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Stories for an Enchanted Afternoon
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
(Golden Gryphon Press, $24.95, 284 pages, hardcover; published May 2001.)

In this book's jacket copy, Charles de Lint comments on the invisibility of Kristine Kathryn Rusch's prose, cover scanthe reader's immediate immersion in the emotions and events of her narratives rather than in their mere "words and pages"; and there's a lot of truth in this assessment. Rusch is an author of immense professionalism, prolific, efficient, immediate and to-the-point in her insights; as a past editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, she understands the mechanics of short story writing obviously well, and she applies that technical command expertly in her own shorter fictions. She is a regular award nominee and winner, and Stories for an Enchanted Afternoon is a deserved showcase for her critically acclaimed work. However...

Quality is not a problem in a collection of this sort, well-edited and handsomely produced as it is. But there is the matter of style. The very transparency of Rusch's prose that de Lint commends may seem like underwriting to some, for example to those who relished another recent Golden Gryphon volume, Andy Duncan's Beluthahatchie and Other Stories, with its fine atmospheric flourishes and acute ear for the rhythms of regional dialect. Rusch is not an ostentatious stylist, not really a stylist at all; she is not read for her mastery of language. She is read for her feeling, for the plain incisive truth of her emotional and moral insights; and on that ground she can only be admired. So: with that stylistic caveat stated, here are several strong reasons for reading Stories for an Enchanted Afternoon:

  1. Historical sensitivity. The pieces in Stories tend to come in pairs, complementary reflections on a theme; and the superb novella "The Gallery of His Dreams" and the finely-tuned short story "Burial Detail" revolve on the common axis of how the past is to be remembered, how the multitudinous voiceless dead are to find some ear for the intimacy of their agony. "Gallery" is a science-fictional take on the career of the famed American Civil War photographer Mathew B. Brady, whose courageous comprehensive portraiture of the living and dead of 1860s battlefields pioneered modern war reportage but who fell into neglect in his later years, as the USA sought to deny the fullness of the horror that had reinforced its unity. Time-travelling art curators revive Brady's reputation with exhibitions in their own future time, granting a sort of immortality to one man long dead and through him to the countless others he captured on film; Rusch's story is a fitting memorial too. Much more modestly but just as resonantly, "Burial Detail" describes in his own words the terrifying supernatural comprehension an obscure black working man has of the experiences of those he is interring in mass graves at Cold Harbor; his interaction with a less intuitively gifted white photographer lends particular force to his narrative's echoes of Brady. The famous and the anonymous stand side by side, which is the proper essence of any memorial of war...
  2. Strange authenticity of reportage. Another pairing is that of "Going Native" and "Monuments to the Dead", stories in the form of essays or articles journalists write detailing their encounters with the odd in the American West. Both narrators confront that great danger of incisive news coverage, excessive sympathy with the subject; one, an unlovely womanising hack, finds himself ineluctably drawn into the paranoia of a teleportation-fearing fringe; the other, a woman investigating the inexplicable reversion of Mount Rushmore to ancestral blankness, understands what is happening but finds this a logic apart from herself, a spur to the articulation of fear. Rusch shows a keen understanding of group anxiety here, of its varied individual expression.
  3. Mature contemplations of the gravity of childhood. A further pair, the novelette "Echea" and the novella "Coolhunting", considers the cruel demands parents make of their children, and how those children can break free, and at what cost. Both stories involve young girls who are in a sense engineered freaks and whose condition can only be remedied by radical surgery and psychological alienation; but from that shared basis, contrasting routes are taken. In "Echea", a child refugee from the poverty and factional belligerence of the lunar colonies is adopted by an affluent American family in an era of generalised emotional distance; the father will only accept her altered and the mother will love her only as she is, a dire and destructive tug-of-war. The girl at the heart of "Coolhunting" is adult within but has been kept physically immature by parents who will not tolerate "empty nest syndrome" as their destiny; her sister must free her, but only at strange redeeming expense to herself. Sacrifice and selfishness are intelligently anatomised in these stories, as are questions of appearance and essence...
  4. Further meditations on appearance and essence. "Skin Deep" and "Strange Creatures" are tales of the shedding of skins and the abiding shared humanity beneath them. "Strange Creatures" is a contemporary fantasy of disaster and horror, wherein the Other, truly so much like us, avenges itself savagely on human beings grown complacent in their supremacy over Nature; fortunately, as "Skin Deep" makes clear, in the secular waking world of SF mutual empathy is just possible, and aliens can make a sort of peace with the humans who have invaded their world, but whose skins they in turn inhabit. There is a fine degree of shading in the latter story, a neat symbolic summary of the stages by which hate turns to love, by which the Self recognises the image in the mirror.
  5. Illumination of inner resources. "Millennium Babies" examines the aftermath of the drive publicity-hungry couples undertook to see their children born on the stroke that began 2000. Thirty years later, a social scientist brings together offspring who hit the mark and others who failed; will the equation balance, will all be equally blessed, will all make something noteworthy of their lives? The answer is reassuringly but cautiously phrased by Rusch; and another tale, "Spirit Guides", provides a fantastic complementary portrait of a man who was helpless but discovers what he can give the world--in a powerful welter of angelic imagery...
  6. A gem on the theme of inheritance. Perhaps the best single item in Stories is "Harvest", whose surreal intensity places it very much in a bracket of its own. Pain is passed down through the generations along with more obvious baggage; but what if this necessary dire benison is refused? Here Rusch's musings take a fascinating dark turn, into a glimpse of a dam of tears.... Truly powerful artistry here.

And so Stories for an Enchanted Afternoon, for all its plainness of diction, delivers a full cargo of wonder and wisdom; and Golden Gryphon Press triumphs again in its commendable endeavour of literary assembly. Truth may, in the hands of Andy Duncan or Lucius Shepard or Gene Wolfe, acquire a grander gloss; but it is fully and faithfully served here, for several afternoons at least.

(Order from: Golden Gryphon Press, 3002 Perkins Road, Urbana, IL 61802, USA, or visit

Review by Nick Gevers.
More of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.

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© Nick Gevers 12 May 2001