Well there’s no way around it. And it’s not like I wasn’t tipped off about this via the exquisite Ben Rodriguez cover depicting a hot adventure-girl in a fungus-filled room with a stock standard Lovcraftian horror tentacle waving at her– and gosh, her torch. What is up with that torch made out of a human skeleton?!
And that cover is so spot on, it cogently sums up what reading this story is like in a nutshell. First off, I’m afraid to read this after coming down from the high of reading Brian K. Lowe’s opening story. But mainly, I have been absolutely exhausted by this action girl thing for years now. I wouldn’t have believed it could get any worse, but it did. And now… here I am face to face with it again in the one place I had counted on as being a refuge from the endless tedium of Netflix and blockbuster movies. NNNNNNOOOOOOOO!!!!
But it really isn’t as bad as all that. And the reason for that is… like I said… right there on the cover. Notice the difference between Ben’s drawing and the typical fantasy and science fiction cover you see at the local Big Box store. The action girl is doing something in the context of a fully realized setting and situation. She’s not just standing around, looking cool with a backdrop of swirling impressionistic colors behind her. Of course, Ben’s cover goes even beyond that. You don’t even see this character face-on! The perspective is from over her shoulder as if you are right there having the adventure right along with her. She’s the point man in some sort of freaky fantasy Vietnam, not some actress on stage with the spotlight squarely on her as she takes a deep breath in order to sing a little ditty about her tragic backstory.
Yes, Louise Sorensen’s story plays out exactly as advertised. It is all action. It’s all adventure. The only time the action even comes close to pausing is when she takes a moment to describe something astonishingly weird or offbeat. Actually… her description is so terse, I end up wishing she’d indulge in what the hoity toity set derides as “purple prose” nowadays. For instance, the protagonist finds herself in “a room filled with shelves of leather-bound books, and odd contraptions and instruments.” Jack Vance would have taken that as an opportunity to drop an engrossing run-on sentence that sprawls for a page and half!
I’m so relieved by what’s not here, it’s easy to overlook this minor shortcoming. There’s no sketchy loser begging the protagonist for a scrap attention. No tag-along quasi-hero there for the express purpose of allowing the heroine to be able to continually one-up him. There’s no extremely well off meany-pants superman/sadist/vampire hunk smacking her around. There are no heart-rending scenes establishing how awful bulimia or abortion or wage discrimination or body image issues are. There’s no scene where we get graphic information of how she was raped as a teenager. There’s no scene where it’s established just how much damage this girl’s father did to her by being a selfish douchebag. She doesn’t even kick anybody in the nuts for comic relief! And she doesn’t hotwire the Millenium Falcon.
That said, this is still a straight ahead action girl story in keeping with today’s cultural norms. It grates a little that she somehow manages to behave like Hellboy when she doesn’t have any of his supernatural abilities or resiliency. It’s almost cartoonish how she manages to go toe to toe with a Lovecraftian menace in scene after scene. It really is like an episode of Roadrunner and Coyote at times!
The vast majority of readers will not care, though. People wonder where science fiction and fantasy stories along the same lines as what you’d imagine from looking at covers of old issues of Heavy Metal and really… this is basically it. This tale would have fit right in adapted as part of the animated film of that name. Andrew J. Offutt would have been thrilled to run this as a part of his Swords Against Darkness anthology in the late seventies.
But how’s it stack up with the old stuff…? Well no, it doesn’t even try to reach for the sort of eucatastrophe that Tolkien took for granted as being integral to fairy stories. (It’s just a hair too snarky for that.) It lacks the heightened contrast between masculine and feminine that A. Merritt thought was de rigueur. The old masters took for granted that a protagonist would have to be fairly mundane and normal in order to justify the sort of full-throated description a comprehensible journey into strangeness and the weird, sure.
On the other hand… I think this is punchier and crisper than the bulk of seventies era heroic fantasy. The clarity, density, and outright generosity of this story when it comes to the mix of adventure and strangeness on display here would have caused a stir back when Dungeons & Dragons was brand new and just beginning to find its feet. It’s a cut above much of the fiction that was published in The Dragon. And that awful fungus that the heroine is couped up with…? It would be a perfect fit for the old school analog special effects of an old Ridley Scott film.
This simply isn’t the big letdown that I feared it would be. The fact that a “girl power” story could even be executed without all the downsides that typically go along with them is certainly news to me. But the fact that contemporary authors are even capable of riffing on a “Robert E. Howard does Mythos” type theme even half this well is more impressive– and in a semi-pro ‘zine no less!