The Urban Fantasy Anthology
Peter S. Beagle and Joe R. Lansdale, editors
Trade Paper, 432 pages, $15.95
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
“It was always frightening when something you thought was firmly under control broke free to run where it would.” The quote is from “Seeing Eye,” a story by Patricia Briggs included in The Urban Fantasy Anthology. Those words of Ms. Briggs nicely capture the tenor of the terrific tales in the collection. Although the settings are modern and mostly urban, the thrills and scares in these stories are based largely on loss of control. Contained in the pages of the volume are studies of individuals who struggle to adapt to a shift in perceived normalcy. Some of the trials the book’s characters must contend with include a rogue unicorn, a lovelorn zombie, a repressive and controlling father. For women werewolves, in two different yarns, aging is a rite of passage that can empower or enslave.
In Susan Palwick’s allegorical “Gestella,” for example, a lycanthropic trophy wife is given treats until her beauty fades. She ages in dog years, eventually becoming older than her spouse. No longer loved and valued, she is deprived of place and purpose in society. The heartbreaking narrative about convenient cruelty will appeal to wide range of readers; certainly feminists and animal lovers, but also anyone who has experienced the pain of waning affection.
“Boobs” by Suzy McKee Charnas is, as the saying goes, another story altogether. When the bodily changes of adolescence strike the protagonist, they trigger an additional physical alteration. Emboldened and strengthened by cycles, both mundane and fantastical, the young woman/werewolf describes the sensations: “I felt myself shrink down to a hard core of sort of cold fire inside my bones, and all the flesh part, the muscles and the squishy insides and the skin, went sort of glowing and free-floating, all shining with moonlight, and I felt a sort of shifting and balance-changing going on.” This winner of the 1990 Hugo Award for best short story has tang and bite. And horror fans can easily appreciate the sentiment that “People can be awfully nasty, but they sure taste sweet.”
Now, about that rogue unicorn: “Julie’s Unicorn” by Peter S. Beagle embroiders on a theme concerning a tapestry and the mythical entity. When an empathetic viewer sees pain in the animal’s eyes, she wills it to be free from its surroundings. Hence, a pork chop-sized unicorn becomes her (and her significant other’s) responsibility. The ensuing drama has comedic components, and is utterly engrossing. As the couple unravels the threads of horned horse’s history, they grow closer; each gaining greater admiration for the unique skill sets that the other possesses. This tale is delicious: A suspense-fantasy-romantic romp; think the whimsical side of Alfred Hitchcock collaborating with Peter Jackson. Fey, funny, and completely captivating, Beagle beguiles through artfully creating a potentially tense situation that is rife with ramifications, and defusing it with delightful interactions and insight.
From the mythical beast to pop culture icon: It’s zombie time. With a certain resignation and respectful resentment, praise must be bestowed upon “Kitty’s Zombie New Year” by Carrie Vaughn. New Year’s Eve is an insufferable time of year for many, and writer Vaughn plays upon the dread of feeling isolated during the celebration. When a holiday party is shaken up by a zombie (not the cannibalistic kind, but the voodoo slave variety) all hell breaks loose. The female undead is focused; she lumbers toward the man who caused her state. Still in love, and enthralled, it’s a case of lover-please-come-back carried to the extreme. It is at this event that narrator Kitty realizes that there are worse things than being single on New Year’s Eve.
Being single and alone and highly neurotic gets blamed on a dad in “Father Dear.” In a brilliantly executed work of intentionally misplaced emphasis, a son views his father as the source of all his problems. Festering fury dating back to childhood leads to a desire for revenge. The overprotective parent manipulates his kid by fear; basic actions can have severe consequences–cutting off the crusts of bread is a necessity, for example. The son is abandoned at age 15, and twenty years later regards the man who misshaped his life as a ghost who though alive, still haunts: “For the next twenty years I listened to that ghost. Haunted, bloated by shame, starch and nightmares, I lurched from room to room (save one, of course) in that mansion, trying once again to be an infant by following my father’s twisted directions on life. I was not rational; I was nothing but a bundle of neuroses held together by muscle and bone matter.” Author Al Sarrantonio cleverly shows the perils and pitfalls of belief, trust, and distorted perception. This work is quite splendid.
The Urban Fantasy Anthology is co-edited by Peter S. Beagle and Joe R. Lansdale. These guys have genre credibility that is jaw dropping in its power. While all but one of the stories in the compilation are reprints, it’s difficult not to be dazzled by tales written by Neil Gaiman, Emma Bull, Thomas M. Disch, Charles de Lint, Kelley Armstrong, Lansdale himself, and the other excellent writers assembled in the tome. The book slyly and smartly looks at the oddities that creep into the conventions of urban existence and angst: Those things that seem to be under control … until they break free.