In only four years, Andy Duncan has established himself as a Significant New Talent, and his first collection, Beluthahatchie, makes it absolutely clear that there is no hype behind that designation. The eleven stories assembled here--all the solo fiction Duncan has so far published--are magnificent. Duncan is a Southerner, and he captures the South's gritty hauntedness perfectly in many of these tales; but he also has a profound imaginative sympathy with other places and times, and can depict Twenties Paris or the Rome of the Dark Ages with an equal authenticity of atmosphere. He has an antic sense of the grotesque ideally suited to graveyard farce, but can readily modulate Horror to the requirements of serious, precise social and psychological analysis. He can evoke folksy extremes of nostalgia while relentlessly questioning the integrity of the historical record. And much more. Andy Duncan, then, is an artist of death and memory, one of the finest in contemporary speculative fiction: hugely versatile, at once darkly humorous and utterly humane.
An obvious parallel exists between Duncan and Howard Waldrop, that veteran (also a Southerner) of daftly erudite historical manipulation. Waldrop also researches his period pieces carefully, and persuades the past to cough up its grim absurdities in short stories that are eccentrically individual and densely ironic. But Duncan tells his tales more fully, in a richer, far more completely descriptive, voice; where Waldrop sketches, Duncan paints full portraits. A prime example is "Fortitude", a novella that is probably the best item in Beluthahatchie (although this is a hard judgement to deliver): here, Duncan presents General George S. Patton's damnable delusional resoluteness in a narrative absolutely Patton's own, in prose so supply employed that it can without any awkwardness impart soldierly objectivity one moment and an extreme of insanity the next. Patton's story is twice-lived, twice-told, a fantastic device that permits a commanding realism of characterisation. Waldrop might have provided a lucid laconic glance at Patton's soul; Duncan resurrects that soul entire.
He performs such virtuoso feats again and again. The collection's other novella, the award-nominated "The Executioners' Guild", is similarly brilliant, bringing the racially biased seediness of justice in 1940s Mississippi under intense ethical scrutiny by juxtaposing it with the older, more universal dilemmas of the headsman and the hangman, whose fraternity asserts its own clinical disinterestedness with ever decreasing conviction. The supernatural is a light garnish in this case, as in other Duncan stories, a facilitator rather than an end in itself: the author's point is better made if the executioner can share the thoughts of his victim. The pathos of love lost or abandoned comes more fully across when it can transcend the grave, as in the Titanic story "Saved" and in "The Map To The Homes of the Stars", a parable of small town solitude. On occasion Duncan can allow the iniquities of history to stand as horrors sufficient in themselves, no otherworldliness intruding: "From Alfano's Reliquary" need only repeat the details of an ancient Papal disinterment to generate pure Gothic farce. Duncan is in absolute formal control of his literary effects.
Every Duncan story masterfully, subtly, has its point. "Beluthahatchie" isn't merely a wry, probing, innovative take on the nature of Hell; it prompts some reflection as to why different classes of people conceive of Hell in such varying terms, and on how eschatology might benefit ideology. In contrasting but ultimately complementary fashion, "Lincoln in Frogmore" raises questions by its very folkloric improbability: why would Lincoln in fact never have addressed blacks behind Confederate lines, and why would they yet imagine him doing so? "Liza and the Crazy Water Man" interrogates the flawed phenomenon of cultural memory again, the narrator's superficially excessive sentimentality in fact a vital key to answering important questions posed; "Fenneman's Mouth" is dry and oblique, but works to much the same end. Even the funereal capering of Duncan's grotesque comedies, "The Premature Burials", "From Alfano's Reliquary", and "Grand Guignol", acts as an insinuating but profound commentary on the fetishism inherent in genre Horror and the wider Grotesque.
Beluthahatchie and Other Stories is a landmark, the opening act of a creative career that already is tinged with greatness. There is emerging awe in the tones of Michael Bishop and John Kessel, established masters who provide Beluthahatchie's Foreword and Afterword; and it is not misplaced.
(Order from: Golden Gryphon Press, 3002 Perkins Road, Urbana, IL 61802, USA, or visit www.goldengryphon.com)
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© Nick Gevers 28 October 2000