4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Howard Waldrop is some kind of wizard, a master at mining the past for story nuggets that he transmutes into storyteller's gold. "Horse of a Different Color" is a phrase referring to something different than what is originally expected, and that is an entirely appropriate description of what this book delivers. Waldrop's stories, though often brimming with wit and snappy dialogue, convey a subtle kind of wistfulness, a sense of dreams just out of reach, of things that were but are no more, of things that never were but should have been. This gives his stories an odd poignancy despite the seeming absurdity of some of his subject matter. Above all, the alternate worlds and secret histories depicted in his stories are more interesting places than the world we know. His latest collection displays a combination of unflagging imagination and writing skills that have only sharpened with time. He has truly mastered the art of concise story-telling, as several of these stories are epics in miniature that other writers might have developed into novels.
Some of my favorites include "The Wolf-man of Alcatraz," a compassionate look at 30 years in the life of a man imprisoned for murders committed while in his transformed state; The title story, in which a pair of obscure 1930s vaudevillians go on a quest for the holy grail (probably the weirdest grail-quest story ever written); "The King of Where-I-Go," about a brother and sister whose lives in the 1950s and 1960s are altered by polio, CIA psychic experiments, and time travel, in that order. "Avast, Abaft!," a literary mashup of Gilbert and Sullivan and J.M. Barrie, in which the Pirates of Penzance, while being pursued by the H.M.S. Pinafore, discover Barrie's Neverland and have a brush with Captain Hook (I know it sounds ridiculous but it's wildly entertaining); and "Kindermarchen," a devastating 6-page story that reimagines one of history's darkest hours in the context of a children's fairy tale.
Other interesting stories include "The Bravest Girl I Ever Knew," a biography of the fictional actress Ann Darrow in a world where the events of King Kong really happened; "Why Then Ile Fit You," a chronicle of the final years of obscure horror film actor George Zucco and his sad mental deterioration; "Thin, On the Ground," where two recent high school graduates travel from Texas to Mexico in 1962 and experience major culture shock, with sly nods to Mexican horror films and Robert E. Howard; "Ninieslando," a story set during World War I where ex-soldiers form a secret "country" beneath No Man's Land with a plan to peacefully unite the world; and "Frogskin Cap," a story set in the far future of Jack Vance's Dying Earth. There are really no weak stories in the book, IMO.
As the descriptions suggest, some of Waldrop's stories may be a bit too esoteric in subject matter to attract a wide audience, and his stories with their sometimes obscure references demand careful attention when reading. This could be off-putting to some, but the stories are relatively fast-paced and if you enjoy learning interesting historical facts and tidbits on the side this is definitely an added bonus. Waldrop makes his literary alchemy look easy, as if any competent writer could do it. However, few other writers I've read have consistently done this type of story justice (Andy Duncan and Avram Davidson come to mind, and I recommend their work as highly as Waldrop's). In recent years Waldrop has been somewhat slowed down by some serious health issues, but he says he still has a mountain of story ideas he wants to write. Take care of yourself Howard, we still need you!