F. Brett Cox &
Andy Duncan, editors,
Crossroads: Tales of the
Southern Literary Fantastic

(Tor, 2004)

This may be a depressing thing to admit in January, but I fear it's true. I've already read one of, if not the best, anthology I'm going to come across this year. Crossroads: Tales of the Southern Literary Fantastic is a grand collection, built with obvious loving thought by both editors F. Brett Cox and Andy Duncan, and furnished with works of art by the many contributors.

Cox and Duncan deserve credit for making Crossroads more than just a hefty collection of fantastic stories. In a great anthology, which this one may well claim to be, the stories do more than coexist; they exist together, each setting the others off like the setting in an especially good piece of jewelry. Each story here seems to have something to suggest about its companions. The most unpredictable and hard-hitting of the stories surround more placid tales so that the reader never dares settle into complacency or even bother second-guessing the author, giving each story the force of the new even when they carry the burden of tradition.

Of course they are working with truly fantastic stories. There are 26 stories here, from as many times and places, and not one misfires or seems out of place. Kelly Link creates quiet terror in the absurd child's rhyme of "The Specialist's Hat," defining a child's nightmare by keeping it at a constant distance. "The Mission" uses a wrecked spaceship and an untimed future to create a koan on the purpose of society. There's humor here, too, dark or light for the audience's choosing. "Mankind Journeys through Forests of Symbols" by Fred Chappell makes a loving mockery of the same symbolic writing that drives the story itself, burdening the unassuming citizens of a small town with weighty metaphor and dire archetypes. Michael Bishop also plays with the frightening power of symbols in "The Yukio Mishima Cultural Association of Kudzu Valley, Georgia," as a proselytizing academic soon finds his teachings taking on absurdly grand import.

Those who'd prefer their symbolism a little less frolicsome can find meaning of their own with Marian Moore's odd children in "The Mikado's Favorite Song" or struggling along the dreaming paths of "Houston, 1943" with Gene Wolfe. There are tales that tie directly into the Southern literary tradition, such as the refined and surreal ramblings of Bret Lott's "Rose" and tales that find their own homes. "The Wounded" and "Madeline's Version" draw rather heavily on the work of some authors of definite New Englander loyalties, though the humor and hospitality mark the origin of these later tales.

Indeed, if any complaint is made about this book, it will probably be that it strays too far from what's widely considered "Southern literature." "Rose" and "Alabama" are clearly tied to the South's literary and historical traditions, but what place can claim "Ool Athag," which happens fully in the boundless Dreamworld? And what of "Slippered Feet," written by an Alabama native but first published in -- of all things -- The Massachusetts Review?

But a reconsideration or re-reading (I recommend the latter) of these stories shows that they are unified, after all, by a certain attitude. It's a particularly Southern attitude, determined but not hurried, aware of the past but living in the present. It leaks through the most distant stories to form a distinct personality, one sitting on the doorstep with "The Map to the Homes of the Stars," lurking in the chimney corners in "The Specialist's Hat," or looking for assistance at a "Tchoupitoulas Bus Stop."

Boundless but fed on a sense of place, full of stories whose simple surface cohesion masks deep realms of conjecture, Crossroads deserves its claim to the fantastic as few fantasy collections do.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 12 February 2005

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