Cemetary Dance Review

Lack of Distinction(s)

A good argument can be made, although I'll not make it here, that distinctions between science fiction, fantasy, and horror have been detrimental to the fiction of the fantastic for a number of years.

For those of us who were first attracted to "genre" by the dangerous visions of Harlan Ellison, P. K. Dick, Samuel Delany, Fritz Lieber, J. G. Ballard, Roger Zelazny, and so many others, our fictional faith was founded in imaginative literature as a whole, without regard for distinctions between what was called science fiction, fantasy, or horror, let alone further definitions between sub-genera.

We were attracted by the ideas and the imagination of the fiction. Although they were never the main attraction, we even enjoyed the occasional ride on a shiny spaceship of hard SF (especially if the characters were as important as the hardware) or liked the mighty swing of a barbarian sword once in awhile (if there was as much style as sinew and a real story). Give us the best wizardry laced with allegorical wisdom and we'd warm up to it. We'd even slum with the devil's spawn and make out with the occasional monster — if they were revelatory re-inventions and not rehashed regurgitations.

Some of us preferred the darker brew more often than not, but it was still part of the mix and it still is. Even if "science fiction readers" get ill at the thought of a unicorn, they do not disdain good "fantasy." SF/F readers who say "I don't like horror" will invariably admit they love certain works of literature that are, without any cognitive stretch, "horror" or "dark fantasy."

I'm not denying there are identifiable differences in the whole. It is just that we'd all be better served by a recognition of good fantastic literature and a devotion to high quality rather than quantifiers. Instead of "supporting the genre," support what's best about it. Realize nothing is gained, and quite a bit is lost, by sustaining anything simple because it's called by one name or another.

Golden Gryphon

Golden Gryphon Press was founded in 1996 by James Turner. Starting in 1971 Turner had been the editor at historically important small press Arkham House. He'd continued to publish the canonical authors, but started concentrating more on contemporary science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers, showcasing them in high quality short story collections. The way I heard the story, Arkham's owners fired him in 1996, because they wanted to focus on what had gone before (a.k.a. "classics") as opposed to authors who were still alive and kicking.

So, Turner established Golden Gryphon, and continued to publish contemporary authors of merit in well-turned-out tomes. Turner died in 1999 and his brother, Gary, and Gary's wife, Geri, took over the press. Marty Halpern signed on as an editor in 1999. By the end of this year, Golden Gryphon will have published a total of 40 books and have a roster of authors that includes Kage Baker, Neal Barrett Jr., Michael Bishop, Andy Duncan, George Alec Effinger, Jeffrey Ford, Nancy Kress, Joe R. Lansdale, Richard Paul Russo, Pamela Sargent, Lucius Shepard, Howard Waldrop, and Ian Watson.

At this writing (early May) Golden Gryphon has four "dark" titles fairly hot off the presses. Not only are all four worth reading, they happen to be good examples of how the best fiction continues to further blur genre delineations.

Breathmoss and Other Exhalations
Ian R. MacLeod
Golden Gryphon. $24.95. 310p
ISBN: 1930846266

It's probably unfair to even try to summarize this spectacular collection of short stories from British author Ian R. McLeod. At the luminous center of each story is the light of an individual character that the author takes and focuses through his literary prism. The result is a wide spectrum of colors — not all of which are immediately apparent. Some cannot be seen with the naked eye, but are still deeply felt by the naked soul.

Invariably, MacLeod's singular luminaire seeks out whatever is just beyond the boundaries that are assumed to be established. Life may be good where one is, but destiny lies in the stars. One may attain human perfection, but the true perfection of being must be found outside of one's humanity. Love and caring is fulfilling, but always flawed and never complete. There is magic or hope just past the mundane and hopeless. Truth is never simple or close at hand. Both hidden wonders and dark matters are just out of reach: if we stretch far enough, they will be within our grasp — but should we make that stretch? These are dangerous visions: sometimes dark, sometimes redemptive, always transcendent.

Stylistically, McLeod's prose is shaped to story and character, but, just as surely, story and character shape the prose. Few writers can achieve the variety and breadth necessary for such synthesis, but McLeod does so effortlessly.

In "Breathmoss," McLeod takes the familiar focus of a coming-of-age story and, although nothing is said that has not been said before, it is said in a way that is utterly convincing. Set in a far future in which humankind is predominately female, the author creates a pleasantly functional, if slightly conforming, society of fulfilled women. As adolescent protagonist Jalila matures and learns, the pace and detail somehow make this novella as comprehensive and nuanced as any novel.

In "Verglas," being human is not enough and a man's wife and children forsake their humanity to become ecologically fitting winged scavengers. A fey young girl gives an aging, ill composer one final glimpse of something beyond the average ken in the "The Noonday Pool." "New Light on the Drake Equation" finds the last remaining seeker of extraterrestrial life at the end of his life, ridiculed, alone, impoverished, and drunk. By story's end both character and reader know both wonder and mystery. "Isabel of the Fall" is set in the same universe as "Breathmoss" and reminds us that even though the facts are plain, truth is often not discernable. It is a story that should be read and re-read and savored.

The World Fantasy Award-winning "The Chop Girl" is set during World War II on an RAF base where death is a constant and luck a palpable reality for the young airmen. One girl is identified as a bringer of bad luck, a "death flower." But the true chill of the tale comes when she meets her "lucky" counterpart, a flyer who never dies, but who suffers a thousand deaths. McLeod convincingly captures both the feel of the era and the emotions of his characters while proving the supernatural — or at least the belief in it — still has a trick or two left to be exploited.

"The Summer Isles," another World Fantasy winner, is an alternate history of an England that lost WWI. In the climate of disgrace and powerlessness, beset with inflation, the English make decisions similar to those made in historic Germany. A charismatic "man of the people" is elected to power and his policies of "Modernism" are as devastating to Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals as Hitler's. The brilliance of this small masterpiece is that the story is told from the point of view of a homosexual historian with a unique relationship to the fascist leader.

If one needs an argument for the dissolution of whatever distinctions can be made between science fiction and fantasy and horror and a final amalgam of fantastic literature — find it here. None of these works were published as "horror." The two most identifiable as "science fiction" ("Verglas") and "fantasy" ("The Noonday Pool") were published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, the rest in the science fictional publications such as Asimov's, Interzone, and SCI FICTION. Several could just as easily been published as "literary."

If you've confined your search for dark fiction to any recognizable "horror" venue, you probably missed most of these stories. ["The Chop Girl" was, at least, reprinted in Datlow & Windling's The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Thirteenth Annual Collection (St. Martin's Griffin, 2000).] Here's your chance to catch up with them now.

— Paula Guran, Cemetary Dance #50, 2004

[Note: The three other Golden Gryphon Press books reviewed in this article were Bumper Crop by Joe R. Lansdale, The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross, and Secret Life by Jeff VanderMeer.]


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