Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy
Ellen Datlow, Editor

St. Martin’s Griffin
Trade Paper, 560 pages, $15.99
Review by Sheila M. Merritt

A teeming metropolis is a hotbed for the secretive and strange. In Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy, highly esteemed editor Ellen Datlow has compiled twenty stories that are urbanly oriented to the odd and eerie. The narratives are varied and of high quality. To choose favorites from the choice morsels is difficult. Arbitrary as it is, four yarns from the volume are here chosen for deeper analysis. They are scrutinized and admired for totally idiosyncratic reasons.

A good place to begin is a memorable opening line, which Christopher Fowler provides: “On the darkest, most miserable Saturday afternoon in September, Helen Abbott went shopping in London with a Derringer .25 sub-compact pistol in her handbag.” Fowler is the author of “Oblivion by Calvin Klein,” a tale that gets points for its clever title. Its acerbic aspects extend into the body of the work; sardonic humor resounds. The shopaholic protagonist, an upscale woman who gets no pleasure from her loveless marriage, sublimates by power through purchases. Her desires have shifted from the carnal to the commercial: “After shopping, she always wanted a cigarette and a soapy wash, because the entire process was about sex. Buying an inappropriate dress was the equivalent to a thoughtless one-night stand, whereas designer shoes constituted a long-term commitment filled with recrimination and at least one decent orgasm.” Such exquisitely acute metaphors cunningly penetrate the character’s psyche.

A woman and her material masturbating serves as a sort of segue to a man and his connection to a creature carved in stone. Peter S. Beagle’s “Underbridge” looks at a relationship of two outsiders, one of whom is a replica of a mythical being. The human side of the duo is an untenured university professor. 51 years old, with an expertise in children’s literature, Professor Richardson has a problem interacting: “He knew well enough that he made friends with difficulty and wasn’t good at keeping them, being naturally formal in his style and uncomfortable with his body, so that he appeared to be forever leaning away from people even when he was making an earnest effort to be close to them. With women, his lifelong awkwardness became worse in the terminally friendly Seattle atmosphere. Once, younger, he had wished to be different; now he no longer believed it possible.” Writer Beagle encompasses so much in that quote. He establishes the emotional climate of the city, while using it as a counterpoint to Richardson’s withdrawn personality. When academic and troll sculpture interact, it is a meeting of the minds of misunderstood misfits. Both seem externally stony, but the misconception is deadly. A subsequent bloody bond is formed and give-and-take roles are established.

A kinship is also kindled in “Noble Rot” by Holly Black. This take on boy meets ghoul is surprisingly tender. The characters are nicely fleshed out, and meaty in their dimension. Set in Asbury Park, home of Springsteen and Bon Jovi, the narrative concerns another aging rocker. More precisely, Colin Lainhart is a dying rock star. The cancer is eating away at his painful existence: “When Colin moves, he can feel his chalky bones grinding together. His sinews feel limp, and he worries that his veins are liquefying inside him. His head is swollen, his brain throbbing, as though there is a cyst growing ready to crack open his skull and birth some foul goddess.”

The one element in his life that continues to pleasantly engage him is peripatetic and sympathetic Agatha, who brings food and conversation. She understands his feelings of morbid isolation. As Colin’s appetite decreases with the ravages of the illness, Agatha does what she can to revitalize cravings; for life and food. There is renewal in decay; a carrying on with carrion. The sweet and the fetid intertwine in the tale. And Black does a brilliant job mixing them.

An expert example of embracing the theme of the collection, is “The Way Station” by Nathan Ballingrud. Alternating between the cities of St. Petersburg, Florida, and New Orleans, Ballingrud looks to the latter as ghostly inspiration. Beltrane is a former inhabitant of that tortured city, and literally carries its woes within him. Now haunted and homeless in Florida, the disenfranchised African American remains at loony loose ends. The reality of his world is allegorical and ambiguous: “A small city has sprouted from the ground in the night, where he’d been sleeping, surrounded by blowing detritus and stagnant filth. It spreads across the puddle-strewn pavement and grows up the side of the wall, twinkling in the deep blue hours of the morning, like some gorgeous fungus, awash in a blustery evening rain. It exudes a sweet, necrotic stink. He’s transfixed by it, and the distant wails he hears rising from it are a brutal, beautiful lullaby.” Tinged with poignant pathos, “The Way Station” exemplifies the lingering horrors of the souvenirs of loss.

Naked City proficiently peers at what lies beneath the surface of urban centers. The tales assembled finely focus on the dark side of a universe illuminated by neon lights.

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