist recalls his youth and observes the passing of old friends, "Dust Devil" lulls the reader into thinking it is about old memories and frustrations and hardly anything fantastical at all. And then the soul of Callimachus, the first critic, appears in the narrative trapped in a ring and the story takes a turn towards the price that some will pay for fame, and how much others will end up suffering because of that.

The whole biting bitchy world of those who sit in judgment is on display here, along with a very interesting peek into the hearts and minds of those hungering for celebrity. The protagonist remains an observer throughout, recoiling more and more in disgust as he sees the new bearer of Callimachus rise to power. His fellow writers, artists and musicians debase themselves until they collectively appear at the local park in an "Arts Zoo" which comes equipped with cages for everyone as they work before an audience and struggle to be noticed. "Everyone wants you inside", the writer is told and it is an ill wind that blows up behind him; that pushes him towards a cage. And suddenly I wondered just how much all of us sell out; and if we realize anymore when we are doing it.

Some of the stories are more clearly fantastic, such Catherine Valente’s selkie tale, “A Gray and Soundless Tide.” This is the kind of writing that haunts you afterwards; plain and simple, it is a story that will not let you go. I read this knowing it was a mystical creature and yet by the end it struck me as a basic story about a mother’s loss for her child. “In the morning,” writes Valente, “she was gone, and my husband lay in my arms like a changeling. She left nothing behind her -- she had brought nothing to leave. A few stray pieces of straw lay on the floor of the rear room.”

“Tide” is only nine pages and yet the emotional wallop it packs is tremendous. I read this story like it was a shade of grey; it reminded me of winter rain on paper or the Pacific before a storm. It’s a cold and sharp sadness and yet so elegant in its grief, so clear.

Lavie Tidhar writes a strictly contemporary tale with “My Travels with Al-Qaeda.” The fantasy here is in the way he jumps back in forth in time, from paragraph to paragraph, all carefully separated by a mark, all clear to the audience that the unnamed narrator and his love, Alison, are together and apart as they travel backward and forward in dangerous places. He writes about death and about bombings that happen in different places again and again. But the spin he puts on the death in towns we read about every day, is his own. He writes:

People die; take Yeats or Auden’s eulogy of him. Is death really dark and cold? It had seemed to me, seems to me now, as I wait in the hotel room in Tel Aviv and ride the bus to Nairobi and hold her hair while she pukes in the hotel room in Dar, that the death we had seen, the death we see, again and again in our burrowing through time, is hot and humid and rank, the sun beating with little mercy on our browning bodies and makes us shell clothes like the pods of peas or the outer layers of onions. That death, that death, always comes in the midst of a never ending summer, like an unwanted family guest who arrives unexpectedly and refuses to leave.

I’ll let you judge what is fantastic and what is not in Tidhar’s words.

There are so many other examples of good writing, of good story telling in Salon Fantastique that I almost feel like I should point to each author and say, “look what Lucien Shepherd has done or Peter S. Beagle or Jedediah Berry!” It’s like I’m hawking something on a street corner, trying to entice people as they walk by to just hear me for a moment; just consider for a second what I’m trying to sell: Good stories, all gathered in one volume, for those who love to read.

Paul De Filippo conjures the castles of old in the midst of a tragically familiar setting in “Femaville 29,” and Gregory Maguire ends “Nottamun Town” on the sweeping sound of a hymn with his words as a chorus and his readers compelled to join in. You think David Prill’s “The Mask of ’67” is about a small town girl done good who comes home again for her moment to shine but then she turns to steel, quite literally, and all bets for where this story will go are off. There is, though, that memory of love that always haunts a reunion, and this time around it is clearly bittersweet.

And then, finally, are Jeffrey Ford with “The Night Whiskey” and Gavin Grant with “Yours, Etc.” Each tell individual stories that will quietly freak you out. I hate a reanimated dead body tale, but that’s what Ford does really well here -- this is not a zombies from the grave piece, though: this is all about a town with a weird tradition and a mistake and something sad that just gets worse.

“Yours, Etc.” is about a dead girl, which isn’t really remarkable, as the narrator explains, “Dead girls ran in his family but he hadn’t know this until they had gotten one of their own.” But just because everyone else has been haunted doesn’t mean anything until you are the one getting haunted. Then it’s just scary and it will make you crazy. And that’s kind of what happens here -- it’s kind of what happens in “The Night Whiskey,” also. I mean really -- it’s the dead girls you have to watch out for.

Salon Fantastique scores on every level it attempts -- it gives readers many kinds of stories, brings forth subjects that transfix and captivate, and leads readers down every different winding road the fantasy genre can imagine. Datlow and Windling know how far and wide the idea of fantastic can stray when it comes to good reading and they have let these writers make their own limits. What they ultimately give readers is an opportunity to purely enjoy the art of story, the value of story, as it dwells on those fantastic borders. You will be delighted, moved, and a wee bit terrified as you read Salon Fantastique. But through it all you will not be bored, and that, quite simply, is what a good literary salon is all about.

Salon Fantastique Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Thunder’s Mouth Press
ISBN 1560258330
394 pages