Tachyon Publications has a knack for putting out excellent collections of short stories—in fact, it seems to be their specialty. This week’s “flavor” is Patricia Mckillip’s Dreams of Distant Shores, an excellent anthology that spans modern fiction, slipstream, and urban fantasy.
Dreams of Distant Shores contains five short stories and two novellas, and while you should certainly read the whole collection, I’d like to focus on the novellas in this review.
The first, The Gorgon in the Cupboard, is emblematic of Mckillip’s strengths at imbuing characters with tremendous reality and honesty. The cast is made up of artists and their many models and muses, principal among them a painter pining for another painter’s wife, and a peasant who has undergone the deepest of personal tragedies—the loss of a child.
Oh, and there’s a talking painting of Medusa, too.
The flow of The Gorgon in the Cupboard is fantastic. It maintains many threads effortlessly, while transmitting real emotion through believable characters using surreal moments and wavering sanity. The Gorgon in question, the Medusa on the protagonist’s painting, is nothing more than a par of eyes and a mouth, imbued with life—whether as a figment of his imagination or by some magical intervention—and a keen and biting wit that she uses to motivate him to look in different places for the muse he seeks.
The way McKillip uses painting, color, and the struggle to express the moving, sometimes ephemeral nature of the subject, is phenomenal. It puts you right there with the artists as they paint and cavort around town and the countryside. The introduction of Jo, the muse, is done in heartbreaking contrast—a rainy night finds her huddled with vagrants under the awning of a butcher’s shop, where she reminisces about the death of her infant child and aged mother. All she has to remember them by is her scarf. Once, she had been a model for the protagonist, but the manner of her initial departure was such that she wouldn’t dare return to his studio.
Things twist and turn, the Gorgon whispering encouragements and distractions into the painter’s unwilling ear, and the plot resolves nicely. All told, it’s a fabulous story.
But the story that shines brightest in the anthology is, without a doubt, Something Rich and Strange. Here, McKillip enters a Haruki Murakami-esque state, building a world and a “normal” life for her characters, then blurring the edges of reality slowly, until you’re plunged alongside the characters into the surreal and mythological. It’s a magnificent story, truly wonderful, and even if the rest of the stories were mediocre—they aren’t, the whole anthology is great—this story would be well worth picking up the whole book for.
Something Rich and Strange takes its name and much of its symbolism from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, dealing with sea-gods, temptation, betrayal, love, trust, and bravery. It’s a whirlwind story that buffeted me like a hurricane. The transition into surreality was so smoothly done that I looked at the world around me, confused and unsure of whether I, too, was falling into some kind of fey. Something Rich and Strange is brilliant. That’s the long and the short of it.