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13 Phantasms & Other Stories

James P. Blaylock

She gave it a good yank, nearly going over backward—not with the force of the pull, but with the shock of the gristly skin having come off in her hand. She jerked it up out of the water, gaping at it and throwing it at the same moment, rising half-out of the tub like a dripping Venus. "

Reviewed 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. 

But Blaylock's 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 Thirteen Phantasms, where Landers ultimately abandons the present when he finds a way to send himself back in time to a gentleman's society. 

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 The Old 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.

M's other Short Reviews: Ursula K. Le Guin "The Birthday of the World and Other Stories"   


PublisherAce Books

Publication Date: 2003

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Awards:  Two stories included in the collection, 13 Phantasms and Paper Dragons, won World Fantasy Awards.

Author bio: James 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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