Reviewed by Steve Redwood

Editor Dave Hutchinson has here assembled an excellent collection of stories that I can thoroughly recommend, although the title might well lead to completely false expectations. If you're looking for kinky sex or sadism, this isn't the book for you; instead, it is a fascinating mixture of straight and not-so-straight (in the original meaning) SF and fantasy, with dollops of surrealism, magic, humour, horror, wonder, fairy tale, ghost story, and even some metafiction thrown in.

In a collection of 21 stories, ranging from one to twenty-five pages long, you would normally expect to find a fairly wide range of quality--or at least of personal preference. But here the level is so uniformly high I find it difficult to list the stories in any meaningful order of merit. However, here's a selection, to give an idea of the range of style and subject matter.

One of my favourites has to be The Test by Fay Sampson, which retells the fascinating medieval story of Gawain and the Green Knight (you know, the head-chop-swap story) from fluctuating viewpoints, since the writer is at the same time reflecting on the process of writing a short fiction for an MA course at Plymouth University, and being drawn into an argument with her own characters, especially a rather tetchy Morgan le Fay, who objects to such a post-modernist treatment of what was after all her plot. The Gawain story itself, with Sampson's subtly altered retelling, is well worth reading, but the whole achieves its special quality from the intermingling of writer, written, and fashionable lit crit concepts, as they all somehow end up in the same cauldron, bouncing off each other. Although toying cleverly and wittily with the concepts of post-modern criticism (thank god I did my MA before the academics became totally insane!) the writer comes down on the side of story and magic, pointing out that 'long before the advent of literary criticism, the Green Man flourished'. A swift, snappy, thoughtful, delightful story.

I also greatly enjoyed another reflection on the writing process, A Writer's Halloween Tale by Randy Dannenfelser, which deals with a boy and his grandfather on a safari hunt for wild words, which is much more fun than it sounds, especially if you can bag an unwary tintinnabulation--but beware of the sinister editor!

Magic is not only the subject, but also the title, of a (literally) charming story by Teri
Smith, which shows the importance of choosing carefully which frogs to kiss--and also a warning to frogs themselves to beware of strong-minded princesses with gourmet tastes.

Another light-hearted tale is John Grant's H-----'s Last Case, which has a convoluted story worthy of the Master himself, as well as some in-jokes and great one-liners. Remember what the 'H' in DH Lawrence stands for! Admirers of Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall may notice a similarity between Captain Grimes being left a revolver and being told to 'behave like a gentleman', and the villain's own reaction here to a similar situation. Wonderful denouement!

Showing his versatility (I suspect there may be some intimate connection between versatility and luxuriant beards), John Grant has also contributed the very different Coma to the collection. A girl is in a coma for six years, and during that time comes into contact with 'the Chord'. The Chord is beyond definition, unless you accept 'the purity of the statement of existence'. When she comes out of her coma, she is only too aware of this connection to the universe that she has lost. I found this a fascinating story, the symbol of the Chord able to encompass so much. (The characters LoChi and Qinmeartha--the Creator, but not the first one--also appear in Grant's highly amusing and fast-moving novel, The Hundredfold Problem.)

Another notable story is At the Crosswords by CS Thompson, in which a man, using an alien device, the nothing box, tries to discover the truth behind a woman's eyes, a search that carries its own mortal danger. A moving, suggestive story, not really classifiable, a striking opener to the anthology.

The 'straight' SF stories themselves are also of a high standard, such as Robert Katz' Adam, extrapolating from the discovery of the FoxP2 gene (claimed by some as the 'language' or at least 'communication' gene) and questioning the myth of a divinely-ordained human superiority over the rest of the animal kingdom. Lauren Halkon's Automata is exciting reading and also fairly thought-provoking, while Chris Amies' Loving the Alien draws attention to the tragedy of people separated by the evils of military expansionism. A couple of stories here touch on the relation between religion and science, such as Robert Katz' chilling In the Tank (if you can't conquer science, pervert it in the name of religion!) or Ian Johnson's deceptively simple The Stars.

Other stories come into no clear category. Lou Anders' The Woman on the Cross is a punch in the guts for believers in our great paternalistic religion, Paul Kincaid's Disappearing a clever reflection on just how much the Internet can reveal about a person (even including the future?), Strong Heart Blue by Stuart Jaffe takes an old idea, spirit beings inhabiting human bodies, and manages to turn it into a cosmic love story, while Martha Garvey in New Hope movingly deals with another kind of resurrection.

As a physical artefact, the book is a pleasure to hold and to behold, with agreeable cover art and design by LW Perkins and Garry Nurrish, and nice clear print so spaced as to give an impression of airy cleanliness. The quality is in fact much better than that of mass market paperbacks, many of which are so poorly printed they actually negatively influence my enjoyment of the content.

In short, an unpredictable and fascinating book, with a range of spices to send a tingle along the most satiated and world-weary of tongues. Very strongly recommended.

Strange Pleasure 3 edited by Dave Hutchinson. Tpb, 244 pp, $17.95 (available at £10 in the UK from Amazon here).

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Steve Redwood is the author of the British Fantasy Society nominated Fisher of Devils (Prime Books, 2003) and Who Needs Cleopatra? (Osiris Press, 2005, Unlike most of the writers in the Strange Pleasures anthology, he has no cat and glances rather furtively at his paunch when asked why not.

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