Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Good Short Fiction: 2 tales from The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories

Collection: The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories
Editor: Tom Shippey

Title: Lila the Werewolf
Author: Peter S. Beagle

Farrell, a musician living in NYC, keeps falling for women who have serious issues. His latest live-in girlfriend, Lila, is a werewolf, as he discovers after she moves in with him. At one point in the story he explains to his horrified best friend why he's still with her:
"The thing is, it's still only Lila, not Lon Chaney or somebody... she's got her guitar lesson one night a week, and her pottery class one night, and she cooks eggplant maybe twice a week. She calls her mother every Friday night, and one night a month she turns into a wolf. You see what I'm getting at? It's still Lila, whatever she does, and I just can't get terribly shook about it. A little bit, sure, because what the hell. But I don't know."

Farrell is a laidback guy who seems at ease in the presence of other people's weirdness, but his tolerance is put to the test in the story's climactic scene, where Lila (in werewolf form) goes into heat and starts roaming the city pursued by packs of male dogs. Farrell follows her to try to prevent any unfortunate liaisons, in a scene that's both hilarious and surreal. He's accompanied by Lila's formidable mother, who keeps popping in and out of taxi cabs, and he's trailed by his building's superintendent, who hopes to put an end to Lila once and for all. As for Lila herself, she's initially excited by the presence of her canine suitors, but by the end of the night her feelings turn from lust to bloodlust, and unfortunately that's when the little coddled lapdogs venture out to have their chance with her:
They were small, spoiled beasts, most of them, overweight and shortwinded, and many were not young. Their owners cried unmanly pet names after them, but they waddled gallantly towards their deaths, barking promises far bigger than themselves, and none of them looked back.

Owners of small dogs will not like what happens next. But even if lapdog carnage isn't your cup of tea, there's a lot to enjoy in this story, not least the author's knack for odd funny descriptions; for instance, this is what we're told about the superintendent of Farrell's apartment building: "He smelled of black friction tape and stale water" and "He roamed in the basement all day, banging on pipes and taking the elevator apart."


Title: The Silken-Swift
Author: Theodore Sturgeon

Rita is cruel and stunning; she'll toy with men, humiliate them, and dance beyond the reach of their touch or their vengeance. Barbara is "a quiet girl whose beauty was so very contained that none of it showed"; no one notices her, but she is never alone:
... Barbara's life was very full, for she was born to receive. Others are born wishing to receive, so they wear bright masks and make attractive sounds like cicadas and operettas, so others will be forced, one way or another, to give to them. But Barbara's receptors were wide open, and always had been, so that she needed no substitute for sunlight through a tulip petal, or the sound of morning-glories climbing, or the tangy sweet smell of formic acid which is the only death cry possible to an ant, or any other of the thousand things overlooked by folk who can only wish to receive.

Del is the man who meets with both women during a night where he's preyed on and where, in a haze of anger and drink, he acts as a predator. After a certain point his perceptions are false. But matters are cleared up in the bogs, where "there was a pool of purest water, shaded by willows and wide-wondering aspens, cupped by banks of a moss most marvellously blue." The Silken-Swift, written in evocative language, addresses the concept of purity and how it's often equated with virginity. Blindness is also an important theme in this story: blindness to truth, character, and genuine beauty.

Of everyone in the story Barbara is in many ways the strongest. She isn't cruel or vengeful; she has no part in the destructive power plays that diminish the other characters, whose actions corrupt the world around them. This is why she lives on the margins of society, ignored by everyone; she offers no attraction to blinded people.

For Barbara the idea of love is receiving what the world offers (instead of seizing and conquering). Sometimes the offering is painful in the extreme. What the world offers can also be beautiful beyond measure. But can a place "without hardness or hate," as the pool in the bog is described, survive the intrusion of people?


This post has been linked to at Short Stories on Wednesday #13 over at the Breadcrumb Reads blog.