Nalo Hopkinson (editor), Mojo: Conjure Stories (Warner Books, Inc. 2003)

"Myths of zombies and voodoo curses...."

That’s what the back of Mojo: Conjure Stories, an anthology rich in talent and myth (both urban and old), claims you’ll find between its covers.

No.

You are bound to find more. The best thing I can say about this book: whatever expectations you have going in, they’ll be shattered coming out. If you think that you’ll like it, you’ll love it. If you think that you’ll love it, you’ll really love it. And if, like me, you think that it will be interesting and not bad, you are in for a shock. I’ve reread some of my favorite tales already, and they still haven’t faded. Their voices are still fresh and true, and reading them I am still conscious of the skillful storytelling I’m honored to read and the fact that the storytellers have created a world where their presence is invisible. They’ve created a world that could be our own.

Most of the stories are set in climes with which we are familiar. They range from Africa itself to the Carribean to New York City, from the slave ships on the Atlantic to the deep South to cross-country, from the big city to the English countryside a hundred years ago. There are zombies, but the zombies aren't at all the shambling heartless zombies popular culture is aware of. There are tricks, and danger, conflicts of the mind and conflicts of the heart. The stories range from chilling to drop-your-pants hilarious, serious and thought-provoking to flat-out haunting. Sometimes they’re a combination of all four.

Mojo: Conjure Stories is one of those books that belongs on the bookshelf, right next to the classics and all your favorite anthologies.

This is, for the slow folks, a glowing review.

Nalo Hopkinson, the author of "Brown Girl in the Ring," is the editor — and she’s done a fantastic job. Mojo is an anthology with no weak links. There are some well-known names (Neil Gaiman, Gregory Frost, Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due) contained within, and there are some names you may not have heard of before — but will almost certainly hear from again. The book is accessible to those who know nothing about the culture (for example, this reviewer). For those who still aren't sure, here are a few of the stories (chosen by randomly opening the book).

With a title like "Daddy Mention and the Monday Skull," it seems like Daddy Mention'd be displeased if his story didn't at least get a greater mention than any of the others. Out of all the tales in Mojo: Conjure Stories, Andy Duncan's "Daddy Mention" is my favorite. It's funny. It's tricky. Did I mention funny? This is one of the few short stories that surprised laughs out of me, even when I should have known better. Did I mention tricky? Because even though I should have known better, I didn't.

The characters are unforgettable: Daddy Mention, Uncle Monday. The tale kicks off when Daddy Mention — occupant of Cell A "for obvious reasons" — hears the Prison Airs singing on the radio the guards are listening to, and then listens to the guards talk about the band. Apparently, the Prison Airs are a quartet of black men from jail who get to go out and sing. The governor even said they should all be pardoned. Daddy Mention, well he automatically starts brewing a plan: he'll sing his way out of jail. Only one hitch: he sings so badly that when he was seven the church mothers came to his house and told his mother that it'd be doing the Lord a favor if they took him out of choir. This doesn't phase Daddy Mention too badly. He just conjures some help from the dangerous, hungry crocodile-like Uncle Monday....

"Fate," by Jenise Aminoff, begins when Cass holds her son for the first time and has a premonition — she sees that her son's life won't be a long life, that she holds him only to let him go. She names him Eshu, after the Trickster god of myth. Her husband, Hank, laughs at her when she holds their son tightly; says she'll give their boy a complex. Then one day Eshu almost falls from a ledge ten feet high, but Cass cheats fate and saves him — so she thinks. "Fate" is a brutally sad story about fate, about how you don't always know your neighbors, about duppies (the spirits of people who have died), and about letting go.

Barbara Hambly's "The Horsemen and the Morning Star" is set on the Bellebleu Plantation and it begins in a good year. So good, in fact, that Master Henri goes down to New Orleans and meets Amalie Deschamps, an heiress he wants to marry. Then Leonidas Houbigant, an old school friend of Master Henri's, comes to stay, and a shadow is cast across the plantation. Something evil is in that house. The slaves know it. The valet hears Henri and Leonidas conjuring Asmodeus and Beelzebub, Lucifer, the son of the Morning Star. Strange things happen: chalk symbols on floorboards and blood on the floor, a missing black chicken, then a missing baby. Of course, things come to a head — and the spirits which came over with the African slaves answer a call for help.

Last, but not least, Marcia Douglas' "Notes from a Writer's Book of Cures and Spells" is like a puzzle box. You follow the words into the story and you don't know where you're going and you don't know how to get back. "You have heard stories of slaves in flight, flying back to Africa, but this is not that story. You have heard stories of women walking out into the ocean, drowning themselves, but this is not that story. In this story, you must follow Mafunda's heels until the river falls into the waiting sea." The only thing which keeps you turning the pages is the certain knowledge that there will be an end, and that you, yourself, are privately invested in the outcome — in conjuring Mafunda. The story reads like "notes from a writer's book of cures and spells". By the end, you're left wondering if you hadn't written it yourself in another life, and you want to know what happens after.

By now the cynic probably wants to know what Mojo's flaws are. I'd like to know, too. The only potential flaw I can see is the stories vary in voice so dramatically, at times, that it can be a jolt to be torn from one to another if you’re reading more then one at the same time.

I say potential flaw because it wasn't really a big problem for me — but there had to be some flaw, somewhere. Nothing is perfect. Not even this anthology, right?

Right?

[Jessica Paige]

Visit Nalo Hopkinson’s Web site for more information.