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Strange Attraction edited by Edward Kramer
(ShadowLands Press, Limited Edition $75, Deluxe Edition $275, 427 pages, hardcover; published July 2000.)

This is an anthology of formidable quality, on two levels. First--although this is hard to assess from a galley--there is the publisher's promised production paraphernalia: for the Deluxe Edition, leather bindings, traycase, colour prints, even a sculpture specially crafted to accompany the volume. The mere Limited Edition also bids fair to be sumptuous; the satisfaction of collectors seems guaranteed. ShadowLands Press clearly knows its business. And so also--fortunately, lest Strange Attraction turn out to be a gilded turkey, bathos in literary fancy dress--does Edward Kramer. He has assembled what may well be the year's best original anthology in the Horror / Dark Fantasy field, Strange Attraction's second and surely more important claim to quality. A host of well-known writers is represented here, and most if anything augment their reputations.

The peculiarity of Strange Attraction is its narrowness of creative focus. All the stories and poems in the book are overtly inspired by the so-called "kinetic sculptures" of the award-winning artist Lisa Snellings, whose preferred subject matter is what might be termed the Carnival Macabre. In the many images that copiously illustrate the anthology, Snellings captures in sinister attitudes the freaks, sharp operators, and gaudy impresarios of the fairground. Theirs is a repellent lustre, intensified as Snellings evokes in addition the archetypes the Carnival deploys in its manipulations of the crowds: legendary grotesques, fantastic hybrids in motley, figures from the Tarot. Above looms the quintessence of all Ferris Wheels, an infernal treadmill for demonic entities, damned souls, and assorted gargoyles; clearly, the Carnival for Snellings (as for others like Ray Bradbury) is a repository of nightmare, a route to Hell or (in a few determined cases) a means to a twisted and ambiguous redemption. It's a tribute to the intensity of Snellings' vision that, without undue derivativeness or monotony, Kramer's stable of authors is impelled to take her lead and build impressively upon it.

Strange Attraction opens with an autobiographical fragment by Harlan Ellison, who remembers his own early acquaintance with the Carnival as a scapegrace runaway. And then the fictional contributions get under way, with a reflection on undying regret by Caitlin R. Kiernan, Neil Gaiman's take on archetypes on the loose, Snellings' own haunted suspicion of her talent, Robert J. Sawyer's evocation of the hollowness of every Satanic pact, Chet Williamson's cynical dismissal of cynicism, John Shirley's exploration of escapism and the escape from escapism, Michael Bishop's meditation on the attraction of like to like (no matter how fat you are), Edward Bryant's unexpectedly cheerful assessment of the mentality of revenge, S. P. Somtow's dark guffaw at the expense of naïve love, Nancy A. Collins' warning against the folly of facile recruitment (a snake is a heavy burden), Nina Kiriki Hoffman's homily on the horror of wish fulfillment, Fred Olen Ray's hard-boiled dissection of a fairground murder mystery, David Niall Wilson's plumbing of the great depths of the Blues, Pete Crowther's prose poem on the Wheel's call to the aged.... These are a strong cocktail, searing, ruthless, lyrical, and despairing all at once. But the true merit of Strange Attraction may emerge more clearly from a detailed look at a few selected stories.

Take Charles De Lint's "Many Worlds Are Born Tonight". De Lint is a central figure in contemporary Urban Fantasy, and his tale is very much his own, rich in atmosphere as ever. His debt to Lisa Snellings is clear enough in his motif of the numinous Ferris Wheel that houses a multitude of archetypes; but he gives it a distinctive twist. The fugitive underworld "Spyboy" who is protagonist may resort to the Wheel, but he just as well may not; De Lint presents a quantum multitude of options, all of which are followed, or conceivably some, or none. Maybe Snellings has captured the symbolic heart of existence, De Lint suggests; but maybe not. It all depends on chance, or character: on how one treads the urban labyrinth. Perhaps you heed the call of the barker; perhaps you do not; perhaps you acknowledge the validity of another artist's vision; perhaps you do not.

Writers can do homage while being profusely inventive. In "The Fire-eater's Tale", Jack Dann and Janeen Webb do Snellings the honour of fixing on a certain variety of Carnival entertainer; they put the role of Fire-eater very vividly in its orthodox context. But on this is built the idiosyncratic edifice of Third World atrocities coming home to the First World; of New York ablaze in the heat of a foreigner's grievance. In "Appeasing the Darkness", the stylish fantasist Darrel Schweitzer goes on the offensive: his target is the Artist, the Ringmaster whose images of horror exact so frightening a human cost. Your Art is necessary, he seems to tell Snellings, but it is also exorbitant, and you must suffer as you make us suffer. And so Schweitzer's narrator joins the Ringmaster's condign and worshipful pursuers...

Or there is the matter of the finest single story in Strange Attraction: Gene Wolfe's "Pocketsful of Diamonds". It is typical of Wolfe--probably the greatest living author of speculative fiction--that he postulates the existence beyond Snellings' Wheel of another such Attraction, which may be Heaven itself. In the eerie oneiric manner that he has perfected since the Sixties, Wolfe guides two orphaned children into a fairground filled with dire temptations and allegorical virtues; the boy learns from a Fire-Eater the modalities of Light-bringing, even as his sister partakes of serpentine wisdom; and they find in the first Wheel the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, of whose fruit they partake on their ambivalent path to adulthood. They discover spiritual currency in their pockets; and their Pilgrimage has begun. Superbly written, "Pocketsful of Diamonds" is inspired indeed, by Snellings and to spare.

Strange Attraction is an impressive and important book. And with a regular trade hardcover edition promised in due course, its accessibility can only increase.

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

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© Nick Gevers 28 October 2000