Modern Magic: Tales of Fantasy and Horror, edited by W.H. Horner

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“Stock Management” by Sarah A. Hoyt
“Kindled Morphogenesis” by Alexa Graves
“Salvation in a Plastic Bag” by P. Kirby
Image“Joy, Unbottled” by Ron Horsley
“Souls of Living Wood” by Eugie Foster
“Peter I Am Lost” by Kelly Hale
“Zaubererkrieg” by Stephen D. Rogers
“The Apprentice” by Joy Marchand
“Office Magic” by Jon Sprunk
“Raven” by Elaine Cunningham
“Beauty, Sleeping” by Melissa Frederick
“Unsung Hero” by Michael A. Pignatella
“Swan Dive” by Christe M. Callabro
“Feast of Clowns” by Robert Guffey
“Subversion Clause” by Richard Parks
“Love’s Consequence” by Rhonda Mason
“The Healer’s Line” by Jill Knowles
“The Lamia” by James S. Dorr
“Midnight Snack” by Kenneth Brady
“Pavlov’s Breast” by Steve Verge
“Golden Rule” by Donna Munro
“Wishbone” by Erin MacKay
“No Worries, Partner” by Jim C. Hines
“Pentacle on His Forehead, Lizard on His Breath” by James Maxey
”Undead Air” by John Passarella
“The Woman Who Walked With Dogs” by Mary Rosenblum
For punchy summer reading, try Modern Magic: Tales of Fantasy and Horror, edited by W.H. Horner. A wide-reaching anthology of 26 dark and devious tales, this collection of short stories will provide you no escape from the real world. Instead you’ll constantly be looking over your shoulder, certain that you’ve just missed a moment of magic…

Sarah A. Hoyt’s “Stock Management” snaps you right into the book with an address from a dragon who explains to you, the ignorant humans, about the supernaturals who secretly control the world. Tapping into the latest conspiracy-theory craze (hey, have you seen The Da Vinci Code yet?), Hoyt makes you laugh, but sharpens your eye to the magic lurking beneath everyday life.

Alexa Grave’s “Kindled Morphogenesis” follows a woman as she struggles to find out what destructive power lurks within her. The premise reminded me of an X-Man gone bad; I wish that the spare writing could have been fleshed out for more depth.

With “Salvation in a Plastic Bag” by P. Kirby, a jaded Faerie seer finds said redemption in said unlikely location. While skillful at evoking the weight of damnation, immortality, and ambiguity, Kirby brings the salvation late and hurriedly in the tale, thus diminishing its power. The mordant humor at work is a pleasure, however.

Happily, the supernatural element seizes you in realistically chilly hands with Ron Horsley’s “Joy, Unbottled,” about the seductive dangers of an old backyard bathtub. Horsley’s words gush in effusions of poetic imagery that envelope the reader just as the watery menace enthralls the protagonist.

In “Souls of Living Wood” by Eugie Foster, a realtor’s affection for an old house takes on magical dimensions as she tries to defend a mansion from obnoxious buyers-to-be. Foster juggles the hilarious personalities of the obstreperous customers well with the genteel voice of the house in a story that’s surprisingly gentle, compared to the rest of the volume’s contents.

Next, “Peter I Am Lost” twists J.M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan to sharpen the horrific edges in this “children’s” tale. Wendy, now a cool, modern, kinky gal, gets the androgynous, childish Peter into bed because she wants something from him… With an immersive, edgy, first-person voice, Kelly Hale writes a poignant story.

“Zaubererkrieg” by Stephen D. Rogers imagines an alternate history in which wizards meddled in WWII. There’s a novel in this conceit, which is why the brief nature of this short-short left me feeling a little gypped.

The next few stories—“The Apprentice” by Joy Marchand, “Office Magic” by Jon Sprunk, and “Raven” by Elaine Cunningham—juxtapose their magic users with modern bourgeoisie settings, often to humorous end. “The Apprentice” features a weary 21st-century witch choosing her successor in a televised performance. “The Raven” takes a Lovecraftian sense of ye olde weirde New England and leavens it with wryness when a man tries to exorcise evil from his house with the help of a New Agey witch and her raven friends. In “Office Magic,” Sprunk wonders what would happen if the CEO of an investment company really was a dragon, then dispatches the protagonist to slay the monster with methods straight out of the office-humor cartoon Dilbert. This well-crafted trio provides a clever balance to the more serious works preceding.

“Beauty, Sleeping” by Melissa Frederick comes next. As a direct transposition of Sleeping Beauty into modern day, told in sympathy with the jealous fairy/stepmother who causes Beauty’s sleep, “Beauty” has a powerful premise. In her attempt to cover a lot of ground, though, Frederick uses a bit too much summarized backstory for my taste. In such a short allotted space, “Beauty” comes across as busy, even rushed.

Following “Beauty” is “Unsung Hero” by Michael A. Pignatella, where the precognitive hero has a choice. Should he save a charismatic Congressman from assassination or his young son from being kidnapped by a molester? Pignatella resolves the suspenseful and taut story with a moving testament to love.

“Swan Dive” by Christe M. Callabro warns that beauty and talent will avail you nothing when you’ve signed in blood with the Devil. Because it has a transparent conclusion, “Swan Dive” is not nearly as blood-curdling as Rhonda Mason’s “Love’s Consequence” [later on in the book], where demons mess with love, hate, and mortal minds for some deliciously startling and sadistic insights into human nature. And neither one of these stories can compare to the sheer inventive verve of Richard Parks’s “Subversion Clause” [even later on], in which an ingenious woman deals with hellish powers and gets exactly what she bargains for.

After “Swan Dive,” Modern Magic takes its darkest turn with Robert Guffey’s “Feast of Clowns.” The potent mix of carnies, evil clowns, and the power of wishing reaches truly disturbing moments, but does not flow (especially the poorly integrated Eastern mysticism) as well as it could for maximum power.

“The Healer’s Line” by Jill Knowles brings together cross-dressers, midwives, and werewolves for an unusual tale. While the cross-dressing character remains an irritatingly fey stereotype, Knowles manipulates her narrative skillfully to bring all the pieces to a satisfying conclusion.

In “The Lamia” by James S. Dorr, the main character meets a snaky femme fatale (or lamia) and starts a love/hate relationship with her. While Dorr’s descriptions are alluringly exotic, the story remains rather straightforward: Man loves lamia; man loses lamia; man finds her again. A dash more uncertainty about the lamia’s identity (serpent or woman?) would give it an appropriately snaky twist.

“Midnight Snack” by Ken Brady treats boogy monsters under the bed as a pesky fact of life. Eldritch and affecting, the next story, “Pavlov’s Breast” by Steve Verge, deals with a grieving mother, her engorged breasts, and a child-like monster she meets one night in the nursery. For a more amusing take on families and monsters, see the mordant “Golden Rule” by Donna Munro, in which a suburban family picks up an unsuspecting evil creep of a hitchhiker and then does unto him as he does unto others.

Modern Magic closes with a group of stories about the undead. In Erin Mackay’s “Wishbone,” a grief-stricken woman brings her lover back to deliver one last, uh, blow. Similar to James Maxey’s possession story, “Pentacle on His Forehead, Lizard on His Breath,” “Wishbone” explores with painful clarity and controlled prose the legacy of those that have died.

In “No Worries, Partner,” a young museum employee defends a Wild West museum from the undead with the help of a tough ex-cowgirl, now in a wheelchair. The author, Jim Hines, writes with felicitous humor and energetic characterization. As a reader who dislikes the cliché of the heroic cripple, I must say that especially the cowgirl is easily the strongest and most unsentimental character in the anthology.

When “Undead Air” by John Passarella and “The Woman Who Walked With Dogs” by Mary Rosenblum come around, the final stories of Modern Magic will have you chuckling. Guffaw out loud as two radio DJs use their monster-movie know-how against zombies in “Undead Air,” a tale as perfectly calibrated and deadpan as a textual comic book. Smile thoughtfully as the titular “Woman Who Walked With Dogs” comes off as crazy, but ends up teaching the teenage heroine about standing up for yourself.

Overall, Modern Magic ranks as one of the best and most unusual anthologies I’ve read recently. Amidst the speculative fiction, humorous horror, futuristic sci fi, and high fantasy that I’ve reviewed over the past months, I haven’t found anything like Modern Magic. Because the stories often have a gritty, urban edge that reminds me of contemporary city life, they seem more realistic and believable than fairy tales set in a faraway land. Modern Magic happens right here, right now, and such immediacy is the anthology’s strength. The variety of stories is wide, but all of them speak with a single voice: “Wake up! Where’s the magic hiding in your life?”
Publisher: Fantasist Enterprises (2006)
Price: $17.00
Trade Paperback: 280 pages
ISBN: 0971360847