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Beluthahatchie and Other Stories, Andy Duncan, Golden Gryphon, 2000, 288 pp.
Andy Duncan, like a handful of other writers in the genre, is well known despite never having written a novel. His strengths seem perfectly suited to the short story length: his affinity for the historical and the weird plays well with his typical approach of only the lightest touch of the fantastic. I’m proud that the genre of science fiction is home to a writer as interesting and strange as Duncan, and all the better that he writes mostly about odd historical moments. Beluthahatchie is a collection of Duncan's short works from 1996 to 2000 and contains the majority of his output from that time period.
The strongest story in this collection is “Fortitude,” a story about the life of General Patton. It helps to know a bit about Patton before diving in; Duncan uses several layers of post-modern trickery and sf-style reality-bending. Patton, the famous American general, was already demonstrably loony, and Duncan takes it a few steps further. Beginning in a conflict in Mexico, Patton can see an alternate or previous version of his life; he uses this knowledge to great effect at several key points in battle. He can change some things but at great effort, sometimes with only himself to blame for the lack of change. For example, in the famous incident in WWII where Patton slaps a soldier in Sicily for cowardice, Patton knows he shouldn't do it. The consequences will be severe to his reputation, and he knows that he will be shunted out of command for the invasion of France.
So Patton ends up, once more, in charge of Fortitude, the operation that successfully convinced Hitler that D-Day would not be in Normandy. As Duncan shows, this sham operation seems calculated to drive Patton mad. A bravura piece.
"Fortitude" demonstrates several key characteristics about Duncan's writing. He tends not to write science fiction with a futuristic setting and loaded with gizmos (with the sole exception in Beluthahatchie being "Fenneman's Mouth"). It's handy to have the Author Notes that he includes at the end of the collection, due to the extra context gained. And Duncan has the facility to write non-standard sf characters. As Michael Bishop points out in an introduction to this book: "Andy's ability to spelunk the psyches of people utterly unlike late-20th- or early-21st-century Americans proved a reliable predictor of his overall talent" (xii).
There are at least four other strong stories in Beluthahatchie. "Saved" is based on the real-life story of a silent film actress who survived the sinking of the Titanic and released a movie about it within a month. Dorothy Gibson has a shipboard fling and the story is mainly about what happens to her romance during the voyage and after the sinking. As Duncan mentions in the notes about the story, Gibson's film itself has been lost and is marked by history only by its memorabilia.
"The Executioner’s Guild" is one of the longer stories in the collection. In this story, Duncan takes us to the Mississippi of the 1930s and the mindset of a man who travels from town to town with a portable electric chair. The story is set in a small town and the biggest appeal is the sense of the small town folk and their lives. Duncan includes the barest hint of the fantastic and some intense character development.
The domestic "The Map to the Homes of the Stars" is a piece in the vein of Stephen King in his quieter moments or Robert Charles Wilson. Told in the first person, this story is about a character who grew old and is haunted by the lost chances of his past, maybe literally.
Duncan illustrates the truism that truth is stranger than fiction with "From Alfano’s Reliquary." Set in Rome, a type of dirty works specialist for the Catholic Church is the guy who has to guard the corpse of the previous pope when Pope Stephen VI orders that he be posthumously put on trial for his sins. This is another story that fits Duncan's tendency to use historical items as the basis for a canny genre work.
Personally, I didn’t care that much for the title story. As Duncan notes in his comments about the story, the tale of Robert Johnson and his deals with the devil has become overused. My feeling is that Duncan's story, for all its linguistic exuberance, doesn't distinguish itself enough from all the other Johnson stories. I also didn't particularly enjoy “The Premature Burials," a story that takes a gothic obsession with death about as far as it can go. If you're going over the top, you may as well have the courage of your convictions and go completely over the top. All the same, the story seemed one-note in its effect.
Beluthahatchie also includes "Grand Guignol," a story about the famous theatre in Paris that created the phrase Grand Guignol, "Fenneman's Mouth," a story in the vein of Connie Willis about editing film and TV footage from the past, "Lincoln in Frogmore," a tale about Abraham Lincoln giving a speech in a swamp to a group of black people just after the Civil War, and "Liza and the Crazy Water Man," a story about a female singer in the 1930s whose voice cannot be captured on record.
Since the publication of this short story collection, Duncan has written at least two other major novellas, "Chief Designer," which takes us into the Soviet side of the space race, and "The Pottawatomie Giant," a look at the life of a real life giant whose path crossed Harry Houdini's. Both are similar in style and intent to "Fortitude" and are available in full text from links on Duncan's home page.
This volume was published by Golden Gryphon, one of a number of the excellent small presses that work incredibly hard to support the best of science fiction. I'm not particularly fond of the Bob Eggleton cover art for the title story -- a demonic train rushing towards the reader -- but the rest of the book is nicely packaged and includes kind words from Michael Bishop as a foreword and from John Kessel as an afterword.
Last modified: February 2, 2004
Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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