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Dossier: a collection of short stories
by Stepan Chapman
(Creative Arts Book Company, $13.95, 166 pages, trade paperback; published 2001.)

Stepan Chapman is one of those infuriatingly hard to track down authors. First, there is his lack of prolificity: although he started publishing in the 1970s, we only have cover scanone novel published by an independent press in 1997 (the astounding Philip K Dick Award-winning The Troika), and now Dossier, his first full-length collection of short fiction. He may have published other books or chapbooks, but they are, as I say, hard to trace.

And secondly, although The Troika may have brought Chapman to the attention of genre audiences, his short fiction has appeared in such a diversity of non-genre publications (Chicago Review, Hawaii Review, International Quarterly, Mississippi Mud and so on) that this collection is probably the best way for many of his potential readers to get their hands on his shorter work.

As might be expected, it's worth taking some trouble to do so.

Many of the pieces in Dossier are not so much stories as brief morality tales. Only a few pages long, these are tales that in past generations would have been read around the camp-fire, passed on through successive generations of storytellers. The language is simple, the voice often narrating rather than showing, the forms often reading like mini-epics or parables, classical legends for a modern age. And yet... the simplicity of telling is often illusory, drawing the reader into dark twistings of the imagination; the concluding impartings of great truths often tangential, eluding the reader. Sometimes, as in "When the Moths Come Down" or "Boots Practice", this seems merely disappointing; at other times, as in "The Fallen Sky", "Nocturne" or "The Selection of Toothpick", the effect of grasping for truths adds to the stories' power.

"The Fallen Sky", is a good example. This is a story simple in the telling and yet deep in its reach. In a war-torn land, where children go to fight and the nobles grow ever-richer, a hermit claims that not only has the sky fallen, it has "fallen specifically on him and was still stuck to him. Sometimes gasping for breath, sometimes sobbing, the old man bemoaned his fate to strangers on the roads." The hermit petitions the king, begging him to bring an end to the war so that the nation may attend to the far graver matter of the fallen sky. The story takes the form of a childhood tale: the wise old man using his cunning to guide his land away from the folly of war. But Chapman takes that form and twists it brutally, yanking rug from beneath the reader's feet. What's it all about then? I don't know, but the story lingers.

Most of the shorter stories in Dossier fall somewhere between the flat and the entirely successful, but all are vivid and worth attention. "Nocturne" is a lovely little slice of madness, and different in form to many of the short fables in this collection. "All sorts of weird things go on in this town. It's not my fault that no one besides me ever notices them." With an opening like that we're dropped deep in the heart of dark paranoia, with only an unreliable narrator as our guide. With two strange awakenings that summer, one biological and one mechanical, the narrator is drawn to one, disturbed by the other. The dark vision magnifies and we are offered a resolution that may only be a new beginning...

"The One-armed Elek" is more in keeping with the other stories in the book: a little legend of prophecy and the power and dangers of knowledge. The people of Kantek Kau are enduring their worst famine in four generations and it is down to the village's trance-singer, Tath, to seek the mercy of the ocean goddess. He knows what is to come, for he has seen his future, but unlike other men who rage against truths, he knows what must be done and accepts his role.

Chapman works better at longer lengths, though. With more space than the few pages of each of the shorter stories in Dossier his strange imaginings can expand, drawing the reader in and then drawing deeper, rather than offering mere glimpses.

"At Her Ladyship's Suggestion", as presaged rather crudely with the introductory quote from Mervyn Peake, is a contordedly macabre and witty micro-Gormenghast of inbreeding, family betrayals, suicides and murder. Since the death of her mother, Lady Gentian Windleech is faced with being the unchallenged mistress of Windleech Isle and the prospect sickens her, as she ponders "all the shameful deeds that had brought it to inevitable ruin". The succession of aforementioned suicides and murders has left only Gentian alive in the family line, wondering how to redirect this inevitable decline and if she should even bother. That is the crux of this superb story, and the resolution is suitably dark and legendary in feel.

The highlight of the collection, "Minutes of the Last Meeting", is saved until last, and it is perhaps the most science-fictional story in the book (as hinted at by the anachronistic radar dish slipped in early on -- a taste of the strangeness to come). It opens in 1917, with the Tsar's engine driver and his steam train heading across Latvia, worried about impending ambush but reassured by his belief in God and the intelligence service. Tsar Nicholas is in his carriage behind. He should be reading reports of the parliamentary in-fighting in Moskva but reports of the revolutionaries -- madmen, all of them -- are far more interesting. Tsarina Alexandra is in her suite on the train, feeling out of place (or time) in this mechanised century. This steadily unfolding back-story, opened up almost page by page in a succession of switching viewpoints, shows Chapman at his very best: vignettes and slices of life mosaicking together into a far bigger whole. It is an effect this collection comes close to achieving (in its compilation of mini-epics) but doesn't quite, undermined by those stories which don't quite work. Dossier, then, is just a good collection and not a great one: read it for its gems and for its oddities and forgive the author his lapses and his over-reachings.


Review by Keith Brooke.

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© Keith Brooke 14 July 2001