There’s nothing quite so unsettling as semi-familiar terrain. The landscape that we think we might know constantly throws up false positives in recognition, things that we react to in exactly the wrong way because we think they’re something they aren’t. The further in you go, the less you trust yourself, and the more fraught every decision potentially becomes.
The three novellas lined up for inspection today all venture into that sort of some-man’s-land territory, albeit in different ways. From a famous author stepping into the shoes of another famous author to a tale of small-town horror in a place that should be normal, all three take the reader to places that are simultaneously old hat and slightly off kilter.
The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz, by Dan Simmons, is the easiest of the three to approach. It’s a straight homage, an attempt by Simmons to pay homage to one of the authors who inspired him by playing in that author’s sandbox. In this case, the author is Jack Vance, the sandbox is The Dying Earth, and the over-the-top rococo nature of the setting would seem to be right in Simmons’ Hyperion-infused wheelhouse. The plot is Vancean enough – when a powerful wizard dies, another wizard braves perils magical and otherwise to find his hidden library. But Simmons never quite nails Vance’s voice, substituting in snarkiness for the master’s trademark arch understatement. In a couple of places he flat-out goes overboard with the cutesy, and the end result is jarring. And oddest of all, Simmons adds an odd streak of sentimentality that Cugel the Clever almost certainly would have used to rob everyone involved blind.
From the decadence of the Dying Earth to decadence of another kind, there’s Daniel Abraham’s Balfour and Meriwether in the Case of the Harrowmoor Dogs. It’s as much a meditation on the deals constantly made with the devil in order to keep the lights on as it is a two-fisted tale of adventure about the monstrous dog-ants that have honeycombed the deep earth with their tunnels for presumably nefarious purposes. In this one, the third story featuring Balfour and Meriwether, the pair is sent off to investigate possible leaks of information coming from a war hero now caged in a sanitarium in a countryside. Of course, the “leaks” are images from his dreams about the monster ants, which Her Majesty’s government has quite possibly known about for some time now, and the man himself is locked away for reasons having nothing to do with his sanity or his service. Abraham makes deliberate parallels here between the unsavory deals nations cut to preserve their status and citizenry, and the unsavory deals individuals cut with their consciences to keep on doing what they do. By the end of the story, one of those doesn’t hold any longer; it will be interesting, in subsequent tales, to see if the other follows suit.
The last entry of the three is deceptively modern and deceptively mundane. It Sustains, by Mark Morris, with a striking cover by Deena Warner, is the story of a teenage boy who, after his mother is murdered, moves to a new town with his grieving father and promptly gets in way over his head. Where the story shines is when Morris conflates the normal trouble an emotionally damaged new kid might get into – falling in with a bad crowd, getting into fights, problems at school – with the supernatural menace that seems to be behind every corner and shadow in the town. If there’s a weakness here, it’s that the ending comes too soon, cutting short the delicious tension of the situation 15 year old Adam finds himself sinking into. The reader’s left wanting more – more of the town, more of the reason for Adam’s travails, more of his noble, weak father who ambles off stage far too easily.
In the end, semi-familiar literary terrain can harm as much as it helps, or vice versa. Morris takes brilliant advantage of what the reader’s expecting to invoke dread by only partially delivering it, while Simmons, by covering well-trod ground, comes out the loser in comparison to the one who had gone before. And as for Abraham, the map is less important to him than the destination.