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Monday, April 11, 2011

“Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy 2” edited by William Schafer (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

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EDITOR INFORMATION: William K. Schafer is the head editor at Subterranean Press, which was founded in 1995. Schafer’s bibliography includes Embrace the Mutation: Fiction Inspired by the Art of J.K. Potter and the first Tales of Dark Fantasy anthology.

ABOUT SUBTERRANEAN: TALES OF DARK FANTASY 2: Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy—published in 2008 to widespread critical and popular acclaim—provided a unique showcase for some of our finest practitioners of dark, disturbing fiction. This much anticipated second volume more than meets the standards set by its predecessor, offering a diverse assortment of stories guaranteed to delight, unsettle, and enthrall. Volume two proper is a full 20,000 words longer than the first installment in the series.

This stellar collection leads off with Joe Hill’s dazzling “Wolverton Station,” in which a predatory businessman travels to England, and to a primal confrontation he could never have imagined. Elsewhere, a number of contributors revisit familiar, well-established themes and settings. Glen Cook’sSmelling Danger” gives us a brand new chapter in the long-running annals of The Black Company. “The Passion of Mother Vajpai” is a story of exotic—and erotic—initiation set against the backdrop of Jay Lake’s novel, Green. Kelley Armstrong reenters the Otherworld with “Chivalrous,” the account of a devious—and long-delayed—act of revenge.

And there’s more, much more, including a hallucinatory portrait of guilt, angst, and drug-fueled violence by Caitlin R. Kiernan, and an affecting reflection on love, death, and acceptance by Steven R. Boyett. These stories, together with first-rate work by the likes of K. J. Parker and Norman Partridge, offer provocative, sometimes visceral entertainment. As this rich, rewarding volume amply demonstrates, the tale of dark fantasy is alive and thriving, and continues to develop in new—and unexpected—ways...

FORMAT/INFO: Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy 2 is 292 pages long divided over eleven stories by eleven different authors. Publication date is April 2011 via Subterranean Press with the anthology available as a fully cloth bound Hardcover trade edition and a Signed leatherbound/custom slipcased edition limited to 250 numbered copies. The limited edition will also feature exclusive full color art not available in the trade edition and a chapbook by Joe R. Lansdale which includes two original short stories (over 15,000 words): “The Case of the Lighthouse Shambler” and “The Case of the Stalking Shadow”. The tales mark the beginning of a new series featuring supernatural sleuth Dana Roberts. Cover art is once again provided by Dave McKean.

ANALYSIS: As far as anthologies go, Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy may have fallen on the short end of the spectrum with only eleven entries—and not all of them of the same quality—but for the most part, the book offered readers a diverse and rewarding selection of stories penned by an impressive mix of established authors and exciting new talent. Looking to improve upon the successful formula that was established in the first anthology, Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy 2 is certainly longer than its predecessor, featuring an additional 20,000 words of content despite containing the same number of stories, but is it any better?

1) Wolverton Station” by Joe Hill. What better way to start off an anthology that explores the darker side of fiction than a story by the critically-acclaimed, award-winning author Joe Hill? Or at least that’s what I thought upon opening the book. Unfortunately, while “Wolverton Station” is written with the author’s usual skill and keen insight, the story itself—a Twilight Zone-like tale about an American businessman specializing in franchise expansion who one day finds himself on a train with passengers that are anthropomorphic wolves/werewolves—was a letdown. In fact, “Wolverton Station” is one of the weakest Joe Hill short stories I’ve read, and a disappointing start to the anthology.

2)The Passion of Mother Vajpai” by Jay Lake and Shannon Page. “Wolverton Station” may have been a disappointment, but “The Passion of Mother Vajpai” certainly made up for it. Set in the same world as Jay Lake’s fantasy novel, Green, “The Passion of Mother Vajpai” is the story of an aspirant who is only a test away from becoming a Lily Blade. Normally, the Seventh Petal involves killing someone, but in this particular case, the aspirant must attend a banquet and deliver a message to the master of the house. Of course the test is not nearly as simple as it sounds, and what follows is a passionate and poignant tale of seduction, love and regret. Now I haven’t read Green yet, but after reading “The Passion of Mother Vajpai”, I definitely want to. As far as Shannon Page, I’ve never heard of the author before, but if she’s even half as talented as Jay Lake, then I need to become more acquainted with her work.

3)Chivalrous” by Kelley Armstrong. For every anthology I’ve read that included Kelley Armstrong, her contribution always ended up being one of the better stories in the book. This is also true with “Chivalrous”, an Otherworld story about a werewolf just trying to live a normal life, who then becomes involved in a romantic relationship that leads to heartbreak, tragedy, and revenge. Admittedly, “Chivalrous” is a familiar tale with a twist that is fairly easy to predict, but the writing and execution is sharp with the short story serving as yet another reminder that I should be reading more of Kelley Armstrong’s books...

4)Smelling Danger” by Glen Cook. “Smelling Danger” is basically a sequel to “Tides Elba”, which can be found in the Swords & Dark Magic anthology by Lou Anders and Jonathan Strahan. Like “Tides Elba”, “Smelling Danger” is short on action and heavy on dialogue, banter and things not being what they seem, with the actual plot covering matters that were left unresolved in “Tides Elba” including the mysterious disappearance of the sorcerers One-Eye and Goblin, and incriminating evidence against the Taken Limper. As a fan of the series, I enjoyed the short story even though it’s not one of Glen Cook’s stronger efforts, but for readers unfamiliar with The Black Company, “Smelling Danger” is not a good place to start...

5)The Dappled Thing” by William Browning Spencer. When was the last time you could say you read a story that channeled H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling and H.P. Lovecraft all at the same time? Well that’s exactly what readers can expect with William Browning Spencer’s “The Dappled Thing”, an elegantly written story—“a palpable evil, a malevolent spirit, had settled in his mind with the authority of truth, bringing with it a suffocating terror, a need to run, to flee, but robbing him of volition”—about an aged explorer sent on a mission to rescue a lord’s daughter, the mechanical sphere with tentacles that Sir Bertram Rudge uses for transportation, and a nameless horror that haunts the jungle natives...

6)Not Last Night But the Night Before” by Steven R. Boyett. Michael can see people’s deaths. Not dead people. Not when a person is going to die or how, but their deaths, which is kind of like a diminished reflection or shadow of a person that is always hanging around, even though it may be entertaining itself by reading the newspaper or watching teevee. Why Michael has this ability isn’t important. What’s important is what happens to Michael after he starts seeing people’s deaths. After he watches someone die and learns the reason his death is always following him. And after he meets Hayley, a nurse who can also see people’s deaths. The end result is a uniquely touching and contemplative examination on life and death...

7)Hydraguros” by Caitlin R. Kiernan. I love reading Caitlin R. Kiernan’s fiction, I really do, but sadly, “Hydraguros” was one of the author’s weaker offerings. At first I was intrigued by the mystery about the silver liquid and the gritty, hard-boiled narrative—“Nothing pisses me off worse or quicker than some bastard spinning off the rails, running around with that first-person shooter mentality that, more often than not, turns a simple, straight-up hit into a bloodbath. And that is precisely the brand of unnecessary crimson pageantry that me and Joey the Kike have just spent the last three hours mopping up.” But then there was the dream and the obvious reason behind it and the story’s sudden ending, which quickly turned my interest into disappointment...

8)The Parthenopean Scalpel” by Bruce Sterling. Best known as a co-founder of cyberpunk, Bruce Sterling’s inclusion in Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy 2 was a bit surprising. Even more surprising was the story he contributed, about an Italian terrorist called “the Scalpel” who takes refuge in Tuscany after a political assassination, where he falls in love with a two-headed woman and crosses paths with an enemy he calls “the Transylvanian”. Sounds interesting, right? Unfortunately, there are so many different ingredients stirring in the pot that I had a hard time figuring out what “The Parthenopean Scalpel” was supposed to be: a love story, a historical fiction set during the First Italian Independence War in 1848, a vampire tale? If Sterling had done more to flesh out the story’s many different elements, then perhaps “The Parthenopean Scalpel” could have been something really special. Instead, “The Parthenopean Scalpel” is a disjointed and ultimately unsatisfying reading experience.

9)A Pulp Called Joe” by David Prill. You’ve heard this story before. Boy falls for girl who is out of his league, but still thinks he has a chance. But then the old boyfriend—“Mr. Perfect” in every way imaginable—shows up and complicates matters. What happens next is inevitable right? Perhaps in a romance film. Except, “A Pulp Called Joe” is no ordinary tale of romance. Instead, David Prill’s story takes place in a town where the people’s skin has turned into paper. Where the boy of this story is a lowly pulp with untrimmed edges and mildew growing behind his ears while the girl of his dreams, Penelope, is a vellum: “She looked like a supple limited edition, flawless vellum with printed silk panels. I blushed when my eyes drifted down to her peach endpapers.” So even though the plot and themes in “A Pulp Called Joe” are familiar ones, the unique setting transforms an otherwise ordinary story into something extraordinary...

10) Vampire Lake” by Norman Partridge. One complaint I had about the first Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy was the anthology’s lack of horror. As a result, I was pleased to see Norman Partridge’s inclusion in the new volume. After all, the author is considered a master of dark fiction, and after reading “Vampire Lake”, it’s easy to see why. Combining horror and fantasy within a gritty Western setting—think Jonah Hex meets Preacher meets John CarpenterNorman Partridge’s unapologetically dark, violent and bloody tale about a bounty killer, a blacksmith, a dynamite man, a preacher and a boy who possesses the second sight, and their suicidal quest to reach Vampire Lake and the vampire queen that resides there, is wickedly entertaining. Easily my favorite story in the anthology.

11)A Room With a View” by K.J. Parker. Despite repeated efforts, K.J. Parker’s novels have never managed to maintain my interest. The author’s short fiction on the other hand, have been a joy to read and “A Room With a View” is no exception. The story itself concerns an underachieving wizard sent on a menial job inspecting dogs for demonic possession and mentoring a student, only to become involved in matters much more personal and tragic than he ever suspected. “A Room With a View” is probably not the story I would have chosen to conclude the anthology, but it’s a fun read nonetheless, thanks mostly to the story’s humor, imagination and deception...

CONCLUSION: So is Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy 2 any better than its predecessor? Well, that depends. The anthology is certainly more consistent in quality from beginning to end, with no stories that are only three pages long, or that were noticeably weaker than the others, or were not faithful to the novel’s theme. On the contrary, every single story in the anthology is well crafted and skillfully written, brings something different to the table, and is rewarding in its own unique way. So in that regard, Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy 2 does indeed show improvement over the first anthology.

On the other hand, there is not a single story in the anthology that I would consider a ‘must-read’, except maybe for Norman Partridge’sVampire Lake”, while accomplished authors like Joe Hill, Glen Cook and Caitlin R. Kiernan fail to bring their ‘A’ game. Furthermore, I still believe the anthology could have benefited from a few additional stories. There are certainly plenty of authors out there who fit the bill after all, including Clive Barker, Laird Barron, Alan Campbell, Ramsey Campbell, Mike Carey, Steven Erikson, Neil Gaiman, Christopher Golden, Brian Keene, Sarah Langan, Tim Lebbon, China Miéville, Ekaterina Sedia, Catherynne M. Valente, Jeff VanderMeer and Conrad Williams just to name a few.

Regardless of these issues, Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy 2 maintains the diversity, creativeness and quality of the first volume, while showing enough improvement to easily justify a third Tales of Dark Fantasy. In the end, highly recommended for fans of the first anthology and anyone willing to explore the darker side of fiction...


Liviu said...

I have also done a short review of "A Room With a View" here:


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