Pros: Wonderful premise; some true winners!
Cons: Range of story quality, as is normal for anthologies
Rating: 4 out of 5
Review book courtesy of Penguin Group
Boondocks Fantasy, edited by Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg, is a collection of short stories set in a “rural fantasy” milieu. It’s very similar to the modern genre of urban fantasy, but set out in the boondocks, the middle of nowhere—farming communities; quiet getaways; hiking trails; small towns; snowy Sweden; deserted highways; and heat-baked stretches of desert. The tones of the stories range from quirky to whimsical, hilarious to somber, sad to frightening. While some of the stories didn’t wow me (not unusual in an anthology), there was only one I thought of as a real clunker, and there were some truly great and emotionally affecting stories.
Gene Wolfe’s The Giant seems to start out slow, with a man trying to find his way to a particular spot in the rural woods. It isn’t long, however, until things grow strange. And I can’t bring myself to give any of this lovely story away, as it starts off the book with a breath-taking bang.
Chris Pierson’s Lake People is a tale of a woman obsessed with protecting herself from some unseen force. She crafts amazingly detailed elves and surrounds her house with them, all facing the lake. Her children of course believe she’s going off the deep end, and her daughter (and her daughter’s girlfriend) come to visit in order to help set things to right. Of course, you just know they’ll end up finding out what the mother is afraid of, and this is one tale that left me in tears by the end.
Mickey Zucker Reichert’s Cat People crosses a modern-day farming couple with old tales of fey folk. When the farmer risks his own life to save a momma cat and her kittens, he and his wife find their lives unexpectedly take a turn for the better. But how can he thank his helpers without risking danger from the notoriously fickle folk?
Steven Savile’s The Horned Man is so magical that it made my hair stand on end. A man and his wife are making their way through a forest in Sweden during a snowstorm when they hit a moose, incapacitating the car. Events are set in motion that tear the two apart, altering them both forever. I feel that I can’t do justice to this one, so I’ll have to let you read it yourself.
Patrick McGilligan’s The Feud is a highly unusual rural take on the undead that gives us just a glimpse into a very weird and wacky world hiding just out of sight of the city.
Elizabeth A. Vaughn’s The Taste of Strawberry Jam follows a handful of young women, purse-snatchers and wanna-be gang members. They take an ill-advised turn off of a highway and end up in a very unusual small town, where they try to snatch the wrong woman’s purse—and discover that actions can have very high consequences. I particularly enjoyed this one for a couple of the characterizations—the youngest girl (the main character) and the town’s sheriff.
Anita Ensal’s Being Neighborly is another tale I find it hard to describe; the amazing characterization is nine-tenths of the tale. A young couple has run into trouble in their new suburban home, and Big Mams comes to give them a hand. The neighbors are more than a little odd, and it’s going to take all of Big Mams’s wit and wisdom to save the neighborhood.
Anton Strout’s Marfa is a chilling look at the reality that can hide behind small-town legends. A young man sets out on a night drive and comes face-to-face with a horror he doesn’t believe in, and is forced to realize that his superstitious mother might not be so silly after all.
Brian A. Hopkins’s Black Rider takes the reader into the depths of the blackest grief and despair—and out the other side. This is another tale I’d have trouble doing justice to, and another that brought me to tears.
Donald J. Bingle’s Rural Route is probably the best peek I’ve seen into the stereotypical tales of alien-induced cattle mutilation, and where they could really lead.
Timothy Zahn’s Protection is an unusual tale involving a sleepy commmunity, a were-creature, a mermaid, and a would-be protection racket. It’s a crime story with paranormal trappings, and it’s fun to see how the characters solve their problems.
Raymond Benson’s The Devil is a Gentleman is a rural detective story in which the detective, Mr. Bubb, works for some very powerful and unusual employers. I enjoyed this tale for its look at an unusual setup, but it’s a little predictable and simple, and there’s a lack of character depth.
D.L. Stever’s The Storyteller seems like a relatively simple ghost tale, but it has some enjoyable layers to it.
C.J. Henderson’s Aware follows a group of reality-show producers in their hunt for UFOs. When they finally find them, however, the aliens turn out to be not at all as expected. And as for what they want, well, that’s the toughest part of all. My favorite part of this one was watching the tricks the TV folk used to get people to open up to them and agree to what they wanted.
Kelly Swails’s Sully’s Solution features a reclusive man who might or might not be running a drug lab, and a sheriff with cancer who’s forced to investigate him. It’s a simple but enjoyable tale.
Linda P. Baker’s Fairies Weep Not is a lovely tale of a young woman who visits her grandparents, only to find that the family home is not at all what it used to be. When she discovers the source of that change, she’s forced to trust in her dreams for a solution…
Dylan Birtolo’s Eternal Vigilance has a nice setup (a wizard lives in the middle of nowhere, watching over a bound demon, and ends up befriending a local girl). The magic system, however, seems pretty arbitrary, which makes the action feel meaningless. You can’t try to imagine what will happen next, and combat-ending large magics feel rather like a deus ex machina.
Vicki Johnson-Stegers’s Trophy Wife is my least-favorite tale in this book. It starts off with a warm sense of humor, but ends up taking a sudden left turn straight into annoying stereotypes, all in the service of ending the story with an unsatisfying pun.
John Lambshead’s Siren’s Tears is set in a rather fascinating remote village, but I found the characters too annoying to enjoy. A man decides to get away from it all, only to discover that the virtues of remote locations and their inhabitants are highly overstated.
As usual for an anthology, you’ll like some stories better than others. I absolutely adore the unusual premise of this one, however, and think it has enough delightful stories to be well worth your time.