A couple of months ago, author Jeremy C. Shipp sent out a call for reviewers on his Twitter. Some of those reviewers got print ARC's of Shipp's forthcoming short fiction collection FUNGUS OF THE HEART from the publisher. I was amongst those who got the ARC in .pdf form directly from the author. Here are my thoughts on the individual stories:
291. The Sun Never Rises in the Big City Shipp has a knack for combining genres, in this case mystery and horror. Most of the mystery-horror hybrids I've read have been in the Harry Dresden / urban fantasy mode. This one is decidedly not. The narrator pretends to be a noirish private dick with a sexy customer named Adeline who wants help confirming that her husband is cheating on her; the truth of the situation comes out quickly and the twists flow from there. It's still a mystery, it's just not the mystery you initially think it is. The true personality of the narrator becomes apparent as the story moves along. This one made an impression on me and made me wonder more about the world the characters live in.
292. The Haunted House Another mystery-horror hybrid, this time with a narrating character who could fall more into the Harry Dresden mold. Ash possesses her clients in order to get deep into their psyches to help solve them find solutions to the emotional trauma / problems they have. I liked how Shipp doled out the information as to what was really going on slowly, eerily. Apparitions, manifestations of the client's personality and past, come and go, but not everything Ash encounters is a figment of her client's imagination. This story has a different kind of mystery-tension than the story that precedes it, even though they can be lumped under the same "mystery-horror" label.
293. Fungus of the Heart Shipp creates interesting worlds in these short stories. In this story, the narrator is a trained Sentinel, meant to protect The Protectors, a breed of humans who are set slightly apart from the rest -- their powers give them responsibility but also cause those they protect to pull away. But Nightingale, the Sentinel, has a mission: to rescue her lover, also a Protector, from the people who have kidnapped her. Nightingale is willing to do anything it takes to rescue Cailin; the question is will she forfeit her soul to do what she thinks is right? Shipp very capably addresses the issue of when it's time to let go, within the bigger issue of finding your own personal boundaries.
294. Boy in the Cabinet A lot of Shipp's stories seem to be dialogue-driven. This is one of those: a boy who lives in a cabinet talks to a Death Cat, a Cup, a Girl, and a Man. The Boy discovers things about his life, his past, his future. The relatively small amount of actual descriptive writing in the story actually increases the feeling that we're reading a fairy-tale. The cat in particular is a great character, ranking right up there with the cat in Neil Gaiman's CORALINE in terms of almost overshadowing the human main characters.
295. Just Another Vampire Story is also not your typical vampire story. I really don't feel like I can say much about why this story worked so well for me without spoiling the way Shipp plays the story out. I think I can summarize it: a husband cheats on his wife, and vampires fit into the resolution of their marital problems. By keeping the story in Steven's POV, and showing how little he really understands Helen, Shipp keeps the narrative tension tight. Possibly my second-favorite story in the book after the opening story.
296. Ticketyboo Another story that did not go at all where I thought it would, and that's a good thing. I'm not sure I ever got a really clear sense of where / what Ticketyboo actually is (although there's a heavy implication that again, I don't want to spoil; but I think it can also be interpreted as something very different from what's implied by the end of the story), but I did get a strong sense of the bond between the young siblings the story centers on. I found the choice of the name "Massa" for the surrogate mother figure to be a little odd but that's a minor quibble.
297. The Escapist is a legend among Gnomekind, the best greatest hope for ending the war with the Goblins. But is he really what the bards sing about? The Escapist IS the main character in the story, and we see what he really thinks of himself and his abilities and his past as compared to what his fellows think. I'm not sure if Shipp intended this as almost a treatise on the Cult of Personality, but the theme certainly fits the story. What happens when the Savior/Hero we think we need not only is not what we thought but is also not what he thinks he is? The story is also an absolutely great war story -- how far will we go to win a battle? What happens when one general decides to take matters into his own hands, literally?
298. Ula Morales I'll admit I don't "get" the title, but I'm pretty sure I got the story, about a ten year old girl with antlers raised by an oak tree who will go to any lengths to protect her forest. One of the shorter, more pointed stories in the collection. On the one hand, it feels light a great character piece; on the other hand it feels like maybe it could have used a bit more development -- but then again, being in first person I'm not sure how the story could have been expanded. So it's a bit of a catch-22.
299. Spider House In contrast to the preceding story this one not only cries for more exploration, it would be very easy for the author to do more with it. If Shipp hasn't yet considered expanding this into at least a novella, he should. The main character is heavily burdened with her past involvement in a war that at first seems a bit vaguely described and later, with just a few lines, takes on a dimension that is both cliche and creative. Her supporting characters include a pumpkin-dwelling Sprite with low self-esteem and a vampire who can travel through computers and is searching for details on the person who destroyed his village and his family. And then there is the foil, General Thomas Reed, who wants to pull Shanna back into the war. It's a great cast of characters that almost demand to be developed further, which is a compliment to the story and not a criticism. I feel like I already know these characters and now want to see where events take them.
300. Monkey Boy and the Monsters Another war-based story, with a far more "anime" feel to it. That's the term that just popped into my head. I can see this story as a wildly-insane Japanese cartoon. Which is not to say the story's silliness is its only dimension. Far from it. Underneath the story of Monkey Boy, his sidekick Soapy and their battle against zombies, werewolves and dirt, we get commentary on controlling parents, censoring bodies, puberty, teen angst, and prejudice against "Georgians." Reading this only a week or so after the latest gay-bullying-related suicide here in NJ, I couldn't help but layer my own thoughts and concerns onto Shipp's words. Sometimes the right story comes along at the right time, and for me this was one of those happenstances.
301. Agape Walrus I am forced to admit that this particular story, about a rare "love walrus" named Kevin Donihe, his zombie lover, and three visitors to their remote home who are all looking for something. It was, perhaps, just a little too "out there" for me, but I'm sure the story will work very well for others. It felt like the silliness that propelled the Monkey Boy story (with the more serious undercurrent) took a wrong turn here; for me, too much of what goes on in this story felt more like it was there for shock value than for anything else.
302. Kingdom Come Another story I can't say too much about without spoiling the best part of the story. The story is about a man who takes his family on vacation in a national park in a world where people are equipped with Filters that essentially sound like high-tech "rose colored glasses." Early on, the narrator mentions his Filter editing out the utility wires and pollution so he can enjoy the view. The story of course takes a darker turn when the narrator's son disappears -- the author really excels at this "dark sf / dark fantasy / mystery" sort of mash-up. The story feels like it falters a bit in the middle and almost shows all the cards too soon, but it redeems itself in the final act and delivers a neat ending and (as with several other stories in the collection) a decided anti-war message.
303. How to Make a Clown is another of Shipp's dialogue-driven stories. It takes a more careful reading to really parse apart what's going on, but it is worth the effort. The opening is a bit rocky (what is up with that Clown, anyway), but the rest of the story has a romantic side in among the weirdness that I really liked. If I had a say, I'd recommend this story for Lethe Press' next Wilde Stories anthology.
Full book review will be posted over on my LJ and various other online places a little later tonight.