Friday, 24 October 2014

Review: Fantastic Stories Presents: Fantasy Super Pack #1

Fantastic Stories Presents: Fantasy Super Pack #1
Fantastic Stories Presents: Fantasy Super Pack #1 by Robert E. Howard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This enormous collection of 34 stories presumably showcases the taste of the editor of Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, a relatively new prozine. As I'm interested in submitting to the magazine, I picked it up, and thoroughly enjoyed most of the stories, none of which I remembered reading before, though I'd heard of several of them.

I like stories that have a narrative arc, that build tension and then resolve it at the end, more than the currently-fashionable type of story that just stops at a thematic moment (or, I often suspect, when the author runs out of ideas). Based on this collection, this editor also likes the narrative-arc kind of story. Some of the stories had fairly predictable endings, I found, one or two fluffed about for a while before getting to the ending, and there were comparitively few twists (though there were a couple), but usually the tension was well maintained and satisfactorily resolved.

The editor is also clearly fond of the old Weird Tales style, and the Cthulhu Mythos in particular. This may account for the appearance of what I consider the one bad story in the bunch, Colleen Douglas's "Beyond Kadath", an almost plotless piece of amateurish Lovecraft fanfiction, rife with comma-splices.

The editor, in fact, is clearly better at picking good stories than at copy editing. Some of the stories have obviously been set from old printed books by optical character recognition, because they have the characteristic errors that that process produces, sitting there uncaught. There are, in several stories, missing or misplaced quotation marks. There are missing words, homonym errors (discrete/discreet, illusive/elusive, chords/cords, wretched/retched), and so forth. It's not in every story - most of the writers are good enough not to make the mistakes, but when they make them, or the OCR process makes them, the editor misses them, at least some of the time.

Leaving those cavils aside, especially for the price this is an excellent anthology, almost a quarter of a million words and, in my opinion, only one really bad story in the bunch.

This isn't just a fantasy collection. There are science fiction stories, and, as I mentioned, horror of the Weird Tales kind, mostly ghost stories and Mythos. There's sword and sorcery (Robert E. Howard's "Red Nails", for example, a Conan story with the trademark adolescent wish-fulfilment of the all-powerful, muscular barbarian picking up busty women, but the man could certainly write action). There's humour. Several of the stories involve time travel, while others deal in one way or another with the Fae, and might be called urban fantasy. There are a couple of post-apocalyptics, some of what I call "fantastica" (more or less surreal stories where the magic isn't rational), even a couple where the fantastical element is arguably in the mind of the viewpoint character. These disparate elements form a rich gumbo in which no two consecutive stories are alike. The more so since older stories are intermingled with more recent ones (in strict alternation, at first, though that pattern later breaks down); the most common decades represented are the 1950s, the 1930s, the 1990s and the 2000s, but every decade since 1910, except for the 1970s and 1980s, has at least one story. There's one original story in the volume, the rest are reprints. There's a mix, too, of famous writers like James Blish, Frederik Pohl, Philip K. Dick, Fritz Leiber, Stanley Weinbaum, Clifford Simak, Philip Jose Farmer, August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, Lester Del Rey and, of course, H.P. Lovecraft, alongside writers I hadn't heard of, but whose stories mostly stood up to the high company they kept.

Older stories, of course, tend to be about straight white men, so it's not a big surprise to find a lot of those. Some of the newer stories feature more women or non-white characters, but I didn't spot any gay characters, if that's something you look for in your stories.

Inevitably, the older stories in particular sometimes fall into classic trope patterns: the deal with the devil that goes wrong ("No Strings Attached"), the equivalent of the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's court ("A Knyght Ther Was"), comic trouble with fantasy critters ("Pest Control"). The authors usually do something interesting and different with the trope, though, and in a few cases I suspect that the trope became popular originally because of the story represented here, such as "Worlds of If" (1935), an alternate-worlds tale by Stanley Weinbaum.

Overall, a varied and enjoyable collection, which makes me want to subscribe to Fantastic Stories of the Imagination. I suspect that's part of the point; if so, mission accomplished.

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