by M. Bobowski
13 Phantasms and Other Stories
is rich in quiet humor and it invites us in, makes us comfortable. The
edges are soft, like the lines between fantasy and reality, and each
story is a world unto itself.
In Paper Dragons a
Chinese restaurant becomes the communications center for a traveling
crypto-zoologist, getting on the wrong bus in Red Planet turns
into the journey of a lifetime for Monty, and the sea seen through John
Kendal's keyhole in Nets
of Silver and Gold is not necessarily the same sea seen
through his window. The real magic here lies not in fantastic
events or unreal places, but in the ability to create people from only
ink and paper. It is a feat on par with creating a dragon from copper
wire and cotton stuffing, and Blaylock's characters in these stories,
at least the men, are very human.
women aren't—not entirely. They can be casually cruel: in Unidentified Objects,
Jane never knows what her boyfriend gave up to stay with her and it's
doubtful she'd care, and Walt's wife Amanda is blind to the agony she
inflicts on her husband in Doughnuts.
More often they are quietly loving: in The Better Boy
(written with Tim Powers), Bernard's wife Molly patches his inventor's
pants yet again, when even Bernard thinks they are beyond repair, and
Edna Jimmerson would rather die than commit the betrayal Doyle believes
her guilty of in The
Old Curiosity Shop, by far the darkest tale in the
collection. The few women in these stories who assert themselves are
not easily liked, seen through the eyes of the men, and the women that
are likable are without depth, uniformly quiet and gentle and
forgiving. They are idealized women from an earlier time, just as
impossible as taking a bus to Mars. “A husband was a solitary creature
in the end,” Walt tells us in Doughnuts,
giving voice to the gulf that exists between the sexes and the
inhumanity of such women.
The magic of
nostalgia and a past refined into fantasy also come together to create
the turn-of-the-century scientist Langdon St. Ives, cast in the mold of
such great fictional men of reason as Verne's Phileas Fogg and
Professor Von Hardwigg and Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. He appears three
times in this collection: in The
Ape-Box Affair, where an experiment gone awry causes a
panic in nineteenth-century London; again in Two Views of a Cave Painting,
when an archaeological expedition proves the ideal testing ground for a
time-travel machine; and finally in The Idol's Eye,
when Langdon St. Ives puzzles out the curse following a treasure
brought back from an expedition to Java. While the adventures
of Langdon St. Ives are physically set in the past, nowhere is the
yearning for idyllic days gone by more apparent than in the title story
Phantasms, where Landers ultimately abandons the present
when he finds a way to send himself back in time to a gentleman's
In keeping with
nostalgia-fantasy, this book is a time capsule of the first two decades
of Blaylock's early career. From the simplistic beginning of Red Planet, where
we can still see the rough edges, to the mature work of Thirteen Phantasms and
Curiosity Shop, where the stories are polished and become
more thematically complex, this collection showcases the development of
a writer. And James Blaylock turns out to be an excellent writer, a
conscientious craftsman whose writing is beautiful, something to savor.
M. Bobowski lives with her
much-suffering cat and extremely patient boyfriend in northern Sweden.
She is currently working on either an extremely disjointed novel or an
exceptionally cohesive short story collection.
Publisher: Ace Books
Awards: Two stories included in the collection, 13 Phantasms and Paper Dragons, won World Fantasy Awards.
P. Blaylock teaches creative writing at Chapman University and is the author of twenty novels and four short story collections. Hs novel Homunculus received the Philip K. Dick Award.
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