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The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic

Volume 1, Number 2 (Winter 1996)
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Grayscale: A Review of Leviathan

by Paul DiFilippo
Copyright © 1996, Paul DiFilippo

The debut of any anthology of original short fiction is cause for celebration, even if the venture is a oneshot. When a periodical in book form is announced, even more is called for: extra support by readers, in the form of subscriptions, submissions, word of mouth, and prayers to the gods of the marketplace. It is my belief that Jeff VanderMeer and Luke O'Grady, the motive powers behind. Leviathan (paperback, $7.50, 144 pages. Contact VanderMeer at PO Box 4248, Tallahassee, FL 32315) would be most deserving and appreciative to receive any or all of the above.

Volume One of Leviathan is subtitled "Into the Gray." Eschewing an editorial manifesto, the creative team offers only a small statement of intent on the copyright page: "The Leviathan anthology series will attempt to cover many different themes and concerns without any kind of specific restrictions that often prove the downfall of more focused theme anthologies. Leviathan takes its name from the second, less well-known definition of 'that which is too large to be seen in its entirety; important in scope or intensity.' Thus, each anthology shall attempt to map part of the Leviathan that is fiction."

As we shall soon see, the pieces in Leviathan do indeed span a wide literary spectrum. Every story is well-crafted and inherently substantial; it's easy to imagine any of them appearing in, say, The New Yorker (if that journal had a more enlightened approach!). Whether they all work together in any unified manner is another matter. This Leviathan is a patchwork beast, charming, affable, witty, trying to please everyone simultaneously. But with the exuberance of any youngster, it tends to ride off in all directions at once.

The first story, "Into the Gray," by Joe Nigg, is separated from the others (which are contained in the section labeled "Journey") in a distinct section called "Departure." We are obviously meant to take it as a thematic launch pad from which the rest of the volume will soar aloft. After all, it lends its title to the whole volume. Nigg's story (whose extended opening metaphor, by the way, either intentionally or accidentally exactly mimics that of Roger Zelazny's "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth") is a richly sensual, George MacDonald-like fable. It concerns a nameless narrator's encounter with a mystic bird that ultimately transports him, naked and reborn, to another dimension. Right away, we are primed to expect that the rest of Leviathanwill contain similar "literature of the fantastic," assaults on the wilder redoubts of the imagination.

The editor has chosen, however, to reserve the most bizarre tales for the end of the volume.

The next story, Richard Winter's "New Bow," is a straightforward tale of one young man's maturation, written in pure High Modernist style, its old-fashioned veneer a kind of Hemingway-Joyce-Wolfe patois.

Following this comes "Insensates," by Kathryn Kulpa. Unlike "New Bow," "Insensates" is a thoroughly contemporary recounting of an on-again, off-again urban love affair. Its dialogue and unforced plotting are its main strengths.

By now, the reader is thoroughly unprepared to encounter "A Passion for Puppy," by Tanyo Ravicz. This story seems to have leaked over from one of Nancy Collins's or Ellen Datlow's sexual horror anthologies, finding as it does epiphanies in the murder and abuse of a pet by the members of a--to quote popsters New Order--Bizarre Love Triangle.

"The Blue Flower Case," by Nels Hanson, throws another curve. It's a kind of noirish, police-procedural tale which inserts its fantasy element abruptly into its final sentence. Not earned, I'm afraid.

The short-short, "A Place of Great Beauty," by Doug Rennie, effectively charts one of the options left to an individual who finds himself in a Holocaust-like situation. Yet again, no affinities with the opener.

"Telepathic Fish," by Ursula Pflug, is another modern love story, one that examines notions of commitment and the possible depths of any short-term relationship. The fantasy element--a shared mental journey to prehistory between lovers--can be interpreted most easily as a folie-a-deux, rather than a literal event. In a rare synchronicity, this story boasts the same central, symbolism-freighted image--a map pinned to a ceiling--as "Insensates."

Next up is "The Other House of My Father," by Dawn Baumann Brunke, which strikes me as the quintessential kind of story that the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fictionused to publish in the 'Fifties: young housewife finds a tepid exIment in the intrusion of some mild, non-threatening fantasy element into her well-ordered life.

These stories are all entertaining in their unique ways, but the stories that most fully realize the opening theme of "Into the Gray," in my opinion, are the final three. "The Book/The Phrase/The Word/The Symbol," by David Michael Slater, is an enjoyable Borgesian romp--an influence acknowledged by story's closing--involving Borges's Book of Sand; or as Slater renames it, The Book of Letters . Told in epistolary format, this story benefits from its wealth of circumstantial historical detail.

Mark Rich's "The Face of Days" postulates a miraculous wall that disgorges phantoms, occurring in a city that resembles Ballard's resort of Vermilion Sands. With panache and subtlety, Rich puts his world-weary characters through formative encounters with this central mystery.

Finally, baroque dream-master Stepan Chapman, in his "The Chosen Donor," replays Mayan-Aztecan rituals in what seems to be a bioengineered future of surpassing strangeness, reminiscent of a Geoff Ryman tale.

Turning the final page of Leviathan, I was left with an odd sense of psychic whiplash. While enjoying--more or less, according to my own idiosyncratic tastes--all the stories, I could chart no evident progression promised by the supposedly tone-setting first story. If the closing trio of stories had immediately followed Nigg's piece, one would have had an actual sense of a physical and symbolic movement "into the gray." But then the more mimetic pieces--which mostly avoided any gradual, stepwise intrusions of the fantastic- would have seemed completely anticlimactic.

I hope I'm not misperceived in my argument here, or guilty of turning a mole-mound into an Alp. After all, I want to heap some well-deserved praise on this ambitious effort. The editors have shown an admirable catholicity and taste in their selection of entertaining stories. But I believe they would have been wiser to forsake any subtitle heavy with meaning, and to jumble up the stories into a random assortment. Or perhaps they could have filled Volume One with more stories along the Nigg-Slater-Rich-Chapman axis, saving the others for a similarly coherent Volume Two. Which I eagerly await.

The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.

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