NEW WRITINGS IN THE FANTASTIC

Edited by John Grant

Reviewed by Jim Steel

What a beast of a book this is--for sheer size it dwarfs the Solaris Book of New Fantasy that came out around the same time. It's also got to complete with at least half-a-dozen Year's Best anthologies as well, though. Fantasy is a genre that frequently swaps cards with horror and science fiction, so there is a lot of competition out there. Unlike the Year's Best collections, you won't have read any of the stories in here yet.

It does its best to look magisterial. Aside from the title, the cover of this collection is a dignified abstract by Peter Gric, and it has the feel of one of those heavy anthologies of poetry that you used to get handed at school. Many of the stories are only a couple of pages long and some of them, consequently, feel a little slight despite not outstaying their welcome, and there are also several, it has to be said, that are mediocre. Despite this, the average quality is remarkably high. One is almost tempted to think that an anthology this size might actually have benefited from a couple of out-and-out stinkers for contrast.

I'll restrict myself to those that captured my attention; otherwise this review will become so large that it will cause the WoW site to crash. There is no sword and sorcery in here, but it ranges wide nonetheless. The horror/SF crossover that I mentioned above is ably demonstrated by two consecutive stories. Gary McMahon's Raise Your Hands gives us a man who finds one day that total strangers (and loved ones) want to punch him. Not a great position for a city-dweller to find himself in, so he moves to the country where he starts to uncover the cause, only to find that a horrific fate still awaits him. McMahon's lean and powerful prose typically doesn't waste a word. This is then followed by a work of science fiction. Peter Hagelslag is not a native English speaker and he occasionally tends to be a bit overblown in The Interference From Heaven, but the content just dazzles with sensawunda. A physicist and her lover explore each other as she explores the possibilities of extraterrestrial intelligence through multiverse theory and quantum mechanics. She starts to become aware of a chance that the evidence could already be all around us. It's a story that just bubbles with possibilities. Then, following on from this, we have a story with a graph. However, in Gavin Salisbury's Babble, it has been drawn by a man with mental health problems. Jason is convinced that if he can get tapes of all of the world's languages and play them all at once, then he can discover the language of God. Bear in mind that just because you're mad, it doesn't mean that you're wrong. It does mean that your house tends to fill up with tape recorders, though.

Steve Redwood contributes the funniest story to the anthology. In Hot Cross Son a psychopathic detective investigates a priest who has started handing out meat at mass, claiming that Christ wasn't speaking metaphorically. Brilliantly told from the detective's viewpoint, it begins to appear that the priest isn't lying about anything. There's another tale that runs it close, though. Ian Watson and Roberto Quaglia present us (and a doctor) with a woman who is covered in clitorises. Need I go on?

There's another unusual woman in Paul Pinn's Borderline Charm. A man, driving through the Deep South, is accosted by a barman who wants the man to marry his sister. Pinn produces sparkling dialogue from characters who are all hiding something. Wake Jake by Andrew Hook is also set in the States. A couple of cops on a stakeout swap philosophy in a twisted hard-boiled plot that defies genre categorisation.

Liza Granville's May Day, May Day is typical of the shorter pieces (it is only two and a half pages long) in that it's more mood than plot, but it's packed with wit and zest and escapes the problems that flatten some of the others. A woman goes into a church with pagan carvings and finds that she is seated next to an unusual worshipper.

It's an unusually balanced anthology in that it generally seems to get stronger as it goes on. Arguably the best story is the penultimate one, Song Cycle by Kate Riedel. It spans seasons and characters as it tells the largely matriarchal story of a struggling farm. There is a touch of the fey around the place, and strange encounters happen across the years in this beautifully elegiac story. The final story, Two Double Beds In A Comfort Hotel by Donna Gagnon, is not half bad either, although at first glance it looks as if it's a poem, such is its layout. It's both economical and emotional - a rare combination.

There is much that is good in here. You can expect to see many of the stories reprinted in the Year's Best anthologies mentioned at the start.

New Writings In The Fantastic, edited by John Grant. C-format paperback, 374pp, £12.99. Published by Pendragon Press, PO Box 12, Maesteg, Mid Glamorgan, South Wales, CF34 OXG.

Website: - www.pendragonpress.co.uk


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