Review: Thirteen Phantasms

Review by Amy Harlib

James P. Blaylock. Thirteen Phantasms and Other Stories Ace Books, NY, April 2003 ISBN#: 0-441-01014-8.

California writer of fantastic fiction James P. Blaylock, though not prolific in the shorter form, has produced award-winners happily included among the 16 stories (two co-authored with Tim Powers), all previously published (but many hard to find), collected together in the book Thirteen Phantasms. This gathering begins with an introduction titled “Five Hundred Dollars” about how Californian local color and eccentricities, folklore, and odd junk shops combined with Blaylock’s own personal interests in aquariums and exotica to influence his writing. Following this interesting beginning, the collection demonstrates the author’s superlative gift for transforming the autobiographical and the mundane into numinous and wondrous fictions.

Thirteen Phantasms, the World Fantasy Award-winning title story, about a man who returns (thanks to some mysterious process), to the “Golden Age” of science fiction by responding to an ad in an old issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, delights. So, too, does the other World Fantasy Award recipient, “Paper Dragons”, which sympathetically depicts how one man’s obsession with the creation of a mechanical/clockwork dragon gradually destroys him. Both of these stories – along with “Red Planet”, “Bugs”, “The Better Boy” (with Powers), “The Light of Fading Neon”, “The Old Curiosity Shop”, “Doughnuts”, “We Traverse Afar” (also with Powers), “The Shadow on the Doorstep”, “Myron Chester and the Toads”, and “Unidentified Flying Objects” – all exemplify Blaylock’s magic-surrealism style.

Steeped in Californian, small-town suburban or coastal atmosphere, the author’s fully-dimensional, eccentric characters inhabit narratives in which intricate, quotidian details and objects become filled with a magic and weirdness inextricably connected to the people who interact with them. Very often Blaylock uses first-person narrative voices to effectively communicate the bewilderment, curiosity, wonderment, elation, or even bemused acceptance the characters feel while they experience some odd or bizarre episode in their lives.

These interesting qualities pertain equally to the remaining four stories. One, “Nets of Silver and Gold”, concerns a California couple vacationing in Normandy who discover (so the husband narrates) a small hotel with a room that features a keyhole which, when peered through, offers visions of scenes from other times and places at unpredictable intervals. The remaining three tales – “The Ape Box Affair”, “Two Views of a Cave Painting” and “The Idol’s Eye”, neo-Victorian “steampunk” fantasies related to Blaylock’s novel Homunculus and the sub-genre of Victorian “club” stories – record the adventures of a certain eccentric scientist/explorer Langdon St. Ives. They contain the most whimsy, overtly strange and uncanny elements, and humorous moments of all the stories in the collection, especially “The Idol’s Eye”, which explains the origin of St. Ives’ nemesis, the sinister hunchback Ignacio Narbondo.

Thirteen Phantasms, an extraordinary gathering of stories that reveals the enormous range that can be found in specific regional settings, exemplifies the magic that can be discovered in the large writ small – how a universe of wonder can be found just around the corner of our everyday world. Edgy yarns situated on that slipstream gap between mainstream literature and genre fiction, the contents of Thirteen Phantasms illuminate the strange and the magical that awaits on the boundaries of our vision for those readers willing to travel where Blaylock’s brilliant, poetic prose will take them.