Brian M. Thomsen, editor, A Yuletide Universe (Warner Books/Tekno Books, 2003)

Who says Santa Claus has to be a jolly fat man? Who says he's universally welcomed and loved? What if....

Those two words, placed in the hands of authors ranging from Neil Gaiman to Harlan Ellison, have spun out into sixteen fantastic (the cover calls them "fantastical," and that certainly applies too) stories. Not knowing what authors were involved when I asked for this book, I was, quite honestly, expecting to have to trudge through a sentimental, moralistic collection of kitsch. At my first sight of the intricately detailed cover, I dared to hope that I was in for a treat. Flipping the book over, the authors listed on the back raised my hopes to a certainty and merited a closer study of the cover to prepare myself for what lay within.

The cover shows Santa pulling a toy spaceship from a sack full of gifts while three figures — a jester, a robot, and a wizard — peek around the corner. Three stockings, clearly belonging to each of the watchers, are hung by the fire. Continuing this theme, sun and planet ornaments decorate the tree in the background, and over the fireplace a large, ornately framed mirror displays the title and editor's name against a field of stars. It's a great cover, and I enjoyed looking at it for quite some time, tracking the details and connections. Unfortunately, although I searched carefully throughout the credits in the front and back of the book, I found no mention of who the artist was; a shame, because whoever crafted this cover deserves credit. (Fern Cutler de Vicq is given credit for the book design, which may include the cover, but that isn't specifically stated.)

Finally, I couldn't take it any longer, and opened the book to read. Several hours later, I discovered I was reading in bed, with no clear memory of how I got there. From my first laugh at the page-long story by Neil Gaiman ("Nicholas Was. . ." ), I was absolutely enchanted by this collection. William Gibson follows hard on Gaiman's heels with a longer but equally funny story ("Cyber-Claus") about a possible futuristic Santa encounter at a house whose owner is so paranoid (and rich) he has sensors on the roof. Richard Christian Matheson, an author I had never heard of before this, caught my attention with "Holiday," a story that frees Santa from the tiresome always-jolly image and which put Mr. Matheson's name on my short "look for" list.

I'd already read "Nackles" by Donald E. Westlake some years ago in another collection, but was delighted to have the chance to read it again on pages that aren't yellowed with age (it was originally published in 1964). I consider this story about the creation of Nackles the anti-Santa a classic, as I generally remember it around this time of year and have even gone so far as to hunt down that aged original copy to re-read it. Seeing it republished in this collection was deeply satisfying for me.

Reality bent at a new angle as I started "Santa Claus vs. S.P.I.D.E.R." by Harlan Ellison. What if the whole North Pole thing was an elaborate cover story for a master spy? Mr. Ellison takes that question into a mostly amusing tale with a few muddy spots I had to struggle to get past. This is one of only two stories in the collection I was ambivalent about, but I confess Harlan Ellison has never been one of my favorite authors. Fans of his may well like this tale.

"O Come Little Children," by Chet Williamson, another author new to me, winds a story about a farmer's market Santa Claus into an unexpected ending. It's the closest thing in this collection to a sentimental Christmas story, but it's saved from potential blandness by Mr. Williamson's sharp eye for detail and emotion.

Brian Thomsen (the editor) puts Kris Kringle on the psychiatrist's couch in "It's a Wonderful Miracle on 34th Street's Christmas Carol," a look at where the growing commercial spirit of Christmas could take us. It's a nice twist on the "careful what you ask for, you might get it" theme.

Clive Barker yanks us back into the world of the seriously supernatural with "The Yattering and Jack," a terrific story about a demon's dilemma that brings C.S. Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters" (a series of letters from a senior demon to his nephew, advising him how best to succeed in tempting a man into sin) to mind.

Michael Bishop's "Icicle Music" is the darkest look at Christmas in this collection, weaving reality and surreality together in an icy net. It's far from sentimental, dealing with the despair of a desperately poor childhood and an unspecified terminal illness as an adult (the implication is AIDS), but it is a good ghost-story.

"Miracle," by Connie Willis, is a humorous battle between Lauren, a lonely young woman and an aggravating Spirit of Christmas Present - "You know," he says, "Barbie dolls, ugly ties, cheese logs, the stuff people give you for Christmas" — who claims to have been sent by Lauren's sister to give Lauren "her heart's desire." It's a well-timed laugh after the depressing end to the previous story — I loved the spirit's transformation of Lauren's Christmas party dress to a Yanomamo Indian creation of feathers and plant parts.

After that light-hearted story, it's back to a downward swing with "A Foreigner's Christmas in China," a hard look at just what the holiday is like for an American in Shijiazhuang, put into perspective by a Christmas Spirit that Charles Dickens would envy for its effectiveness. "Foreigner" was the second story I wasn't totally enchanted with, perhaps because it's set in a land so alien to me; I had to read it twice to understand what it was about.

Speaking of Dickens, "Household Words; Or, The Powers-That-Be" by Howard Waldrop, takes the reader into an "alternate Dickensian England" that made me itch to read the original story again, just to refresh my memory on what really happened. There's also an amusing Afterword about the history behind "Household Words" and how it killed "Amazing Stories" science fiction magazine.

About this time I slowed down enough to realize that the book is divided into sections: "Santa Shorts," "Santa Substitutes," "Variations on the Holiday Theme," and "Classic Tales of Christmas Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Whimsy." This is also when I realized I'd somehow read my way into bed. I looked at the clock, debated briefly, and gave in.

Opening the book again, I headed into the "Classic" section, which opens with a story by L. Frank Baum ("A Kidnapped Santa Claus," first published in 1904) that could have been the inspiration for "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" (Dr. Seuss, 1957), except that in this story it's not the gifts that are stolen but Santa himself. Reality returns with "How Santa Claus Came to Simpson's Bar" by Bret Harte, an engaging and mildly sentimental story about the good that can be found in even the roughest of men. Like "O Come Little Children," this story is saved from mawkishness by a sideways slant that kept a smile on my face throughout.

Anne McCaffrey fulfilled my high expectations of her work with "A Proper Santa Claus," a story about a young boy who loves to draw and can make his creations come alive — something I always wished I could do as a child! It's a light touch on a wild theme and I consider it one of the best stories in the collection.

And as a final, closing tale, "The Plot Against Santa Claus" by James Powell is another amusing mixture of fantasy and the "real world," from the viewpoint of "Rory Bigtoes, Santa's Security Chief." Not everyone loves Santa at the North Pole, especially when the discussion turns to whether toys should be handmade or mass-produced to keep up with the competition at ACME Toys. So who would be mad enough to kill Santa over it? Read the story and find out.

There's an Editor's Note at the end, with a touching note about the editor's father, and a comprehensive "About the Contributors" listing which mentions, among other things, that Mr. Matheson has written a number of "short stories in the fields of crime and dark suspense," as well as television and movie scripts. Sounds like I should have known his name ... but I suppose nobody can look in all directions at once. Far from the usual bland, boring recital of credits, the "About" pages are almost as lively as the rest of the book and are worth reading, out of respect for the talent displayed in the stories if nothing else.

This was a delightful, surprising collection that has earned a place on my shelf and may well wind up being read aloud to the kids in years to come. I'd strongly recommend this book to just about anyone; a rare decision given my diverse friends and family.

[Leona Wisoker]

Here's an interesting page on Richard Matheson, including a picture
and a free text download of Reality
(a presentation of Mr. Matheson's "basic observations on the metaphysical realities of life")