BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 17 remarkable stories and four insightful essays all dealing with our simian cousins.
PROS: The strength of the fiction included in the anthology, from groundbreaking genre classics such as Leigh Kennedy’s “Her Furry Face” and Pat Murphy’s “Rachel in Love” to lesser-known tales such as Gustav Flaubert’s “Quidquid Volueris”; interesting essays from Jess Nevins and Scott Cupp on apes in literature and comics, respectively.
CONS: Odd if understandable exclusions; one or two obvious inclusions; the editor’s own contribution on apes in cinema a bit too brief.
If one wanted to get technical, any story featuring a human being is an ape story; zoologist Desmond Morris even identified us as such in his 1967 book The Naked Ape. So our fascination with gorillas, chimps, and orangutans, among others, in ethology and in popular culture, should come as no surprise; after all, our nearest genetic cousins share so many of our features that we cannot help but feel kinship and awe. We gaze into these alien faces and of course see ourselves.
The appearance of Richard Klaw’s retrospective anthology The Apes of Wrath, then, comes to bookshelves with no small amount of appreciation but also with a degree of bewilderment. Appreciation, because the 17 stories and four original essays all show a remarkable degree of quality from the authors and the editor himself, who in interviews professed an early love for all things simian. Bewilderment, because ape stories reach as far back as Aesop (who receives a place in the anthology with “The Apes and the Two Travelers”) and as far across the literary spectrum as Franz Kafka (“A Report to an Academy”) and Gustav Flaubert (“Quidquid Volueris”). Bewilderment, too, because Klaw’s anthology is only the second ape anthology to be published; As Klaw points out in his introduction, Corgi published the only other, The Rivals of King Kong edited by Michael Parry, in 1978. Bewilderment, finally, because of how closely apes and fantastic fiction sit on the tree of Story. By reaching into the distant past, Klaw shows that apes and fantastika often share the same troop.
Indeed, several of the best more modern stories look to the past for inspiration. James P. Blaylock’s “The Ape-Box Affair,” which kicks off the anthology, holds the distinction of being, arguably, the first steampunk story to be published by an American, and, in its telling of an orangutan landing in St. James Park in a flying ship constructed by the eccentric Langdon St. Ives, plays hilarious riffs on H. G. Wells and the Keystone Cops. In Joe R. Lansdale’s “Godzilla’s Twelve-Step Program,” the famous Japanese giant atomic reptile attempts to stave his appetite for destruction, finding a soused King Kong who bides his time playing with Barbie dolls. Kong shows up again in Philip José Farmer’s Nebula Award–winning gem “After King Kong Fell,” in which Mr. Howller tries to impart to his granddaughter the lessons learned after the giant gorilla’s tumble from the Empire State Building. More forward looking but still with one eye almost wistfully on the past, the protagonist of Steven Utley’s “Deviation from a Theme” twists time and space to recreate Kong so he may battle a Tyrannosaurus with a bad attitude. The classic Howard Waldrop tale “Dr. Hudson’s Secret Gorilla” also references movies, though of a different era, tackling classic mad scientist pictures in a tale of a man who survives a car crash only to have his brain transplanted into that of a simian.
They provide an interesting contrast both to the older stories, especially those in the pulp vein. Hugh B. Cave’s “The Cult of the White Ape,” Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Maze of Maâl Dweb,” and Robert E. Howard’s “Red Shadows” originally appeared in Weird Tales. Two tell rousing stories set on the African continent, while one transports to the lushly described Xiccarph…and all are tinged with the racism endemic to the period. And despite the representation of the best gonzo Texas writers, neither Lansdale’s nor Waldrop’s quite match the genuine oddness of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Tarzan’s First Love,” or the sheer perversion of Gustav Flaubert’s “Quidquid Volueris.” (Though the story of Tarzan’s attempt to woo a female ape brings to mind an obvious omission: Farmer’s brilliant pastiche of Edgar Rice and William S., “The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod.”)
Many of the stories, of course, explore the species divide: Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Evil Robot Monkey,” Leigh Kennedy’s “Her Furry Face,” and Pat Murphy’s “Rachel in Love” detail the lives of superintelligent apes, one striving to make art, one dealing with love, the other coming to terms with her caretaker’s death. Karen Joy Fowler’s “Faded Roses” chronicles a group of children who receive a sobering education on what can become of gorillas, while Franz Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy” describes the life of an ape as it makes a decision to become human.
In light of these strong tales, perhaps the best known, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” disappoints, as does the oldest story in the collection, Aesop’s “The Apes and the Two Travelers.” Poe’s story deserves its place in the annals of mystery fiction, certainly, yet its resolution remains contrived. Aesop’s tale, by contrast, flash fiction of its day, seems almost quaint.
Klaw also wisely includes four original essays covering literature and film. Jess Nevins’s “Apes in Literature” exhaustively but entertainingly traces its subject matter from Aesop to Peter Jackson, while Scott A. Cupp examines the comic book appearance of apes in “The Four-Color Ape.” Mark Finn turns in the best essay, “The Men in the Monkey Suit,” which reveals the men in front of the camera but behind the ape masks. Unfortunately, what should be the most fascinating essay, Klaw’s own “Gorilla of Your Dreams: A Brief History of Simian Cinema,” is all too brief indeed, and might have warranted a little more space. Or maybe not. With such an embarrassment of riches as found in The Apes of Wrath, perhaps Klaw’s own entry required such brevity. For his essay is not the showcase of this fine anthology. The showcase is the anthology itself.