Paul Di Filippo, Little Doors (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002)

The writings of Paul Di Filippo defy easy categorization. Or rather, easy description. It's easy to point to Di Filippo's work and say he writes fantasy and science fiction, or if you've woken up on the literary side of the bed this morning, speculative fiction. But pinning down what makes a Di Filippo story uniquely Di Filippian in nature is a significantly tougher task. His obsessive attention to the most obscure and inane historical detail invites comparisons to Howard Waldrop, but Di Filippo doesn't limit himself to historical jaunts. His outrageous audacity is reminiscent of the works of Neal Barrett, Jr., but never manages quite as straight a face as Barrett. And Di Filippo's skill at wordplay and manipulating the English language is nothing short of Harlanesque at times, but let's face it — there's only one Ellison, and Di Filippo isn't him.

So what makes a Di Filippo story? As near as can be figured (and I've done significant research on this, truly) the best way to identify a Di Filippo story is this: If the piece in question bears little or no resemblance to anything else Di Filippo has ever written, then he probably wrote it. Few, if any, writers can boast the chameleon-like writing prowess of Di Filippo, and the full width and breadth of his skill is on display in Little Doors. The seventeen selections included here — all published between 1987 and 2002 — run the gamut from Vonnegut-style absurdity to stark horror to quiet melancholy to surreal parody. Like divinity confection at Christmas, Little Doors may be a bit much to swallow in one sitting, but doled out over time, it's quite a treat.

The title story, "Little Doors," is an odd, somewhat bleak tale following the insensitive exploits of a philandering college professor. His cold treatment of his amours becomes downright cruel as he obsesses over research for his latest academic publication. When things abruptly take a turn toward the surreal, however, it is he who suddenly finds himself on the outside looking in. "Moloch" is easily the most disturbing inclusion here. Suffice it to say that mentally unstable men with a religious fixation should not be fathers. And working in an iron foundry is not the wisest of career choices. Maybe this piece affected me so strongly because I'm the father of two small children. Or maybe because I lived next door to the main character for about five years. Either way, I'm never going to read "Moloch" again. Ever.

Shifting gears considerably, "The Short Ashy Life of Hiram P. Dottle" is an odd metaphysical story narrated from the perspective of a smoking pipe. Which is particularly strange, since it manages to be a homage to noir and pulp heroes such as Dick Tracy and Doc Savage. It's slight and silly, and the protagonist is a wee bit too dense even for a hunk of wood, but it's good fun nonetheless. Also good fun is "The Horror Writer," an over-the-top riff on what Stephen King's life would be like if he took his writings too seriously. And "Our House" gets in on the action as well, albeit wearing a straight face, as a couple buying their dream home come to discover peculiar tenants already living there. The basement contains a neanderthal and his wife, the attic a bald, silver-suited couple straight from the year 3001. These residents serve as placeholders for the id, ego and superego, and hijinks ensue when the new owners attempt to serve eviction notices.

Another standout is "The Death of Salvador Dali," a surreal jaunt which is fitting for that famous painter. Indeed, the story probably works best for those readers most familiar with the painter's reality-bending works and his flamboyant life. Di Filippo includes enough description and hints for even one who's just moderately acquainted with Dali to maintain a firm footing — but with the skewed landscape constantly shifting and contorting, it's hard to really be sure what your footing is.

The two showpieces here, however, occupy two very different ends of Di Filippo's spectrum. The first is "Billy," which is as bizarre and scathing a satire as it is funny. The title character in this tale is born anencephalic — without most of his brain, or a complete skull. Despite medical prognosis, Billy survives and grows to be a strapping — although mindless — young man. It is within Billy's vacant skull that, through a series of unlikely events, a spider, a rat and a parrot all come to live, and through Billy, become rulers of the world. The end result is something akin to what we'd have if the Monty Python troupe had taken a crack at writing George Orwell's Animal Farm.

The other showstopper is the wickedly deceptive "Stealing Happy Hours." Mixed in with other amusing pieces here, the light opening tone and cheeky premise — that some people literally do "suck the life out of a party" — set the reader up to be undone by his own expectations. Until the last possible moment, some sort of absurdly frivolous outcome seems inevitable. When the story takes a darker turn, it's quite unexpected, made all the more powerful by the quiet, unpretentious way the evil takes center stage. Are tiny evils less loathsome than great evils, even if the intent is the same? That's the question Di Filippo poses here, and the answer remains as ambiguous as the story's tone.

Di Filippo is one of the most active, dependable authors writing today, and almost his entire output consists of short fiction. If you're the type of reader who sticks exclusively with novels, you're doing yourself a disservice by not sampling Di Filippo's work. If what you find here isn't to your taste — and it's not for everyone — just wait around a little bit. He's bound to come up with something new any minute now.

[Jayme Lynn Blaschke]

The online magazine Strange Horizons ran an interview with Di Filippo in November of 2002, which includes a link to an excellent critical chronology of Di Filippo's fiction.