Man, I love the title on this one. The Dreaming Wounds. Get inside your Thrilling Wonder Astounding Weirdness place like you would for a late night D&D session and you could really go places with this!
No really, it evokes a crazy mashup of Lovecraft’s dreamlands and Moorcock’s Elric. See, there’s this ancient relic. Your character can stab himself with it to make this awful mouth on his body. (Permanent loss of hit points!) The mouth starts babbling hints about where the spirit world bumps up against the prime material plane. (Adventure! Death! Treasure!) If you listen closely, you can pick out bits and pieces of forgotten lore that can cut costs spell research and magic in half. This comes with a price: on a failed saving throw against petrification, the mage permanently loses a point of wisdom. You can imagine a high level mage opening up several wounds in his lust for power… and then binding them closed in order to shut them up. But then… he wakes up in the middle of the night sometimes and they’re all free, babbling their dream talk. He fails another saving throw and his descent into insanity quickens apace!
But since around 1980 or so, this is not what fantasy is. It’s not how it’s done. I know it because I had a hunger for the weird, the uncanny, the horrific and I just could not find it. But the old EC comics were long gone when I was a kid and the closest thing I could find was– I kid you not– Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness from Palladium games. That’s how bad it was. (Not that TMNTaOS was bad… it’s just no where near as weird as Weird Tales.)
Well there’s a lot of stuff playing into this and it was a long time coming which you can see by referring back to Jack Williamson’s lament as a English professor in the sixties. When that generation came onto the scene as full fledged authors, they took all kinds of limiting presuppositions along with them. And not just in technical things like the ability to work a plot or the capacity to create likable characters. Though admittedly, there is very little plot to be had and no genuinely likable characters once a post-Christian and nihilistic world view is taken for granted.
But beyond that there is this idea that comes in that for fantasy to be good, for fantasy to be “real”… it has to be anchored in the banal. This is the root cause of why short fantasy by conventionally trained writers has been flat out godawful for decades.
And that brings us to Anya Ow’s story here. Now… it is competently written, no doubt. But the problem with it simply isn’t technical. It’s spiritual. Oh, something uncanny is going on. Folklore is more relevant to its resolution than science. And there is an actual cosmology here. This gives Anya an edge over the bulk of her peers even as it disqualifies her work from being the sort of tacky magical realism that is what you have to do this days to merit awards and critical acclaim.
But notice how the tale starts with something a little weird. And then it slowly builds into something you might think is actually weird. And then it climaxes with an encounter with something that is… well… mildly weird. Sandwiched in between those three beats are two incredibly vivid scenes of stultifying banality. I’m talking about the scene with the unmarried hippies smoking pot with the protagonist and the awkward conversation with the neighbor that’s walking his dog.
Seriously, why would anyone write a fantasy story this way? Margaret St. Clair included a lot of hippie stuff in her work in the sixties. But it served an entirely different function within the story. Her scenes were integrated into the tale and in service of the tale. There is a difference. St. Clair was in conversation with the pulp masters, so she could avail herself of a mode of writing that is flat out unimaginable to contemporary writers today.
What’s the secret?
All the writers workshops and author panels of today are incapable of directing people towards this sort of common sense approach to fantasy. No, it’s more like there is a contempt for the genre altogether and they are eaten up with explaining to people ways of writing fantasy without actually writing any fantasy! They actively point people away from the sort of things that even the lowliest pulp author could take for granted back in the day.
It’s the difference between writing to be taken seriously by people that hate fantasy and writing for people that actually want to read it. If you want to be writing anything good, you’re going to have to regress harder.
Note: This is the first story to show up in my mailbox as a result of my backing the Lyonesse project. This is a totally worthy endeavor that’s run by awesome people and you definitely want to check it out!