Jeffrey E. Barlough
Gresham & Doyle (387 pages, $14.95, October 2008)
Of all the books I’ve reviewed for Black Gate, the one that sticks in my head is Jeffrey Barlough’s Strange Cargo, which I reviewed way back in 2005 for BG #8. Grumpus that I am, of course I dinged it. I still stand by the review years later, though I feel some guilt about it too. Barlough is such a wonderful yet unappreciated fantasist that to judge him on that single novel is like measuring Hemingway by To Have or Have Not or Kerouac by The Subterraneans. Frankly, Strange Cargo isn’t even a bad book; it’s simply a novel where the author’s ambition exceeded the page count and so shortcuts were taken. Literary ambition is hardly a crime and Barlough is, nevertheless, a talent I invite everyone to sample.
With his first three books OOP, Barlough’s fifth, Anchorwick, makes a fine initiation for newcomers (younger versions of the protagonists from Barlough’s debut, Dark Sleeper, appear here in supporting roles). His alternate 20th century, called the Western Lights, has a sophisticated backstory that’s easier to link to than for me to explain, but I’ll try: in a world where the Ice Age never ended, a cataclysm has reduced humanity to a slip of English civilization along North America’s western coastline. It’s neither steampunk nor weird western; the technology is early 19th century. It’s kinda-sorta gaslamp fantasy, except there doesn’t seem to be any natural gas. Barlough’s creation is best described as a Victorian Dying Earth — gothic and claustrophobic yet confronted by its inhabitants with upper lips held stiff.
As the books are fantasy mysteries, the less said about their plots, the better. In Anchorwick, Eugene Stanley has come to the university at Salthead (a parallel Seattle? Vancouver?) to assist his professor uncle in preparing a book manuscript. One night, while working in a deserted turret room at the college — whose previous occupant, a colleague of the uncle, enigmatically vanished two years prior — Stanley is accosted by a phantasmal form. This ignites a definitive search for the missing don as Stanley and friends uncover lost civilizations, ancestral curses, whole companies of ghosts, monsters from Greek myth, and a few red herrings, all told in rich, dryly humorous style. It’s P.G. Wodehouse with woolly mammoths.
My greatest criticism of contemporary fantasy is that so many authors fail to push the boundaries. (This is a complaint I direct toward my own dabblings as well.) To read Fritz Leiber or Jack Vance is to drink optimism and wonder, to ambulate in worlds where alien sorcerers dwell in salt marshes and sinister pelgranes perch on flying beds. But often when I pick up a current mass-market paperback in the bookstore, I nearly fall asleep reading the back-cover copy. If you need examples of what I’m talking about, some lengthy discussions of certain popular authors have recently occurred here at Black Gate. “There’s no such thing as adventure. There’s no such thing as romance,” these modern fantasists seem to be saying, “There’s only trouble and desire.” Balderdash. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s get weird. Let’s push things. Tea and tweed, mastodons and mylodons mixed with ghosts and gorgons? Yes, please. Waitress, I’ll have what Jeffrey Barlough’s having. You should too.