Emerald Eye: The Best Irish Imaginative Fiction edited by Frank Ludlow and Roelof Goudriaan

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"Thomas Crumlesh 1960 – 1992: A Retrospective" by Mike McCormack
"Hello Darkness" by Mike O’Driscoll
"Encore" by John Kenny
Image"Pleasing Mister Ross" by Robert Neilson
"The Giaconda Caper" by Bob Shaw
"Something Occurred; Bennie on the Loose" by Sean MacRoibin
"Everyone This, Nobody That" by David Murphy
"Miss Smith" by William Trevor
"In Dublin’s Veracity" by Michael Carroll 
"Velvet Fields" by Anne McCaffrey
"The Burnished Egg" by Dermot Ryan
"Skin-Tight" by James Lecky
"The Invisible Man Game" by Nigel Quinlan
"Custom Fitting" by James White
"Emerald Isle, Ruby Blood" by David Logan
"On a Planet Similar to Ours, the Virgin Mary Says No" by John Sexton
"The Barber" by Sam Millar
"Bolus Ground" by Fred Johnston
When I first volunteered to review Emerald Eye: The Best Irish Imaginative Fiction, my head filled with rich images of leprechauns creeping between fields of clovers, druids beneath ancient monoliths, and elvish beauties dwelling naked in lush forests. However, I soon learned there wasn’t a single story I could identify as traditional Irish fare, much to my disappointment. Instead, the collection offers a mixed bag of psychologically-heavy stories, many of which focus on the plight of the artist, that one could find in a thousand other anthologies being printed today.

Perhaps this is the reason the anthology fails to stand out above most others I’ve read; they’re all pretty much the same. Aside from Mike McCormack’s, Bob Shaw’s, William Trevor’s, and David Murphy’s stories, nothing in this collection managed to blow my mind. Not to say there aren’t other decent offerings, but the repetition of "artist" stories started to grate on my senses, and like most anthologies that include a whopping eighteen stories, there were quite a few duds.

"Thomas Crumlesh 1960-1992: A Retrospective" by Mike McCormack is easily the best story in the entire collection. A perfect choice for an opener.

The story is structured in the form of a memoir retrospective discussing the various apocalyptic art projects of Thomas Crumlesh. His standard medium is to use his own body parts and organs in his gruesome artwork. Although not conflict heavy, relying more on emotional poignancy, suspense regarding what the next art project will be (each one described in intricately gory details), the story manages to present a more subtle conflict involving the public’s reaction to his less-than-standard artwork.

The author manages to create the quintessential good horror story, combining both blood and gut descriptions with psychological uneasiness. Submission guidelines at all the horror markets should mention this story when they talk about what they are looking for when they mean horror. Not only does McCormack provide strong, haunting images via the artwork of Thomas Crumlesh, but the story has a deeper commentary to make on the whole process of originality in art, public reaction to it, and the nature of true friendship. Society might be intolerant of certain types of art, but only those who take risks have a chance of being canonized among the great artists and being true to their own artistic vision, or so this story seems to say. A postmodern horror story of the highest class.

"Hello Darkness" by Mike O’Driscoll fails to follow the first story’s success. To be honest, it’s not a bad story per se, but neither is it a particularly good one.

One of my gripes with anthologies like this one (see my review of Sky Songs II for another example) is that they get loaded with mediocre or downright inferior stories, which drowns the better offerings in a muck of clichés and a clutter of bad writing.

"Hello Darkness" just doesn’t make sense. Basically, this story is about a former child actor who likes to screw girls on the verge of dying (that amorphous area between life and death). He becomes obsessed with a hooker/stripper he sees in a porn video and tries to steal her from her pimp.

Poor characterization engenders most of the serious problems within the story. The author wastes his exposition and pays dearly for it. We learn that the protagonist is a failed child actor and his father made him stop an illicit relationship with a maid. None of this adds up to why he is likes to have sex with girls on the verge of death and life, which is the main problem. In conclusion, a good majority of the story is wasted on past details which don’t explain his current situation and quirky behavior; thus the character lacks believability. Additionally, the dialogue, especially the scenes involving the hooker, degenerates into confusing psycho-babble.

"Encore" by John Kenny is about a dying man (in Mexico?) who visits a "freak show" where a person dies and then comes back to life. This story could have been poignant and deep by juxtaposing the decay of the city and the protagonists dying body with an ending suggestive of new hope for both.  The author briefly mentions the economic situation of the city. The story is so short that the reader is led to believe this one paragraph description must play a major part, only to be disappointed when the author fails to deliver on this promise. The protagonist’s epiphany at the end is unbelievable because we don’t learn about him, other than he is sick and a bus driver in town pities him.

"Pleasing Mister Ross" by Robert Neilson is about a drug addict prostitute past her prime whose situation grows worse and worse when she is hired by the enigmatic Mister Ross. On many levels, this is a story about control: Mister Ross controlling the protagonist, drug addiction controlling the protagonist, the former pimp controlling the protagonist, and society controlling the protagonist—all of which is ironic considering Mister Ross’s kink is sadomasochist bondage and having prostitutes beat him. Yet, despite that, one could argue that he is always in control.

The setting is near-future complete with strange drug names (a cliché, I notice, of near-future stories) and slight technological improvements (a tab you can place under someone’s tongue to tell if their credit is good, pretty cool idea), but still with recognizable features of our current society. The ending provides a last minute fantasy element that explores the boundaries of human depravity and relates voyeurism with the theme of control. Isn’t true intimacy the ability to know every emotion, fear, hope, and dream wandering a person’s mind? Or perhaps that is true rape.

"The Giaconda Caper" by Bob Shaw, about a psychic detective hired to discover the mystery of an additional Mona Lisa, is a comical tour-de-farce of the highest class. It is very different from the serious, yet poignant "The Light of Other Days" available online via the SCI FICTION classic archives, the only other story I’ve read by this author.

I like that this story doesn’t just rely on stereotypical Science Fiction and Detective story elements, but attempts true "speculative"-with-a-capital-"S" fiction (the ending and origin of the Mona Lisa, according to the story, will reveal what I mean by that). The back and forth dialogue between the various characters provides moments of wit and levity, though at times it feels forced at the expense of realistic characterization. However, three-dimensional characters are not needed in a story whose deepest question is: what if Leonardo DaVinci was no better than your everyday pornographer?

"Something Occurred; Bennie on the Loose" by Sean MacRoibin is a story about a confused Irish teen who gets seduced by an old man looking for a homosexual relationship. The sparse, repetitive setting gets tiresome, even if the author meant for it to represent the tedium of the protagonist’s life. While the author captures the Irish voice perfectly (reminding me of the film In the Name of the Father), there were times I had no idea what the protagonist was saying. I suspect the author accomplished everything he intended to do, which deserves high marks for craft. However, in the end, he fails to write a compelling character or an interesting conflict, the heart of all good fiction, thus producing an extremely lukewarm result—not to mention a story with a really questionable title.

"Everyone This, Nobody That" by David Murphy is an excellent story that challenges our modern society with its mercurial fads and "next big thing" habits. It is an anti-conformist story with a nod to age-old themes much loved by the infamous Harlan Ellison.

The title refers to a repeating dialogue motif where the protagonist is constantly defending his nonconformist beliefs to everybody who has joined the new vogue, hankering (parties where people dress-up and have surgical changes to gain the appearance of a famous actor/actress).

"Don’t be out in the cold Everybody wants to be there. Nobody wants to be left out."

Quotes like this appear repeatedly in the narrative as part of natural speech, but also function as an effective motif.

Although the idea of a future society having physical changes to imitate celebrities is not a new one, (see the classic Jeffery Ford story, "Exo-Skeleton Town" originally published in the premiere issue of Black Gate and which recently won the French Grand Prix l’Imaginaire award for best short story) there are numerous differences between the two stories, and it is still fresh enough territory that Murphy uses the spec-fic element to pull off a unique take. The overall story provides a scary conclusion, but one with verisimilitude: Too much fighting against the grain can get weary after a while.

Perhaps we’ll see this up for an award in the near future. One can only hope to see such quality fiction honored.

"Miss Smith" by William Trevor is about a teacher who is abusive to an ingenuous young boy named James Machen. She puts him on the spot and pokes fun at his simpleminded quirkiness, even when he tries to smooth things over by bringing her flowers. The second half of the story leaves James’s point of view for Miss Smith’s, examining her life outside of teaching as she takes care of her newborn baby. As the introduction to the story claims: "Miss Smith" is a chilling reminder of how ordinary evil can be.  The bigger question is whether James or Miss Smith is the "ordinary evil." The answer might be that when we see evil in a person (whether or not it actually exists) it eventually transforms that individual into an evil person. This story asks many thought-provoking questions for such a simplistic plot. It offers ripe territory for deeper exploration.

"In Dublin’s Veracity" by Michael Carroll we are treated to a semi-nonsensical story about a drug addict who later believes he is God. No conflict drives the plot; the reader follows this guy around Dublin.  "In Dublin’s Veracity" ends up being an exercise in tedium. Apparently, this was shortlisted for a major Irish Fiction award. Must’ve been a slow year in the Irish fiction community.

"Velvet Fields" by Anne McCaffrey provides a new take on planet colonization. She creates some of the most original aliens I have ever seen in the pages of fiction and asks an interesting question: Should a group of people be punished for accidental genocide? A possible parallel to the European invasion of the Americas and destruction of the Native American people is symbolically drawn.

"The Burnished Egg" by Dermot Ryan probably has the juiciest fantastical idea behind it. What if a boy who loves to read becomes so involved that a bubble appears where the story becomes real? How would other people react, seeing such a bubble holding classical stories? We discover the answer in "The Burnished Egg." Great Expectations, Treasure Island, and Paradise Lost are all explored with chilling psychological consequences. Whoever said a book can’t hurt you?  And what is the price one pays for selling the artistic spirit of a novel for capitalistic gain?

"Skin-Tight" by James Lecky is about an art form involving genetic manipulation. The story is graphic and depicts a cruel capitalist world. (Haven’t we already seen both of those in this collection?) It deals with what it means to be a sellout and how far a true artist is willing to go for the sake of originality.

"The Invisible Man Game" by Nigel Quinlan is about a boy, Michael, in his early years at school and his imaginary ghost friend who hurts the teachers when they hurt Michael. The story develops subtly, following Michael through each year, discussing new developments that each grade brings, and building tension as Michael does his best not to attract negative attention from the teachers, afraid that they may fatally pay for it if he does. This piece has a nice atmosphere, the sort of cozy school feel found in novels a la Harry Potter. In many ways, school and growing up are two of the most universal things a writer can examine.

"Custom Fitting" by James White involves a tailor hired by a mysterious personage to dress a first contact alien. This failed to keep my attention. I found my mind wandering, page after page. The beginning focuses on too many superfluous details and the characters are uninteresting.

"Emerald Isle, Ruby Blood" by David Logan is yet another vampire story. In this, the vampire is stalking a woman who was once a man in a former life and his former lover. Like most vampire stories, this is nothing special, but it also isn’t particularly bad either. A mediocre read with a really cool title.

"On a Planet Similar to Ours, the Virgin Mary Says No" by John Sexton is a vignette where [Editor’s Note: Spoilers ahoy!] the Virgin Mary drives a car and decides to commit suicide, killing Christ in her womb, and preventing humanity from attaining salvation. (Sorry for the spoilers, but the entire thing is two pages long.) Nice economy of words, good imagery and metaphors. I suppose you could read this as an allegory for the loss of salvation when you commit suicide (according to Christian teachings). Actually, that’s the only way I can read it. It still didn’t wow me.

"The Barber" by Sam Millar has some nice descriptions, nice mood, some really great concrete details (the plastic monster figurines was a nice touch and homage to the monster greats), but it felt disjointed.

"Bolus Ground" by Fred Johnston resonates with many of Joyce’s classical works. That said, that resonance could be the reason I disliked it; I find most of Joyce’s work dull. And here we have yet another story about an artist. The fourth one in this collection? Maybe the editors should consider a little more variety the next go around.

Publisher: Aeon Press
Price: €9.95
Trade Paperback: 293 pages
ISBN: 0-95347844-0