Realms of Fantasy, December 2005

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"En Forêt Noire" by Tanith Lee
"Empty Places" by Richard Parks
"Mortegarde" by Liz Williams
"A Knot of Toads" by Jane Yolan

"Lavender’s Blue, Lavender’s Green" by Patrick Samphire

It is always this reader’s pleasure to encounter a new Tanith Lee offering. Her ability to choose the perfect word, then a series of them (which may seem easy, but is definitely not—ask any aspiring writer, much less her peers)—to effortlessly craft a descriptive sentence, then paragraphs on end, for a specific purpose—be it in regard to setting, an internal character viewpoint, or piece of action, that paints just the proper picture desired, or creates the most exquisite mood from them that somehow hits home to the reader—is legendary. Her prose has been variously, and quite accurately, described as lush, exotic, erotic, and seductively hypnotic, to name but a few of the adjectives reviewers and critics have employed over the years to describe her science fiction, fantasy, dark fantasy, and horror stories, whether they be in long form or the short story. She is a treasure, and I marvel to this day how her best work yet makes me melt under her power. I have had the joy of reading (and reviewing) Tanith Lee for some thirty years now, ever since the late Donald A. Wollheim, under his relatively new DAW imprint, published her first book in the U.S. (The Birthgrave, DAW Books No. 154, June, 1975).

While not her best short work, "In Forêt Noire" nevertheless is an effective, moody piece of Gothic dark horror. Lee gives us Louis, a working class young man about to marry up, and Marcellin, a future brother-in-law bent on stopping his sister’s marriage. The setting is pure Hammer film; castles, inns, French countryside circa 1800, a fresh look at vampirism, and a dark, deadly forest. Throw in some ghosts who inhabit (unseen) said inn next to said forest, an ancient book given to our young protagonist by one of said ghosts which details the history of the forest, and we have all of the conventional elements for a Jim Dandy horror romp. With a few twists, of course, as Lee tickles our expectations about the nature of the evil coming from the forest, and what happens to poor Louis when he finds himself stranded in the dark and deadly forest of Arlinacque. A traditionally told, classic horror story, playing smartly with several horror conventions to good effect. Well done.

Always enjoyable to read, Richard Parks‘s "Empty Places" is no exception. This one is pure sword & sorcery, from setting to denouement, but with some real thought given to the point and purpose of the tale. "Empty Places" isn’t just sword-swinging cut’em-up S&S while the good guys trade witty banter with the bad guys before winning the day and swilling tankards of ale in some sleazy tavern afterward. Nope. In fact, there is no swordplay or bad guys—in the traditional sense—here. We have a wizard seeking the help of a thief (Timon the Black and Jayn of Laksas, respectively), on a mission involving a king’s castle, and a package to be secreted into the royal nursery for some unknown purpose. Why a magician needs a thief to do his bidding, how the pair finagle their way past the castle’s defenses, and how Jayn of Laksas accomplishes this difficult task, are but some of the questions and difficulties Parks sets for his protagonists to overcome. And as in all good stories, there is more to this tale than the author lets on at the beginning. Another well done by Mr. Parks, and also for injecting humor into his tale as well, not least of which (by "Tuckerizing") is the inclusion of fellow writer Jay Lake’s name as that of the master thief Jayn of Laksas. Good fun all around.

Liz Williams‘s "Mortegarde" is easily the most unconventional story in this issue. Cosmologically, the universe in this story is seen to be as a World Tree, with the many worlds depending from its branches as spheres. Life is unsustainable in those levels near the stars and those levels near the Great Root. The story concerns one Dr. Gwilliam Anstruther, who is summoned to the world of Mortegarde to address the College on his unorthodox (i.e. scientific) theories concerning the makeup of blood. What the doctor discovers, however, is much superstitious, religious antipathy to his "revolutionary theories," and thus the debate—and the point of the story—is framed in the usual manner: religious belief and fanatacism vs. scientific knowledge. Through story particulars (which are interestingly wrought, if familiar in theme) we arrive at the point where, back on his home world and in possession of the person who would have dissected him live to prove a theosophical point, Dr. Anstruther has an important decision to make before he too will begin a dissection to prove his scientific theories. But do the ends justify the means? Does the fanatical "derangement of faith," and what it can do to hinder scientific enlightenment, justify what science sometimes does in order for humankind to advance? Timeless questions of religion vs. science are set forth anew on a freshly imagined world stage, to good effect.

As did Tanith Lee, so too does Jane Yolen use traditional dark fantasy/horror conventions in the telling of her story about "A Knot of Toads." First printed in an original collection of Scottish fiction which debuted at this year’s worldcon in Glasgow, it appears here in the U.S. for the first time. Replete with time-honored gothic story-telling conventions (windswept Scottish moors, a lonely young woman, a handsome young man, a mystery or problem or evil to be solved or overcome), Jane Yolen still manages to breathe life into them and make them real. Throw in a few esoteric lines from a dead father’s diary which recall dark phrases from even dustier "Latin texts of apostates and heretics," and creeping shadows and circles of malevolent toads made real by the inadvertant chanting of certain lines of ancient witchery, and you have quite a wonderfully wrought little horror story.

What makes this story work so well is Ms. Yolen’s ability to capture local contemporary color, imagery, and dialogue in such an effortless manner. It puts the reader at ease, and serves as perfect counterpoint to the forthcoming and well-timed episodes of darkness and horror which are to come. I can easily see this story in a collection of YA Halloween dark fantasy/horror stories. One small internal, technical problem, though, which I am positive will be corrected upon subsequent reprinting: at the very beginning of the story, the dead man’s final diary entry is dated "March, 1921." A few pages later, his daughter is now reading them. She says, "The scholar in me asserted itself, and I turned to the first of the journals, marked 1926, some five years earlier." Thus, rather than the final journal being dated March, 1921, it should have been dated March, 1931. There are several possible reasons for such an error: an earlier, uncorrected version of a manuscript is inadvertantly sent to a new market; a typo by the typesetter of a correct manuscript, etc. But in either case, regardless of how the error occurred, a copyeditor at RoF should have caught this glaring error.

"Lavender’s Blue, Lavender’s Green" by Patrick Samphire, set in contemporary England (as far as I can tell, though it might be Scotland), is a nice little fantasy (if read uncritically) about accepting one’s wife for who she is, not who she once said she was, and a family’s journey to find her after she has inexplicably deserted them. It is also a confusing story to this reader, for the husband/father’s actions (which led to his wife’s leaving) are so unbelievable as to defy rationality. I hope I can explain.

The story opens with a father and teenaged daughter (Bonnie) traveling to the parents of their wife/mother. She has left them a note telling them she is leaving them for a while, so they have gone to visit the mother’s parents for hints as to where she might be. Through the note, they’ve just now learned where the grandparents live, so have obviously never met them. To make a long story short, when the husband and wife were dating, the wife once made a kidding remark that she was the queen of the fairies. Unbelievably, the husband believed her, and to this day never asked her about her family, friends, or anything about her life before she met him. He just blindly accepted the fact that his Angela was indeed the queen of the fairies (which presupposes that he accept a belief in fairies in the first place)—and treated her as such throughout all the years of their marriage, during which they even had a daughter, now a teenager. But Angela has grown tired of being treated like queen of the fairies, and wants only to be treated like a normal woman. So she scribbles a brief note to her husband, and splits.

I hardly know where to begin unraveling this illogical puzzle to find, hopefully, a grain of sanity. First of all, this otherwise normal guy blithely accepts at face value that his wife is queen of the fairies? He never questions this bizarre assertion, inserted into his otherwise contemporary, rational life, never wonders why her parents never showed up at their wedding, or who they even are, or where they live. He doesn’t care, because we are given to believe that he actually accepts that his wife is queen of the fairies. Whew, do I have a bridge to sell this guy. Second of all, it turns out that Angela, his wife, hasn’t thought it important enough to tell him (and make him believe) she was only kidding about being queen of the fairies, and that she has parents, and here’s where they live, etc. Both of them have been living a lie for the entirety of their 20-year marriage. Thirdly, most women would love to be treated as a queen, put on a pedestal and worshipped, as it were. And so, it would seem, did Angela for 20 years. Then she has her fill of it, writes her husband a note, and takes a powder until he is able to treat her like a normal woman. Talk about trying to have it both ways. It looks like Dad and Mom have serious issues, the first being the nature of reality in the 21st century. We are given a Dad who believes his wife is queen of the fairies because she once told him she was, and the Mom who has played along (or tolerated) her position until she grew tired of it. Talk about your dysfunctionally comedic homefront.

Near the close of the story, the daughter makes it clear to Dad why Mom left, that she was not queen of the fairies, and only wanted to be treated as a normal woman. All’s well that ends well. There are no fairies, hence no queen of the fairies, and now that Dad has come to his senses Mom will return home shortly and all will be well in Pleasantville. The storyline has been completed, story problem resolved, story over.

Well, not quite. It turns out there’s no fantasy element to the story if Mom was only kidding and Dad just now gets it. Since we need a fantasy element for this to be a fantasy story, Samphire shoe horns one in. While talking with a barman at the local pub, Dad asks some general questions about fairies in hopes he might piece something together about Mom. He is told that to see a fairy one must offer them a gift, which Dad does. He offers some crumpled up lavender to the wind by the trees and says that it is a gift (hoping Mom will soon appear, which she doesn’t). Convinced Mom is normal, he accepts the fact that her departure is his doing, and decides to leave for home the following day. But aha, later that evening, Dad spies Bonnie out for a walk. He sees a swirl of purple twinkly lights surround her, and then a local lad step from the hedges and place his hand in hers. We are told he is the king of the fairies. Wow, so fairies are real after all, and the gift of lavender worked after all, and this is a real fantasy story after all. And…after all the above, this story’s tortured character logic and absurdities far outweigh its intended message, nice as it wanted to be. Samphire had to go too far to make it all happen, and should have realized his premise held too many logical holes for him to try to make his story work at a semi-plausible level.

Some unanswered questions: Angela visited her parents every Wednesday for the 20 years of her marriage. Didn’t Dad ever wonder where his wife went every Wednesday for 20 years? Mom’s parents explain to Dad that her father didn’t travel well, and it was such a long drive, that they never visited Angela or her family. There is nothing presented in the story that prohibits them from making contact with Angela or her family, so, well, um, couldn’t they have used a telephone to call them? Couldn’t they have written to them? It’s one thing to have a character act totally irrationally, but when almost every character in the story does so in order to make the premise work, the careful reader can’t help but think "idiot plot." You know, where everyone (usually in a dumb horror story or movie, but not exclusive to them) acts so irrationally as to remove any semblance of internal verisimilitude (and thus believability) in the story. I’ve read the story twice now, and while the author tries to account for all (well, most) of the improbabilities, there are just too many to cover. I wish it were otherwise, but there you have it.

With this one bump the exception, the December 2005 Realms of Fantasy offers a diversity of fantasy fiction types, styles, and themes, all effective in their own right, with the Yolen being the standout (and a reprint), closely followed by the Lee.