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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

“Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy” edited by William Schafer

Order “Subterranean: Tales of Dark FantasyHERE

EDITOR INFORMATION: William K. Schafer is the head editor at Subterranean Press which was founded by Bill and Tim Holt in 1995.

PLOT SUMMARY: Fantasy comes in all shades, from gentle tales of elves and fairies, to the blackest of horrors. “Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy” tends toward the darker edges, where the fantastic mixes with the horrific. With all original tales by a number of
Subterranean Press favorites, and writers new to our stable, we’ve aimed to illuminate these shadowed corners, to bring into the light the creatures that venture forth from the sea, those that alter our reality to suit their sinister needs, and others who head into territory so bleak it’s best left undescribed:

01)The Gulf” by
Poppy Z. Brite. Clocking in at eleven pages, “The Gulf”, narrated in the first-person, is a post-Katrina tale about what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…

02)Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” by
Mike Resnick. Also narrated in the first-person, Mike Resnick’s twenty-seven page contribution follows Maury Gold and Nate Silver—Gold and Silver—who have been friends for 78 years since they first met in Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders. Now, over ninety years old with little to live for, the two longtime friends venture back out into the contemporary world searching for the magic store that first brought them together…and find it—the same as ever—along with new hopes, forgotten dreams and unknown regrets…

03)It Washed Up” by
Joe R. Lansdale. A mere three pages long, “It Washed Up” is like the tale of The Pied Piper of Hamelin if told by H.P. Lovecraft...

04)The Hour of Babel” by
Tim Powers. Twenty pages. On June 21, 1975, the Firehouse Pizza experienced a phenomenon that resulted in five people dead, and nine survivors, although only four survived sane. One of those survivors is Kurt Hollis, and thirty-one years later he meets a group of time travelers intent on solving the mysterious event. They believe the phenomenon was caused by an alien manifestation, but as the title of the story alludes, the answer may be more biblical in nature…

05)Monstrous Embrace” by
Rachel Swirsky. Told through the first-person perspective of Ugliness, “Monstrous Embrace” is a fifteen-page petition to Prince Raius to either marry Ugliness and save his life and crown, or be betrayed by the Lady Alna who is really a witch seeking revenge against the fairies that brought destruction to Elithi. Either way, the prince will lose…

06)The Lunatic Miss Teak” by
Darren Speegle. Fifteen pages. In Cochem, Germany, a commercially successful painter purchases a grotesque doll covered in numerous inch-long horizontal slots called Miss Teak for one thousand cents. Upon his return home in Hartford, Connecticut, he discovers that Miss Teak has gifted him with magical powers—abilities that he uses to garner himself fame & fortune. Remembering the shopkeeper’s message that you can be hers or she can be yours, the painter starts feeding a thousand ‘found’ cents into Miss Teak, but the closer the painter reaches his goal, the more he begins to regret his decision…

07)The Steam Dancer (1896)” by
Caitlin R. Kiernan. Twelve pages. At the age of nineteen, Missouri Banks lost a leg, eye and arm to bloatflies and was nursed back to health by the mechanic who eventually became her lover, and then husband. Fitted with a mechanical arm and leg that was fashioned by the mechanic, and an eye procured from a Chinaman in San Francisco, Missouri was made whole again and currently is the star dancer at Madame Ling’s Nine Dragons. Missouri’s proverb—What’s past is prologue

08)Penguins of the Apocalypse” by
William Browning Spencer. Thirty-one pages. Narrated in the first-person, Sam Silvers is unemployed, divorced, and an alcoholic living above a bar. The one good thing in his life is his five-year-old son, Danny, but that is threatened when Derrick Thorn—either a weird stranger, a figment of Sam’s imagination, or a mischievous spirit called a pooka—enters his life…

09)Caverns of Mystery” by
Kage Baker. Featuring a young heroine who can see phantoms through her right eye, Kage Baker’s twenty-page short story deals with the Caverns of Mystery—a tourist attraction—and the sorrowful history that haunts it…

10)Face” by
Mike Carey. Presented as a letter between the Governor Plenipontentiary of the city Sestival and the Suzerain of the Eastern Empire, the nineteen-page “Face” finds Melchior Tavel explaining the Blood Neshim uprising, which was caused by a court hearing where tradition was overruled by personal feelings…

11)The Road To Levinshir” by
Patrick Rothfuss. Starring Kvothe from “The Name of the Wind” in a dark tale about Edema Ruh and revenge, “The Road To Levinshir” is basically a thirty-seven page long excerpt from the second book in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles, “The Wise Man’s Fear”…

Additionally, “Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy” is accompanied by a chapbook for
Joe Hill’s story, “Thumbprint”. Unfortunately, that story wasn’t included in the ARC version of the anthology…

FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 232 pages divided over eleven short stories. Publication date is July 2008 via
Subterranean Press with the anthology presented in three unique editions:

1) Lettered: Fully leatherbound, housed in a custom traycase, with three full color plates, signed by all contributors.
2) Limited: Bound in leather and cloth, housed in a custom slipcase, with three full color plates, signed by most contributors (SOLD OUT).
3) Trade: Fully cloth bound edition.

Accompanying “Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy” is an exclusive chapbook of
Joe Hill’s 10,000-word story, “Thumbprint,” thus far only available in the UK magazine, Postscripts. Providing the cover for “Thumbprint” is Vincent Chong who also provides interior color plates for both the Limited and Lettered editions. Cover art is courtesy of Dave McKean.

ANALYSIS: One reason I like reading short story anthologies is being able to sample the work of writers that I’ve always wanted to try or had not heard of before. Of the former, I was eagerly looking forward to reading the contributions by Poppy Z. Brite, Joe R. Landsdale, Tim Powers and Kage Baker. While the first two were slightly disappointing—The Gulf because it wasn’t the ‘dark fantasy’ tale that I was expecting, and It Washed Up because of its brevity—Tim’s intriguing sci-fi short and Kage Baker’s haunting ghost story were excellent pieces that made me want to read more of the authors’ work.

Of the latter, “Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy” was my introduction to Rachel Swirsky and Darren Speegle—two exciting up-and-comers—and the award-winning William Browning Spencer, all of whom were worthy additions to the anthology. Of the rest, I was quite familiar with Mike Resnick, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Mike Carey and Patrick Rothfuss, and much of my excitement for the anthology stemmed from their inclusion.

As far as favorites, it’s hard to pick just one, because apart from The Gulf and It Washed Up, every short story in the anthology left a lasting impression on me. For instance, I enjoyed “The Road To Levinshir” because it was rewarding to hear Kvothe’s voice again and getting a taste of Patrick’s next book. I loved “Monstrous Embrace” for its beautiful, poetic prose and evocative imagery:

I am ugliness in body and bone, breath and heartbeat. I am muddy rocks and jagged scars snaking across salt-sown fields. I am insect larvae wriggling inside the great dead beasts into which they were born. Too, I am the hanks of dead flesh rotting. I am the ungrateful child’s sneer, the plague sore bursting, the swing of shadow beneath the gallows rope. Ugliness is my hands, my feet, my fingernails. Ugliness is my gaze, boring into you like a worm into rotting fruit.”

I thought “Face” was the most original story in the anthology, particularly the concept of the Neshim who believed that “a woman’s beauty is the property of her husband, and must give pleasure to no man else”, so their faces were removed from their heads and only given back to them after they were properly married. And I liked “Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” because it was poignant, “Penguins of the Apocalypse” because it was powerful, “The Lunatic Miss Teak” for being provocative, and “The Steam Dancer (1896)” for its steampunk elements. And so on…

CONCLUSION: I love reading horror about as much as I love reading fantasy, so when I first heard about “Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy” and its theme of “where the fantastic mixes with the horrific”, I couldn’t have been more excited—especially once I saw who all was contributing. But the anthology is not perfect. I thought two of the short stories could have been omitted without any great loss; a couple of others seemed incomplete including “The Steam Dancer (1896)”; and I thought the anthology could have benefited from 3-4 additional contributions, although the Joe Hill chapbook helps. Furthermore, “Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy” is a bit lacking in both the fantasy and horror departments. Of the former, most of the stories take place in a contemporary milieu with the fantastic elements of a more ambiguous nature. Horror meanwhile is of the subtler, more psychological variety. Despite these issues however, “Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy” left me quite impressed, particularly the high-quality writing throughout the entire book; the creativeness displayed by the authors; and the anthology’s diversity which I appreciated. In short, I hope
Subterranean Press will produce many more of these Tales of Dark Fantasy anthologies…


Ben said...

I've been wondering about how this book was going to be since I heard about it. Thanks for the great review!

Robert said...

You're more than welcome :)

Chris, The Book Swede said...

Hmm. I think, if this was slightly longer, and a bit better received, I might have bought this one :)

As it is, I've just bought one of their The Shadow of the Wind limiteds! :D I love the look of the edition so much, and I wanted a relatively inexpensive sampling of what they do, in case I ever decide to buy something more expensive!

Nearly, oh so nearly, bought The Graveyard Book ... but $250 even with the exchange rate is a bit much! ;)

A good review!

Robert said...

Thanks Chris :) I've been thinking about buying The Shadow of the Wind from SubPress. But I'm also interested in that Songs of the Dying Earth and recently purchased the Gardens of the Moon LE. Plus they have so many other books I want!


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