Dark Rainbow

Like all terms relating to the horror genre, “dark fantasy” — a currently fashionable label for hybrid works straddling the already blurred categories of horror and fantasy fiction — relates more to emotional effects and affect, to tone and atmosphere, rather than to any particular settings, tropes, trappings, or plots. This focus on the frissons conveyed allows dark fantasy to occupy a surprisingly roomy literary landscape.

That’s a virtue suitably exploited in Subterranean Tales of Dark Fantasy. This anthology of new material has been assembled by William Schafer, of the fine indie publisher Subterranean Press. Something of an in-house sampler of writers who have worked with the house before, its ambition clearly extends beyond self-publicity and showcases the wide range of possibilities within the eponymous genre.

Ray Bradbury was perhaps the first writer to crystallize the form of dark fantasy, and so it’s fitting that his influence cloaks the first three stories. Poppy Z. Brite explicitly name-checks the master in “The Gulf,” a rueful post-Katrina tale, while Mike Resnick’s magic-shop story, “Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders,” and Joe R. Lansdale’s swampedelic “It Washed Up” could have come from the pages of Unknown magazine circa 1945. Three tales work their more overt magic in fields far from our Earth — Rachel Swirsky’s “Monstruous Embrace,” Mike Carey’s “Face,” and Patrick Rothfuss’s “The Road to Levinshir.” Darren Speegle channels the spirit of E.T.A. Hoffmann in “The Lunatic Miss Teak,” wherein a malign puppet proves life-warping to an obsessional painter, and Caitl?n R. Kiernan proves that steampunk and dark fantasy are soulmates in “The Steam Dancer (1896).” Kage Baker’s “Caverns of Mystery,” with its adolescent girl who sees phantoms masterfully evokes a nostalgic Twilight Zone ambiance.

But to my mind, it’s the two madcap offerings that stand out above the generally fine herd. Tim Powers amps up one of Heinlein’s time-paradox tales to frenetic levels in “The Hour of Babel,” while William Browning Spencer creates a Harvey for the 21st century with “Penguins of the Apocalypse.”

I’m not sure these varied tales achieve a consistency of shivers, instead evoking reactions along a spectrum from wistful to appalled. But in terms of displaying subtle terrors that diverge from standard Stephen King clichés, this anthology truly delivers.

* * *

Faux-Elizabethean dark fantasy? Why not? It’s been done before, in such novels as Michael Moorcock’s Gloriana, Poul Anderson’s A Midsummer Tempest, and Lisa Goldstein’s Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon. Now arrives Marie Brennan with Midnight Never Come.

Brennan’s novel postulates that beneath the author’s richly detailed Tudor London lies a fairy (or “fae”) court, populated by all the creatures of British folklore and ruled by a tyrannical queen, Invidiana. This dark queen is secretly allied with her familiar human cognate, Elizabeth I, allowing mortals and fae to discreetly interpenetrate the two realms. But the fragile and mutually destructive alliance is coming unhinged during the story’s time span (1588-90), and many individuals stand either to profit or to be hurt. Our protagonists are Michael Deven, young human courtier, and Lune, disgraced Lady of the fae. Falling in love, they find themselves playing a dangerous game of politics and intrigue across both realms.

Educated as a folklorist, Brennan fills her underground realm with as many heterogenous denizens as inhabit Katharine Briggs’s 1976 classic, An Encyclopedia of Fairies. But her sprites lack both majesty and uncanniness, coming across merely as humans with odd bits attached. Perhaps this derives from their constant plotting, squabbling, and Machiavellian maneuverings — activities all too human and hardly numinous or otherworldly in a Yeatsian sense. This unrelenting focus on spying and crabbed, selfish politics extends to the human world as well, creating a decided lack of adventure. When the first and only real swordfight in an Elizabethean fantasy tale doesn’t occur until page 371, something’s wrong.

Brennan’s strong suit is characterization, seen at best in the utterly convincing affair between Deven and Lune. But to resonate, any clash between the Unseelie Court and humanity needs more action, grandeur, and mystery than we are offered here.

* * *

Like Margo Lanagan, her fellow Australian, Kim Wilkins trafficks in potent fables, tales concocted of primal Jungian motifs that might seem shabby and tattered when presented by less talented fabulists, but which drip fresh blood and ichor in such inventively deft hands. Although Wilkins has published over half a dozen novels at home, The Veil of Gold is only her second to appear in the USA. Its raw urgency and mature strength should help garner her a new audience here.

We meet the novel’s three protagonists in contemporary Russia. Rosa Kovalenka, gifted with second sight like her mother, comes into possession of a strange artifact: a pagan statue of a golden bear. She calls upon her ex-lover, Daniel St. Clare, to help assess it, and Daniel in turn draws along his boss, a documentary maker named Em Hayward. In only a day or two, the mysterious power of the golden bear has sucked Em and Daniel across the veil between worlds, depositing them in Skazki, the adjacent realm that is home to all the supernatural creatures of Russia’s rich heritage, from Baba Yaga on down. Meanwhile, Rosa becomes trapped in servitude to a nasty Russian warlock living with his variously afflicted family members outside the city of Vologda. Ostensibly serving an apprenticeship to mature her powers, she is really in deep danger, and her prospects for rescuing Em and Daniel recede each day.

These parallel narratives eventually converge in darkling Skazki, but the heart-tugging resolution is hardly predictable.

Wilkins’s depiction of her three heroes, each a mass of virtues and neuroses, lends a powerful believability to their epic occult struggles. Likewise, Skazki and its inhuman inhabitants are painted with such humor, otherworldliness, and pathos that we accept its tangibility as easily as the Pevensie children slipped into Narnia. Unafraid to balance and blend defeat with victory, romance with cynicism, Wilkins charts a heroic quest that Joseph Campbell would endorse, and might, indeed, have learned from.

* * *

In this era of terminal decadence, ennui and exhaustion for heroic fantasy in the Tolkien mode — the natural result of four decades overstuffed with xeroxed wizards, warriors, and wights — the only hope for freshness in such novels is the mashup. Tolkien and steampunk. Tolkien and C. S. Forester. Tolkien and pornography.

I remain uncertain, however, about the wisdom of conflating Tolkien with The Blues Brothers and the Flashman novels of George MacDonald Fraser, as Chris Evans seems to have done in A Darkness Forged in Fire.

Against the recrudescence of the evil Shadow Monarch (read “Illinois state troopers”), “elf witch of the high, dark forest,” disgraced Iron Elf Konowa Swiftdragon (“Dan Aykroyd”) is recruited from exile (“Joliet Prison”) to reform his regiment (“get the band back together”) as a bulwark against encroaching chaos (“foreclosure on the orphanage”).

During the first half of the novel, he assembles a bunch of scamps and rogues — whose down-and-dirty soldierly life brings in the Flashman associations — including of course a feisty, crude dwarf named Ymit (“John Belushi”), who is prone to curses such as “Sweet goblin gonads!” Then they embark on a mission to capture a fallen Star lest the Shadow Monarch utilize it. But of course, there are only minor clashes with evil along the way, far short of the ultimate confrontation; this is only, we are assured, “Book One of the Iron Elves.”

Evans’s debut novel is plagued by the occasional solecism — ” was physically pounded into the ground” — and the genre’s typical cod-mysticism (people bond spiritually with sentient trees called Wolf Oaks). And in order to make a trilogy, its sparse plot is protracted. But every now and then the book lights up, such as when Kiplingesque female journalist Rallie Synjyn is onstage, or when Evans delivers some Stephen Crane goods: “The sun’s rays beat down on the regiment like bricks of light? The trail they followed meandered like an old river, its bed a silty carpet of dust inches thick that spumed into the air with every footstep, plastering the soldiers until they were as gray as the earth.”

Using my scrying stone, I prophesize eventual rehabilitation of Evans’s talents — after the inevitable defeat of the Shadow Monarch.