BRIEF SYNOPSIS: World Fantasy Award winner Margo Lanagan explores the borderlands of fantasy in a quartet of short stories.
PROS: Clear, crisp, beautiful writing across all four stories.
CONS: The last story was especially too slight in terms of genre identification.
BOTTOM LINE: Cracklescape offers an excellent window into Australian fantasy short stories.
Twelfth Planet Press is a small press in Australia dedicated to bringing genre short stories to readers. The rules and boundaries of the Twelfth Planet Press series are as formal as a sonnet: 4 original stories, with a total of 40,000 words. Margo Lanagan’s Cracklescape is the newest volume in this series.
Margo Lanagan’s four stories in Cracklescape explore what has been called liminal science fiction and fantasy – SF&F that emphasizes the virtues of contemporary fiction, in terms of writing, structure and thematic material, and where the fantastic elements are muted and understated. This is the same sort of borderlands of genre work that readers outside of Australia might more identify and recognize in the work of, for example, Kij Johnson.
The four stories in Cracklescape are “The Duchess Drawer”, “The Isles of the Sun”, “Bajazzle”, and “Significant Dust”.
In “The Duchess Drawer”, a haunted dresser and its mysterious locked drawer slowly draws its new owner into the realm of the fantastic. In “The Isles of the Sun”, the protagonist winds up dealing with mysterious beings luring children from a seaside resort. I thought of Peter Pan, the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and a Twilight Zone episode in reading this story.” Bajazzle” offers us a protagonist whose encounter with a mysterious more-than-a-woman at a beach house is far more than a simple chance at infidelity. This is set with a backdrop of a weird cult of griefers who seem tied to the woman, at least on a thematic level. This story, especially for a heterosexual male reader like myself, had definite notes of horror. Finally, “Significant Dust” ends the collection on a somber note of regret and what-ifs, as the protagonist’s rash and silly action leads to unexpectedly disastrous consequences. This story is framed with the story of a reputed alien encounter in 1980’s Western Australia.
The major thing to understand about the collection and about the work of the author is its relatively light hand in terms of genre. This is a quartet of stories that, offered to a English class in college without reference to fantasy, might never be identified as such. The last story in particular seemed to me to be very far into the waters away from the continent of fantasy, wading deeply into the waters toward contemporary fiction. Readers who want healthy dollops of fantastic elements are probably not the target audience for this volume.
Although I found the genre content of the collection, especially “Significant Dust” to be extremely light, overall, I was extremely delighted with the prose and styling the author brings to the quartet of stories. While the stories do not have any interconnections, what the four stories in Craklescape do share is a deep and abiding sense of place, of Australia-ness to them. To many readers outside of the land of Down Under like myself, Australia is an exotic and foreign land, and that layer of alienness and strangeness works well as a level within each of the four stories.
If you are interested in the region of the field where genre blends into contemporary fiction, or simply want some very beautiful, well crafted and shining writing, the work of Margo Lanagan in Cracklescape is definitely something worth your time and attention.