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The Mammoth Book of Comic Fantasy edited by Mike Ashley (Robinson Publishing, 6.99, 524 pages, paperback. Published 30 April 1998.)

In theory, this book should appear in two places in every large bookshop. The first place, of course, is in the fantasy section, where its ho-hum cover (panicking wizard, sprinting dragon) will ensure that it is picked up and leafed through by any reader of the genre. (Although, unfortunately, if this book is pored over for any length of time, the cheap paper becomes filthy and the weak spine cracks. Bookshops might well have a glut of unsellable copies before long.) And the second place that this book should be on sale is in the self-help section - or the medical section. I will explain.

Long before it had been established scientifically that laughter is good for us, and why, our instincts had provided us with the same information, albeit minus the statistics and facts. Laughter makes us feel good: that's about the size of it. True, now we know that laughter is also the release of emotional pain; or, more helpfully perhaps, laughter is our way of assimilating and sorting information in a new manner - and a fresh perspective can often lead to a better solution. Books - entire books - have been written about why laughter is a healthy response. (Not a handful of books either; we're talking triple figures, easily.) While beneficial to our health, both physical and mental, laughter has been cited as a contributing factor to the long lives of many methuselahs. Furthermore, happy people are good to be around; so laughter in the workplace is important too - for the boosting of morale, for the increasing of productivity. And as any once-bullied person might tell you, laughter can dissolve conflict. Help with your stress. Even make you more attractive.

We're all agreed, then, that laughter is a good thing.

The problem is, we all disagree about what happens to be funny.

The Mammoth Book of Comic Fantasy is the latest from a production line of titles beginning with "The Mammoth Book of..." - a series that has now reached over thirty fat volumes (with different editors). It's not the word Mammoth that is the problem, however; it's the word Comic. More than likely, Mike Ashley was given the title to work with; but I cannot help but feel that the C-word here was a mistake. For a book that leads with the chin like this is trying to offer a pre-emptive strike, or to massage from the readership an emotional response - before a single word has been read. Expectations are raised. This will make me laugh. And some of it, let me be clear, will make you laugh. But some of it won't.

Comedy is a no-laughs business: if you're creating it. If Ashley had chosen to edit, oh let's say, The Mammoth Book of Lugubrious Fantasy, there would have been a much wider agreement on the chosen texts. Or, for the sake of argument, let's imagine that forthcoming is The Mammoth Book of Disgusting Horror Stories. As a readership collective, we have a much clearer understanding of what ingredients are baked together to make the adjectives lugubrious and disgusting. But comic is tough. Jokes depend on incongruity, or on the frisson between two meanings of a repeated word - among many other reasons. So there is no reason why comic fantasy should be any harder to write than comic stories about randy professors, or shop staff, or nurses; but it is certainly the case that many of the stories in this volume that I liked had more tenuous connections to the type of fantasy tale that is depicted on the cover. For example, my favourite was probably Terry Bisson's "Press Ann". This is an ingenious and brief tale about a cash dispenser that knows rather more about each card-owner than it should; it even sorts out relationship problems, in a sense.

"Pizza to Go" by Tom Holt exhibits a good feel for the absurd. A pizza delivery outlet operates at all points in time simultaneously ("That lot for the seventeenth century, and one for 1862; you can do it on your way back"). Pizzas even get delivered to a certain Jesus Christ, for a certain famous meal. One of the employees gets both trapped in time and involved in a criminal plot, so he calls out for pizza to get help. (Isn't it odd how so many time travel stories involve strong elements of avarice and greed?) "Golden Apples of the Sun" by Gardner Dozois, Jack Dann and Michael Swanwick really is funny. A salesman (whose name, Barry, is perfect) tries to sell computers to fairy-folk, and to a troll who is important to the plot. Here we have an amusing clash between modern technology and old-fashioned language.

Alan Dean Foster's "Wu-Ling's Folly" is a great story about thieving dragons and the old-fashioned American pioneering spirit. Terry Jones (yes, the one from Monty Python) is on good form with "The Cat With Two Tales", which reminded me of Rudyard Kipling's Just-So Stories; but was a nice surprise, as I had not read anything from Jones before. Randall Garrett's "A Fortnight of Miracles" is a long, strong story about a conman.

The stories I liked least were those such as "Death Swatch" by Esther Friesner. (Obviously, apologies to Ms Friesner for this singular treatment, but I must call them as I see them.) In this story, the register and tone seem wrong. The following is a representative and consecutive selection of paragraphs:

"Is this how you ward my prisoner?" the Grim Lord thundered. "Nutting one another?"
"N-Now my lord, strictly speaking I did not 'nut' Jorc. In the first place, the term 'nutting' refers to a severe blow to the head, and in the second place, orcs do not have-"
A bolt of pure red power arced from the Grim Lord's fingertips and barbecued the troll where he stood... "Mmm. A shame. Now I'll never know what it is that orcs do not have. Unless you can tell me?" He bent the gaze of his awful Eye upon the still-writhing Jorc.
"Job security!" Jorc blurted, and scuttled down the stairwell...
The Grim Lord sighed. "I lose more Level G-7 personnel that way."

Even with the odd sentence removed, Friesner writes very well; the problem I have with this story and several like it is, in her palpable eagerness to strive for the punchline... it all comes out sounding cocksure and glib. Other stories I was not so keen on included Avram Davidson's "Peregrine: Alflandia" (and its world of speech impediments), which was stubbornly resistant to a casual read.

In a book as long as this one, most writers of light-hearted genre tales that you could think of are represented. Terry Pratchett's in, of course, in an entertaining and largely dialogue-based story called "Troll Bridge", in which a troll meets his hero, Cohen the Barbarian (and his talking horse). The troll shows no real disappointment, either, on hearing that he is to be killed by the self-same man... Also present are David Langford, Neil Gaiman, Craig Shaw Gardner, Louise Cooper, Robert Rankin, Anne Gay, Harry Turtledove, Al Sarrantonio, RA Lafferty, Molly Brown... Of the older school, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and James Sullivan have been included... Two interesting observations offered themselves up. Is it a coincidence that so many of the contributors are either over forty, or are long dead? And is it a coincidence that even in this sub-genre, male writers easily outnumber female writers? There are thirty-five stories in total, and to paraphrase a certain nursery rhyme, when they are good, they are very very good, and when they are bad, they are horrid.

Confidently I can state that there will be much to enjoy in this book. So much ground is covered that only the most doom-laden would be unable to find something to laugh about. There is plenty of unfamiliar material, which is to Ashley's credit, and the volume is reasonably priced; despite not liking some of the tales, I recommend it.

Review by David Mathew.

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© David Mathew 25 July 1998