Scenes from Beyond
By Cheryl Morgan
Last year the collection that everyone was talking about was Joe Hillís 20th Century Ghosts. This year there is a good chance that its place will be taken by In the Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss. Goss has already received a lot of critical attention, and one of the stories in the collection, "The Wings of Meister Wilhelm, was a World Fantasy Award nominee last year. Having now read the entire collection, I think it is one of the weaker pieces therein.
What Goss provides, and youíll find this common to all of the short fantasy I like, is elegant but creepy prose that often puts a chill up the spine at the same time as you are admiring the authorís eloquence. In addition she has two extra elements. Firstly there is a knowing awareness of the political issues that lie behind the stories. In addition several of the stories have an Eastern European flavor to them ó a legacy of Gossís family history.
Although all of the stories are stand-alone, three of them share a common character. Emily Gray is a magical spirit who can aid or punish humans, though even her help generally comes with a price. We meet her three times. In "Miss Emily Gray" a young woman finds out that wishing yourself free of your domineering father can have terrible consequences. In "Conrad" Emily turns up as the nurse of a young man whose aunt is poisoning him so as to get her hands on his inheritance. And in "Lessons with Miss Gray" she teaches a group of Southern Belles the art of witchcraft, with serious consequences for some of them.
"Good afternoon," said a woman in a gray dress, with white hair. She looked like your grandmother, the one who baked you gingerbread and knitted socks. Or like a schoolteacher, as proper as a handkerchief. Behind her stood a ghost.
From "Lessons with Miss Gray"
Cancer is perhaps another favorite theme. The title story, though it sounds like traditional fantasy, is actually about a woman releasing her hold on life despite the urgings of medical staff and her family. In "Lily, with Clouds", a prim Southern society woman is horrified to discover the depravity of the New York bohemian crowd that her dying sister fell in with. It is a lovely study of a character who cares more about her social position that her family.
The most obviously Eastern European story is "Letters from Budapest", which is about a man who helps his talented younger brother enter art school, only for the boy to insist on making art rather than drawing the sort of things The Party wants drawn. Which would not be so bad if there were not powers older than The Party who have a liking for fine art. "A Statement in the Case" looks at the different ways immigrants from Eastern Europe can adapt, or not adapt, to life in America.
The poetry of Sorrow may confuse anyone not accustomed to its intricacies. In Sorrow, poems are constructed on the principle of the maze. Once the reader enters the poem, he must find his way out by observing a series of clues. Readers failing to solve a poem have been known to go mad. Those who can appreciate its beauties say that the poetry of Sorrow is impersonal and ecstatic, and that it invariably speaks of death.
From "The Rapid Advance of Sorrow"
One of the tricks of creating a collection or anthology is to make sure that you have some of the best material at the beginning and the end. The book opens with "The Rose in Twelve Petals," which is a wonderful re-interpretation of the Sleeping Beauty myth. The last but one story, "Pip and the Faeries," is a tale about a woman who was the heroine of a series of childrenís stories written by her. Although she has since become a successful actress, Philippa Lawson canít forget the magical life that her mother wove for her when she was a girl.
Some of the stories have little or no fantastical elements to them, though they all read as if they were fantasies. "Death Comes for Ervina", for example, is a simple story about a dying ballerina looking back on her youth in post-war Hungary, her rise to fame in the west, and the young American dancer for whom she was too old to be the lover she wanted to be. Other stories are totally off the wall. "Sleeping with Bears" tells the story of the wedding of Miss Rosalie Barlow to Mr. T.C. Ursus. Blanche, the brideís younger sister, canít understand why Rosalie chucked an ambitious and successful young lawyer to marry a bear. And no, it has nothing to do with Goldilocks.
I could go on enthusing about all of the other stories. There are sixteen in all, and not a bad one amongst them. Theodora Goss is a writer youíll be hearing a lot more about in the future.