The ED SF Project

The Ellen Datlow/SCI FICTION Project, that is. We're showing the love for five and a half years of great short fiction, and we need your help! We've got over 300 stories to cover, so if you're a person who loves short speculative fiction, we want you. Go here to read the list and add your voice.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

"Over Yonder" by Lucius Shepard: An Appreciation by Tim Pratt

One of the greatest things about SCI FICTION was the certain knowledge that, probably sooner rather than later, there would be another major story by Lucius Shepard published there, something beautiful and brutal and wrenching and strange. When I look over the remarkable number of stories he published at Sci Fiction during the magazine's life, I'm seized with the desire to re-read them all--"A Walk in the Garden," "Jailwise," "Abimaguique," "AZTECHS," all the others. But my prime favorite among this clutch of favorites is "Over Yonder," the tale of Billy Long Gone, who hopped a train out of Klamath Falls and found himself in a strange new world, a hobo jungle beyond the limits of the rational world. It's as if Shepard considered the notion of the "Big Rock Candy Mountain"--that free-booze-and-stew paradise for tramps and hobos--and, finding it too sugar-coated by half, imagined instead a different sort of complicated haven for the citizens of the road. The story explores the knotted contradictions of the wanderer's spirit, the desire to travel as something distinct from the desire to reach a destination. Even once the rail-riding Billy Long Gone reaches the fabled land Over Yonder, and learns to navigate its more obvious dangers and begins to discover its deeper strangeness, his desire to see the next new thing becomes overwhelming, and he lights out again, for the land beyond the land beyond. He isn't satisfied with mere transcendent experience--he wants to transcend the transcendent. This is a story of willful trains, once-human monsters, uplifted intelligence, and dirty complicated love. It's weird, ambiguous, flat-out beautifully written, and it refuses the false consolation of uncomplicated happy endings (as Shepard always does). Ellen Datlow did us all a service by bringing this story, and Shepard's others, to the public, and for paying him a decent rate for his words. I hope he continues to find good homes for his fine long stories, and I'll seek them out wherever they appear, but I'll miss the comfort of knowing that, if I just wait a little longer, there will be another Shepard novella appearing at SCI FICTION. It was a little like watching the sky for shooting stars--you don't know when they'll come, but you know they'll be along eventually, and burn brightly, and be beautiful. Farewell, SCI FICTION. Thanks for taking me Over Yonder and elsewhere all these years.

Link to story.

“Struwwelpeter” by Glen Hirshberg: An Appreciation by Nathan Ballingrud

The original "Struwwelpeter" is a poem by the nineteenth century German writer Heinrich Hoffmann. It is one of a series of cautionary verses meant to frighten children into proper behavior; other titles in the collection include "The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches," in which a young girl plays with matches and is burned to death, and "The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb," a particularly frightening poem about the "tall tailor" who comes to slice off the thumbs of little children who cannot keep them out of their mouths. "Struwwelpeter" is actually one of the mildest poems in the collection. It's about a boy with terrible hygiene: he refuses to wash his face or comb his hair, and his nails grow to grotesque lengths. He is an awful little boy, we are told, and everybody hates him. Little basis, it would seem, for a ghost story.

And so we come to Glen Hirshberg's "Struwwelpeter." It's about an awful boy, too, but it's easy to get distracted from that by the wonderful creepiness of the setting. There are many elements of the traditional ghost story to be found here: a windy Halloween night; a haunted house; a disagreeable old man who surrounds himself with strange symbols and objects, who speaks darkly of raising the dead. The story is laden with images all ghost story aficionados are familiar with: mysterious, half-glimpsed lights; a stray article of clothing lying, abandoned, in an empty room where a person ought to be; the doomful tolling of a bell. We become so caught up in the spooky trappings of the tale that we run the risk of forgetting the title, and the title's heritage. Hirshberg is intimately familiar with the tropes of the ghost story, and uses them here to brilliant effect. Like Shirley Jackson, he only drops suggestions, letting the reader's imagination do the heavy lifting. And while we are occupied with the immediate threat of the haunted house, the real story is uncoiling underneath, infinitely more dangerous. Because this story, like all of Hirshberg's stories, is about human pain. How it manifests, and how it steers us.

Here's the opening paragraph:

This was before we knew about Peter, or at least before we understood what we knew, and my mother says it's impossible to know a thing like that, anyway. She's wrong, though, and she doesn't need me to tell her she is, either, as she sits there clutching her knees and crying in the television light.

It is a wonderfully complete paragraph. We are presented with a mystery, and the engine of the plot: this Peter, and the thing about him which everyone should have known, but didn't. To me, though, the strength of this paragraph--and its principal beauty--comes from that last image: "as she sits there clutching her knees and crying in the television light." It's one of the most powerful, most economically precise depictions of loneliness and despair that I've read in a long time. It just about breaks your heart. And it sets the mood for this story perfectly.

This is a story about isolation, alienation, the hope of fathers and the trust between friends. Like Hoffmann's "Struwwelpeter," it is a story of the despised boy. The supernatural trappings are window dressing for the real horror at its heart. Horror writers should read it, along with other stories by Hirshberg (particularly "The Two Sams"), and learn from him. This is the scary stuff.

I can't end this, though, without calling further attention to the language. There's so much joy to be found on the sentence level alone. Take, for example:

We wandered toward the locks, into the park. The avenue between the pine trees was empty except for a scatter of solitary bums on benches, wrapping themselves in shredded jackets and newspapers as the night nailed itself down and the dark billowed around us in the gusts of wind like the sides of a tent. In the roiling trees, black birds perched on the branches, silent as gargoyles.

If that doesn't do it for you, I just don't know what you're doing here.

Link to story.

"A Man of Light" by Jeffrey Ford: An Appreciation by Bob Urell

Every time I come across a Jeff Ford story, two competing ideas occur to me: I wish I'd thought of that; thank God I didn't think of that. There's a coolness-quotient to any of Jeff's stories that makes riffing off him so very, very tempting. Along with that so very artistic urging to theft, however, is the acknowledgement that everything Jeff writes requires more than the ordinary equation of talent and perseverance. Jeff writes difficult stories. A Man of Light is, of course, no different than any of Ford's work, which is to say, it is very different from anyone else's.

I guess I should talk about Ford's liquid, mercurial style, perhaps about the weird combination of formality and colloquialism in his syntactical constructions, about the patience with which he addresses himself to story, about the inertia that builds from dead-stop to full downhill tilt. It's the endings that always get me. Jeff Ford stories are like a Randy Johnson fastball. If you haven't seen the Big Unit pitch, imagine a lanky, scraggly man, incredibly tall, closer to seven feet than six, who looks like he should be farsighted and bedridden with mouth cancer. His entire approach to the pitch embodies a synthesis of languor and brutality; he is only graceful in motion. That is, in the middle of the pitch, his left knee coming up impossibly high, all the way to his chest then jerking down, whipping his entire body like a willow branch, back then forward, slashing an implacable path through the air, the ball coming along for the ride and then free and ballistic. That left foot winds up halfway down the pitcher's mound, Johnson stumbles, splayed out like a newborn colt, all knees and elbows and awkwardness. But the ball, she sails bright and wicked fast and straight as physics allows. Randy Johnson's pitching is like a Jeff Ford short story, brutal and beautiful and, oh so very effective.

The problem with the analogy, of course, is that one might infer that we are the catcher, the ball is the story and Jeff is the pitcher. In truth, we're all the ball, there is no catcher, and we’re headed at a brick wall going 109 MPH. I don't even think Jeff knows who the pitcher is.

Segue, stage left. Jeff isn't tall, nor is he scraggly nor lanky, though he can appear so at any number of late night/early morning after-after-after parties at the World Fantasy Convention of your choice. That's the booze talking. In fact, he's urbane and profane hard to spot now that he's shaved off the beard. And then there was the time we held hands on the National Mall and watched the sunburnt leaves shower down along the walking path. He turned to me, plaintive. "It can't be over, Bob. It just can't." He radiated vulnerability and strength then, but we were young and times, they've changed . . . . But let's get back to the story, shall we?

Of late I've been working through concepts that had never troubled me before. They're the same hoary old questions that plague everyone at whatever point in their lives they determine to stop evading them. Num quam desisto, a friend of mine says. I find my answers, or better still, my fellow questers, in the oddest of places. Such was my experience with "A Man of Light." This, more than anything, is why venues like SCI FICTION are hard to form and harder still to maintain. Places of light and beauty rarely last as long as we might wish them to.

This appreciation is, nominally at the least, supposed to be about the story I chose to write on. Well, it is, in its own way. It's about the experience of my reading, rather than about the events and import of the story itself. This is because a brief synopsis of the story would go something like: A young reporter receives permission to interview a noted recluse whose work with light is famous all over the world. Our
reporter discovers disturbing information in the process. The end. Anything else I told you would spoil the experience. Each of the revelations in the story are so tightly wound together that to prematurely unravel one is to undo the entire thing. So, this appreciation is utterly incomplete, and this I know. The other half is actually the entirety of it. That is, go read the story. Hurry, before it disappears as thoroughly as the Man of Light himself. I think you will agree, it was time well spent and that we owe Jeff and Ellen and SciFi.Com a great deal for the gift of these past five or so years filled with fiction like this and writers like that. Whatever else can be said, no matter how bitter or angry we might be over this abrupt and final closure, remember that this Darkness is only the lesser half of the story.

Link to story.