Underground Reading: The Last Legionary Quartet by Douglas Hill
Monsters & Mullets: Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves (1991)

Review Round-up: High school, horror and hooved mammals

Another skim through short stories, featuring Catherynne Valente's "White Lines on a Green Field", Oliver Onions' "The Beckoning Fair One" and O. Henry's "Hearts and Crosses".

Subterranean MagazineCatherynne Valente's "White Lines on a Green Field" (2011) is a creative retelling of the Coyote myth, set in a contemporary American high school. Coyote, that charismatic troublemaker that he is, brings both his blessing and his curse to West Centreville High. This average Everyschool suddenly becomes a hub of excitement and activity. On the field, Coyote leads the football team to victory after victory. Off the field, Coyote leads the entire school into a libertine berserker state. The parties grow wilder, the fights grow bloodier, the drinks go stronger... basically, his very mythic presence turns a real high school into that of "Gossip Girl". I like "Gossip Girl". I also like the Coyote stories, football and a good teen movie. But somehow, this still left me feeling a bit cold.

I've struggled a bit with Ms. Valente's writing in the past (I think referring to Deathless as "like being beaten to death by dried flowers" pretty much encapsulates my relationship with her work). And I found many of the same challenges in "White Lines on a Green Field". The characters are icy, poetic avatars with neither warmth nor humanity to them. The style is beautifully composed, but also quite affected, turning the narrator into a fairly incredulous imitation of a high school student. Bunny (yes) is a mythic archetype of a different tradition - the airy, artsy, savvy, sassy, sensitive poet that we all wanted to be but never were. 

For everyone else, Coyote's presence serves as the silver key to everyone's dreams - he unlocks the struggling real person within every spotty high schooler. But for Bunny, it never rings true. She's already the wise and perfectly-matched woman that "really knows him" and joins him through choice, not magic. With all the others, Coyote is an act. With her, he can be himself. Etc. Etc. Either Ms. Valente has run a complex double-bluff (not impossible, given that Coyote is the patron saint of unreliable narrators) or, as I suspect, the mythology of the American High School has subtly trumped the rest of the story.

And that's my major problem with "White Lines on a Green Field" - I admire the inventiveness and, per usual, the style of Ms. Valente's work. However, the story is structured by layering the unreal (Coyote) over the real (high school). If the foundation of the work is merely another myth, this becomes mash-up, not magical realism. 

Widdershins"The Beckoning Fair One" (1911) by Oliver Onions was a recommendation from Adam Nevill. And, as you might expect, Mr. Nevill knows his horror. This is one of the finest ghost stories I've ever read and a masterpiece of understated horror.

The story (more of a novelette, really) follows Paul Oleron, a professional writer. He's on the prowl for a new place to live and, by chance, finds a sprawling (if broken down) house that's within his budget and a nice location in some sort of north London neighborhood. (We should all be so lucky.) Paul is enchanted by the place and devotes himself to restoring it to its former glory. In the process he finds a few small traces remain of an earlier inhabitant, including a harp bag, of all things.

Meanwhile, Paul's own creative work begins to suffer. His latest book - almost finished - lies untouched. Paul's best friend, Elsie Bengough, swings by to chide him with increasing urgency, but he's too pre-occupied. Besides, as the days go by, he becomes less and less satisfied with his novel.

The ghost itself only makes the rarest and most fleeting of appearances. The real horror of "The Beckoning Fair One" is in watching Paul's inexorable retreat from the world. One by one, he snaps his ties with reality, crawling further and further back into his home and his imagination. In a short space of time, Mr. Onions establishes a real value to Paul's life - his novel, Romilly is going to be very good, and his close friendship with Elsie is a rare thing. As Paul begins to sacrifice everything in his life - first unintentionally, then guilty and finally with mad intent - the reader suffers the pain of every act. Even if Paul is too far gone (or self-absorbed) to see the repercussions of his actions, the reader does. "The Beckoning Fair One" is the story of a man losing his life - not merely dying, but actually shucking off everything that makes him a distinct individual and becoming subsumed by another force entirely. For all its lightly comedic opening pages, this is one of the darkest and most haunting stories I've ever encountered.

Heart of the WestO. Henry's "Hearts and Crosses" (1907) has a significantly different tone. O. Henry (Sydney William Porter) was famed for his sense of humor and surprise endings, in "Hearts and Crosses" the first of these is on full display. 

Webb Yeager has married Santa McAllister, the daughter of a Texas "cattle king". The courtship was long and fraught with peril - mostly on Webb's part, as King McCallister was protective of his daughter's virtue. At the beginning of the story, the King is dead and Santa is Queen. Poor Webb, as her husband, is just learning what a "prince consort" is. Santa makes the decisions, Webb just moves the cows around. 

Webb and his friends have a bit of a ponder about the situation and, eventually, Webb decides he needs to strike out - find his manhood again. Santa, just as fiery and full of pride, happily sends him on his way. The two continue on their very different paths and are, eventually, re-united due to some chicanery with cattle branding. There's no black comedy or sad twist involved, the reunion is cheerful and surprisingly romantic. At least, as romantic as anything could be when it's based the scorched flesh of cattle (I like my romance medium-rare).

As well as being a cute comedy with a happy ending, "Hearts and Crosses" is part of O. Henry's Heart of the West collection. O. Henry self-identified as a New York City writer, and most of his tales were about the 'other four million' residents of his home. The stories in this collection range much further afield, bringing his charm and sardonic wit to the dry plains of the West - and to the Western. O. Henry's sharp mind identified the tidbits and tropes of the region that would play well with his readers - the Blazing Saddles of 1900.  As he writes, "in Texas discourse is seldom continuous. You may fill in a mile, a meal, and a murder between your paragraphs without detriment to your thesis." In O. Henry's eye, even the idea conversing on horseback (normally taken for granted) suddenly becomes simultaneously romanticised and funny. Drinking, poker, guns, cows - all provide further grist with which to amuse his readers.

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"White Lines on a Green Field" by Catherynne Valente is available through Subterranean Press Magazine (Fall 2011 issue)

"The Beckoning Fair One" by Oliver Onions can be found on Project Gutenberg in Widdershins (1911).

"Hearts and Crosses" by O. Henry can be found on Project Gutenberg in Heart of the West (1907).

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