Monday, May 30, 2011
Full Moon City
Author: Various (edited by Darrell Schweitzer and Martin H. Greenberg)
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
The theme of this anthology is "Werewolves in the big city", which is a bit of a problem. Besides a somewhat liberal interpretation of the term "big city", I get the feeling that someone at Simon and Schuster thinks this is a more clever concept than it actually is. Yes, in general, werewolves are associated with nature and wildness, and so you commonly find them in suburban and rural environments, where they can wolf out in peace. But a quick glance through the titles in my archive will reveal that there's no reason you can't put a werewolf in the city. Depending on the rules the author applies, ignores, or subverts, it might not be difficult at all. Hell, there are entire series of urban fantasy books featuring urban lycanthropes. But we're getting off on the wrong foot here. Like any American college student will tell you, a party doesn't need a reason. It just needs an excuse. So let's see what this party has to offer...
The Truth About Werewolves (Lisa Tuttle): A woman with an incurable werewolf fetish forms a lycanthrope support group hoping to attract the real deal. It's difficult to cheer her on, due to both her shallow motives and the manipulative way she goes about achieving them. However, by the end this story evolves into a compelling tale about unfulfillable desires. The characters are unique and distinctive, and I could easily see this expanded into a full novel.
Innocent (Gene Wolfe): Disturbing vignette in which a convicted criminal chats with a priest about his cannibalistic crimes. Alternate interpretation: Disturbing vignette about a child molester who's in such denial about it that he's invented a fantasy that he's a man-eating lycanthrope. Alternate alternate interpretation: humorless black-comic joke about how a pedophile can be percieved as more evil than a cannibalistic serial killer. Disturbing any way you slice it. Shortest story in the book, but packs a lot of punch into it's short length. Good use of the form, too. You only get one side of the conversation, but the author references the priest's reactions in such a way that his attitude is obvious.
Kitty Learns the Ropes (Carrie Vaughn): Our old friend Kitty Norville works with a take-no-prisoners journalist to expose pro boxer Jerome Macy as a lycanthrope. Prequel to/deleted scene from Kitty's House of Horrors, where Macy figured prominently. Some would say this hamstrings the story since the resolution is pre-spoiled. I didn't find this a serious problem, though. The plot boils down to a clash of egos: Macy versus Jenna Larson (the aforementioned journalist), with Kitty trying to run interference between them. The underlying theme is one of owning who you are vs. being owned by it. This acquire interesting undertones given that Macy is black. A good read, and it's a pity it couldn't have made it into a proper Kitty book. Larson would make an excellent character in the mold of an ignorant/unknowing villain.
No Children, No Pets (Esther M. Friesner): Life through the eyes of a six-year-old werewolf girl living in Central Park who was taught to quote Marx by her now-dead father. Friesner had a story in Strip Mauled, which she also edited, so I had some idea of what to expect going in. I wasn't disappointed. You wouldn't think a girl who eats humans with no remorse would be cute, but she is. Mind you, the author stacks the deck by making the only other human with agency utterly and completely deplorable. There's an undertone of class warfare in this story: The protagonist's father, as said, was a Communist trying to fight against social injustice, which we see a fair bit of in the story. Running parallel to it is a subplot where the girl is a Chosen One destined to be a lycanthropic messiah when she grows up. Both storylines are predicated on the idea that the privileged should behave or else the downtrodden will rip them to shreds. Our heroine is actually sharp enough to pick up on it, too. Don't think too much about the deeper implications, though. In the end, this is just a humorous story about a cute little man-eating monster, and it works very, very well as that.
Sea Warg (Tanith Lee): Retired people-watcher with nothing much to do spots connections between a local motorcyclist, a strange cryptid, and a severed hand that washes up on shore. Interesting read, but with a very strange voice. It has the "sleepy coast town" vibe down pat, but that tone doesn't quite jibe with the fact that it's about an amateur sleuth tracking a killer. Slightly florid language and some homoerotic undertones. The protagonist puts things together through a series of dreams, which feels like a bit of a cheat. I didn't dislike this story, but nothing here really stayed with me.
Country Mothers' Sons (Holly Phillips): Revolution has driven a widow and her son to the city tenements, where they eek out an existence dreaming of better days. A marvelous story that has no business being in this anthology. We cut between several plots: the boys running around after dark with their friends, the mothers scraping by and passing gossip over pie-making, the mother's memories of happier times in the country, and the struggles of the stray cats, pigeons, and other city creatures as a metaphor for the other storylines and the setting itself. All of this is very vividly drawn, realistically characterized, and well-written. Top-notch craftsmanship, in fact. The problem? This story has nothing to do with werewolves. Nada. Not even as a metaphor. They show up literally on the last two pages, contributing nothing the story didn't already have. Shenanigans! Still in all, it's both unique and well put together, which not all of the stories here can claim.
A Most Unusual Greyhound (Mike Resnick): Subtitled "A Harry the Book Story". The eponymous Harry is a bookie who gets mixed up in a gypsy-cursed lycanthrope's financial problems and concocts a Zany Scheme to set things right. Very funny, but overplays its hand badly. It seems to be going for a 40's gangster vibe, a la "Guys and Dolls". But in that context, the dialog rings completely false: "'This is most interesting,' I say, 'because I have it on good authority that Devil Moon differs from most greyhounds in that he is brown.'" I can believe a line like that coming from a sleazy underworld type if, say, he's got someone dead to rights and is twisting the knife a bit. But every other line of dialog is like that: overwritten and with torturously perfect grammar. It becomes grating really fast. Real people with good educations don't talk like this, and crooks certainly don't, even if they're family-friendly crooks.
The Bitch (P.D. Cacek): Man's domineering ex turns psycho-stalker on both him and his new girlfriend. Originally judged this one below-average, but in retrospect there's a lot to like here. The storyline is cliche and predictable, and I kept wondering why noone in this little drama thought to just call the cops on an obviously deranged woman. But the pacing's good, the big twist is well-executed, and it doesn't overstay its welcome. So I recommend it, albeit tenatively.
The Aarne-Thompson Classification Revue (Holly Black): Angst-ridden urban werewolf accidentally gets a starring role in an off-off-broadway musical and tries to make the best of it. I really don't know what to make of this one. It has an effective voice, but is also hideously underdeveloped. Characterization is minimal, and time is compressed to the point where we're jumping from one scene to another haphazardly. Seems to be aiming for a dreamlike or fairy-tale style, but it feels unfinished instead. A pity, because it could be good with more development.
The Weredog of Bucharest (Ian Watson): In theory, this is a story about a crime writer in post-communist Romania investigating a string of ghastly murders. In reality, most of the wordcount is spent on a guided tour of the seedy underbelly of Eastern Europe. Then, literally five pages from the end, it shifts gears and all the plot is crammed into two short scenes and an epilogue. Said epilogue consists of the narrator explaining the entire plot. When your story requires a patch like that, take the patch out and fix the story instead. There are some strong points here: the setting is very detailed, and the author doesn't shy away from grime or sleaze. But it's all so much window dressing. Not recommended.
I Was a Middle-Aged Werewolf (Ron Goulart): A sitcom writer with a vicious ex-wife and an idiotic Disney-Channel celeb for a teenage daughter develops a sudden, unexplained case of lycanthropy. Bears a passing resemblance to "Howl!", but not as good. Nowhere near as good. In fact, let's not mince words: it stinks. It's a conglomeration of bland cliches, stilted dialog, non-existent characterization, and jokes that aren't funny. Like a bad sitcom plot. Since the main character writes sitcoms, maybe that's supposed to be the joke. It's still not funny.
Kvetchula's Daughter (Darrell Schweitzer): This, on the other hand, is funny. Jewish girl from Jersey sees her life plunge into the crapper when her parents come back from vacation with a case of vampirism. Then she falls for a hot lycanthrope and things turn around. Funny writing and a strong grounding in the basics of modern Vamp/Were lore shore up a terribly silly plot. The narrator has a unique and sympathetic voice, though a bit on the verbose side. The downside is an over-reliance on racial stereotypes for its humor, which will strike nerves with some people and brings the story down. Also, the narrator and her love interest fall in love at first sight. Literally. She actually jumps on him for make-outs before they even say one word to one another. Played for laughs, but still... talk about desperate girls. Likeable, despite problems.
And Bob's Your Uncle (Chelsea Quinn Yarbro): Depressed nine-year-old stuck with an impoverished mother and abusive foster father makes friends with a stray dog who's more than he seems. Good concept, writing, and characterization, let down by some godawful pacing. It feels like the author had a much longer story in mind, but either lost interest or had to cut it down. So we get fifteen or so pages of slow but compelling build-up, then the author checks her wordcount, goes "OH, CRAP!", and does the entire rest of the story -- including a shift in genres -- in three pages of clumsy, stilted expo-speak. It's a pity, too, because it's a good idea for a story. But it should have been either expanded out to enough of a length to do it justice or rewritten completely to fit in the page space allotted. As is, it's a huge letdown.
The Bank Job (Gregory Frost): Bank robbers pick the wrong customer to take hostage. Enjoyable, if disposable. Good pacing, plotting, and writing, but characterization is thin and the premise is cliche. So much so that I can't really do a full paragraph on it. So, moving on:
La Lune T'Attend (Peter S. Beagle): A elderly cajun werewolf and his lifelong friend go on the hunt when an old enemy literally comes back from the dead. Reminds me quite a bit of Bubba Ho-Tep, but without the humor. That's not a derogatory comment. Bubba Ho-Tep was a great serio-comic movie, and "La Lune" is a great drama about old age and redemption for past sins. There's also an underlying theme of the world passing by. Our heroes lived the simple life in the bayou, but their families -- who have no idea of Gramps big secret -- live in the city, and have normal human lives. All in all, a strong finale for the anthology. Possibly the best story in the book, in fact.
Overall assessment on this one is good. There are no major standouts, but the overall quality level is above average, with only two or three stories being what I'd call bad. There's some issue with the logistics here: the later stories are generally not as good as the earlier ones, which makes the book feel a little disappointing even though it isn't. And it's a little hard to ignore how many stories -- even some of the better ones -- are derivative. All these are minor complaints though, and the bottom line is that this anthology is worth your time.