My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It took me over a year to read this 1988 collection of short stories selected by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, but it wasn’t because of any problems I had with the anthology. I’m rating this 5 stars for a very good reason: nearly ever story in the collection are themselves 5-star worthy. Some stories overwhelmed me so much with their greatness that I had to take a break to process them, which led to gaps in my reading this anthology when I fell into reading some other book. Every time I came back to this anthology, though, I immediately encountered another incredible, thought-provoking story.
I mean, the anthology starts with “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight” by Ursula K. Le Guin! This is one of my absolute favorite stories and it is one that lingers. So many stories in this anthology are like that. I sometimes didn’t want to move on; I wanted to savor and think about what I had just read. Sometimes I even fell into a jealous gloom, despairing that my own writing will ever come close to the level of craft on display here.
There are other stories that simply shattered my understanding of how short stories in particular fantasy genres should work. Stories like “Haunted” by Joyce Carol Oates and “Halley’s Passing” by Michael McDowell scared me half to death! These are decidedly disturbing, even icky, horror stories that showcase their author’s incredible use of craft. In “Halley’s Passing,” for example, McDowell uses a close third-person narrator that relays real-time violence in matter-of-fact, even bureaucratic detail. That combination elevated my terror from the very beginning, so that when I reached a horrifying further revelation near the end, it wasn’t all that surprising, considering.
Yes, absolutely chilling and disturbing horror, often offset by other genres of fantasy that are more humorous, soaring, and absolutely gorgeous in setting and detail. Mood often shifts story by story, though there are also interesting pairings of stories with similar moods and subject matter throughout the anthology. Stories like “Words of Power” by Jane Yolen and “The Maid on the Shore” by Dalia Sherman offer powerful moments of empowerment and achievement soon after other stories of frightful horror.
I would love to write a review about each and every story, but the last one I’ll focus on has to be Alan Moore’s “A Hypothetical Lizard.” Until this last story, the one criticism I had about the anthology was the lack of diversity in characters. There are (too) few people of color, though it is possible that readers could see diverse characters in stories that don’t really describe the characters in great detail. Until “A Hypothetical Lizard,” there are no LGBT characters; instead, there are jarring uses of “faggot” in a couple stories, though the characters uttering this word are meant to be despicable.
The last story, and Windling’s pick for best fantasy story of the year, is “A Hypothetical Lizard,” and it is a stunning and inclusive story to end on. Not that it has a happy ending, but Moore’s characterization of the transgender character Rawra Chin is very loving, though in keeping with 1988 one would not expect Her story to have a happy ending. I think that Moore’s use of homosexual and transgender characters to tell a universal story of love and betrayal is powerful and very much appreciated in an anthology of stories that otherwise ignores LGBT people.
The other thing I love about “A Hypothetical Lizard” is Moore’s level of craft. In fact, he’s on an entirely different level than any other writer in the anthology, and this story, at least in my opinion, seems the most timeless because of it. The cinematic vividness of his descriptions includes a scene where the character imagines the black stones of the courtyard below her as a pool of water, and what it would be like for her to dive into the water and swim away. I’m going to be studying this and other passages for years as I try to improve my own writing. Another example: a perspective change that is jarring but absolutely perfect for the story. I cannot rave enough about Moore’s level of craft. It’s just stunning.
So, yes, this anthology took me over a year to read, but it is also my most favorite book over that same period of time. It includes some of my favorite short stories ever. What Le Guin, Oates, McDowell, Moore, and everyone else in the anthology accomplish with their tales is so inspiring.
I’m in awe.