Locus Magazine Reviews

Regional voices have had a strong influence on fantastic fiction in the Americas, from the morbid romanticism of Lovecraft's Providence and the Appalachian Americana of Manley Wade Wellman, to the Deep South of Joe Lansdale and H'ard Waldrop. The latest to add his voice to their number is Andy Duncan of South Carolina, whose Faulkner-tinged Southern Gothic short fiction has been gathered together in this altogether remarkable debut collection.

Duncan is the kind of writer who researches extensively, then uses that research as both the backbone to his story and to give it that patina of credibility which makes it unforgettable, and manages to do so without making the story impenetrable to the uninitiated. You can see it in his first fiction sale, "Beluthahatchie," that takes elements from African American mythology - the trickster myths of the slave John and his owner Old Massa, and the vividly named suburbs of hell - and adds the Delta blues artist Robert Johnson to what is an unusually touching sold-your-soul-to-the-devil story. And he is funny. In "Grand Guignol" Duncan takes us to the eponymous 19th century Parisian theatre which he opens with the line "Charles is my friend, my brother, my right arm, my most valued assistant, my comrade in glory and trial since before the Armistice, and to say anything against him is almost more than I can bear - but today he brought me a sack of eyeballs of which, before God, not one was usable." It makes for a hilarious, macabre look at the competitiveness of writers. In "From Alfano's Reliquary" Duncan takes details from the true story of the infamous "Cadaver Synod," when Pope Stephen had his predecessor exhumed and placed on trial, and takes a grimly funny look at the trade in sacred relics. The influence of Edward Gorey can be seen in "The Premature Burials," where a wealthy woman cannot imagine marrying a man who would want to live when she is dead, just as Manley Wade Wellman can be seen in the Appalachian fantasy of "Liza and the Crazy Water Man," where an ambitious young radio man in the '30s meets a beautiful woman with a heavenly voice that can't be recorded. Duncan's Titanic story, "Saved," where a silent movie era actress survives the tragedy, and his tale of Lincoln's meeting with slaves in a Southern swamp, "Lincoln in Frogmore," are fine work, as is his powerful retelling of the life of Patton, "Fortitude." But two stories alone are worth the price of admission to Beluthahatchie, Nebula nominee "The Executioner's Guild" and "A Map of the Homes of the Stars."

"A Map of the Homes of the Stars" is the story of a man looking back to his youth, when he and his best friend Tom would spend long afternoons driving around town in a '78 Firebird, circling past the homes of the "stars" - the beautiful young women they could never hope to date - until one of the "stars" approaches them, and Tom seizes an opportunity the narrator couldn't. It's a beautifully wrought, haunting tale of loss and hope that perfectly evokes those late night, middle-aged moments when you are haunted by lost opportunities.

The book's highlight, though, is the Faulknerian "The Executioner's Guild." Duncan takes us back to the South in the Depression era when the State decided to economize by paying a man to drive from one small town to another with a portable electric chair. "The Executioner's Guild" tells of that young man, Jimmy Simpson, the execution he has come to perform in the small town of Andalusia, and of Mr. Ellis, from "the guild," who has come to observe. It's a powerful examination of the meaning of our actions and of accepting their consequences.

It's far too early to be picking the best collection of the year, and too unfair to evoke the memory of early Arkham House books like Bradbury's Dark Carnival or Leiber's Night's Black Agents, but Beluthahatchie is as good a collection as you'll see all year.

—Jonathan Strahan, Locus, July 2000

Andy Duncan's collection Beluthahatchie and Other Stories includes two original stories. "Lincoln in Frogmore" is an account in 1936 by a man who remembers when President Lincoln visited his town just after the slaves were freed. Like Bishop's Sonny, he'd been warned by his Maum to stay away from something possibly dangerous but nevertheless alluring, and he goes looking anyway. He finds himself among a crowd gathering at a praying ground where he appears, seemingly seven feet tall, speaking to reassure them of their freedom in the face of opposition to his proclamation. Like Bishop's story, there's hardly anything fantastic about the scenario, except perhaps in a technical tall-tale sense that Lincoln supposedly never went to that town, according to the history books. The story nevertheless is a showcase of Duncan's great southern voice, his skill at evoking a far away time and place.

Duncan's other original story is "Fenneman's Mouth," a more conventional SF piece than most of his work, a story in what I think of (ever since Remake) as the Connie Willis school of near-future entertainment possibilities. Where Willis recreated dead movie stars digitally, Duncan recreates famous TV "bloopers" that never actually happened, in effect making urban legends come to life. The example described at length is a Groucho Marx talk show in which he makes a wise crack about his cigar to his straight man Fenneman. The narrator is a TV producer troubled by a detail in this sketch, a problem with Fenneman's mouth. Meanwhile he's troubled by professional and personal problems with two of his employees, problems that suggest a host of ethical issues implicit in this world of video manipulation. Rather like Willis, Duncan keeps the tone fast and light, underplaying the heavy issues with interpersonal patter.

—Mark R. Kelly, Locus, February 2001


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