REVIEW SUMMARY: A look the most recent short fiction selections at Tor.com, acquired and edited by multiple award winning editor Ellen Datlow.
BRIEF SUMMARY: A single woman and her dog attempt to make a new start in hostile mountain country and Emily Dickinson meets a familiar apparition and must use the power of words to put a young boy’s existence to rights.
PROS: Novelette length allows for stories that feel fully formed; a nice touch of mystery in each tale; strong first person points of view; further evidence that Ellen Datlow knows a good story when she reads one.
CONS: The story featuring Emily Dickinson would have more impact with a rudimentary knowledge of her life and work. Magic realism is not everyone’s cup of tea.
BOTTOM LINE: I’ve long respected the work of Ellen Datlow. The efforts she has made along with Terri Windling and others to keep mythic fiction in short and long form in the eyes of the reading public is to be much praised…and thankfully has been. These latest stories were acquired for Tor.com by Ellen Datlow and have her editor’s touch as well. Each are well-structured and interesting tales with strong female protagonists each of whom has a voice that engages the reader. Both stories are long enough to give the reader the experience of having read something with a definitive beginning, middle and end but are short enough to enjoy over lunch or anytime one has a few extra minutes to spare to read.
“All the Snake Handlers I Know are Dead” by Dennis Danvers
Maggie and her perpetually frightened dog, Lucille, are attempting to build a house, and a life, in the mountains of Appalachia. If she doesn’t get the work done on the land during the warm days of summer, another winter will be spent holed up in her Airstream trailer, a fate she is determined to forgo. The snakes, however, seem to be indifferent to her plight. Every day it appears as if more rattlesnakes have taken up residence in the area where she is trying to work. Her calls to the local extension agent have netted no results: snake handlers seem to be extinct.
On the day she decides to take matters into her own hands with a bit of shotgun diplomacy, a mysterious man walks onto her land and with inexplicable charm and grace kindly moves the snakes away from her work area. He then proceeds to explain to her the method by which she can obtain complete cooperation from her slithering squatters, leaving everyone happy. Maggie has always felt that this venture was a bit on the crazy side. She is just now discovering the level of crazy.
Danvers’ novelette is a tale of magic realism with a hint of folklore hidden beneath the surface. It is told entirely from Maggie’s point of view and from the very start of the story her voice draws in the reader. One of the strengths of this story is that it works on other levels even if a person isn’t particularly a fan of magic realism (for the record: I am). Danvers explores life after the dissolution of a relationship in a way that feels empowering rather than self-pitying. He paints a picture of an interesting landscape that feels authentic even amidst the fantastical elements of the story. And there is something to be said about an optimistic story.
The artwork for “All the Snake Handlers I Know are Dead” is by Scott Bakal. I have seen and enjoyed his work for previous Tor.com shorts. The line work of the girl in this picture reminds me somewhat of the line work of Richard Sala. It is a style I am drawn to, pardon the pun, for it looks deceptively simple and is certainly not so. The color work is striking in this image as well and it is obvious that Bakal read the story as the illustration complements it quite well.
“A Terror” by Jeffrey Ford
In the wee hours one September morning poet Emily Dickinson awakens to discover the beds of her family members empty and made and the house silent. She dresses quickly and leaves to travel the short distance to her brother’s home, only to be met by a carriage occupied by a familiar man in black. After being persuaded, somewhat against her will, to join him in the conveyance, she begins to see images of the town flash by that make no sense to her. The placement of locations are all wrong and various seasons seem to be reigning in different parts of the town. As she discovers just who, or what, she is traveling with, she is offered a chance to change her course. All she must do is kill a child.
In a dark and eerie tale partially inspired by the life and work of Emily Dickinson, author Jeffrey Ford creates a tale that would make for perfect campfire reading on a chill autumn night.
The power of words is one of the themes woven into Ford’s fantasy/horror tale, poetry in particular, and I found myself both enjoying the story and wishing I knew more about Emily Dickinson. I suspect that this is a story that will resonate strongly with fans of her work while alternately inspiring others to discover her poetry. It has certainly had that effect on me. The imagery conjured in Ford’s tale is deliciously frightening and Emily is a capable protagonist for allowing the reader to get swept up in the story.
The last act is a bit abstract in its execution and I would have liked to have something more concrete, however the story as a whole does satisfy.
The illustration for “A Terror” is by artist John Jude Palencar. It too reflects the story quite accurately and the creepy aspect of Palencar’s image is mirrored in Ford’s prose. Palencar’s work has a particular texture to it that I find fascinating. It is particularly noticeable in his trees, but can be seen in the fabric in this image. He often uses a muted, almost melancholy, color scheme that conveys mood and emotion, this is especially true of the image created for this story.
As I generally say whenever reviewing Tor.com fiction, if you are not checking them out on a regular basis then you are missing out on some of the best short fiction being produced today, not to mention the fantastic array of illustrations, and illustrators, featured on their site.