James P. Blaylock, Thirteen Phantasms (Edgewood Press, 2000)  


In this workaday world, we often file everyday events into a folder labeled "minutiae," stick it in the back of our mind's drawer, and close the cabinet without having read the fine print. Or, for that matter, without even glancing at the larger picture.

Each day becomes a carbon copy of the last, shuffling itself off into the endless paperwork of our mind, which quickly becomes overwhelmed with all the sameness: Get up, feed the cats/dogs/fish/spouse/kids, do chores, go to work, go home, eat, watch TV, feed the cats/dogs/fish/spouse/kids, go to bed. If we want to recall a particular event from a particular day, our mind ends up comparing details until something stands out, viewing the pictures like one of those comic strips that asks you to "find 10 differences in these frames."

We leave little or no room for the fantastic, closing ourselves off from the wonders that the seemingly mundane may hold. Don't believe me? When was the last time you wondered at the size of a garden-grown tomato? Marveled over the metamorphosis of a moth? Gone in an old curiosity shop or aquarium supply store just to see what it had to sell?

Happily, James Blaylock hasn't let the world speed by. He looks at every detail, every nuance, and finds the marvelous in the mundane, the extra in the ordinary.

And he writes about all of it in Thirteen Phantasms.

Blaylock, who's been lauded with the World Fantasy Award and the Philip K. Dick Award, is most often billed as a fantasy writer. But don't tie him to the genre. Most of the works in this 256-page collection of 16 short stories aren't exactly of the sword-n-sorcery ilk, some having more in common with the works of O. Henry, others with H.G. Wells.

Take a look at "Doughnuts," for example. No, really ... go get yourself a mixed dozen, then come back and finish this review. It's the best way to comprehend the next part.

Ready? Jelly-stuffed in hand?

In "Doughnuts," Blaylock's narrator pontificates on the glory of glazed and the fiscal logic of buying day-olds. And this simple pastry, this lump of dough fried in fat, becomes the pinnacle of selfishness and gluttony in a marriage wracked by suspicion and a lack of communication. Walt, the protagonist, is on a quest to rival a junkie's search for heroin. He and his wife bicker over supposed addictions -- hers is shoes -- and the defensiveness and self-doubt that result create a crisis as real as any affair would. It's a perfect illustration of how something inane can escalate into a firestorm. And it's a frank look at the misunderstandings that go hand-in-hand with marriage.

Perhaps my favorite story is "Paper Dragons," set in Blaylock's "Land of Dreams," from his novel of the same name. While a man named Filby is obsessed with creating a mechanical dragon, his neighbor witnesses something far more awe-inspiring than anything man-made: a lowly tomato worm's transfiguration into a magnificent moth. It's a lesson we all could take to heart in this technology-driven world of ours.

Tomatoes and tomato worms also play a big part in "The Better Boy," co-written with fantasy/sci-fi/horror writer Tim Powers. After two close calls with death and a lifetime of taking his loving, dedicated wife for granted, Bernard Wilkins realizes there's more to life than selfishly obsessing over perfect tomatoes and zany inventions.

Thirteen Phantasms is as good a read as it gets. Blaylock's short stories are pure literature, and filled with enough odd twists and turns to keep you turning the pages.

I have just one criticism for an otherwise fine read. It's a problem that keeps cropping up throughout this collection: typos. While I can understand a gaffe here and there, this book has one too many, and it detracts from the finished product. It's like a classic Mustang with a rebuilt engine and rust spots: it runs great, but it could sure use a paint job. Maybe in the next printing.

Still, that shouldn't keep you from getting your hands on Thirteen Phantasms. It's a classic in every sense of the word, and belongs on your bookshelf, sandwiched between works by W. W. Jacobs and Ernest Hemingway.

Blaylock, a prolific writer to say the least, has produced a number of books, including The Rainy Season (a review of which can be found here), Winter Tides, All the Bells on Earth, The Digging Leviathan, and Land of Dreams, and a whole lot more. They're well worth a look. For more information on Blaylock, visit this website.

[Patrick O'Donnell]