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Real Unreal VIII by Kevin Brockmeier

01/05/2011. Contributed by Eamonn Murphy

Buy Real Unreal: Best American Fantasy Volume 3 edited in the USA - or Buy Real Unreal: Best American Fantasy Volume 3 edited in the UK

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Real Unreal: Best American Fantasy Volume 3 edited by Kevin Brockmeier. pub: Underland Press. 311 page enlarged paperback. Price: $14.95 (US). ISBN: 978-0-9802260-8-9.

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‘Real Unreal: Best American Fantasy Volume 3’ contains twenty stories by various authors and even though I read them all (honest) the best review tactic is probably to pick out the highlights. There are damn few but here they are in page order.

‘Uncle Chaim And Aunt Rifke And The Angel’ by Peter S. Beagle has trouble with the first sentence where, if you ask me, putting the last clause first would have saved having a clumsy hyphenated sub-clause in the middle. Nit-picking aside this long story, thirty-five pages, was brilliant. A blue angel appears in a painter’s studio and becomes his only model. He paints her for months on end, sometimes watched by his nephew and our narrator. It had nice touches of humour, some tragedy and a glorious ending.

‘The Pentecostal Home For Flying Children’ by Will Clarke is about the children of a second-rate super-hero called Redbird. His only super-power is flight which isn’t that great so he is taken on as town super-hero by Shreveport, Louisiana. It soon becomes clear he’s been busy with the ladies and he departs under a cloud but leaves many offspring behind. The trouble they cause is great entertainment.

‘Pride And Prometheus’ by John Kessel is the story of young spinster Mary Bennett and her encounters in England with Victor Frankenstein, a disturbed gentleman from the continent. This is neatly tied in to Victor’s own story - the novel by Mary Shelley, not the various Hollywood versions. Perhaps because of my fondness for Victorian prose and manners, I found it quite agreeable.

‘Serials’ by Kate Williams is an amusing story about a high school girl trying to cope with the many serial killers around now that it has become such a popular pastime. She suspects her maths teacher may be one. An entertaining story leavened with spoof academic footnotes for the various information given on killers.

An honourable mention for ‘Rabbit Catcher Of Kingdom Come’ by Kellie Wells for its lively language but this pied piper riff went on a bit too long. Stephen King delivers a pretty good yarn in ’The New York Times At Special Bargain Rates’. Chris Gavaler wrote ’Is’ and could give Mister King a run for his money when it comes to describing everyday life in excruciating detail. The story mentions therapy which marks it as truly American. It may surprise our cousins across the Atlantic to know that we British don’t all have therapists, not even the middle classes. I felt I might need one after reading ‘The Torturer’s Wife’ by Thomas Glave. If I was a casual reader I would have given it up after four paragraphs but as a dutiful reviewer I finished all thirty-three pages of this rambling, disjointed mish-mash (Oh so arty, with lots of things in brackets) that is not really a fantasy. It’s a psychological story about the wife of a high placed state torturer in a totalitarian regime cracking up with guilt. I highly recommend you avoid it like the plague.

Most of the other stories were okay but they lacked a certain something and, after some consideration, I think I know what. Firstly, they did not lack fine writing. Finer writing has never been more evident and this is hardly surprising because nine of the contributors have creative writing degrees and five of those teach it. The list of contributing magazines at the back has many that are published by universities.

Also lacking was the classic notion of a story as commonly understood, namely a protagonist facing a series of challenges which he overcomes by dint of his character and which changes him in some way, usually for the better. In too many of these stories something happens to someone and that’s it. This being modern urban fantasy the thing that happens is sometimes quite daft, like coughing up a little Bach who grows to full size, but never mind that. Many of the stories are mildly depressing. Perhaps they are meant to send you off to your analyst.

I find it all too arty, too academic and too refined. I also fear that a bright young Jewish chemistry student (Asimov) or a navy midshipman retired with tuberculosis (Heinlein) or even an English graduate working in a laundry and writing in his spare time (Stephen King back in the day) would find it hard to break into this world of writing professionals. The other thing is that the general public donít buy this sort of thing. They buy the three volume fantasy novels with swords and elves and a hero who overcomes obstacles and gets changed by his troubles. I fear the fantasy short story has left the general reader behind, perhaps forever. Too bad.

Eamonn Murphy

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