Jack Dann, Visitations (Five Star, 2003)

Visitations is a collection of the short fiction of Jack Dann, revered author of award-winning books like The Memory Cathedral, editor (or co-editor) of such lauded anthologies as Dreaming Down-Under, and winner of both the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award. Before receiving Visitations for review, I had never heard of Dann, but I was curious to discover what is so great about an author that he would rate a special limited edition collection like this.

Unfortunately, I still don't know. I'm sure it's simply a matter of taste, but I didn't like Visitations at all.

"Visitors" starts off the book poorly and "Reunion" doesn't help things. I would not have put these two stories together like this, as they are both about dead people who aren't quite. Other than that, the stories are rather different, but that one similarity was enough to tie them together in my mind. Plus, they just weren't that good. They were well-crafted, but they just didn't live.

The collection doesn't really get started until "The Glass Casket," a modern Sleeping Beauty tale that was first printed in Snow White, Blood Red. And I really enjoyed "Night Visions," about a man who just can't seem to successfully commit suicide, despite his best efforts.

While reading "Timetipping," I realized I was in the presence of an "idea writer" — as opposed to a "character writer" — because many of the stories are all concept but no heart. The characters exist simply to carry out the admittedly clever plotlines. "A Cold Day in the Mesozoic" is mildly better, but that could be due to its short length; even it is not much more than a punchline wearing the guise of a story.

"Vapors" is a tale of eros, amor, and vinculum starring the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and Niccolo Macchiavelli. While it gripped me during the reading and carried me easily through to the conclusion, it remained unsatisfying. It was at this point that I realized I was not enjoying Visitations, and that each story was becoming a chore-in-waiting.

"Blind Eye" didn't help things, and "Between the Windows of the Sea" was just frustrating. The story of Rita, her suicide attempt, and her newfound love was an involving read, until Dann ruined it with an awful ending. "The Dybbuk Dolls" was more of the usual: uninvolving, Asimovian, look-how-clever-I-am writing.

Going into "Ting-a-Ling," I expected another failed attempt, but I was pleasantly surprised by this fictional James-Dean-and-Marilyn-Monroe-on-a-late-night-drive tale. It is everything the rest of the collection is not: entertaining, involving, funny, and, above all, character-driven. Dean and Monroe come alive beyond their archetypes, and the telling stops at just the right point. (It appears that this story is an excerpt of Dann's upcoming Second Chance. Based on the strength of this, I may give it a shot.)

Next, Dann crosses into John Updike territory with "Counting Coup," the tale of a man who leaves his wife to travel cross-country with a friend and is inevitably unfaithful with a girl his daughter's age. The ending gave me no hint as to whether this was good or bad. This foray into Updikiana continues with "I'm With You in Rockland," a futuristic tale of a man called Flaccus (insert sophomoric humor here) who can't seem to choose between his wife and his girlfriend.

And ending this underwhelming experience is "Amnesia." I felt nothing for Raymond Mantle and his pursuit into the death of his late wife. The act seemed like it was being done out of mere curiosity, rather than out of any real passion. Again, any real sense of the character is missing here. Mantle is merely a collection of behaviors devised to make him appear a certain way.

And that, dear readers, is the hard truth. It is likely that fans of Dann's writing (such as Barry N. Malzberg, the writer of the glowing introduction) will find plenty to like here. But out of all the stories in this collection, three or four were to my liking. After a while, I even found myself not wanting to go back to Visitations after I'd put it down, which in itself makes for an unpleasant reading experience.

[Craig Clarke]