Friday, 13 January 2012

REVIEW: Wildthyme in Purple

An Obverse Books story collection edited by Stuart Douglas and Cody Quijano-Schell

What’s that sound? The rumbling of an omnibus engine? The tinkling of glasses? The mad cackle of a transtemporal adventuress? It can only mean one thing… Iris Wildthyme is back.

Wildthyme in Purple is the fifth Iris collection from Obverse, the sixth overall. I love the format of these books; a dozen or so short stories, perfect for dipping into, all bound up in a gorgeous hardback. Obverse publications are typically beautiful pieces of work, real booklovers’ books. Wildthyme in Purple is no exception, fronted by a stunning piece of artwork by Mark Manley, that captures the pulpy feel of the stories within perfectly.

Iris has always had a strangely metatextual relationship with the fictional world, and this new volume takes this as its central theme. Iris and her stalwart stuffed friend Panda take thirteen trips into assorted worlds of fiction, questioning the nature of truth, fantasy and reality and generally leaving the universe a bit out of sorts. It’s a great concept, although only a few of the stories really take full advantage of the idea. The opening story, ‘The Big Crunch’ by Jim Mortimore, takes it to its extreme and so perhaps leaves the rest of volume with little left to say on the matter. This story sees Iris arrive at the centre of the Earth, encountering characters and creatures from all manner of fictional realms, as all of reality threatens to spiral into a sort of imagination singularity. There’s plenty of fun to be had, identifying the various characters and spotting the references, but Mortimore doesn’t forget to tell a cracking story.

The rest of the tales focus on one genre each, and explore them to generally full effect. The best are those which are more than mere comedy runarounds. Steve Mollmann’s ‘Frank Reade, Jr’s Electric Time Canoe’ affectionately tears apart a style of story from a time that was a little less enlightened in its views on race, gender and class. I can’t say I was familiar with Frank Reade or his Junior protégé before - I understand the stories are better known in the States - but the genre parodied so deftly is a familiar guilty pleasure. Paul Ebbs provides a trip out West in ‘Iris in Dead Man’s Gulch, or, the Magnificent Iris,’ a rollicking adventure that displays plenty of the Western tropes, but at least Iris can tell a black hat from a white hat when she has to. Still out in the U.S. of A. is ‘The Web of Terror’ by Iain McLaughlin, a fun parody of those ‘classic’ Fifties B-movies in which unconvincing and frankly unbelievable alien monstrosities assault small town America. The closing story, ‘The Devil Wears Panda’ by Cody Quijano-Schell, steps straight into first place in my list of Punning Titles of 2012. It’s also exceedingly camp and very funny, as Panda takes New York by the short and curlies and Iris has to defeat a truly maniacal scheme, as long as you can take the deliberate evocation of the chick lit style.

Mention of pulp fiction inevitably brings Americana to mind, but not all the stories in this volume are set stateside. David McIntee’s ‘Dance of the Voodoo Valkyries’ is a very British sort of ghost story, with the flavour of Dennis Wheatley. Never has a pair of trousers been so unsettling. ‘Her and Allan’ by Simon Bucher-Jones is a glorious pastiche of the works of H. Rider Haggard. Allan Quartermain is, naturally, a close acquaintance of HER… Miss Iris Wildthyme. ‘Amser Gwyllt’ has the distinction of being the only story in the book written entirely in Welsh. It’s a shame I don’t speak Welsh. OK, so Steffan Alun’s story is repeated immediately in English, but it’s not the same. Enjoyable as it is, I’m just sure the original translation must be better. I wouldn’t put it past this lot to have some special extras in just for the Welsh-speakers in the readership.

Not all the stories in the volume are completely successful. ‘Flash Rogers Conquers the Universe’ by Richard Salter is a very obvious parody of old American space adventure series, and, while it captures the broad excitement of the escapades, it just isn‘t very funny. ‘Running with Caesars’ by Geoffrey A. Hamell is an amusing enough little trip to Rome, but it’s lightweight and throwaway. Dale Smith isn’t up to quite his usual standard with ‘The Bronze Door,’ a comical exploration of detective fiction. The central conceit, of a fictional universe which must adhere to pre-prescribed rules, is a good one, but it never runs far enough with it.

Two of the best stories come towards the end, and really delve into the ‘power of fiction’ idea. ‘The Many Lives of Zorro,’ by Richard Wright illustrates the true horror of being a fictional being, as Zorro’s contradictory continuities come into conflict, and he must be retconned to save the fabric of reality. Silly though it is, it genuinely manages to conjure up some existential dread. Nick Campbell’s ‘Fantô mville,’ featuring the French villain Fantô mas, is narrated from within the fiction and sees havoc being wrought by the dreaded Spoiler. Both stories are intriguing explorations into the nature of fiction, as well as being cracking stories in their own right.

Anthologies, by their nature, are a mixture of style and quality. Wildthyme in Purple, although not the strongest of Obverse’s Iris books, has more hits than misses. It’ journey into the world of popular fiction is a great starting point, and those stories that make the most of this voyage make this book a winner.

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