October 2004

Adrienne Martini

specfic floozy

Crossroads: Tales of the Southern Literary Fantastic edited by Andy Duncan and Brett Cox

Clear definitions elude me. After many (many) years of reading speculative fiction, I’m only now able to start to plink together a set of qualities that makes any given story a genre story. Be it slipstream, steampunk or space opera, I can now put my finger on whatever it is that makes it fit that category. Some days, I take comfort in this.

And, then, along comes a collection like Crossroads. It seems like it should work, that it should kick off another sub-sub-genre of literature that draws from the most fantastic elements of Poe and Flannery O’Connor while casting its gaze into the day-after-tomorrow. Yet, it doesn’t quite come together.

Editors Brett Cox and Andy Duncan certainly have their hearts in the right place. Their intentions are made clear from the outset. From their exquisitely constructed introduction:

“Both science fiction and southern fiction are accomplished and diverse bodies of literature, much larger than their stereotypes. And especially in the past quarter century, southern fiction has steadily acknowledged a South that is increasingly urban, increasingly connected with the rest of the world, increasingly subject to change -- changes that began well before the Civil War, and accelerated thereafter.”

A collection of stories that set out to illuminate this concept would have been exactly what this Southern Speculative Fiction idea needed to help it start to gain its footing. However, that’s not quite what Cox and Duncan have assembled.

Most of the stories in Crossroads feel like the same old southern stuff, which isn’t to say that they aren’t entertaining or well-written or enlightening. But they don’t set themselves up as new examples of the “Southern Literary Fantastic.” Take Kelly Link’s “The Specialist’s Hat.” It is a deliciously creepy tale of a haunted southern manse and two almost-orphaned girls on the cusp of puberty. “Hat,” which won the 1999 World Fantasy Award, is a story I’m happy to now have a copy of. But for all of its strengths, it’s hard to see how it examines an increasingly urban, technologically modern South. The same holds true for Bret Lott’s “Rose,” Brad Watson’s “Water Dog God: A Ghost Story” and John Kessel’s “Every Angel is Terrifying.” Each is a gripping read, but feels more like Southern Gothic than Southern Fantastic -- and the editors don’t quite make the distinction between the two clear.

Perhaps the story that comes closest to defining what Southern Fantastic could be is Michael Bishop’s “The Yukio Mishima Cultural Association of Kudzu Valley, Georgia.” Here we start to find hints of how the South and technology intersect as the residents of the aforementioned valley plan to protest, with the help of a displaced literature professor, a forthcoming dam and the subsequent flooding of their town. Here southerners, who could easily have been those displaced by the TVA in early years, struggle to adapt to the changing world. And while their adaptation is a bit dysfunctional (so as not to spoil the story I won’t tell you exactly how), it has the right sense of operatic scale that would make Faulkner proud.

But this story exists in isolation. Rather than build on “Kudzu Valley’s” themes, which are satisfyingly told, most of the other tales contained here trend on the same Southern Gothic graves, some with greater success than others. Cox and Duncan make no apologies for this, offering this explanation, again from the introduction:

“We made no effort to obtain stories of any specific geographic, thematic, or aesthetic identity. We did not, for instance, seek a clutch of stories set in New Orleans, that most fantastical of southern cities, yet found them anyway; likewise, we did not intend a set of metafictional musings on the southern literary canon, but here they are, too. These stories enrich a Table of Contents that, while not necessarily ‘balanced,’ is varied, adventurous, and, we hope, entertaining.”

Given that goal, Crossroads mostly succeeds. Some of these stories might have been better off hidden in their author’s hard drives or desk drawers for a few more years, but most, like Kalamu ya Salaam’s “Alabama” and Sena Jeter Naslund’s “The Perfecting of the Chopin Valse No. 14 in E Minor,” are a pleasure to read, no matter whose genre they are trying to find a place in.

Still, on a larger scale, Crossroads is disappointing. Rather than fulfilling the gentle manifesto of finding stories that explore the intersection of speculative fiction and the South, the chosen stories exhibit mission drift rather than a cogent illustration of where this crossroad could lead. Which is a shame. There is rich land here, just aching to be farmed.

Crossroads: Tales of the Literary Southern Fantastic edited by Andy Duncan and Brett Cox
Tor Books
ISBN: 0765308134
384 Pages