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The Cleft and Other Odd Tales

by Gahan Wilson

(St Martin's Press, $23.95, 333 pages, hardcover, November 1998.)

Review by Claude Lalumière

Gahan Wilson? Isn't he the guy who cover scandoes those weird cartoons? Well, yes. Examples of Gahan Wilson's delightfully fiendish visual imagination are collected in two (unfortunately cheaply produced) collections from Forge Books, Still Weird and Even Weirder. Nevertheless, his peculiar vision--an unholy hybrid of the already macabre Charles Addams and Edward Gorey, with a dash a James Thurber--shines through.

His new book, The Cleft and Other Odd Tales, is a horse of a different colour: a collection of twenty-four stories covering his entire writing career, from a couple of 1962 stories initially published in Playboy ("Phyllis" and "The Book") to the title story, new to this volume. There's a bonus treat for fans of his cartoon work: each story is graced with a new full-page illustration. These illustrations set the right mood, announcing the off-kilter macabre humour that lurks within the prose, waiting to pounce on the reader.

Although wit and humour abound throughout this wonderful collection of stories, the reader shouldn't expect the laugh out-loud antics of Groucho Marx, Terry Pratchett, or Tom Sharpe. The humour has a rather insidious quality, tickling the intellect more than the funny bone. Mr. Wilson's stories are funny in the same bizarre vein as the comics of Rick Geary, a cartoonist who obviously shares much of Gahan Wilson's cultural heritage.

Actually, these stories have a strong visual impact, virtually begging to be adapted into comics. I can think of no better artist for the task than the aforementioned Rick Geary, whose ongoing series of books falling under the banner A Treasury of Victorian Murder amply demonstrate his qualifications for such an undertaking. An unlikely event, but one can always dream....

Do not let the mention of humour mislead you. Gahan Wilson's tales are filled to the brim with murders and murderous intentions, monsters human and supernatural, despair and suicidal desires, and all the creepy, eerie stuff nightmares are made of.

These short stories are written with great love for the form and with an obvious knowledge of its history. The author is writing for his own pleasure, revelling in the world of his imagination fed and fuelled by a wealth of literature. The ghosts of Edgar Allen Poe, James Thurber, H.P. Lovecraft, Sax Rohmer, Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse and, doubtless, many others pleasantly haunt these tales. The prose is impeccably precise, and often reminds me of Thurber's fancier flights of fiction. Actually, much of this book reads as if Thurber had decided to rewrite Poe in the hope of submitting the results to the pulp home of H.P. Lovecraft, Weird Tales. It's all deliciously scrumptious--and oblique.

The author does not explain what he's up to in these stories, leaving much room for the reader's imagination. The more the reader shares the author's love for the history of fiction, especially lurid fiction, the more pleasure is to be squeezed out of each tale--although this is not an essential prerequisite. The prose is delightful and the imagination intriguing enough to please any curious reader.

Gahan Wilson is a publishing Renaissance man: cartoonist; novelist (Everybody's Favorite Duck); book illustrator (Roger Zelazny's A Night in the Lonesome October); editor of several anthologies of fantasy, horror, and crime fiction; and an excellent writer of short fiction, to which The Cleft and Other Odd Tales proudly attests. A glance at the copyright page reveals that in the '90s, his output has increased. Hopefully, that means we won't have to wait thirty-six years for his next collection of fiction.


Originally published, in slightly different form, in The Gazette, Saturday 31 Oct 1998.

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